By Nur Yalman –
Suicide attacks in beloved Barcelona. We are once again left aghast at the cruelty of an entire group of malevolent people. These evil acts should have no place in civilized existence. Where do they come from? What is their purpose? What is to be done?
This is a reactionary development emanating from shadowy organizations in the Middle East. ISIS in Iraq and Syria is only one of them. There are many others. They provide the organization, the political direction, the financial support and the spiritual encouragement to vulnerable individuals in the West. The persons who commit them are themselves “suicide bombers”. Many intend to kill themselves with their victims. The idea of “suicide bombing” as a weapon of choice was invented by the Tamil Liberation Tigers in Sri Lanka and has since had an enormous range of application in many unfortunate countries. We had seen a full demonstration of such group suicide work in the 9/11 attacks in New York.
The vicious xenophobia exhibited by the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam that has been propagated by various well financed organizations in the Middle East for many years has taken root in a number of unhappy Islamic countries. This medieval Wahhabi interpretation of Islam has become even more poisonous when combined with those profound grievances arising from the colonial and imperial policies of France and Britain in the region since the First World War. Add to this already combustible mixture the tragically ineffective military interventions of the US “War on Terror” – seen in much of the Muslim world as a “War on Islam” – and you get the violent background to the murders in Barcelona.
The ideological background of this xenophobic puritanical Islamist movement derives mainly from the many writings of Abdul Wahhab (b.1704). This puritanical interpretation of fundamentalist Islam was originally directed against the more sophisticated Sufi-tinged cosmopolitan Islam as practiced in the vast Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Their openness to the large Christian populations in the Empire, as was the case in old Andalucia, was particularly resented by the Arab tribes of the desert who had turned to the teaching of the Wahhabi’s. In 1804 the Wahhabi scholars created an efficient alliance with Ibn Saud, the leader of the Saudi tribe in Arabia. They sacked the famous Shi’a city of Karbala and destroyed the venerated tomb of the Imam Huseyin in 1802. By 1805 they were in control of Mecca and Medina. They expressed their hostility to the Ottoman Turks by claiming that all the Shia’a tombs of Saints in Iraq they had destroyed were sites of “idolatry”. The Ottoman Sultans did not tolerate this “primitive” challenge to their rule. They captured Ibn Saud as well as the Wahhabi religious leaders and had them executed in Istanbul. Mecca and Medina returned to Ottoman rule in 1811. These events were an early indication of the major division in the interpretation of Islam that continues in our day. It has been very useful for “divida et impera”.
The Wahhabi ideological message received a new lease of life when the British military joined forces with the Saudi tribes in 1917 during the First World War to defeat the Ottoman Turks in Arabia. Mecca and Medina were once again returned to the Wahhabi Saudis. Since these cataclysmic events, the puritanical message of Ibn Wahhab, so disdained by Ottoman Scholars, has been propagated with billions of dollars of oil funds available to many sinister groups in the region. Their “message” to put it succinctly is that “the killing of unbelievers is essential to purifying the community of the faithful”. And by “unbelievers” they include all those more easygoing cosmopolitan Muslims, Sufi lovers, saint worshipping Iranians, and all others who do not follow their harsh Wahhabi line of thought.
Our modern problems with these radical elements can be traced back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This time it was the CIA that made the strategic decision to support radical jihadist fighters to undermine Russian power in that unfortunate country. The Arab fighters of Bin Laden, fired up with the ideology of Abdul Wahhab and also the thoughts of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian anti-Imperialist writer, made an alliance with the local Pashtun tribes, the “Taliban” (“religious students”), to chase away the Russians and then the Americans.
The Western and in particular American and British response to these complicated developments in the Middle East has been to “put boots on the ground”. The military response in Afghanistan, later in Iraq and in Syria, has been disastrous. The militarization of the conflicts, instead of dousing the flames, has extended them. They have destabilized major countries and their huge populations. Criminal acts that should have been dealt with as local limited “police” events by local forces have become major international causes. They have electrified millions of radicals.
It will take clear headed analysis to sort out the chaos that has been created by ill-advised interventions. We need serious far sighted statesmanship as well as major educational and cultural efforts to clear the mess. Such statesmen and good policies are regrettably rare in the centers of power at this time.
*Nur Yalman is a leading Turkish social anthropologist at Harvard University, where he serves as senior Research Professor of Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies.