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Recommended Readings, hipbone version

Monday, June 30th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two superb pieces this week on Iraq and ISIS, deserving of a slow and grateful reading -- and a third on IS, the "caliphate" into which ISIS renamed itself just today ]
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Peter J. Munson leads off my list with a wide-angle piece titled Iraq and the City of Man at War on the Rocks. It was the first of three terrific posts to catch my eye this week. Munson begins:

Humans have been storytellers since time immemorial. Stories are how we make sense of our world. We reduce complex events to digestible, quite often self-indulgent, narratives. I heard one of those the other week when, speaking at a public change of command, Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said, “If I were to give us a letter grade for Afghanistan… I’d say we did pretty darn good.” He paused, considering his words, and continued, “Iraq is going to turn out how it is going to turn out, but we sanctified the ground there. We sanctified the ground in Afghanistan…”

Munson is by no means so sure.

Blood and sacrifice are the key words of Munson’s piece, the blood sacrifices of so many American and allied soldiers, so many locals…

He continues:

One might imagine that with our blood, we purified the ground. There were certainly enough cases in which the cause of death was exsanguination. Disembodiment — a euphemism for death in a blast so violent that it resulted in the proverbial pink mist — must have also had a role in sanctification then, too. We are moved deeply and forever changed by the many selfless sacrifices that occurred on these grounds. In the end, though, most of these sacrifices came down to random pieces of bad luck that were never seen coming and nothing could have been done to avoid. Under the sun, especially the brutal, incessant sun of Mesopotamia

A broad-sweep evaluation of recent Iraqi history follows:

Once-routine, even cordial sectarian intermixing quickly fell apart as the extreme violence of a minority forced segregation and xenophobia. From 2004 through 2008, Iraq descended into chaos, even as over 100,000 American and coalition troops fanned out into the cities to keep the peace and kill the killers. When a fragile calm began to return, some imagined that eventually things would turn out livable.

This is what we all hoped for. Closure. Validation. Peace. Sanctity. Humans reach for the City of God, but it is not to be had here on Earth. As Augustine wrote, “the earthly city is generally divided against itself by litigation, by wars, by battles, by the pursuit of victories that bring death with them or at best are doomed to death.” The city of man:

desires an earthly peace… and it is that peace which it longs to attain by making war. For if it wins the war and no one survives to resist, then there will be peace, which the warring sections did not enjoy when they contended in their unhappy poverty for the things which they both could not possess at the same time. This peace is the aim of wars, with all their hardships; it is this peace that glorious victory (so called) achieves.

There’s something deep, even timeless, about setting contemporary conflicts in the context of Thucydides or Augustine — more so, perhaps, than by reference to Clausewitz or Sun Tzu.

Munson’s article is moving, necessary.

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Zeroing in on current trends, Aaron Zelin‘s The War Between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement is the definitive backgrounder on its topic:

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) shot into the news after its takeover
of Mosul, many have been confused over how to describe the group in relation to al-Qaeda,1the global jihadist organization best known for its audacious terror attacks against the West from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s. Relations between ISIS — and its prior incarnations, to be discussed — and al-Qaeda have been fraught with distrust, open competition, and outright hostility that have grown over time. The two groups are now
in an open war for supremacy of the global jihadist movement. ISIS holds an advantage, but the battle
is not over yet.

Providing ample historical background for the events of recent weeks and days, Zelin focuses largely on the one-time street-thug al-Zarqawi, and pinpoints the fault-line early on when he writes:

The indiscriminate versus strategic use of violence and takfir, most importantly that targeting the group’s Sunni base, became an important issue taken up by al-Qaeda in the following years. The main proponent of limiting takfir and knowing when to use it properly was Libi, who emphasized the sanctity of Muslim blood. [ ... ] More recently, in September 2013, Zawahiri released a pamphlet titled “General Guidelines for the Work of a Jihadi,” which codifies rules of engagement for al-Qaeda’s branches and highlights the limits and concerns that he and Libi previously raised with Zarqawi.

Baghdadi, however, is no street-fighter — he’s a theologian-warrior. Joas Wagemakers reported a tract by the scholar Abu Hamam Bakr Bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-’Athari praising Baghdadi in Jihadica last September:

Apart from al-Baghdadi’s family background, he is also a scholar of Islam according to al-Athari, having obtained an MA-degree in Qur’anic studies and a PhD in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and having written a book on tawhid (the unity of God). This comination of Islamic knowledge and Prophetic descent makes him a special man indeed, al-Athari claims.

Tim Furnish at MahdiWatch compares him to both Zawahiri and bin Laden thus:

In addition, ISIS is, if anything, even more religious than AQ. Its leader, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, holds a PhD in fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence (fatwa-issuing, in other words). By contrast, Usama bin Ladin was an engineer and Ayman al-Zawahiri is a medical doctor; and although both were/are profoundly Islamic in worldview and goals, they were/are laymen.

As you know, my own special interest is in the theological side of things — so for me, those two comments add grace-notes to Aaron’s exemplary essay.

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JM Berger’s ISIS Risks Everything to Declare a Caliphate brings us fully up to date with his account of today’s announcement of a Caliphate:

On Sunday morning, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or ISIL, if you must) pronounced the reformation of the caliphate — the historical Islamic state that once stretched over much of the modern-day Muslim world — with ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as the man in charge.

It’s arguably the boldest move yet by the group, which renamed itself simply The Islamic State. But if ISIS isn’t careful, this could be the moment when all of its gains in Iraq and Syria are squandered; when would-be allies are alienated; and when the group’s critics within the jihadi community were proven right all along.

In the statement—released in Arabic, English, German, French, and Russian—ISIS claimed that it had fulfilled all the legal requirements for the caliphate and that all existing jihadi groups and indeed all Muslims around the world were religiously obligated to swear loyalty to the new Caliph Ibrahim (using the name provided by ISIS in the course of proving that Baghdadi has the required lineage for the title).

Prior to this pronouncement, my assessment was that there was almost no way ISIS could exit June in worse shape than it entered the month, and that still holds. But July is beginning to look like an open question. ISIS, an al Qaeda breakaway group, had made a bold move to seize territory in Iraq that had resulted in tremendous gains in both equipment and money. Even if it lost all of the territory it gained in June, it would still retain many of those spoils, with new clout, status and physical assets to compete with the other jihadi groups operating in Syria and near the Iraq border.

The declaration of the caliphate is a massive gamble that puts many of these gains at risk, although the potential benefits are also substantial.

Berger then proceeds to give us “a quick rundown of the moving parts”, and notes:

The pronouncement of the caliphate is sure to be wildly controversial on religious grounds, but ultimately it could cut either way. The backlash may harden the pro-AQ segment of the global jihadist movement against ISIS, especially with the announcement’s flat out demand that all other jihadist groups are religiously obligated to pledge loyalty to ISIS. But it will also generate some enthusiasm from footsoldiers and different segments of the global movement that see ISIS as a rising star.

Like the other two posts recomended here, a must read IMO.

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For another informed view, see Yassin Musharbash‘s A few Thoughts on the ISIS-”Caliphate”. Peter Neumann has some interesting comments in this Guardian piece. And my own background on earlier mentions of Baghdadi, the Dajjal and the caliphate was posted here.

And that’s it — a week of powerful changes, and some fine reading to bring clarity out of the fog.

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Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- accuracy in naming, and the potentially dire consequences of theological insults ]
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On February 3rd, Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the English daily The National in the UAE, wrote a piece titled Five Reasons Why It Is Stupid To Say ISIL Instead of ISIS for Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Here are reasons 1, 3 and 4 of his five, minus the “stupid” bit, which is intended to make the title eye-catching, while it’s dismissed as fluff (“joking, don’t shoot”) in the body of the piece:

1. “Al-Sham” is a word often used for Syria, and more specifically for Damascus. “Bilad al Sham”, on the other hand, is Levant or Greater Syria.

3. When ISIS was formed, they certainly didn’t mean the group would operate in all of Greater Syria or Levant. It was only recently that they announced they would open a branch in Lebanon. People forget that ISIS was a merger between Islamic State of Iraq and “Jabhat al-Nusra for the Support of the People of Sham”. After a year and two months from creating Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Baghdadi unilaterally announced a merger between his group and Jabhat al-Nusra, in other words between the group that operates in Iraq and the group that operates in SYRIA. Jabhat al-Nusra did not mean, and does not say, it is a group for supporting the people of all the Levant but the people of Syria. So the initial merger was Iraq & Syria, not Iraq and the Levant. It was later that the name of the new merger “broadened” to include other areas, as ISIS announced a chapter in Lebanon and more recently in Jordan. So, in short, this is less about the meaning of “al-Sham” and more about that fact.

4. Often when there are Arabic words whose translation into English is disputed, it’s better (academically speaking) to use the Arabic word and explain what it is – in this case, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (still ISIS).

I’m always grateful for informed background, and in full agreement with point #4.

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Yesterday, the NYT had a post titled What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on S’s and L’s:

Many news outlets, including The New York Times, have been translating the group’s name as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS for short. But the United States government and several news agencies call it the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or I.S.I.L. (The BBC, curiously, uses the ISIS acronym, but “Levant” when spelling the name out.)

Al-Sham is the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands, and over time, it came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert. Similarly, in Egypt, “Masr” may refer either to Cairo or to the whole country. Used in that sense, al-Sham takes in not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.

That is fairly similar in extent to what Western geographers call the Levant, a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like “the Orient.” Because of the term’s French colonial associations, many Arab nationalists and Islamist radicals disdain it, and it is unlikely that the militant group would choose “Levant” to render its name.

That’s three paragraphs, and a broad strokes version of something the article goes into more detail about…

The fighters do not like “Syria” either, though. Syria is what the Greeks named the region in ancient times, possibly after the Assyrian people who once lived there, though that derivation is disputed. And at times in the past, the term “Syrian” was used to mean specifically a Christian Syrian, while Muslims or Jews living there would be called Shami. Today, when Arabs speak of Syria, they usually mean only the modern state, which the insurgent group is fighting to obliterate.

Historic resonances are the point, said Ali Adeeb, a professor of Arabic at New York University. “When they first thought of the name,” Mr. Adeeb said of the group, “they were thinking with the mentality of the seventh or eighth century, just like their interpretation of religion and the life they want to recreate.” He noted that in the group’s statements, “they use old words like ‘ghazwa’ for invasion, instead of the modern word for battle.”

So if neither “Levant” nor “Syria” will do to translate “al-Sham,” what would? Some writers and geographers use “Greater Syria,” which preserves the distinction with the current state. But that would come at the cost of adding an adjective that is not present in the original Arabic, not to mention cluttering the acronym. Or the already familiar ISIS abbreviation could simply be said to stand for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, though the last word is unfamiliar to English speakers.

Al-Sham is a key concept in the final 100-page apocalyptic rant in Abu Musab al-Suri’s 1,600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance — hence my own preference for ISIS, as an abbreviation for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. I’d suggest it may be time for English readers to get familiar with that last word, although given our proclivity for not knowing even such basic distinctions as that between Sunni and Shia, I’m none too optimistic about that.

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But here we have the Zenpundit readership, and I have the impression that deepening understanding is a major concern. May I therefore also recommend Aaron Zelin and Phillip Smyth‘s The Vocabulary of Sectarianism over at Foreign Policy? That way we can all be clear on the theological insults conveyed by such phrases as rafidha / rawafidh, nasawi / nawasib and Hizb al-Lat.

In sectarian warfare, theological insults can carry the force of death-sentences.

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DoubleQuoting ISIS – or charity with vengeance

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- who believes two well-juxtaposed images are (almost) worth a thousand words from Aaron Zelin ]
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It’s almost idyllic, isn’t it — Mosul, with its river, it’s bridge and avenues and trees, as presented by ISIS on the cover of the third issue of its Islamic State Report (upper panel, below)?

Until you take in the lower panel, described by the tweeter who posted it as “#ISIS take women as slaves in #Mosul and #Nineveh”.

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ISIS is both liberating (upper panel, and if you’re a Sunni released from Maliki‘s Shia government, it may even feel that way) and enslaving (lower panel, and if you’re a women marching under armed guard to who can tell what destination, that might be your interpretation of events).

Aaron Zelin wrote the thousand words that frankly outbid my double image — they’re posted under the title The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office in the Atlantic:

In the Syrian town of Manbij, for example, ISIS officials cut off the hands of four robbers. In Raqqa, they forced shops to close for selling poor products in the suq (market) as well as regular supermarkets and kebab stands—a move that was likely the work of itsConsumer Protection Authority office. ISIS has also whipped individuals forinsulting their neighbors, confiscated and destroyed counterfeit medicine, and on multiple occasions summarily executed and crucified individuals for apostasy. Members have burned cartons of cigarettes and destroyed shrines and graves, including the famous Uways al-Qarani shrine in Raqqa.

Beyond these judicial measures, ISIS also invests in public works. In April, for instance, it completed a new suq in al-Raqqa for locals to exchange goods. Additionally, the group runs an electricity officethat monitors electricity-use levels, installs newpower lines, and hosts workshops on how to repair old ones. The militants fix potholes, bus people between the territories they control, rehabilitateblighted medians to make roads more aesthetically pleasing, and operate a post office and zakat (almsgiving) office (which the group claims has helped farmers with their harvests). Most importantly for Syrians and Iraqis downriver, ISIS has continued operating the Tishrin dam (renaming it al-Faruq) on the Euphrates River. Through all of these offices and departments, ISIS is able to offer a semblance of stability in unstable and marginalized areas, even if many locals do not like its ideological program.

A pincer movement: stability with purity, or charity with a vengeance!

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For further reading, here’s Zelin’s Bibliography on the History and Evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

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The ISIS flood in my twitterstream today 2: big picture

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an attempt to "curate" the onrush of news, hitting the high points on a low, low morning ]
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I have tried to keep the tweets here limited to their own texts, with illustrations only where essential, and without “parent tweets” and other encumbrances. Even so, it’s a long read — my advice would be to take it fast, first, and then come back to click on articles and other details that look like they’re of particular interest.

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And I’m sure a lot has happened during the half-hour or more it has taken me to put even this small selection of relevant tweets together!

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The ISIS flood in my twitterstream today 1: borders & bulldozers

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- nightmare of the cartographers ]
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Let Yassin Musharbash have the first word:

ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria / Sham, clearly doesn’t like the separation implied by the “and” in its name. They don’t merely want it removed as a line drawn on maps, they’re actually interested in erasing it with bulldozers…

Aaron Zelin has the image:

Symbolism is powerful.

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Sykes-Picot, the Durand line — repeat after me the Gospel of Korzybski:

The map is not the territory!

— and when the two diverge, it’ll mostly be the territory that redraws the map.

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