07/07/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

Who's Afraid of the Caliphate?

The astonishing success of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in establishing a "state" across northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria in the last weeks represents a strategic watershed in the advance of jihadi fighters and their radical ideology in controlling turf in the Middle East. In political terms, ISIS is likely to be little more than a transient phenomenon. But its declaration of a "caliphate" establishes a new ideological frontier.

The threat of a "caliphate" to the West was central to George W. Bush's inflamed rhetoric in his Global War on Terror, invoked to justify the launch of several wars in his own "jihad" over the next decade. But just how fearsome a concept should it be to us?

The office of the caliphate goes back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632; the fledgling new Muslim state required a new leader -- not a new prophet -- to provide political and spiritual guidance to the new community. (Caliph simply means "successor" in Arabic.) The office has existed more or less continuously from that time, particularly as a spiritual title to legitimize political leaders who gained, or just plain seized, secular power in the Muslim world.

For westerners the papacy is a useful, if inaccurate parallel. The pope regularly enjoyed -- and often abused -- great secular power in Europe. However tawdry or corrupt many individual popes may have been, the office generally commanded respect as symbol of the unity of western Christendom. So, too, was the caliphate for the Muslim world, representing the ideal --always to be aspired to -- of Muslim unity and good governance, with order under sanctified law and social justice. The aspiration to good governance within a culturally Islamic framework still remains a glimmer in the eye for many Muslims as a distant ideal.

The revolutionary new Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern Turkish state in 1923 on the ashes of the nearly 700-year Ottoman Empire, shocked Muslims worldwide when he abolished the Caliphate; the office had resided, after all, for many hundreds of years in Istanbul. It was as if the prime minister of Italy got up one morning and decided to abolish the papacy as a time-worn and controversial institution.

What would Catholics worldwide have to say about such an act? The papacy is not Italy's to abolish, nor was the Caliphate Turkey's to abolish. Many Muslims still feel a nostalgia for the power and symbolism of the office. In its absence, who speaks globally today for Islam and the ummah -- the worldwide Muslim community? Never mind that Muslims today would not likely agree on the resuscitation of the office: where, how, by whom, how chosen, with what powers, and what international standing? But the term still invokes the glories of Islamic history and a yearned-for unity -- much as some Christians still yearn for the ideal of a unified Christianity. And while Catholics still have the pope, Muslims today lack any definitive central religious figure who can speak with genuine authority for Islam -- even Sunni Islam -- and the interests of the global Muslim community.

The caliphate, like the papacy, can be as bad or as good as the individual who heads it. Both offices through history have seen some very bad moments indeed, as well as figures of genuine political, intellectual or moral leadership. Today respected clerics exist here and there, but many Muslims see the absence of a single authority as one source of the weakness and paucity of Islamic vision in the Muslim world today.

In an era when the West has repeatedly invaded Muslim countries, overthrown their leaderships, and commandeered their economic and energy sources over much of the 20th century, the weakness and lack of leadership in the Muslim world remains a vivid concern to Muslims. Thus when the term "caliphate" is invoked, it touches a chord in the historical sensibilities of many, even if they have no active interest in reestablishing the office. It suggests a state guided consciously and purposefully by Islamic values, however much debated that concept is.

At a time when much of Afghanistan and Iraq has been destroyed by U.S. firepower in devastating and failed wars, and as Syria still remains in western gunsights in a civil conflict abetted heavily by outsiders, radical sentiments and emotions ride high in today's Muslim world. It is not surprising that radical jihadi sentiments and proclamations should now sound once again in a call for an unified Islamic state. Yet the reality is that the vision of these extremists with their horrific violence is deeply shocking to most Muslims of the world as well. In the wake of the devastation of the last decade, this violent reaction is not entirely surprising however. Here ISIS no more represents the true face of the caliphate than the Catholic Inquisition in Spain or the murder of native peoples in colonial Spanish America represented the true face of the papacy. Both are to be condemned.

The phenomenon of ISIS as a state is not likely to last long. But the resonance of its symbolic declaration of a caliphate remains an indicator of how far the Islamic ideal has drifted. Most Muslims will reject the ISIS "caliphate" as the harsh, intolerant and primitive institution that it is. Yet radical times bring forth radical reactions. As I argue in my latest book "Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East," some kind of Islamic ideal will continue to imbue Muslim politics for a long time to come. Rather than marked by butchery, more likely it will come in the form of the moderate and relatively successful Islamic policies that mark Turkey, Tunisia, or even the slow learning curve of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Nor can we ignore the evolving semi-democratic Islamic institutions of Iran. The Muslim quest to overcome the colonial legacy and its borders -- in the search for some kind of greater political, economic, cultural and religious coherence -- will endure. That is at least what the ideal of the caliphate is supposed to be about.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior official at the CIA; His books can be viewed on