There’s nothing like a caliphate to rally disparate groups. The Sunni Islamic organisation ISIS has recruited fighters from all over the world with its dream of a single Muslim state, which now apparently exists in parts of Iraq and Syria. Across Europe, young men are packing their bags and heading to the east to join the jihadis. It’s an odd thing to want to do, but there’s something about a caliphate. In India in the 1920s, thousands of Muslims rallied behind the idea of a caliphate to support the Ottoman Caliphate. It was surprising because the Muslim population in India had never shown unity or indeed any fondness for Turkey. In fact many of them had fought against the Turks.

A large proportion are not racial Mohamedans, but the descendants of forcible converts from Hinduism, who have no inherited sympathies with the Ottoman Turks. Besides the great religious division of Sunnis and Shiahs, there are numerous sects, frequently hostile to each other. Sunnis are quite as ready to attack Shiahs as to oppose the British Government.…It might have been imagined that the Indian Musulmans, composed of such promiscuous elements, could never unite for any political purpose. Three conditions have, however, helped to bring about the present deplorable situation—the gross ignorance of the mass of Moslems on all that relates to the question of the Caliphate and British relations with Turkey ; (2) the fanaticism to which all Islam is prone ; and (3) the violent agitation, with Hindu instigation, which has latterly taken the fullest advantage of (1) and (2). The Khilafat movement, as it now stands, is recent, artificial and political, although drawing its strength from religious sentiment.

Hindu temples were sacked, houses were burned, and many Hindus were murdered. Mahatma Gandhi had a lot to answer for, according to an article from 1921:

The scholastics philosophers of the middle ages who delighted to split hairs and to discuss such questions as that of the number of angels who could stand on the point of a needle might have distinguished between the speeches of Mr. Gandhi and open incitements to revolution and anarchy. For all practical purposes, there is no such distinction.

Soon afterwards, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk brought in reforms in Turkey and in 1924 did away with the role of Caliph. After all that trouble, from Britain’s point of view, it was a bit late:

Now that the Kemalists have decided that the Caliphate has no temporal power and that the office is solely spiritual, what are we to say of the amazing agitation in India about the importance of the Caliphate? This agitation caused unceasing anxiety and inconvenience. When Turkey came into the War on the side of Germany we were told that if we attacked the Turks we should be accused in India of attacking the Caliphate! Similarly, when we enlisted the Arabs on our side we were warned that this would be interpreted in India as an attack upon the Caliphate. Now the whole doctrine of the Caliphate has been blown sky high by the Kemalists, who were supposed to be its ardent devotees. It would all be vastly amusing if it did not also contain the seeds of new difficulties in the management of the Moslem population of the British Empire.

In Turkey, it took an exceptional statesman to resist the lure of a caliphate and transform the country into a modern democracy. In Iraq, the government is weak and corrupt, and they’re up against one of history’s most effective propaganda tools.

Tags: From the archive, Iraq, ISIS, Islam, Shia, Sunni