(Islam) The Battle for the Soul of Islam (James M. Dorsey, BESA Center)

“The Turks have committed suicide,” Jordan’s founding monarch Abdullah bin Hussein gloated in 1924 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, abolished the caliphate:

They had in the Caliphate one of the greatest political forces, and have thrown it away… I feel like sending a telegram thanking Mustafa Kemal. The Caliphate is an Arab institution. The Prophet was an Arab, the Koran is in Arabic, the Holy Places are in Arabia and the Khalif should be an Arab of the tribe of Koreish [Muhammad’s tribe]… Now the Caliphate has come back to Arabia.

It has not. Arab leaders showed no interest in the return of the caliphate even if many Muslim intellectuals and clerics across the Middle East and the Muslim world criticized Atatürk’s abolition of it. Early Islamist political movements, for their part, largely declared the revival of caliphate an aspiration rather than an immediate goal.

A century later, it is not the caliphate that the world’s Muslim powerhouses are fighting about. Instead, they are engaged in a deepening religious soft power struggle for geopolitical influence and dominance.

This battle for the soul of Islam pits rival Middle Eastern and Asian powers against one another: Turkey, seat of the Islamic world’s last true caliphate; Saudi Arabia, home to the faith’s holy cities; the United Arab Emirates (UAE), propagator of a militantly statist interpretation of Islam; Qatar, with its less strict version of Wahhabism and penchant for political Islam; Indonesia, promoting a humanitarian, pluralistic notion of Islam that reaches out to other faiths as well as non-Muslim center-right forces across the globe; Morocco, which uses religion as a way to position itself as the face of moderate Islam; and Shiite Iran, with its derailed revolution.

In the final analysis, no clear winner may emerge. Yet the course of the battle could determine the degree to which Islam will be defined by one or more competing stripes of ultra-conservativism—statist forms of the faith that preach absolute obedience to political rulers and/or reduce religious establishments to pawns of the state. Implicit in the rivalry is a broader debate across the Muslim world that goes to the heart of the relationship between the state and religion. That debate centers on what role, if any, the state should play in the enforcement of religious morals and the place of religion in education, judicial systems, and politics. As the battle for religious soft power between rival states has intensified, the lines dividing the state and religion have become ever more  blurred, particularly in more autocratic countries. This struggle has and will affect the prospects for the emergence of a truly more tolerant and pluralistic interpretation of one of the three Abrahamic religions.