When President George W. Bush starts using fifty-cent words in press conferences, one has to wonder why, and on Wednesday, during his Rose Garden appearance, he used the word “caliphate” four times. The enemy, he said—by which he clearly meant the Islamic terrorist enemy—wants to “extend the caliphate,” “establish a caliphate,” and “spread their caliphate.” Caliphate? Really? Many people live long, fruitful lives without once using the word caliphate. Almost no one, with the exception of our president and some of his advisers, uses it as a pejorative.
As NEWSWEEK reported last month, the president and the people who prep him are still clearly casting about for the right phrase to pin on America’s elusive enemy . “Axis of evil” is outdated by now. “Islamist,” the preferred choice of scholars, has been deemed too jargony and academic. “Islamofascist” is a recent favorite, and in a speech last month the president used it as punctuation in a litany of other tags, notably “Islamic radicalism” and “militant jihadism.” The beauty of “caliphate” is that no one but students of Islamic history have much more than a vague idea of what it means. “Bush has been successful in defining terms in his own way,” said Steve Ebbins, a former Democratic speechwriter. “[The Bush administration] has captured the language. If you control the language, you control the message and are able to sway people’s attitude toward your policy. It’s a policy-endorsing mechanism.” Until last January, the president rarely used it, if ever. Since then, he’s used it more than 15 times.
A caliphate , according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is the “office or dominion of a caliph”; a caliph is “a successor of Muhammad ... [the] spiritual head of Islam.” Simply put, the caliph is Islam’s deputy to the world. After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 A.D., his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, became the first caliph. (At the heart of the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims, even today, is the question of succession: who has the right to become Islam’s caliph?) From the time of the Prophet’s death until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, caliphs ruled over Muslims and presided over the Muslim expansion throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe. These were the caliphates; some beneficent, some warmongering, in concept not unlike any other empire or dynasty.
In fairness, Bush isn’t the first person in recent history to appropriate the word caliphate and use it as a weapon. Osama bin Laden did it himself, most notably three years ago, in his statement to the United Sates via Al-Jazeera. “Baghdad, the seat of the caliphate, will not fall to you, God willing,” he said, “and we will fight you as long as we carry our guns.” Bin Laden’s rhetoric evoked, as it often does, an earlier, golden era of Islam, one that exists more in his imagination than in the lawless, crumbling city of Baghdad today. Backers of the war in Iraq—Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, not to mention hawks like Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania—jumped on the word and used it in speeches dozens of times.
Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American Islamic Relations, says bin Laden’s word choices distort Islam for the world, and he wishes the president would take more care. When Ahmed heard “caliphate” Wednesday morning, he thought of the way Bush used the word “crusade” after September 11. “There’s a fundamental misunderstanding with the president and his advisers on core Islamic issues,” Ahmed said. “He’s getting bad advice, they’re misinformed on Islamic terminology.” Either that, or he’s making a strategic rhetorical choice.