Tag Archives: Islamist Groups

Why Did ISIS Destroy the Tomb of Jonah?

On Friday, the media reported that ISIS, the Islamist group that has established a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, had destroyed the centuries-old Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. Present-day Mosul encompasses the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where, the Bible teaches, the Prophet Jonah preached. Although this is disputed, a tradition holds that Jonah was buried within the city, on Tell Nebi Yunus, or Hill of the Prophet Jonah.

An Assyrian church stood over the tomb for centuries. After the Muslim conquest, the church became a mosque; the structure that ISIS destroyed last week dated to the 14th century. In addition to the tomb, the mosque once held the supposed remains of the whale that had swallowed Jonah, including one of its teeth. At some point, even the tooth had disappeared. In 2008, the U.S. Army presented the mosque with a replica.

Last week, ISIS closed the mosque and prevented worshipers from entering. Then it wired the structure with explosives and reduced it to rubble (above). You can see a video of the explosion here, taken by a Mosul resident, who mutters, in Arabic, “No, no, no. Prophet Jonah is gone. God, these scoundrels.”

Some commentators have explained the destruction of the tomb as part of ISIS’s anti-Christian campaign. Scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss point out that, in Christian interpretation, the Old Testament story of Jonah prefigures the death and resurrection of Christ. “The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.” Another scholar, Sam Hardy, told the Washington Post that the destruction of the tomb shows that ISIS is willing to destroy “pretty much anything in the Bible.”

On this analysis, ISIS destroyed the tomb because of its Christian associations. But that mistakes ISIS’s motives in this case. True, ISIS has no respect for Christians or their sites of worship and, in fact, has driven Mosul’s Christians from the city. The fact that the tomb was sacred for Christians as well as Muslims—and contained a present from the US Army—cannot have endeared it to ISIS. But something else is going on here. The shrine was, after all, a mosque, and Jonah figures in the Quran as well as the Bible. To understand why ISIS destroyed the tomb, one has to appreciate something about the version of Islam the group espouses.

ISIS is part of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf— who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after. The movement rejects the centuries of subsequent developments in Islam as unjustified innovations–pagan accretions that adulterated the faith. In particular, the movement opposes the veneration of the graves of Islamic prophets and holy men. Salafis see this practice, which is associated most frequently with Sufi Islam, as a kind of idolatry, or shirk, that detracts from the absolute transcendence of God.

Salafi Islam prevails in Saudi Arabia, where it enjoys the patronage of the royal family. On the Arabian Peninsula, as now in Iraq, Salafis have destroyed the tombs of Islamic holy men. Indeed, when the Saudi royal family captured the city of Medina in the 19th century, Salafis systematically destroyed the tombs of several of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions and family members, leaving only the Prophet’s tomb itself unmolested. There is some thought that the Saudi government plans on dismantling even that tomb, but hesitates to do so because of the uproar that would result in other Muslim communities.

In short, one should see ISIS’s destruction of the tomb of Jonah as an act principally directed at other Muslims, not Christians. That doesn’t make it any better, of course. Will the outside world do anything in response? Unlikely. Besides, as Professor Hardy told the Post, “If we didn’t intervene when they were killing people, it would be kind of grotesque to intervene over a building.”

Is ISIS Ready to Move on Aleppo?

This is very disturbing news. Walter Russell Mead reports that ISIS, last seen expelling the Christians of Mosul, Iraq, from their ancestral homeland, may be readying an attack on Aleppo in Syria:

A Syrian army officer interviewed by al-Monitor is entirely certain that this fight is coming. Maybe not tomorrow, but “very soon,” he says—and the regime is preparing itself.

The fall of Aleppo would have strong symbolic resonance across the Middle East. If ISIS were to capture Aleppo, it will have two of the oldest cities in the Middle East in its pocket. Mosul is the fabled city of Nineveh while Aleppo is the ancient city of Halab, and no one power has held both strongholds since the Ottoman Empire. While this may not seem like a big deal to Western observers, history is experienced very differently especially in that part of the world. And jihadists love a winner: The possession of two storied cities would be a big selling point in ISIS’ recruitment drive.

The Assad regime would offer a much tougher opponent than the hapless Maliki government in Iraq, Mead notes. And Assad “has at least the reluctant backing of Syria’s minorities, who fear that ISIS will conduct the same sort of ethnic cleansing in Syria as it has in Iraq.” Still, as Syria’s financial center, Aleppo would be a great prize, and ISIS will be sorely tempted to keep up the momentum. Stay tuned.

The Dhimma Returns in Iraq

al arabiya

Photo: Al Arabiya

Sad news from Iraq this weekend. In response to an ultimatum from ISIS–the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” or, if you prefer, just the “Islamic State–Christians have evacuated the northern city of Mosul. For thousands of years, Mosul has been a center of Christianity, particularly the various Syriac Christian communions: Chaldean-rite Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East, a church that once spread as far as China. As recently as a decade ago, tens of thousands of Christians lived in Mosul. After this weekend, virtually none remain.

The expulsion of Christians from Mosul suggests something very worrying about the possible future of Islamism. And it serves as a reminder of what can happen to religious minorities when secular dictatorships in the Arab world collapse.

Mosul lies within the territory of the “caliphate” that ISIS, a militant Sunni Islamist group, has proclaimed in parts of Iraq and Syria. Its ultimatum to the Christians of Mosul is the same it gave the Christians of Raqqa, Syria, last spring. “We offer them three choices,” ISIS announced last week: “Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.” In recent days, ISIS operatives went through Mosul marking the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter “Nun” for “Nasara,” from “Nazarenes,” a word that refers to Christians. The implications were clear.

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the term dhimma. The dhimma is the notional contract that governs relations between the Muslim umma and Christians (and Jews) in classical Islamic law. Theoretically, it dates back to the “agreement” one of the early caliphs made with the Christian community of Syria. The dhimma allows Christian communities to reside in Muslim society in exchange for payment of a poll tax called the jizya—in Mosul, ISIS was requiring a jizya of about $500—and submission to various social and legal restrictions. The dhimma forbids Christians from attracting attention during worship, for example, from building new churches, and generally from asserting equality with Muslims.

It’s wise to take ISIS at its word. On Saturday, ISIS operatives expelled the 52 Christian families who remained in the city–after first requiring them to leave all their valuables behind. For good measure, ISIS also burned an 1800-year-old church and the Catholic bishop’s residence, along with its library and manuscript collection.

One could say much about this sad uprooting of Christianity from a place where it has survived for millennia, but here are two observations. First, a psychological line has been crossed, and this may have dire consequences in future. For the moment, ISIS is unique among Islamist groups in calling for formal reinstatement of the dhimma. Although Islamists everywhere reject the idea of equality for Muslims and Christians, they typically avoid calling for the dhimma, as they understand that most contemporary Muslims find the concept abhorrent. Nothing succeeds like success, however. ISIS has now shown that it is possible to reestablish the dhimma at the center of the Muslim world. Other Islamist groups will no doubt take notice. Christians who remain in the Middle East have great cause for worry.

Second, although principal responsibility for this outrage lies with ISIS, and with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose misgovernment has created a situation in which ISIS can gain a following, the United States bears responsibility as well. Its invasion of, and hasty withdrawal from, Iraq set in motion a chain of events that has allowed radical groups like ISIS to succeed. In the Middle East, secular dictatorships can be very brutal. But they are often the only thing that stands in the way of the absolute destruction of minority religious communities. Toppling such dictatorships and hoping for their replacement by “moderate” elements is not a good bet. Incredibly, this seems to be a lesson the United States still has to learn.

#BringBackOurChristians

Last spring, Boko Haram, a jihadist group fighting to establish an Islamist state in Nigeria, kidnapped hundreds of girls from a public school in the city of Chibok. The kidnapping led to a worldwide hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls. Media celebrities signed up; political leaders, too, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron. American First Lady Michelle Obama famously tweeted a photo from the White House.

Three months have passed. Boko Haram has not released the girls, but the hashtag is no longer trending. The media has moved on to other stories. In fact, Boko Haram appears to miss the attention. This week, the group released a video to remind the world it’s still around.

The video features the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau (left), ridiculing the West’s campaign to free the girls and demanding, instead, that Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, release members of Boko Haram currently in prison. “You go around saying ‘Bring Back Our Girls,'” he mocks. “Bring Back Our Army.” For good measure, he repeats gleefully into the camera, “Kill, Kill, Kill, Kill Christians!”

The video is worth watching for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a nice lesson in the limits of social media. Feel-good hashtag campaigns, on their own, accomplish precisely nothing. To refer without irony to “the promise of the hashtag,” as a State Department spokesperson recently did in the context of the Ukraine crisis, is an embarrassment. Groups like Boko Haram will laugh off such trivialities or, indeed, co-opt them for their own purposes. So will other, more sovereign, opponents.

I don’t suggest the West should send commandos to Nigeria to free the girls, even assuming we could find them. Invading countries has a way of backfiring. In fact, we may not be capable of very much in this situation, unfortunately. But one thing’s for sure. Juvenile, self-regarding tweets–the foreign-policy version of selfies–will only make the West seem effete and, well, laughable.

Second, Shekau’s call to “Kill Christians” clarifies something important. As as a result of the Chibok kidnapping, the West sees Boko Haram as anti-women. But that’s a relatively minor part of the story. Boko Haram is not principally anti-women, but anti-Christian. The group has been carrying out atrocities against Christians for years. It’s just that the West has not found the story important. Indeed, Chibok itself is a largely Christian city, and most of the kidnapped schoolgirls are Christians. That’s a major reason why Boko Haram abducted them in the first place.

The media and Western human rights advocates have a hard time seeing Christians as sympathetic victims. Even when they acknowledge that Christians are suffering, they feel they somehow have to apologize for raising the subject. (Nicholas Kristof’s recent column for the New York Times is a good example). This bias prevents clear understanding, though. “Bring Back Our Girls?” How about, “Bring Back Our Christians?”

Alianak, “The Transition Towards Revolution and Reform”

This month, Oxford University Press releases The Transition Towards Revolution and Reform: The Arab Spring Realised?, by Sonia L. Alianak (University of Texas). The publisher’s description follows:

The Arab Spring created a transition toward democracy for the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, who initially elected moderate Islamist parties to lead them out of economic deprivation and corruption. This study looks at the relative success of the move to democracy in these four Middle Eastern countries, comparing the secular leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and their desire for revolution with the monarchs of Morocco and Jordan and their priority of reform. In contrast with the monarchs, the secular leaders avoided resort to the palliative of religion to ensure the stability of their rule and were, as a result, unable to survive.

Abbas, “The Taliban Revival”

Last month, Yale University Press released The Taliban Revival: Violence and 9780300178845Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Regime, by Hussein Abbas (National Defense University). The publisher’s description follows:

In autumn 2001, U.S. and NATO troops were deployed to Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban rulers, repressive Islamic fundamentalists who had lent active support to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda jihadists. The NATO forces defeated and dismantled the Taliban government, scattering its remnants across the country. But despite a more than decade-long attempt to eradicate them, the Taliban endured—regrouping and reestablishing themselves as a significant insurgent movement. Gradually they have regained control of large portions of Afghanistan even as U.S. troops are preparing to depart from the region.

In his authoritative and highly readable account, author Hassan Abbas examines how the Taliban not only survived but adapted to their situation in order to regain power and political advantage. Abbas traces the roots of religious extremism in the area and analyzes the Taliban’s support base within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. In addition, he explores the roles that Western policies and military decision making— not to mention corruption and incompetence in Kabul—have played in enabling the Taliban’s resurgence.

Mecham & Hwang (eds.), “Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World”

This month, the University of Pennsylvania publishes Islamist Parties and Political 15245Normalization in the Muslim World, edited by Quinn Mecham (Brigham Young University) and Julie Chernov Hwang (Goucher College). The publisher’s description follows.

Since 2000, more than twenty countries around the world have held elections in which parties that espouse a political agenda based on an Islamic worldview have competed for legislative seats. Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World examines the impact these parties have had on the political process in two different areas of the world with large Muslim populations: the Middle East and Asia. The book’s contributors examine major cases of Islamist party evolution and participation in democratic and semidemocratic systems in Turkey, Morocco, Yemen, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh. Collectively they articulate a theoretical framework to understand the strategic behavior of Islamist parties, including the characteristics that distinguish them from other types of political parties, how they relate to other parties as potential competitors or collaborators, how ties to broader Islamist movements may affect party behavior in elections, and how participation in an electoral system can affect the behavior and ideology of an Islamist party over time.

Through this framework, the contributors observe a general tendency in Islamist politics. Although Islamist parties represent diverse interests and behaviors that are tied to their particular domestic contexts, through repeated elections they often come to operate less as antiestablishment parties and more in line with the political norms of the regimes in which they compete. While a few parties have deliberately chosen to remain on the fringes of their political system, most have found significant political rewards in changing their messages and behavior to attract more centrist voters. As the impact of the Arab Spring continues to be felt, Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World offers a nuanced and timely perspective of Islamist politics in broader global context.

Hamid, “Temptations of Power”

9780199314058_450Next month, Oxford University Press will publish Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East by Shadi Hamid (Brookings Doha Center). The publisher’s description follows.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we had reached “the end of history,” and that liberal democracy would be the reigning ideology from now on. But Fukuyama failed to reckon with the idea of illiberal democracy. What if majorities, working through the democratic process, decide they would rather not accept gender equality and other human rights norms that Western democracies take for granted? Nowhere have such considerations become more relevant than in the Middle East, where the Arab uprisings of 2011 swept the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties into power. Since then, one question has been on everyone’s mind: what do Islamists really want?

In Temptations of Power, noted Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid draws on hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and rank-and-file activists to offer an in-depth look at the past, present, and future of Islamist parties across the Arab world. The oldest and most influential of these groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, initially dismissed democracy as a foreign import, but eventually chose to participate in Egyptian and Jordanian party politics in the 1980s. These political openings proved short-lived. As repression intensified, though, Islamist parties did not — as one may have expected — turn to radicalism. Rather, they embraced the tenets of democratic life, putting aside their dreams of an Islamic state, striking alliances with secular parties, and reaching out to Western audiences for the first time.

When the 2011 revolutions took place, Islamists found themselves in an enviable position, but one they were unprepared for. Up until then, the prospect of power had seemed too remote. But, now, freed from repression and with the political arena wide open, they found themselves with an unprecedented opportunity to put their ideas into practice across the region. Groups like the Brotherhood combine the features of political parties and religious movements. However pragmatic they may be, their ultimate goal remains the Islamization of society and the state. When the electorate they represent is conservative as well, they can push their own form of illiberal democracy while insisting they are carrying out the popular will. This can lead to overreach and, at times, significant backlash, as the tragic events in Egypt following the military takeover demonstrated.

While the coup and the subsequent crackdown were a devastating blow for the Islamist “project,” premature obituaries of political Islam, a running feature of commentary since the 1950s, usually turn out to be just that – premature. In countries as diverse as Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, Islamist groups will remain an important force whether in the ranks of opposition or the halls of power.

Drawing from interviews with figures like ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, Hamid’s account will serve as an essential compass for those trying to understand where the region’s varied Islamist groups have come from, and where they might be headed.

Report: Obama Administration to Increase Aid to Syrian Rebels

 

Kessab19

Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab

The Wall Street Journal reports today that President Obama’s national security advisers have agreed on a proposal to increase US aid to “moderate” Syrian rebels. Although the advisers disagree on the advisability of more aggressive military intervention, they have apparently coalesced around a plan for US Special Forces to train and equip the moderates. This is in line with a report on Walter Russell Mead’s blog that Obama agreed during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia to supply the rebels with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, or “manpads.”

One can understand the Administration’s frustration. Two-and-a-half years after Obama said that Assad would have to go, and several months after the President’s about-face on chemical weapons, the Assad regime seems more secure than it has for a long time. But two factors counsel strongly against more aggressive assistance to the rebels. First, as Patrick Brennan writes, “for months and months now, it’s been obvious that the effective parts of the Syrian opposition are militant Islamists” like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Pro-Western moderate rebels, the sort the Administration likes to promote, are more or less “powerless.” If the opposition were to succeed in overthrowing Assad, it’s quite possible that the Islamists would overwhelm their secular allies–perhaps through a democratic election, as in Egypt in 2012–and transform Syria into an Islamist state. How would that advance America’s interests? 

Second, assistance to the rebels would almost certainly worsen the already dire situation of Syria’s Christians. Just in the last two weeks, the Nusra Front attacked the Armenian town of Kessab, displacing thousands of Christians. Fortunately, first reports of a massacre seem to have been unfounded. Indeed, the rebels are conducting a PR offensive to assure Kessab–and the world community–that they mean no harm. Christians are skeptical, and with good reason. ISIL recently imposed the centuries-old dhimma in a different Christian town, Raqqa, and, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observed this morning, “gross human rights violations undeniably continue.” Islamists have kidnapped nuns and bishops and murdered clergy. Only today, masked gunmen, presumably Islamist rebels, murdered a Catholic priest in a rebel-controlled district in the city of Homs. For these reasons, Syria’s Christians mostly support the Assad regime, usually quietly, sometimes vocally.

At this writing, it’s not clear whether the plan to equip and train the Syrian rebels will be adopted. In the words of the Journal report, “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.”

Hamid, “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East”

Next month, Oxford will publish Temptations of Power:9780199314058_140 Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, by Shadi Hamid (Director of Research and Fellow, Brookings Doha Center). The publisher’s description follows.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we had reached “the end of history,” and that liberal democracy would be the reigning ideology from now on. But Fukuyama failed to reckon with the idea of illiberal democracy. What if majorities, working through the democratic process, decide they would rather not accept gender equality and other human rights norms that Western democracies take for granted? Nowhere have such considerations become more relevant than in the Middle East, where the Arab uprisings of 2011 swept the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties into power. Since then, one question has been on everyone’s mind: what do Islamists really want?

In Temptations of Power, noted Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid draws on hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and rank-and-file activists to offer an in-depth look at the past, present, and future of Islamist parties across the Arab world. The oldest and most influential of these groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, initially dismissed democracy as a foreign import, but eventually chose to participate in Egyptian and Jordanian party politics in the 1980s. These political openings proved short-lived. As repression intensified, though, Islamist parties did not — as one may have expected — turn to radicalism. Rather, they embraced the tenets of democratic life, putting aside their dreams of an Islamic state, striking alliances with secular parties, and reaching out to Western audiences for the first time.

When the 2011 revolutions took place, Islamists found themselves in an enviable position, but one they were unprepared for. Up until then, the prospect of power had seemed too remote. But, now, freed from repression and with the political arena wide open, they found themselves with an unprecedented opportunity to put their ideas into practice across the region. Groups like the Brotherhood combine the features of political parties and religious movements. However pragmatic they may be, their ultimate goal remains the Islamization of society and the state. When the electorate they represent is conservative as well, they can push their own form of illiberal democracy while insisting they are carrying out the popular will. This can lead to overreach and, at times, significant backlash, as the tragic events in Egypt following the military takeover demonstrated.

While the coup and the subsequent crackdown were a devastating blow for the Islamist “project,” premature obituaries of political Islam, a running feature of commentary since the 1950s, usually turn out to be just that – premature. In countries as diverse as Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, Islamist groups will remain an important force whether in the ranks of opposition or the halls of power.

Drawing from interviews with figures like ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, Hamid’s account will serve as an essential compass for those trying to understand where the region’s varied Islamist groups have come from, and where they might be headed.