Driving back from picking up my car this afternoon, I turned on the radio, more in hope than expectation. I do not listen to the music channels (the channels that play current music lost their attraction when I reached the age of thirty, and if I’m going to listen to oldies, I’d rather listen to my own selection than someone else’s). So I have a grand total of three analogue channels to which I can listen: Talk Sport and BBC channels 4 and 5-Live. My expectations were low from bitter experience. And sure enough, I experienced that small thrill of pleasure that comes from having one’s worst expectations confirmed, followed by the more sustained depression of realising that yet again there was no intelligent discussion going on anywhere in British radio.
Islam is causing particular problems in the world at the moment. But other religions have also been the excuse for destruction and torment, for example in Europe at the time of the Inquisition, or more recently in Northern Ireland, North Uganda, Kashmir or Punjab. Religious leaders would argue that religion was not the cause of the suffering, only the excuse, and that their religion had been used and abused by rulers for ulterior motives. This may be so, but it is difficult to imagine that those leaders would have found it so easy to inspire savage acts in the name of humanism.
On BBC News 24 this morning, Peter Sissons asked Sir Iqbal Sacranie (leader of the Moslem Council of Britain) if the lack of a figurehead, equivalent to the Pope for Catholics, made it more difficult for leaders of the Moslem faith to state authoritatively that extremist views were heretical. Sir Iqbal replied that he was referring to a Caliph. Interestingly, one of Al-Qaeda's most fundamental ambitions is restoration of a Caliphate encompassing all Moslems and Moslem nations.
Whilst there can be no doubt that what Mr Sacranie means by a Caliph is different to what Osama bin-Laden means, this highlights the paucity of vocabulary within Islam to describe the relationship between the religion, its leaders, its followers and their governments. A Caliph is fundamentally different to a Pope, because a Caliph exercises absolute temporal as well as spiritual powers over followers of the faith. But there is no title available in the Moslem lexicon to descrbe a supreme spiritual leader distnct from the temporal leadership.