In Spring of 2015 I delivered a talk in Colorado Springs to an audience of military service men and women, civilians and students at the University of Colorado. One year article the talk turned into this article. “Religious Violence in the Middle East: Military Intervention, Salafi-Jihadism and the Dream of a Caliphate,” Journal of Cultural and Religious Studies 4.6 (2016): 396-409 traces the root causes of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other Jihadist groups, offering some brief insight along the way.
The Old Souk in 2007 (top) and 2013 (bottom) in Aleppo, Syria. (Guardian.com)
Religious Violence in the Middle East: Military Intervention, Salafi-Jihadism and the Dream of a Caliphate
By Emran El-Badawi, University of Houston, Houston, USA
The so-called “Islamic State” (IS, ISIS, ISIL), by virtue of its name, forcibly imposed upon the world a religious as well as political agenda. Notorious for its gruesome execution videos, and sophisticated use of media propaganda IS killed over 9 thousand civilians in 2014 alone, the majority of which were Muslims. Yet IS asserts itself as the sole authentic carrier of Islam—an otherwise diverse religious body of 1.6 billion people, boasting fourteen hundred years of history. Its political agenda is realized with every city, province and territory it conquers from the all but collapsed governments of Iraq and Syria. Its signature claim and most salient undertaking has been the return of the Islamic Caliphate, fusing classical Islamic tradition with modern political warfare. However, as a state it is unrecognized by all its neighbors in the Middle East; and as an embodiment of Islam, it has been completely rejected by Islamic clergy and the public faithful.
One should, therefore, ask the question, from where does IS obtain its legitimacy for its approximately 30 thousand plus fighters? How Islamic is the so-called “Islamic State?” Why does IS justify barbaric violence against Sunnis, Shi‘ites, Christians and Yazidis is in the name of Islam? The fact that such minorities and still other more ancient as well as obscure groups have called greater Iraq and Syria home for two millennia is a living testament to the inherent tolerance and pluralism of traditional forms of Islam. So what are the “root causes” for the sprouting of IS’s poisonous ideology and how can we eliminate them? The answers to such questions are complex and hotly debated, among academics and policymakers alike. In order for us to get a complete understanding of IS we first need to examine the social, political and economic struggles that lead to the rise and menacing grip of violent religious fundamentalism in the name of Islam. This examination will take us through the Wahabi ideology of oil rich Arab gulf states, to the Salafi school which rose in the political and socio-economic turmoil of Egypt and greater Syria, and the spread of Salafi-Jihadism as a direct result of US military intervention.
In my interview with Fox on June 13, 2016 I discuss the problem of homophobia in general, and the necessity of accepting LGBT within the Abraham faith groups. This is a problem traditional Christians and Muslims wrestle with still in the 21st century. Reports prove the perpetrator of the Orlando shooting was a bigot, mentally ill, abusive, criminal to begin with. To date the criminal investigation demonstrate his ties to Islam as incidental, and that his “allegiance” to ISIS/ISIL was attempt to draw attention and credibility, as in the San Bernardino shooting.
Islam in America is “represented” by the majority of its adherents and its institutions–like all other faith based communities.
Finally, something I forgot to mention for lack of time, those who profit from hate domestically and overseas (ISIS, Trump, etc) want Americans divided and squabbling. We should not let them win. America is (used to be!) the last of diversity and tolerance. If we want to prevent another Orlando, Charleston, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine, etc then we need to hold accountable the NRA, gun lobby and paid politicians who profit from and fuel the proliferation of machine guns in crowded spaces (including schools and colleges).
Despite vociferous opposition from British MPs and the clamoring protest of British protesters outside the parliament Prime Minister David Cameron has pulled it off — another vote by another western nation to make war and bring ruin to the Middle East that is. Its nothing new and this vote went forward before the world knowing, more than ever before, that bombing ISIS/ISIL targets in Raqqa, Syria irrevocably means killing civilians, and cannot ISIS anyway. The sheer criminality and foolish enterprise inherent in bombing Syria and Iraq has already costed over 4,000 civilians lives since the US and other wester nations started bombing there in 2011. After the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Russia has been joined by France, and now the UK as the latest heroes of the “civilized world.”
And yet this does not tell the whole story. One hundred years ago (beginning 1915) it was Britain, France and the USSR who were bombing Syria and dismantling the Ottoman Empire into the highly volatile Middle Eastern states we have today. The trio was known as the “Triple Entene.” 1915 and the aftermath of World War I set the precedent for so many of the conflicts re-awoken in the region today: disenfranchising Sunni Arabs (by abolishing the caliphate), suppressing Kurdish independence and creating artificial borders now refashioned by ISIS.
History compels us to ask, what really are the trio doing in Syria? Bombing ISIS (and civilians) — sure. But, this new round of aerial bombardment in 2015 is part of a much larger context, one in which the UK, France and Russia are forcibly, violently — desperately — trying to put their century old Humpty Dumpty back together again. They scarcely notice, or care, that their belligerence in the region has created Frankenstein’s monster instead. What part of Frankenstein’s monster do we hazard to replace now? What border in Syria and Iraq does the New Triple Entente seek to erase and re-create? The game is doomed to fail.
Syria was lost years ago, when every single one of its neighbors penetrated her borders to make war. The questions now — from a historical perspective — is, what will the next Sykes-Picot (1916) looks like? When is the next Treat of Versailles (1919)? At what point will dividing and conquering the Middle East truly become the stuff of un-harming history text books, and not the most dangerous series of global military blunders in the 21st century?
What “we” do to “them”
By summer 2015 the US, along with its Arab and European allies — including France — killed at least 459 Syrian civilians–men women and children–as part of their war against the so called Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL. The ISIS “stronghold” of al-Raqqa is actually a city of over 200,000 people. And “we” are killing civilians there all the time. This is to say nothing about the US coalition — including France — which utterly smashed the Iraq state in 2003-2013, resulting in 190,000 Iraqi lives lost (including 134,000 civilians) and $2.2 trillion in damage. In preparation for its illegal war in Iraq the US and Co. starved an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children to death during the 1990s alone.
On October 21, 2015 the US killed 22 Afghani civilians and medical workers when it bombed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. This was not the first time the US bombed a hospital…
This is merely a taste of “what we do to them”–how the “civilized world” systematically massacres civilian populations in the greater Middle East, for 25 years and on a nearly daily basis. And in each case there is little to no global outcry or calls for solidarity with “humanity.”
What “they” do to the world
At no point over the past 25 years did the governments of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or any of the several other countries bombed to into dust ever invade, sanction or attack the “civilized world.” However, the destabilization of the greater Middle East–including the killing of large numbers of civilians–gave rise to a popular form Islamist military opposition–Jihad–or “terrorism” as the “civilized world” has labelled it. Jihadists or terrorists in the form of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab operate largely out of the power vacuum left by razing countries through bombs, and they overwhelmingly target Muslims. This month alone (November, 2015) ISIS killed 224 Russian civilians by downing a plane in Egypt, 43 Lebanese civilians in coordinated blasts in Beirut and 129 French civilians in Paris in coordinated attacks there. Following every single one of these attacks ISIS claimed to be acting in retaliation for airstrikes or ground warfare in Syria–namely by Russia, Hezbollah and France. ISIS claimed to be retaliating against US airstrikes in Iraq when it beheaded James Foley and a series of western journalists in 2014. All this is to say nothing about the ceaseless terrorism and civil war claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan since 2011–the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim.
– In sum the so called civilized world bombs the living daylights out of the Middle East; Jihadists retaliate by committing huge acts of terrorism around the world –
In War there is profit…lots of it
US defense contractors are making record profits by flooding the region with weapons and maintaining a “perpetual war” in the Middle East. Those who profit from killing civilians in large numbers are precisely the corporate interests (defense, aerospace, media..), right wing neo-conservatives and wealthy policy makers in Washington, fueling “terrorism,” and creating as well as selling an enemy to the public. The truth is that we, the “civilized world,” have been killing civilians, destroying countries and bringing long term ruin as a matter of policy in that part of the world since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. “We” are not the solution. We are one of the greatest reasons for the destruction of human life in the region. The proof is in the endless cycle of violence between western governments on one side and Jihadists on the other–tearing our world apart. “We” created an enemy in our image. Just look at the orange Guantanamo / ISIS detainee uniforms.
The only option on the table
Instead of advancing so much as a new strategy against ISIS, or even pulling out of Syria and Iraq because it is not in their people’s interest, France and the US are simply bombing Syria summore, and summore, and summore…a rather idiotic and unsophisticated policy given its failure over the past two and half decades–no? (What the hell was France doing bombing Syria in the first place? –Think about it!) Following the Al-Qaeda’s attack in Madrid, Spain pulled out of Iraq in 2004 to save itself from war and terrorism. Say what you want about the giving in to terrorism, this strategy actually worked!
Un-bombing the Middle East–i.e. no longer killing civilians in that part of the world–is not going to all of a sudden create “peace.” (That kind of talk is for warmongers). However, it is the minimum requirement to get rid of the Jihadist terrorism we have spawned. There is no other way.
Is there a relationship between Al-Qaeda related activity in Saharan Africa and tribal and pre-modern national identities in the region? More specifically, are groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Qaeda in Mali and Al-Shabab in Somalia simply terrorist organizations, or is there a deeper ethnic source behind their very existence? This question, which has perplexed me, yields interesting and complex results which do not fit the popular narrative!
By now no one is a stranger to the carnage and suffering Boko Haram has wrought upon the people of Nigeria, sending civilians fleeing into neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram has been active for over a decade and are most known for their infamous enslavement of village girls in 2013, and a spate of massacres in 2014-2015. The African Union sent in a coalition of Chadian and Cameroonian armed forces to fight Boko Haram on Nigerian soil, following the infamous Baga massacre through much of January 2015.
This brief overview illustrates that the group exercises control over the Yobe and Borno provinces of Nigeria, as well as parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. This is because the ranks of Boko Haram are overwhelmingly made up of the Kanuri people, a people of Muslim majority and with a history no less rich than those of North Africa or the Middle East. Prior to and during British occupation the Kanuri were represented in the powerful Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903). Their medieval and ancient history boasts the Bornu empire (ca. 1380-1893) and Kanem empire (ca. 8th century – ca. 1380).
This history is enormously important if we are to understand the ferocity and vitality of a group like Boko Haram. Like many developing nations Nigeria has experienced civil war, military dictatorship and oil rentierism. It would behoove policy makers to consider Boko Haram as more than merely another murderous and kidnapping terrorist organization–despite their horrific actions. Boko Haram (lit. “books are forbidden”) represents an opposition to western encroachment (British missionary activity really), but it may also be considered a militant revival of the Sokoto caliphate. This would explain, in part, the groups use of violence in the name of Islam, its vehement attack of Nigerian Christians, the adoption of the black flag of ISIS and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their caliph.
Al-Qaeda in Mali
Al-Qaeda in Mali has not taken the spotlight lately despite several recent deadly attacks, as recent as January 2015. When last AQM took the stage it was 2012 when the group undertook a series of attacks against government interests. By January 2013 French airstrikes and African Union forces halted their advances. However, AQM’s history is longer and more complex than the simplistic media narrative. Members of Al-Qaeda in Mali are overwhelmingly Berber-Arabic speaking Tuareg people, whose home lay in the larger northeastern half of Mali called Azawad. For some time the Tuareg have sought independence from the southwestern half of the nation principally inhabited by ethnic African peoples, and where the capital and seat of power, Bamako, is located. The move towards independence came about after a failed coup d’état in 2012, in which the Tuareg saw an opportunity to break away. Their plans were thwarted, compelling them to take up arms and join forces with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,. The rest is history.
A couple of remarks remain concerning Al-Qaeda in Mali and its ethnic underpinnings. One is that its terrorist activity–like elsewhere in the region–was exacerbated by the Arab Uprisings starting in 2011, and especially the flow of arms from the US originally used to topple Ghaddafi but which later spread to Mali, Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and Syria. Finally, it might be more coherent to think of AQM as a separatist movement, a consideration that changes the narrative significantly.
Groups like Al-Shabaab, which pledged allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda, have been active in Somalia for almost a decade. The group is known for its animosity towards Ethiopian influence and for committing the Westgate mall attack in September 2013 in Kenya. Since Al-Shabaab are ethnically more diverse they are more divided than either AQM or Boko Haram. The diversity of this group can be attributed to historic maritime links to the Arabian peninsula, and the influx of Mujahideen who left Afghanistan long ago. It goes without saying that the lawlessness, poverty and political instability Somalia has suffered since the civil war in 1991 made the rise of Al-Shabaab possible.
Changing the Narrative
What is it that these groups have in common, and why has the world smitten them as “terrorists”–a term which scarcely refers to anything these days–rather than treating them as separatists or one side in a civil war? The answer lies in (A) their problematic use of violence in the name of Islam on the one hand, and (B) the equally problematic “war on terror” initiated by former US president George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, and its subsequent (mis)use by many governments thereafter. It is no surprise that several military regimes and western policy makers can hardly tell the difference between terrorism and Islam, and associate one with the other. And where policy goes the media is sure to follow. So the master narrative of global “Islamic terrorism” spreads, suppressing any sober reflection or honest discussion.
The truth is that in the countries which suffer from social injustice, widespread corruption, and a weakened or absent civil society it is disenfranchised, hopeless, angry young men who turn to their ancient heritage–an Islamic state/Caliphate–as a means of protest. As Islamist separatists, nationalists or even tribes they take up arms–Jihad–and fight any and all symbols of western, neo-colonial, missionary influence. And once they hold any ground they employ an incredibly draconian interpretation of their non-western code of law–Shariah–as the law of the land.
The sooner we change the narrative the sooner we can move much of the world (including the US) out of a perpetual state of war.
In our age where the extremism of terrorist groups and police states take whole countries hostage, it is little wonder that many people have been disillusioned about the cleric and politician alike. However, Islamic Tradition is richer than either would like to admit, and the sobriety of its teachings on faith and freedom are only perceivable to those who walk a middle path–i.e. those who are not stricken with the disease of extremism. Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) was one such person, whose simple compassion and ferocious intellect produced works of truly enlightened humanism, the likes of which risk unshackling the minds of societies held hostage by extremism. As I share with you his words written decades ago, let us recall those recently lost in Peshawar, Nairobi, Aleppo and Baghdad.
This unstable character of man, this going from one extreme to the other, arising as it does out of his narrow vision and petty mind, reveals certain basic moral tensions within which human conduct must function if it is to be stable and fruitful. These contradictory extremes are, therefore, not so much a “problem” to be resolved by theological thought as tensions to be “lived with” if man is to be truly “religious,” i.e., a servant of God. Thus, utter powerlessness and “being the measure for all things,” hopelessness and pride, determinism and “freedom,” absolute knowledge and pure ignorance—in sum, an utterly “negative self-feeling” and a “feeling of omnipotence”—are extremes that constitute natural tensions for proper human conduct. It is the “God-given” framework for human action. Since its primary aim is to maximize moral energy, the Qur’ān—which claims to be “guidance for mankind”—regards it as absolutely essential that man not violate the balance of opposing tensions. The most interesting and the most important fact of moral life is that violating this balance in any direction produces a “Satanic condition” which in its moral effects is exactly the same: moral nihilism. Whether one is proud or hopeless, self-righteous or self-negating, in either case the result is deformity and eventual destruction of the moral human personality.
Elsewhere Rahman states,
The essence of all human rights is the equality of the entire human race, which the Qur’ān assumed, affirmed, and confirmed. It obliterated all distinctions among men except goodness and virtue (taqwā): The reason the Qur’ān emphasizes essential human equality is that the kind of vicious superiority which certain members of this species assert over others is unique among all animals. This is where human reason appears in its most perverted forms. — Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of Quran