Friday, May 22, 2009

Jihad Recollections #2: Armchair Jihadi Publishing "Chic" & 'History' that Never Was

FROM THE SERIES OF RESEARCH NOTES FROM MY CURRENT PROJECT, "The Art of the Martyr & Mujahid," (All Material Copyrighted) :

A few days later than originally promised, here is the first in a very brief series of analytical notes on select articles in the recently released second issue of the glossy English-language cyber journal Jihad Recollections. The journal is produced by a staff of U.S.-based, self-styled armchair jihadis (though they're more like cheerleaders), whose self-promotion has more than a few hints of self-importance and delusions of grandeur. All joking aside, I do not mean to downplay the potential motivational influence that this, and other cyber journals, may have on mobilizing armchair "warriors" to become actual militants. However, having said this, the Jihad Recollections staff missed very simple copy editing mistakes, such as using "jihadi's" (singular possessive) when they meant to use the non-possessive plural, "jihadis." Since they seem to have the graphics and design under control (though JR will not be winning any design prizes any time soon), the mysterious "editors" may want to invest some resources in improving the copy editing.

I will summarize, link-to, and provide brief comments on several articles from the journal, beginning here and continuing in several future posts. These posts may be non-sequential. However, I will provide links to past related posts in each new one. Most of the articles are fairly uninspiring and are not worth discussing on in depth here.

As with the inaugural issue, which was released on jihadi online discussion forums and blogs in April, the second issue of Jihad Recollections includes articles on a wide variety of topics, with particular attention devoted to the new U.S. presidential administration of Barack Obama, he who claims to be of "change." As I mentioned several days ago, Obama's economic stimulus and health care plans receive particular scrutiny.

The editors explain that the journal's purpose is to address and interest a diverse audience, and they recommend that readers not approach it as a "book" (I have not edited any of the quotes for grammar or other mechanical errors or awkward phrasing):

"Some Muslims were under the impression that this magazine should be treated like a traditional book. Thus, instead of reasing whatever sections interest them the most--like a normal magazine--they feel obliged to read through the entire magazine; not that there's anything wrong with that, but that's not our intended purpose. Every individual has an interest in some field whether it be politics, social life, book reviews, technology, warfare, etc. We intend to spark these different fields of interest throughout the magazine to the extent that our readers will always look forward to seeing that section in the upcoming issue or they are looking forward to reading from a certain author."

Back in my days as a copy editor and later copy chief at my college newspaper, I would have had a field day with this passage and many others. Trust me JR editors: Hire a copy editing staff. The editors' interest in maintaining some sort of continuity with regard to featured content and putting together a regular staff of armchair "warriors" (or cheerleaders) does show that they have some common sense with regard to propagating their new creation. However, they should perhaps keep in mind quality over quantity.

Jihad Recollections, the inaugural issue released this April

Further down in the "Introduction," the editors note correctly that the release of the journal caused quite a stir online and particularly among qualified scholars who specialize in the study of violent Islamism (political Islam) and jihadi movements, as well as among the corps of right and left wing bloggers and self-styled "terrorologists" (self-styled "experts" on "THE terrorists" broadly defined, whether or not they have any actual qualifications). The editors are clearly proud of garnering such attention, as well (in fairness) they should be.

Now, on to the brief analytical comments on the select articles:

(1) "The Caliphate's Example," by Abu Ayoub al-Najdi

Caliphate's Example
...Read the article HERE.

There is much talk in Sunni transnational jihadi circles about the resurrection of "the" caliphate, the type of centralized political system that ruled much of the Muslim Middle East between 661 to the tenth century during the Umayyad and 'Abbasid dynasties. Although the 'Abbasid caliphs (monarchs) remained as figureheads until the Mongol conquests of Hulagu Khan in 1257-58, by the mid-tenth century C.E., they had ceded much of their actual political power to regional dynasties, such as the Buyids in Iran and Iraq and the Ghaznavids in Afghanistan, whose leaders ruled in their name. The Ottomans later claimed to be successors to the 'Abbasid Caliphate, with the sultan assuming the role of the caliphs of old. The Ottoman "caliphate" was formally ended in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk," the autocratic founder of modern Turkey.

The 'Abbasid Caliphate

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s stirred a great deal of discussion and debate among Sunni religious scholars and intellectuals. What were Muslims to do now that there was no caliph, no central possessor of political and religious authority? Was such a figure and system (the caliphate) even necessary? For an in-depth discussion of these debates, see the late Iranian scholar Hamid Enayat's magisterial classic survey Modern Islamic Political Thought, Chapter 2: The Crisis over the Caliphate.

This debate continues among certain Sunnis (and not all of them militants) today. Consider one example: Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation; "HT"), a movement founded in 1953 by Palestinian religious scholar Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani, claims to be a "global Islamic movement." In reality, it is divided into numerous branches which are active in many countries and each branch operates essentially autonomously, though ties are maintained to branches in other countries. HT seeks to establish an imagined caliphate, a unified state of all Muslim communities in the world, communities which, like non-Muslim communities, are presently divided by the modern nation-state system.

Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani, a Sunni religious scholar educated at al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, one of the premier Sunni seminaries.

The party's leaders fantasize about the formation of a Muslim super-state which stretches from Morocco in the west to Indonesia and Malaysia in the east. Of course, historically such a caliphate never existed. At its greatest extent, the 'Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) stretched from parts of North Africa to Afghanistan, and centralized control was soon lost by the caliph in the imperial capital city of Baghdad. Local dynasties emerged and ruled, nominally, in his name. As with the Sunni Muslims who follow the Salafi (loosely, "ancestral") trend, HT and other "khilafah" activisits have constructed an imagined, romanticized/idealized past, a past which never existed.

In 2007, HT and other activists held a massive "conference" on how to "rebuild" the [imagined] caliphate. Organizers claimed that over 100,000 Muslims attended.

Sunni jihadis also frequently claim that they seek to, in their minds, re-establish a single Muslim state where the "original Islam of the Prophet Muhammad" (as the jihadis imagine it) is practiced. They are usually mum on the specifics of their plan to achieve this goal, as their transnational militancy is confined, at the moment, to the "here-and-now" phase, with planning for the "after victory" phase to come later (sounds like another recent war). It is very important to note that Shi'i Muslims historically did not support the caliphal system of the proto-Sunni and Sunni 'Abbasid Caliphates, due to disputes over communal leadership following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. The specifics of the Twelver Shi'i system of communal leadership, the "Imamate" or the vice-regency of the twelve Imams they recognize, is too far afield from the topic of this post, but can be read about HERE.

Usama bin Laden and the leadership of al-Qa'ida "Central" mention the idea of the re-formation of "the" caliphate regularly. In Iraq, they even support a candidate for "caliph," at least in Iraq, Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi, the Amir (commander, leader) of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella for the country's most radical and violent Sunni Salafi groups. The contest, and often uneasy relationship, between localized and transnational Sunni jihadi movements is highlighted brilliantly in a new article by Jean-Pierre Filiu, "The Local and Global Jihad of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib," in the Spring 2009 issue of The Middle East Journal.

Jihadis from al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) in a screen shot from a recent, lengthy AQIM video release, 'Ushaq al-Hur (Lovers of the Pure Beings of Paradise).

The author of the Jihad Recollections #2 article, Abu Ayoub al-Najdi (a pseudonym), provides a superficial article which attempts (and fails) to provide a reasoned defense of the imagined "caliphate" which some Sunni transnational militants seek to construct. He is critical of the "very shallow arguments" against the imagined caliphate, yet himself provides an incredibly vacuous essay on the subject which fails to provide any substantive historical information or strong theoretical argument for the particular political/state system he supports.

Al-Najdi attempts to head off criticism which uses the failure of the Taliban in Afghanistan to create a viable "caliphatal" state there by trotting out the tired argument that the group did not have ample time to bring a "true Islamic State" into being. He then criticizes governments in Muslim countries, justifiably it must be said, for using religion as a tool, claiming to be Muslim while pursuing "anti-Islamic" policies:

"A few nations’ leaders give mouth service by saying ‘We’re the land of Islam’ but then contradict the teachings of Islam in their foundations. This leads many Muslims and non-Muslims to believe that the establishment of an Islamic Emirate or the Caliphate will result in the same tyrannical policies that we find so common in the Middle East and elsewhere. Some might even look to the history books of other tyrant rulers to justify their claims, but one only has to evaluate the original Islamic state (i.e. the state of the prophet peace be upon him, the rightly guided caliphs and those who emulated their qualities) to see a true example of what a genuine Caliphate is capable of."

He then quotes a sermon by the first Rashidun (Rightly-guided) caliph, as recognized by Sunnis, Abu Bakr. The Arabic word khalifa carries the meaning of "successor," in this case khalifa rasul Allah, the "successor to God's Messenger [the Prophet Muhammad]. In the sermon, Abu Bakr says, "No group of people abandons Jihad [sic] in the path of Allah [the One God], except that Allah makes them suffer humiliation." Of course, al-Najdi neglects to mention the historical context: Abu Bakr, who ruled for less than two years (632-634 C.E.) before dying of old age, spent the majority of his final days as caliph fighting with Arab tribes who refused to abide by treaties made with the Prophet immediately following his death. This series of conflicts is known as the Ridda wars, the "wars of apostasy." The history allows us to better understand the context of Abu Bakr's sermon, if the sermon is indeed real.

A medieval painting of the Prophet Muhammad (far left) and Abu Bakr (to the right of the Prophet).

Al-Najdi finishes by trying to explain why most of the world's Muslims, the vast majority in fact, do not support the imagined "caliphate" he dreams of:

"The masses are lead to believe that with an Islamic state there will only be poverty and suffering. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that a state can produce a strong and vibrant economy with all the technological advancements and government bodies and still at the same time apply Islamic Law in its entirety. Actually it has been proven in history that this is possible and not just mere fiction. Also the disbelievers promote the fear of the establishment of an Islamic state, like when Bush on numerous occasions explained the ambitions of al-Qaa’idah saying that 'They want to establish a Caliphate which expands from south Asia to Eastern Spain' and at the same time he had the nerve to say 'We’re not fighting against Islam'. The think-tanks in DC seem to overlook that they would actually be safer with an established Islamic Caliphate. At the present time with all the different Islamic organizations there is no hierarchy of command. This means that foreign negotiations with groups are very limited and practically impossible. If there were a Caliphate to follow then the west would at the very least have an avenue for diplomacy and agreement which would be obeyed by the majority if not all Muslims."

Quite a claim, no?

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