Iraq is in turmoil, and a full-fledged sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites appears imminent. The United States will need to interject forces yet again due to the incompetence of the Iraqi armed forces. The misrule of Nouri al-Maliki has also been exposed. However, beyond all that, something else is worth discussing here. The message and motives of ISIS have clearly shown that they intend to impose a Muslim caliphate.
This has set off alarm bells. A caliphate largely run by Muslim extremists poses a threat to Western hegemony in the region, moderate Muslim rule as well as the misrule of regional despots. Obviously, everyone should be alarmed by the success of ISIS.
The fact that ISIS dislikes Shiite rule in Iraq further adds a new dimension to the age-old question: Sunni caliphate or Shiite imamate? Which one is the better self-rule option for Muslims, and more importantly, for preserving the peace of the entire region? Many experts on the region would argue neither, but that debate is for another day.
For centuries, Christendom tried to eliminate the caliphate, and failed. However, towards the start of the Modern World, the secular West did manage to remove the caliphate. Centuries have passed since then, and most present-day Muslims feel detached from the days of the caliphate. Even though calls for restoration of a caliphate, be it by violent or peaceful means, are made every now and then (ISIS is a case in point), many Muslims don’t consider it a viable option.
The recent conflict can be compared to the Iran-Iraq War. Back then, Iran viewed the conflict as the struggle of a religious Shiite state against a godless Arab Socialist regime of Saddam Hussein, whereas the latter projected the war as a by-product of the ever-expanding encroachment of Persians on Arab culture.
Times have changed. Previously, Sunnis were viewed by the West as a moderate community of Muslims, whereas Shiites were the fanatics who chanted: “Death to America! Death to Israel!” Today, the Western climate seems pro-Shiite, and Sunnis are viewed as the problem.
This sectarian conflict has historical roots. A tiny group of people believed that the caliphate rightfully belonged to Ali, and it should not have gone to Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman. Having emerged as a matter of political disagreement, Shiism soon took the shape of a religious group within Islam, organizing itself under the doctrine of imamah.
For Shiites, the divine imams are infallible and incorruptible. They are immune to human flaws. In this regard, Shiite imamate is comparable to the Catholic model of the Pope — a supreme leader, who is above the flaws and faults of the world, and passes on the leadership sans the hysteria of mass elections.
As such, there is good room for democratic aspirations in the Sunni model of caliphate: the caliph is supposed to be guided by the interests of the common masses. Accountability to the people is a concept that is central to the idea of the Sunni caliphate. But this democratic spirit is absent in Shiite imamate, which is based on absolute theocracy.
It must be noted, though, that the Ayatollahs are not divine imams themselves. According to Shiism, the last divine imam of Shiism, Mehndi, left this world back in the eighth century, and will be back at an appropriate time.
Sunni caliphate differs from Shiite imamate in both ideological and practical terms. The former has potential for democratic reforms (of course, this does not mean ISIS will be keen on becoming a democratic body anytime soon), whereas the latter has a theocratic structure that offers unlimited socio-political powers to its divine imam.
All said and done, the concept of political leadership is just the tip of the iceberg, and the sects have many differences. Bloodshed and anarchy will help neither side, and this is where the role of both Shiite and Sunni scholars becomes important. Caliphate and/or imamate cannot be imposed by means of guns and bombs; consensus and civilized debates seem to be a much better option.
Islam is unique in the sense that it offers a good deal of personal and political freedom to its adherents, and both Sunnis and Shiites need to realize that political leadership can be discussed only when political unity has been achieved.