Rumsfeld and other administration officials warn of a new Caliphate
Vice President Dick Cheney was one of the first members of the Bush administration to say it, at a campaign stop in Lake Elmo, Minn., in September 2004.
The word getting the workout from the nation's top guns these days is "caliphate" - the term for the seventh-century Islamic empire that spanned the Middle East, spread to Southwest Asia, North Africa and Spain, then ended with the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. The term can also refer to other caliphates, including the one declared by the Ottoman Turks that ended in 1924.
Specialists on Islam say the word is a mysterious and ominous one for many Americans, and that the administration knows it. "They recognize that there's a lot of resonance when they use the term 'caliphate,' " said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and now a scholar at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, said that the word had an "almost instinctive fearful impact."
So now, Mr. Cheney and others warn, Al Qaeda's ultimate goal is the re-establishment of the caliphate, with calamitous consequences for the United States. As Mr. Cheney put it in Lake Elmo, referring to Osama bin Laden and his followers: "They talk about wanting to re-establish what you could refer to as the seventh-century caliphate" to be "governed by Sharia law, the most rigid interpretation of the Koran."
A number of scholars and former government officials take strong issue with the administration's warning about a new caliphate, and compare it to the fear of communism spread during the Cold War. They say that although Al Qaeda's statements do indeed describe a caliphate as a goal, the administration is exaggerating the magnitude of the threat as it seeks to gain support for its policies in Iraq.
In the view of John L. Esposito, an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University, there is a difference between the ability of small bands of terrorists to commit attacks across the world and achieving global conquest.
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