By Tam Hussein
April 12th, 2017
French Atrocities In Algeria Bolstered The F.L.N.
Perhaps the heavy handed tactics used by US army in Fallujah led the not so young al-Baghdadi, to join the insurgents. Maybe at one point this Abu Bakr was just an ordinary man, a devout man who to all accounts lead prayers at his mosque, played around with the kids, listened quietly to the complaints of the locals and advised them on Islamic law since he possessed a doctorate. On Fridays he played football on the dusty streets of North Samarra, a suburb of Baghdad. Maybe this is how his life would have continued till the end of his days. But war has a way of twisting men’s souls, and just like the French paratroopers in The Centurions who spent several years in the camps of the Communists, Abu Bakr too ended up in Camp Bucca. His captors taught this Dr. Ibrahim Awad or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a thing or to. Like officer Mirendelle in The Centurions, he too learnt how to mediate, how to win alliances and how the Americans behaved.
Perhaps just like the French Paratroopers who learnt much from the Communists and applied the lessons with deadly effect in Algeria, Abu Bakr too learnt things in Camp Bucca and applied it to deadly affect. He certainly learnt how to put people in orange jump suits. When he emerged, he experienced the intensity of asymmetric warfare, he learnt that stuffing bombs inside corpses and dogs were effective, how to create grey zones by dividing Sunnis from Shi’ites, how to sit completely still when a drone flew ahead and the art of illusiveness. He learnt all such things over the years without rest or respite- constantly hunted with a price on his head.
Perhaps, by the time the Syrian uprising began, he became that amoral man in The Centurions, Captain Julien Boisfeuras, an expert in unconventional and political warfare, who like the real life monster captain Paul Aussaresses tortured, waterboarded, raped, electrocuted a man in the balls, if only to achieve victory. Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, in the light of modern warfare, fitted in with that landscape. In fact perhaps, all of us given the circumstances, could become just like him. Consider Youssef Ben Khedda, a pharmacist, whose hands according to Alistair Horne’s masterful A Savage War of Peace, were clean. Horne writes:
“He wrote a joint letter to Alger Républicain complaining about the blind arrests. Two days later he too was in prison, followed shortly by his fellow signatories; immediately he was released, five months later, he joined the F.L.N”
Could this story of ‘radicalisation’ not apply to al-Baghdadi or even us? Isn’t that human nature? When the Nazis invaded France what tactics did the Free French use against them? Billion dollar armies can afford to have rules, resistance movements have to make conscious choices to have them or not. It even begs the question whether the likes of Abdel Kader could even be allowed to flourish in the murky ethical terrain of modern warfare.
And yet it is perhaps what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had become that the Muslim guy and gal on the street recoils at. “That’s precisely it” says one worshipper in Norbury mosque, “we can all be like him but that’s not what a Mujahid is meant to be! He’s meant to be like Imam Ali when the Arab spits at him as he is about to kill him, he leaves him”. The anger is visible in his face, Abu Bakr doesn’t deserve the title of mujahid. Perhaps the political philosopher John Gray is spot on when he says that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State:
“…shares more with the modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West”
And everything he does seem to support Gray’s view. Al-Baghdadi, calling on terror attacks on the West, is following Abu Bakr Naji’s tactics outlined in his tract, The Management of Savagery. The intention is to create grey zones that divide the population into an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ scenario. These tactics, these very modern tactics were advocated by the Brazilian guerrilla leader Carlos Marighela, and also used by the F.L.N as one of Lartéguy’s protagonists observes:
“…a bomb exploded….at the cafeteria some medical orderlies laid a child screaming with pain, on a stretcher- another bomb exploded in 5 October in Algiers killing nine Moslem passengers. Horror reigned in Algiers- horror was succeeded by fear and hatred- Moslems began to be beaten up without rhyme or reason. Europeans got rid of their old Arab servants and Fatmahs who had been part of the family for twenty years. Within a few days Bab al-Oued witnessed a distinct rift between the Moslems on one hand and the Jews and Europeans on the other. This was exactly what the F.L.N wanted to divide that ill-defined zone and split up its inhabitants who tended to resemble one another more and more. For they had so many things in common, certain nonchalance, love of gossip, contempt for women, jealousy, irresponsibility and inclination to day dream.” [Pp.452-453]
ISIS realised what the French paratroop officers understood in fighting the F.L.N; in order to win they had to get on an equal footing with the native population. They had to get “as covered with mud and blood as they are. Then one shall be able to fight them, and in the process we’ll lose our souls, if we really have souls.” And so the paratroopers extended the ill treatment of native Algerians and did things irrespective of legality; they massacred, tortured and raped. They took the local women away, treated them like queens as they ironed and washed for them and then returned them to their men. The French thought they were freeing the Algerian woman from Arab patriarchy and emasculating them by showing how little control they had over them. But when they met a troublesome one, they simply raped her. As one of the Paratroop officers recognised:
“…the ghastly law of the new type of war. But he had to get accustomed to it, to harden himself and shed all those deeply in-grained, out-of-date notions which make for the greatness of Western man but at the same time prevent himself from protecting himself”- [p490]
And the truth was these French paratroopers as Lartéguy says, fought an enemy very much like themselves. Some of the F.L.N leaders were former officers, some were university educated metropolitans treated with disdain in Paris cafes like many French of North African descent are treated to this day. They were thoroughly modern creatures and so employed the same tactics as the paratroopers. They massacred Pieds Noirs civilians in Philippeville, they liquidated their own members, gouged out the eyes of collaborators and believed that the end justified the means. Arguably, ISIS mirrors what the F.L.N did in Lartéguy’s novel. But where as the F.L.N in Lartéguy’s model understood that they were moderns somewhere along the line, Abu Bakr and friends did not understand the fact that they were too.
For al-Baghdadi is in a sort of denial. He has failed to deal with modernity itself and in it lie the seeds of his defeat. It is this reason that made the people of Najiyeh boot ISIS out, the commander of Ahrar shoot the ISIS emir and the locals scrawl sarcastic comments on their Shariah court. This inability to grasp modernity, to understand that a process has occurred between their ‘Islamic State’ and the past. The Muslim world has experienced a traumatic rupture, not just defeat, humiliation and loss but colonisation, industrialisation and societal changes which have fundamentally altered the times we live in. In the past, life was organised and configured differently, the same rules which applied to the pre-modern world cannot be applied anymore.
The Islamic State is like a car crash victim who, after recovering, thinks he can just go back to living the same way when in reality his limbs do not function in the same way. He can’t come to terms with his accident and so disasters ensue. Since he cannot remember what the past looks like before the crash, he conjures it up just like the F.L.N leader does in The Centurions:
“There’s only one word for me Istiqlal, independence. Its a deep fine-sounding word and rings in the ears of the poor fellahin [farmers] more loudly than poverty, social security or free medical assistance. We Algerians steeped as we are in Islam are in greater need of dreams and dignity than practical care. And you? What word have you got to offer? If its better than mine you’ve won.”
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came up with ‘Khilafa ‘ala minhaj an-Nubuwwa’-‘the Caliphate on the Prophetic Methodology’, and the Muslim world looked up for a second, with a sense of hope and nostalgia; for this was their historical past, just as the British looks to their Empire, their Raj and the Battle of Britain nostalgically, not quite coming to terms with the fact that they are no longer a great power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried to realise the word ‘Khilafa’. But what did the word ‘Khilafa’ mean in the context of modernity and the post-colonial world? In the Pre-Modern Islamicate, people were divided into millets or religious communities because that was the reality on the ground. Now we had the concept of citizenship, this is the new reality.
ISIS denied this new reality and sought to extract the Jizyah, the poll tax from Syrian Christians thinking that it was more merciful on them than paying higher taxes. These Christians who had lived on that land for millennia would be paying this Jizyah to Abu Marwan or Luqman from Ghafsa, Tunisia. ISIS failed to comprehend that even if the Jizyah was lower, and the Christian is protected by the Muslim armies, in the modern context it is simply put, humiliation. We are all sons of egalité now, whether we like it or not. The Syrian Christian has for generations grown up with the concept of equality.
In fact, he may be like the ancient Northern Syrian tribe of Ghassasina who preferred to pay a higher tax rate to the second Caliph, Umar, than accept the status of second class and pay the Jizyah. In the past, the French made Arabs in Algiers wear the necklace akin to the Star of David to signify that they had ‘submitted’ to French laws. Arabs accepted it in the 19th century. Jews wore different colours in the Middle East during the Medieval period. Modern man cannot accept any of these things, even if it is deemed for their own ‘good’. ISIS couldn’t come to terms with this.
In fact, al-Baghdadi creates what Benedict Anderson calls “an imagined community” through the use of powerful propaganda, tapping into the emotions of many Muslims. This isn’t just a cynical attempt, Graeme Wood is right here, ISIS are True Believers-zealots. They may have been former secular officers who were thrown into Abu Ghraib but, just like the F.L.N commander in The Centurions, they had rediscovered their religion, their reality had been shaken with the fall of the modern Iraqi state. These highly trained officers couldn’t just return to the coffee shops to smoke a fat Zaghloul and drink bitter coffee, lamenting the presence of US marines on their streets. That jarred with their sense of honour, no, they would return to Fallujah and Mosul where their families were and fight.
These officers did what an Algerian officer in The Centurion did, they gave their failed country “a history and a personality.” They grabbed the black ‘Abbasid’ flag and made it synonymous with Islamicate. Heavily reliant on ‘salvation history’, they created a vision that the banner of Islam spread from East to West. They ignored historical reality where at one point there were three caliphates that vied for power with each other, and that even after the fall of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, no caliph existed at all for several years. ISIS did what Lartéguy says happened in Algeria, they created a history based on the cemeteries of the dead not based on historical reality. It was Fake News caliphated. As one F.L.N leader says, congratulating a French paratroop officer on his country’s contribution to the creation of modern Algeria:
“The Algerian people have been scarred by war, their existence has been too disturbed to turn the clock back at this stage. You yourselves are creating Algeria through this war, by uniting all the races, Berbers, Arabs, Kabyles and Chaouias. The rebels should be almost grateful to you for the violent measures of repression you have taken.” [p473]
And so the invasion and the sectarianism within Iraq and lately Syria helped to create this ‘nation’ if you will. When ISIS broke through the Sykes-Picot border, it was seen as restoring parity between the oppressed and the oppressor. It was like Horne says of France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh in 1954:
“Suddenly this unbelievable defeat deprived the French army of its baraka, [blessing] making it look curiously mortal for the first time.”
The breaching of the Sykes-Picot line was the biggest paradigm shift since Ben Ali fell in the Middle East. It showed the world and indeed Muslims that the status quo can be changed, that the West’s grip on the Muslim world was not supreme. This was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ‘Yes we can’ moment and perhaps his legacy even as we begin to write his obituary. In post-colonial theory at least, he had done what Franz Fanon believed was essential between coloniser and colonised. He had restored parity, not through the coloniser granting him his freedom which instilled an inferiority complex in the manumitted. Rather, he took it by giving the coloniser a bloody nose.
When ISIS broke through Sykes-Picot, they had restored a sense of honour for many in the Middle East. Similarly, when the Islamic State reintroduced concubinage and traditional female roles, they reasserted this injured manhood. And yet at the same time, they displayed their inability to accept that modernity had changed us so fundamentally that Jefferson could own slaves and still be considered a ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ man then. But today, should he practise the same thing, he’d be considered a monster.
ISIS may have signalled its independence by purporting to ‘mint’ gold coins and arbitrarily declaring ‘provinces’ all over the Muslim world and yet, just like the Algerian officer Mahmoudi in The Centurions, who knew that Algeria could not exist without France, the Islamic State also demonstrated that it could not exist outside of the modern world. The creation of uniform ISIS courts were in reality the importing of Western law courts, which made the Rule of Law the basis of the state. Partly, ISIS knew that it had to compete with that model and partly because it didn’t know anything else.
On one hand, it was proof of their ingenuity at state building, but also an admission that the paradigm to beat was still the Western model. According to Wael Hallaq’s Impossible State, Islamic history didn’t have uniform law courts as we see them in modern nation states. Far from it, they were extremely organic and functional affairs tailored to the needs of the local community. The historical Islamicate had never made the Rule of Law, king. Now it did.
Similarly, when ISIS introduced ISHS, Islamic State Health Services, it based itself on the British National Health Services, NHS, rather than the hospitals of Medieval Andalusia. ISIS then, could not exist outside of time, theirs was a modern project however much it tried to deny it. ISIS’ predicament was like that of the Jihadist who blew up the ancient Buddha statues or the temples in Palmyra for being an expression of infidelity and irreligion but did not realise that his Nike trainers were paying homage to a Greek deity.
In al-Baghdadi’s denial of modernity therein lies his demise. His group failed because the Mohammed and Ayesha in Raqqah and Mosul instinctively realised that they were un-Islamic in spite of the long beard, ankle swingers and tooth stick. It is likely that there will be other groups who will want to emulate ISIS, but for them to be successful they will have to come to terms with modernity. One suspects that they too will fail. Sometimes an old timer can grasp the un-tangible better than many learned men. These ancient looking men don’t know many religious texts but have an earthy piety and remain a reliquary of wisdom that sees things plainly.
“Now these youngsters,” says wispy bearded uncle Forid sitting in Brick Lane mosque waiting to meet his Maker, “are running around killing this and committing God knows what sin thinking that they are doing the Prophet’s work! Idiots! They are so far from him! When the Mehdi comes everything going to be fine.” Uncle Forid is resigned to the arrival of the Mehdi, the messianic saviour who will come at the end of time in Muslim apocalyptic narratives. Uncle Forid knows that the youth are too impatient, they want paradise now. They don’t want to lose.
The youth forget that what goes on in the world is often a reflection of a sick heart. They forget that the Muslim pantheon contains plenty of winners but also plenty of losers; Abdel Kader, Hadji Murat, Imam Shamil, Omar Mokhtar but history honoured them because they remained true to their martial tradition and moral code. To eternity, it seems, winning isn’t everything? An anecdote of Omar Mokhtar told to me by a Tunisian activist is pertinent here: one of Omar Mokhtar’s Mujahideen demanded that two Italian POWs be given no quarter just like the Italians did to them. Omar Mokhtar replied: ‘They are not our teachers’.
Whoever comes after the fall of Mosul will need to convince a sceptical Muslim population, tired of the killing and the blood, that they match up to Mujahids like Omar Mokhtar.