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Awlaqi died before ISIS was born, yet…

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an eerily prescient video? ]

The title of this recent video, Sheikh Anwar Awlaki Speaking about The Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham ISIS, is anachronistic — yet al-Awlaqi‘s topic has strong relevance today:


In my view, Awlaqi overlooks the probable fragmentation of the ISIS alliance, the depth of eventual Iraqi resistance to ISIS’ puritan rule, and the powerful forces already arraying themselves against their fledgling “caliphate”.

Thanks to Chris Anzalone for the pointer.


Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- accuracy in naming, and the potentially dire consequences of theological insults ]

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.


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.


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.


On the Ayatollah Sistani, for Lapido Media

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Sistani's "call to arms" against ISIS, impact re Iraq and Iran ]


Under the header Can ‘obscure cleric’ save Iraq from brutal terrorism of ISIS, my first post for UK-based Lapido Media: Centre for Religious Literacy in World Affairs was posted yesterday, with a couple of paragraphs added today:

THE GRAND AYATOLLAH Ali al-Sistani of Najaf, Iraq, recently issued a ruling (fatwa) calling for able-bodied Iraqis to join forces with the Iraqi army in resisting the ISIS ‘terrorists’. He said that anyone who dies fighting ISIS will die a martyr.

This last claim will be hugely significant to his Shia followers, for whom the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala in 680 CE (61 AH in the Islamic calendar) is the defining moment for their branch of Islam, solemnly recalled each year on the day of Ashura – a devotion whose significance is captured in the slogan: ‘Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala’.

Significantly, Sistani’s call has gone out to the Iraqi people, not just to the Shia – and he has also clarified that he does not wish British Muslims to fly to Iraq to join the battle.

Read the rest at the Lapido site.


Today’s twitterstreaming comes from Ibn Siqilli

Friday, June 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a strong series of tweets on various aspects & implications of ISIS in Iraq ]

Ibn Siqilli, aka Christopher Anzalone, is a PhD student in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. Today he was tweeting on religious aspects of the situation in Iraq, beginning with the “quiestist” and certainly cautious Grand Ayatollah Sistani‘s call to arms:

Sistani’s words, as reported by the (Lebanese) Daily Star:

In a rare intervention at Friday prayers in the holy city of Karbala, a message from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the highest religious authority for Shiites in Iraq, said people should unite to fight back against a lightning advance by militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. [ ... ]

“People who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defence of their country … should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal,” said Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, delivering Sistani’s message.


From here on, I’ll avoid commenting and let Ibn Siqilli speak for himself until the very end:

Chris’ next tweet is too long for twitter, so he posted it via TwitLonger. It reads:

Keeping Sistani's call in perspective, he did not even issue such a call after the multiple bombings of the ‘Askariyya Shrine or years of targeting of Iraqi Shi’i civilians by Sunni militants.

He continues:


There’s much to ponder in all this, and I have a minor qualm or two regarding emphasis, but I’ll reserve my comments for the last tweet in the series:

That last tweet is of particular interest, extending the “ecumenicity” of Kerbala as it does beyond the Sunni / Shia divide to include those of other faiths. Thus Hashim Razvi writes under the title Commemoration of Musharram in India by non-Muslims:

The observance of Muharram ceremonies in India in particular has attracted the deep reverence and devotion for the performance of its rituals and customs by the Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Thus, the observance of Muharram ceremonies has introduced Islam as the harbinger for interfaith understanding in India.

Imam Husain’s great sacrifice is commemorated by Muslims everywhere in the world, but it is observed with great emotional intensity in India. What is particularly striking about the observances of the month of Muharram in India is the prominent participation of Hindus in these rituals. This has been a feature of Hinduism for centuries in large parts of India, and continues even today. In towns and villages all over the country, Hindus join Muslims in lamenting the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (A.S.), by sponsoring or taking part in lamentation rituals and tazia (replica of the mausoleum of Imam Husain in Karbala) processions.

The commemoration of Imam Husain’s sacrifice every year creates the most dramatic impact in India. The majority of the population in India is non-Muslim. It is curious to see these non-Muslims participating in the many colorful and devotional ceremonies during the month of Muharram. Also, it has affected the rich and the poor alike.

In India the non-Muslims like Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Christians observe Muharram ceremonies with great devotion.

On a historical note, the Chapati Mystery blog has an fascinating post titled Muharram in Bombay, c. 1893-1912, which opens with this paragraph:

Muharram rituals associated with Shi’a communities in the Middle East and commemorating Ashura signify the division of Shi’a from Sunni communities. However, Muharram rituals metamorphosed into non-Shi’i rituals in India. As Kidambi (2007) remarks, even Hindus participated in the rituals in Mumbai during the nineteenth century. In fact, observing Ashura day was an inter-community/inter-religion event and the procession on Ashura day was the greatest festival of Mumbai during the nineteenth century, often called the taboot procession. Birdwood (1915) described the procession as the most picturesque event of South Asia.


Observations of a religion watcher

Friday, June 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- ISIS in Iraq, the battle of Badr, and 5,000 swooping angels ]


Two days ago, under the title Iraq army capitulates to Isis militants in four cities, the Guardian reported:

The extent of the Iraqi army’s defeat at the hands of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) became clear on Wednesday when officials in Baghdad conceded that insurgents had stripped the main army base in the northern city of Mosul of weapons, released hundreds of prisoners from the city’s jails and may have seized up to $480m in banknotes from the city’s banks.

Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters.

It’s that second paragraph that interests me.

Supposing you were among the 800 ISIS fighters at the point when those 30,000 Iraqi soldiers desert the field, will your mind not move instantly to the Qur’an 3.124-25, verses which describe how 300 Muslims decisively defeated 1,000 fighters of the Quraysh at the seminal battle of Badr?

When thou saidst to the believers, “Is it not enough for you that your Lord should reinforce you with three thousand angels sent down upon you? Yea; if you are patient and godfearing, and the foe come against you instantly, your Lord will reinforce you with five thousand swooping angels.”

— or to Qur’an 8.9?

When you were calling upon your Lord for succour, and He answered you, “I shall reinforce you with a thousand angels riding behind you.”

The impact on ISIS morale must be enormous — surely God is assisting them!

To win a battle is one thing. To win a battle when outnumbered is another. To win a battle when outnumbered with the blessings of God is a third and yet more powerful thing.


Well, yeah.

After I’d written this, but before posting it, I came across Ibn Siqilli’s blog post today titled Translation of the Message from Abu Muhammad al-’Adnani al-Shami, Official Spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, after Mosul, in which al-Shami says, quoting yet another Qur’anic verse about the battle of Badr:

Allah ta’ala? said, {[Remember] when your Lord inspired to the angels, “I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.”} [Al-Anfal: 12]

All praise is to Allah, who fulfilled His promise, kept His slaves firm, gave victory to His soldiers, and alone vanquished the Rawafid. All praise is to Allah who filled their hearts with terror and their feet with defeat. All praise is to Allah who made their weapons, equipment, vehicles, and wealth, war booty for the mujahidin.


And yet, and yet — there’s also Kirkuk.

Indeed, it’s possible that angels weren’t required in either instance, and that the Washington Post got it right in an article titled Iraq disintegrating as insurgents advance toward capital; Kurds seize Kirkuk.

If God gave ISIS the melting away of Iraqi forces in Mosul and elsewhere, he appears to have given the Kurds a similar melting-away of Iraqi forces in Kirkuk, where the oil sits… Thus the BBC reports on the Kurdish situation:

Iraqi Kurdish forces say they have taken full control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk as the army flees before an Islamist offensive nearby.

“The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga,” Kurdish spokesman Jabbar Yawar told Reuters. “No Iraq army remains in Kirkuk now.”

Even the melting away of the army on two fronts, however, doesn’t stop the Iraqi propaganda machine. The WaPo article linked above also contained this more than slightly surreal item for a propagandap-quote collection::

Meanwhile, in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in towns and cities further south, young men flocked to recruitment centers to volunteer to fight the extremists, underscoring the sharpening sectarian divide that risks engulfing all of Iraq in war.

State television broadcast footage of the long lines, accompanied by patriotic songs whose lyrics tout the army’s achievements: “We’re the soldiers of the nation, we shall never retreat.”


There is more to say on such varied topics as the major Shia shrines and hawza or seminaries at risk, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani‘s call to arms, the role Iran and the IRGC is adopting, and the presence of senior Ba’athist officers in the ranks of ISIS, etc — but this must do for now.

I’ll return with more from Ibn Siqilli shortly, but leave you with this — from my POV, the most horrifying part of al-Shami’s statement, coming right at the end of his rant, and specifically threatening the two Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf:

The Rafidah [lit. "those who reject", ie the Shia] will continue to curse you as long as some of them exist. Truly, between us is a settling of debts. … There will be a heavy and long account. However, the settling of debts will not be in Samarra and Baghdad, rather in Karbala al-munajjasah (the defiled) and Najaf al-ashrak (the most polytheistic).


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