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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The Need for Intellectual Jihad

28 04 2013

jihad                      Islam Rational Thinking

The Islamic world has been suffering an intellectual crisis in the modern era since the decline of the Ottoman Empire.  This has accounted for the intellectual malaise and stagnation found internally within the Islamic umma, or community at large.  While this stagnation has occurred, those voices of reason and intellect that have tried to stimulate and resuscitate an ‘intellectual jihad’ within the umma have not only been stifled, but outright repressed and marginalized by the orthodoxy.  They’ve been silenced, bullied, and threatened.  Rational thinking has been banished; unquestioning compliance with the orthodoxy and blind dogma have become the order of the day and the status quo, even today.  Intellectual jihad has been defeated, but it has not been tossed in the dustbin just yet.  Intellectual jihad must be revived.  The Boston bombings are only one of many ominous signs of the dangers of repressing intellectual jihad and rational thinking.

One voice that strongly urged the Islamic umma to undertake the ‘intellectual jihad’ was the late Professor Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), originally from Pakistan.  He was exiled for speaking for rational thinking and against fanaticism and fundamentalism, which were on the rise in Pakistan.  Professor Rahman wrote many books and articles, and his book, Islam (1979), in particular explains the sources of fundamentalism and fanaticism in puritanical Islamic movements, since early Islamic history to the post-colonial era.  His advocacy for ‘intellectual jihad’ remained marginalized, while the voices and power of the puritanical orthodoxy in the umma became popularized.  Violent jihadism has managed to eclipse what used to be considered “the Greater Jihad,” that of struggling for self-improvement.  Intellectual jihad is yet another vein in Islamic exegesis and the need for reinterpretation in order to adjust to modernity, which has for too long remained suppressed.

The puritanical orthodoxy, then, has perpetuated intellectual stagnation and impeded the much-needed Islamic renaissance and reformation in the modern era.  The spread of harmful, intolerant ideologies, such as Wahhabism and Salafism, are documented sources of indoctrination into violent jihadism.  Online and satellite TV self-proclaimed clerics, who are usually uneducated in Islam and Classical Arabic, have easy access to impressionable Muslims, appealing to their emotions.  Rational thinking never enters their spheres and domains.  Counter-terrorism strategies need to address the source of the problem – these clerics, their messages, and the dangerous emotive ideologies they profess – rather than dealing reactively with just the symptoms.

Islamic schools usually teach rote memorization of the Quran, without understanding the meanings of the verses.  Classical Quranic Arabic is difficult even for native Arabic speakers, because it’s an obsolete and extremely difficult language.  Religious seminaries do not encourage questioning.  Memorizing verses, but failing to understand them, and also authoritatively forbidding any questioning of the curricula, all constitute a recipe for disaster.  Such curricula will never lead a student to a comprehensive education with competent skills for a viable career, nor would such students be contributing anything to social progress.

Muslims and Islamic religious authorities bear the responsibility to support and promote intellectual jihad and rational thinking.  This is imperative, and without such reformation those embracing the violent form of jihad will continue to capitalize on its use of violence and terror.  Hence, the proponents of violent jihad will continue to perpetuate insecurity, and governments will continue to react with harsher constraints on civil liberties and rights.  The vicious cycle will revolve indefinitely.

Religious reform is embodied in the intellectual form of jihad.  Given that religion and politics are not separate in Islam, such reform is imperative for facilitating progressive intellectual, spiritual, and political discourses.  One of the methodologies of Islamic jurisprudence is ijtihad, which is ‘reinterpretation,’ or ‘original thinking,’ applying reasoning and analytical thought to Islamic laws and principles.  Ijtihad allows for change and reform, without modifying the essence of Islamic principles and laws.  In modern history, ijtihad has been static, as the ultra-orthodox religious authorities and institutions have suppressed the process of change, which has been urgently needed in order to adjust to modernity.  In the field it’s said, “the gate of ijtihad has closed.”  Hence, Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism have predominated in modern history.  But is the gate truly closed, or is it blockaded by unsavory forces?  And if it’s closed, at least it is not locked!

It’s worth examining Fazlur Rahman’s forthright assessment of Islam and the roots of fundamentalism and fanaticism, and heeding his caveats and recommendations.  Otherwise, violent jihadism will continue to hijack Islam and perpetuate the worst that criminal behavior can offer.  It’s in no one’s interest to allow that to happen.

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