Archive for the ‘Islamism’ Category
A slightly edited version of this review was published at the National.
In “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State”, journalist Graeme Wood aligns himself with the orientalist tradition of Bernard Lewis, who warned liberal students against projecting secular frameworks on contemporary Muslim politics. Lewis believed religion, not secular grievance, was the prime motivator of this politics.
This may or may not be true. In any case, the argument has limited explanatory power. It doesn’t explain why Islamism is more in vogue today than in the 1960s, for instance, or why contemporary extremists are destroying the ancient temples which previous generations left unharmed.
Does scripture account for ISIL’s crimes? It’s a fact that the Prophet’s Companions took slaves as war booty. The overwhelming majority of contemporary scholars, considering custom (’urf) and public interest (maslaha) as well as learned precedent, nevertheless see slavery as obsolete, no more relevant to modern warfare than bows and arrows. But ISIL, ignoring these considerations, has proudly revived the practice.
Wood rightly expresses exasperation with Muslim scholars who claim that ISIL’s behaviour has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. It would be equally wrong to claim that American slavery had nothing to do with Christianity (see, for example, 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.”) “It is the interpretation,” Wood writes, “not the historical fact itself, that is up for debate.”
His account lacks political (or ‘secular’) context, but still, with hard-boiled humour, it provides a sometimes fascinating journey through some varieties of Islamic interpretation, from hate preaching to gentle quietism.
This review of Shiraz Maher’s book was first published at the National.
Currently under military pressure in Iraq and Syria, and still terrorising civilians far beyond those lands, ISIS has horrified and bewildered Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Its carefully studied barbarism and cinematic savagery seem to owe as much to Hollywood action movies and computer combat games as to classical Islamic jurisprudence. The furiously destructive passions of its adherents often appear insane.
ISIS is certainly immoral, but not entirely irrational. Its actions are rooted in specific political contexts and based on a greatly contested analysis of ancient and contemporary Islamic texts. Shiraz Maher’s magisterial “Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea” provides an “explanatory backstory” to this and other manifestations of what could be called in shorthand the al-Qaida tradition.
Salafists preach “progression through regression”, specifically a return to the practice of the first three generations of Muslims known as the salaf al-salih, or the ‘righteous predecessors’.
Although its antecedents go back at least to the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya, Salafism is a modern phenomenon – a traumatised response to modernity – developed in the last 150 years. There are ‘quietist’ and ‘activist’ strains, but Maher’s book focuses on the ‘violent-rejectionists’ who have risen to prominence even more recently. Their ascent since the early 1990s coincided with a decline in those varieties of political Islam which hoped to achieve power through reformist or democratic means. By this period, the Syrian and Egyptian wings of the Muslim Brotherhood had been crushed, Tunisia’s Ennahda movement suffered a harsh crackdown, the leaders of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa movement were imprisoned, and elections won by Islamists in Algeria were cancelled.
Maher quotes Trotsky’s dictum that “War is the locomotive of history”. The war sparked by the suspension of Algerian democracy, the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the wars in Iraq, and today’s conflict in Syria, constitute stations in the development of Salafi-Jihadism, a movement which is at once revolutionary and deeply reactionary.
The excellent Books pages at the National have published an extract from our book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” (now available in the US too). Before the extract comes an introduction to the book and the situation.
The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by policy makers and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.
The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.
First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbours first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s terror-bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe President Putin is funding far-right anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the ‘Schengen’ free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since World War Two. With eleven million homeless, traumatised people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.
And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organising themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts over 400 local councils, most democratically elected, as well as tens of free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centres, and an explosion in artistic production. We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.
This was published at the National.
Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Assad as their chief enemy – he is after all responsible for the overwhelming proportion of dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, who are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is ‘terrorism’.
There is disagreement on who exactly the terrorists are. Vladimir Putin shares Assad’s evaluation that everyone in armed opposition is an extremist, and at least 80% of Russian bombs have therefore struck the communities opposing both Assad and ISIS. North of Aleppo, Russia has even struck the rebels while they were batttling ISIS. This wave of the ‘War on Terror’ – now led, with plenty of historical irony, by Russia and Iran – uses anti-terror rhetoric to engineer colonial solutions, just as the last wave did, and ends up promoting terror like never before.
There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils, sometimes directly elected, and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for the Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label ‘expert’, explains exactly who they are.
Lister’s book-length study “The Syrian Jihad”, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational Jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists’ rise to such strategic prominence, amongst them the West’s failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012.
This was first published at NOW.
In the Arab world, the public declaration of religious disbelief is as taboo as the open profession of homosexuality. Publically-declared atheists and agnostics can wave goodbye to social respect, marriage prospects, even legal recognition. Yet a 2012 poll in Saudi Arabia – a state whose legal system equates atheism with terrorism, and which potentially applies the death penalty to apostates – found that 19% described themselves as ‘not religious’ and a further 5% as atheists.
In his new book “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East” (soon to be translated into Arabic as ‘Arab bala Rab’) journalist Brian Whitaker interviews activist and quietist unbelievers from around the region, and investigates the pressures ranged against them. Most usefully, the book provokes a question – how can a revived Arab secularism (freed from the taint of the so-called ‘secular’ dictatorships) provide a future in which the rights of religious majorities as well as unbelieving or sectarian minorities will be respected and strengthened?
Demands to believe and submit go far beyond religion. Whitaker quotes sociologist Haleem Barakat, who noted that, like God, the Arab head of state and the Arab family patriarch require absolute respect and unquestioning compliance. “They are the shepherds, and the people are the sheep.” (This is why ‘rab’ – which means ‘Lord’ rather than only the monotheist God – is as apt a translation as ‘Allah’ for the book’s Arabic title). So intellectual atheism is perceived as an attack on family and state, and on community solidarity. The contemporary politicisation of religious identity makes unbelief akin to treason in some minds; for this reason minority sects, dissenters and atheists are frequently seen as fifth columnists, agents weakening state and nation on behalf of foreign powers.
Identity politics in the region took on its modern forms with the building of centralised nation states. Nationalism itself was an assertion of a politicised cultural identity, first against the Ottomans, then against the European empires. For the new rulers of post-independence states, a fear of disloyal communities turned to a generalised rage for homogeneity – ‘the good citizen’, depending on where they found themselves, was to be an Arab, or a Muslim, (or a Turk, or a Jew) as imagined by the state. Many states standardised dress, dialect and worship.
The review below was published at the Guardian. Unfortunately the heart of the review was cut from the published version. I’ll put it here first of all, because it shows that Patrick Cockburn actually makes stuff up in order to defend Assad and Iran and to slander the Syrian people. Here it is:
“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.
And now here’s the whole thing:
ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq – where its leadership is local – Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practised by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria – where most ISIS leaders are foreign – Sunnis are an oppresssed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.
Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in one case, that of a delegitimised regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov as well as their own, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, facilitating the passage of bombers to Iraq who would do more to precipitate civil war than to shake off American occupation. This was a message to America to leave Syria alone.
Popular disgust and the US-backed Awakening movement eventually drove al-Qaida out of Sunni Iraq. The jihadists waited; their moment returned when peaceful Sunni protests were repressed by live fire in 2013. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.
Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and immensely readable book. Their informants include American military officials, American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and – most fascinating of all – Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into such categories as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). They provide useful insights into ISIS governance – a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear – and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.
Cockburn’s book, on the other hand, is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements which coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. The label doesn’t account for (to take a few examples) the widespread chant ‘The Syrian People are One’, or Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman leading protests in Sunni Homs, or Communist Christian George Sabra leading the Syrian National Council.
Whatever the hearts-and-minds rhetoric at the United Nations, in Syria the Obama administration is feeding the flames of Sunni extremism, and proving once again the truism that the American state is an enemy of the Syrian people (as it’s an enemy, like all states, of all peoples, including the American).
We expected strikes on ISIS. Some of the strongest strikes (and the strikes are far stronger than in Iraq), however, have been aimed at Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the organisation from which ISIS split. Nusra is certainly an extremist Salafist group, and is openly linked to al-Qa’ida. Because its ideology terrifies not only minorities but also huge swathes of the Sunni population, it’s also a strategic obstruction in the way of the Syrian revolution. In August 2013 it participated (with ISIS) in the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians in the conflict. On the other hand, Nusra (unlike ISIS) was until yesterday actually fighting the regime, not other rebel groups. From January, along with every rebel formation, it’s been fighting ISIS too. And its leadership is entirely Syrian. Many Syrians, not necessarily extremist Salafists themselves, admire Nusra’s victories against their most immediate enemy – the Assadist forces dropping barrel bombs on cities and raping and torturing at checkpoints. A sensible answer to Nusra would be to provide weapons and funds to Free Army forces who would then be in a position to gradually draw men from the organisation, slowly making it irrelevant (most men don’t care about the ideology of their militia’s leadership; they care about food and ammunition). But the Americans are allergic to working with the people on the ground most immediately concerned by the outcome, and bomb from the air instead. Nusra is now abandoning front line positions (in some areas the regime may be able to take immediate advantage). One Nusra leader has already spoken of an alliance with ISIS against the Americans.
Syria’s new daily routine: the Americans and Gulf Arabs bomb the Salafist extremists while Assad bombs the Free Army and Islamic Front (and of course civilians – as usual it isn’t being reported, especially not now the televisual US war is on, but about a hundred are being killed every day). The headline in regime newspaper al-Watan reads “America and its Allies in One Trench with the Syrian Army against Terrorism”. The opposition reads it this way too. Several demonstrations yesterday condemned the American strikes, called for America’s fall, and for solidarity with ISIS and Nusra. A sign at one protest read: “Yes, It’s an International Coalition Against Sunnis.”