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

14 06 2014

Iraq fighters

Iraq map

iraq-update-3Feb

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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You Be the Judge: Does Morsi = Mandela/Gandhi?

10 08 2013

MOHAMED_MORSI-2 Mahatma-Gandhi Mandela

This is an analysis (done from a Political Science perspective) of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, & Mohamed Morsi.  The views are all personal.

An important aspect of each individuals’ vision, policies, and personal philosophies is INCLUSIVENESS, as opposed to exclusiveness, as well as the unwavering commitment to the holistic components of pluralist [secular] democracy (meaning, not just elections).

You be the judge …

Mandela & Gandhi – compared to Mohamed Morsi

Copyright Hayat Alvi 2013

 

Education

Environment of Activism

Jail Time & Symbolism

Political Leadership

Religious Leadership

Nelson Mandela Earned B.A.; aspired for law degree, tried three times, but failed due to intense political activism throughout his youth (to fight against Apartheid) Lived in Apartheid-era South Africa; joined political activists groups since his youth to fight against Apartheid;Apartheid-era South Africa (SA) was not a democracy: it was a brutally segregated rule of white minorities over an oppressed black majority, & a 3rd category of “coloreds” (mainly Indians);Mandela was a principal actor in facilitating SA’s post-Apartheid democratization

 

Brutally oppressive Apartheid regime imprisoned Mandela for 27 years; he became icon for the anti-Apartheid movement, central figure of the African National Congress (ANC), even while in prison Mandela was elected South Africa’s first ever black President AFTER he was released from prison in the early 1990s; he served one term then retired into private life;Mandela has always promoted ethnic/racial unity, coexistence, & cooperation in post-Apartheid SAThis could not have happened without the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (forgiving the brutal crimes of the Apartheid police state)

 

Mandela has universal appeal and respect, regardless of religious and ethnic/racial identity; his activism has not involved religion, & only focused on ending the Apartheid regime & structure in SA; he has fought for unity & harmonious coexistence of all religions and ethnic/racial groups in post-Apartheid SA;ANC activism has involved people of all colors, genders, ethnicities, occupations, & religions, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus; in general, it’s a very inclusive framework 

 

Education

Environment of Activism

Jail Time & Symbolism

Political Leadership

Religious Leadership

Mahatma Gandhi UK educated lawyer, practicing attorney British colonial India:  Gandhi was educated in the UK, lived in India, & his first major assignment as an attorney was in South Africa; he began nonviolent activism against Apartheid (late 1800s) in South Africa; then he returned to India & fought against British colonial rule in India; Gandhi & Congress Party leaders aspired to create a pluralist secular democracy in post-British India;Gandhi was a principal actor in facilitating India’s post-colonial democratization  British colonial power imprisoned Gandhi numerous times; he was always in & out of jail in India; his wife & personal secretary died while in “house arrest” (Pune); Gandhi spent several years in Yerwada Central Jail (Pune); Gandhi even taught inmates the art of nonviolent civil disobedience & noncooperation;*Watch the Ben Kingsley film “Gandhi”  Gandhi was a spiritual leader of India’s Congress Party, which led the fight against British colonial rule in India, but he never accepted or desired a higher political leadership role;He was a very shrewd strategist in politics, esp. against the British in India; but, he never held political office Gandhi called himself every religious identity in India, & promoted human rights for Dalits (“Untouchables”), women, and minorities; he was a universalist, a peace activist, & embraced all religions; he studied all major Indian religions; & he promoted religious unity & harmony; his vision & policies were always inclusive;he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist after the Partition of Pakistan 

 

Education

Environment of Activism

Jail Time & Symbolism

Political Leadership

Religious Leadership

MohamedMorsi B.A. & Masters in Engineering from Cairo University;Ph.D. in Materials Science from University of Southern California  Morsi has been an active Muslim Brotherhood (MB) member in Egypt during Hosni Mubarak’s presidency; Egypt has never seen true democracy, but the 2011 revolution changed this trend;Morsi served as member of Egypt’s parliament (2000-2005) as an independent candidate (since MB was banned); he became president of the Freedom & Justice Party (MB-affiliated political party) in 2011;MB openly challenged Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule when the group joined secular protestors in Tahrir Square in Jan.-Feb. 2011;

Mubarak was overthrown, SCAF held power until elections in June 2012

 

Mubarak regime jailed Morsi & other MB members on 28 January 2011, & then released 2 days later (30 Jan.), w/ varying accounts of a jailbreak from the Wadi el-Natroun Prison; after run-off election in June 2012, Morsi won presidency in Egypt’s first democratic elections;On June 30, 2013, a counter-Morsi gov’t protest movement took to Tahrir Square (after grievances against Morsi’s leadership);July 3, 2013 Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sisi announced that Morsi has been removed as President (& detained in an undisclosed location), & installed an interim president;

Egypt is divided into a “pro-Morsi” (mainly MB) camp & pro-Sisi camp;

The pro-Morsi protestors remain steadfast in opposing his ouster & detention & demand his return as President; violence has been reported in clashes between the pro- & anti-Morsi camps

 

Morsi served as Egypt’s first post-2011 revolution President; Morsi’s domestic policies & political leadership have been characterized by: A revised constitution that promotes Islamic law & penalizes “insults” (i.e., stifles expression); Morsi sought to free 1990s WTC bombing mastermind blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman; Morsi filled bureaucracies & the legislature w/ Islamists & purged secularists; he promised to appoint a woman & Christian as Vice Presidents, but never did; he annulled amendments that would’ve restricted presidential powers; he didn’t attend the new Coptic Pope’s enthronement;His policies increasingly resembled the Mubarak regime; his policies derailed democracy in Egypt; he marginalized many groups, & under his watch Shias were killed in Giza, & numerous violent attacks against Copts took place;Morsi’s policies have been politically exclusive President of Freedom & Justice Party (MB-affiliated); Sunni Islamist;Morsi allegedly made comments that were anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli;  attended rally where Salafi clerics called Asad supporters “infidels” & Morsi endorsed the sentiments; Morsi is drowning in scandals including the “Descendants of Apes & Pigs” controversy, allegedly calling Israelis “apes & pigs” – online video of this is available (later he qualified the statement by saying he was criticizing Israeli policy, not Jewish people);

He tried to reach out to Iran, but Salafist constituents in Egypt pressured against it, & fierce anti-Shia sentiments surfaced, w/ Giza massacre;

Morsi has been exclusive in terms of gender, religious & sectarian identities in Egyptian politics & religious discourse

 

Final Note: 

The Sisi regime is a dangerous direction (in my view) for Egypt’s future.  If a pluralist (INCLUSIVE) secular democracy is not reinstated in Egypt ASAP, the Egyptian protestors who ushered in the unprecedented changes in 2011 will be back to square one.  The struggle will have to start all over again.

Copyright Hayat Alvi 2013





The Militant Sunni Juggernaut & the Anti-Shia Hatred that Fuels It

10 01 2013

NYT2009041617260562C

Lashkar-e-Taiba

Stop Shia Killings

“Yes, we must finish them off.”  This was the response when someone from one of the Gulf Arab countries (to remain nameless) was asked about going after (i.e., killing) Shias following Bashar al-Assad’s fall in Syria.  I have predicted a Shia massacre, I even called it a genocide, in a post-Assad Syria.  This quote only confirms my fears and suspicions.

 Twenty-four hours after I heard this quote the vicious killings of mainly Hazara Shias in Pakistan took place in Quetta.  Ongoing violence in Iraq continues to target Shias there, and the Sunni-Shia hatred and violence in Syria has already spilled over into Lebanon, where they tortured and slaughtered each other with relish during the civil war (1975-1990).

 Ironically, it is the majority Sunnis in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf region, and parts of South Asia who sing the victim songs about how Iran is trying to “spread its ideology” and subjugate them all.  There is no denying that upon Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power in the 1979 revolution, one of his expressed priorities was to spread the Islamic revolution throughout the region.  However, given the fact that the vast majority of the regional demographics consists of Sunnis – with exceptions in Iraq and Bahrain – the fear of the successful spread of Twelver Shia ideology is unsubstantiated and grossly overblown.  And the regional actors know this.  Yet, they continue to fan the flames of sectarian hatred and fear.  I have come across numerous Sunnis from the Gulf region who don’t hesitate to judge Shias as “non-believers,” or “non-Muslims.”  Surely they have their counterparts among Shias, but Shias are greatly outnumbered, and in fact in Sunni majority countries they face increasing discrimination, prejudice, and even violence, not unlike many Christians in the Middle East and Hindus, Bahais, Ahmadis, and a host of other minority groups in Pakistan.  We must add girls and women too, but gender violence is a whole other can of worms.  I predict that persistent gender violence will trigger the true downfall of these regions, if they don’t get their acts together to protect girls and women.  But, that topic is for another article.

As much as we can try to attribute the recent attacks in Pakistan to what’s to come with US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, the fact is that systematic targeting of Shias has been going on for a long time now.  Many refer to it as the “Shia Genocide,” and there is basis for this term.  Just look at the number of deaths and injuries, and frequency of attacks, which have been rising steadily in recent years.  The Pakistani government is unable (and unwilling?) to enforce law and order in general, let alone pertaining to sectarian massacres.  It seems not only helpless, but also oblivious in many ways, and that will be to Pakistan’s detriment, as if matters can get any worse.  And, with Pakistan, it’s not just the internal violence that is sucking the country into its own self-constructed black hole, but it seems the military is itching for a fight with India again with the border skirmishes in Kashmir’s LOC.  There is a real potential in the coming months and maybe year or so for the Pakistani military to step in completely and carry out yet another coup, especially now that the US will be less active in the region.  If things get even uglier with the Indo-Pak skirmishes, the Pakistani military just might see that as an opportunity to make its move on the Zardari government.  Let’s see what happens.  My predictions are not always right, but who knows what’s around the corner for the Af-Pak region?

 The outlook for these regions is grim, especially given that law enforcement cannot provide basic security for the general public.  Plus, rule of law practically does not exist, and if it does, it’s usually in favor of the wealthy and powerful elite.  Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues with impunity.

 While I in no way support the brutal Iranian regime (which also viciously represses its own minority groups), as a political scientist, I can assess that, with all these targeted Shia killings proliferating in the Middle East and Pakistan, and the inevitable fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syria (Iran’s only strong ally in the region), the clerics in Tehran can only see more reason to weaponize their nuclear program.  Ominously, that will result in a domino effect with the rest of the region acquiring the same nuclear status.  That is for certain.  Then, we will witness the Sunni-Shia rivalry armed with nuclear weapons.  That is one very scary thought.  But, since the regional governments do nothing to prevent the sectarian bloodshed now, that is the outlook we can expect in the future.

 The governments in these regions need to wake up to these dark realities.  They are so preoccupied with their own prejudices and self-interests, but this is truly at the expense of the masses.  Nothing can be gained from all the violence at the hands of militants, regardless of their sectarian identities and ideological orientations.

 The other open secret that everyone sees, but has not received due attention, is that most of the militants in these regions are hard-core Sunni extremists.  With all the fear mongering about Iran spreading its ideology, the majority of violent acts being carried out from North Africa, in the Middle East proper, and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir are at the hands of Sunni militants, primarily espousing some form of Salafism, and many of whom, if not most, are supported financially by the Saudis.  When we peel back the layers of political, military/security, financial, and other variables in this scenario, we see that at the core of it all is the Sunni-Shia rivalry (i.e., Saudi versus Iran).  These militants have many other motivations and agendas as well, but one of the main priorities they embrace is to “cleanse” their societies of Shias and other minority groups.  The Taliban committed horrendous Shia massacres during their rule in Afghanistan.  This is nothing new.  The only thing that is new and alarming is the militant Sunni juggernaut sweeping across these regions unchallenged.

 NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views