By Irfan Husain
July 14th, 2014
MUSLIMS finally have what many had been hoping for: an Islamic caliphate. So why is there no cheering? Could it be that the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has no moral authority for his recent proclamation of a Caliphate? After all, given his blood-soaked past, it was unlikely that many Muslims would salute his black banner.
But his rise to power in large swathes of Iraq and Syria at the head of a pack of ravening wolves has a direct precedent in Muslim history. Hordes of tribal warriors boiled out of the Arabian Peninsula to destroy the Byzantine and Persian empires, and conquer their vast territories. North Africa and Spain soon fell to the advancing Muslim armies. In a remarkably short period, the world order had been turned on its head.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seeks to resurrect the old borders of the far-flung Muslim empire, and has demanded that believers across the world fall into line. But the lack of any meaningful response to his call serves to remind us that the world is a very different place from what it was fifteen hundred years ago.
Despite the speed of ISIS’s expansion, in objective terms, it is a guerrilla force that has only succeeded because of the weakness of its enemies. Bashar al-Assad’s army in Syria is preoccupied with fighting a number of other groups, and thus unable to focus on ISIS. And Maliki’s Iraqi government is a shambolic affair incapable of directing this fight for survival. Also al-Baghdadi has been able to capitalise on Sunni discontent to add to his forces.
This disarray is in evidence across much of the Muslim world: in Egypt, the country is polarised between the army and its camp-followers on the one hand, and conservative Egyptians led by the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. A full-fledged civil war cannot be ruled out. Last week, the Economist ran a cover story titled The Tragedy of the Arabs: a poisoned history. In a table, the weekly magazine laid out the dozen civil wars that have broken out in the Middle East since 1975. These have killed nearly a million people. If one adds the civil war in erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971, and the bloodletting during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, it is easy to see that more Muslims have been slaughtered by fellow believers than by anybody else.
So what else is new? This ongoing tragedy is compounded by the seemingly intractable conflicts that rack so many Muslim states today. Political ambition, ignorance and poverty have combined to lock us into an unending pattern of violence and backwardness. And in the Arab states that prosper because of their oil wealth, the cost should be measured by the brutality with which this seeming stability has been achieved.
Currently, three fault lines divide the Middle East: the Palestinian conflict; the Shia-Sunni divide; and the clash between democratic aspirations and a ruthlessly predatory ruling elite that seeks to hang on to power at any cost. The latter include despots like Bashar al-Assad, generals like Sissi, and the ruling families of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. These rulers would rather do deals with the devil than allow their own people a share of the power and prosperity they control.
The struggle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran has seen the explosive growth of sectarian conflict stretching from Pakistan to Lebanon. Much of the extremist poison that has infected so many young Muslims has its origins in the Salafi Islam exported by Saudi Arabia.
In its editorial, the Economist writes: “Islam, or at least its modern reinterpretations, is at the core of some of the Arabs’ deep troubles. The faith’s claim, promoted by some of its leading lights, to combine spiritual and earthly authority, with no separation of mosque and state, has stunted the development of independent political institutions. A militant minority of Muslims are caught up in a search for legitimacy through ever more fanatical interpretations of the Koran. Other Muslims, threatened by militia violence and civil war, have sought refuge in their sect … And this violent perversion of Islam has spread to places as distant as northern Nigeria and northern England.”
The editorial writer could have added Indonesia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But while portraying ourselves as victims of extremism, we encourage the forces of darkness by painting jihadists as idealistic holy warriors who are fighting to restore the glories of early Islam. Unless we face our demons and see clearly who the enemy is, we will continue suffering from the kind of violence and confusion that has bedevilled the Muslim world for centuries.
It is easy to blame external forces, and specially the West, for our predicament. And it is true that Western support for the most repressive governments in the Muslim world and elsewhere during the Cold War have made matters worse. But we need to be masters of our own destiny, and not allow tin-pot dictators, shabby politicians or sleazy kings and emirs — or, indeed, Washington — to hold the Muslim world to ransom forever.