The Merger of Jihad Franchises in Syria: A War of Islamisms

22 11 2013

Syrian Rebels

syria_heavy_weapons_rebels.si

The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) accidentally beheaded one of their own commanders recently. Meanwhile, jihadist rebel groups have been fighting against the secular or more moderate Free Syrian Army forces, as well as against Syrian Kurds. Now, a group of Islamic rebel forces has announced a merger: “A statement posted online said Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front had agreed to a ‘gradual merger’. It said the new Islamic Front will be an ‘independent political, military and social formation’ to topple the Assad regime and build an Islamic state” (BBC News, Nov. 22, 2013).

Throw into that mix Shia fighters in Assad’s camp, including Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and other pro-Shia Islamist militias, and now we have a full-fledged complex multidimensional sectarian war vying for a dominant Islamism to take hold of Syria.

The announcement of the new Islamic Front “may also challenge the growing influence of the two al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist rebel groups, the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), although they have co-operated with some of its component groups in the past.”

In sum, Syria embodies multi-layered “spiders web-like “ networks of Sunni and Shia militias and paramilitary forces, and this can only continue to plunge Syria into violence and chaos not unlike the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), although Syria’s war is at least a hundred times worse and intense and potentially will last a lot longer.

The supporters of these proxy rebel groups, like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other GCC states on the Sunni jihadists’ side, and Iran on the Shia side, have no regard for the innocent civilians suffering horrifically in Syria and also as refugees in neighboring countries. These proxy supporters are as guilty of atrocities as Bashar al-Assad. All sides are guilty of war crimes.

More crucially, this merger of jihad franchises in Syria encompasses a “war of Islamisms,” wherein even after Assad’s downfall, these religious rebel groups will continue – and possibly intensify – the war in power struggles, in order for their own Islamist ideology to win. We have seen this pattern of the war of Islamism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In particular, once the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan (1989), the multitude of Islamic fundamentalist/militant warlords and militias proliferating throughout the Af-Pak region turned their guns against each other. Within that scenario the Taliban arose and engaged these warlords in the Afghan civil war. We know the rest of the story, once the Taliban succeeded in taking Kabul and creating the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

I have called the Syrian civil war the “Afghanistan of the Middle East.” I would love to be proven wrong about that, but this merger of Islamic rebel groups and the power struggles between the Islamic Front and the Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups portend a similar outcome to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. The war of Islamisms is nothing new, especially in terms of the sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shias. That’s as old as Islam itself. Now, we see the power struggles in the post-Arab Awakening Middle East and North Africa consist of all shades of Islamists trying to climb over each other for the seats of power. This is all at the expense of civilians, both Sunnis, Shias, Christians, and secularists.

To quote U.S. President John F. Kennedy, “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”

Those waging the war of Islamisms seem to fail miserably in grasping that concept.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.
The views expressed are personal.

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Islamic Extremists’ Propensity for Violence & Intolerance

31 10 2012

The shooting of the brave Pakistani teenager, Malala Yusufzai, underscores a reality, without exaggeration, about the degree and severity of misogyny of Islamic extremists.   The shooting, which the 14-year-old activist and campaigner for girls’ education survived, is an ever-growing stain on Pakistan’s fabric of militancy and mindless misogynist orthodoxy.  The list of threats and violence against women and liberal voices is long.  This week BBC profiled an Afghan female rap artist, who is a proud patriot, yet receives regular threats by militants, including threats of acid attacks.  In Dagestan, militants murdered the fourth Sufi cleric this year.

What drives these hyenas to commit senseless acts of violence against innocent civilians and even children?  Are they so threatened by girls that they have to resort to such tactics as acid attacks and shootings of school buses?  Is this what their seminary curricula have taught them, to hate everyone who doesn’t conform to their own way of thinking, and to fear girls, especially educated ones?  I once reprimanded my students for using the word “barbaric” for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, but now I lament my actions.  The behavior of these militants and extremists, which are not restricted to the Af-Pak region, is beyond barbaric.  They transcend the Dark Ages in their regressive madness and extremes.  They make me hate the news and cringe every time I reach for BBC or NPR.  They are a dark cloud hovering ominously over the “modern” Muslim world today, and sadly many Muslims remain defensively in denial or apologetically rationalize the existence of these ugly elements, or re-frame Shariah (Islamic law) to distance themselves from such ideologies.

If so called moderate and liberal Muslims fail to acknowledge the reality of these extremists and their agendas, and, more importantly, fail to counter these militant and extremist forces in their midst, dire consequences await Muslim communities worldwide.  Some of these consequences are already occurring, including:

  • Hijacking and undermining children’s education systems, in the guise of “religious education,” by the infiltration of extremist and ultra-orthodox ideologies that promote intolerance and potentially militancy.  Such ideologies include Wahhabism and Salafism;
  • Stifling of liberal and Sufi voices and practices, as well as destruction of religious sites, as in the case of Salafi destruction of Sufi shrines and UNESCO heritage sites in recent months in Mali and Libya;
  • Attacking and killing non-Muslims in the name of Islam, as in the case of Boko Haram killing Christians and attacking churches in Nigeria;
  • Increasing the oppression of girls and women and religious minorities, as well as religious pariahs (e.g., sectarian groups like Shiites, and religions like Bahaism), and denying their rights and freedoms;
  • Stoking anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, anti-modernism, and anti-Jewish and Christian sentiments, again in the name of Islam;
  • Undermining democratization and socioeconomic progress, especially by means of suppressing segments of society like women and minority groups;
  • Repressing intellectual freedoms and the arts;
  • Arbitrarily invoking takfir (calling someone a non-believer, or an apostate) and blasphemy labels, resulting in excommunication or even death of the targeted individual;
  • Questioning modern secular ideas, education, and progressive lifestyles, and seeking to repress them;
  • Locking entire communities in cycles of religious authoritarianism and totalitarianism by use of force or threats of violence, peer pressure, and excommunication;
  • Killing anyone who opposes them;
  • Focusing on nothing but their own myopic concepts of “jihad” and manipulations thereof;
  • Pursuing agendas of territorial expansion, areas of operation, recruitment, and cooptation of local government, law enforcement, and religious officials, where possible;
  • Blaming everything on the US, Jews, and Israel;
  • Interpreting religious laws and principles literally;
  • Attempting to superimpose 7th century ideas and practices on the present;
  • Bullying innocent people into submission and conformity, resulting in religious fascism that does not tolerate dissent, nor does it tolerate women’s rights to choose how they dress, live, acquire an education, work, and marry or divorce.

The end result of this religious fascism is nothing but destructive, oppressive, intolerant, and violent, authoritarian male-dominated communities living anachronistically in a 7th century time warp.  In fact, that itself is an untruth, because much of these extremists’ attitudes and behaviors pre-date Islam.  Yet, they insist on attributing their take on Islam as replicating the time of the Prophet Muhammad in 7th century Arabia.  Still, even the latter was not such a shining example of women’s emancipation and rights, certainly not by modern standards, nor was it brimming with religious tolerance and harmony.  Pre-Islamic Arabia fared even worse of course, but to compare these historical contexts to modern times is a non-starter.  Hence, the extremists’ backward regression is far worse than anticipated.  We all thought the Taliban were the worst when they emerged in the 1990s, but now they have parallel groups and ideologies that mirror them in many respects.  And we have the Saudis to thank for the proliferation of Wahhabi / Salafi ideologies that are inspiring these extremists and militants.

Last year and even earlier this year, I had high hopes for post-revolution political and socioeconomic development in Tunisia, where the 2011 Arab Awakening began.  Now, Salafist thugs are threatening to derail stability and security in Tunisia, while continuing their violent agendas and attacks.  Even as recent as October 31st, there have been fierce clashes in Tunis, as Al Jazeera reports:

“Wielding sharp tools and swords, the protesters went on the attack in the Tunis suburb of Manouba after police arrested a Salafist suspected of assaulting the head of the suburb’s public-security brigade, Khaled Tarrouche, interior ministry spokesman, said.

‘There has been a reinforcement of security, of the National Guard, of the army to prevent any retaliation’ by the Salafist movement, Tarrouche said on Wednesday.

‘The response by the security forces led to the death of an attacker who was hit by a bullet.’

Two security force members were also seriously injured, he said.”

These extremist elements are enemies of knowledge.  They are haters of peace and harmony.  They are the most intolerant towards tolerance.  Muslims must not bury their heads in the sand about this.  There is way too much at stake.

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





Salafist / Wahhabi Hooligans’ Agendas for Destruction and Violence

2 09 2012

The last couple of weeks have been filled with bad news across the Middle East, South Asia, and even the Caucasus.  The sheer destructiveness, outrageous, deplorable behavior, and intolerance manifested in the events are extremely disheartening, to say the least.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has a real challenge on his hands.  Militants have attacked a number of moderate Muslim clerics in the Caucasus, and some have died.  The clerics were known to be voices of moderation and criticism against the fanatical militants, who are proliferating in Russia’s southern edges.  Reuters reports that in Dagestan, “more than a dozen young men from the village have ‘gone to the forest’ – the local euphemism for joining insurgents in their hideouts, says village administrator Aliaskhab Magomedov.”  The reports indicate that these men are hardened Islamists as a result of working in the Gulf Arab states, returning home and spreading their Wahhabi ideology with violence.

Similarly, in two African countries we see Salafist and Al Qaeda-affiliated militants destroying Sufi mosques and shrines.  In parts of Libya, they are literally bulldozing heritage sites, not unlike the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues.  In Mali, militants have literally chipped away at UNESCO heritage sites with hammers and chisels.  These militants also want to target libraries and museums in order to destroy precious archeological icons and manuscripts that they deem “un-Islamic.”  When you read Ahmed Rashid’s book on the Taliban, you learn that when the Taliban first came to power in the mid-1990s, and took over Kabul, one of the first institutions they attacked and destroyed were libraries.  Nothing has changed, except the geography.  Such mentalities still may be among minority fringe groups.  Nonetheless, their propensity for violence and destruction is not only horrendous, but also, alarmingly, proliferating in other regions.

Such is the venom of Wahhabi/Salafi ideology, and let’s not forget that the seat of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, has long upheld policies for destroying sacred and heritage sites, and carried them out within the kingdom.  The Saudis, after all, are one of the creators of the Taliban.  That is very telling indeed.  In fact, the “League of Libyan Ulema, a group of more than 200 Muslim scholars, on Tuesday evening blamed the attacks on a son of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Saadi, and his Libyan Salafi allies it said were inspired by radical Saudi preachers.  Sufi theologian Aref Ali Nayed said Libya had not seen such attacks for centuries.  ‘Even Mussolini’s fascists did not treat our spiritual heritage with such contempt,’ he said” (Reuters).  Italy under Mussolini occupied Libya until WWII.

While the West is preoccupied with vilifying Iran – and this is not to say that the Iranian regime is not a problem or a threat – we in the West are frighteningly myopic in terms of seeing the big picture:  i.e., Salafism / Wahhabism is proving to be even more destructive, violent, intolerant, and hate-mongering on a daily basis than what we see coming from Iran, and not just in words, but also in action.  The only thing is that the former is not on the radar, while the latter (Iran) is the object of obsession in the West.  That scenario will only lead to repeating costly past mistakes:  can we say “Mujahideen” in the Af-Pak region?

The Libyan Ulema and citizens are extremely frustrated with Tripoli’s seemingly inability to stop the Salafi assault on the country’s shrines, mosques, and heritage sites.

“The League of Libyan Ulema (Muslim scholars) urged Tripoli ‘to pressure the government of Saudi Arabia to restrain its clerics who meddle in our affairs’ by training young Libyans in Salafism and spreading the ideology through books and tapes.

It also urged Libyans to protect Sufi sites by force.

Nayed, who lectures at the old Uthman Pasha madrasa that was desecrated on Tuesday evening, said the attackers were ‘Wahhabi hooligans (and) all sorts of pseudo-Salafi elements’ while government security officials were ‘complacent and impotent.’

‘Libya has to make a clear choice – either a Taliban/Shabaab-style religious fanaticism or a true Muslim moral and spiritual civility,’ he told Reuters.”

The Salafists – or, as Nayed pointedly and correctly calls them “Wahhabi hooligans” – are an imminent threat to the stability and security of the regions and sub-regions in which they operate.  And, that is exactly their intent, to destabilize, coerce, bully, and terrorize.  Although their militant ideologies have been dealt a severe blow since the mostly peaceful 2011 Arab uprisings and revolutions successfully changed regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the Wahhabi hooligans also see the same events and outcomes as an opportunity to fill any gaps that may appear in the nation building processes in respective countries.  Effective policies and law enforcement are needed to preclude them from gaining even an inch.  Think of them as hyenas lurking in the darkness, only now they are audaciously operating in broad daylight.

The other major recent incident is the disgustingly shameful “blasphemy” case in Pakistan, which has landed a young 14-year-old girl with mental disabilities, who happens to be a Christian, in prison.  Instead of protecting this child and her family, the Pakistani authorities, in all their hollow wisdom, have thrown her in jail, and might make her stand trial.  Blasphemy prosecutions can render death sentences.  This has stirred outrage worldwide, and especially among human rights organizations.  Perhaps in reaction to the outrage, police arrested the local imam who some claim is the culprit in framing the child.  But, this case is about more than just the tragic circumstances of this child, her family, and the Pakistani Christian community at large.  This ludicrous behavior by the authorities and even the government, which initially called for “an investigation,” rather than calling for her immediate release, only highlights the moral bankruptcy of Pakistan.  The expediency with which the so-called “blasphemy law” is used especially against religious minorities underscores the nakedly transparent bigotry that streams through Pakistan’s fabric.  Furthermore, it is not only an example of moral bankruptcy, but it also illustrates the most profound absence of intelligence and reason.  Regarding this case, there is no hole deep enough in the sand that would be sufficient for heads to bury themselves in, as far as I’m concerned.  I close with a quote by George Orwell:

“One defeats a fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself, but on the contrary, by using one’s intelligence.”

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