With a mixture of shock, horror and bemusement the world watched as the Middle East gave birth to yet another atavistic monster :ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – a jihadi militia, which is a killing machine that swept across the mainly Sunni northern Iraq sending shockwaves across the entire Middle East and beyond. Words like brutal and ruthless do not do justice to the gruesome videos it released boasting of its murderous prowess.
No sooner had we begun to recover from the blood-curdling scenes than we were served another twist in the unfolding epic of the break up of Iraq as we know it. ISIS announced the rebirth of the Islamic Caliphate on the territory it controls, changed its name to the Islamic State, with its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi anointing himself as the new caliph. A week later, he stepped out of the shadows for the first time to appear in august black robes from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque preaching to the faithful.
IS’s swift overrunning of the Iraqi army (a spectacular mix of blood-soaked military bravado and media spin) has produced a wide range of reactions : predictable jubilations from Islamists, including the so called moderate Muslim Brothers who described ISIS’s terror campaign as a revolution for freedom, to warnings that the world and regional powers must forget their differences to confront the fanatical jihadis.
The Iraqi government appears to have managed to stop IS’s military advance on Baghdad so far. Meanwhile, the militia is consolidating its grip on the territory it has conquered, with Mosul being the biggest prize.
The fall out from this war is still being played out and no one knows for sure how it will map out in the near or distant future.
But the brutality and ruthlessness of IS in the name of Islam has once again brought to the fore the question of why does our region appear to be so prolific on the jihadi production line and poor in much else ? Note that jihad has another noble sense, but that holds no sway in our part of the world.
You may find the answer to that question in the sermon delivered by the self-proclaimed caliph, Al-Baghdadi, delivered in the Mosul mosque on Friday, July the fifth.
Almost nothing he said in this sermon could not have been said by any Azhari (mainstream) cleric in Cairo or Tunisia or Beirut. Like any Friday sermon it was replete with verses from the Quran and references to Islamic tradition. It was almost indistinguishable from any other mainstream Islamic discourse. No excesses, or heresies. This is not a “twisted version of Islam” ( a phrase used often by little knowing Western politicians who want to condemn militant Islam without offending ordinary Muslims)
That makes the challenge from Islamism all the more difficult and elusive to defeat as long as it uses the same lexicon, the same verses, and hadiths of the prophet. It is not just a conflict of interpretation, but a conflict over who has the right/authority to interpret and act upon that interpretation. Those who prevail by the sword will impose their interpretation, as we see happening in Mosul today.
As others have noted, it should come as no surprise that the likes of Al-Baghdadi are the natural product of what traditional Islamic learning and history text books : the portrayal of the distant Isalmic past as a continuous history of glory presided over by infallible and just Muslim rulers. Such a fallacy sustains the discourse of nearly all Islamists. Going back to that lost utopia is the only solution to Iraq’s or Egypt’s woes.
Dismantling such myths is the perhaps the best way to confront political Islam in all its current forms.
There’s no shortage of books — primarily by intellectuals for intellectuals — that deconstruct the Islamist discourse. But unless such ideas reach mainstream media, the mosque and the school textbooks the chances of reversing the Islamist tide will remain limited.
In an apparent response to Al-Baghdadi anointing himself as caliph in Mosul, several writers and columnists have begun wondering what had gone wrong with Arab societies to produce such cruel anomalies.
A leading Egyptian writer and broadcaster, Ibrahim Issa, devoted an-hour long television show to deconstruct the myth of the caliphate as the panacea to all Muslim woes, reminding the viewers that the caliph (except in rare cases) was a ruthless despot, and that there was no shortage back then (like now) of clerics defending his brutality in the name of Islamic sharia.
Whether this will develop into a larger trend or remain confined to television studios, and intellectual talk shows, it is too early to say.
If it proves to be the beginning of something more sustained, it would still be years (if not decades) before that nascent soul-searching reaches the heart of the institutions that jealously guard the mythical version of Islamic history – the soil out of which the likes of Al-Baghdadi sprout and spread.
(Written for IslamistGate : http://www.islamistgate.com/804 )