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The deep Crisis of the West
What do they really want?
17.02.2015. The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it. Thus writes Graeme Wood in his article What ISIS Really Wants (italics in original, boldface emphasis added):
Read the (much longer) essay in its entirety in The Atlantic.
What is the Islamic State? Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.
Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)
But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.
Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.
Their skepticism is comprehensible. In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics—notably the late Edward Said—who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.
Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.
Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”
Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.
According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”
The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.
Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”
Before the rise of the Islamic State, no group in the past few centuries had attempted more-radical fidelity to the Prophetic model than the Wahhabis of 18th‑century Arabia. They conquered most of what is now Saudi Arabia, and their strict practices survive in a diluted version of Sharia there. Haykel sees an important distinction between the groups, though: “The Wahhabis were not wanton in their violence.” They were surrounded by Muslims, and they conquered lands that were already Islamic; this stayed their hand. “ISIS, by contrast, is really reliving the early period.” Early Muslims were surrounded by non-Muslims, and the Islamic State, because of its takfiri tendencies, considers itself to be in the same situation.
[Anjem] Choudary took pains to present the laws of war under which the Islamic State operates as policies of mercy rather than of brutality. He told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies—a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.
It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.
It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.
Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.
The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.
Why not listen to moderate Muslims?
07.02.2015. Rather than repeating the this-is-nothing-to-do-with-Islam mantra every time Muslim extremists commit acts of terror, Western leaders and others with a frail grasp on the big picture should listen to what moderate Muslims have to say about today's problems. For example Ziauddin Sardar, who writes in The Independent (emphasis added):
"This has nothing to do with Islam," say the imams. "These callous and fanatic murders have nothing to do with us," say the mullahs. "Islam means peace," say the worshippers. These disclaimers, and variations on them, have been repeated countless times by Muslim commentators since the Charlie Hebdo killings. They are designed to distance people from guilt by association with those who kill and maim in the name of Islam.
But what about the sentence recently handed down to the (mildly) liberal blogger Raif Badawi in the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia? Ten years in jail, a massive fine, 1,000 lashes over 20 weeks (currently suspended because the first 50 lashes have rendered him "medically unfit")? Does this have "nothing to do with Islam"? Does the hashtag "Je suis un couteau" – referring to this week's stabbing of 11 Israelis on a bus – have "nothing to do with Islam"? Not to mention the 10 Christians killed during Charlie protests in Niger last week, or the ongoing depredations of al-Qaeda, Isis, Boko Haram, the Taliban and the Laskar Jihad of Indonesia?
The psychotic followers of these organisations all think that they are Muslims, and their Islam is based on beliefs that millions who subscribe to Wahhabism, the Saudi version of the religion – and its kin, Salafism – accept as essential ingredients of their faith. For example, that sharia, or Islamic law, is divinely ordained and immutable; that apostates and blasphemers should be killed; that women should be shrouded and confined to four walls and that men are their guardians.
This is a widespread version of Islam, made more so by modern communications; increasingly gaining followers in Europe, it can be, and is, used to justify all manner of atrocities. Yet this is an Islam of manufactured dogma which relies on neither the Koran nor the example of the Prophet Mohamed.
So where do these beliefs come from? From today's extremist leaders, of course. But also, historically, from caliphs and clerics who realised that religion could perform a very useful function: it could keep the masses in their place and ensure that power remained in the hands of a select few.
From their different perspectives, these and numerous other free thinkers of Islamic history arrived at a common conclusion: state-sponsored Islam is full of edicts and rituals that are absurd and insulting to reason. Free thought was the only way to cut through this nonsense and take us closer to God.
So why don't we hear more about these great thinkers and questioners today? Because concentrated attempts have been made, and continue to be made, to stifle free thinking and wipe its record from Islam's history. The traditional curriculum, unchanged for centuries, in most madrassas, seminaries and "Islamic universities" is devoted solely to the works of "approved" imams and scholars, and even the minutest critical thought is ruthlessly expunged. (In Saudi Arabia and most Gulf states, for example, it is forbidden to teach the ideas and works of Ibn al-Rawandi, Ibn Rushd, and al-Biruni.) In recent years, Saudi Arabia's rulers have spent £70bn in attempts to suppress critical thought – funding mosques, madrassas, universities and tele-evangelicals – with the result that generations of Muslims around the world, including Britain, now imbibe the Wahhabi ideology.
Today, as in history, all attempts to rethink our understanding and relationship with God, to interrogate orthodox belief, to bring reason back to Islam, are shunned – not just by the fanatics but by the vast majority of Muslims. The manufactured articles of faith seem to have an unassailable hold on Muslim minds. And so the moderate free thinkers' legacy, so vital at this time of sectarian warfare within Islam, is swept collectively under the carpet of accepted, if artificial, doctrine.
This phenomenon is the central problem in all varieties of Islam. In the absence of reason and criticism, the heritage has become toxic. At best, it promotes intolerance and bigotry; at worse, it manifests itself as fanaticism and violent jihadism. And until more Muslims question it, they cannot claim that its manifestations have "nothing to do with Islam".
Our best hope of dealing with extremism is to challenge the doctrines manufactured by religious scholars, from the past and present. The distinguished history of critical thought in Islam must be brought back from the periphery to the centre. And if its spread is hindered in the Muslim heartlands, then it must be exported back from the West.
Read the entire essay in The Independent.
Ziauddin Sardar is editor of the quarterly journal 'Critical Muslim'. His book, 'Mecca: The Sacred City', is published by Bloomsbury.
Child sex abuse gangs continue to destroy young lives
06.02.2015. Rotherham’s Labour MP Sarah Champion describes it as a «national disaster» and is demanding a taskforce to fight the «horror». There could be up to a million victims of child sexual exploitation in the UK, it is feared. Thus reports The Daily Mirror.
HonestThinking comments: I hope the quoted figure of one million is an exaggeration or an inaccurate estimate. However, Champion is undoubtedly right that this whole thing is indeed a «national disaster».
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