Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Islam and Jihadism - Part 1 (repeated from February 2006)

There is an old dictum, so hoary that many people forget the reason for its original emphasis: Know Your Enemy. While many people correctly understand this to mean guarding against being surprised by an enemy, it also warns against creating problems by attacking a non-belligerent, and so increasing your foes. The United States is walking a narrow and winding road in the Middle East, precisely because of that caution. A great many people incorrectly believe the War On Terror is against Islam, when in fact there is the potential to make Islam an ally against one of the great abominations of our day.

Islam counts more than a billion people as believers across the globe. They can be found in every major nation and city, and the emphatic public displays of their belief can lead people to consider Muslims rigid and intolerant. But it is not valid to label Islam an automatically violent faith, anymore than it would be to blame all of Christianity for the violence of the Irish Republican Army or Abortion Clinic bombers. While Islam must wrestle with its obligation to speak out against the evil in its midst, it must also be accorded the respect it deserves as a major religion. The extremists of Islam must be understood as the outcasts of their religion.

People do not generally understand Islam. That was fine when Islam was an exotic religion practiced by few people close to your home, and which was unlikely to ever impact your life directly. But in these days of a nuclear threat from Iran, uprisings in regions of Europe and Asia, as well as the threat of a prolonged conflict, both military and cultural, with Islamic nations around the globe, it becomes critical to learn the basics of both Islam and of Jihadism, and why they are not the same, but one must inevitably supplant the other.

Islam is a major religion, with over a billion adherents. Islam is growing faster than Christianity, and so poses the possible position of majority support within the entury, presuming present growth continues. Yet Islam is not monolithic, nor is it a unified faith as it is so often protrayed. A simple example is to look at the violence done in the name of Islam; if even one percent of all Muslims took up arms, the resulting army would be one of the largest in the world. With significant mathematical and scientific resources, Muslims could also quickly modernize a military force; certainly WMD are no obstacle. Indeed, most experts agree that Muslim countries likely all have CW stockpiles, with research in BW also likely since the 1980s, a nasty legacy of Saddam’s policies, which in turn spurred the creation and development of counter-weapons. Iran has well over a hundred missiles capable of reaching Israel right now, so the only questions are what they will put in the warheads, and what will stop them from launching. More on the Muslim-Israeli standoff in a little bit. For here, it is important to understand a bit of what drives the Muslim political machine, especially in the Middle East. The politics of Islam began with Mohammed himself, and developed through victory and defeat over more than a thousand years.

A thorough study of Islam would take a long time, so right here I will admit that this is a montage of snap shot concepts, and even then a brief one. Islam, of course,starts out with Mohammed, whose name is spelled a number of ways in the West because Arabic uses a different alphabet. That alone sets the stage for confusion, as it is not always posible to get a direct translation from Arabic to English; a certain amount of nuance is always there, and often gets lost. Imagine the literal translation of “What’s Up?” to someone unfamiliar with American idioms, and then apply it to a complex social issue. Even when language is not the issue, culture also throws up obstacles. Winston Churchill once quipped that America and England are two countries separated by a common language. So we should be very careful about assuming we understand the mindset of a land far different from our own in distance, history, perspective, and opportunity. And we should realize that it is very difficult for the Muslim world to understand the American ideal, even when they want to make the attempt. But one key issue, to start, is the founder. Jesus Christ was known for His gentle forgiveness and message of peace. Contrast that with Mohammed, who led a number of bloody fights to establish Islam, and then to give it control of key territory. But it would be unfair to leave it at that. Mohammed, after all, also wanted peace and stability, which was a prime reason for the establishment of Sharia - a common law to which all men would be subject. So it is also important to understand that Mohammed learned from the Christian Church. By his day, he had seen the power of the Church in Rome, how kings kneeled to the Pope, and how armies went where the Church commanded. Small wonder Mohammed took the trouble to copy that same strategy. Tie the Church and State together, and with Allah on your side you cannot lose. And that has not changed in the Muslim worldview.

OK, fast forward to the Renaissance. That happened in large part because the Church underwent a Reformation, but that was hardly a fast or peaceful process. No one denies Islam needs a similar Reformation, but no one wants a Muslim version of the Inquisition or a repeat of the Crusades, which began incidentally with the Muslim invasion of Europe. The Muslims basically lost the Crusades, and the Middle East was relegated to inconsequence, until oil became important to industry and economy. Oil became a factor by the latter half of the 19th Century, setting the stage for more than a century of greed, fervor, and fury. This is where we must begin to tie the threads of the religion, the politics, the regional culture, and economy of the Middle East.

Essentially, the Middle East of 1900 was not much different from the Middle East of 1500; the Muslims lacked the economic strength to support extensive military campaigns, and European trade with China had provided not only mercantile success, but improvements in metallurgy, artillery, and cavalry tactics. Ironically, Europe had learned from its wars with the Hun, its member states, and of course, also from the Crusades. The Muslim world held a cultural disdain for failure, so losses were not carefully analyzed for corrections, and in any case the unity of Islam was never quite what Mohammed or Ali, or even Salazar, had hoped to create.

Many people are vaguely aware of the ‘Schism’ between Catholics and Protestants which was brought about by the Reformation, but few pay much attention to the much earlier split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. In much the same way, early Muslims split on questions of leadership and proper doctrine between the Shia and Sunni sects.These also fractured and fragmented sheikdoms and sultanates, both in time of defeat and in times of victory. So it was that Islam could not agree on a number of key points, and each ruler approved the version of Sharia which suited his mind. Thus the popular legend of the Mahdi - that mythical Imam who would bring all Islam together once again. Ask historians about that name - Muslims rebelled in British-held Sudan in the 1880s, because a yahoo there declared himself the Mahdi. The original ‘Mahdi’, Tarikh-e Imamat, the first Fatimid Caliph who named his son al-Qaim to be the ‘12th Imam’ and 2nd Fatimid Caliph before his own death, would hardly have approved of Muhammad Ahmad, whose woeful logistics and tactical mistakes doomed his revolt, though not before thousands of errant Muslims and British troops died over a war that lasted eighteen years. Other ‘Mahdis’ rose from the crowd, usually in hopes of reforming Islam and establish a measure of Islamist influence in the state. Long before Ahmad, a 15th-Century Sultan named Mehmed II was distinctly open to European scholarship and faith and who codified Sharia during the creation of the Ottoman Empire, and also combined conquest (he invaded Bosnia and Constantinople) with treaties to avoid major escalation of his wars. Significantly, this Sultan was far more amenable to Christian leaders than he was of secular government; Mehmed put to death the entire ruling family of Karamania, because they were both secular and Turks. Mehmed II is popular known in Islamic history classes as “Mohammed II”. So Jihad, reform of Islam and Middle East governments, the ‘Mahdi’ myth, and the dream of conquering the world for Mohammed is a periodic, if inconstant, pursuit.

NEXT - Part 2, Nationalism and Industry

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