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REVIEW: Commander of the Faithful by John Kiser

Friday, March 30th, 2018

[Mark Safranski / “zen‘]

Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John Kiser  

A while back, I received a copy of Commander of the Faithful from friend of ZP, Major Jim Gant who had been impressed with the book and urged me to read it. My antilibrary pile of books is substantial and it took a while to work my way towards it. I knew a little about Algerian colonial history from reading about the French Third Republic, the Foreign Legion and counterinsurgency literature but the name of Abd el-Kader was obscure to me.  The author, John W. Kiser, had also written a book on the martyred Monks of Tibhirine, a topic that had previously caught the eye of Charles Cameron and made a significant impression. Therefore, I settled in to read a biography of a long forgotten desert Arab chieftain.

What a marvelous book!

Kiser’s fast-moving tale is of a man who attempted to forge from unwieldy tribes and two unwilling empires, a new nation grounded in an enlightened Islam that transcended tribal customs ad corrupt legacies of Ottoman misrule while resisting encroachments of French imperial power. A Sufi marabout who was the son of a marabout, el Kader was the scholar who picked up the sword and whose call to jihad eschewed cruelty and held that piety and modernity were compatible aspirations for the feuding tribes of the Mahgreb. There are a number of themes or conflicts in Commander of the Faithful that will interest ZP readers;

el-Kader’s political effort to build a durable, modernizing, Islamic state and Mahgreb nation from feuding desert tribes and clans

Abd el-Kader struggled to unify disparate Arab tribes and subtribes through piety, generosity and coercion while integrating Turco-Arabs and Algerian Jews who had a place under the old Ottoman regime into his new order. Jews like the diplomat Judas Ben Duran and Christian French former military officers and priests became  el-Kader’s trusted advisers and intermediaries alongside Arab chieftains and Sufi marabouts.

el-Kader the insurgent strategist and battlefield tactician

As a military leader, Abd el-Kader demonstrated both a natural talent for cavalry tactics as well as the organizational skill to build a small, but well-disciplined regular infantry with modern rifles on the European model. It is noteworthy, that while Abd el-Kader suffered the occasional reverse (the worst at the hands of a wily Arab warlord loyal to the French) the French generals fighting him all came to grudgingly respect his bravery, honor and skill. Never defeated, Abd el-Kader made peace with the French and surrendered voluntarily; all of his former enemies, Generals Lamoriciere, Damaus, Bugeaud and Changarnier interceded on al-Kader’s behalf to prod the French government to keep its promises to the Amir, who had become a celebrity POW in a series of French chateaus.

el-Kader the Islamic modernizer and moral figure

The 19th century was a time of intellectual ferment in the Islamic world from Morocco to British India with the prime question being the repeated failures of Islamic authorities in the face of European imperialism of the modern West. El-Kader found different answers than did the Deobandis of India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the later Mahdists of the Sudan, the followers of al-Afghani or the Young Turks who began turning toward secularism. Educated in the Sufi tradition, el-Kader’s vision of Islam, while devout and at times strict, encompassed a benevolent tolerance and respect for “the People of the Book” and general humanitarianism far in advance of the times that is absent in modern jihadism.

It was Abd el-Kader, in retirement in Damascus, who rallied his men to protect thousands of Christians from being massacred in a bloody pogrom (the 1860 Riots) organized by the Ottoman governor, Ahmed Pasha, using as his instrument two local Druze warlords who were angry about their conflict with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and Sunni Arabs and Kurds enraged about the Ottoman reforms that had ended the dhimmi status of the Maronite Christians. It was the Emir who faced down and chastised a howling mob as bad Muslims and evildoers and by his actions thousands of lives were spared. Already honored for his chivalrous treatment of prisoners and his banning of customary decapitation as barbarous, the 1860 Riots cemented Abd El-Kader’s reputation for humanitarianism and made him an international figure known from the cornfields of Iowa to the canals of St. Petersburg.

Kiser, who it must be said keeps the story moving throughout, is at pains to emphasize the exemplary moral character of Abd el-Kader. As Emir, he “walked the walk” and understood the connection between his personal asceticism, probity and generosity to his enemies and the poor and his political authority as Emir. When some Arab tribes betrayed Abd El-Kader in a battle against the French, consequently they were deeply shamed and ended up begging the Emir to be allowed to return to his service. On the occasions when harsh punishments had to be dealt out, Abd el-Kader meted them not as examples of his cruelty to be feared but as examples of justice to deter unacceptable crimes that he would swiftly punish.  This is operating at what the late strategist John Boyd called “the moral level of war”, allowing Abd el-Kader to attract the uncommitted, win over observers, rally his people and demoralize his opponents. Even in defeat, realizing the hopelessness of his position against the might of an industrializing great imperial power that was France. el-Kader retained the initiative, ending the war while he was still undefeated and on honorable terms.

In Commander of the Faithful, Kiser paints el-Kader in a romantic light, one that fits the mid 19th century when concepts of honor and chivalry still retained their currency on the battlefield and society, among the Europeans as much as the Emir’s doughty desert tribesmen (if there is any group that comes off poorly, it is the Turks, the dying Ottoman regime’s pashas and beys providing a corrupt and decadent contrast to el-Kader’s nascent Islamic state). The nobility of Abd el-Kader shines from Kiser’s text, both humble and heroic in a manner that rarely sees a 21st century analogue. It is both refreshing and at times, moving to read of men who could strive for the highest ethical standards while engaged in the hardest and most dangerous enterprise.

Strongly recommended.

 

Monkey see monkey do, or an eye for an eye

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — or, I suppose you could say, symmetry ]
.

The Finsbury Park Mosque attacker drove a car into a crowd because he was disgusted by the Westminster Bridge attacker who drove a car into a crowd:

Ah well, bin Laden back in the day had a more sophisticated form of the same practice. As he put it in a speech to America::

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

Sources:

  • SPLC, What We Know: Finsbury Park Attack
  • Telegraph, Westminster attack: Everything we know so far
  • Zenpundit, Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style
  • Mindanao: Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

    Sunday, June 4th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — witnessing the darkness, and the light shining in darkness ]
    .

    Curse and blessing, simultaneously, might be termed a mized blessing, ne?

    Our understanding of Islam in relation to Christianity may be enhanced by a telling of the cursed, blest hehavior of Muslims in Mindanao, during the evacuation of the city of Marawi: curse and blessing are inextricably intertwined, the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not, the light shineth in darkness..

    **

    Philippine sectarian bloodshed unites Muslims and Christians
    Despite Islamist militants’ attempts to cause division, their violence has prompted selfless interfaith compassion

    [ .. ] Islamist militants in black masks were stationed on bridges – the only way out of the besieged city of Marawi – looking for Christian hostages. A priest had already been kidnapped. Risking his own life, a local Muslim leader had hidden dozens of Christians in a rice mill.

    “He was giving them an orientation,” said the city’s bishop, Edwin de la Peña. “How to respond to questions, to recite prayers, to wear their veils, how to say assalamu alaikum (peace be upon you).”

    The plan worked, but others were not so fortunate, de la Peña said. “When they were asked if they were Christians, they said yes readily. So they were pulled out. And we just heard that they were killed and thrown down into a ravine.”

    Residents of Marawi, on the Mindanao island of the Philippines, were fleeing a surprise takeover by fighters claiming to be Islamic State supporters. They left a burning cathedral and corpses in their wake.

    Stories such as these of brutal sectarian bloodshed, but also selfless interfaith compassion, have rippled across the Philippines.

    Muslims protect Christians under attack from Isis-linked group as they flee Marawi
    “We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out,” said Leny Paccon, who gave refuge to 54 people in her home, including 44 Christians

    More than 160 civilians walked out of the besieged Philippines city of Marawi just after dawn on Saturday, deceiving Islamist fighters they encountered by hiding the identity of the many Christians among them. [ .. ]

    “We saved ourselves,” said Norodin Alonto Lucman, a well-known former politician and traditional clan leader who sheltered 71 people, including more than 50 Christians, in his home during the battle that erupted on 23 May in the town of more than 200,000 on the southern island of Mindanao. “There’s this plan to bomb the whole city if Isis don’t agree to the demands of the government,” he said, referring to local and foreign fighters who have sworn allegiance to the ultra-radical Islamic State. [ .. ]

    “We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out,” said Leny Paccon, who gave refuge to 54 people in her home, including 44 Christians. “When I got the text, immediately we go out … about 7 o’clock.”

    By then, Lucman and his guests had begun their escape march from another area, holding white flags and moving briskly.

    “As we walked, others joined us,” he told reporters. “We had to pass through a lot of snipers.”

    Some of the civilians were stopped and asked if there were any Christians among them, said Jaime Daligdig, a Christian construction worker.

    “We shouted ‘Allahu akbar’,” he told Reuters, adding that thanks to that Muslim rallying cry they were allowed to pass. [ .. ]

    Christians have been killed and taken hostage by the militants, a mix of local fighters from the Maute Group and other Islamist outfits, as well as foreigners who joined the cause under the Islamic State banner. [ .. ]

    Lucman said that many of those trapped were on the verge of starvation, which also gave them the courage to leave.

    **

    many of those trapped were on the verge of starvation, which also gave them the courage to leave.

    There’s a close and provocative analogy there to the idea that darkness brings out the light, ne?

    JM Berger’s latest, 1

    Friday, April 21st, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — JM’s sustained attack on Christian Identity and ISIS ]
    .

    JM on his latest piece:

    I’ve kept those first three tweets in Twitter form becaue they include graphics. JM’s series continues on twitter, but here I’m reformatting it as regular prose for ease of reading:

    The paper is first in a series aiming to develop a framework to study extremism as a phenomenon crossing ideological boundaries.

    The framework I’m presenting is derived from a grounded theory approach, using Christian Identity as a starting point. The paper traces how Christian Identity emerged from a non-extremist precursor, and what that says about identity and group radicalization. It also offers new (and probably controversial) definitions of extremism and radicalization, seeking to address a serious gap in consensus. Finally, it offers some ideas for counter-messaging and deradicalization derived from the framework.

    The next in the series will apply the framework to ISIS propaganda with concrete notes on how the framework informs counter-messaging. I’m ultimately asking what ISIS has in common with Christian Identity, and what that tells us about each and both.

    An important approach, IMO.

    **

    JM Berger’s latest, 2 will present his accompanying overview of recent work in the field.

    Muslim does not equal Terrorist

    Friday, April 21st, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — witting or unwitting, there’s a blatant inability to make this simple distinction ]
    .

    The sane alternative:


    Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba and His Holiness the Dalai
    Lama are two role models for our century.

    **

    There’s an interesting conflation of Islam and Terrorism in a post titled 2 Faces of Islam: Why All Muslims Benefit from Terrorism from Freedom Outpost:

    While many Muslims are just as horrified by terrorism as the rest of us are, all Muslims nevertheless benefit from Islam. This is because both peaceful and violent Muslims tend to share two important goals: (1) the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, and (2) the silencing of critics of Islam. Since terrorism helps achieve these goals, all Muslims benefit from Islam.

    This would make sense — I’m not saying I’d agree with it, merely that it would have a logical form to it that wouldn’t make me go cross-eyed — if it read [note: this paragraph edited in light of comment below]:

    While many Muslims are just as horrified by terrorism as the rest of us are, all Muslims nevertheless benefit from terrorism. This is because both peaceful and violent Muslims tend to share two important goals: (1) the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, and (2) the silencing of critics of Islam. Since terrorism helps achieve these goals, all Muslims benefit from terrorism.

    But no: under a caption that tells us 2 Faces of Islam: Why All Muslims Benefit from Terrorism, it twice states all Muslims nevertheless benefit from Islam.

    The conflation is evident, Islam and Terrorism are interchangeable in the writer’s mind, and that interoperability is liable to find an echo in — or seep diasastrously into — the reader’s mind, too.

    **

    The actual relation between Islam and contemporary Islamist terrorism is neither “Islam is a religion of no terrorism (aka peace)” nor “Islam is a religion of terrorism (aka war)”. To get at a couple of the major nuances here, the Meccan Cantos and the Medinan cantos of the Quran suggest very different readings of what the religion was originally all about, and how it adapted to violent hostility; and in terms of contemporary Islam, not all Muslims are Salafist, and not all Salafists are jihadist fighters, but some of them most definitely and ruthlessly are.

    In addition, Islam needs to be considered both scripturally — the usual western critique — and culturally, by which I mean how Islamic belief plays out in cultural practice across time and space — a far subtler matter. SH Nasr‘s The Study Quran is a prime guide to the former, and Shahab Ahmed‘s What Is Islam?
    The Importance of Being Islamic the towering work to digest in understanding the latter.

    A useful corrective to the “Islam is a religion of war” perspective can be found in the lives and works of two proniment Muslim proponents and practitioners of nonviolence, Sheikh Amadou Bamba, founder of the Muridiyya or Mourides, and Badshah Khan, Gandhi‘s Muslim friend.

    For context around the Mourides, and in constrast with the Wahhabis of the Levanty, see Why are there so few Islamists in West Africa? A dialogue between Shadi Hamid and Andrew Lebovich.

    The inability to distinguish Muslim from Terrorist, and the violence that follows it, can truly be described as Islamophobia.

    **

    Image:

  • Sheikh Aly N’Daw, Choice, Liberty and Love: Consciousness in Action

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