The defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riaz Hijab is the highest ever defection during the Arab Spring, and represents the weakness of the Syrian regime. This is so particularly because the deserting Prime Minister, a relatively young man at 46, was not really part of President Bashar Al-Assad’s inner circle, and had only come to office recently, this June. He replaced Adil Safar after the elections, having spent his working life either in the apparatus of the ruling Baath Party or as a provincial governor. His defection was accompanied by that of 17 Syrian senior military officers. The Syrian regime had been hit only last week by the bomb blast that killed the Syrian Defence Minister, who was also the regime’s highest-ranking Christian, his Deputy, who was also the President’s brother-in-law, and severely wounded the Intelligence Chief, who since died of his wounds. This followed the desertion of the general responsible for Syria’s chemical arsenal.

Thus, the expected discussion of the Syrian situation at the ‘extraordinary’ OIC Summit gains even more urgency, and the USA seems also worried, about the successor regime in Damascus. Though the rebellion in Syria has raged on for more than a year now, the Syrian National Council is all that the USA has to offer. Russia having a naval base in Syria, it does not want the Assad regime to fall, but the defection of its Prime Minister has caused it to rethink.

One problem that Syria poses is that though the Syrian National Council, based in Turkey, provides an alternative, the Syrian people themselves might have different ideas. The slogan “Ash-shab yarid al-khilafat al-jadid” (“the people want the new Caliphate”) has been raised by protesters, giving rise to the spectre of a caliphate being established in Syria.

It must be understood that this is not a revival of the Ottoman Caliphate. It is actually an expression of a desire to have the Islamic system, symbolised and encapsulated in the ruling system. The Caliph will be expected to implement the other systems, such as the economic, the judicial, the social and the educational, all of which will be derived from Islam.

Such a caliphate has been said to be the goal of the militants behind 9/11 by US President George Bush. From the perspective of the militants, it would be a perfectly orthodox goal, for the Islamic ruling system has been the Caliphate, something for which the textual evidences abound. Syria has not only been in the Ottoman Caliphate and before that the Abbasid, but was even the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate. Such a Caliphate in the heart of the Middle East would challenge not just the other Arab regimes, but all Muslim regimes. In short, all those at the OIC Summit!

The situation becomes more complex when it is realised that the movement for a Caliphate has adherents in Turkey in the form of the Hizbut Tahrir. Though a global party which does not recognise national boundaries, it was founded by a Palestinian, Palestine being part of Syria till the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I, and thus has been operating in Syria now for a long time.

The Hizb has not only made waves as far as Central Asia, but also in Pakistan where Brigadier Ali Khan was only recently sentenced, along with four majors, for attempting to overthrow the government and the military leadership and introduce a Caliphate in Pakistan. It should also be noted that, while banned in Syria, it recently won over-turnings of bans placed in Turkey and Lebanon, which sandwich it to north and south respectively. It should also be noted that the Hizb remains banned in Iraq to the east. The American dominance there, reflected by its recent occupation, is also threatened by the fall of the Assad regime.

The USA has maintained a presence in the Middle East through Israel, which came into existence through its takeover of Palestine. This was preceded by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and it was only later that Israel relied for support on the USA, which saw Zionists enjoy virtually unprecedented political influence in the country.

Apart from the USA losing influence in the Middle East, important as the source of so much oil, the rise of a Caliphate would create a rival for the USA, at a time when it is not just the sole superpower, but is looking only to China, India, Brazil and Russia to become rivals, albeit smaller ones. It is certainly not looking to a state, which stretches from the Straits of Hercules to Indonesia and which includes the Middle East. A new Caliphate would not just be about Muslims, but about repelling the colonialists. It would immediately, by its very existence, pose a challenge to the present nation-state, and thus upset not just the post-World War I settlement, but the whole post-Westphalian settlement that resulted in the creation of the nation-state model. It must be noted that the post-World War I settlement did not only settle the basis on which the Ottoman Empire was setup, but also that on which decolonisation occurred after World War II, in the course of which the colonising powers gave freedom to their colonies, which included many Muslim countries.

The creation of a Caliphate anywhere, but particularly in the Middle East, would also prove a challenge to the OIC, which exists on the basis of nation-states, with the members mostly ex-colonies, many of which obtained independence from colonial powers, and had to obtain it on condition that they also became a state. The OIC is unique, as it is the only international organisation that exists on the basis of religion. There is no parallel Christian or Hindu body, or even Buddhist, all of which could be conceivably formed. The OIC seems an attempt to satisfy the desire for a Caliphate, while allowing for the post-Ottoman and post-colonial nation-states. A Caliphate would raise the basic question of what need there is for an OIC, and also it would divide loyalties: should people be more loyal to their nation-state, or the Caliphate? The dilemma would be heightened if the Caliphate asked for the allegiance of the Muslim lands. Will the nation-states, some of which were merely created by lines drawn on maps, survive? And if they do, how will they respond? It should be remembered that the Muslim lands are mostly not ruled by elected governments which will do what the people want, but by despots and dictators. Because of this, a Caliphate implementing Islam will be doubly attractive. If the Syrian people are asking for a Caliphate, it is because they expect it to grant them greater freedom than the Assad regime.

The fears that are now being expressed by the West, of Al-Qaeda involvement, reflect one of the fears that the thought of a revived Caliphate sparks in the West, of a political Islam that has not been tamed as it was during the Afghan jihad, but willing to take on Western colonialism. The OIC Summit becomes really important if matters in Syria lead to fulfilling the aspirations of the Muslims, but if the governments attending it aspire for it to continue acting as a control mechanism for them; they may find that the situation in Syria may be more important for their futures than they might think. They should also remember that a future Caliphate may mean one government instead of over 50, but it will achieve that by merging existing ones rather than replacing them.

n    The writer is a veteran journalist         and founding member as well as     Executive Editor of TheNation.