By Kumar David –
A primer on leading “Salafie Jihadist” movements; Strengths and fragilities of Jihadism
The literature on Islamic Jihadism (also called Salafi Jihadism) is huge; more on the web as an outpouring of opinion pieces, rather than in print, as movements rise and decline, split or fuse and disappear as new ones surface. Al-Qaeda seems no longer to be in command and the Taliban only has regional clout in Afghanistan and the mountains of Pakistan though army sponsorship endows it with alarm for India. This rapid turnover and rise and fall of fortunes of jihadists motivate this taking stock exercise at the end of Q1 of 2015. It is not my intention to compete with full length books which I have mined, nor can I be as up to date as the staccato reporting of wire services. Rather I blend ideological exploration with an update of the state of play in the troubled world of Islam.
My focus will be Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (or ISIS, replacing Levant by Syria or just IS), Boko Haram, and the fortunes of al-Qaeda. First I need to introduce words unfamiliar to non-Islamic readers. Of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims 83% are Sunnis, only 13% Shia and small numbers adhere to sects like Sufism and Ishmailism. The Salafist doctrine within the Sunni mainstream, is a turn to puritanical practices of the three generations after the Prophet emphasising texts and strict practices (salaf = ancestor). Its fundamentalism underlies the incorrect use of the adjective Salafist for militant jihadism. Harshness (chopping off heads, proclaiming caliphates, rejection of discourse in favour of strict adherence to revealed texts) has earned jihadists this epithet, but Salafist scholars strongly dissent that theirs is an unconnected and much older belief system.
Wahabism overlaps the older Salafi tradition. Founded by Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), though similarly stern and puritanical, Wahabism is political. Islamic scholar al-Wahhab aligned with and provided a religious prop for tribal leader Muhammad bin-Saud and when the House of Saud rose as the long-lasting royal family of Saudi Arabia, Wahabism became state theocracy; Saudi is 75% Wahabi and 25% Salafi. Then, what it is derisively called Petro-Islam, poured millions in state cash into Islamic education and such causes all over the world ($100 billion since 1973, 80% after mid-1980s) undermining relaxed easy going Islam worldwide; think Indonesia, Malaysia and Lanka. The Saudi state funds some jihadists, but private donors do more, enough to make Hilary Clinton blurt out “Saudi donors are the most significant source of funding for Sunni terrorist groups”.
This is not a “learn all you need to know about Islamic jihadism in three paragraphs” crash course, but I need to make two more points for non-Muslim readers. The Shias trace their roots to the assassination of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, son-in-law and fourth caliph. This sparked the longest schism in religious history, as bitter and as cruel as the Catholic-Protestant rift of the late Middle Ages. The vast majority of Shias live in Iran (90%), Iraq, India and Pakistan. Though Shia terrorism is not gushing like the Sunni variation, powerful Shia partisans terrorise and slaughter in Iraq. Finally, the word jihad: Muslim texts offer a variety of definitions; struggle, resist, holy-war on non-believers. A softer version, “Struggle for Good”, like Gandhi’s satyagraha (struggle for truth), is also circulated.
Al-Qaeda is not on its last legs
I intend to provide only a brief update on al-Qaeda because so much is known. It is true that it is in decline and no longer exerts hegemony over ISIL, Boko Haram or the Taliban but this may be brief or illusory since it is politically serious and the least mentally primitive of jihadists. Actually it is too sophisticated to call jihadist; better what it sees itself as: An Islamic liberation movement; but we should add with a pronounced proclivity to use terror. Al-Qaeda’s traction with ISIL ruptured because it denounced the latter’s head-chopping bloodlust and its practice of raping captives; it understood this was counterproductive. Al-Qaeda has a long term ideological orientation whose starting point is opposition to Western control and its economic power over the politics and natural resources of Muslims. It does not make a hash by mixing this with an excess of pristine fundamentalism. The obscenity called Palestine, which American and Israeli public opinion alone in the world does not fathom, is of course a common cause of all Muslim political and cultural angst.
Proclaiming a caliphate and declaring himself supreme spiritual and temporal leader of the Islamic realm as successor to the Prophet was never bin Laden’s objective. He was Emir, commander, not caliph (king-cum-pope with suzerainty over all Muslim lands and peoples). Al-Qaeda was created in 1988-89 by bin Laden and present leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon and theologian, with the objective of expelling Soviet occupiers from Afghanistan. Though it has little sway over ISIL, Boko Haram and the Taliban, when these are reduced to rubble by military might and the exertions of an emergent Arab national-bourgeoisie, a weakened al-Qaeda will remain a staging post of radical Islam. But I am unwisely speculating decades ahead.
The weakness of al-Qaeda is also its strength. It has no national base, it has no nation. The Taliban has Afghanistan, ISIL is a Sunni resurgence after American intervention destroyed Iraq and left nothing in its place (certainly not plural interfaith democracy for Shias and Sunnis); Boko Haram is rooted in local tribes. Al-Qaeda has no such home, but it is the most internationally networked of all the groups with five strong international affiliate branches and about 20 lose ones. It is hardly Salafist in ideology compared to the others.
I do not intend to recapitulate what the wire-services are full of; swings on the battle front, victory of the Kurdish Pashmera and what it portends for a Kurdistan, nor my overestimate a year ago that Syria’s Assad “was finished”. This overview fits the objectives of this essay, viz; where is jihadist Islamic fundamentalism going. The first point is that of the combined 60 million population of Iraq and Syria about 31 million, that is just over 50%, is Sunni. But Iraq is ruled by an unsympathetic Shia government and Syria a frankly hostile Alawite (Shia) regime. The statistics are: Iraq population 33 million of which 60% is Shia and 35% Sunni, Syria 26 million population of which 75% is Sunni and Alawites and Ishmailis 13%.
All borders in the region are artificial; creations of British and French chart-makers at the end of the First World War. There is justice in the claim that the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria are a people without a nation. This grievance is the root of Saudi donors funding rabidly anti-American Sunni ISIL; conversely Iran, not the West, is the big provider of military assistance to Shia Iraq, and more important, Shia militias. Is the map being redrawn in line with entrenched population allegiances?
The war in the region is more a Sunni-Shia sectarian clash and a Saudi-Iran proxy war than a war on terror. ISIL has grown into a 10,000 strong army with Sunni support, worldwide recruitment and funding. It has penetrated Libya and Afghanistan. There is full blown war in Yemen and the (Sunni) Arab League is forming a regional army to fight Iran backed Huthi rebels. ISIL is opposed to the Shia Huthis and therefore it is on the Saudi (American) side! In Iraq-Syria America is on the anti-ISIL and therefore on the Iranian side! How the chips may eventually fall is hard to tell but the clash of civilisations is not exclusively an East-West thing but also an inter-Islamic sectarian massacre. I believe that ISIL’s brutality will bring about its eventual downfall; the world will not have it.
Jamaican born Nobel Prize winning writer VS Naipaul says: “ISIL is dedicated to a holocaust. It has pledged to murder of Shias, Jews, Christians, Copts, Yazidis, anyone it can, however fancifully, accuse of being a spy. It could credibly abandon the label Caliphate and call itself the Fourth Reich”. Clearly he is reacting to ISIL’s indiscriminate bloodlust and its declaration of a caliphate not just over Muslims but its stated aspiration to “Raise the flag of Allah over the White House”.
Boko Haram is active in North Eastern Nigeria and among associated tribes (mainly the Kanuri) that straddle Nigeria and neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Prior to British annexation this region was a sovereign caliphate named the Sokoto Caliphate. After dismantling it the British introduced an education system with Christian trappings which the local population eschewed. Self-proclaimed Nigerian spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf (1970–2009) established a religious complex in 2002 that included a mosque and school where poor families from neighbouring regions enrolled in the hope of a decent education; in this the colonial administration had utterly failed.
Boko Haram is said to have 10,000 fighters, an annual budget of $10 million (peanuts compared to ISIL) mainly ransom money, and its arms come from fleeing Nigerian troops. Its motto: “Anyone not governed by the word of Allah is evil”. The word Haram means forbidden; Muslims who partake in activities (education, culture, elections) associated with the West are legitimate targets. It is audacious in bombing public places, kidnapping, raping and selling schoolgirls and young women into slavery. In 2014 it declared itself a caliphate on the fringes of the Sahara, but later swore allegiance to the ISIL Caliphate. In the midst of poverty and despondency the sayings of the Prophet rise phoenix like as liberation.
The failure of American policy
Note carefully that I say American, not Obama. Obama’s initiatives in the Middle East were scuttled by Republican hawks who control Congress and who in cahoots with Israel guide American opinion. America has taken an ideological turn to the right in the aftermath of the 2008 financial jinx. In Europe there is sharp polarisation to the right (France, UK) and the left (Greece, Spain). Dismayed by the banality of moribund capitalism and in the absence of a credible left alternative in France, UK and Germany, bewilderment in the public mind is not unexpected.
I harbour a forlorn hope that Obama may, under his breath, tell this Republican Congress to go to hell and reach a nuclear deal with Iran. This will ease murderous sectarianism in the Middle East and Africa north of the Equator. The US-Israeli relationship is entering a period of flux, as it should have long ago if US public opinion was less sclerotic. Inevitable though it be, it will take years to mature.