Monday, 30 June 2014

Are the Taliban fighting a cosmic war?

The recent attack on Karachi Airport on 8 June was claimed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group with bases in North Waziristan which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. See the BBC story about this claim of responsibility here: "Karachi airport: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan claims attack." 

One of the main objectives of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is to overthrow the government and establish Sharia law. The Pakistani Taliban have the same objectives.

The attack on the Karachi Airport is bold to say the least and, demonstrates:

1) The vulnerability of the Pakistan state
2) The organisation and determination of the militant groups
3) The transnational character of Islamic militancy
4) The futility of negotiations with this type of militancy

What drives Islamic militancy? What drives international Jihad? 

The roots of 9-11 prompted more than a decade of analysis and study. The plane hijackers were all reasonably adjusted and educated persons. It was the same for the perpetrators of the July 7 attacks in London. A clash of civilisations has been a popular theory. The rise of non-state actors in a post-Cold war context is also used as analysis. A fall out of the roll back of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1908s is used to explain the rise of Al Qaeda. America left Afghanistan to the very warlords which it used to kick out the Russians; moreover, bin Laden was an ex CIA agent himself.  The repression of Islamic parties in Arab states is also cited. And, I'm sure everyone has heard the 4,000 Jews did not come to work the day the Twin Towers were demolished?

For us in Pakistan, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and their terrorist activities also gave way to theories about how and why sucheinous crimes could be committed in the name of religion. Many times, poverty and a lack of education has been cited as the core reasons why an ordinary human being would be willing to not only take the lives of hundreds of innocent people but also die in the process. His /her family would probably be taken care of. A combination of drugging and indoctrination of youngsters has also been reported. The misinterpretation of Islam is also lamented. 

I recently found How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan to be a very useful analysis of international jihad and violence in the name of religion. The title is telling: the individuals who carry out violence in the name of religion believe they are fighting a cosmic war. They believe they are doing God's work in a war of good versus evil. Aslan's conclusion is that fighting such a war on these crusader's terms is never going to be successful. 

If you want to understand the present, consult history. Aslan traces the history of jihadism as follows: 

"As a social movement, Jihadism traces its historical roots not to the Prophet Muhammad but to the Arab anticolonialists of the twentieth century, such as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. It looks not to the Quran for its doctrinal basis but to the writings of the thirteenth-cuntry legal scholar Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah. It has more in common with the Bolsheviks and the French revolutionaries than it does with militant Muslim nationalist groups such as Hamas and Hizballah. To talk about Jihadism as Islamofacism is to misunderstand both Jihadism and facism. Facism is an ideology of ulranationalism; Jihadism rejects the very concept of the nation-state as anathema to Islam." 

What exactly is a cosmic war? 

"A cosmic war is a religious war. It is a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other. Unlike a holy war - an earthly battle between rival religious groups - a cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens. It is, in other words, both a real, physical struggle in this world and an imagined, moral encounter in the world beyond. The conflict may be real and and the carnage material, but the war itself is being waged on a spiritual plane; we humans are merely actors in a divine script written by God.  
A cosmic war transforms those who should be considered butchers and thugs into soldiers sanctioned by God. It turns victims into sacrifices and justifies the most depraved acts of destruction because it does not abide by human conceptions of morality."

We struggle to understand horrific violence in political terms and context.  We often focus on the propaganda of jihadist groups who use causes such as the suffering of Palestinians and, somehow believe that if Israeli occupation and apartheid was properly dealt with, jihad would be have no raison d'etre. We blame the Americans for using mujahideen to drive out the Soviets from the US; in fact, the Cold War was for the Americans a cosmic war. Didn't US President Reagan call the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and the mujahideen "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers "? (How many times have you seen that meme in your Facebook Newsfeed?) Sometimes we even convince ourselves that the Americans created modern-day jihad. We blame the Americans for providing jihadists ample ground when they invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham  (ISIS) has started waves of assault in Iraq, the Arab League's secretary general's 2003 warning to the US has been cited several times: “You will open the Gates of Hell”. See this opinion piece "The Gates of Hell" in the Dawn. 

Unfortunately, none of these common and lay theories explain the phenomenon of jihad or how globalised it has become. Nor do they explain how militant groups manage to rationalise the slaughter of innocent people. Will a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict quell all jihadi aspirations? No. Did the withdrawal of Americans from Iraq usher in peace? No. Can jihad ever be wiped out? Probably not.   

Deftly demonstrated by Aslan, modern-day jihadism takes its inspiration from a 13th century Islamic legal theorist, Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah who grew up during the time of the Mongol invasion of the famed cities of Baghdad and Damascus. Belonging to a family within the  Hanbali School of Law, he became a cleric at the age of 13. His family had to flee Haran and moved to Damascus. He was born three years after the Mongols sacked Damascus. As the Mongols settled in Arab lands and adopted Islam,  ibn Taymiyyah did not accept the Mongols as rightful lords, challenging the Hanbali doctrine that the leader of an Islamic state was placed there by God. According to ibn Taymiyyah, the Mongols were not true Muslims and therefore must be defied. Like the Kharijites who challenged the third caliph's rule several hundred years before him, ibn Taymiyyah declared that it was every Muslim's duty to wage jihad against suchipocrisy. He cast jihad as an individual obligation and not a collective one as commonly understood in the  Quran.

Anwar al-Sadat's assassination was inspired by the very writings of ibn Taymiyyah centuries later. Following the assassination, radical organisations were rounded up and during the trials, a document "The Neglected Duty," penned by Abd al-Salam Faraj, was produced by prosecutors that used ibn Taymiyyah's writings. Faraj criticised the influence of the West on Egypt. Re-establishment of the Caliphate was a goal of this "nascent jihadist movement" as Aslan writes. 

But overthrowing of the government in Egypt was eventually replaced by more global concerns. Ayman Zawahiri, one of the suspects arrested and jailed for Sadat's assassination, fled from Egypt to Afghanistan where groups from North Africa to Central Asia had come to fight the Soviets. According to Aslan they had nothing in common. It is there that Zawahiri met Osama bin Laden and the former's radical Salafism and the latter's Saudi Wahhabism were merged. And as Aslan writes, "Jihadism, it seemed had gone global. The rest, as they say, is history."

Global jihadists use the doctrine of takfir, proclaiming who is and who is not a a true Muslim thereby justifying the spilling of fellow Muslim blood. They exalt jihad to the status of personal devotion. 

The 9-11 attacks, as analysed by Aslan, achieved no real victory. Neither the United State's financial or military might was diminished. Instead, the goal was to awaken the Muslim nation. By its use of propaganda and highlighting causes such as Palestine, Al Qaeda created a global audience. As Aslan writes, "Yet, as undeniably dreadful as the plight of the Palestinian may be for the Jihadists, Palestine is a mere abstraction, a symbol whose sole purpose is to draw Muslims to their cause." The Al Qaeda rhetoric for example even cited the US' refusal to sign on to the International Criminal Court! This is hardly a grievance  but "a means of weaving local and global resentments into as wide a net as possible." Al Qaeda and other jihadists groups do not have concrete plans but vague ones. They by pass traditional Islamic structures and law. They are completely convinced that they are fighting a cosmic war that transcends border, race and cultural identity. 

Aslan devotes some time to exploring how Muslim youth in Europe is recruited for jihad. There does not seem to be any common thread amongst the known terrorists who were involved in attacks in Europe or went to fight abroad except that they are mostly young and are frustrated with imams and mosques. Increasing Islamophobia and anti-terrorism laws have also fueled alienation amongst Muslim youth. Apparently, they do not feel their Muslim identity can exist in Europe. In America, on the other hand, Muslims can practice their faith more openly and freely. Also, Muslim immigrants in American are "solidly middle class" while those in Europe hail more from working class backgrounds. 

I would be interested in reading a text on the structure and recruitment methods of the Tehrik-i-Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, cited at the beginning of this post. Extrapolating Aslan's main ideas, I think poverty and a lack of education would play a bigger role in explaining the rise of this group. The TTP's stated objectives are to resist the state, install sharia and wage war against the West in neighbouring Afghanistan. These are similar goals to the global jihadists':  overthrow states and fight against the hypocritical Muslims and infidels.   A target of the TPP and other groups such as  Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been the Shiias.

Read these words of Jordanian Jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as quoted in Aslan's book "Shi-ism is patent polytheism. The Shi'a are "the most evil of mankind...the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, the penetrating venom." As Aslan states, "Through random kindappings, torture and beheading of Shi'a civilians, Zarqawi almost single handedly launched a sectarian civil war in Iraq."

The targeting of the Shi'a in Pakistan invoke equally blood-curdling horror.

So, where does that leave us in understanding jihad in Pakistan? Extrapolating some of Aslan's ideas, it is apparent that jihad is being waged in Pakistan by multiple groups, some transnational in character, Their targets include sects within Islam and the state. They rationalise the indiscriminate killing of innocents because they truly believe they are engaged in a sacred war. Their practice takfir and kill all they deem to be infidels, apostates, or hypocrites. Violence is almost an end in itself. While their stated objectives are finite i.e. dismantling the state and replacing it with sharia, logically, they cannot hope to actually achieve this goal since they are going to be always outnumbered. They can however inflict a great amount of damage as the recent attack on Karachi airport has demonstrated.

They do achieve success however if our governments engages in negotiations with these outfits and does not protect civilians from their gruesome attacks. While it has strived to counter terrorism by several military operations, the Pakistan state has also attempted several negotiations with the TPP. A prominent politician and public figure, Imran Khan, also advocated peace talks with the TPP. Such public policy certainly created a moral confusion - how can the state, meant to ensure security of its citizens, be seeking peace with known terrorists?

The Karachi Airport attack however has prompted a general military response in North Waziristan: Zarb-e-Azb. It started exactly a week after the attack and has displaced about half a million people. It will remain to be seen to what extent the Pakistani state will be successful. It will take more than a single military operation to wipe out the terrorist networks in North Waziristan and elsewhere. It will probably require years of costly military operations and presence in north west Pakistan. At the same time, the state needs to provide development to the peoples of these areas so they are less susceptible to terrorist propaganda. 

Much more importantly, Pakistan needs to figure out what kind of state it is and who is or is not a rightful citizen free to live in peace and practice her or his faith. Long before jihad was officially waged in India and Afghanistan by our country, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has taken up itself to practice takfir. The Constitution was amended in the 70s during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's era to declare the Ahamdiyya Community as non-Muslim. 

Pakistanis often lament the huge social and cultural damage that a decade of Zia ul Haq's Islamisation wrought on the country. But it is incredibly telling that the criminalisation of an entire sect was enacted by a socialist government, under the very leadership of Bhutto, hailed as one of our most important political figures. It tells me that our country is in so many ways a theocracy that is more concerned with defining and defending Islam than with anything else. Pakistan was carved up from a British colonial India to protect Muslims from a second-class destiny in an independent India. We have since then been arguing who is and who is not a right Muslim. Other minorities such as Hindus and Christians have suffered a worse lot, relegated to the very second-class status that Muslims of India did not want to become. Our blasphemy laws, another Pakistani legal instrument of torture,  are routinely used to attack Hindus and Christians. 

Aslan's deceptively simple conclusion is not to fight a cosmic war. I have not delved into his discussion of Zealots in ancient history and the grip of fundamentalism and evangelicals in the United States but it is interesting and important to understand how both sides of this War on Terror feed into each other. The Pakistan state has played a similar role in not necessarily creating jihad - nor have the Americans - but certainly creating a breeding ground for it. Let people figure out which faith they want to practice and, not let it be a state concern. 

If Pakistan wants to save it self, it has to embark on a slow, painful but eventually enlightening path to secularism. 

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