ABU DHABI—While international observers fixate on the Sunni-Shia rivalry’s role in shaping geopolitics in the Islamic world, deep fissures within the Sunni arc that stretches from the Maghreb-Sahel region of North Africa to the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt are increasingly apparent. Moreover, it is Sunni communities that produce the transnational jihadists who have become a potent threat to secular, democratic states near and far. What is driving this fragmentation and radicalization within the ranks of Sunni Islam, and how can it be managed?
The importance of addressing that question cannot be overstated. The largest acts of international terror, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, DC, and the 2008 Mumbai attack, were carried out by brutal transnational Sunni organizations (al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba, respectively).
The Sunni militant group Boko Haram, known internationally for abducting 276 schoolgirls in April and forcing them to marry its members, has been wreaking havoc in Nigeria for years. And the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, whose dramatic rise has entailed untold horrors to Iraq and Syria, are seeking to establish a caliphate, by whatever means necessary.
The influence of these organizations is far-reaching. Just last month, individuals inspired by these groups’ activities carried out two separate attacks—one in the Canadian parliament and another on police officers in New York.
Political and tribal sectarianism in the Sunni Middle East and North Africa is both a reflection and a driver of the region’s weakening political institutions, with a series of failed or failing states becoming hubs of transnational terrorism. A lawless Libya, for example, is now exporting jihad and guns across the Sahel and undermining the security of fellow Maghreb countries and Egypt. Several largely Sunni countries—including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan—have become de facto partitioned, with little prospect of reunification in the near future. Jordan and Lebanon could be the next states to succumb to Sunni extremist violence.
The Sunni tumult has underscored the fragility of almost all Arab countries, while diluting the centrality of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The sectarianism plaguing the Sunni belt is affecting even the relatively stable oil sheikdoms of the Gulf, where a schism within the Gulf Cooperation Council is spurring new tensions and proxy competition among its members. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view Qatar’s efforts to aid Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat, even as their own wealth has fueled the spread of Salafi jihadism and al-Qaida ideology. Both countries, along with Bahrain, have recalled their ambassadors from Qatar.
This rupture is compounded by a rift between the Middle East’s two main Sunni powers, Egypt and Turkey, whose relationship soured last year, after the Egyptian military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government, backed by pro-Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Egypt recalled its ambassador from Ankara and expelled the Turkish ambassador from Cairo.
A similar divide exists between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the latter’s provision of aid and sanctuary to Afghan militants—a divide that will only deepen when the US-led Nato coalition ends its combat operations in Afghanistan this year.
Such conflicts are spurring the militarization of Sunni states. The UAE and Qatar have already instituted compulsory military service for adult males. And Kuwait is considering following in Jordan’s footsteps by reintroducing conscription, which is already in place in most Sunni states (and Iran).
Against this background, efforts to tame the deep-seated Sunni-Shia rivalry (by, for example, improving relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran), though undoubtedly important, should not take priority over a strategy to address the sectarianism plaguing the Sunni belt. That strategy must center on federalism.
Had federalism been introduced in Somalia, for example, when the north-south rift emerged, it probably would not have ended up as a failed state. Today, federalism can allow for the orderly management of key Sunni countries, where a unitary state simply is not practical.
The problem is that federalism has become a dirty word in most Sunni countries. And the emergence of new threats has made some governments, most notably Saudi Arabia’s, staunchly opposed to change. What these countries do not seem to recognize is that it is the petrodollar-funded export of Wahhabism—the source of modern Sunni jihad—that has gradually extinguished more liberal Islamic traditions elsewhere and fueled the international terrorism that now threatens to devour its sponsors.
Stagnation is not stability. On the contrary, in the Sunni arc today, it means a vicious cycle of expanding extremism, rapid population growth, rising unemployment, worsening water shortages, and popular discontent. Political fissures and tribal and ethnic sectarianism add fuel to this lethal mix of volatility and violence.
It is time for the Sunni world to recognize the need for a federalist approach to manage the instability and conflict that plagues it. Even the United States must reconsider its regional policy, which has long depended on alliances with despotic Sunni rulers. In a region ravaged by conflict, business as usual is no longer an option.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” and “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Jordan’s King Abdullah II met his Saudi counterpart in Riyadh Sunday for talks as both nations participate in a US-led bombing campaign against Islamic State group extremists in Syria.
The official Saudi Press Agency said King Abdullah received the Jordanian monarch at his palace.
Since September both kingdoms, along with Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, have been taking part in American-led air strikes against the IS jihadists in Syria.
Jordan’s king warned this month that the fight against IS is a “third world war”.
The group has declared a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, the nation bordering both Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
IS militants have been accused of widespread atrocities, including beheading Western hostages.
Saudi involvement in the coalition has raised concerns about possible retaliation there, while analysts say Jordan has been placed in danger by joining the international effort.
“During the meeting they discussed overall events at the regional and international level,” and how to strengthen bilateral ties, SPA said.
On Thursday Saudi Arabia said it had arrested three alleged IS supporters for shooting and wounding a Danish citizen in Riyadh.
In November, the kingdom blamed IS-linked suspects for killing seven members of the minority Shiite community.
Jordan, which shares a border with Syria as well as Iraq, is grappling with its own home-grown Islamist question.
MANILA, Philippines–The world united in revulsion.
President Aquino and other world leaders stood as one on Wednesday in condemning the Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan as Karachi declared three days of mourning for the 132 children and nine school staff massacred by the terrorists on Tuesday.
In a statement, Aquino said the attack “dishonored Islam” and the Taliban had “no justification” for the “senseless deaths of so many young [children].”
“The barbarism of this attack [is] an affront to all civilized peoples,” Aquino said.
“Such an act of terror and savagery deserves nothing less than our condemnation,” the President said. “There can be no justification for this tragedy, which has dishonored Islam.”
Aquino said the Philippines was one with Pakistan in mourning the schoolchildren and staff who perished in the attack on Army Public School and Degree College in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
“We join the world in condemning the outrage perpetrated on innocent schoolchildren, and school officials and personnel in Peshawar, Pakistan,” Aquino said. “Today every person of goodwill is a father, mother, brother and sister to the people of Pakistan.”
Victims are also Muslims
US President Barack Obama also condemned the “horrific attack,” as other US officials offered assistance in responding to the massacre.
“By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity,” Obama said in a statement issued on Tuesday.
“We stand with the people of Pakistan, and reiterate the commitment of the United States to support the government of Pakistan in its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and to promote peace and stability in the region.”
“The depraved decision that one has to make to storm a school with innocent children and open fire on them, I think is a testament to how cold-blooded these extremists are,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
“Many of these extremists like to characterize their struggle as a struggle of Muslims against the Western world. But that clearly is not true if the largest number of victims that we’re seeing are actually Muslims. And that makes the situation all the more heartbreaking and all the more tragic,” he said.
Earnest said US officials had been in touch through a variety of channels to offer help, but he declined to offer specifics.
The attack comes as US and Nato troops this month end their combat mission in neighboring Afghanistan, 13 years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime for harboring those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Taliban fighters have been waging attacks across Afghanistan as well, and some US forces will be deployed to train and advise Afghan security forces to combat the threat.
Tuesday’s attack, claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as revenge for a major military offensive in the region, sparked condemnation worldwide and led the Pakistani government and military to reaffirm their determination to defeat a group that has killed thousands since it began its insurgency in 2007.
The 141 people were killed when insurgents stormed the Army-run school in Peshawar and systematically went from room to room, shooting children during an eight-hour killing spree.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced three days of national mourning and described the attack as a “national tragedy unleashed by savages.”
“These were my children. This is my loss. This is the nation’s loss,” said Sharif, who was later due to host a meeting of all parliamentary parties in Peshawar.
Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, herself shot by the Taliban in 2012, said she was “heartbroken” by “the senseless and cold-blooded” killings.
Leaders in Europe echoed the condemnation. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott offered his own sympathy to Pakistan, as his government deals with the fallout from a café siege by a deranged Islamist gunman.
Narendra Modi, the prime minister of Pakistan’s neighbor and bitter rival India, said he had called Sharif to offer condolences.
“Told PM Sharif we are ready to provide all assistance during this hour of grief,” Modi tweeted.
Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, Gen. Asim Bajwa, said 125 people had been wounded in the assault.
The death toll exceeded the 139 killed in blasts targeting former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Karachi in 2007.
There were around 500 students in the school when the attack started, and Bajwa said the attackers, equipped with ammunition and food to last “days,” only wanted to kill.
“The terrorists started indiscriminate firing as they entered the auditorium so they had no intention of taking any hostages,” he told reporters.
A senior security official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that authorities were investigating the nationality of the attackers since some were speaking in Arabic.
Funerals of many of the victims had taken place by Tuesday evening, with the rest to follow Wednesday.
Lady Reading Hospital was thronged with distraught parents weeping uncontrollably as children’s bodies arrived, their school uniforms drenched in blood.
Irshadah Bibi, 40, whose 12-year-old son was among the dead, beat her face in grief, throwing herself against an ambulance.
“O God, why did you snatch away my son? What is the sin of my child and all these children?” she wept.
The school on Peshawar’s Warsak Road is part of the Army Public Schools and Colleges System, which runs schools nationwide. Its students range in age from around 10 to 18.
Tuesday’s attack was shocking even by the standards of Pakistan, which has suffered thousands of deaths in bomb and gun attacks since the TTP rose up in 2007.
TTP spokesman Muhammad Khorasani said the assault was carried out to avenge Taliban fighters and their families killed in the Army’s offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan.
“We are doing this because we want them to feel the pain of how terrible it is when your loved ones are killed,” he said. “We are taking this step so that their families should mourn as ours are mourning.”
The military has hailed the offensive as a major success in disrupting the TTP’s insurgency.
More than 1,600 militants have been killed since the launch of operation Zarb-e-Azb in June, according to data compiled by AFP from military statements.
“The militants know they won’t be able to strike at the heart of the military, they don’t have the capacity. So they are going for soft targets,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst.–With reports from AP and AFP
Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher: “It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps”
Blaming religion for violence, says Karen Armstrong, allows us to dismiss the violence we've exported worldwide
Karen Armstrong has written histories of Buddhism and Islam. She has written a history of myth. She has written a history of God. Born in Britain, Armstrong studied English at Oxford, spent seven years as a Catholic nun, and then, after leaving the convent, took a brief detour toward hard-line atheism. During that period, she produced writing that, as she later described it, “tended to the Dawkinsesque.”
Since then, Armstrong has emerged as one of the most popular — and prolific — writers on religion. Her works are densely researched, broadly imagined and imbued with a sympathetic curiosity. They deal with cosmic topics, but they’re accessible enough that you might (just to give a personal example) spend 15 minutes discussing Armstrong books with a dental hygienist in the midst of a routine cleaning.
In her new book, “Fields of Blood,” Armstrong lays out a history of religious violence, beginning in ancient Sumer and stretching into the 21st century. Most writers would — wisely — avoid that kind of breadth. Armstrong harnesses it to a larger thesis. She suggests that when people in the West dismiss violence as a backward byproduct of religion, they’re being lazy and self-serving. Blaming religion, Armstrong argues, allows Westerners to ignore the essential role that violence has played in the formation of our own societies — and the essential role that our societies have played in seeding violence abroad.
Reached by phone in New York, Armstrong spoke with Salon about nationalism, Sept. 11 and the links between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Over the course of your career, you’ve developed something of a reputation as an apologist for religion. Is that a fair characterization? If so, why do you think faith needs defenders?
I don’t like the term “apologist.” The word “apologia” in Latin meant giving a rational explanation for something, not saying that you’re sorry for something. I’m not apologizing for religion in that derogatory sense.
After I left my convent I thought, “I’ve had it with religion, completely had it,” and I only fell into this by sheer accident after a series of career disasters. My encounters with other faith traditions showed me first how parochial my original understanding of religion had been, and secondly made me see my own faith in a different way. All the faith traditions have their own particular genius, but they also all have their own particular flaws or failings, because we are humans and we have a fabulous ability to foul things up.
The people who call me an apologist are often those who deride religion as I used to do, and I’ve found that former part of my life to have been rather a limited one.
Your new book is a history of religion and violence. You point out, though, that the concept of “religion” didn’t even exist before the early modern period. What exactly are we talking about, then, when we talk about religion and violence before modern times?
First of all, there is the whole business about religion before the modern period never having been considered a separate activity but infusing and cohering with all other activities, including state-building, politics and warfare. Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state. Without this violence we wouldn’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended upon a massive structural violence. In every single culture or pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.
This massive, iniquitous system is responsible for our finest achievements, and historians tell us that without this iniquitous system we probably wouldn’t have progressed beyond subsistence level. Therefore, we are all implicated in this violence. No state, however peace-loving it claims to be, can afford to disband its army, so when people say religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history this is a massive oversimplification. Violence is at the heart of our lives, in some form or another.
How do ritual and religion become entangled with this violence?
Well, because state-building was imbued with religious ideology. Every state ideology before the modern period was essentially religious. Trying to extract religion from political life would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail. Things like road-building were regarded as a sort of sacred activity.
Politics was imbued with religious feeling. The prophets of Israel, for example, were deeply political people. They castigated their rulers for not looking after the poor; they cried out against the system of agrarian injustice. Jesus did the same, Mohammed and the Quran do the same. Sometimes, religion permeates the violence of the state, but it also offers the consistent critique of that structural and martial violence.
Is it possible to disentangle that critiquing role from the role of supporting state structures?
I think in the West we have peeled them apart. We’ve separated religion and politics, and this was a great innovation. But so deeply embedded in our consciousness is the desire to give our lives some meaning and significance that no sooner did we do this than we infused the new nation-state with a sort of quasi-religious fervor. If you regard the sacred as something for which we are willing to give our lives, in some senses the nation has replaced God, because it’s now not acceptable to die for religion, but it is admirable to die for your country.
Certainly in the United States, your national feeling, whether people believe in God or not, has a great spiritual or transcendent relevance — “God bless America,” for example; the hand on the heart, the whole ethos. We do the same in the U.K. with our royal weddings. Even in our royal weddings, the aristocracy are all in military uniform.
Ah, that’s a great observation.
In your great parades, you know, when a president dies, there’s the army there.
The religiously articulated state would persecute heretics. They were usually protesting against the social order rather than arguing about theology, and they were seen as a danger to the social order that had to be eliminated. That’s been replaced. Now we persecute our ethnic minorities or fail to give them the same rights.
I’d like to go deeper into this comparison between nationalism and religion. Some people would say that the ultimate problem, here, is a strain of irrationality in our society. They would argue that we need to purge this irrationality wherever we see it, whether it appears in the form of religion or nationalism. How would you respond?
I’m glad you brought that up, because nationalism is hardly rational. But you know, we need mythology in our lives, because that’s what we are. I agree, we should be as rational as we possibly can, especially when we’re dealing with the fates of our own populations and the fates of other peoples. But we don’t, ever. There are always the stories, the myths we tell ourselves, that enable us to inject some kind of ultimate significance, however hard we try to be rational.
Communism was said to be a more rational way to organize a society, and yet it was based on a complete myth that became psychotic. Similarly, the French revolutionaries were imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment and erected the goddess of reason on the altar of Notre Dame. But in that same year they started the Reign of Terror, where they publicly beheaded 17,000 men, women and children.
We’re haunted by terrible fears and paranoias. We’re frightened beings. When people are afraid, fear takes over and brings out all kind of irrationality. So, yes, we’re constantly striving to be rational, but we’re not wholly rational beings. Purging isn’t an answer, I think. When you say “purging,” I have visions of some of the catastrophes of the 20th century in which we tried to purge people, and I don’t like that kind of language.
Let’s try a different analogy: Perhaps our search for narrative and meaning is a bit like a fire. It can go out of control and burn people pretty badly. Seeing this destruction, some people say we should just put out the fire whenever we can. There are others who argue that the fire will always be there, that it has benefits, and that we need to work with it to the best of our abilities. And you’re sort of in the latter camp, yes?
I would say so … If we lack meaning, if we fail to find meaning in our lives, we could fall very easily into despair. One of the forensic psychiatrists who have interviewed about 500 people involved in the 9/11 atrocity, and those lone-wolves like the Boston Marathon people, has found that one of the principal causes for their turning to these actions was a sense of lack of meaning; a sense of meaningless and purposelessness and hopelessness in their lives. I think lack of meaning is a dangerous thing in society.
There’s been a very strong void in modern culture, despite our magnificent achievements. We’ve seen the nihilism of the suicide bomber, for example. A sense of going into a void.
In “Fields of Blood,” you explore how the material needs of people can give rise to more abstract ideas. So, speaking about nihilism as something particular to the modern era: Are there political or social conditions that underlie this sense of meaninglessness?
Yes. The suicide bomber has been analyzed by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who has made a study of every single suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004. He has found that it’s always a response to the invasion of the homeland by a militarily superior power. People feel their space is invaded, and they resort to this kind of action because they can’t compete with the invaders. [Suicide bombing] was a ploy [first] used by the Tamil Tigers, who had no time for religion. Of the many Lebanese bombings [in the 1980s], only seven of them were committed by Muslims, three by Christians. The rest, some 17 or so, were committed by secularists and socialists coming in from Syria.
I think a sense of hopelessness is particularly evident in the suicide bombings of Hamas, where these young people live in refugee camps in Gaza, with really very little hope or very little to look forward to. People who talk to survivors of these actions found that the desire to die a heroic death, to go out in a blaze of glory and at least have some meaning in their lives and be venerated and remembered after their death, was the driving factor.
There’s a line in your book that struck me: “Terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political, even when other motives, religious, economic, and social, are involved. Terrorism is always about power.”
I think I’m quoting some terrorist specialist there.
Even when [terrorists] claim to be doing it for Allah, they’re also doing it for political motives. It’s very clear in bin Laden’s discourse. He talks about God and Allah and Islam and the infidels and all that, but he had very clear political aims and attitudes towards Saudi Arabia, towards Western involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. The way he talked always about Zionists and crusaders rather than Jews and Christians — these are political terms. Since the early 20th century the term “crusade” has come to stand for Western imperialism.
In the Hamas martyr videos, the young martyr will segue very easily from mentioning Allah the Lord of the world, and then within a couple of words he’s talking about the liberation of Palestine — it’s pure nationalism — and then he’s into a third-world ideology, saying his death will be a beacon of hope to all the oppressed people who are suffering at the hands of the Western world. These things are mixed up in that cocktail in his mind, but there’s always a strong political element, not just a going towards God.
In fact, all our motivation is always mixed. As a young nun, I spent years trying to do everything purely for God, and it’s just not possible. Our self-interest and other motivations constantly flood our most idealistic efforts. So, yes, terrorism is always about power — wanting to get power, or destroy the current power-holders, or pull down the edifices of power which they feel to be oppressive or corruptive in some way.
How direct is the link between colonial policies in the Middle East and a terrorist attack in New York or London?
I think — and I speak as a British person — when I saw the towers fall on September 11, one of the many, many thoughts that went through my head was, “We helped to do this.” The way we split up these states, created these nation-states that ISIS is pulling asunder, showed absolutely no regard for the people concerned. Nationalism was completely alien to the region; they had no understanding of it. The borders were cobbled together with astonishing insouciance and self-interest on the part of the British.
Plus, a major cause of unrest and alienation has always been humiliation. Islam was, before the colonial period, the great world power, rather like the United States today. It was reduced overnight to a dependent bloc and treated by the colonialists with frank disdain. That humiliation has rankled, and it would rankle, I think, here in the States. Supposing in a few decades you are demoted by China, it may not be so pretty here.
Every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation.
So, when we in the West talk about religion as the cause of this violence, how much are we letting ourselves off the hook, and using religion as a way to ignore our role in the roots of this violence?
We’re in danger of making a scapegoat of things, and not looking at our own part in this. When we look at these states and say, “Why can’t they get their act together? Why can’t they see that secularism is the better way? Why are they so in thrall to this benighted religion of theirs? What savages they are,” and so on, we’ve forgotten to see our implication in their histories.
We came to modernity under our own steam. It was our creation. It had two characteristics. One of these was independence — your Declaration of Independence is a typical modernizing document. And you have thinkers and scientists demanding free thought and independent thinking. This was essential to our modernity. But in the Middle East, in the colonized countries, modernity was a colonial subjection, not independence.
Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.
When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam — Sam Harris said something like “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” — when you hear something like that, how do you respond?
It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.
This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.
There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time.
That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.
Is Islamophobia today comparable to anti-Semitism?
Let’s hope not. It’s deeply enshrined in Western culture. It goes right back to the Crusades, and the two victims of the crusaders were the Jews in Europe and the Muslims in the Middle East.
Right, because Jews along the crusaders’ routes would be massacred —
They became associated in the European mind. We’ve recoiled, quite rightly, from our anti-Semitism, but we still have not recoiled from our Islamophobia. That has remained. It’s also very easy to hate people we’ve wronged. If you wrong somebody there’s a huge sense of resentment and distress. That is there, and that is part of it, too.
I remember speaking at NATO once, and a German high officer of NATO got up and spoke of the Turks resident in Germany, the migrant workers who do the work, basically, that Germans don’t want to do. He said, “Look, I don’t want to see these people. They must eat in their own restaurants. I don’t want to see them, they must disappear. I don’t want to see them in the streets in their distinctive dress, I don’t want to seem their special restaurants, I don’t want to see them.” I said, “Look, after what happened in Germany in the 1930s, we cannot talk like that, as Europeans, about people disappearing.”
Similarly, a Dutch person got up and said, “This is my culture, and these migrants are destroying and undermining our cultural achievements.” I said, “Now you, as the Netherlands, a former imperial power, are beginning to get a pinprick of the pain that happened when we went into these countries and changed them forever. They’re with us now because we went to them first; this is just the next stage of colonization. We made those countries impossible to live in, so here they are now with us.”
How should one respond to something like the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, or the threat of terrorism that originates in Muslim countries?
Saudi Arabia is a real problem, there’s no doubt about it. It has been really responsible, by using its massive petrol dollars, for exporting its extraordinarily maverick and narrow form of Islam all over the world. Saudis are not themselves extremists, but the narrowness of their religious views are antithetical to the traditional pluralism of Islam.
We’ve turned a blind eye to what the Saudis do because of oil, and because we see them as a loyal ally, and because, during the Cold War, we approved of their stance against Soviet influence in the Middle East.
Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against modernity, and one of the hallmarks of modernity has been the liberation of women. There’s nothing in the Quran to justify either the veiling or the seclusion of women. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, legal rights we didn’t have in the West until the 19th century.
That’s what I feel about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. It’s iniquitous, and it’s certainly not Quranic.
Where do you, as someone outside of a tradition, get the authority to say what is or isn’t Quranic?
I talk to imams and Muslims who are in the traditions.
I think it’s easy to say, “Well the text isn’t binding” when you see something in there that you don’t like. But when you see something in the text that you do want to uphold, it’s tempting to go, “Oh, look, it’s in the text.”
Oh, it is. We do it with all our foundation texts — you’re always arguing about the Constitution, for example. It’s what we do. Previously, before the modern period, the Quran was never read in isolation. It was always read from the viewpoint of a long tradition of complicated, medieval exegesis which actually reined in simplistic interpretation. That doesn’t apply to these freelancers who read “Islam for Dummies” …
Egypt bombs ISIS in Libya, pushes for international action
Associated Press 8:21 AM |
Tuesday, February 17th, 2015
CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt bombed Islamic State militants in neighboring Libya on Monday and called on the United States and Europe to join an international military intervention in the chaotic North African state after extremists beheaded a group of Egyptian Christians.
The airstrikes bring Egypt overtly into Libya’s turmoil, a reflection of Cairo’s increasing alarm. Egypt now faces threats on two fronts — a growing stronghold of radicals on its western border and a militant insurgency of Islamic State allies on its eastern flank in the Sinai Peninsula — as well as its own internal challenges.
Islamic State group weapons caches and training camps were targeted “to avenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers,” a military statement said. “Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield to protect and safeguard the security of the country and a sword that cuts off terrorism.”
The announcement on state radio represents Egypt’s first public acknowledgement of military action in post-Moammar Gadhafi Libya, where there has been almost no government control.
Libya is where the Islamic State group has built up its strongest presence outside Syria and Iraq. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is lobbying Europe and the United States for a coordinated international response similar to the coalition air campaign in those countries.
“What is happening in Libya is a threat to international peace and security,” said El-Sissi.
El-Sissi spoke with France’s president and Italy’s prime minister Monday about Libya, and sent his foreign minister, Sameh Shukri, to New York to consult at the United Nations ahead of a terrorism conference opening Wednesday in Washington.
The bombs were dropped by U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets that left Egyptian bases for targets in the eastern Libyan city of Darna, according to Egyptian and Libyan security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk the press.
The strikes came hours after the Islamic State group issued a grisly video of the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians, mainly young men from impoverished families who were kidnapped after travelling to Libya for work. The video shows them being marched onto what is purported to be a Libyan beach before masked militants with knives carve off their heads.
Thirteen of the 21 came from Egypt’s tiny Christian-majority village of el-Aour, where relatives wept in church and shouted the names of the dead on Monday.
Babawi Walham, his eyes swollen from crying and barely able to speak, said his brother Samuel, a 30-year-old plumber, was in the video his family saw on the news Sunday night.
“Our life has been turned upside down,” he told The Associated Press. “I watched the video. I saw my brother. My heart stopped beating. I felt what he felt.”
Libyan extremists loyal to the Islamic State and some 400 fighters from Yemen and Tunisia have seized control of Darna and the central city of Sirte and have built up a powerful presence in the capital, Tripoli, as well as the second-largest city, Benghazi. Libya’s internationally recognized government has been driven into the country’s far eastern corner.
Without publicly acknowledging it, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias last year, according to U.S. officials.
“We will not fight there on the ground on behalf of anyone, but we will not allow the danger to come any closer to us,” said one Egyptian security official, who claimed that intelligence recently gathered in Libya suggests advanced preparations by Islamic State militants to cross the border into Egypt. He did not elaborate.
For now, any foreign intervention should be limited to air strikes, with political and material support from the U.S.-led coalition staging airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the Egyptian official said. Egypt already has been amassing intelligence on extremists in Libya in a joint effort with the Libyan armed forces and West European nations, including France.
Insurgents in Egypt’s strategic Sinai Peninsula who recently declared their allegiance to the Islamic State rely heavily on arms smuggled from Libya, which has slid into chaos since the 2011 uprising that toppled Gadhafi’s 41-year rule.
France, a lead player in the campaign to oust Gadhafi, has campaigned for months for some kind of international action in Libya, and announced a deal Monday to sell fighter jets to Egypt. French troops are already in place near Libya’s southern border in Niger as part of a counterterrorism force.
French President Francois Hollande’s office said he and al-Sissi both “stressed the importance that the Security Council meets and that the international community takes new measures to confront this danger.”
Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, meanwhile, said in an interview published Sunday in the Il Messaggero daily that her country is ready “for geographic, economic and historic reasons” to lead a coalition of European and North African countries to stop the militants’ advance in a country less than 500 miles (800 kilometers) from Italy’s southern tip.
“If in Afghanistan we sent 5,000 men, in a country like Libya which is much closer to home, and where the risk of deterioration is much more worrisome for Italy, our mission and commitment could be significant, even numerically,” she was quoted as saying.
A NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with NATO practice said “there is no discussion within NATO on taking military action in Libya.”
However, Allies consult regularly on security developments in North Africa and the Middle East and we follow events in the region closely,” the official said. “We also stand ready to support Libya with advice on defense and security institutions-building.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
GRAEME WOOD MARCH 2015
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
What to Do About ISIS?
The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.
Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
The Roots of the Islamic State’s Appeal
We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohamed Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.
There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.
The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)
But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Could ISIS Exist Without Islam?
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.