Said Nursi & the Gulen Movement

20 07 2016
Said Nursi

Said Nursi


Fethullah Gulen

Last year, I got a journal article published in the Air and Space Power Journal, entitled “The Post-secular Republic:  Turkey’s Experiments with Islamism”:

ASPJ Africa & Francophonie – 2nd Quarter 2015

In this article, I present details about the background, evolution, and “founding father” of the contemporary Gulen Movement.  The source of inspiration for this Islamic ideology is a man named Said Nursi.

I’m posting an excerpt of this article here, and please go the URL link provided above to read the whole article.  This is NOT meant to promote/support any ideology, but it’s purely intended as background information and knowledge about the Gulen Movement that we see so much in today’s headlines.  All views expressed are personal.


Despite Atatürk’s legacy and deeply entrenched and enforced secularization of the Turkish republic, elements of Islamism—or Islamist ambitions—have persisted since the post-Ottoman era. Stephen Dale describes this seemingly paradoxical reality in Turkey:

“Yet in spite of the juggernaut of Kemalist secularism, not only did Islam survive but some Turkish Muslims dedicated themselves to its revitalization. One of the most influential of those who sought to revivify Turkish Islam was Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a precocious Muslim autodidact from Turkish Kurdistan. Nursi established an organization known as the Risale-I Nur (The Prophecy of Light), dedicated to renewing Islamic piety and individual spiritual perfection at the grassroots level, avoiding religious political activism in an era of state secularism.  Nursi’s program had a certain general resemblance to the Deoband Madrasa in late nineteenth-century India, to the extent that both movements operated within secular environments, emphasized individual spiritual revival, and abstained from political activism.  In the early twenty-first century the democratic election of a religious political party demonstrates that in Turkey, as well as in Pakistan, the question of the relationship between religion and the state is still unresolved, and in fact may never be definitively settled, even to the limited degree it has been in the world’s two largest secular democracies, India and the United States.”7

Turkish secularists—especially the protectors of Turkish secularism in the military—  viewed Said Nursi as an “anti-Kemalist” threat. Nursi’s popularity grew throughout Turkey, and he became increasingly revered as an Islamic scholar and mullah. In fact, many people cite Nursi as the “most influential theologian of the Turkish Republic.”8

The Turkish military became so alarmed at Nursi’s magnetism, even after his death as mourners in the thousands paid homage to his shrine in Urfa, that on 12 July 1960, “soldiers forced their way into the shrine, smashed open a marble tomb with sledgehammers and removed a shrouded body. The body was lifted onto an army truck, driven along heavily guarded streets to an airfield outside town, loaded onto a military plane and never seen again.”9  It is believed that the military reburied him in a secret grave. This military maneuver marked the first coup d’état in the republic’s modern history, exemplifying the military rulers’ fears that “Nursi would become a symbol of dissent, his grave a shrine to anti-Kemalism.”10 Demolishing Nursi’s shrine proved ineffective. Even today, Nursi is revered and respected, and recently the Turkish parliament set up a special commission for investigating military coups in Turkey and for revealing the location of Nursi’s secret tomb.11  His following is alive and vibrant, and with the military subjugated at the hands of the AKP and Erdoğan, his followers are emboldened.

Those followers still visit the empty tomb in Urfa and his house in Isparta; they “even [flock] to the Urfa hotel room he died in, piously preserved in its original state by the hotel owner right down to the light bulb.”12  Nursi followers are called “Nurcu” or “followers of the light,” and some people estimate their numbers in the millions. This fact is important because the threads of the religious fabric of Turkish public, political, and religious leaders increasingly strengthen. Consider what Mustafa Akyol, an expert on Turkish Islam, says about the Nurcu: “About half the Islamic movement in Turkey, meaning the pious, conservative segment of society, are literally direct followers of Nursi, while the other half also respects him.”13

Additionally, “the Nurcu community includes the sizable Gulen movement, named after the currently U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, as well as several other movements and a separate Kurdish following, all of them distinct, but united in their allegiance to Mr. Nursi’s teachings.  Modernity, science and rationalism play key roles in his teachings, as does the individual, distinguishing the Nurcu movement from other currents of Islam.”14

While the concept of “Islamic democracy” is endlessly debated since the puzzle of the compatibility between Islam and (liberal) democracy has never been completely solved, Islam in Turkey has not only survived over the decades but also thrived. The Fethullah Gülen movement offers yet another snapshot of the power and influence of “Islamism” although this is a more subtle, grassroots-based brand of Turkish Islam. The movement’s power is growing, some say to the extent of establishing “a state within a state” although Turkish people, analysts, pundits, and scholars repeatedly point out that such growth is extremely hard to prove. The certainty lies in the fact that it is a lucrative and popular global movement, with Gülenist schools proliferating in numerous countries, and it has an eccentric, elderly spiritual leader at its helm.

Continue Reading:

All views expressed are personal


The Implications of Turkey’s Failed Coup

19 07 2016

The views expressed are personal

turkey flag

Turkey coup pic

The recent failed coup d’etat in Turkey has sparked a whirlwind of speculation, conspiracy theories, and anxiety about: who was behind it; the AKP and Fethullah Gulen and his movement’s respective agendas; and the implications of this domestic turmoil for regional and international relations. One thing is clear: in the aftermath of the poorly executed coup President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP loyalists have gained and wielded tremendous extrajudicial power. Erdogan, in particular, is enjoying a substantial boost in popularity and loyalist support. The fact that all he had to do is verbally request his supporters via the Internet to spill into the streets and fight against the coup plotters is a remarkable illustration of his power. Plus, Erdogan is extremely shrewd in his ability to exploit political Islam, Turkish patriotism, and passionate nationalism by merging all three together. He’s no Qaddafi. Nor is he a Saddam. And he’s definitely not a Morsi.

The events of July 15, 2016 and the fallout especially for the secularists and accused “Gulenists” in Turkey have profound implications for the country’s future, the region’s political dynamics and affairs, and even international relations pertaining to Turkey and some of the precedents that these events have generated. Beginning with international politics, these developments illustrate a distressing pattern in the post-Cold War era. That pattern is the desire of some world leaders to follow what I call the “Putin Model” of political autocracy. Increasingly, it seems that a number of heads of state, like Erdogan, seek to achieve political resilience and entrenched power for the long term by replicating some of the methods that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has utilized.

For example, Erdogan served as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014, and then switched to running in elections for the presidency. Hence, he has been in power in Turkey since 2003. Putin did something similar with the Prime Minister title and then switched to the presidency; he served as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2000, and then President from 2000 to 2008, and then back to Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012; and in 2012 he was reelected as President for a third term, although not without facing allegations of election fraud. However, Putin’s political success in exploiting the titles of Prime Minister and President has been significant, as he was the first to do this in the post-Cold War era, and no doubt many heads of state envy this and wish to replicate it within their own political arenas.

Erdogan is one such leader who has succeeded in doing so, and in the process he has secured a powerful support base over the thirteen years he has served in political leadership in Turkey. The country is ideologically divided, mainly between two major fault-lines: Turkish Kemalist secularists, and pro-AKP/Erdogan Islamists. However, when the news broke about the attempted coup in Turkey a few days ago and while events were still unfolding, I was not convinced that the coup would succeed, despite numerous military coups succeeding in the past. Having visited Turkey in 2010 and 2013, I noticed that, although the divisions between the secularists and Islamists are sharp, it’s undeniably clear that Erdogan still enjoys a powerful and loyal support base in many pockets of Istanbul, Ankara, and especially in the more conservative parts of the country, like Konya.

Another Putin-modeled move that Erdogan has employed in Turkey is silencing journalists and the media. Putin has blocked numerous online news sources in Russia, he has arrested and harassed journalists, and a number of journalists have even been murdered. Freedom House ranks Russia among the lowest in the world for press freedom. According to Freedom House 2015 world rankings, Russia tied with Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia for number 180, not free, out of #199 (North Korea). Turkey’s rank that year was 142, tied with Malaysia and Pakistan, and also labeled “not free.” In Russia, at least 34 journalists have been murdered since 2000, according to combined data from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Moscow’s Glasnost Defense Foundation (see Linda Qiu, “Does Vladimir Putin Kill Journalists?” PunditFact, January 4, 2016:

Turkey has one of the world’s worst records for jailing journalists. According to the Economist (“Turkey is Sending its Journalists to Prison,” May 10, 2016), “These are dark days for journalism in Turkey. The latest press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders puts the country in 151st place, between Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Censorship is the industry standard. […] Journalists are routinely sacked or dragged through the courts.” Clearly, Erdogan is using the Putin playbook.

He is not alone, as a number of Middle Eastern countries are doing the same and using the similar terminology to conveniently label and implicate the media and journalists as co-conspirators with terrorists and/or foreign entities (i.e., mainly Western powers like the United States and others) who are supposedly trying to undermine the state and its leadership. Erdogan’s allegations of the Gulenist movement pulling the strings in the attempted coup manifest this tendency, especially when he pointedly said in his post-coup speech that, “This is not a country that can be run from Pennsylvania,” referring to Fethullah Gulen’s residence in exile in the Poconos.

Egypt’s dictator General Abdel Fattah El Sisi routinely demonizes the media and journalists, and countless bloggers and journalists continue to languish in Egyptian prisons. Mona Eltahawy’s New York Times oped (November 23, 2015, “Sisi’s War on Reporters”) provides details about how the Sisi regime “has thrown thousands of people from across the political spectrum into jail. And it knows that the mere suggestion that someone belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood — regardless of any evidence — means a loss of public sympathy.” Egypt has imprisoned an estimated 40,000 political prisoners. She goes on to report that, “With a regime as paranoid and brittle as this, it is not hard to anticipate its actions. A recent Sunday this month was typical: An investigative journalist was detained and interrogated by military prosecutors, a businessman and his son were arrested, and a TV anchorwoman was suspended from her job. […] According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, there are 62 media workers in Mr. Sisi’s jails.” Once again, we see a regional dictator using the Putin playbook.

What is very interesting about the two cases – Turkey and Egypt – is that, since the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings and revolutions, and the military coup in Egypt that brought Sisi to power in summer 2014, Erdogan and Sisi have been enemies. Sisi has viewed Erdogan as a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, and since the latter supported the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who Sisi ousted and imprisoned, there is truth in this allegation. The fantastic irony here is that both Sisi and Erdogan are using the Putin playbook domestically. And, since Erdogan has not only survived the coup attempt at home, but he has in fact consolidated his power and is in the process of purging the government, military, judiciary, and any other entity that he deems suspicious, of his enemies – perceived and real – Egypt’s Sisi has no choice but to accept that Turkey’s Islamists have won the day, and, that too, with help from secularists!

When President Morsi won the Egyptian election after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, many Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere suggested that Egypt, under Islamist rule, could adopt the “Turkish Model,” that is, a political system that harmonizes Islam with democracy as Turkey under Erdogan purports to achieve. That has now changed to the “Putin Model,” in both Turkey and Egypt, although with different ideologies inspiring their respective political systems. But, Turkish democracy, even symbolically, remains a sacred variable. This is illustrated in how both pro-Erdoganists and pro-secularists have collectively crushed the coup attempt. This is in contrast to Egypt, which has never tasted democracy in its entire history.

This collective rejection of the coup attempt in Turkey has added salt to Sisi’s wounds, and many Turks have cited the Sisi/Egypt case as the primary reason not to allow Turkey’s military coup to succeed. Yet another irony is that in both cases – Egypt’s coup success and Sisi’s empowerment, and Turkey’s coup failure and Erdogan’s continued leadership – have placed both countries, respectively, on a path towards authoritarian rule while undermining democracy. The major differences lie in the ideological and political orientation of both country’s leadership, and Erdogan’s reality, which countless activists in Turkey will assiduously remind him, that he is still bound by the country’s constitution, which upholds democracy. How Erdogan proposes to deal with that will be another (future) chapter in this intriguing story, bearing in mind that Erdogan once said, “I do not subscribe to the view that Islamic culture and democracy cannot be reconciled.”

Erdogan’s domestic, regional, and international strategies have been curious and interesting. First, upon coming to power, the AKP cut off the legs of the powerful military, arresting the top ten percent of high-ranking officers in the context of various coup-suspected scandals. This includes the “Ergenekon” case and the “Sledgehammer” conspiracy; however, Turkey’s appeals courts just recently overturned hundreds of convictions pertaining to both. Second, Erdogan just achieved rapprochement with Israel and Russia, and he was in the process of renewing ties with the Syrian government. With an estimated 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey (as of June 2016, according to the UNHCR), Erdogan is in an extremely tough jam. The once thriving economy is struggling, and the influx of Syrian refugees, the increase in terrorist attacks inside Turkey by various terrorist groups including ISIS, the PKK, and others, and the plummeting tourism industry are all negatively affecting Turkey’s economic health. Surely, the Turkish people are eager to see Turkey return to days of peace, economic progress, and security.

At the regional and international levels, a number of countries and organizations will need to view Turkey through different lenses now, and what they see might not be very palatable to them. NATO and Europe will need to get used to political Islam (also called Islamism) at their doorstep. This is distinctly different from Islamic terrorism. Here, I am referring to a political system that is based on Islamic principles and laws, which is perhaps what Erdogan and the AKP are striving for in post-coup Turkey. Given the coup’s failure, they are likely closer to achieving this than in the past.

The United States, in particular, will need to deal with this new reality in Turkey, and simultaneously it will need to devise an effective strategy to handle the Fethullah Gulen dilemma, as well as the integrity and security of the Incirlik military base.

Mustafa Akyol has written an excellent assessment in the New York Times about the failed coup in Turkey and its meanings and implications: July 17, 2016: In it, he mentions that, “The Gulenist movement is widely suspected of infiltrating and plotting to exploit state institutions for its sectarian purposes. Its involvement in the coup attempt seems very likely and the American government should take note.”

Gulen has not exactly been an asset to the United States. Following the failed coup in Turkey, the Incirlik base plunged into chaos, and the authorities cut its power and simultaneously demanded that the U.S. extradite Gulen to Turkey. U.S.-led anti-ISIS air strike operations from Incirlik came to a halt. The United States cannot afford to be caught in such a “catch-22” situation, especially with so much at stake concerning the Incirlik base and its operations.

Dealing with these issues, and especially Incirlik, must be wisely strategized as soon as possible. With ISIS cells scattered throughout Turkey, and still very active, along with Al Qaeda, in Syria next door, there is no room for error or lax preparations regarding this matter. This must be a top priority for U.S. policy makers and strategists. Also, effective U.S.-Turkish diplomacy is crucial, especially now that Erdogan has made amends with Putin and is reaching out to the Assad regime as well.

These days we certainly cannot envy the Turkish people, as they are faced with stark realities, limited choices, and seemingly perpetual uncertainties and anxieties. However, there’s a chance that Erdogan will surprise us by formulating a new “Turkish model” of Turkish Islamic democracy. Whether the world will respect or revile the new model will be up to Erdogan’s decisions and actions in the coming weeks and months. For now, the world is watching, while Erdogan takes his gloves off in the domestic arena. On the one hand, who can blame him? On the other hand, he’s the one to blame.


Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are personal.


Women’s Rights Movements in the ‘Arab Spring’: Major Victories or Failures for Human Rights?

30 07 2015

Women’s Rights Movements in the ‘Arab Spring’:  Major Victories or Failures for Human Rights?

by Hayat Alvi, Ph.D.

Journal of International Women’s Studies

Vol. 16, No. 3 July 2015

What Mullah Omar’s Death Means

30 07 2015

Taliban Mullah Omar Afghan Flag

This week the news media buzzed about the Afghan government’s announcement that the Taliban’s long time leader Mullah Omar died from illness. In fact, some sources claim that he had died in 2013. There are conflicting reports about whether he died in Afghanistan or in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. Of course, Pakistan is denying the latter version. If true, then that would be yet another huge embarrassment for Pakistan, following the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the U.S. targeted assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. The timing of announcing Mullah Omar’s death, and the internal wrangling among senior Taliban leaders that followed the announcement, are all very telling.

First, it begs the question: Is this a major intelligence failure? Or, have world powers including the U.S. been aware of Mullah Omar’s demise in 2013? If so, then why keep it a secret for so long? Second, why should Pakistan’s denials be taken at face value, given the bin Laden legacy? Third, who leaked this news about his death? Fourth, no doubt the source of the leak is aware of the fragility of the current Afghan-Taliban peace talks taking place. Does that mean the leak is intended to derail the so-called peace talks? Fifth, Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, a close confidant to Mullah Omar, is also very close to the Haqqani Network, which the U.S. considers a dangerous terrorist organization, and frequently targets its leadership with drone strikes. In fact, Siraj Haqqani has been appointed as Mullah Mansour’s deputy, which is a major chess move.

The situation in the Af-Pak region is extremely complicated, and it’s only getting worse with the changing dynamics and configurations involving a mindboggling number of militias, warlords, religious extremists and militants, drug traffickers, criminal elements, and corrupt officials. And now thrown into the mix we have, supposedly, an ISIS cell opening shop there too. Hence, what we see on the surface is much more complex underneath. Mullah Omar’s death and the belated announcement is not only the tip of the iceberg; it’s a symptom of the massive and violent glaciers and fault-lines that lie underneath, ready to explode or implode at any moment.

Consider the internal dynamics of the Afghan Taliban. According to the BBC News, Mullah Mansour’s appointment as the new Taliban leader did not come from consensus, which means that the Taliban are very divided. A Taliban faction prefers Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqub, to take his father’s mantle. Sounds familiar, no? That echoes the split between Sunnis and Shias that happened some 1400 years ago. The patterns and trends that drive schisms within Islamic extremist groups never grow old.

Mullah Mansour favors the peace talks with the Afghan government. Not all Taliban members agree with this move. And, interestingly, unlike Mullah Omar who held the title “Emir al-Mu’mineen” (“Commander of the Faithful,” a very important appellation in Islamic history), Mullah Mansour is called the “Supreme Leader.” To make matters more confusing, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamene’i bears the title Supreme Leader, and the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calls himself Emir al-Mu’mineen.

Competition among Islamic militant/terrorist groups is fierce, clearly both between and within them. However, while this configuration might seem ideal for the divide-and-conquer strategy that many governments employ, we should not be fooled to think, for a moment, that this is the end of the Taliban. They will regroup, they might have break-off factions appear here and there, but in general the Taliban are not going anywhere in the Af-Pak region. If anything, the fact that the Afghan government is engaging in peace talks with the Taliban indicates that they are a force and entity to contend with, warts and all.

Oh, and one more thing about Mullah Mansour, during the Taliban reign in the mid-1990s, he was actively serving as a minister in the Taliban government, and, according to BBC News, “he had an active role in drug trafficking” (“Mullah Omar: Taliban choose deputy Mansour as successor ,”BBC News, July 30, 2015).

In light of this, consider the following passage excerpted from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) April 30, 2015 Quarterly Report (page 46):

“The U.S. government has spent over $8 billion since 2001 on a diverse set of counternarcotics initiatives aimed at reducing the amount of opium poppy that is grown in Afghanistan; reducing the assistance insurgent forces receive from the proceeds of opium trafficking; and reducing the consumption and export of opium products. Counternarcotics initiatives include eradicating opium poppies in farmers’ fields; seizing and destroying harvested opium and refined heroin; arresting and prosecuting drug traffickers; providing alternative crops and income sources to the people who rely on poppy cultivation for their livelihood; campaigning to reduce local demand for opium; and building Afghan capacity to reduce poppy cultivation with less international assistance. However, these efforts have not achieved the overarching objective of reducing the supply of opium in Afghanistan. In fact, opium poppy cultivation has risen dramatically from 8,000 hectares in 2001 to 224,000 hectares in 2014.”

The playing field for the variety of militants and warlords in the Af-Pak region has only expanded in recent years. The Taliban recognize their competition – both internal and external – yet they remain active in carrying out violent attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also, Mullah Mansour is shrewdly allied with the Haqqani network, which could be highly beneficial for both.

Plus, Afghanistan and the U.S. and ISAF/NATO allies have numerous Achilles heels when it comes to their efforts in Afghanistan. For example, on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) side, the picture is far from rosy. The SIGAR report (pages 3-4) tells a troubling set of facts:

“SIGAR has issued two audit reports that highlight the challenges the United States faces in gathering reliable information about the total size of the ANSF, reported as of February 20, 2015, to number 328,805 personnel. A new SIGAR audit of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) personnel and payroll data, as well as one released in January of the Afghan National Police’s (ANP) personnel and payroll data, found no assurance that these data are accurate.

Without reliable data on ANSF strength, the United States cannot determine whether the billions it has spent on recruiting, training, equipping, and sustaining the ANSF since fiscal year (FY) 2002 has been spent properly, or accurately calculate what additional funding may be needed.

… Numbers provide a basis for budgeting and planning—including planning the pace of U.S. and other Coalition forces’ drawdown from Afghanistan.

SIGAR’s audit of ANA personnel data illustrates the cause for concern. A team of SIGAR auditors made unannounced visits to the headquarters of the Afghan National Army’s 207th Corps in Herat Province and the 209th Corps in Balkh Province, and the Afghan Air Force (AAF) air wing based in Kabul. The auditors collected information on 134 service personnel present for duty. Of these, the identities of only 103 could be verified against ANA personnel data. One in nine had no ANA identification card. Of 35 persons present at Balkh, only 23 had an ANA ID card, and five were not listed in the ANSF human-resources database.”

There is much hope and support pinned on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to turn the security situation around, which would allow U.S. and Coalition troops to draw down significantly. In that spirit, President Ghani has conveyed a message to the Taliban. He is quoted as saying, “The Taliban need to choose not to be al Qaeda, and be Afghan.” For now, Mullah Omar’s death announcement has thrown a wrench into that process, while countless other ominous militant groups wait in the wings. Don’t hold your breath.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in National Security Affairs.

The views expressed are personal.

Sins of the Colonial Fathers

15 07 2015

Sins of the Colonial Fathers

The Bridge, Newsletter of the US Naval War College, Vol. 17, Fall 2014

PAGE 11:

ME Map


The Post-Secular Republic: Turkey’s Experiments with Islamism

14 07 2015

Air and Space Power Journal, 2nd Quarter 2015

PDF File:

Hagia_Sophia_Istanbul         turkey flag

The Right Number – “PK” is Outstanding, and Religions are Indeed the Opiates of the Masses

1 01 2015


“Civilization” will never civilize itself until and unless the obstacles to proactive intellectual and rational thinking and questioning are completely eliminated.  Here we are in 2015 now, and the world is overflowing with superstition, ignorance, and voluntary submission to the greatest con-artists in human history:  the “religious establishments,” empowered with foot soldiers extorting money from the poor and vulnerable with each breath and word and turn of the head.  Spirituality has nothing to do with the big RE (religious establishments) — they are big businesses, in ALL religions.

The film “PK” is a MUST see, and those who already judge it as a “hate” film are not those who have watched it and fully understood it.  That is crystal clear.  Notice the angry, violent reactions against PK.  No wonder; after all, fundamentalists (I like calling them religious fascists) in ALL religions are the same in their hatred, anger, intolerance, narrow mindedness, and propensity for violence.  Made from the same mold and mindset.  Also, it’s important to note that what PK represents is not unique to just one faith, but reflected in all religions.  No exceptions.

Religion is the most successful marketing racket ever.  And, its most effective tool has been FEAR, as the film points out so well.

It’s about time people open their eyes and minds to the realities that all religious establishments have agendas — top among them is money making; also the agendas include controlling the masses and exerting power over them.  What could be more intoxicating?  What could be more enticing for the greedy FAT CATS with very FAT WALLETS, who keep asking for more and more and more?  How can humanity allow these criminals to get away with their thefts, not only of money, but also of dignity, self-esteem and confidence, and ownership of oneself?  Yes, religion is a type of mental slavery.  The difference is that far too many humans willingly volunteer to become slaves to it.  Even in 2015.

Please watch “PK” (in Hindi with English subtitles) with an open mind:


The views expressed are personal.

Sins of the Colonial Fathers – Why the Goal of ISIS is So Attractive

22 12 2014

This is my article about ISIS in the current issue of the NWCF newsletter, The Bridge (Fall 2014):


Sins of the Colonial Fathers – The Bridge Fall 2014

To Kill a Mocking Film

20 12 2014

flowers at Sydney Cafe Candle light vigil Peshawar


Film The Interview










You left and I cried tears of blood. My sorrow grows. It’s not just that You left. But when You left my eyes went with You. Now, how will I cry? – Rumi

The above quote reflects the unbearable grief of this past week that witnessed some of the most horrific acts of violence and terror in Sydney, Australia, and most poignantly, in Peshawar, Pakistan, where 132 school children and plus their teachers and administrators were viciously and methodically killed at the hands of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It’s enough to numb the mind and shatter the sinking heart.

But, as if this moment in history has been carefully scripted, the week has culminated with a climax and anti-climax that no one saw coming. For a few weeks, Sony Studios engaged in steady promotions of its Christmas Day premier of the film, “The Interview,” a mocking, satirical comedy of a CIA-led assassination plot targeting North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. No doubt, the film and story line are in poor taste, and the keen eye could see that, despite its comedic and satirical contexts, the film cannot be divorced from real world politics. The oxymoronically named “Guardians of Peace” (GOP) hacking group reminded those who needed reminding that this film is not only politically loaded, but perceived by many (read: North Korea’s leader and his loyal minions) as highly offensive, inappropriate, and duly punishable for entertaining the idea, let alone depict it. Sony is their bulls-eye target, and the punishment is promised to be painful and severe. If you had any doubts until now, here it is for the record: This saga is North Korea’s ‘shock and awe’ tactic, which seems to be wholly successful, in the somewhat new domain and high stakes of cyber warfare. From the beginning, North Korea has called the production of this film “an act of war.” North Korea has made good on its threats to retaliate, assuming the FBI is correct in its assessment that the hermit kingdom is behind the extremely embarrassing leaks of Sony executives’ emails, hacks of the upcoming films that are not yet released and uploading them on the internet, and threats to release Sony employees’ and corporate heads’ personal information, including social security numbers, salaries, bank information, and the like, to the public. Sony said “Uncle, Kim.”

This entire episode sets a dangerous precedent. It also contains some ominous linkages to the bloodbaths in Pakistan and Australia earlier in the week. Sony’s surrender to the GOP’s demands has achieved within a matter of days what years, and sometimes decades, of diplomacy and economic sanctions employed against a given “rogue” country might achieve incrementally: that achievement is simply to get the other party to do what you want them to do, and not do what you don’t want them to do. And, this was not even involving solely non-state actors targeting a state. The Sony episode indicates that a state, North Korea, has successfully and effectively utilized a proxy group, the GOP, to threaten a major, multi-billion dollar multinational corporation, Sony, which produced its film in its Hollywood studios in the United States, the sole superpower in the post-Cold War era. Everyone is taking notice; and that includes some incredibly unsavory characters. This “cyber-manipulation,” and some call it cyber-terrorism, signifies a new perspective and context in modern international relations. This is a game changer, as the goal posts have shifted.

How easy has it been for the GOP / North Korea to access Sony employees’ personal information and films that Sony has yet to release, and to issue threats? Think about it: the criminal mind will observe that the GOP easily killed a mocking film; what else can similar tactics make powerful states do to dance to the terrorists’ tunes? The global community is entering a scary new frontier in the fight against terrorism, on the ground as well as in cyberspace.

Think about this: How hamstrung are we today? No one can, or will, find and rescue the hundreds of Nigerian girls and women that the terrorist group Boko Haram has kidnapped with impunity. Who has bothered to rescue the countless Yezidi girls and women that the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has grabbed and trafficked? We play “whack-a-mole” against numerous terrorist groups proliferating worldwide, but they continue to terrorize and brutalize untold innocent civilians. Now, thanks to the GOP / North Korea, the terrorists of the world have found a better tool in the terror toolbox. Fear is their ultimate objective, as well as their method. We think that the Peshawar massacre of innocent school children is a “turning point,” as many pundits are describing the new drive in counter-terrorism. But, the playing field has been rendered multidimensional now, and proven capable of making a powerful corporation change its course of action.

The global community of state actors will need to reassess their respective and collective legal, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism frameworks and tactics to encompass all of these dimensions and playing fields. The GOP has taught us that it’s simple to kill a mocking film. In the future, how simple will it be to kill via cyber tactics? This is the stuff of science fiction nightmares. It’s not science fiction, though. Terrorist entities already manage to shape the behavior and actions of others – including states, organizations, corporations, and individuals – while the latter are utterly failing to do the reverse.

I close with a quote by Ian Rush: “And the things that we fear are a weapon to be held against us.”

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are personal.

Ticket to Heaven: The Engine behind the Violence in Syria and Iraq

14 06 2014

Iraq fighters

Iraq map






The pundits are churning out words like geopolitics, sectarianism, mission failure, and strategic expansionism regarding the current dynamics and jihadist gains in Iraq and in some parts of Syria. But, there is an underlying concept that serves as the driving engine for jihadism in the 21st century, and it is as old as Islam itself.

That concept is martyrdom, and intrinsically linked to it is the concept of jihad, two sides of the same coin. Although these are not new concepts in Islam, they have morphed over the last few decades. They now encompass the act that is prohibited in Islamic law, suicide, as well as the chillingly subjective tool of takfir, that is, rendering someone a “non-believer,” and hence allowing him or her to be fair game as a target for jihadists.

These are the concepts that are fueling jihadism today, and when we peel back the layers of the Sunni-Shia rivalry and geopolitical ambitions on all sides, the core concepts of martyrdom and jihad function as the meat on the bones of jihadist ideology. Martyrdom and jihad were useful tools in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. However, armchair militant clerics are continuing to exploit these concepts for their own political, ideological, and strategic agendas.

Normally, religious concepts are a façade for territorial and geopolitical goals. The real objectives are usually gaining territory, ruling over people, toppling regimes, and basking in the glory of power, wealth, and totalitarian control over others. In the case of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the tangible goals still exist, but its followers are feverishly driven by ideology, the primary engine of their violent vehicle. And now, with the sharpening of the Sunni-Shia face off, the religious potency of each side’s motivations only becomes more acute. This is not to say that they are not your basic thugs and gangsters; yes they are indeed. But, add to the mix their puritanical religious obstinacy and combine that with their fearless attitudes towards death because of the concept of martyrdom, and then we have a recipe for disaster unfolding before us.

Both Sunnis and Shias embrace the concept of martyrdom, albeit with some nuanced distinctions. For both, martyrdom is a ticket to heaven, that is, eternal residence in paradise. The definition of a martyr is also generally similar in both sects, but for Shias it is dramatically and emotionally manifested in the slaughter of Imam Hussein and his family in Karbala at the hands of the Sunni Caliph at the time, Yazid. If you think that these 7th century events are long forgotten, think again. Twitter and social media are abuzz with profile names and labels like “Mu’awiya,” the Umayyid Caliph and father of Yazid, and invocations of Ali and Hussein.

Given that the new wave of conflict in Iraq is intensely along sectarian fault lines, the symbolism of Karbala only magnifies itself. For would-be jihadists and martyrs on both sides, religious history never dies. It only continues in ensuing chapters. We are witnessing the next major chapter in the Karbala legacy. Now that Iraq’s prominent Shia Ayatollah Sistani has made a call to arms to fight against the ISIS/Sunni onslaught, the new Karbala chapter is certainly about to be written.

Another dimension of these recent developments is that the ISIS incursion into Iraq is resurrecting the Iran-Iraq War “chapter two,” with the difference this time being that Iran will be fighting against primarily non-state actors in Iraq, with all of her state military assets along with her own non-state assets as well, and whereas in the first Iran-Iraq War the sectarian identities of Sunnis and Shias did not play a significant role – this was a major miscalculation by Ayatollah Khomeini. This time, sectarianism will be the primary reason and calculus for the bloody conflict ahead. Don’t forget that the first Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years. To refresh your memory, here is a description of the Iran-Iraq War, courtesy of Juan Cole in an article for Moyers & Company:

“From September of 1980, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Iran’s oil-rich Khuzistan Province, until summer 1988 when Ayatollah Khomeini finally accepted an armistice, Iran and Iraq fought one of the Middle East’s longest and bloodiest wars. Its trench warfare and hidden naval encounters recalled the horrors of World War I, as did the Iraqi Baath government’s deployment of mustard gas against Iranian soldiers at the front and sarin gas against Kurdish civilians suspected of pro-Iranian sentiments.”

This second conflict is likely to match or surpass that, with varying degrees of intensity. Also, just like the first Iran-Iraq War, this one will also have powerful regional proxies backing their respective militias and armies. Some analysts are speculating that the venomous and violent nature of ISIS will oddly put Iran and the United States on the same side of this particular conflict. But in general, as in the case of the Syrian civil war, Iraq’s next conflict will be yet another Saudi-Iran face off vis-à-vis proxies.

ISIS has been disowned by Al Qaeda and other extremist jihadist groups fighting in Syria, because the former is considered too extreme even for them. Moreover, there is no doubt about ISIS’s anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sentiments. That has been made crystal clear with its actions and abuses against Syrian Christians; and, like all extremist groups, their first targets always are women. Iraqis are right to be terrified. Those Iraqi and other Sunnis who are celebrating the ISIS gains are delusional. All you have to do is see what is happening in Pakistan with the Taliban wreaking havoc against their own supporters. These are rabid dogs that bite the hands that feed them.

It is impossible to argue against a deep belief in martyrdom, jihad, and salvation in paradise. Yet, that is exactly what must be done. The failure to win the ideological battle only yields more bloodshed and intolerance.

No amount of airstrikes, bombings, intelligence, and counter-terrorism strategies will be completely successful without taking on the core ideology that drives individuals to jihad and martyrdom. Both Sunnis and Shias adhere to this ideology, hence the challenge is ever greater.

Ultimately, this will become a national security threat to the United States and European allies. The “foreign fighters” who constitute the volunteer jihadist fighters include many westerners among them. Many countries in the Middle East, Europe and the western hemisphere are worried about these fighters returning home, and then turning their guns and lethal expertise against their own governments and citizens. Since the contexts of jihad and martyrdom are increasingly translated in very nebulous ways, the ideology poses a dangerous threat to everyone.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are personal.