Forget the Pope—We Need a New Caliph!

The selection of the new pope made everyone stop, tweet, and stare at St. Peter’s as a non-European was finally chosen to don the papal garb. It made us realize Muslims could also benefit from genuine suspense and good news about their own religious leadership. Ever since secular Turkish general Mustafa Kemal Ataturk undid the Caliphate and ended the Ottoman Empire in 1924, the Muslim world, or at least the Sunni Muslim world, hasn’t had a Caliph; literally a ‘successor’ (to the Prophet Muhammad).

That’s a long time to be alone. In light of America’s re-election of a Muslim President and the successful infiltration of hummus and halal Butterball turkeys into the once-sacred territory of Safeway, we think the time is ripe for a new Caliphate.

But who could be Caliph? How can the best choice be made? We’re proposing a Caliph-off: a March Madness for Islam’s highest office. With the power vested in us by ourselves, we have chosen ten candidates in the hopes that one of them will win popular acclaim and restore glory to a throne too long left empty.

 

(I) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey

The Good: The most influential leader of Turkey has done the impossible: he’s outmaneuvered a dictatorial secular minority and changed the Turkish landscape by making religion acceptable again. Recently Erdogan sidelined the military, has overseen a booming economy that has experienced a 300% rise in GDP in the last ten years, repaired relations with Israel, and the latest news suggests he’s even worked out a peace deal with the Kurds. If Erdogan can make Turkey a truly multicultural democracy, he’ll have resurrected the best characteristics of the Ottoman Empire, which last held the Caliphate, conveniently enough in modern Turkey.

The Bad: Erdogan may actually already be the Caliph, which kind of ruins our brackets. Also, his peace with the Kurds might help Erdogan stick in office yet longer, which is kind of like eating Turkish Delight every day. Plus, since the Ottomans were technically Caliphs for 407 years, maybe another Turkish Caliph is a few too many times around the block.

(II) Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood Superstar

The Good: Shah Rukh Khan, “the world’s biggest movie star,” is fluent in the universal language known as Bollywood. The beloved, versatile actor would be an ideal candidate for Caliph considering he is already called “King Khan” and Caliph would keep consonance alive. Also, Caliph SRK is a great, friendly acronym for TMZ news and US Magazine. Considering politics, religion, and entertainment are natural bedfellows (only after marriage), SRK would summon a gamut of emotions and characters on demand: from heartbroken romantic lead (Devdas) to ridiculous action hero with six-pack abs (Ra. One) to endearing, melodramatic protagonist prone to crying (every SRK movie). He has already sought mutual understanding and tolerance with the U.S. because he played a character that did just that in the blockbuster hit My Name is Khan. He has been vocal against profiling after being repeatedly detained by US Customs due to his last name, thus giving him street cred with racial minorities and Muslims worldwide. He is also a philanthropist and name-dropped the Qur’an when explaining why he does not publicize his charity: “Somewhere in the Qur’an it says that if you do charity for a reason, it’s not charity.” He has six-pack abs.

The Bad: “Somewhere in the Qur’an”—what kind of Caliph can’t provide a footnote on demand? SRK is also prone to melodrama and cries far too much. Instead of dealing with sectarian violence, poverty, and ethnic and religious divides, SRK would instead entertain the ummah by re-creating popular dances and songs from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dil Se. Although spontaneous bhangra dances would make for entertaining viral videos, they do not satiate the religious, economic, and political needs of the masses. (Er, Bollywood and circuses?) Also, he’s too good looking and would incite jealousy and the evil-eye from other world leaders. Also, how could we possibly limit him to four wives? It’s one thing to bring the Caliph back, but another to get stuck with a harem. Did we mention: He starred in the atrocious Ra. One.  

(III) Abdullah ibn Hussein, King of The Kingdom of Jordan

The Good: He’s a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. He speaks English well and is fond of Western culture, which is unsurprising considering he’s one of the few remaining staunch uncritical allies of America in the Middle East. His main talent seems to be preternatural gift at self-preservation. Also maybe some Americans will think he’s the King of Michael Jordan, and that’ll be a step in the right direction.

The Bad: After a surprisingly candid interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, King Abdullah has laid all his cards on post-Arab Spring table, and managed to insult pretty much every government around him, which doesn’t make for a good takeoff. He’s an endangered autocrat in a region overwhelmed by democracy, instability, and sectarianism. His ancestors, the Sharifs of Mecca, were supposed to be the replacement Caliphs after siding with the British against the Ottomans during WWI. Of course, the Ottomans collapsed, the Caliphate was abolished, Jerusalem was conquered by the British, the Saudis took Mecca, and the British and French carved up the Middle East as spoils of war for themselves, which is kind of like saying his family already tried once, and we’re not down with double jeopardy. #NotWinning

(IV) Muhammad Morsi, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt

The Good: As representative of a Muslim Brotherhood government that allegedly wants to rule the Arab or Muslim worlds, making Morsi Caliph would just free him from having to pretend, and there’s always something to be said for efficiency. Morsi is in charge of Egypt, which is the capital of Sunni Islam, scholastically speaking. From 1258 to 1517, the Caliphate was kinda-sorta headquartered in Cairo, though it was a purely symbolic and largely irrelevant office, kinda-sorta like his presidency might be turning out to be. Possible plus: His Caliphate would make Umm Kulthum a mainstream singer, popularize melodramatic Egyptian soap operas, make hookahs go viral, and introduce intrusive Egyptian mother-in-laws to the world. 

The Bad: Morsi lacks a sense of humor, which is seemingly impossible, because if there’s one thing every Egyptian is known for, it’s a sense of humor, except of course for him. His regime just issued an arrest warrant for popular Egyptian satirist Dr. Bassem Yousef, who’s the Jon Stewart of Egypt. He and conservative, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist look like they’re related, or possibly were cloned at the same facility, and between Morsi’s administrative incompetence and Norquist’s single-minded anti-tax jihad, this is not a promising beginning. Right now, Egypt is imploding; the Caliphate can’t be located in a country that isn’t able to defend itself. Not to mention, with only 20% of the world’s Muslims being Arab, this would be a little too convenient, especially for all the Muslims tired of Arab-centric Islam.

Also, his Caliphate would mainstream melodramatic Egyptian soap operas, hookahs, and intrusive Egyptian mother-in-laws to the world. Plus Egyptians would be insufferable: ‘Hey, we invented civilization!’ ‘Hey we overthrew a dictator!’ ‘Hey we have the Caliph!’ Ugh. 

(V) Muhammad Ali, The Greatest of All Time

The Good: A three-time world heavyweight champion, a convert first to the Nation of Islam and then Sunni Islam, Muhammad Ali was and remains one of the most famous and beloved athletes and celebrities of all time. On moral grounds, he refused to fight in the Vietnam War and was stripped of his boxing license for three years. He lit the torch at the ’96 Atlanta Olympics and made Bill Clinton cry. He was a gifted pugilist, a brilliant interviewee, sharp-tongued, and a rapper who rapped before rap was even named. The Fresh Prince played him in a movie. He’s from Kentucky, which is a red state, which gives him playing power in the American heartland. He’s so awesome he trademarked G.O.A.T.The Greatest of All Time. 

The Bad: Actually, we can’t really think of anything, except for his advanced age and debilitating Parkinson’s disease that has unfortunately rendered him physically incapable of assuming the position. The people who dislike Muhammad Ali also hate unicorns, rainbows, freedom, kittens, and babies. The only problem might be how President Obama would take to sharing the American stage. Also, far-right crazies will suffer a public meltdown faced with an actually Muslim black American leader.  

(VI) Amra Babic, Mayor of Visoko, Bosnia

The Good: There’s a precedent for female Caliphs. In the mid-600s, the Khawarij movement elected female leaders, on the grounds that piety mattered more than anything—more than ethnic origin, race, or gender. Babic is a practicing white European woman in a scarf representing 51% of the world’s gender. How many Muslim leaders are women? Bam! Plus: she’s the elected mayor of a Bosnian town, which means she can handle Eastern European men—an added bonus. Wham! She’s won praise for her administration, commitment, and seriousness, which means she can finally get Muslim events to start on time. Plus, she’d remove stereotypes that Islam is purely an “Arab” phenomenon. Also, a white woman in a headscarf as Caliph would destroy Orientalist narratives and make certain Islamophobes turn into zombies. 

The Bad: She’s a woman, sure, but how would Muslims take listening to another white person tell them what’s best for them? Plus seeing as there’s so very few Bosnians in the world Muslim population, it might seem a little bit unfair to give this resurrected title to a minority in such a precarious situation. But here’s the real problem: she’d be perpetually distracted rejecting the onslaught of rishta (marriage) proposals from every Pakistani aunty for their sons, because of her fair skin. The image of a white woman in headscarf as Caliph would inspire Orientalist narratives all over again.

(VII) Kim Jong-Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea

The Good: His haircut and sound bites: endlessly amusing. Plus, since he speaks a language very few Muslims understand and governs a country in which there are probably one to three Muslims, he’d be harmless as a Caliph. He’s good at theatrical, extravagant belligerence which makes for entertaining TV. He has advanced weapons he likes to flaunt, so he could defend the nation with mutually assured destruction as a guiding foreign policy. Korean BBQ would finally become halal for the global ummah.

The Bad: His haircut and sound bites: endlessly terrifying. Plus, since he speaks a language very few Muslims understand and governs a country in which there are probably one to three Muslims, he’d be useless as Caliph. He is friends with Dennis Rodman. He’s good at showing off weapons and making threats, but not at actual governance. Also, did we mention, he is friends with Dennis Rodman? Finally it may be a problem that he is not Muslim and his family is worshipped like gods, which most Muslims would consider idolatry. Doesn’t look too fit, either, which is not a good quality for a world leader.

(VIII) Imran Khan, Pakistani Politician and Former Cricket Star

The Good: The dashing Pakistani upstart politician rose to fame as captain of the Pakistani cricket team leading the nation to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup. After years of suffering from imperialistic humiliations, economic setbacks, and dictatorships, Muslims would benefit from having an acclaimed sports hero as their authority. Also, he still has great hair in his 50s which is a near-miraculous accomplishment for a Pakistani male. (The authors know.)

Khan has also been committed to social work for nearly two decades having opened and funded a charitable cancer hospital in Pakistan. After a lifetime of partying and womanizing, he had a mid-life religious awakening and is the quintessential reformed bad boy. He married British Jewish heiress Jemima Goldsmith, which proves he isn’t anti-Semitic. Plus, the way things are going, soon half the world’s Muslims will be Pakistani.

The Bad: Muslims need winners and so far Khan has been a loser as a political candidate. His political party, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, has yet to win any major political seats (although that could change with the upcoming May elections.) Also, Khan can no longer command the fast ball like he did in the early ’90s. He is prone to political flip-flopping and also outlandish promises such as vowing to end corruption in Pakistan in 90 days. He doesn’t have facial hair, which is a problem even though the rest of his hair is really cool.

(IX) The Saudi Royal Family

The Good: The House of Saud, currently led by King Abdullah, are the authoritarian Wahhabi rulers of the modern Hejaz area which includes Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca, the site of the Kaaba and annual Hajj, and Medina, the city of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). As such, the Saudi Royal Family believe they are the rightful custodians and caretakers of the Kaaba, which automatically cedes them religious authority and influence. 

Due to the gift/curse of oil, the House of Saud has immense wealth and resources that it has used for philanthropy, maintenance, and expansion of the mosques, building unnecessary clock towers, oppression of minorities and women, proselytizing an austere, extremist vision of Islam, and a commitment to living a gaudy, materialistic lifestyle that makes Kanye look like an ascetic. Their friendly relations with Western powers, especially the U.S., ensure secure diplomatic and economic relations.

The Bad: Really?

(X) Barack Hussein Obama, President of the United States of America

The Good: His name and his life history: a biracial American born to a Kenyan father, raised in the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, and friend to a Pakistani college roommate who taught him Urdu words and fed him Pakistani food. During his 2008 speech at Cairo University, Obama proved he can pronounce Arabic words, except for hijab, and is comfortable in front of Muslim audiences, unlike his predecessor George W. Bush.

The Bad: Becoming the Caliph of Islam, Obama would basically confirm every insane conspiracy theory manufactured by the unhinged, right-wing Islamophobia industry. He would be forever asked to produce his Kenyan birth certificate and prove he is not an agent of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Also, his commitment to drone attacks, the War on Afghanistan, and the Patriot Act has soured his popularity with most Muslims worldwide. Furthermore, he drinks alcohol and eats pork openly. Muslims can tolerate almost any sin, but the public consumption of pork? (Then again, maybe his smoking will win him bonus points among middle-aged Muslim men.)

(XI) Wild Card Candidate: Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Soon-Not-To-Be of the Islamic Republic of Iran

The Good: Considering he’s worn the same jacket for the past eight years, resources would not be wasted on clothes and there would be no need for a stylist. Also, he is unfiltered and blunt, so there’d be no need for speechwriters. Hailing from a working-class background, the former teacher and engineer, who is the sixth President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, could speak to the economic plight and hardships of the common Muslim man. As a Twelver Shia Muslim, Ahmedinejad would be an unusual and bold choice. Shias, who comprise roundabout 15% of the global Muslim population, do not believe in the Caliphate, which is a Sunni phenomenon. Therefore, this unorthodox move could act to significantly improve sectarian divides that continue to harm Sunni-Shia communities in places like Iraq, Pakistan, and Lebanon.

The Bad: In a perfect world, Ahmedinejad would be an unpopular stand-up comedian. Yet, sadly, he was serious when he claimed there are no gays in Iran. He is also less-than-friendly to Israel (to put it mildly), and persists with belligerent rhetoric that has alienated him from a majority of countries, and also the country he rules. His regime has been plagued with electoral fraud and his participation, along with the ‘Rahbar’ or Guide of the Revolution, in the oppression of the 2009 Green Revolution does not endear him to many of his fellow Iranians. Plus there is no precedent for a Caliph wearing a Members Only jacket from the ’80s, which we’re pretty sure nobody wants to resurrect. 

 

[Editor’s Note: We have always wanted to do an April Fool’s edition of RD, switching out all of the magazine’s content with fake religion news—we are deeply grateful to Haroon and Wajahat for saving us from ourselves.]
moghul@gmail.com'

RD Senior Correspondent Haroon Moghul is a Fellow both at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Haroon is completing his doctorate at Columbia University and is the author of The Order of Light (Penguin, 2006). He's been a guest on CNN, BBC, The History Channel, NPR, Russia Today and al-Jazeera.