Stephen Chan: We’ve talked about just war, and we’ve used just war theory as a template for discussing just rebellion. And we’ve talked about the justice that enables a rebellion to take place. And we’ve also talked about what is just conduct within that rebellion, in both cases borrowing from just war theory.
What happens, however, if rebellion uses war as one of its instruments to achieve its aims? At this point in time you’ve got an amalgamation of both just war and just rebellion theory, both in terms of just cause and in terms also of course of just conduct during the actual uprising which would then necessarily involve war. This becomes the backdrop theme to what we want to discuss today, which is essentially in the first instance historical examples and debate on jihad. But also talking about its modern day manifestation particularly in today’s headlines—things that concern all of us. Not only in the Middle East today but in other parts of the world, including here in Europe.
But insofar as jihad is often said to be launched against the new crusaders, I thought it might be interesting to start with an example from the early Medieval Crusades. We’re very familiar with the Crusades from our history books, of course. We have history that tells one side of these crusades. But really from 1096 through to 1272, you had protracted efforts to launch crusade in the Middle East led by Christian armies, led by Christian kings and emperors. And there were a total of nine of these crusades in this period of time.
The first three were the ones that made most of the historical, as it were, grandeur of the efforts of these crusades to reclaim the former Christian lands and to establish Christian kingdoms in them. And of course one of the great English kings, Richard Lionheart, was very much involved in the second great Crusade. And even outside the houses of parliament today you’ll see two statues. One is of Oliver Cromwell, the other one is of Richard Lionheart holdings his word aloft, and this is the sort of Christianity, the sword of Christendom.
There’s actually a very famous story of a truce during the Second Crusade. At a meeting of the two kings, Richard Lionheart leading the crusaders and Saladin leading the resistance as it were to the crusaders. They met in a moment truce during the Battle of [?]. The truce meeting was held in Saladin’s tent. Richard Lionheart strode into the tent and took out his broadsword, crashed down on of the logs burning in Saladin’s fireplace and said, “This is the sword of Christianity.”
In reply it is said Saladin picked up a silk scarf and tossed it in the air, took out his scimitar, and sliced it in half and said, “This is the sword of Islam.”
That kind of mutual regard and that kind of contrast in terms of methodologies of course did not obviate any of the bloodshed that took place in the Crusades. But a very interesting thing happened towards the end of the Second Crusade, which ended in the defeat of the Christian army. And Saladin was able to take cities that we would now recognize as Syrian cities. And also cities in what we would call the disputed territories of Israel and Palestine, such as Jerusalem.
And after the capture by Saladin of Jerusalem, after the capture of what was left of the Christian kingdom and the Christian armies, he did not commit any atrocities. And so great was his mercy, so great was his capacity to spare life and to let people go free—usually for a very very token ransom—that the rumor was spread abroad in Europe itself that in fact this Islamic fighter must’ve been a closet Christian because so great was his mercy that it was inconceivable in terms of the propaganda of that point in time that he could’ve been someone who was in fact a Muslim. For Saladin himself, he would have been observing the emerging Islamic doctrines of what was just conduct in war. More of that a little bit later.
But as I say, the whole image of the new crusades is put forward today as a justification for jihad. A lot of the modern discourse on jihad is associated with what we call Wahhabism. And I want to have a brief look at what Wahhabism means. It’s a form of Sunni Islam. It comes from a territory that we would now call Saudi Arabia. It was very very much conceived as a riposte an Islam that had been starting to go soft and luxuriant as the 18th century progressed.
So Wahhabism is a purification movement that began quite recently, the 18th century as I said, propagated by a preacher and a scholar called Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. And of course Wahhabism was named al-Wahhab. And its influence spread throughout the desert lands. So much so that in the 20th century, when Lawrence of Arabia was conducting war on behalf of the Allied cause in this part of Arabia, he recounted what he came across in the town of Qasim. And he said that Qasim was a place which had be overtaken by Wahhabist belief. And he found no coffee, he found no tobacco, he was unable to have dalliances even of a Platonic nature with the local women. There were no silk clothes. There was no gold and silver for headropes for the headdresses of the men. And for Lawrence after months of riding around on camels in the desert this was a terrible deprivation, not to have what he thought were quite innocuous and innocent pastimes that he could settle into in the pause for battle. And the idea of Wahhabism as a cult of deprivation, almost like an equivalent of Puritanical Christianity, took hold from his writings in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Now, in fact there was much more to Wahhabism than a simple puritanical element to it. But what you’ve got in particular is an element of purification which is not simply, as I said, puritanical, but an idea of purification which makes an outcast or an enemy of anyone who is not Islamic in the strictest possible sense. In other words, if you thought outside of a certain pale, you become not a sinner, in other words if you’re a sinner there may be all kinds of possibilities of your being forgiven, of your being reincorporated into the fold at a later point in time. But if you fall outside of the fold, even if you profess a form of Islam you’re necessarily a heretic. So the distinction that he would draw between someone who’s lapsed and someone’s beyond the pale was something that was drawn very very strictly indeed in Wahhabism.
Not only that but the purification of the religion also meant a very strict adherence to the worship only of one god. So intervening variables such as giving respect to the shrines of saints, for instance, something that was very very much associated with both the Sufi and the Shia approach to Islam, that kind of intermediate device that detracted from worship directly to the glory of god, that was forbidden. So that Wahhabism necessarily at a very early stage came to be at odds with both Shia and also particular with Sufi approaches to Islam.
And the idea that here you had in the desert itself a metaphor for the purity of Islam and the purity of worship towards God, stark and austere, was given a geopolitical impulse in the alliance that al-Wahhab made with the House of Saud, ancestors of the present rulers of Saudi Arabia. Political rulers, they and al-Wahhab formed an alliance. It was an alliance which was, with various deviations along the way, to last the test of time. So that the relationship between a form of Wahhabism and the House of Saud continues to this present day.
This implicates us directly into the geopolitics of today. It’s not necessarily the same Wahhabism, because obviously the House of Saud, particular the royal family, is not given to living a particularly spartan life. But some of the strictures that you see in terms of the laws of Saudi Arabia; the very very strict observance of certain parameters, the role of women being a subservient one being a case in point; the impossibility underneath Saudi law to leave Islam as your religion—in other words you cannot become an apostate, you cannot legally leave the religion of Islam if you were born Islamic, that is regarded as blasphemous and is actually a capital crime. As we speak there are people who are charged with capital offense of being apostate, of leaving Islam. And that is very much resonant of the original Wahhabism that puts you beyond the pale. If you desert you are not simply a sinner, you are apostate, you are heretical, and that is a crime that is punishable by death.
But the very very great links and almost tenacious integration between the religion and the state became something which was cemented by an incident in Mecca itself with quite history. But before I describe that particular incident I should say that what you had was not just Wahhabism as the only representative of a purified Islam. Wahhabism probably is best regarded as a peculiarly Saudi variant of what we call Salafism, which is very very much to do with purification. It is something which you might say was closely associated for instance with the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for instance. And that began in 1928. So again a 20th century manifestation
But very very much taking on board certain tendencies that were demarcated by the Egyptian environment, opposition to the particular ruling class and the ruling elite in Egypt at that point in time. And of course the Brotherhood has retained its role as an oppositional device in Egyptian politics, with a brief period in recent times when it was able to form an unsuccessful government before it was outlawed and purged yet again. But the idea that there could be a purity within a state structure that all the same sought to modernize, is something which differentiates to a very large extent Salafism that is not Wahhabi. In other words the idea of integrating with a modern context, of trying to practice the religion within a modern context, even if a very purified form of the religion.
In Saudi Arabia, of course, the great contradiction is how to transact a religion which is to do with purification in a state which simultaneously wishes to have the trappings of modernity, but at the same time wishes to have the administration of antiquity. And that gives rise to all kinds of difficulties.
When it was seen that the House of Saud and the state of Saudi Arabia was moving far too much towards a lack of purity in its habits and its association with outside forces, then there was rebellion within Saudi Arabia itself. And I’m thinking particularly of a moment in time when there was in Mecca what we might today call an atrocity. And that was in 1979 when a group of militants seized the Grand Mosque. It was at precisely the time of pilgrimage. It was at precisely that point in time when everyone thought that of all the places in the Islamic world that would be safe, it would be the Grand Mosque in Mecca itself.
So the militants struck at that point in time, declaring that a new Mahdi was going to come to power. That it was to cleanse Saudi Arabia from the decadence of the of the House of Saud. And that the Mahdi would return all of Islam, not just Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, to a purity not only of the time of al-Wahhab, but a purity that was resident at the time of Muhammad himself.
Now, the Mahdi I should hasten to add is not actually a Koranic figure. It’s a post-Koranic figure. It’s probably a title that is first referred to in a late hadith. It’s not something which is originating from Muhammad’s time itself. But it is very very much to do with the restoration to Muhammadean era.
The Mahdi is someone who is yet to come. In some respect you could say he has messianic qualities, a counterpart of the Christian messiah. But when he does come, certainly he’s going to be Muhammad’s successor. That is very much the article of faith in a Sunni approach to the idea of the Mahdi. In the Shia belief, in fact the Mahdi has come but has disappeared, but will be able to reappear—this is called the occultation of Hidden Imam, and at the point in time when he does reappear, the era of the just man will also come upon the Earth. But one way or the other, at the appearance or reappearance of the Mahdi justice will come to the Earth, and will be justice in the image of Muhammad.
This has not prevented all kinds of would-be or want-to-be Mahdis declaring themselves to be exactly this figure. The British had an experience with a Mahdi who overcame British colonial forces in Sudan, General Gordon fell at the Battle of Khartoum at the hands of the Mahdi himself. And what we have now in the so-called Islamic State is simply the latest in a long line of people who are declaring themselves to be this much-prophesied figure to come to cleanse the Earth of wickedness.
But in 1979 at the battle for the Grand Mosque in Mecca, what you had was the representation of a rebellion on behalf of the new Mahdi, who was going to accomplish this cleansing and purification in Saudi Arabia itself. And bloody battles took place. And the Saudi forces were able to make no headway whatsoever against the rebels who entrenched themselves not only in the buildings but the underground chambers in the mosque precinct. So it took some weeks before the standoff was able to be brought to a military conclusion.
Even now, accounts differ as to exactly who accomplished the overcoming of these modest rebels. We have accounts in which the CIA did the actual overcoming of the rebels. You have other accounts where the French Foreign Legion was brought in, and they try to gas the rebels out of the tunnel complexes in the mosque precinct. You have other accounts in which Pakistani commandos actually did the final deeds.
Not all of the rebels, whoever overcame them, were killed. Many of them, several hundred of them, were publicly executed very much as a warning to others after the event, after they were overcome by whichever force was able to do that. But what it meant was that apart from the public spectacle of beheading the surviving rebels, the House of Saud decided, according to many commentators although this is never ever publicly admitted, that it had better to come to a deal with its Wahhabist religious counterpart within the kingdom.
So there was, according to those who have speculated on this matter, a political deal that allowed the House of Saud to continue its rulership of Saudi Arabia provided certain approaches to the legal system and the constitutional system were maintained along Wahhabist lines, and provided the House of Saud turned a blind eye to the propagation of jihad outside of Saudi Arabia. This establishes a dichotomy in the practice of statehood and statecraft, when a state which is meant to be part of the Westphalian system is in some part involved, implicated in, perhaps directly concerned with the sponsorship of the degradation of states outside of Saudi Arabia.
We have no real evidence that this kind of deal was formally made. However there does seem to be a lot of circumstantial evidence that this deal was made. However, those who make a straight linkage between this Wahhabism and its accommodation of the House of Saud and Islamic State today have to bear in mind that there was not just one straight descendant of Wahhabism that infected other parts of the world. If you’re looking for instance at Al-Qaeda, at its association with the Taliban, for instance, in Afghanistan, you’re looking at a very very different form of Wahhabism. Not one that renounces the purification of Islam. But one which is resident with all kinds of local influences. And even though some of these were influences that were inflected by Saudi support—Osama bin Laden coming over to Afghanistan, for instance; a Saudi nobleman from a very rich family, who came with a very great deal of money and military capacity to help those who were resisting warlordism in Afghanistan—you still have in Afghanistan a Pashtun determination of key elements of how this Wahhabism should be addressed.
And of course the presence of the late Mullah Omar is very very important here. Don’t forget in 1994 very much in the wake of the disputes and wars in Afghanistan, very very much engendered by resistance to the Soviet invasion of that particular country in 1976, very much exacerbated by Pakistani channels being used for American support of the resistance to the Soviet occupation, what you had in 1999 was basically a fragmented country with many warlords, many of whom were supported by American weaponry and American finance. But what it means was that these warlords were answerable to no central code of law, no central code of conduct, and were rapacious in the literal sense of being responsible for raping people as opposed to pillaging the countryside and the local population.
So the story in 1994 is that the parents of two schoolgirls who were abducted from their local village could find no redress. They could not get their daughters back. Their daughters had been abducted by a warlord who was going to use them as his concubines. And the parents came to Mullah Omar and said, “Please help us.” He was the local illiterate village priest, blind in one eye, incapacitated therefore physically. And they pleaded with the Mullah, “Can you help us to get the girls back?”
And the mullah said, “Yes, I will try,” and rounded up thirty taleb—that is theology students, the students of God. The thirty talebs and Mullah Omar—so there were thirty-one of them—managed to secure sixteen rifles. So one between two. And with sixteen rifles they assaulted the military barracks of the warlord. And miraculously overcame the forces of the warlord. They executed the warlord by hanging him from the gun barrel of one of his own tanks. And restored the girls to their parents. And of course, overnight a legend was born.
Within weeks, the small number of thirty taleb had become the Taliban, and they assaulted the capital city Kabul. Took it from the forces that were occupying Kabul at that point in time. Restored a form of Islam to Afghanistan which is peculiar however to the south, to Pashtun territory. Those who were not part of the south melted away into their northern strongholds, many of them were Shia.
So you had as it were the construction of almost an archetypical division within Afghanistan, with the south being led by a Pashtun-inflected Wahhabism enunciated and articulated by the Taliban, with help from Osama bin Laden, who then made of course the mistake of attacking the United States. And then, of course, the wrath of the West fell upon of Afghanistan. If it was left at that, maybe well and good and you might have had a contained phenomenon. Taking the fight into Iraq was of course, as many of us would now tend to agree, very much a steps too far.
But the meltdown in Iraq is what concerns us now. Because this is now an area that’s associated with the depredations of ISIS. It spread over into Syria. Very much in terms of the geopolitical construction of the region it is now a zone of complete conflict. But a zone of conflict which should not be dichotomized as simply one between Western civilization and Islamic State representing a form of militant Wahhabism. Al Qaeda factions are still active in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front, for instance is formally affiliated to what’s left of Al Qaeda, and they’re fighting Islamic state when they’re not busily fighting the Soviets—well, the Russians, that is—using Western weaponry.
In other words despite the binary elements that come across in Western newspapers, you’ve actually got all kinds of cross-cutting currents. An Al Qaeda affiliate, armed and encouraged by Western powers, part of the 70,000-strong army that Mr. Cameron was going to depend upon, on the ground fighting another Wahhabist organization (Islamic State), but doing so for very very different reasons, and that is for the sake of ownership of Assyria as opposed to ownership of a new caliphate underneath a new Mahdi.
So the complication of all of this is profound. What is even more profound is in fact the extent to which the Islamic State might seek to reach. Don’t forget that the early title of the Islamic State (ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), was not in fact demarcated as Syria in the first instance. Originally it was meant to stand for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām. And al-Shām is a historical term for all that part of the Middle East between Anatolia (that is the middle of Turkey) right through across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and reaching into the upper reaches of Egypt or into the Sinai.
If that is in fact the vision of the eventual extent of the caliphate, then that is an awful lot of territory. Of course, it has been drawn into Iraq and into Syria because of vacuum there, because of governments that were weak and corrupt in Iraq, and certainly in terms of the civil war in Syria that allowed a vacuum to be created into which ISIS was able to step and to declare itself as the progenitors of a new kind of state, or rather a very old kind of state, the caliphate would realize the dreams of Muhammad.
Complicating all of this of course in Iraq is that you have a government in Iraq which, no matter how incompetent or corrupt, is Shia. Thus the Iranians are drawn in on the side of the Shia in the government of Iraq. When you look at the situation in Syria, although the majority of the population in Syria is Sunni, the Alawite faction from which President Assad draw his support and of which he is a member—something like between 12 and 15% of the population, that is Shia. When you look at other forces that support President Assad, like Hezbollah from Lebanon, then you’re also looking at a Shia force.
So what you have is a multidimensional conflict which involves not only geopolitics and international politics, you also have a clash within Islam itself between a purified Islam in two very key and different forms: the Al-Nusra Front which is siding with the other rebels fighting against the Assad regime, but also fighting against ISIS, which is trying to declare and maintain a caliphate across the borders of Iraq and Syria.
Now, this has all given rise to a number of questions. What in modern terms does all of this mean, in terms of the beliefs of ISIS? And of course the characterization of ISIS as somehow mindless, as somehow thoughtless, as somehow fundamentalist, has relieved us of the burden of trying to decipher whether or not something deeper might be at stake here.
You also have the great contradiction of course that here you have an organization, a movement that seeks to restore a moment of purity to Islam, a moment of purity along the lines of Muhammad himself and his particular time, that looks to a Mahdi that regards himself as restoring a period of rule, and the conduct of rule, and the ethos of rule, and the purity of rule from the times of Muhammad. But at the same time using all kinds of modern devices. You’re looking at latest-generation electronic capacity, for instance. Latest-generation social media command. So not just the use of electronic means but also very sophisticated usages of them for propaganda and recruitment purposes. Access to electronic banking of the most sophisticated sort. Access to weaponry of the very latest generation. Access to transportation of the very very latest sort. The number of Toyotas and Nissans that have been armored, that’ve got reinforced tires and are carrying identical Browning machine guns does suggest that there is somewhere along the line an originator in terms of the financing and the procurement of equipment for this insurrection, among others.
Of course since their early conquests they’ve been able to establish other sources of income, not least oil, not least the reserves in the banks of the cities that have being conquered in the ISIS outreach. And of course also by taxation of the citizens who are now living within the newly-established caliphate.
So whether or not there was an original financial sponsorship and equipment of ISIS forces, that is now only one part of the overall economic picture which constitutes the formation of a financial for ISIS. So you’ve got all of the sophistication and all of these multifarious inputs that all the same are meant to sit alongside a fundamentalist ideology.
And I think that what is striking about discourse in the West is just how primitive it has been. About a year ago there was the appearance of one article, and it was the first article that was more than 3,000 words long. It appeared in The Atlantic monthly, which is a American intellectual journal—I think you can call it that. Conservative leanings, but you would not call it a right-wing journal and simply say that was all its content represented. Let us say it is very well-considered “thinking person’s,” slightly right-wing journal, not a neo-con journal in any sense that we would normally wish to give it. But that was the only such article to have appeared up to that point in time, almost exactly a year ago. There’s been very very little since.
A recent effort has been a book by a colleague of mine called Paul Moorcraft, The Jihadist Threat. Paul is not only an academic but also a journalist and also let us say politely a military adventurer. So the book is largely breathless journalism, giving a journalistic account of the history of jihad. But also very very much something which has not yet intruded upon most Western discourse. The latter part of the book is a very very real interrogation of strategic ways forward, which of course would differ from a simple airstrike or [inaudible] and fix everything approach to the problem that is now ISIS.
Karen Armstrong, who’s the author of numerous books on religious issues—a former nun turned scholar—books on Christianity, books on Islam, even a book on Buddhism and the character of Buddha himself—wrote a series of essays—one in The New Statesman, again reaching back six months ago to springtime 2015—very much reinforcing the idea that this is very much part of a Saudi outreach into the rest of the world, and mostly into the rest of the Islamic world.
So the casualties of the ISIS outreach have been predominantly Islamic, predominantly those regarded as apostate, those who have fallen by the way, those who are not merely sinners but therefore heretics and therefore worthy of condemnation. Whether you can sustain a sole and single Saudi link in the face of all of the other international links that ISIS has been able to make, that is something I think that Western statesmen are trying in a very very simplistic way to ponder.
But certainly the recruitment devices used by ISIS have been profound. You have essentially international brigades fighting on their side. People attracted by the idea of just cause. Not necessarily restraint, however, about what is meant to be just conduct in a war which is meant at the same time to be a rebellion against imperial outreach which is apostate.
So you’ve got a co-joint, geopolitical (that is in terms of the imperialism of the West), and religious and confessional ambition (that is to roll back apostasy), to create as it were an alternative to the Westphalian state by the restoration of a caliphate which would be ruled along Muhammadean lines. You’ve actually got a series of ambitions there which are anything but simply fundamentalist but quite profound when you put them all together. In other words the sophistication of the ambition is profound.
Which of course leaves unanswered the question “what is the nature of the belief?” I think this has to be approached in two ways: Whether or not the nature and the profundity of the belief—if indeed there is profundity—is in fact what attracts recruits to the international brigades who fight, or whether they’re attracted by other reasons—the very simplistic degradation of the complexities of the world into as it were a soundbite jihadism. Or whether or not there is underlying all of it in the circles around the self-proclaimed Mahdi a deeper idea of a form of resistance to not only imperialism as led by the West, as it has infected the House of Saud, and therefore a response and a rebellion on the grounds of purity.
Whether or not that has any kind of resonance and sophistication beyond a simple blanket statement. What is this purity? There would seem to be a very fair degree of pragmatism in the way that ISIS administers its conquered territories. For the most part, apart from implementing regimes of strict discipline (you cannot stray beyond certain as it were forms of everyday behavior), most of the actual day-to-day administration has been left in the hands of municipal authorities who were already there. They know how to do it. In other words there’s been a contextual accommodation of those territories that they have conquered. Whether or not this is simply as it were something which is convenient at this point in time, or whether it is something which is going to be a template for how other conquered areas, if indeed there are other conquered areas, how they’re going to be administered remains to be seen.
What does that mean in terms of the Western response? Well, first of all there needs to be an engagement which involves Islam itself. Or different strands, not only of Sunni and Shia Islam but within Sunni Islam itself exactly what is meant by a modern Wahhabism. As I said, if you have one al Qaeda affiliate that’s able to cooperate with the West, surely there are certain lines of negotiation, accommodation, even of a pragmatic nature, that are possible.
What does the new caliphate mean to do in terms of the Westphalian state system if it’s allowed simply to maintain its place in the Middle East and occupies on a perpetual basis parts of northern Iraq and parts of northern Syria? Will it simply be satisfied with itself as that self-contained caliphate, or will it wish to spread into the areas that stretch from Anatolia to the Upper Sinai? Or would it wish to spread further and combat apostasy in all different parts of the world?
One way or the other there’s an idea afoot here. And as Dostoyevsky said in his famous novel you can’t actually fight an idea with guns. If however you are going to fight an idea with guns, and of course the debate that is raging this very day as we speak here not too far in Parliament, is will guns be enough? And will guns from the air simply be enough?
And just as we have not had a joined-up foreign policy in the past with regard to this phenomenon, so it seems unlikely we’re going to have a joined-up military policy on this matter. Nor does it seem likely that we’re going to have a joined-up policy on the economic consequences of an Islamic State. Who is buying the oil, for instance, that they use for part of their income? Nor have we got a joined-up ideological, philosophical, and ethical approach to how to have as it were an intercourse with Islam in all of its manifold manifestations. That idea of being able to meet idea with idea is something which I think has defeated the West up to this point in time and actually speaks volumes about the failure of the West, even as the West hopes for an eventual military victory.