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Of impassioned distinctions and lines traced on maps

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in which the muj from Khorasan talk even more about the erasing of national boundaries than the soldiers of the IS caliphate ]
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Before there were maps, there was terrain, some of it populated, and various populations spoke various languages and identified themselves and each other in various complex ways. And then there were maps.

Heinrich Bunting, world map with Jerusalem at the center, naturally, 1581

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Maps certainly have a logic to them, but it is not always the logic of the populations who actually live, think, and care in the terrain depicted.

In this post, I am going to explore various writings on national boundaries and the recently-announced and mapped caliphate, starting with the mildest, and building in a crescendo to the opinions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Mujahideen in Khurasan.

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Owen Bennett-Jones writes in The London Review of books:

As for borders, it is no longer outlandish to consider the possibility of an Alawite redoubt in western Syria and of Kurdish self-rule: a de facto independence that would change not only Iraq but also Turkey, Syria and Iran. Israel and the Western powers are already voicing concern about what might happen in Jordan. No doubt they will all resist demands to recognise any attempted changes to national boundaries. But that may lead to a growing divergence between the international system regulating relations between states and the reality on the ground.

This seems a bit pallid to me, for reasons you’ll uderstand when you read a Taliban writer pon the same topic below.

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The topic is also apparently a live one for scholars. The University of Southern California and the Project on Middle East Political Science have just issued a Call for Proposals for participants in their Rethinking Nation and Nationalism Workshop, to be held at USC, February 6, 2015:

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have shown that questions of physical boundaries and national identities long seen as resolved may in fact be open to reconfiguring. Insurgencies spanning Syria and Iraq and the (re)assertion of regionalism in Libya are only the most violent of the processes currently underway challenging long-established physical national frontiers. Embattled regimes have produced new national narratives to legitimate their rule, while sectarian and Islamist movements have taken on new manifestations. Refugee movements triggered by these conflicts and longer-standing processes of migration within, into, and out of the region have led to large communities of nationals established outside the countries of their citizenship.

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Col. Pat Lang, a warrior with a feel for the region — he introduced the study of Arabic at West Point — just today posted On identity and the state in the Middle East, his response to a friend’s off-blog comment:

I think what you (Origin) miss in this is that these countries are not really post Treaty of Westphalia nation-states. They were created by the colonial powers in the image of European countries that more resemble that model. In fact, these Middle East countries are inhabited by disparate groups of people who self-indentify within their group or perhaps withing several groups they belong to. These peoples do not identify with the state in which they live unless they happen to be run it. Thus, the Kurds feel no actual loyalty to the thing the British called “Iraq.” They are quite willing to cooperate with other Sunni people, in this case Sunni Arab tribes who are also indifferent or hostile to the government in Baghdad now that it is run by their ancestral enemies, the Shia Arabs. The Kurds would not lift a finger to help “Iraq” if they were left alone in their mountains. What they yearn for first last and always is Kurdish independence. The same situation exists in Jordan a country that is in essence a “reservation” for Sunni Arabs. It has been that since it was created by the Brits in payment of a World War One obligation to the Hashemits Emir Abdullah. This obligation originated in Abdullah’s support for the British during the war. When Iraq was under Sunni rule Jordan supported Iraq. Shia run “Iraq” means nothing to Jordan. The same this is true around the region.

IS is different from all these states. It does not recognize the legitimacy of the notion of countries at all and seeks a world wide theocratic state beginning in the Middle East.

The mozaic of all these groups that exists on the ground in the Middle East does not fit the boundaries of the Sykes-Picot world created after WW1. Come to grips with that.

Now that’s “getting warmer” as kids say in a game of hide and seek.

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And the Caliphate?

They simply and eloquently bulldoze frontiers:

Residents near the border with Syria, where ISIL has exploited civil war to seize wide tracts of that country’s east, watched militants bulldozing tracks through frontier sand berms – as a prelude to trying to revive a medieval entity straddling both modern states.

The words of their Amirul-Mu’minin Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are quoted in the caliphal magazine Dabiq, issue 1 p. 7:

O Muslims everywhere, glad tidings to you and expect good. Raise your head high, for today – by Allah’s grace – you have a state and Khilafah, which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership.

It is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers.

It is a Khilafah that gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghribi (North African), American, French, German, and Australian. Allah brought their hearts together, and thus, they became brothers by His grace, loving each other for the sake of Allah, standing in a single trench, defending and guarding each other, and sacrificing themselves for one another.

Their blood mixed and became one, under a single flag and goal, in one pavilion, enjoying this blessing, the blessing of faithful brotherhood.

If kings were to taste this blessing, they would abandon their kingdoms and fight over this grace. So all praise and thanks are due to Allah.

and again on p. 8:

Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.

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Finally, we come to another set of jihadis who identify themselves in their magazine Azan as the Mujahideen in Khurasan — whose own Amir al-Mumineen is Mulla Umar.

One Muhammad Qasim devotes and entire article to the issue of nation states vs the Ummah in Azan, issue 5 pp 12-15. It is titled Destroying the Country Idol and subheaded:

Consequences of adopting the Nation-State Concept:

• Destruction of Unity
• Creation of Nationalistic Armies

Curiously, the second section focuses on Clausewitz (1832?) rather than Westphalia (1648) — but I’ll leave discussion of that question to our historians.

Qasim begins by quoting two Qur’anic ayat:

Truly! This Ummah of yours is one Ummah, and I am your Lord, so worship Me (Alone). [21:92]

and

hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah (i.e. this Quran), and be not divided among yourselves .. [3:103]

and suggests:

The “nation state” has destroyed the unity of the Ummah and split it into bits and pieces, entirely vulnerable to the plans of the Kuffar. The great Mujahid leader, Shaykh Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri (HA) sums up the Muslim loss in a few impeccable words:

My free and honorable brothers, who are eager to help Islam and liberate Palestine! We must read history and comprehend its lessons. Palestine was lost when the Khilafah fell and we were dominated by secularism and territorial nationalism which has torn us apart and continues to tear us apart.

The body of his article then continues:

One of the fundamental interests of the West and the Zionists, and indeed, one of the necessities of their existence, is that they divide us by spreading the principles of the secular nationalist nation state and homeland among us, so that we become crumbs that they can easily devour. As a result of this ethnic and territorial nationalism, we broke apart after the fall of the Khilafah into more than fifty helpless vassal states.

The reviver of Jihad, Shaykh Abdullah Azzam (RA) said:

Sykes and Picot created borders for us. They said to us, Jordan ends here at ar-Ramtha, and Syria begins after Ar-Ramtha, and Jordan begins after Harat Ammar. And Kuwait? Here it is! The city of Kuwait, the “state” of Kuwait… And the state of Qatar is a single city. And so is the state of Bahrain. And Lebanon? Here it is… the size of a coin. That’s the state of Lebanon. And here is Syria. Listen, this is your land and your birthplace, and love of one’s homeland is part of faith. And so on… And so we have begun to think in an “Islamic way” which is in truth not an Islamic way but rather, a territorial way of thinking daubed with Islam.

The Jordanian in Ar-Ramtha sees the resident of Dara’a [across the Syrian border] being slaughtered in front of him by the Nusayrites; yet, he does not even bat an eyelid, move a muscle, or take an extra heartbeat; nor is he prepared to open the borders. Why? Because Islam ends at Ar-Ramtha; and he has nothing to do with Islam in Dara’a. But when a Jordanian in Al-‘Aqaba winces in pain, you’ll find the same person (from Ar-Ramtha) up in arms, although the distance between Al-‘Aqaba and Ar-Ramtha is more than 600 km, while the difference between al-Ramtha and Dara’a is less than 6 km.

This isn’t an Islamic attitude; this isn’t the attitude of ”Truly! This Ummah of yours is one Ummah, and I am your Lord, so worship Me (Alone).” [21:92]

This isn’t the global outlook of Islam which says:

India is ours and China is ours
And the earth is ours and all is ours
Islam has become our religion
And the entire world is our homeland
The constitution of Allah is our religion
And we have made our hearts its home

All Muslims are united upon true faith in Allah (swt), His Messenger (pbuh) and His Final Book. However, these false lines have been etched upon us on the basis of which entire political, military, economic and cultural institutions have been established that seek division between the Pakistani and the Indian, between the Egyptian and the Turk, between the Chechen and the Uzbek. There is no reality in these divides. As has been emphasized earlier in the article, in Islam, divide between humanity is upon faith, upon love for Allah (swt) and His Messenger (pbuh). So, we as an Ummah must take practical steps to defeat this divided mentality and erase these map lines physically that indoctrinate the Ummah into believing in this false separation.

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It’s impressive iMO to see those whose loyalty is to Mullah Omar publishing in greater detail on this topic than those whose loyalty is to the self-proclaimed caliph of IS. Maybe they’ll submit their article as a proposal for that conference at the University of Southern California, you think?

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DoubleQuotes in the Wild: Iraq Redux?

Friday, August 8th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- noted in passing, hat tip to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who retweeted this from Leo Shane III ]
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Of course, a weak (IMO) argument might be made that “fighting another war in Iraq” involves putting troops on the ground again, not “airstrikes to stop genocide” alone — but at a simple, verbal level I don’t buy it.

So there’s a disconnect, sure — but it’s the kind of disconnect that calls attention to itself — pretty much a statement and its negation. And from a DoubleQuotes / HipBone / Sembl point of view, that’s an intense form of connection, closer for instance than many types of kinship, or cause and effect:

Opposites are closely coupled.

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Yezidis / Yazidis: first gleanings

Friday, August 8th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- piecing together some background on a remarkable and requently misunderstood faith ]
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Philip Kreyenbroek opens his book, Yezidism: its background, observances & textual tradition, with the words:

There is probably no factor that has influenced the perception of Yezidism, both in the Middle East and in the West, as much as the erroneous epithet “devil-worshipper”. In the past, when there was open hostility between the Muslim community and the Yezidis, the epithet probably did more than any theological debate to make it clear to all that the Yezidis were non-Muslims who were not entitled to any protection under Islamic Law. Moreover, it seemed to justify the severe ill-treatment to which they were regularly subjected.

Today, they are under threat of extinction by IS caliphate troops:

See also the final words of the Conflict Antiquities post, The Islamic State has not been able to destroy the Yezidi Shrine of Sherfedin.

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Kreyenbroek continues:

For Western scholars, a genuine academic curiosity about the phenomenon of devil-worship may have been blended with a romantic interest in this secretive but cleanly and friendly group of Oriental ‘pagans’, whose strange cult might contain traces of one or more of the great ancient religions of the Middle East.

This is most unfortunate, since the first emanation from God and leader of the archangels, known to the Yezidis as the Peacock Angel, Melek Taus, (see illustration at the head of this post) resembles Iblis, the fallen archangel who refused to bow before Adam and was banished for his pride in Islamic teachings, but is entirely different from Iblis in that in Yezidi tradition his refusal to bow before Adam follows a divine command and carries no negative connotation. Evil, in Yezidi culture, comes not from the Peacock Angel but from choices made in the hearts of humankind.

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My own special interest is in the varieties of end times theology.

Yezidi eschatology features both a Mehdi, or end times savior identified with the angel Sherfedin, and a Tercal, his “evil opponent” — compare the Dajjal in Islam — described in the Yezidi Qewle Tercal or Hymn of the False Saviour on p. 364 of Philip Kreyenbroek & Khalil J. Rashow, God and Sheikh Adi are perfect: sacred poems and religious narratives from the Yezidi tradition.

Other striking features of Yezidi end times belief include a forty year Sultanate of Jesus in Egypt followed by his death with the Mehdi Sherfedin at Mount Qaf (the earth’s farthest point, beyond which is the realm of the imaginal in Henry Corbin‘s exposition of Iranian sufism), subsequent reigns of Hajuj and Majuj (better known to Bible readers as Gog and Magog), and the purification of the earth by al-Hallaj (the renowned Sufi martyr and subject of Louis Massignon‘s great 3-volume opus) — after which the world will be “smooth as an egg” (Kreyenbroek and Rashow, p 365).

FWIW< the YezidiTruth site contains this much simpler preduction:

Yezidi prophecy maintains that Tawsi Melek will come back to Earth as a peacock or rainbow during a time of intense conflict, poverty, famine and distress on the Earth. He will then transmit some prayers to a holy man, probably a Faqir, who will then take them around the Earth and give them to representatives of all religions

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I’d have run across the Yezidis in Idries Shah‘s book, The Sufis, which I first read in the early 60s, but it was a 2003 article, Ancient religion is on the side of the angels, that made me curious about them, and only the tragic events of the last few days that have finally sent me searching for in-depth materials on this, one of the ealiest known religious traditions, influenced by Sufism yet predating Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam alike…

Kreyenbroek’s two books and Christine Allison‘s The Yezidi Oral Tradition in Iraqi Kurdistan — all hideously expensive — are now on my reading list, and for updates on the situation, I’m following Kreyenbroek @Philipgerrit and Chicago’s Matthew Barber, @Matthew__Barber, reporting from near Mosul, on Twitter.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Yezidism is that it is an essentially oral religion, and thus lacks the central doctrinal authority of a scripture and allows for wide individual divergences in interpretation — fascinating, from the POV of scholars accustomed to scripture-based religions — but I need to dig deeper into Kreyenbroek before saying much more.

I’d welcome additional pointers — historical, theological, and contemporary.

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The Cockroaches of War. And of Jihad

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"]

John Robb had a cool post on the ultra-radical takfiri insurgency ISIS/ISIL and their self-proclaimed SunniCaliphate“, the Islamic Statewhom he gave as an example of “the cockroaches of war”:

ISIS Opens The World’s Biggest Bazaar of Violence

ISIS is a marketplace — a freewheeling bazaar of violence – and it is rapidly expanding.   

So far, it’s been very successful:

  • it operates freely in an area bigger than most countries (and it has lots of oil),
  • it has been attracting the participation of a growing number of organizations and individuals, and
  • it’s financially successful and self-funding (it’s already made billions of $$ from oil, crime, bank robberies, and more).

This success is due to the fact that ISIS isn’t trying to build a “state.”  It’s not a government. 

….This bazaar was built for one purpose:  perpetual expansion and continuous warfare.

To keep things running, ISIS offers a minimalist, decentralized governance.  Day-to-day life is governed by a simple, decentralized rule set: Sharia Law.

Participation is open to everyone willing to live under Sharia and able to expand the bazaar to new areas.

The strategies and tactics ISIS uses are open sourced.  Any group or individual can advance them, as long as they can demonstrate they work.  

Weapons and other technologies needed for war are developed, shared and sold between participants and the pace of development based on previous examples is very quick.

Making money through criminal activity is highly encouraged.  Mercenary work is encouraged.  

Read the whole post here.

ISIS recently captured a town in Lebanon and Iraq’s largest dam, adding to the dams they already control in Syria. More importantly, ISIS fighters outsmarted a Kurdish Peshmerga equivalent of a battalion, using artillery and snipers, to force the Kurds to withdraw from the town of Sinjar where they have begun persecuting the Yezidi minority. This is significant as the fearsome Peshmerga are no pushovers. To put this in perspective, this was a military feat by ISIS that Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guard had great difficulty accomplishing without air support. It also reveals the Kurds may have some deficiencies with their logistics and operational level leadership (allegedly, the Peshmerga ran out of ammunition).

Absurd mummery about “Caliph Ibrahim” aside, as a fighting force and religious-political movement, ISIS has momentum and possesses the initiative. Despite their flamboyant cruelty, ISIS is attracting jihadis to a broken Iraq the way disaffected and radicalized German ex-soldiers swarmed into Freikorps units after the Great War. Reportedly, more British citizens have signed up with ISIS this year than have joined Britain’s territorial Army. Part of the reason is that ISIS, despite its obvious extremism and malevolence, is fighting successfully at the moral and mental levels of war and not merely the physical.

The strategist Colonel John Boyd described the purpose of fighting at the moral level of war as follows:

Essence of moral conflict

Create, exploit, and magnify
• Menace:
Impressions of danger to one’s well
being and survival.

• Uncertainty:
Impressions, or atmosphere,
generated by events that appear
ambiguous, erratic, contradictory,
unfamiliar, chaotic, etc.

• Mistrust:
Atmosphere of doubt and suspicion
that loosens human bonds among
members of an organic whole or
between organic wholes.

•Idea:

Surface, fear, anxiety, and

alienation in order to generate

many non-cooperative centers of
gravity, as well as subvert those
that adversary depends upon,
thereby magnify internal friction.

*Aim:

Destroy moral bonds
that permit an organic
whole to exist

To be a politically attractive force at the grand strategic level while doing morally reprehensible  things at the tactical level on a regular basis is no small strategic feat. Not a unique or impossible one though; both the Nazis and especially the Communists were able to continue to attract credulous Western supporters despite voluminous evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide (Communism still has western apologists in the media and academia). ISIS uses extreme violence but does so strategically with a vision of Caliphate to – 1)  to split Iraqi society into Sunnis vs. everyone else and split Sunnis into those who support ISIS and those who are “apostates” like the Shia, and are deserving of death; and 2) to destroy the Western concept of nation-states, replacing Iraq, Syria, Lebanon with a borderless Caliphate to rule over the Ummah.

The ISIS message is simultaneously highly exclusive (extreme Salafi version of Sharia) as well as wholly universal. This – along with identifying the Shia as the enemy force -allows ISIS to fold in a large array of disaffected, angry, rival Iraqi Sunni factions under the aegis of their movement while still attracting a global swarm of jihadi volunteers.  Compare this with the self-isolating messaging and behavior of HAMAS who, despite fighting the “Zionist enemy” Israel, are thoroughly despised in the region by most of their natural Arab state allies, the Palestinian Authority and even the radical jihadi groups. Nor is HAMAS able to escape moral damage from committing war crimes in the eyes of the international community the way ISIS escapes harm from committing worse ones ( Not only do they escape moral costs, ISIS flips their atrocities into a net positive by terrorizing the potential opposition and looking self-confidently defiant of world opinion in Islamist eyes).

In ISIS, Global Guerrilla strategy is fusing with the penultimate radical jihadi ideology.

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Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones 2: a Christian perspective

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the godliness of collateral child slaughter, viewed from the perspective of "turn the other cheek" ]
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Suffer the little children to come unto me, Lucius Cranach the Elder

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At this point I would like to turn directly to our psalm, and specifically to its use and interpretation in my own tradition, that of Anglican Christianity: I hope to provide a further post on its Judaic context and understanding shortly.

Psalm 137 is the one that begins, in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer translation:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept *
when we remembered thee, O Sion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up *
upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody, in our heaviness *
Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song *
in a strange land?

The question here is of the relation of music to grief: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Tomás Luis de Victoria set the Latin of this portion of the psalm to ethereal music, as we hear in this perormance of Super Flurmina Babylonis by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen:

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The Psalm in question is a lamentation, a cry of despair, as one can easily tell from the tone of the Anglican setting sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, below — and yet its ending contains what I can only call a vindictive edge — remembering that vindictive, before it gains any other meaning, has a meaning that is cognate with vindication:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem *
let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth *
yea if I prefer not Jerusalem in my mirth.
Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem *
how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.
O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery *
yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee, as thou hast served us.
Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children *
and throweth them against the stones.

With the words at your disposal, I invite you to listen closely to this austere and beautiful rendering of the whole psalm by the choir of King’s:

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The freshly-minted Anglican Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev Nick Bains, blogged just a few days ago:

Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).

Cranmer — the blogger who takes his name from the martyred Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury whose great gift to the English language was precisely the language of the Book of Common Prayer — quoted Bishop Bains, and had this to say of Psalm 137:

Such laments take us to the depths of helplessness and forsakenness. They are cries of distress when there is nowhere to turn: God has abandoned us and our enemies mock and scorn – or terrorise, persecute and murder. Impulsively but genuinely we want their children to be fatherless and their wives to become widows (Psalm 109:8f). And we hope to God that their bastard offspring don’t grow up to be another generation of murderous devils.

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:14).

Those who are taught resentment and loathing will not easily find Jesus or enter the kingdom. Violence breeds violence and hate engenders hate. The way of Christ is peace. In our secular polis this may seem like sheer folly. But it is a choice we make in the hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this may be possible when warring hearts are filled with grievances and pain.

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As I prepare to turn from Christian to Judaic consideration of this psalm in my final post in this series, I would like to quote the words of the rabbi, Jesus — himself surely an appropriate transitional figure between Judaism and Christianity:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….

In saying these things, is Jesus teaching a distinctly Christian doctrine, or preaching as a Jewish teacher among Jews?

It’s a fine question. The book of Proverbs 25.21 reads: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread, if he be thirsty, give him water… — and the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia comments on Jesus’ remark that it might better be translated thus, in line with Jewish teaching:

Ye might deduce from this verse that thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy, but I say to you the only correct interpretation is, Love all men, even thine enemies.

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