Caliphate and Katechon; Or, Is Sayyid the better Schmitt?

Early in Recalling the Caliphate, Sayyid recounts an attempt by then-Iranian president Khatami to bridge the gap between his country and the United States by appealing to Alexis de Tocqueville. As an instructor at a school in the Great Books tradition, I found this story to be illustrative of the limitations of the Great Books approach insofar as it showed how empty the claim to universal values is in practice. In principle, custodians of a canon of universally applicable texts should be thrilled when someone from another cultural tradition finds a canonical text appealing. In reality, though, Khatami’s attempt to enter into the Great Conversation was met with outrage and derision.

This reaction is of course conceptually incoherent, and that’s because claims to universality for the “Western canon” — indeed, even the very existence of something like the “Western canon,” which Sayyid characterizes as a “hegemonic project” and a “contingent stitch-up” (pg. 55) — are not conceptual claims, but political ones. This means that they are conditioned by the friend-enemy relationship that, for Sayyid, runs above all between the West and the non-West in the contemporary world. Insofar as he was an enemy claiming possession over Western property, therefore, “Khatami had to commit an act of violence that was prerequisite to his attempt at dialogue” (pg. 28), and the reaction he received was every bit as violent.

Khatami was taking literally the Western insistence on the need for depoliticized dialogue as a vehicle for reaching mutual understanding. As Schmitt warns us, though, the claim to transcend politics is actually one of the most forceful political moves of all — and Sayyid amply demonstrates how the ostensibly neutral “values” of the West, like dialogue and democracy and universalism and progress (and even anti-essentialism), are ultimately fodder for friend-enemy distinctions that are all the more insidious and dangerous for being camouflaged.

And what is Sayyid’s answer? To fight hegemony with hegemony by lifting up Islam as the master-signifier or quilting-point of a new counter-hegemonic project. The end goal should be the caliphate as “a metaphor for an Islamicate great power” (pg. 121), in the sense of “polities who are able to make the rules of international order rather than simply obey them” (pg. 122). He cites the rise of the Soviet Union as a new great power as crucial for breaking down the 19th-century colonial order (pg. 123) and for changing the terms of international debate to center on competing economic systems (pg. 136). He envisions a similar role for the caliphate in decolonializing the world, and we can imagine that a similar shift in the international terms of debate would follow from the rise of an Islamicate great power.

All of this begins from Schmitt’s thesis on the irreducibility of the political, but it does not end there. For Schmitt, the role of the political always seems to be destructive (war against the enemy) or defensive (protecting against an emergency) — or more accurately, both at once. This is what Taubes is talking about where he emphasizes the importance of the figure of the katechon or restrainer in Schmitt’s strange articulation of apocalyptic thought (cf. To Carl Schmitt).

Sayyid’s description of the caliphate does include the katechontic element, insofar as he views one of its most important roles as combatting the domination of “Western plutocracies,” but there is much else for it to do as well: “The caliphate would make space for the cultivation of Muslim autonomy, represent the ummah, and restrain the ‘Great Satan’ [viz., the US as representative of the West]” (pg. 131). Later he says, “The creation of a world is inherently political” (pg. 169) — a sentiment that cuts against Schmitt’s one-sided emphasis on the defensive, the restraining, the existential threat.

In light of this contrast, I would suggest that Sayyid is attempting to do Khatami one better, deploying an über-Western source to critique the West. As he frequently points out, the Western political apparatus has lost all creative potential and now exists only to restrain and destroy. It holds no more promise, now that social and economic equality are no longer on the agenda and democracy turns out to be compatible with torture and aggressive war (pg. 74).

Hence I think that it is more than simple pragmatism that leads Sayyid to advocate the pursuit of cultural and intellectual creativity as the primary grounds for a future Muslim International — because only if that happens will we be able to know for sure that the prospect of an Islamicate great power will represent something other than continued Western-style lockdown (Kemalism) or an Islamist agenda centered on restraint and prohibition (in a reified “Shari’a law”) and actualized in increasingly arbitrary violence that amounts to a kind of impotent acting-out (pg. 185).

For all his critiques of actual-existing Islamism, though, Sayyid refuses to “throw them under the bus.” And that is because, for him, the irruption of Islamism onto the global scene represents the single greatest reminder that the political cannot be foreclosed — that the state is not the final horizon of the political, that the political can never be reduced to the administrative (even if that administration is carried out by the ulama with their fatwas against terrorism). Paradoxically for the Western Orientalist imagination, which sees in Islamism only an anachronistic throw-back, Sayyid points to the break of modernity in order to emphasize that any Islamicate polity at all worthy of the name would have to be something new, an unprecedented creation responding to present realities.

And this is why I suggest that Sayyid is the better Schmitt. For the reader of Schmitt, the irreducibility of the political is a sad truth that must be reckoned with, and the claim that the political is essential to authentic humanity seems arbitrary or at least regrettable. For the reader of Sayyid, by contrast, the political — for all the pain and destruction it brings in its wake — is ultimately about creation. It is not primarily or ultimately about the dynamics of kill-or-be-killed, but about deciding how we want to live together.