How Jihadists Weaponize Islamic History and How to De-Weaponize It
(Nibras Kazimi, June 1, 2016)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Nibras Kazimi‘s blog, Talisman Gate, was one of the most riveting Iraqi blogs written from Baghdad in the midst of its drama and turmoil and was renowned for its acute political insight. He has resumed writing the blog at Talisman Gate, Again. His research focuses on the growing threat of jihadism in the Middle East, as well as prospects for democracy in the region. His primary interest is the national security of Iraq and how threats there are enabled and coordinated by regional Middle Eastern actors and factors.
Kazimi directed the Research Bureau of the Iraqi National Congress in Washington, DC and Baghdad, and was a pro-bono adviser for the Higher National Commission for De-Ba’athification. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute and wrote a weekly column for The New York Sun and a monthly column for Prospect magazine (UK). He has published several papers on jihadism as well as articles in publications such as Newsweek and the New Republic. He is the author of the monograph Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy. He is a member of The Atlantic Council’s 2016 Iraq Task Force.
I am particularly delighted to welcome our speaker tonight, Nibras al-Kazimi, who had an impact on me for years before I met him because I was one of the devoted followers of his blog, Talisman Gate, about which I will tell you more in a moment. He directed the Research Bureau of the Iraqi National Congress in Washington, DC. In Baghdad, he was a pro bono advisor for the Higher National Commission for De-Baathification. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute. He has written weekly columns for the New York Sun, a monthly column for Prospect Magazine in Great Britain. He has appeared in News Week, The New Republic, and many notable publications. He is the author of a monograph, “Syria: Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy.” He is also a member of the Atlantic Council’s 2016 Iraq Task Force.
The blog to which I referred, The Talisman’s Gate, analyzed events in Baghdad and Iraq from Baghdad or here or other locations and I found it after my brief experience in Baghdad and returning here, one of the most powerfully analytical sources of insight in writing that I came across. I was an avid follower of it, and I am delighted to tell you that Nibras al-Kazimi has resumed writing, now from Talisman’s Gate, Again. Is that correct?
And we are delighted to have him here tonight to address the extremely important subject of: How Jihadists Weaponize Islamic History and How to De-Weaponize It. Please join me in welcoming Nibras al-Kazimi.
Hello. Thank you to the Westminster Institute for hosting me tonight and thank you for coming out. Thank you, Bob, for this introduction, and I hope I will present my case of why I believe the extremists, both Sunni and Shia, are weaponizing history and how I see ways of challenging them on that terrain and inserting doubt into their narrative.
So their use of history has nothing new or unique. Identities, whether they are sectarian, religious, or ethnic, draw upon history in order to propel and propagate and legitimize these identities, political parties, political ideologies. In the Middle East in the twentieth century, we saw many examples of that. Arab nationalism drew upon the glories of Arab civilization as an impetus for the rebirth of the Arab nation.
You had Turkish nationalism that began to some extent in the late 19th century but really took shape in the 20th century. The common story, the common remembered history of how they came from Central Asia and conquered lands and created empires. The Shah of Iran borrowed heavily from the glory and the splendor of Persian civilization to add pomp and regality to his own dynasty and reign.
And in the case of Iraq, you had Saddam Hussein not only drawing upon Arab nationalism but he took a specific case from that to legitimize his war against Iran, so he called the Iran-Iraq War the Second Qadisiyyah, which is a reference to the First Battle of Qadisiyyah when the conquering Muslim armies conquered Mespotamia and took it away from the Sassanid Empire, the Persian empire at the time. Not only that but he also drew upon the glory of Babylon. He likened himself to a modern day Nebuchadnezzar. He rebuilt the city of Babylon and much like the original Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam inserted his name into the brickwork.
History confers legitimacy and infers destiny in this respect. Lots of people do it. If the first section is defining who we are, another way of using history is to define the other, the enemy, the reasons why we have that enemy. And in many cases of the examples cited here and how the jihadists and other extremists are using history now. They find a number of dots, they connect these dots, and they extrapolate a conspiracy. Again, nothing new here.
But what I fear is different about how the extremists today in the Middle East are using history is they are using it as a blueprint of action. They go back to early Islam, about six decades of early Islam, and they draw precedent from that to infer or to instruct policy. So it is not just why it went wrong, their citation of history and historical events, but it is also how are we going to get it right.
I am going to give a lot of examples and if you bear with me, somehow all of these examples will have a method to them towards the end. So if we take the case of the Islamic State, something I want to note before I get into this is that the Islamic State sees itself as a ten-year venture, that they have been around for ten years. So it is not just the declaration of the caliphate in September 2014 or before that ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Their sense of their story is that they go back to October 2006 when they proclaimed the Islamic State in Iraq.
So we have a current caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, but we have his predecessor, Abu Omar al Baghdadi, and I will be making several references to Abu Omar. So in October 2006, they proclaimed their new state. A few months after that in January 2007, they issued a book, they published a book. The book is called, “Informing the People about the Birth of the State of Islam.”
They realize that what they are doing is something very bold, and they realize that what they have enacted is going to focus the hostility of a variety of forces against them, not just the enemy, the Americans or the Shia or others, but also their ideological cousins like other jihadists, other Salafists because the argument that these other jihadists might make is that the conditions are not right.
What are you doing? This is a big step in declaring and Islamic State because it is understood that this would be the attempted caliphate or resurrecting the caliphate. And we are not ready for this. We do not have territory. We do not have consensus about how to pick a new caliph. We do not have any of this ready.
No, the jihadists of the Islamic State say in this book, no, let us turn to history and look at precedent. When Muhammad began wielding authority in Medina, his territory was less than the territory we are controlling at the time in Ramadi or Anbar. And what we are seeking to do here with this Islamic State is just follow what Muhammad began in Medina. We are just following the steps that he took.
So Muhammad goes to Medina from Mecca. He draws his followers, his supporters to that new community, and in that new community, he begins to exercise authority. And there are lots of challenges. He does not control the whole town. There are important Jewish tribes around that are armed, that have a significant economic presence, that do not follow him. He has to manage day-to-day affairs. He has to manage these relationships with these neutral tribes at the time. He has to wage war against his enemies or defend himself and his community against enemies. So he was facing a lot of setbacks.
Now, this issue of setbacks is again a precedent that the jihadists cite, that when we have a setback, it is also a setback like a setback that Muhammad had faced, so their argument is that Muhammad did not wait for the conditions to be optimal. He just went ahead and started because he is compelled to start, and there is legitimacy in starting, and this is what we are doing. We are starting, but we are also not improvising. This is not off the top of our heads. We are following his steps, the steps that he took, and they always remind their constituency and the people who argue with them that even in the bleakest of times, the Prophet Muhammad foresaw that his community, fledgling community, would bring down great empires like the empires of Byzantium or Persia.
Again, what they are doing here, elements of it, are not new. The idea of going back to the basics has a rich tradition in Islamic thought. You had a thirteenth, fourteenth century Muslim cleric, Ibn Taymiyyah, who counseled that we need to go back to the basics. He was writing at the time after the Mongol invasions, after Islam seemed to be wilting and withering. He inspired many movements, including the Wahhabi movement of the mid to late eighteenth century, that also went back to the basics, and they tried to put it [into] action of resurrecting that vigor, that vitality of the faith by going back to the basics.
But the jihadists, I would contend, are even more ambitious. They are inspired by Ibn Taymiyyah, they are inspired by the Wahhabis, but in their reliance on precedent and history, they have gotten more ambitious because they went ahead and chose a caliph, and again, the way they chose a caliph [was] they went back to the precedent of how the first four caliphs were chosen in Islam. It is an ad hoc process, it was a messy process [with] lots of political disputes, lots of political factionalism. That is why we have Sunnis and Shiites today.
They go, they find something that works for them, and the elastic nature of history is [such that] they can stretch it to fit their circumstances, and make their case, their argument. And they made the case at the time that when they picked the predecessor of Abu Bakr, Abu Omar, we did this and that and this, and it is according to what had been done before, so that is how we establish legitimacy. In this sense history books are recipe books. They believe they can go back, follow a certain formula, and this formula if enacted today, if followed today with some tweaking, then they will reclaim that greatness of Islam.
Now, why do they use this? [They use this] because it works, and the question is why does it work, why does it work with their target audiences. In the Middle East there is a received history. There is a form of history that is present in people’s minds, it is mentally available, about early Islam, what it looked like, what happened, what were the issues. This is taught in schoolbooks, in curricula. People hear it from the pulpits of mosques. People watch it in media, and TV series, and movies. It is a popularized, airbrushed version of history. And this popularized version of history that many people grow up with is the foundation that jihadists stand on as they cite precedent and make their case.
Let me give you an example. Abū Muṣʻab Zarqāwī was the founding father of this particular strain of jihadism that gave us the Islamic State. He was in Iraq in 2003. He looked at the situation. He saw the stirrings of sectarian antipathy between Sunnis and Shiites. He saw that and he said this is useful, I can use this, this is a fast-burning fuel that will mobilize and motivate people to come to our cause.
Abū Muṣʻab Zarqāwī did not have to begin from scratch. Centuries of this had gone on, but more recently in the last three decades, Abū Muṣʻab Zarqāwī benefitted from a sustained campaign that promoted sectarianism or anti-Shi’ism in the Middle East, in a lot of the societies in the Middle East. And the reason for that or what sparked it was a 1979 revolution in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini.
So you had Khomeini’s enemies, or people who perceived themselves to be enemies of Khomeini, like Saddam Hussein, like the Saudis. They bankrolled a massive campaign that revisits earlier anti-Shi’ism and propagates it. They saturated the airwaves. They filled bookshelves. And it was there. It had certain elements, for example, one myth that is propagated is that Shi’ism all started because of a Jew called Ibn Saba’. He basically invented Shi’ism.
That is in wide currency in peoples’ heads. After you launch such a campaign, it is going to rankle somewhere in peoples’ brains. And they also borrowed from European anti-Semitism, the motifs. For example, in the late ’90s we had a book emerge called The Protocols of the Elders of Qom. Qom being the main Shia seminary in Iran.
So Zarqawi arrives at the scene in 2003. He sees a canvas that has been primed for his new campaign to remind the Sunnis of Iraq about the perfidy and treachery of the Shia, that the Shia were invented in order to subvert the faith, and that they are an existential threat to Islam, they are the internal enemy.
And then he goes back to history and finds a very neat precedent that he can cite. He finds the character called Ibn al-Alkami. Who was Ibn al-Alkami? Ibn al-Alkami was the last vizier under the Abbasid court before the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. He was a Shia. The Abbasid court was Sunni. Somebody might say that is pretty progressive, a Sunni court which had a vizier who was Shia.
But that goes out the window. Zarqawi is not interested in that. He wants a poster boy to blame, a scapegoat to blame for why the mighty Abbasid Empire fell apart, or why Baghdad fell to the Mongols. As far as he is concerned, Ibn al-Alkami in that position conspired to weaken the Abbasid Empire and basically handed over Baghdad on a silver platter to the Mongols. And of course, he connects it to the present. This particular speech was in 2005, and he said now, these modern Shiites that we are dealing with are the grandchildren of Ibn al-Alkami.
So it is neat, it is succinct, it is clear, and again, it is building on a foundation.
Now, I think an important element of why this resonates easily amongst the target audience is it spectacle. I will cite one example about spectacle as an introduction to this topic. So again, Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the first proto caliph of the Islamic State – today we have his successor Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, but Abu Omar al Baghdadi in his third speech, which was in March 2007, he came out and said you know what these Christians are causing problems for Islam. They are enabling the West to undermine Islam, to fight Islam, and I, the prince of the faithful in the twenty-first century, am going to annul the Pact of Umar. The Pact of Umar [was] back in the seventh century. Umar [was] the second Caliph of Islam, a proper caliph depending on opinion.
But that is very bold, the audacity that somebody says I am annulling that pact because, again, the Christians have not kept up their end of the bargain. Now what does that do? It is that confidence, it is that assuredness that I am so legitimate in my position as a Caliph or a proto-Caliph, I can go ahead and do something as dramatic as annulling that pact, so spectacle.
As I said, let us dwell on this issue of spectacle, how history has been dramatized in the popular imagination of the Middle East. And I want to talk about a personal, my own, example here. There is a movie, or there was a movie, called The Message. It was released in 1976. There was a Syrian director. It was backed by Libyan money. It had two versions, one in Arabic and one in English, separate versions. In the English version, Anthony Quinn played a leading role in that one.
And in many places in the Middle East, in places like Iraq and Syria, at every religious occasion, Eid or Ramadan or the Prophet’s birthday, they showed this movie. Growing up in the Middle East, I was born in the year it was produced, I think I have seen this movie like twenty times for the simple fact that it was on TV. Not only that, but it is also compelling. It is epic. It is very well made. The music is exhilarating. I think the score was nominated for an Academy Award, and it lost to Star Wars that year.
And I catch myself when I am reading these heavy scholastic books about early Islam, about the caliphs, and these stories, and history. I visualize what I am reading from scenes that I have derived from the movie, how people are dressed, the colors, the shape of the buildings, how people wear their hair. You know, early Islam to me has been very influenced by this movie.
Now, just a sidenote, this movie was also one of the causes of grievance for what I believe was the first Islamic terrorist act in Washington, D.C. In 1977, something called the Hanafi siege, a splinter group from the Nation of Islam took over three buildings in Washington, D.C. I think they left two people dead. And one of their grievances was this movie was being shown in Washington, D.C.
Salafists generally do not like this movie because they feel it is too sympathetic to the Shia version of history, and they find other inaccuracies and inconsistencies with it, so it is controversial, but it is very influential.
Now fast forward to what we are doing here and what we are looking at here, how jihadists use history. The jihadists also dramatized history to make it more easily approachable and to allow it to resonate better with their target audiences. For example, their flag, I look at it, the archaic font, that seal that they have, the black color. To me, it just looks authentic. It looks like something that the art department that was behind that movie came up with this flag. It looks as if it would belong in that movie, The Message.
Of course, the jihadists claim that this is the banner of Muhammad, راية العقاب rāyat al-‘uqāb, again drawing legitimacy from fighting under the banner of the Prophet. When they did their victory parade in Mosul, the parade was, of course, lots of pickup trucks with machine guns and tanks, but it was preceded by a number of fighters on horseback. Just the way they are dressed and how they are riding their horses again evokes scenes from what I would imagine, [and] I think other people would imagine, early Islam would have looked like or how Muhammad entered Mecca victoriously.
That image of the caliph, this current caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in his only televised speech so far, ascending the pulpit slowly in the mosque in Mosul, what he is wearing, and how he turns and his gestures, how he is speaking again is very dramatized, but it is also evoking what people would imagine early Islam would look like.
Another example – sorry for all of these examples, but some of them will be useful later. Abu Omar Al Baghdadi – I am sorry to excuse people, juxtaposing him between Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and Abu Omar Al Baghdadi, Abu Omar Al Baghdadi in November 2007 [gave] his thirteenth speech, this was the occasion of the U.S. elections. It is clear from how the speech was presented that Abu Omar Al Baghdadi already knew that President Obama had been elected.
The title of the speech is “A Letter to the Rulers of the White House.” The wording, the tone that he uses, mimics another memorable scene from the movie when Muhammad sent letters to the emperor of Byzantium, or the emperor of Persia, or the ruler of Egypt. Again, I think they are doing this deliberately.
I also want to touch upon Shia extremism because it is very important when we talk about this situation that we have of extremism in the Middle East, we cannot separate the two. We have Sunni extremism, and we have Shia extremism, and they are now feeding into each other in this cycle, and it is a loop. It does not help anyone to try to determine which began first, but what we have is this situation. And one extremism has gotten to the point of justifying its raison d’être, why it is around, because of the extremism of the other.
So on Shia extremism, of course, Shia’s whole premise is historical, that the family of the Prophet has been wronged in the succession to Muhammad, and they can cite events from 1400 years of history that demonstrate the injustices that the Sunnis have visited upon the House of Muhammad, the family of Muhammad. And once in a while throughout Shia history, it breaks out into a form of Shia revanchism, Shia revenge against the Sunnis, to take revenge for the family of the Prophet.
Now in recent years, I believe a new phenomenon of Shia extremism has emerged, and I have called it Shia chauvinism. So in 2012, when I started picking up on these hints, I wrote an essay. And my damning evidence that I was using for that essay is a picture that I found online. The picture depicts then Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq. It is a banner that people are carrying at a religious procession, and it says, “Support the Mukhtar of our age.”
And here they are referencing a historical character called al-Mukhtār al-Thaqafīy, who is credited with avenging, taking revenge against the perpetrators of the battle of Karbala. He defeated some in battle. He executed some. He assassinated some. Alright, so he is, again, this posterchild of Shia revanchism, Shia power.
And here we have a banner with Maliki, this slogan, “Support the Mukhtar of Our Age,” so Maliki is now this avenger against the Sunnis, and next to him we have the Iranian actor who portrayed Al Mukhtar in a TV series that was produced in 2010. Again, [this was] an epic production, very well done, forty episodes, dubbed in Arabic, and Urdu, and lots of languages. Somebody put up a lot of money for it.
And I am proud of myself here in this essay. Oh, look, they have gone so far. In 2013, Maliki has embraced the appellation of Mukhtar of Our Age. There are songs being commissioned about Maliki being the Mukhtar. In 2014 in the elections, they consciously, purposely used that term in order to get support during the election season. So that is Shia extremism again mimicking how they borrow from history, how history is elastic, how they use precedent in order to instruct policy, what to do.
Just going back to Shia chauvinism if I was not clear, there is a strategy behind that, and I believe it is considered seriously in Tehran. It is not the only strategy that they are considering, but it is kept in play, and it foresees the end result, the partition of the Middle East where the Shiites break off into cantons and they cannot live anymore with these Sunnis in nation-states. There is just too much history, too much bad blood there, and they need to break away and let the Sunnis do their thing. So that is the strategy behind this kind of extremism.
So what does that give them when they are citing history?
It gives them this aura of certitude, this aura of certitude that we are going back to something that works. And the problem there is that because they have that aura, it is going to be a lot more difficult to convince them that they have lost or they are losing, because they can again cite history to explain away setbacks.
They can explain [setbacks as] conspiracies. They can say things like, you know what, we missed the key ingredient in that recipe, [so] we will go back and try again, and we will keep trying until we get it right because this is the recipe book. It is right there, the text is right there, telling us what to do in order to resurrect glory and empire.
And that terrain, that terrain that they stand so firmly upon, they go unchallenged there for the most part. And I believe they can be challenged on that terrain, so this is the point where we shift to the second part of our talk, what can be done about this.
What Can Be Done About This
The Marrakesh Declaration
So first question: can it be done, how long will it take, and who goes about doing it? A few months ago, in January 2016, there was something called the Marrakesh Declaration. Marrakesh is in Morocco. [More than 250] Islamic scholars gathered. The big thing that they did was they reaffirmed the Charter of Medina. What is the Charter of Medina? The Charter of Medina is this code or this text through which Muhammad codified his relationship with minorities, principally the Jews in this case.
And the well-meaning, moderate Islamic scholars in Marrakesh were saying that the Islamic State has gone too far against the Christians and the other minorities, and we are reaffirming that charter because that is legitimate Islam, that is the correct Islam, and that is what we need to go back to.
The problem is they are challenging, moderate Muslims versus extremist Muslims, and they are challenging each other on the terrain of history. And then they start nitpicking among themselves about this interpretation of the Charter of Medina. Are you reading it right? And the jihadists are enabled or empowered by saying things like, look, we are reading it literally. This is exactly what it says. You know, we are not prevaricating, saying, oh, it fit that time of Medina, or you know, we need to tone it down a little bit. We are following it to the letter.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, was very happy about this Marrakesh Declaration, and he said something. This is a quote, “This declaration can change the whole face of Islam.” He walks it back a bit and says, “not change it, but bring it back to where it was.”
I have a problem with where it was because where it was is that solid ground, is that solid terrain, that the extremists have used as a springboard to bolder, more ambitious, audacious ventures. And I ask myself, why take this Charter of Medina at face value? Sure, let us have moderate Muslims, have this argument, this liberation about liberal interpretation, but there is another thing we can do.
There is no Charter of Medina as the actual Charter of Medina, as a document that is displayed behind a glass case in some museum. That never survived even if it was written down. What we know about the Charter of Medina was chronicled 150 to 200 years after the event, by Muslim chroniclers, so we do not have the actual evidence of the charter.
We do not have a piece of paper, and what reports we have about that charter arrived to use 150 to 200 years after it was allegedly drawn up, so this gap, this lag of time, allowed a certain discipline of historiography to study how Islamic history was written, or the history of early Islam was chronicled after that lag of time. And we have 200 years of hard work, done for the most part by Western scholars who used the methods of historiography to study these documents, to study these texts that the jihadists are using.
And because of that gap, they have to assume that there are lapses, that there might be fabrications in there. Human error might have forgotten something, or somebody who knew a particular detail was killed off in some battle early on in Islamic history, or others have tried to insert certain things into the historical record.
So when it comes to the Charter of Medina, two hundred years of debate and discourse amongst these scholars, Western scholars, some people believe it to be authentic. It is a unitary document. Some people say no, look at it, it is clearly a number of different documents that have been amalgamated into one document. Some people point out archaic language, ambiguous terms. Of course, [there are] scholars and debates amongst them, and nitpicking here and there.
They get to this point where after you read this whole corpus of two hundred years of work on this particular document, they get [to the conclusion that] we just will not know for certain. We just will not know for certain, that is nature, that is the lament and angst of a lot of historians who deal with that far back.
Now, measure up this uncertainty, this angst, versus the certainty of the extremists when they cite history. There has to be a way that we use that fog, fog of doubt, that angst, to cast a shadow on the certainty and clarity of the extremists’ message.
Remember the Pact of Umar that Abu Omar al Baghdadi had annulled? Scholarly thinking on this or writing on this [pact] leans to say that this a forgery. This could not have been either authored by the second caliph, Umar, or it is clearly not a document that came up during his time. Again, two hundred years of hard work by lots of scholars picking these texts apart to get to there.
Not only that, in 1995 we had a book that was published in Cairo by an Egyptian historian. It is an easy-to-read book in Arabic, 60 pages, about the Pact of Umar, and he uses the arguments of these scholars, the Orientalists, the Western Orientalists, and he expands it, using methods of studying or qualifying reports from early Islam, native methods of qualifying the authenticity of these reports. He comes and concludes in Arabic that this is a forgery.
I ask myself, back in 2007 when Abu Omar dramatically annulled the Pact of Umar, the original Umar, why didn’t somebody come out and brandish this ’95 book and say, wait a minute, there is a problem here, you are probably annulling a forged document? Suddenly, that wannabe caliph looks foolish, or [he] has to spend a lot of time arguing, making the case.
The flag of ISIS with that seal of the Prophet on it that looks so nice, and authentic, and archaic, if they have taken that seal from a particular letter attributed to Muhammad, with that seal on it, then that letter is a forgery. And again, scholars can determine, carbon dating can determine that it is a forgery.
Now, if the jihadists have an actual flag from the time of Muhammad that was Muhammad’s flag, which we can do carbon dating on and we can authenticate, that is great, but they do not [have one]. All they have is this flag, and they are claiming that this is the flag that the armies of early Islam fought under and conquered. That is likely a forgery.
Ibn Saba’, the Jew who invented Shi’ism, is a fabrication. He is a fabrication by Sunni polemicists, Medieval Sunni polemicists, who inserted or created this character out of thin air and inserted him all over the historical record to make the case.
The letters to the emperors of the Middle East, again, how come we do not have references or chronicles from the court of the Byzantines, or the Sassanian court, or the court of the ruler of Egypt that says, oh, we received this letter from a new faith that is declaring itself to the world? We do not have contemporary sources that tell us that we have received this letter, or something big is coming up on the horizon.
Remember the figure of Al Mukhtar that Maliki is fashioning himself after? Well, Al Mukhtar is a very problematic figure in Shia history. The survival of the battle of Karbala, the fourth imam of Shi’ism, considered Mukhtar to be a braggart, to be a liar, to have his own agenda. And this is all stuff we can find in the Shia history books. And again, we can cite and put a dent in whoever is using the imagery of Mukhtar to propel a new political discourse, extremist political discourse.
So if the jihadists have weaponized history, we can counter by weaponizing historiography. And really, all the hard work has been done, and it continues to be done, great scholarly works are being produced in 2016 that study Islamic history. But the problem is very little of that is available in the languages of the target audience of the extremists, for example, in Arabic.
So we have great scholarship, a great tool that we can use to put a dent in that extremist narrative, but the mechanism of getting it translated, and having it propagated, and having it popularized on the other end, toward the audiences of the Middle East, we do not yet have that ability.
So I am going to finish just by talking about this target audience. I mean we are trying to do polemical judo with extremists. We are trying to use their strength, that solid ground that they stand on. We want to turn it against them.
Our image of an ISIS or Islamic State recruit is somebody who lives a life of smoking dope and being in and out of prison, riddled with tattoos, and sees fighters with Kalashnikovs in a video, and says, oh, that is cool, I want to be part of it.
Sure, there are these kinds of recruits, but there is a different kind of recruit who is not just an angry young man. It is an angry young man with a master’s degree, and this is why this strain of jihadism worries me more. It is not just nihilistic. They are not just tearing down the old order. They are not just lashing out.
They seek to build something new. And of course, they legitimize what they are doing by citing precedent, but they have a vision. They are projecting a vision. They are saying, we are following a blueprint that will take us back to redemption, to greatness, to empire. And to do that, in order to get that really moving, they need an infrastructure of talent.
They need to draw people who will become the doctors, the engineers, the IT specialists, the media specialists of this new, imperial venture, financiers, you name it. And these people would be the mid-level management of the jihadist venture.
And again, there is another problematic aspect, which is once you have this big pool of talent, then you can kill off a lot of people from the very top through drone strikes, through all sorts of other targeted assassinations, but once they have that pool, and they have that pipeline of talent from middle management, then they can replenish their leadership quite quickly, and that is dangerous. That is also different from previous jihadist organizations that we have seen.
So I believe that this kind of audience, this kind of talent, is a more cerebral approach and a more cerebral intervention in how they think about or how they digest the extremists’ message. We need to get in there with something, with a way of engendering critical thought. And if the jihadists are using history, and this person is being influenced by that argument of history, then we can insert some doubt into this person’s thinking, have them feel that they are being manipulated by propaganda, by people who are stretching history in a certain way.
And we need to get this person to hesitate from taking that snap decision of going off and joining the Islamic State or another form of extremism. So that is who we are after, and that is why we should employ historiography as a weapon to beat these extremists. Thank you.
When did you say you started getting extant real documents? You talked about the carbon dating and things like that? When are Western scholars or any scholars sure that they thought this really is important and can be verified as being of that period roughly, do you know?
As it relates specifically to history?
Yeah, as it relates kind of to the stuff that you are talking about, things that relate to the Qur’an that are important, maybe in the ninth century?
Robert R. Reilly:
Dome of the Rock.
Yes, Dome of the Rock, the inscriptions there, but as chronicles of history we are really talking about people like Ibn Ishak and Ibn Isham, and this is happening 150 to 200 years that the actual hard work of dropping down what for the most part was oral stories about early Islam that were transferred orally from one generation to the next.
There might be some evidence that some of this was written up earlier. We have references to snippets here and there, nothing of the size of a big history of early Islam, or comprehensive, but again, almost nothing of that has survived in that gap period or has reached us in the modern age as a manuscript or something we can point to and say, oh, this is the first time it has been written.
Historically speaking, can you talk a little bit about how the current Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi models himself and what he is doing, the reformation that he believes that he is conducting, or the revival perhaps, modeling himself on the first Abu Bakr, the first caliph, and the Ridda Wars?
I do not know if when they picked Abu Bakr as his name, because he is Abu Da’a. He was known back in the day when he was not the caliph as Abu Da’a, so I do not know why they picked Abu Bakr as his name when they announced him or proclaimed him as the successor in 2010 to Abu Omar. It might have been something to that, but again, it could be that Abu Bakr is a hated figure in Shi’ism, and this is just sort of poking the eye of Shi’ism.
Now when it comes to the Ridda Wars and what Abu Bakr did, they cite a lot of this material. They cite a lot of this material to justify waging war, specifically against these ideological cousins, other Salafists, other jihadist groups, that should have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, at least in their view, but prevaricated, rejected, started fighting the Islamic State, so they do draw upon this kind of sourcing.
Interestingly, the narratives coming out from places like Saudi Arabia in denouncing the Islamic State also go back to this kind of language, to this kind of appellation, Mukhtardin, or Khawarij, all of these things. The first six years of Islam are still in wide currency from every side, from the jihadists themselves like Abu Bakr, and from his enemies. And they are still they are still using the same slanders, or what they consider to be slanderous appellations at each other. It is a big topic. It is a big topic, and if you want to specify
Well, I was thinking in terms of why this Abu Bakr, the current Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, is going after, first of all, the internal, Muslim population before he has turned to the external kuffar population, us, the West, remember as the first Abu Bakr did to purify it, to revive the original spirit, the original fidelity to Muhammad, and to the Qur’an, and to Islam.
Okay, so before we get to the external enemy, there are many grades of the internal enemy. The internal enemy, the Shiites, are an eternal enemy, that is very clear. But to answer your question specifically, back in 2006 when they proclaimed the Islamic State, I maintain that they were defeated back then not because of the surge or the tribal councils, the Awakening councils. They were defeated because these other Salafists, these other ideological cousins, felt that this was too much and this has to be nipped in the butt.
And of course, the jihadists, the heirs of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who went on to declare the Islamic State in Iraq, at the time they felt that because we have leapt forward, because we have taken jihad to the next step, then everybody else should fall in line and pledge allegiance to us. So that initial fight, that initial schism and the bloodletting that happened between them and other organizations like the Islamic Army of Iraq, Jeish Mujahideen, and Ansar Islam, these kinds of groups, that bloodletting actually weakened all of these factions and provided the room, the vacuum for something like the surge and the tribal councils to fill and hold territory.
So they are very mindful that they are going to get pushback from these ideological cousins, and they are going to fight them. Again, they would cite these kinds of schisms that occurred in early Islam, not just the Mukhtardin, but all sorts of civil wars that broke out in early Islam to say that we have to do this because this is a necessary step towards what came later, which are the big Islamic conquests.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I might say, it appears that people who create doubt in the Islamic world can get into a lot of trouble. Just take a thinker like the notable Egyptian scholar Nasr Abu Zayd. Simply examining linguistic influences on the Qur’an, under which is a reopening of the question that it was perhaps created and has not existed coeternally with Allah, earned him the label of apostate and his wife was ordered by an Egyptian Court to divorce him, and so they left for the Netherlands. In other words, it seems that the premise for the success of your approach is that you would need a population that would accept the criteria you are trying to apply. And there seem to be many examples of when someone has tried that, it has not so much as created doubt as it has excluded them. I am just raising [the issue]. I am creating some doubt here myself.
Well, the approach that I am suggesting is far more cowardly than what Nasr Abu Zayd has done. The room that I see for doing this is you are not going after the Qur’an, you are not going after the early companions, you are not passing judgment. You are actually passing judgment on the people who came down and started writing this history, the chroniclers 150 to 200 years after the events took place.
You are asking the question, a very normal question, can you remember what happened last Tuesday, personally? And then you ask, well, can you recollect what happened on a Tuesday 150 years ago? So that is the area of doubt where we are at. We are not casting doubt on the faith, on the personalities. We are just casting doubt on the people, the natural mistakes that can happen, the agendas that can be at play 150 to 200 years after the events, the chroniclers of that history, and pointing out there are inconsistencies, there are inaccuracies, there are problems with contradictions within that text, just pointing that.
And actually, there is a tradition in Islam, a rich tradition, that plays that out, that fleshes that out, these questions, this argumentation over the authenticity of these texts. That is why we have all these sects that have emerged out of Islam that spread out over time and space.
Robert R. Reilly:
Just a follow-up question, do you think that the introduction of this methodology of historical criticism would immediately be seen as applicable to the sacred texts, which themselves are not extant for considerable periods of time? I mean, if you can say this about the Pact of Omar, the next thing you will be doing is saying it about the Qur’an.
Well, it depends. It depends how you house this effort.
Robert R. Reilly:
Perhaps you could talk about that for just a moment.
Let us say that we do end up translating some of these scholarly works, and we translate what works strategically, specifically geared towards the kind of history that the extremists are citing. I will give an example. In the Shia form of extremism, they are saying that we need to go and fight in Syria to defend the shrines, the Shia shrines in Syria. There is a very nice book that came out I think in 2014 about the Shia shrines in Syria by Stephanie Mulder, [The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi’is and the Architecture of Coexistence], and she makes the case by and by that these shrines throughout time for the most part had Sunni benefactors.
So there you have an example whereby you take this nice little piece of evidence, and you lob it at the people who are saying that we cannot live with these Sunnis, we need to fight these Sunnis, and we need to protect the shrines, and in the process support the Assad regime and keep it in power. So I would get this book translated, and that would be part of a systemized effort, and get the whole copyright and licensing done, and put it online. And I would open up space for people to again access a lot of scholarly work produced over 200 years.
And [we should] keep it a democratic process, [have] discussion boards where people can translate snippets, parts of it, and make a case. It is on them, whoever does that. It is on them to decide if they want to touch something like the Qur’an, and it is on people who feel that this is going too far, or this is sacrilegious, to make the case for why it is but allow a discussion to happen.
And on the internet, and I believe you see a lot of this especially with the advent of the Islamic State, you see a lot of people, young people in the Middle East, asking this question: is this really our religion? And they are curious. They want to know more, and there is a lot of content online that is uncritical of Islamic history, and what I would propose is we would bring in some content that is critical, make it available in the languages spoken in the Middle East, and allow people to do what they may with that kind of methodology to touch upon more delicate topics.
It becomes a democratic, personal decision if you want to dial up the controversy or dial it down, but there has to be a form, a place, a platform where people can be allowed to do this and find like-minded people. And also, because it is democratic, you need to allow the other side, both the radicals and the moderates, to come and argue.
With this target audience, I do not think we are going to win over a lot of people. Why I think this is useful in time is we are in a process is this is not as a scholarly approach, this is a propagandist approach. We need to put a dent into what the other side, the enemy, is using, and if we do not convince a lot of people with this sober, rational approach to reading history, we at least prolong the conversation. We increase the noise, and maybe that helps that person hesitate from taking that snap decision of joining one of these ideologies or these extremist groups.
I am curious as to your opinion. You said that for the last several hundred years a lot of this work is not accessible in the Arabic language. I am curious as to your thoughts as to why that is, the reason for that. It is the environment in the region? Why? What are the reasons that this big body of work, scholarly work, is not available in the languages of the Middle East? Why was there not a curiosity to look into these works and get them translated and have them discussed in the Middle East?
Nibras Kazimi:[There is a] variety of reasons. This is a very good and complex question that I will try to answer bits and parts of. Actually, there is a controversy that starts in the West before it even gets to the Middle East, which is this this line of work, this line of inquiry, this endeavor to study Islam was cast in Western universities as some form of conspiracy. [There is a] famous book by Edward Said, Orientalism, [published in 1978, which] just painted this whole body of work with suspicion that it was in the service of colonial powers, and you know, that is how the problem begins.
Now, you can make the case and demonstrate that sure, there were examples where this was the case, where Edward Said could question the motivation of some of these scholars. But for the most part, no, this is this is honest, scholarly work curious people [have done. The work is done] by eccentrics. I mean, to go to that length of learning these languages of the Middle East, and delving into these difficult texts and archaic wordings, that really requires somebody who wants to know, who is propelled and compelled with a desire to learn.
And we can make this case, and in the last decade or so we are aided by books written in English that make the case that a lot of these scholars were acting in good faith. And of course, they were written to counter the last 30 years of maligning this line. Of course, in the Middle East, moderates, moderate Islamists and even extremist Islamists, understand that this is a threat, understand that this opens the door to all sorts of questions, that this kind of methodology they are not going to be enthusiastic about that.
So just visualize this. Western leftist elites felt that this field is suspect, and at the same time, Islamists feel that this field or this methodology is suspect, so in that kind of environment, who is going to fund this? Who is going to allow it to be taught at universities? Who is going to allow it to have traction?
What is different now is that we have the internet where a lot of these of these conversations can occur, where if you provide the material, you get the copyright and licensing, and have it available online, then you might find people who volunteer to do translations or bits or parts of it, of these works, and provide them to their peers.
I have a follow-up on the complexity of the last question. It seems to me that the universe of Salafist thought, or fundamentalist thought, is much larger demographically than violent jihadist thought. And as has been pointed out, there will be, by you and by questioners, a tendency of the fundamentalists, the modernists, the so-called moderates, the Marrakesh crowd to actually defend their point of view, their fundamentalist or non-jihadist or traditional Islamic view, which may indeed without any controls once it is out there on the net, without any controls, start recruiting people into the jihadist violent track. That is to say, once attacked, the hackles of the entire universe of people with this fundamentalist point of view will be up and they will be ready to align themselves or consider allowing themselves with the extremists, the violent extremists.
So there would be a conservative backlash against somebody going to this? This definitely might happen. However, you know, we have this problem of extremism without this being an impetus, and we have to also consider that if left unchallenged, this area if left unchallenged, and heaven forbid that one of these extremists does actually start winning, starts saying, you know, we told you so, [that, too, would have consequences, so we have to risk a conservative backlash].
It is important to understand that the Islamic State of Iraq is a 10-year venture because they can say in 2008 and 2009, we were left for dead in Iraq. We were smashed because of this infighting with other Salafist groups, because of the surge, because of the tribal [resistance]. They were gone. People had forgotten about them. And then [in] 2013 and ’14, we see them coming back, taking Mosul, taking Raqqa, scaring and frightening the world, getting a coalition of 60 countries to come and do war with them, so they can make the argument that we followed this precedent. We followed history. We kept the faith, and we came back from the dead. That is a success story.
And we might be beaten back. It is natural to have a few setbacks, to lose towns, to lose territory because we have the whole world coming at us. We have Iran, and the Assad regime, and the Saudis. Everybody is coming at us and fighting us, sure. But if it is left unchallenged, they can always come back and say we told you so. And we have a bigger danger of people within that wider Salafist universe, saying I think these guys have a point here. It turns out they were right about forming conditions. We should not just [sit] around and wait for the conditions to become ripe in order to launch this big endeavor. Alright, these guys are right. That is a bigger danger than a conservative backlash.
Are there any clues in that first 150 years in the oral tradition of poetry, or metaphor, and can that generate any use today back again as a weapon?
I know this is a big sea, a big topic that, actually, I am not qualified to draw upon, but I will give you an example. A friend of mine has been working on a secret book for the last 20 years, 25 years, and he has found evidence of what reached us from pre-Islamic poetry of the scriptural language within that poetry, encoded within that poetry, that sounds a lot like what Muhammad used early on in the Meccan period. And his thesis was going to be that it was not anything new, that what Muhammad came up with, that what he was using, was familiar to his audience, so there are things like that that can be done, that kind of scholarly work that can be done. My friend has yet to publish his book.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you very much.
In the News
This talk was referred to in Family Security Matters, “Analyst Attempts to Disarm Islamic History,” Andrew E. Harrod, July 13, 2016.
Religious extremists in the Middle East, both Sunni and Shia, have succeeded in weaponizing memory. They wield historical precedence to inform and legitimize their actions and strategies. Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi citizen, will discuss how they do this and how to undermine their legitimacy by de-weaponizing precedence.
Nibras Kazimi‘s blog Talisman Gate was one of the most riveting Iraqi blogs written from Baghdad in the midst of its drarma and turmoil and was renowned for its acute political insight. His research focuses on the growing threat of jihadism in the Middle East, as well as prospects for democracy in the region. His primary interest is the national security of Iraq and how threats there are enabled and coordinated by regional Middle Eastern actors and factors.
Kazimi directed the Research Bureau of the Iraqi National Congress in Washington, DC and Baghdad, and was a pro-bono adviser for the Higher National Commission for De-Ba’athification, which he helped establish and staff. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute and wrote a weekly column for The New York Sun and a monthly column for Prospect magazine (UK). He has published several papers on jihadism as well as articles in publications such as Newsweek and the New Republic. He is the author of the monograph Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy (Hoover Institution Press, 2010). He is a member of The Atlantic Council’s 2016 Iraq Task Force.
From the Talisman Gate, Again blog:
Religious extremists in the Middle East, both Sunni and Shia, wield historical precedence to inform and legitimize their actions and strategies. It is one of the most powerful tools in their polemical arsenal, one that can successfully mobilize young men to action and, when necessary, explain away their temporary setbacks. This propaganda works because it stands on a firm, pre-existing foundation of how history is remembered by those they seek to recruit. Yet Islamic history provides an opportunity for pushback against extremism. Surprisingly, even with an abundance of tools at our disposal, the extremist version of history goes largely unchallenged.
A decade ago, I was zipping around the mountains of the Syrian coast pretending to look at castles. Castles big and small, some well preserved, others crumbling, once Crusader, then Assassin, at other times Arab. Castles that have changed many hands over the course of time, and some of which have found new strategic value in the current Syrian civil war. But what I was really doing was stealing a visit here and there to the Alawite shrines that dot the high ground across the mountain range. I was motivated by sheer curiosity. There was a five hundred year gap in the story of the Alawites, a secretive and schismatic Shia sect, who went on to capture absolute power in the 1970s. Five hundred years that somehow went missing from the historical record. The saints and holy men who led their communities during those five centuries are still venerated at those idyllic shrines, lit with candles, incense and prayers—where strangers to the sect, such as myself, are suspect and unwelcome. I just wanted to map out who was buried where and when, hoping to gain some insight into that historical gap. At one point, while driving through a pine forest up to the castle of Abu Qubeis, I spotted a bush laden with caper berries by the side of the road. An opportunity for pickling, I thought. I hadn’t noticed the old man across the sparsely-travelled road, sitting among the trees by a mountain stream. He was the proprietor of an outdoor coffee shop, blessed with gorgeous views and shade, albeit with no customers (at the time) and a few chairs strewn about. He beckoned me over, curious as to what this stranger was doing on that quiet afternoon. A conversation that began with pickling techniques veered somewhat rapidly into how much that old man hated Sunnis.
Having conversations about history, politics, sectarian identity and, really anything, to do with current events can lead to many security complications for a curious wanderer in Asad-ruled Syria. I was hesitant but the old fellow wanted to get a lot off his chest. I also felt somewhat safe since he seemed to believe that President Hafez al-Asad, who had died seven years prior to our encounter, was still alive and well. This old man would be an unlikely informant for the secret police, I thought. His most memorable line was “those who hated your grandfather are unlikely to be kind to you. I am an Alawite and I spit on anyone who has the slightest problem with that.” His gripe with the Sunnis extended from what he had seen during their uprising in the early 1980s, when “they killed the flower of the Alawite community” to hundreds of years back when they hounded his ancestors out of the cities and plains of Syria into their mountain redoubts. He also drew a line from the past into the future: “If they come at us again, President Hafez will smash them again. And in the worst case scenario, if we lose the rest of Syria, then we will fight them on this mountain, and go our separate ways, as we did before.” This was said to me in the summer of 2007. The stirrings of the Syrian civil war were still five years away. The old man was short on short-term memory, but history gave him the long view into the past, and into the future. A view that was at once cautionary about what to expect, and instructive as to what should be done.
The use of history in constructing the narratives of identity, of common origins, of a shared experience, and of a soon-to-be fulfilled purpose is not new or unique. Sects, religions, ethnicities, tribes, political ideologies, and other corporate bodies borrow heavily from history to frame their trajectories, to propagate, and to undergird their authenticity. In this sense, history confers legitimacy and infers destiny. There are many examples to cite from the twentieth century as various ideologies and regimes in the Middle East constructed new identities for themselves. Arab nationalism borrowed from the might and vitality of the Arab conquests of the region in the 7th century to highlight the redeeming possibilities of an Arab awakening after a centuries long slumber at the margins of empire. The Turks remembered their own distinct story, departing from Central Asia and swarming over vast territories and leaving newfound empires in their wake, even breaking into Europe and reigning supreme over large tracts of that continent. The Shah of Iran resurrected the pomp and splendor of ancient Persia to lend regality and majesty to his reign. In the same vein, what is Zionism if not an archival land deed, remembered, dusted-off, and yearned for as one laments what was lost? In Iraq, Saddam Hussein not only rode the heady visions of Arab glory but specifically called the Iran-Iraq War the ‘Second Qadisiyya’ in reference to the first battle of its name where the Arabs delivered a mortal blow to the Sassanid Persians and evicted them from the land of Mesopotamia (636 AD). Saddam went back further into the annals of that land to refashion himself as a latter-day avatar of King Nebuchadnezzar’s, he of Biblical fame, ruling from the land of Babylon and projecting expansionist designs, while breaking the spirit of the Jews in the process. Much like Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam rebuilt the ruined city of Babylon—committing archeological and cultural desecration by doing so—and inserted his name into the brickwork, laid thousands of years ago, by Jewish captives taken into slavery.
History not only enables those who cite it to define themselves, but to define their enemies as well. They can connect the dots between historical episodes to extrapolate conspiracy: the ‘enemy’ has always been the enemy because that is who he is. That was how that old Alawite man understood the enmity of Sunnis. Saddam was demonstrating that the Arab-Persian rivalry was as old as time, and that the Jews, empowered as they are in the modern era by the rebirth of Israel, have always been a nuisance; one that previous (and present) kings of Mesopotamia were destined to deal with.
Yet the extremists of the Middle East today, both Sunni and Shia, are employing history differently, in a way that is not only reactive and descriptive, but rather prescriptive. They use it in a way that is both specific and strategic to instruct policy. That history is “readily intelligible to both educated and uneducated Muslims,” as Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian who boasts the distinction of being the first to articulate the challenge of radical Islamism for the West, put it in his book The Crisis of Islam (2003). “It offers a set of themes, slogans, and symbols that are profoundly familiar and therefore effective in mobilizing support and in formulating both a critique of what is wrong and a program for putting it right,” he adds. Remembering the past is not a tool of mere inspiration or for marking enemies when utilized by the extremists, the past is their blueprint for resetting history back to a time they could take pride in.
Islamic State fighters parade in Mosul
It is analytically useful to understand the Islamic State as it understands itself. As far as they are concerned, their story did not begin with the proclamation of the resurrected caliphate in
September June 2014, nor its predecessor the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Theirs is a ten-year venture that began during October 2006, when they put the world on notice with their announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq. The jihadists, back then, understood the implications, and the hazards of what they were about to do. They knew that it would focus the hostility not only of their apparent enemies, such as the United States and the Shia, but also that of their ideological cousins, the other jihadist groups orbiting the Salafist constellation. The jihadists of the nascent Islamic State anticipated the refrain of rejection and hesitation: this is too bold, too grand, too soon. Their ideological cousins would immediately recognize that this is indeed the caliphate, attempted. An attempt fraught with ideological peril and uncertainty, even though it is the end-goal of many Salafists. It would sow dissent and acrimony at a time when all groups should be singularly focused on the goal of waging jihad against the West and the internal enemies lurking within Islamic lands. But the ‘trailblazers’ of the new caliphate had ready and—as far as they are concerned—convincing answers, for they were standing firmly on historical precedent, harking back to the time of early Islam. As such, they were not trailblazers at all, but were simply rediscovering a trail first embarked upon by Muhammed, the prophet, the actual trailblazer of the faith.
The Islamic State published a book in January 2007 titled ‘Informing the People About the Birth of the State of Islam.’ They sought to preempt the debate about timing and method. Their polemical coup de grâce was to cite the state-building venture of Muhammad at Medina. Muhammed did not wait around for the conditions to turn optimal in Mecca. His calling compelled him to strike out boldly, against incredible odds. He left his native city and found refuge among the Medinan ‘youths’ who had pledged themselves to his prophecy. His was a precarious venture, at once tenuous, and due for a number of setbacks. Muhammad did not reign supreme as he began to wield authority and manage the day-to-day affairs of his flock. He had to contend with a mixed city that boasted, for example, confident, armed and well-positioned Jewish tribes, that were not about to part with their faith for his. He had to wage war against his Meccan detractors, or consequently suffer their counter-attacks. Yet even in the bleakest of times, the jihadists remind us, Muhammad foresaw that what he was setting out to build in Medina would subjugate the mighty and nearby empires of Byzantium and Persia. These visions did not strike the true believers around him as loony, even during the darkest of times, so why would the detractors of the Islamic State in the twenty first century counsel against going too big, too soon? The territory they believed to be controlling in 2006 in Iraq was magnitudes larger than Muhammed’s tiny toehold. Conditions then did not deter him, they why should they do so nowadays? In fact, they argued, there were many similarities between what he faced and what was happening in Iraq. If only the jihadists would follow his example, and enact his steps by going back to the basics, then the jihad would recapture the path back towards redemption and righting what went wrong.
The motif of going back to the basics has a rich tradition in Islamic dogma, and thus the method and argumentation of the modern jihadists would not strike their ideological cousins, or the audience at large, as contrived. The medieval Syrian jurist, Ibn Taymiyya, writing at a time of Muslim decline following the Mongol invasions and the sacking of Baghdad, also argued for revisiting the early days of Islam to recapture the vitality of the faith. He inspired many later movements, most notably, in the eighteenth century, the Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula, who put his theories into practice to much martial success over successive attempts spanning three centuries. The vast majority of today’s Salafists draw inspiration from Ibn Taymiyya and the creeds he launched. The very meaning of the Arabic word ‘salaf’ connotes that community of early Islam, when it was pure, pristine and powerful, or so they believe. It also helps that Wahhabism eventually became the credo of modern, deep-pocketed Saudi Arabia. ‘Going back to the basics’ is a well-funded and widely propagated idea. The jihadists of the Islamic State were merely stretching it further.
And further they did. Resurrecting a caliphate implies the necessity of picking a caliph, which is no easy thing. Theoretically, at least, he (and of course he would have to be a ‘he’) would be both the spiritual and temporal leader of the world’s billion or so Sunni Muslims. That alone would seem daunting. It does not help that historical precedence on this topic is itself problematic. The Salafists, and many more Sunnis, believe that only the first four successors to Muhammad, the caliphs, can be counted as ‘righteously guided’. Yet history tells us that the process of picking those four turned out to be politically acrimonious. Three of the four met their demise through murder or assassination. The fluidity and messiness of the politics over the course of those three crucial decades many centuries ago later solidified into sectarian antipathy, giving us modern-day Shi’ism and Sunnism. That, however, did not deter medieval theorists or modern jihadists from formulating a mechanism to pick a caliph based on the four test cases that followed Muhammad’s death. The historical record is elastic by its very nature, and polemicists can stretch it out to fit current circumstances, rendering history books into recipe books. Not all the ingredients may be available, but the recipe can still be followed, albeit with some tweaking and minor substitutions, to arrive at a formula that works. Such was the formula the Islamic State leveraged as it announced its proto-caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the predecessor to ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ten years ago. Problem solved. Any questions? Kindly refer to early Islamic history, the jihadists would say.
They would say that because it works as a winning argument with their target audience: the Sunni populations of the Middle East that are to be incorporated into their caliphate in the first phase of its rebirth. By citing historical precedent to legitimize their actions, the jihadists enjoy standing on firm foundations. For the remembered and popularized past, such as Muhammad’s story in Medina, is present and mentally available for most of this audience, received as it were through curricula, the Friday sermon, and mass media.
The founding father of the particular strain of jihadism that gave us the Islamic State did not have to try very hard to stoke the fires of sectarianism in Iraq, for example. When the world watched Iraqis cheering on American soldiers pulling down Saddam’s statue off its pedestal in downtown Baghdad, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi saw opportunity. He would frame his war as a fight against the Shias, who were now acting as the enablers of the Americans, a foreign non-Muslim army that had just occupied a gloried Sunni and caliphal capital, one that was specifically established to manage the sprawling Islamic empire. Zarqawi would employ sectarianism as the fast burning fuel necessary for mobilizing support for an even more ambitious enterprise, resurrecting the Islamic State. He was aided in doing so by a hate-speech campaign against the Shia that had primed his target audience to receive what he was about to advocate: the “total annihilation” of the Shia. Sectarian hate speech has been around for centuries, but it was mass propagated two decades prior to the Iraq War on the occasion of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini in 1979. Those threatened by Khomeini’s revolutionary appeal, such as Saddam Hussein or the Saudis, felt compelled at the time to inoculate their populations against faith-inspired revolution by suggesting that Shi’ism itself was a grand conspiracy against Islam. Lots of money was marshalled by Iran’s enemies to saturate the airwaves, fill out library shelves, and lend wide currency to Shia perfidy. The result was that in many parts of the Sunni Arab Middle East, one would find many nodding heads, in 2003, when reminded that Shi’ism was ‘invented’ by a devious Jew-turned-Muslim called Ibn Saba in the early days following Muhammad’s death. European anti-Semitism (once re-propagated during the heyday of Arab Nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s) fused with the Islamic historical record to brand the Shias as the ‘internal Jews’. In the late nineties, one could find a book—an Arabic language forgery based thematically on an earlier Russian forgery—with the curious title of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Qum’, on display in Amman and Cairo, purporting to be the secret plans of the Shia to take-over the region, a plan hatched in the religious seminaries of the Iranian city of Qum.
Consequently, Zarqawi could turn to Islamic history and find a poster boy for Shia treachery that would neatly fit the scenes of 2003. Actually, he would riff off a data point that Saddam had highlighted in his first letter following his ouster: For, prior to the last time Baghdad was dramatically sacked by a great power, the Mongols, in 1258, the day-to-day affairs of the once mighty Sunni Abbasid empire had been left in the hands of a Shia, the Grand Vizier Ibn al-Alqami. That was quite progressive of the Abbasids to put a minority candidate in charge, but that is not what Saddam and Zarqawi would like remembered from that episode. Their case was that Ibn al-Alqami conspired to weaken the defenses of the empire and to hand over Baghdad on a silver platter to the heathen enemy, much like the Shia of Iraq were doing nowadays, whom Zarqawi termed “the grandchildren of Ibn al-Alqami.” It is a neat and succinct narrative that organically grows out of a pre-existing anti-Shia narrative. Zarqawi leveraged the drama of history to explain the present, and it enabled him to suggest a solution, a final solution. There can be no moving forwards towards resurrecting the Islamic State until the Shia are dealt with, once and for all. Cue: civil war.
Yet pedantically citing historical instances as a propaganda tool is not enough. For it to truly resonate it must be dramatized. The drama of current events must match the drama of history. The actors of today must mimic and project the greatness of those individuals they cite from the early Islamic community. One literary minded jihadist authored a play depicting a late night conversation between the last Abbasid caliph and Ibn al-Alqami before the Mongol invasion. The ‘ghost of history’ lurks about, cast as the third protagonist on the scene. The drama seems to suggest that if only a jihadist of Zarqawi’s cut had been present, then he could have warned the caliph of what was coming, and could have exposed Ibn al-Alqami’s plot. The jihadists dramatically recall the parts of history they would like remembered, while simultaneously erasing, to much fanfare, the parts they would like forgotten. Maybe that explains their fixation with leveling the monuments of ancient Assyria and Palmyra, and capturing it all on YouTube. The glories and very presence of pre-Islamic civilizations crowds out their absolutist messaging, and even in this they can cite precedence: Did Muhammad not personally destroy the pagan idols of Mecca upon his victory? There can be only one version of history, theirs.
The jihadist proto-caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, relished playing the role of caliph. He had a flair for spectacle, showcasing his craft over the course of many audio speeches. In March 2007 Abu Omar went ahead and announced that he is annulling the ‘Pact of Omar’—a purported document codifying the discriminatory rules against Christians enacted by its namesake, the second caliph of Islam, one of the ‘Righteously Guided’ ones, in the 7th century. Consider the audacity that a wannabe caliph in the twenty first century can determine that a 1,400 year-old pact no longer applies, since the modern-day Christians have broken the rules, and that it time for the Christians to renegotiate the pact with him, the legal guardian of the Islamic faith. When brandishing such confidence and gall, when claiming to be on par with a ‘proper’ caliph from lore, can a layperson listening to the speech be truly faulted for being swayed by such a display of certitude?
In projecting historical drama, the jihadists know their audience. Actually, it is not that difficult to figure out what they are working with, and how they are purposely manipulating it. I know it by my own example: when I leaf through stodgy, scholarly books on early Islam, I catch myself visualizing what I am reading as scenes from a particular movie, The Message (1976). My mental image of what the buildings looked like, the colors, how people dressed, the background noises, and even the haircuts that early Muslims sported derive from it. Growing up in the Middle East, I must have seen this movie some twenty times, for the simple fact that it would reliably get aired at every Islamic occasion dotting the calendar, whether it be Eid, or Ramadhan, or Muhammad’s birthday. It was an epic and compelling production: a Syrian director, Libyan money, two separate versions in Arabic and in English, with the later starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas. The score was exhilarating—its composer Maurice Jarre was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Star Wars that year. The grand tales of early Islam that we had to read in schoolbooks came vividly alive on the screen. Eyes would widen as the warrior hero Hamza, Muhammad’s uncle, stole every scene. The movie had a big impact across Muslim lands and beyond: it was cited as one of the grievances behind the first act of Islamic terror in Washington DC, when a Nation of Islam off-shoot occupied three buildings in the capital in 1977, leaving two dead. They deemed the movie sacrilegious and were incensed that it was due to premiere on U.S. soil. Salafists were never enthusiastic about it, sensing that it portrayed early Islam in a manner that was sympathetic to the Shia version of history. They also have other issues to nitpick; one Salafist told me years ago that depicting the early Muslims as the movie did in all white garb is illogical since they would not have self-identified by their dress color, for example. Chillingly, the Syrian director was killed in November 2005 from injuries sustained after a suicide bomber, dispatched by Zarqawi’s organization, had detonated his explosive vest in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman.
Anthony Quinn as Hamza, The Message
The movie, although controversial, was eminently influential in how dramatized history reached great numbers of Muslims in countries such as Iraq and Syria. The jihadists don’t seem to have any qualms of using that imagery to their advantage, despite the nitpicking of their ideological cousins. In fact, they seem to borrow heavily from it. Take the flag of the Islamic State, for example. It is so omnipresent now that even the 2016 Eurovision Contest had to make it officially clear that it is banned along with such as flags as those of the Basques Country and Northern Cyprus. The jihadists claim that this is the banner of Muhammad, under which the conquering armies of Islam brought the high and mighty empires of their day to their knees. It certainly looks authentic, with its archaic font and old-timey seal. It looks as if it would be something that the art department of The Messagewould have come up with as background ‘color’. Consider the jihadist victory parade into Mosul. Their convoys of trucks and tanks were preceded by a number of warriors on horseback. Their dress, and their manner of riding, evokes scenes from the aforementioned movie, as Muhammad returned to Mecca, a conqueror. Or let us take that sole televised speech of the current caliph, Abu Bakr, on the occasion of proclamation of the caliphate. There is something about the way he slowly ascends the pulpit in the main mosque of Mosul, how he turns to face the worshippers, how he speaks, what he is wearing (save for the watch), his stern yet contemplative mannerisms—it all seems very familiar. It seem so because modern media in the Middle East, whether through movies or television series, have depicted early Islam as such. Clearly, the jihadists have latched on to a pre-existing stage-set to amplify their messaging.
A still image from the Islamic State’s video, The Return of the Gold Dinar (August 2015)
In another speech by that first, audacious caliph, delivered on the occasion of President Barack Obama being elected president in November 2008, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi addresses “the new rulers of the White House” by using the same words and tone that Muhammad had used in letters allegedly dispatched by the prophet to the emperors of Byzantium and Persia. Again, the jihadists seem to be purposely evoking memorable scenes from The Message when these letters were read out at the imperial courts of the Middle East that a new religion, Islam, has emerged in Arabia. The movie ends by portraying Islam’s resounding victory over paganism at the moment when Muhammad brings down the statuesque idols within the Kaaba. The jihadists knew exactly what they were doing as they filmed themselves smashing and hacking away at the statues of prior civilizations down the corridors of the Museum of Mosul.
In recent years, some Shias have developed an extremist credo of their own, one that also borrows from history to enact present policy, chiefly that of revenge and secession as statecraft. This credo is driving events towards conflagration across the region in tandem with the jihadist agenda. It is important to understand the cyclical nature of extremism today in the Middle East: one cannot focus solely on the challenge posed by the policies and propaganda of the jihadists of the Islamic State, for Sunni and Shia extremists feed into each other. It is a toxic loop, which perpetually rationalizes why they need to go to extremes. The Shias may blame Zarqawi for “starting it” but had it not been for Shia heavy handedness against the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, then Zarqawi’s heirs may not have found an opportunity to stage a comeback.
Shi’ism, at heart, is a movement of restitution. Throughout the ages the Shias have justified their cause by citing what they perceive to be Sunni persecution of Muhammed’s dynasty, one whose claim to power was usurped, principally by the first three caliphs. They can cite one incident after another, stretching back 1,400 years, of how the prophet’s family had been wronged. The seminal event occurred in Karbala, on the day of Ashura, in 680 AD. Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, was massacred along with most of his family. The battle is re-enacted every year among Shia communities, in all its gore and drama, so much so that those portraying the bad guys may get assaulted and chased down through the streets by incensed mobs. History is ever-present, or as one Shia thinker coined it, “Every land is Karbala, every day is Ashura.” The fabric of time collapses and folds unto itself as the past is intensely remembered while the future draws nearer with the eschatological expectation of the savior, the Mahdi, descended as he is from Hussein’s loin, who shall right all wrongs. But should his arrival be delayed, Shi’ism can rapidly mobilize for the purpose of revanchism, striking back at the wrong-doers. We are witnessing such as an outbreak now, one that some Shia strategists in Tehran would like to see reshaping the Middle East. I have termed it ‘Shia chauvinism’ whose endgame would be to partition off Shia majority cantons around the Middle East, because Shias cannot go on living with Sunnis in unitary countries. There was too much bad blood, too much history, between the two sects.
The phenomenon of Shia chauvinism did not crystalize in my mind until I saw a photograph on the internet in 2012. The picture depicted a religious procession of Shia Iraqis, either in Iraq or somewhere in Iran, brandishing a banner. The banner had the visage of then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under the caption: “Support the Mukhtar of our age.” The Mukhtar being referred to is a historical character who led a revanchist campaign against those who had participated in the Karbala massacre. He defeated some in battle, executed others, and arranged for the assassination of more. As avengers go, al-Mukhtar was a superstar in populist Shia lore, and the banner was suggesting that Maliki is his rightful successor as the Shia avenger against the Sunnis in our day. But just in case some had missed the connotation, the banner also depicted the Iranian actor who had portrayed the character of al-Mukhtar in a big production TV series first released in 2010 over the course of forty episodes. The Farsi language series was epic and very well made, dubbed eventually in Arabic, Urdu and other languages and shown across the Shia world. Someone was purposely reminding Shias of this historical precedent, and Maliki’s supporters, carrying that banner, were drawing a link between their man and a historical hero.
Banner proclaiming Maliki as the ‘Mukhtar of our age’
When I first saw that picture I thought that they had gone too far. That this picture would surely damn Maliki’s new line in mainstream Shia public opinion, one that could not possibly advocate wide revenge or strong-arm tactics against Sunnis. I was wrong. A large segment of Iraqi Shias thirsted for revenge following the excesses of Zarqawi and his heirs, even after the Sunni insurgency was soundly defeated in 2008-9. They wanted Sunnis humiliated. A year afterwards, Maliki’s political machine was commissioning songs that play up the ‘Mukhtar of our age’ appellation. The slogan was successfully put to use in the 2014 election cycle, the outcome of which gave Maliki a plurality of the vote. But it also gave us the ISIS comeback in Falluja in January 2014 (before the vote), and the fall of Mosul (after the vote). Shia chauvinism had also mobilized Shias from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and even Afghanistan to rally behind the pseudo-Shia Alawite regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria to face off against the Syrian Sunnis challenging him. Sectarianism breathed new life in the jihadist cause there, riding a desire for Sunni restitution and revenge in Damascus. Seen through the prism of history, it all made sense to the target audiences: war was inevitable; the enemies of the past were standing in the way of the future.
By enveloping themselves in the cloak of history, the extremists from both sides can radiate an aura of certainty. This certitude will make it very difficult to convince them of the need for reconciliation, both with the past and with the present. It also means that it will be very difficult to convince them that they are losing, or have lost. By citing precedent and conspiracy, they can explain away setbacks. They can tell themselves that they got the recipe wrong somewhere, and all they need to do it to go back to the basics to try and try again until it gets going. The stench of past glories, the musky manuscripts that speak of ancestral feats, the decay of once-glorious cities, excite their senses. It is excessively hard to let go of the legacy of greatness. Its loss gnaws at them. It haunts them. They will keep trying. As far as the jihadists are concerned, they were left for dead in 2009. They were thought to be a spent force, its remnants living out a precarious existence in the deserts of Iraq. Then they came back. They made no excuses for the doctrinal overreach of declaring the Islamic State in 2006 that had turned so many other jihadist and Salafist groups against them. They felt they were right all along, and that their temporary setbacks mirrored ones that Muhammad had experienced himself. Not only did they make no excuses, but this time around they called a spade a spade: “Yes, world, this is the caliphate resurrected” they proclaimed. Their righteousness and certainty was foretold by precedence. History is their refuge, their sanctuary. They stand on firm ground. And if that terrain goes unchallenged, they will keep coming back. But it is not all doom and gloom: It just so happens that challenging them on the received facts of history is easier than what many may imagine.
Back in January, some three hundred moderate Muslim scholars gathered in Morocco to reaffirm the ‘Charter of Medina’. They did so to counter the excesses of the Islamic State against minorities such as the Christians and Yezidis who had the misfortune of falling under the new caliphate. The Charter of Medina was a constitution enacted by Muhammad to manage relations with non-Muslims like those Jewish tribes that lived in close proximity to his flock. The moderates called their reaffirmation ‘The Marrakesh Declaration’ after the city in which they met. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington who attended the meeting said, somewhat grandly, “This declaration can change the whole face of Islam.” He walked it back a bit to add, “Not change it, but bring it back to where it was.”
But there is a problem with “where it was” for that was the springboard, the solid ground, used by the extremists to leap forwards into their ambitious doctrinal ventures. Not only that, but the moderates must contend with the extremists on a terrain that is advantageous to the latter. The moderates must argue that history should be interpreted in a new way, to reflect the spirit of the times then and now. Meanwhile, the extremists don’t need to prevaricate or qualify: their read-out of the text is literal. They do as it says. Why would the moderates need to second-guess the prophet or the early caliphs? Why not simply follow the historical precedent to the letter? After all, it worked back then, and going back to the basics might work again. They can refer to the same Charter of Medina to say that Muhammad’s venture eventually outgrew it, finding excuses to deport some Jewish tribes from the town, and to annihilate others. The jihadists earn points for being succinct and straightforward. After all, they have had centuries to figure out all the polemical angles and history is their impregnable bastion. The simplest literal read of history is a winning argument too.
What if there is a way by which we do not have to take the Charter of Medina at face value? There is no original, extant copy of the Charter of Medina under a glass display case in a well-guarded museum somewhere. We cannot even be sure if it was a written document at Muhammad’s time, or whether it was a verbal agreement as was the custom then. What we think we know about the Charter was jotted down, ink on parchment, 150 to 200 years after the event. That is the period when comprehensive chronicles of early Islam were written down, relying for the most part on oral transmission. One of those chroniclers, laboring six generations after the first community of Muslims had passed, may have seen an earlier, written charter somewhere, but again, we cannot know for sure. Our hearts should go out to that chronicler: difficult as it is to recall what one did last Tuesday, it is surely a heavy burden to recall the events on a Tuesday two hundred years ago. But that is precisely why the history of early Islam is enveloped in the fog of doubt. One need not worry though, because for the last two hundred years, Western scholars (whose discipline was dubbed ‘Orientalism’) took on the task of studying how that history was chronicled. They worked laboriously, with difficult languages, to figure out all the analytical angles. They have engaged in furious debates and disagreements, as scholars do, and they have made their respective cases in thousands of books, papers and symposia. Their work continues, with fascinating and insightful research coming out in print in recent years. At points, they were enjoined by Middle Eastern scholars who used those same methodologies that had been developed in the academies of the West—historiography, critical literary analysis, philology, archeology, exegesis, codicology, etc.—to delve into the fog. But such native efforts were sporadic, hesitant and ultimately minimalist compared to the corpus of work being done by German, Italian, British, Dutch, French, Russian, American, and the odd Czech and Hungarian Orientalists—and for good reason. The academies of the Middle East, as well as the general public discourse on history, were generally not amenable to raising doubt. Some of the most risqué works, written in Arabic, had to be published posthumously. Some authors were forced into exile or imprisonment. Some other authors were killed. Their counterparts in the West, on the other hand, could work freely, for the most part.
In his book Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1991), University of California, Santa Barbara professor R. Stephen Humphreys presents a case study in which he marshals the arguments made by various Orientalists over the course of a century regarding the Charter of Medina. Some took it to be authentic, making a rational case for why they would think so. Others argued that it could not have been a unitary document or agreement, suggesting that it was amalgamated into one from a variety of separate agreements. Still others dwelt on the wording, and some of the terms used, and they could not reconcile this document to what they would deem to be plausible wording and terminology during seventh century Central Arabia. After a century’s worth of study, what scholars are left with is intellectual angst: “We will never know for certain.” That is the expected lament of historians that have to deal with events that far back without any extant or contemporary evidence; they have to resign themselves to living with doubt. Now, consider the angst of the historian versus the certitude of the Islamic extremist when revisiting history. Surely that fog of doubt should have a place in the conversation when history is used so deliberately and, at times, horrifically to justify extremism.
Consider another document, that of the aforementioned ‘Pact of Omar’ that the proto-caliph of the Islamic State had so dramatically annulled in 2007. Yet again there is no extant copy of this pact, and all that we know about it was written many decades after it was allegedly drawn up. However, in this case, most scholars have come around to the view that it is not authentic, and that it could not have been a seventh century document that can be attributed to the original Omar. Not only that, but we have a short book written in Arabic by an Egyptian historian, published in the mid-nineties in Cairo, who conclusively determines that the pact is a forgery. The historian revisited the studies that the Orientalists had conducted into the authenticity of the pact, and expanded upon their efforts by employing indigenous Muslim methodologies of exegesis that qualify the reliability of oral reports about early Islam by studying the chain of transmission. Muslim theologians, polemists, and chroniclers had uncovered thousands of falsified reports over the span of centuries by employing these methods. By bringing both Western and Muslim disciplines together, the Egyptian historian stood on solid ground when crying foul. Shouldn’t his book have been part of the conversation about the historicity of the pact when Abu Omar so confidently annulled it? Abu Omar may have looked foolish then, or in the very least he would undermine his own certitude when having to explain why he believed the ‘original’ pact to be authentic; the ground he stood on would not seem as firm.
We can also demonstrate that the flag of the Islamic State is also a forgery. They don’t have an original version that we can verify through carbon dating. Theirs is an imagined banner that they have attributed to Muhammad’s armies. Even the seal of the prophet at the center of the flag, which they seem to have derived from a letter of his bearing it, is likely to be a forgery, since the letter itself is widely believed to be a forgery.
The fog of doubt permeates much of the historical record. If properly harnessed, it can cast a shadow on much of the extremist narrative. The character of Ibn Saba, the Jew who invented Shi’ism, may well have been a fabrication. A strong case has been made suggesting that medieval polemists concocted him out of thin air and inserted him into the historical record. We can demonstrate this because some Orientalists conducted serious and in-depth academic forensics about him and about the fabricators. What about the letters that Muhammad had sent to the emperors of the Middle East that Abu Omar had mimicked in wording and in tone? Those letters too are not extant, and it is perplexing that we have no contemporary reports by non-Muslims at those imperial courts that remarked upon the fact that a new religion had announced itself so dramatically. The character of al-Mukhtar that Maliki’s followers had championed is a problematic figure for Shi’ism, should we actually revisit what Shia sources say about the topic. The sole male survivor from the battle of Karbala, Hussein’s son who would become the fourth Imam of Shi’ism, did not express much gratitude for what the avenger had wrought on Hussein’s murderers. He considered al-Mukhtar to be a liar and braggart, pushing his own agenda for power. Again, shouldn’t these impressions of al-Mukhtar have been part of the conversation when Shia chauvinists resurrected his legacy and rehabilitated his image as part of a strategy to redraw the lines in the region?
A war rages in the Middle East. A physical war premised on a war of ideas and revolution. Ambitious actors are adeptly launching large-scale plans for statecraft, ones that are imperial in scope. They understand the value of propaganda in war. They have leveraged the historical record as a centripetal force that mobilizes youths across the region, and as precedent for how to build out their ventures and grandiose visions. They exude supreme certainty in that they are walking in the right path back to redemption and greatness, once lost but now within reach—or so they believe, truly believe. They are aided in doing so because their target audiences have been primed to receive this propaganda, one that pushes all the right buttons. Yet whereas extremist Sunnis and Shias have successfully weaponized history, those of us—Middle Easterners of all denominations, as well as many other nations around the globe—who feel threatened by their ambitions can resort to weaponizing historiography. The history of Islam is long overdue for a public conversation among Muslims as to what role it should play in their present and future. Regular people in Muslim lands should have access to the various opinions, even those emanating from Western scholars, about their own history, even though it may raise doubts concerning the authenticity of the historical narrative. A faith grappling with the challenges of modernity must be willing to live with a healthy dose of doubt. But that is a medium to long-term process that needed to start yesterday. We need to deploy doubt in a systematic and relentless manner right now to jam up the polemical weaponry of the extremists. Doubt, angst and cognitive noise should rain down like arrows into the bastions of ideological certainty upon which the extremists stand defiant.
Orientalism carries a stigma among left-leaning Western academies, where it is widely believed to have served Western imperialism. Orientalism is rejected by like-minded leftists in the Middle East for the same reasons. Columbia University’s Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, the late author of the supremely influential book Orientalism (1978)—which almost single handedly managed to turn its title word into an academic pejorative—boasts the distinction of being the sole intellectual luminary from around the world to have two portraits, not one, hanging on the walls of the Writers’ Café in old Basra, where crusty old Marxists gather for tea and conversation. Conservative and religiously-minded Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the field of Orientalism is part of a Western effort to undermine their faith. One can find 200 Arabic books on the internet available for full download that attack the Orientalists. Many are parked on websites amply funded by conservative Arab regimes. Yet even so, the scholarly methodology of applying critical analysis to the historical record is ‘agenda neutral’, and it is desperately needed in light of the extremist use of this record. Two hundred years’ worth of scholastic legacy is parked on bookshelves in Western libraries. Little of it is available online. Much less of it has been translated into the languages spoken in the Middle East. If the internet is supposed to be the great equalizer of content, then why is there such a disparity when it comes to a sober and systematic conversation about early Islam? Why is this the case at a time when many young Muslims are watching what extremism has wrought and asking themselves “is this really our religion”? The extremist affirmation that it is indeed “our history, refer to page X, paragraph Y in such and such book” goes unchallenged. Many of those young Muslims have not been trained to take on the task of revisiting the historical record themselves. There is no funding from the local powers-that-be for it. However, they need not start from scratch. Parts of the Orientalist methodology and its output can be made available for them, online and in their languages, and should. Whichever way the subsequent conversation goes is left to them. But a conversation needs to begin somewhere, and on solid scholastic ground. Should it be somewhat controversial may actually be helpful. That controversy could provide the drama that matches the theatrics of the extremists.
I wish I could back to that mountainside café, but this time armed with a particular book. The cantankerous proprietor may still be around, or he may have succumbed to old age, leaving his grandson in charge—probably a scion of his grandfather’s rage. I would wonder whether this young man had seen much fighting in the civil war, raging downhill in the valley, or had heard many war stories from brothers and cousins dragooned into that existential fight. I would wonder how many young Iraqi, Iranian, Lebanese, and Afghan Shias had enjoyed a respite from the fighting while sipping coffee under the shade, rifles at their feet, across the road from that caper berry bush that had drawn me to this spot in the first place. They had ostensibly come to Syria over the last five years to protect Shia shrines from being desecrated at the hands of extremist Sunnis, to keep the bones of their saints safe from exhumation. That is what the young men had been told. What they were really doing there was to prop up Asad’s regime, for that is what extremist Shia strategists in far-away Tehran had ordained. I would arrive with a book called The Shrines of ‘Alids in Medieval Syria by Stephanie Mulder (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). Ideally, someone would have gotten the copyright to translate it into Arabic, so I would be carrying a version of it in that language. The book is mostly concerned with architecture, but there is a valuable subtext in there: most of the Shia shrines studied in the book were erected and subsidized by powerful Sunni patrons back in medieval times. Those Sunnis venerated the shrines as much as modern Shias do, even though some modern Sunni extremists are keen on blowing them up. I would conveniently forget the book there, leaving it on one of the chairs. The old man, his grandson, or even those transient fighters from the Shia internationale may rifle through its pages, driven by sheer curiosity, for this is a book written by a Westerner about their beloved shrines. One or two of them may pick up on the subtext to infer that not all Sunnis are so bad, after all. Or maybe that is too much to hope for after all they had been told, and after all that they had seen. Yet with the din of battle thudding in the background, it seems it would be worth a try.