16 September 2009

Some Free Advice

As I was finishing my dissertation this past June, a book arrived in the mail at the last minute. Published in 1993, this collection of articles details various ways that increasingly religious states organize and remake themselves. One in particular about Afghanistan jumped out at me, because author Oliver Roy argues in the second paragraph that the 1989 Mujahidin victory over the Russians represented “…the first liberation war won by a movement which proclaims Islam, not nationalism or socialism, as its goal” (491). My dissertation is about Palestinians who have become increasingly religious in the last few years. In doing so they downplay the importance and legitimacy of the state while lifting up their own crappy status as refugees. Initially I saw this social project as anti-political, but quickly I realized that what actually happens on the ground is much more complicated. I argue in the dissertation that the religious being represents a threat (at least in Jordan) because his allegiance is unclear. Does he honor God or King? He may pursue a political path to a more rewarding religious life, or he may use religion to boost his social status for political ends. Religion can be a social means to a political end, and the indirect path to political action or aspiration makes each religious person less legible to the state. So when I read Roy’s article it really hit me that what we’re watching in the Middle East right now is substantially different that many post-1948 conflicts there in one substantial way: strife focuses less and less on political goals like repelling the Orientalist state, and more and more on constructing a religious identity.

I argue in my dissertation that, very broadly, there are two strands of Islamism. The first I call 1948-Islamism, and by this I mean a religious/political response to a political confrontation such as the Nakba, 1967, 1973, 1990, or 2006. These are conflicts in which the opponents are more or less easy to define, typically the West/Zionists versus Sunni Arabs, and the conflicts are pretty political. The second strand I call Afghanistan-Islamization, or 1989-Islamization, by which I refer to conflicts that accelerate the desire of fundamentalist Sunni groups to establish a religious state not just because religion can occasionally repel outsiders, but because theocracy is simply the end goal.

Roy points out that Afghanistan has a long history of jihad (I use this word in its true sense: Struggle. I don’t mean this as hysterical American’s use it), but this was always linked to the political aims of the state. Muslim resistance to the communist government, as we all know, prompted the Russians to send in troops in 1978. The rest is history. 1978 was not the first time that Muslims took over a country, but previously those resistance movements were linked with a political ideology (i.e. Algeria). Further, as Roy reminds us, “purely Muslim upheavals” always failed as forms of governance in the past. As much as the rank and file may be enamored with resistance movements in the throws of politics, it’s not too long before they become agitated because no one is around to pick up the garbage. Governments do have to carry out some small forms of governance, after all. Despite this history of failure, Afghans successfully thwarted the Russians in a pure religious resistance movement. I think we have seriously underestimated how much this fuelled the rise of a strand of conservative Islam that ultimately birthed the Taliban. I also think there is little coincidence of timing in the post-1978 changes in this part of Asia: The Islamic Revolution in Iran soon followed, Pakistan adopted more strict and religious laws, and on and on.

Of course nothing is totally divorced from politics. Between 1978 and 1989, both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sunni and Shia’ states respectively, became increasingly interested in preventing competing versions of Islam from seeping into their states. Both Iran and Saudi wished to secure the interests of their particular religious worldview in order to erect a buffer against possible foreign penetration, and to further their aspirations for an Islamic state of their own. Both countries interfered in Afghanistan by funding Islamic organizations that held like values. Not until the defeat of the Russians seemed eminent did these organizations begin seriously to question what the final aims of the revolution needed to be. While the Saudis pushed not so much for revolution as for a renewal of their conservative religious values, the Iranians pushed directly for an Islamic revolution, an experiment they had not yet tried. The Afghanistan Sunni camp, increasingly disenchanted with Saudi interpretations of the religion, turned away. The Saudis lost their first ideological battle with Iran. More directly: The Sunnis lost their first war with the Shia’.

I know, I know, the Sunni and Shia’ have been at each other's throats since the Thabi’un (first generation of post-Mohammad Islamic folks) were in business. Yes, I know, Ali, Hussein, all that stuff. But this is different to me than the post-Mohammad struggles in Islam that resulted in the strand of those who follow Ali and the Umayyads. Those battles took place before globalization existed. Those battles occurred before George Bush called America’s efforts against “Islamic Terrorism” a “Crusade,” thus resulting in a bajillion young previously secular Arab men dedicating their lives to Salafi Islam. All of that happened before man perfected the ability to kill millions of people quite easily. Those battles revolved around how to be a Muslim. They did not focus on repelling or defeating a completely alien enemy from halfway around the world. Nevertheless, the ideological (not to mention actual) feuds between the Sunni and Shia’ still provide ample friction for the two strands, and that has survived quite well into today. Thus, we have tension and indirect conflict between Saudi and Iran in Afghanistan. Young Muslims in both countries may have felt like the weight of some serious-ass history was at work in that political struggle in the 70s and 80s, and they were right.

Now we have two Sunni fundamentalist groups competing to be the most crazy: The Taliban and al-Qaeda. Analysts often refer to these groups as “radical,” a label I reject. They are conservative. They wish to “restore” those around them to the glory days of the Shahaba (the companions who lived with the Prophet Mohammad). There is nothing radical, to me, about seeking a 7th century utopia. Here, for my money, is the big difference between the two groups. The Taliban emerged from a post-Soviet Afghanistan, perhaps in response to Mujahidin corruption. As I read their goals, they seek a pure Islamic state, and could care less about articulating their religious demands to earthly politics. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, has an Islamic rhetoric, but remains an elitist and political organization. The Taliban seek Islam for the sake of Islam, while al-Qaeda uses Islam to seek their political objectives. In other words, the Taliban represent the next step in 1978-Islamization while al-Qaeda represents the same for 1948-Islamization. Here, in my opinion, is the So What to all of this: The Taliban’s religious objectives are not something that secular governments can do anything with; al-Qaeda has fairly secular objectives (albeit cloaked in a religious discourse), secular governments can actually understand their demands. The Taliban seeks to propagate a Shahaba-style world, how can one engage with this? Al-Qaeda wants to curb American imperialism. By transmitting this political message in religious terms they recruit followers who may not understand the political implications of a U.S. military presence in Arab countries as well as they understand “infidels” in “Muslim lands.” To be sure, neither OBL nor az-Zawahiri have any religious credentials. In contrast, Mohammed Omar, an Arabic-speaking Afghani, is the “Commander of the Faithful,” and allegedly has a background studying Islam and later teaching it at a madrasa in Quetta. Thus the name of his organization, “Taliban,” is named for the “Students” who first joined him to form the organization after the Soviets left town. Mohammed Omar and OBL have enough in common that the former apparently sheltered the latter, but they likely differ quite a bit about how to implement an extraordinarily narrow conception of the Sunnah (the teaching of the Prophet). In other words, it’s worth asking why these groups haven’t joined forces and become one big group. I think the answer is because they actually have very different goals, and the Taliban’s should alarm us more than al-Qaeda’s.

Al-Qaeda will not remain in the hands of OBL and Zawahiri forever, and we should ask what a new al-Q might look like. Given that the Salafists have done a smashingly good job of adopting technology such as Facebook and using these things to spread their message and recruit new folks, it’s a good guess that many of those just now coming into the fold are young. That’s also a good guess because thus far that seems the case, and because the population in the M.E. is really young anyway. These are kids born well after 1978, let alone 1948. Jarret Brachman just wrote a piece in Foreign Policy arguing that what’s to come may be much worse than what we’re currently witnessing. Like me, he believes that al-Q is an elitist organization, meaning that a great deal of information is guarded by a few rather than dispersed in order to empower the masses. However, a younger devotee named Abu Yahya (Yahya = John the Baptist, bil 3rabee) has positioned himself to become the likely inheritor of al-Q in the future. Contrary to OBL and Zawahiri, he aims to reach out to young folks and dazzle them with his apparently engaging personality. As Brachman writes, “…Abu Yahya offers the global al Qaeda movement everything that its old guard cannot.” So what? Glad you asked.

To return to my insightful, but crappily written dissertation, I argue that because the aims of al-Qaeda are political we have something to talk about. This, again, is in opposition to the Taliban whose views and aims are so ethereal as to be, well, irrelevant to this world. How can one reason with men who spend time arguing that ants are made of glass? So, when Brachman points out that in the not too distant future we may find ourselves clashing with an al-Qaeda that acts more like a crazy religious fundamentalist organization (i.e. the Taliban, or the American X-tain Right) than like al-Q, that’s the kind of shit that should keep you up at night.

In 2006 Brachman co-authored a report for the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) in which the authors point out, “…there has been a shift in intellectual influence from laymen in Egypt (like Sayyid Qutb) to formally trained clerics from Palestine (often living in Jordan) and Saudi Arabia. While it is unclear if this correlates with new developments in Jihadi theory, it certainly indicates a trend toward shoring up that theory with religious credentials.”  I'll skip ahead for you: Yes, it is a new development; Islamism of this form transitioned from a group to an international movement.  They indict Palestinian-born Jordanian al-Maqdisi as the single most significant living “Jihadi.” Al-Q's interest in Sayyid Qutb (an Egyptian), al-Maqdisi (an Urdustenee), and now Abu Yahya (a Libyan) all indicate just how viral and transnational this movement has become. In 1964 Qutb, the grandfather of this line of thinking, wrote: “The establishing of the dominion of God on earth, the abolishing of the dominion of man, the taking away of sovereignty from the usurper to revert it to God, and the bringing about of the enforcement of the Divine Law (Shari’ah) and the abolition of man-made laws cannot be achieved only through preaching” (58). Well, then, down with the Jahiliyyah (those who live in ignorance of god’s wisdom). Point is, whatever OBL envisioned, it seems that the movement and message behind al-Q has transformed the organization into something that young, un/underemployed folks in the Muslim world can grasp. What oppressed Arab actually embraces despotic rule?

And here’s a difficult question for Americans: Why shouldn’t young unemployed, often educated men in the Muslim world find the message of resistance alluring? I don’t ask this to offer support to al-Q, but to ask, Holy crap, what else have they got? Over my fieldwork in Jordan I watched young men with literally nothing to loose become more and more and more and more religious. I couldn’t blame them, though they frequently irritated me with their neverending focus on the minutiae of religion. They were young, refugees, most educated, politically aware, multi-lingual, and unemployed. They had a choice: live as shat-upon refugees in Jordan, or become Salafists and watch their social status soar in a day. Surprisingly little knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an allowed them to henna their beards and patronize their too-secular parents, wives, and me. Given their status in Jordan, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t engage in something that allowed them to rule over their lives even just a little. Men bragged in front of me about taking additional wives, and one even lied to his friends about a mosque supporting his family so he could study. (His parents paid his rent upon monthly threat of having their granddaughter turned out onto the street.) As much as they irritated me, I’ll admit that if I were any of them, I’d do the same thing. This particular path, the religious path, seemingly allows the trampled to be something much better: a moral man. That those I interviewed expressed admiration for al-Q (though a strong and universal dislike for their violence, I’ll add) this social movement does not indicate, I argue, anything more than the appreciation of an opportunity to be something other than a marginal person for most who follow. All of the people in my dissertation were as secular as I am before 2003. All of them.

While Brachman is right, I think, about the dangerous transition of al-Q into something more Taliban-like, I think we should stop a moment and ask Why people are enamored with this stuff. Sure, they really are god-fearing folks. But that actually has been corrupted by people like OBL in order to mobilize political action, including violence. When America continues to fight Islamic violence, we are often actually fighting the impoverished. Not always, of course. Plenty of ridiculous people exist, but I think even more reasonable people than that exist. Want to stem the violence? Give them jobs. (Same is true in America for Americans, I’d bet.) We have to act quickly before al-Qaeda reinvents itself as a movement unwilling to make political (earthy) demands.