Tag Archives: Middle East

Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New JihadUnder the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad by Sami Moubayed

Is the Islamic State/ISIS a flash in the pan? Brutal but ephemeral? Or might it be more long-lasting?

Could it even become a ‘proper’ state? Might the ‘Caliph’ one day address the UN?

Dr. Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and researcher who tries to answer these questions in Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad.

Based in Damascus, he has the bitter sweet advantage of witnessing the events convulsing his country at first hand, and has interviewed many of those involved. This proximity to sources and evidence gives a unique perspective to his book. An added strength is that he has no particular axe to grind – the tragedy he describes that is the current Syrian crisis is made all the worse by seeming to have no obvious solution and no easy fixes.

In trying to understand ISIS and the other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, he emphasises their ideology as deriving from one specific strand of Islamic thought, and not, as ISIS and indeed some of its enemies would claim, inherent in and intrinsic to Islam itself.

Moubayed traces this extremist interpretation from the 1300s thought of Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) to later Wahhabism in the 1700s and beyond, revived in the twentieth century by people such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb and continued by modern salafi-jihadism.

He shows that this history is far from irrelevant – it is indeed the central focus of and justification for the ruthless campaigns of ISIS, the Nusra Front and al Qaeda: a return to what they imagine was the purity of the past. Simply return to those beliefs and glory will follow. Anyone rejecting the call stands in the way of regress, and will suffer.

Moubayed describes how the Islamic State based on the city of al-Raqqa in Syria, and headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi/self proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, now has all the trappings of a state – a civil service, a police force, an army, an intelligence service, taxes, schools, a capital, a national anthem, a flag and significant income from oil smuggling and border crossing levies. This developing governance structure is staffed by many experienced ex-Iraqi Army officers and former Baath officials.

No less important is a slick and sophisticated communications strategy, taking in social media, as well as print, television, and radio.

Overall, Moubayed concludes, ISIS is a significant threat and one that stands a good chance of creating a functioning and enduring state from the ruins of what was Syria and Iraq.

A sobering assessment from an experienced and talented scholar in an informative and well researched book.

Options: peace or genocide

Sometimes we like to shy away from what we really mean, from the ultimate consequences of our actions.

Sometimes we like to focus on the palatable instead of the actual.

To understand only so much, and only so far.

Euphemisms and metaphors cloak events and mask outcomes.

Plainly said and fully understood, many things would or should horrify. If openly stated at the outset, many paths would never be taken, many ends never pursued – except by the mad and the bad.

Complication, simplification, obfuscation, evasion, elision – all the tools necessary for conjuring delusion in ourselves and others.

Sometimes, maybe often in our personal lives, they make things bearable, pare down the ragged, jagged edges of truths that might cut too deeply, allow us to function in spite of our accumulated bruises and abrasions.

Sometimes though they do exactly the opposite – they stand in the way as a barrier between us and what we need to know and acknowledge. When things are too important to be mythologized or glorified.

Watching the tragedy unfold in Gaza, Israel, The West Bank, Palestine, call it as you will – shall we just say the area freshly demarcated everyday in blood and grief, maybe? We all know where we mean – brings the dangers of delusion and self-deception to grim clarity.

‘Defeat’, ‘Security’, ‘Safety’, ‘Victory’, ‘Triumph’, ‘Vanquish’, ‘Battle’, ‘Fight’, ‘Humble’, ‘Remove’, ‘Recover’, ‘Repel’, ‘Compel’, ‘Destroy’, ‘Struggle’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Drive into the Sea’ and so on and so forth. The aims and objectives of uncompromising not-an-inch slogans and battle cries appeal to sentiments like honour and patriotism, bravery and perseverance, staunchness and steadfastness. Age old tradition and validation by history.

But at the heart of all that is opposition, faction, friction and conflict. Buried within the claims is a noxious sense of superiority, of specialness: we are better than you. We are a unique flower of humanity; you are a worthless weed choking our land.

We can suffer more, last longer, try harder, kill better. We are better. More deserving. This should be ours. This will be ours. You are nothing. Not deserving. Not worthy. Not human. Dregs. Dust. To be swept away. Buried.

Not very pleasant when put that way, is it?

So how about we frame things in Israel/Palestine in honest stark terms?

Option one: both sides live in peace. Simple. [Ok, not so simple but wait till we see the other option]

Option two: one side wins. Not so simple. Both Palestinians and Israelis have a long history of resistance  and survival in the bleakest situations.

So, if ‘winning’, really winning, for all and for ever, achieving a situation where no one disputes the outcome or the new dispensation, not once, not ever, is the aim, how does that happen?

Israel has had many military victories, many crushing defeats of its enemies in the last 60 years. But here it is, still today after all that long sequence of effort and energy, in Gaza. Troubled, upset, rattled, riled and angry.¬† No peace, and no prospect of peace. Those pesky Palestinians just won’t give up, recognise reality and quit.

On the other side, Israel has faced down everything sent against it for sixty years. For two thousand years and longer, Jewish people have withstood every type of moral and physical violence intended to crush them and wipe from the earth. If by some turn of events in future, Palestinians came to control all the old British mandate territory, some eight million Israelis would be every bit as adamant in resistance as Palestinians are today. Those pesky Israelis just wouldn’t give up, recognise reality and quit.

So what’s left? Military victory, and overwhelming dominance is still vulnerable and susceptible to the actions of the ‘defeated’ population. Wishing them away or thinking they can be cowed permanently like animals, beaten and broken into dazed compliance, is as brutally cruel as it is fruitlessly fantastic. No one has a superiority of the human spirit.

What to do?  Well if a residual hostile population is the problem, the ultimate and only viable answer is of course not to have any.

Death or expulsion. Ethnic cleansing.

So, though both sides and all the on-looking interested parties would and never will put things in this formulation, the clear concise options for a permanent settlement boil down to peace or genocide.

I don’t believe that people on either side if presented with the situation in these cold terms would choose mass slaughter……

So let’s get on with peace?