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Islam As It Was – Part 2

March, 2009
By Michael Pixley

Quo Vadis?

There was, perhaps, no one thing that explained the rise of the West: it was a complex series of events—perhaps, most notably, the growing idea that authority could and should be questioned. The invention of the printing press made literacy more than simply the privilege of the clergy and nobility. The Reformation challenged the power of the Vatican. The Renaissance encouraged art and and provided a better climate for scientific investigation. Great intellects began to speculate about the nature of the universe and the mindlessness of the age came under serious attack (and still is). Warfare was still the sport of kings and princes but expanding technology helped to introduce new efficiencies into the business of killing people.

One date, however, does stick out: 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War. It was this date, as noted by Sir John Hackett, that signaled the “end of a period in which fervent Christians were prepared to hang, burn, torture, shoot or poison other fervent Christians with whom they happened to disagree upon the correct approach to eternal life.” (The Profession of Arms, New York, 1983, p. 75). Warfare persisted but less in the name of God and more to gain advantages in power and trade.

By the late 18th century the Ottomans were facing military reversals, particularly against the Russians. For centuries they had been pre-eminent on the battlefield, and as the 18th century blended into the 19th, those victories happened less often. The Crimean War was, in some ways, a sign that all was not lost for the Ottomans but had they not been aided by the British and the French, there is no doubt that the Russian army would have crushed them. Rising nationalism among subject Balkan minorities, especially the Serbs and Greeks, caused the Ottoman Empire to retreat and by the19th century it became what Tsar Nicholas I called “The Sick Man of Europe.” There were substantial military and governmental reforms during that period but not enough to counter the appetite of Europeans in general (and Russians in particular) for a piece of the Ottoman pie. Istanbul toyed with various ideologies to help unite its diverse population, such as Pan-Islamism and Pan-Ottomanism but neither enjoyed much success. The Ottomans were a polyglotal empire with too much diversity to allow for a unified state to succeed. Having never undergone an industrial revolution, they were also poorly prepared for contemporary warfare and on the brink of the First World War, the Ottomans were entertaining military missions from Britain, France and Germany in order to modernize their army and navy. And then came that terrible war.

The Ottomans did not want for courage and their grit at Gallipoli showed that in the right circumstances, they could hold off the armies of Britain and France. Russia hammered them on the northeastern frontier and in the south the British managed to fan the spark of the Arab revolt. Most of the Ottoman domains in the Balkans had been lost in the late 19th century as had its authority in North Africa: now it was the turn of the Arab tribes to snuff out Ottoman control south of the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia proper. At the end of the war, Istanbul was occupied and the sultan cum caliph was nothing more than a puppet in the hands of the victorious Allies. Though not as bloody as the sack of Baghdad, that occupation was still a terrible blow for the Islamic heartlands. The Europeans assembled an outrageous plan to parcel out the remains of the Ottoman cadaver, leaving but a small portion of Anatolia to the Turks. Something had clearly gone very, very wrong and God was not pleased with the behavior of Islam’s faithful.

The Allied plans for the Turkish heartland, however, were illusory. When Greek forces landed in Izmir in May 1919 to claim their share of Asia Minor, they were quickly countered not by a religious, but a nationalist leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He had emerged from the war a genuine hero, famed for his courage which bordered on the reckless. He also had a vision for the Turkish heartland of the Ottoman Empire and in that dream there was little room for Islam. He inspired his nation by a stunning victory over the Greeks and once in control of Istanbul, he made but quick work of the last sultan/caliph. First, Ataturk arranged for the abolition of the sultanate in 1922. It was only by 1924 that he felt himself sufficiently secure to abolish the caliphate forever and with that, the last caliph was packed off to Switzerland. In Ataturk’s mind, the Ottoman state had became overly rigid because of Islam. He could not abolish Islam but he could, and did, support a secularism that bordered upon the militant.

If British and French plans for dividing up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire had failed in Anatolia, they were more successful in the heartlands of the Middle East. Determined to remake that land in its own image, Britain and France sought to create borders, countries and rulers in well-defined (and controlled) spaces. Lebanon and Syria fell under the control of a poorly administered French mandate, while Britain was busy creating kingdoms in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Arabia became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by the end of the 1920s and that king, Sa’ud, embraced an intolerant vision of Islam called Wahhabism. The Wahhabis viewed most Sunni Muslims with more than a little suspicion and it regarded Shi’ite Muslims as essentially heretics. Alone, the Saudi world would not have mattered much but it had two elements going in its favor. Saudi Arabia was the homeland of Meccah and Medina, the two most important cities for Muslims. Secondly, Saudi Arabia was going to become rich—very, very rich. The Arabia of the Saudi dynasty was thus not a place to be ignored.

In the interim, however, the Abode of Islam had lost its central figure, the Caliphate, for a second time. If many, perhaps even most Muslims, did not necessarily miss that spiritual centerpiece, it was nevertheless a distressing moment for many others: the implication was that God had frowned upon His people and their recent history had been defective. And history counted. For most Westerners, history is a linear progression: it bends and weaves and sometimes falls. It is, however, still generally a line that will move ahead and sometimes even upward. For many Muslims, on the other hand, history is a constant judgment of their virtue. It is like a transparent vessel, always being filled and never losing a drop; as such, nothing escapes and everything remains visible. Whereas a Westerner will look at the Crusades and simply regard them as historical curiosities, for Muslims they may be vile and glaring stains in the jar of time, ever there, never to be lost. The Caliphate was gone, the greatest empire in Islamic history had dissolved and Westerners dictated who would be kings in the Middle East. This was surely a sign that Muslim civilization in the heartland of Islam was on the wane.

Over the next fifty-plus years, kings and dictators came and went, almost none of whom had the least interest in anything beyond their own immediate power and gratification. The creation of Israel in 1947 divided as much as it united the various Arab states who also cynically used Israel as an excuse to justify their own incompetence, greed and corruption. If Israel’s creation, moreover, seemed to be a hard slap in the face to many in the Middle East, the subsequent victory over the Arab armies launched against it was stunning. It was one thing to lose a war against a major power—to be defeated by the armies of a people who had been second class subjects in the Middle East for over a thousand years was simply unthinkable. God had surely once more abandoned His people.

Even if Islam seemed to have fallen upon bitter times, it was still there, simmering, divided and confused in one repressive regime after another. Change was not far off, however, and the Abode of Islam was about to be revived, but with a terrible twist.

It is often dangerous (or simply impossible) to name a single year as the beginning of a new movement or current in history. In the case of Islam, however, 1979 is a year that works well as a starting point for a revival of hope for many Muslims. On the 16th of January, the Shah of Iran fled Tehran and by the first of February, the Ayatollah Khomeini was back in Iran ready to exact vengeance for his years of exile. That the omnipotent owner of the Peacock Throne and darling of the West could, with relative ease, be cast out, was a symbol of hope for many oppressed peoples in the Middle East (and a source of profound concern for their oppressors). It also symbolized the power of faith over guns and seemed to show the weakness of Western ideas in the region. God’s people had united and spoken and the ‘puppet of the West’ was gone forever. A new and truly Islamic Iran was soon to emerge, accompanied by executions of Shah loyalists who foolishly remained behind.

November of 1979 was to bring yet another wave of excitement. The American Embassy in Tehran was, for the second time, seized by ‘students’ but this time they held their place, keeping 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for over a year. And on the 20th of November, around 200 Wahhabi fanatics attacked and occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The leader of the radicals was a former Saudi National Guardsman, Juhayman ibn Muhammad ibn Sayf al-Utaybi who also announced that his brother-in-law, Abdallah Hamid Muhammad al-Qahtani was the “Mahdi”—the awaited one destined to restore the glory of Islam. He also called for a restoration of ‘true’ Islamic values, which included a ban on television, the end of education for women and the expulsion of all non-Muslims from Saudi Arabia. In response to the takeover, Khomeini blamed the action on the U.S. and Israel, an idiotic assertion but one that persuaded mobs in Islamabad (Pakistan) to burn down the American embassy there: the lives of scores of diplomats were saved almost through sheer luck as they found an emergency exit out of the embassy. Muslim mobs in over half a dozen other countries also denounced the U.S. as the real perpetrator of the attack on the Grand Mosque.

The next and perhaps most important event for Muslims in 1979 took place on the 27th of December when Soviet troops dressed in Afghan uniforms took over the government in Kabul, heralding a full-scale invasion by the Soviet Red Army within hours of the execution of the Afghan president by Soviet troops. This was not a cultural incursion by MacDonalds or an assault on local values by U.S. television programs: this was a bona fide example of out and out conquest by an atheist power against a Muslim state. Even worse, the invaders brought with them alien ideas such as equality for women and secular government.

The Afghans, despite overwhelming force, did not simply roll over and die: they fought and the word “mujahid” (holy warrior) became well-known in the West and elsewhere. It didn't take long for Muslims from outside the region to rush to the aid of the Afghans. Western governments, in particular the U.S. and Great Britain, were also not far behind in helping out (while sticking it to the Soviets…). The long and short of that brutal war was that the Soviets eventually decided by the late 1980s that victory was not worth the cost of the war, and they marched home. For the Afghans, it was victory of a sort (followed by civil war, chaos and Taliban rule). For Muslims elsewhere, however, it was something far greater: it was the victory of Islam over a superpower. After centuries of defeat and humiliation, it meant that God had at last smiled upon his community in general and His warriors in particular. And some Muslims began embarking on a very dark path.

The success of the Khomeini revolution was, without doubt, an inspiration to radical Islamic groups in the Middle East, probably most of all to the Egyptian “Society of Muslim Brothers”, usually called the “Ikhwan”. Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, its philosophical mentor was a curious (and perhaps strange) man named Sayid Qutb.

Sayid Qutb visited the United States in the late 1940s and lived briefly in a Colorado town where prohibition still remained in force. If that element suggests a deeply conservative sense of community, in Sayid Qutb’s view that world was an abomination. He later complained that women freely displayed themselves and did not disguise their unmanly bodies. He was horrified by jazz music and dance, and made a number of highly unflattering comments about African Americans. After returning to Egypt, he continued writing about Islam and in 1964 wrote a curious book called Milestones (Ma’alim fi’l Tariq). In this book, Qutb enunciated his views of the world and how Muslims must comport themselves in their struggle to achieve grace in God’s eye (as well as domination of the world). He denounces all governments ruled by men (let alone women…), claiming they are all illicit and an abomination. At one point, he seems to take delight in twisting a famous passage of the Quran which declares “There is no compulsion in religion” (chapter 2, verse 256). Here Qutb blithely comments that no person living under a government of man has the freedom to choose his or her faith. Only, argues Qutb, after all governments are removed can humans be free to choose their faith: they can become Muslim, accept second-class status as a ‘dhimmi’ (client) of the Islamic state or remain a true infidel subject to severe punishment. As for “Holy War” (Jihad), Qutb mocks those who describe it as a purely defensive act, pointing out that the armies of Abu Bakr were not reacting to an external threat when they marched forth from Arabia. Time and again, Qutb denounces governments by men and insists that only God may rule over an earthly commonwealth. Somehow, while making his argument, he manages to overlook the nascent Islamic governance in Mecca as ruled by Muhammad and the four “rightly-guided caliphs”—and all of them human…

If Qutb’s writings seemed poorly reasoned, they nevertheless resonated among more than a few Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere. The philosophy of Qutb and the practical victory of Khomeini were an inspiration for growing Islamic militancy. And when Anwar Sadat forged a peace with Israel, for Egyptian militants this was the final outrage and they made Sadat pay with his life in 1981, assuming that an Islamic regime would replace him. It did not, but one of those involved in Sadat’s assassination would later go on to bigger things: Ayman al-Zawahiri would eventually become Usama bin Ladin's right-hand man.

Although frustrated in Egypt, the Ikhwan movement in Syria sought to upend the dictatorship of Hafiz al-Asad in 1982 but with terrible consequences for itself. After a series of increasingly bold assaults on the Syrian leadership, al-Asad decided that it was now time for extreme measures. Hama, the Syrian city where the Ikhwan enjoyed great support, was crushed by the armed forces and the butcher’s bill ran from 10,000 to 35,000 people killed. The Ikhwan took the hint and its activities essentially came to a halt. Elsewhere, the wind of a more radical response was growing.

In 1983, The Islamic Jihad (almost certainly a nom de guerre for the radical Shi’ite Hizbullah) used suicide bombers in Beirut to attack U.S. and French forces assigned to a multi-national force sent to quell the Lebanese civil war (made worse by the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel). Almost 300 Western soldiers were killed in those bombings. The Western response was fairly tame and Hizbullah could rightly claim victory—as could both Iran and Syria who both had long fingers in Lebanon.

War, either civil or uncivil, dominated Middle Eastern life during the 1980s: Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan…it was a fine time for radicals, armed either with Saudi or Iranian petrodollars, to perfect their skills. And it was during this time that a young Saudi, Usama bin Ladin, went off to Afghanistan to fight the Russians, as did thousands of other Muslims who viewed the Soviet invasion as an attack by the infidel—which it was. Though thousands died fighting the Red Army, both Afghans and other Muslims learned important lessons in the art of war. The greatest lesson was psychological, that force of arms could bring victory, even against a superpower, if they were willing to endure great losses. Even if it was Western technology (the Stinger anti-aircraft missile) that tilted the odds, it was nevertheless Muslim blood that won the war. God once more smiled upon the Muslim community. It was now time to turn the power of that righteous violence against other enemies of Islam: the corrupt regimes in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia in particular), the West in general and Israel in particular.

If the royal Saudi family fears for its future (and it does), it can only blame itself for having created the mindset of bin Ladin and his followers. Books used in Saudi schools are a study in hatred of anything that is not Islamic. A story in the “Washington Post” (21st of May 2006) provided a depressingly rich number of passages from some of these text books: “The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus.” “It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and His Prophet.” “The greeting ‘Peace be upon you’ is specifically for believers. It cannot be said to others.” These are, moreover, the teachings and words that are recited in thousands of religious schools (madrasahs) that Saudis have established and administered in the border area shared by Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghan and Pakistani villagers can hardly be blamed when a Saudi benefactor arrives and offers to educate, clothe, house and feed their young boys for nothing—girls, alas, do not count. The price, however, is ultimately very high for children inculcated with a corrupted vision of Islam that is little more than a death cult—the pillars of Islam are transformed into prison bars and the imams are the jailers. With such an education, it is easy to see how the Afghanistan of Mullah Umar and bin Ladin became the symbol of intolerance, violence and oppression in the name of God. They were, and are, pursuing a version of Islam that is free from foreign influence and as close as possible to what they believe was the nature of Islam during the Prophet’s lifetime. Any deviation is not only wrong, but carries with it the punishment of eternal hellfire and must be suppressed with the sword.

The Wahhabi Sunni Saudis, however, face a great rival: the growing strength of Shi'a Iran. Since green was said to be the color beloved by the Prophet, then it is fair to say that the “Green War” twixt Arabia and Iran has now thoroughly replaced the Cold War which plagued humanity for scores of years. Riyadh and Tehran have billions of dollars at their disposal and each side employs those dollars in a bid to ensure the victory of its cause. The great irony in Iran is that while it overthrew the imperial Shah, it is nevertheless struggling to establish its own renewed sense of empire and grandeur in a manner that Darius, Xerxes and Cyrus would both understand and approve of. Having The Bomb might provide Ahmadinejad with a sense of pride and power: he has not quite grasped, however, that it makes him (and Iran) a nuclear target.

Even if some Shi'a and Sunni radicals abhor and condemn the non-Islamic world, they have thoroughly grasped the value of propaganda. Whereas CNN will show footage of the Israeli destruction of buildings in Gaza, the al-Jazirah news service in Qatar splices together graphic images by the dozen of maimed and mutilated children. Who would not be outraged by such pictures? And who would not be moved to despise those who rain such devastation upon innocents? Perhaps there is something to be said for depicting the true horror of war, lest its mayhem become acceptable. The message from al-Jazirah, however, has another intent: to inflame hatred and incite calls for revenge. And it works.

An al-Qaida ‘scholar’ named Sulayman Abu Ghaith published a series of letters brought together and called “Under the Shade of the Lances.” In these letters, Abu Ghaith argued that the Muslim world is ‘entitled’ to kill approximately four million Americans, specifically including one million children. That number is arrived at by calculating the number of Muslims who have, directly or indirectly, died at the hands of the United States. He reckons that the Iran-Iraq war, for example, was really concocted by the U.S. and thus the casualties in that war must be matched by U.S. deaths. Even though the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with Iraq or Iran at the time, it is convenient for Ghaith to find responsibility for that war outside of Tehran and Baghdad. A Saudi scholar named Nasir bin Hamid al-Fahd disputes Ghaith’s call for four million deaths: he believes the number should be ten million and that the use of weapons of mass destruction are entirely acceptable. In al-Fahd’s eyes, the fact that the U.S. and other Western nations are democracies is the reason why such attacks against civilians are acceptable. Since democracies elect their leaders, and since the leaders are responsible for so many deaths, the voters in elections are entirely accountable for the actions of those leaders. Truly, in al-Fahd’s opinion, this is the death of innocence.

The intriguing quality of such arguments (and these are not the most extreme: one al-Qaida ‘scholar', Sayf al-Din al-Ansari, has called for the extermination of all non-Muslims), is the easy dismissal of any personal or collective Arab responsibility for anything wrong in the Middle East. Invariably, it is the U.S., Great Britain, France or Israel who have stirred up the pot. It is lamentably simple to understand why the creation of Israel outraged Palestinians (both Muslim and Christian): the Zionist argument that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land” was blatantly false. If, on the other hand, Israel disappeared tomorrow, it would not put one grain of rice in any Palestinian’s mouth and Palestine would probably degenerate into yet another despotism—whether best governed by corrupt Fatah officials or the cynical leaders of Hamas is hard to say…

If a radical, bloody-minded, and corrupted vision of Islam is a threat to the world (and it is), it is an even more immediate threat to the vast majority of Muslims who would prefer to live and let live. In November 2005, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Zarqawi, sent suicide bombers off to attack not Americans, but Sunni Jordanian Arabs at a wedding party in Amman, killing scores of guests. He also orchestrated bombings targeting Shia women and children in markets throughout Baghdad and elsewhere. In one such incident, the suicide bomber set up a table offering flour for sale at a very cheap price and when enough women and children had gathered, he blew them and himself up in the name of God. Indeed, if the U.S. military “surge” in Iraq generally succeeded, it was largely because of the obscene cruelty of al-Qaida which was not shy about public beheadings or showing videos on the Internet depicting Iraqi prisoners being burned alive—another example of unintended consequences.

Countering radical Islam will be difficult, though good governance and education are obvious first steps. Such efforts are complicated, however, when religious zealots bomb the schools they sense (rightly) are a threat to them. The strongest challenge to al-Qaida and like-minded groups will probably come from a Muslim Reformation which, though presently weak, is growing in strength.

Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the efforts of a group of Turkish Muslim theologians who began a massive project in February of 2008 to re-examine and re-interpret the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) which have been abused time and again by radicals in order to justify their criminal acts. Their objective is to reinterpret the Hadith in the light of contemporary scholarship and the modern world.

It may well be these men in Ankara and Istanbul who will once more remind us of the very first words of the Quran, words now despised or forgotten by fanatics: In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful...

Suggested Readings

The bibliography of books dealing with the Middle East and Islam, even only in English, includes thousands of works, some excellent, many good and a few others...best forgotten. Here are six titles which, though a little dated, are generally sound and well worth reading:

Andrae, Tor. Mohammed. The Man and his Faith. London, 1956

Glubb, John Bagot. The Great Arab Conquests. London, 1963. An unrivaled account by the British officer who led the Jordanian Arab Legion for many years.

Fisher, Sydney. The Middle East. A History. New York, 1959. Generally sound, though the author sometimes sidesteps historical points which he finds...inconvenient.

Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600. London, 1973. An excellent account by a gifted Turkish historian.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. London, 1961. By far the most comprehensive account of the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Kemalist republic. Impeccable scholarship.

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong. New York 2001. As typical of Lewis, very good scholarship and generally readable by the ‘intelligent layman.’ Though criticized by some scholars (sometimes fairly and sometimes not), it is nevertheless a remarkable effort to summarize a complex history and region in a few hundred pages.

Michael M. Pixley served for 22 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State, with 17 of those years overseas, primarily in Turkey and Iraq. He began his second career as a bookseller (Eastern Approaches Books, Annapolis, MD) in 1999, specializing in the Middle East.