Sunday, May 31, 2009

Thank You !

I started Views from the Occident nearly five years ago in March 2005. The purpose of the blog back then was primarily to post editorials and articles that I wrote for George Mason University's college newspaper, Broadside, where I worked throughout my years as an undergraduate. I soon branched out, however, to include pensées about topics of academic and personal (often one and the same) interest, chief among them the Middle East, Muslim societies, and world religions. From that point, Occident has gone through several "phases," with some seeing more original writing and others seeing more linking of articles and other writings on issues of importance which many of my regular readers may not otherwise run into online.

Recently, Occident has been at the forefront on several stories, breaking a few, including news of the release of a major al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib video (Ushaq al-Hur, #2) and the release of the statement from the Islamic State in Iraq denying that its leader, Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi, was captured as claimed by the Iraqi government of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

I want to give a big thank you to the readers of Occident, particularly the small but dedicated group of subscribers and regular readers, for your indulgence of my soap box moments. Thanks for continuing to read and comment on my posts, either on the blog or privately. Thanks also for spreading the word about Occident to your friends and colleagues. Occident's readership has expanded by leaps and bounds since the early days.

Please continue to feel free to contact me with suggestions or critiques. All are sought and welcome.

Finally, I would like to share some statistics about site traffic to Occident since I embedded Sitemeter in late December 2008:

*Nearly 4,000 unique visitors since late December 2008
*Nearly 7,300 unique page views

*Occident's most successful month (May 2009), with over 1,000 unique visits and 1,855 unique page views. These numbers were accurate as of 9:53 p.m., May 31.

*Currently, at least 50% of Occident's readers/visitors daily are from outside the United States, a remarkable shift from even January 2009 when almost 90% of the readers/visitors were from the United States.

*The highest percentage of visitors, on average, come from (in order): the United States, the Arab world (including Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Damascus, Yemen, Algeria, and Morocco), Great Britain, Spain, Germany, and France.

*In addition to the above countries, recent readers have also come from India, Pakistan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Indonesia, Hungary, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Brazil, Russia, Portugal, Japan, and Lithuania.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Iraq: A Brief Visual History

Align CenterGreat 'Abbasid Mosque in Samarra

Here is a PowerPoint presentation I designed awhile ago for the final oral presentation of an Arabic course I took. The subject is the history of Iraq, with a particular focus at the end of the presentation on the historical importance of the geography of the country to Shi'i Islam. The presentation was accompanied with a written script, which I have not reproduced here. However, there are LOTS of images. Enjoy, and please forgive any typos or errors. I have tried to catch them all but am sure that I have missed some.

.....or click HERE.

Assyrian statue

Dome, Shrine of the third Shi'i Imam, Husayn bin 'Ali, in Karbala

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Portraits of Jihad, Part II: Somalia

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

Somalia, in eastern Africa (on the Horn of Africa), has been wracked by violent civil war since the overthrow of the country's authoritarian president Siad Barre in late January 1991. The country was carved up by rival militia commanders, with clan divisions providing further dividing lines. A United Nations humanitarian mission (1992-1995) faced increasing attacks from several powerful commanders, including Muhammad Farrah Aidid. Following an attack on the U.N. in 2003 which resulted in the killing of 24, U.S. military forces attempted to arrest Aidid but failed to do so and came under intense attack from his militiamen, who killed 19 American soldiers in the famous "Black Hawk Down" incident. The U.N. withdrew in 1995.

Muhammad Farrah Aidid, a former Somali general

In late 2006, the transitional Somali government, backed by Ethiopia and the U.S., was faced with a serious challenge from the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a powerful confederation of clans and Muslim leaders. The UIC, which brought together diverse groups from both the dominant Sunni Sufi Islamic mystical traditions in the country and the newer, more socially and religiously stringent Salafi movement, was formed in opposition to the transitional government, which many Somalis saw as inept and corrupt. The UIC controlled much of southern Somalia until late December 2006, when Ethiopia invaded the country to prop up its allies and clients, the transitional government, aided by the U.S. Many UIC leaders went into hiding in their strongholds in the south or fled to neighboring Kenya and Yemen. The Ethiopian occupation forces soon came under attack both from the more radical surviving elements of the UIC and residents of Mogadishu who were unhappy with their continued military presence in the capital and the country. African Union troops sent to "stabilize" the country have also come under attack.


Even after the election of a former UIC leader (from the Sufi faction), Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, in Febryary 2009, the more radical Salafi elements from the UIC, which reformed as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Mujahideen "Warrior" Youth), have continued to actively resist the authority of the transitional national government. The al-Shabab, as with their forefathers in the radical factions of the UIC before, have been aided by foreign Salafi jihadi fighters from neighboring countries, such as Kenya and Eritrea, and have received training and aid both from Eritrea, which has a longtime rivalry with Ethiopia, and al-Qa'ida "Central." In March, AQ Central chief Usama bin Ladin was featured in a video release from the organization's media wing, Al-Sahab (The Clouds), entitled "Fight On, Champions of Somalia" (see below for video with English subtitles).

View the video on the blog.

Featured below in a linked PowerPoint presentation is a collection of photographs and visual media pieces (motifs) from Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen and the ongoing jihad in Somalia.

Portraits of Jihad: Somalia
...or click HERE.



Monday, May 25, 2009

In Lebanon, Ninth Anniversary of the Day of Liberation (يوم التحرير) from Israeli Occupation

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

Israel occupied approximately 10% of Lebanon, in the south, which it called its "security zone." As Prof. Augustus R. Norton once wrote in an article, the swath of land became more like an "insecurity zone," as the Israeli military and its Lebanese collaborationist allies, the South Lebanon "Army" militia, came under frequent attack from guerillas belonging to a host of Lebanese parties during the seventeen years of their occupation (1982-May 24, 2000), including Hizbullah and AMAL, the country's largest Shi'i socio-political movements, but also including secular parties, such as the Lebanese Communist Party. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers and hundreds of SLA gunmen were killed in these guerilla attacks, eventually turning Israeli public opinion against the occupation.

In 2000, then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak ordered Israeli occupation forces to leave southern Lebanon a full month before schedule, as Hizbullah and other Lebanese groups stepped up the pressure. On May 24, under cover of darkness, the Israelis retreated back across the border to the south, basically abandoning the SLA, though several highranking SLA officers, like Antoine Lahad, managed to flee with the Israeli military (he now owns a restaurant in Tel Aviv.) The very next day, to add to the humiliating nature of the withdrawal, Hizbullah guerillas and officials, including the head of the party, al-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, came to the south where they were greeted as liberators, since it was their attacks on Israeli forces and their Lebanese lackeys which led to the end of Israeli occupation there. This day (May 25) is commemorated annually in Lebanon, particularly among the Shi'is in southern Lebanon who bore the brunt of the brutal Israeli and SLA occupation. Below is a selection of the visual media from this year's celebration of the "Day of Liberation" (يوم التحرير) from Hizbullah's official web sites and a collection of photographs from southern Lebanon following the Israeli retreat.

A mural celebrating the May 25, 2000, the first day that a huge swath of southern Lebanon was not occupied by Israeli and its SLA allies (SLA members cowered in fear, thinking they would be executed for treason...In the end, save for a handful of SLA leaders, militia members were pardoned.) The mural gives the date and the word "Freedom."

Mural painted onto the walls of Khiam Prison, a major detention center used by the Israeli occupation forces and the SLA. Mass arrests, imprisonment without charge, and brutal torture were routine practices. Although the Israelis denied that they participated in torture, a Human Rights Watch report, and reports from other non-aligned human rights organizations, dismantled their claims of innocence.

The text reads (not a literal translation), "Victory is from God, and [it] is near."

The Israelis destroyed the prison, as well as hundreds of other building and homes in Lebanon, during their summer 2006 war against Hizbullah and (third) major invasion of Lebanon.

SLA members flee southern Lebanon as their Israeli allies abandon them to their fate.

A banner on May 25 congratulates "the Resistance" (Hizbullah) and "its people" for forcing the Israelis and SLA to flee their former "security zone."

Shi'i religious scholars ('ulama) in southern Lebanon associated with Hizbullah celebrate on May 25, 2000, showing their defiance against their former occupiers.

"May 2000: Days of the Resistance and of Liberation"

Banner 1 currently being used on Hizbullah's official web site. The rest of the banner, which completes the text (Our Land is worth more than gold), is below.

Banner 2

Banner 3
The second part of the banner;
The text below reads, "The ninth annual celebration of Resistance and Liberation"

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The 'Heresy' of Shi'ism

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

Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid 'Ali Husayni Sistani is an Iranian-born senior Twelver Shi'i religious scholar and jurist residing in the southern Iraqi city of al-Najaf, a major Shi'i shrine city. He is reportedly identified as the "most widely followed" ayatullah and mujtahid (Twelver scholar who is educationally capable of interpreting Islamic sources and issuing opinions, fatawa, and binding legal decisions, ahkam), though the basis of this claim is largely anecdotal. The above is a satirical graphic produced shortly after the U.S. and British invasion and subsequent of occupation of Iraq in March 2003. The producers of this image were Sunnis critical of Sistani and his fellow Shi'i scholars who, although they did not support the invasion and occupation, nonetheless did not oppose it either. The image suggests, with little ambiguity, that Sistani, and by extension Iraq's Shi'i Muslims, were/are allies or agents of the U.S.

The theological beliefs of Sunni (all schools of thought) and Shi'i (all groups) are by-and-large the same with regard to the emphasis of the absolute unity of "the One God," the sacredness of the Qur'an as the direct revelation of God as dictated to the Prophet Muhammad through the Archangel Gabriel, the historical existence of prophet-hood, and the role of Muhammad bin 'Abdullah as the final "seal of the prophets." However, there are significant disagreements over historical narrative and interpretations of certain major issues, chief among them the special role of a segment of the Prophet's family running through his son-in-law and much younger cousin, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his daughter, Fatima al-Zahra, and more specifically through the line of their youngest son, Husayn. 'Ali is recognized by all Shi'i sects as the first Imam (religious and temporal leader of the community) and the rightful successor to the Prophet, who died in the summer of 632 C.E. All Shi'is recognize Husayn as the third Imam. While Sunnis hold 'Ali, Husayn, and many other members of their line (Ahl al-Bayt, literally "People of the House") in high esteem, they do not believe that 'Ali should have been the Prophet's immediate successor. Instead, they recognize and pay homage to another line of successors, the Rashidun or "Rightly Guided" caliphs (literally "successors"): Abu Bakr (632-634), 'Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-644), 'Uthman bin 'Affan (644-651), and finally 'Ali (651-661).

A brief overview of major differences can be viewed HERE.

Twelver Shi'is, unlike Sunnis, believe in a line of successors from the Prophet through 'Ali which numbers twelve (thus their name), including 'Ali. Other Shi'i groups, such as the Isma'ilis, who are divided into numerous sub-groups, and Zaydis believe in an alternate line of Imams, breaking away from the Twelvers at different points in history. Hereafter, "Shi'i" is used to describe Twelvers unless otherwise mentioned.

Shi'is believe that their Imams were, and in the case of the twelfth Imam are, imbued with special abilities and powers, including the ability to discern the inner meanings of the Qur'an. Popular stories also claim that the Imams possess abilities such as being able to understand all languages (a story that will be familiar to Catholics and Orthodox Christians with regard to the Apostles of the deified Jesus). It is said in other hagiographical accounts that the births of the Imams were greeted by creatures in nature and other fantastic events. Twelver Shi'is believe that the final Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, entered into a mystical hiding or occultation when he was a young boy in order to protect him from his Earthly enemies. They believe that he will return at an appointed time (though they pray for his re-emergence) and will then establish justice on Earth. His followers, the "true" Shi'is, will then be rewarded for their faithfulness while some of those who opposed him and his followers will be punished.

Such beliefs have long been criticized by Sunni scholars from all legal schools of thought, though the messianic figure of the "Mahdi" may have actually originally entered into popular Sunni belief via Shi'ism. Despite these disagreements, the majority of Sunni religious scholars view(ed) Shi'is as having some questionable beliefs and practices, but do not pronounce takfir or apostasy on them. However, Sunnis who follow the Salafi school of thought go further and view Shi'is as being either apostates who have gone beyond the pale of what is "Islamically" permissible or as non-Muslims outright. There is still a further difference between mainstream Salafis, who are largely apolitical and non-violent, and Salafi jihadis (and internal divisions among them) with regard to Shi'is. Some Salafi jihadis, such as al-Qa'ida "Central" #2 Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (Zawahiri), who oppose the targeting of Shi'is generally. Indeed, al-Zawahiri and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a major Salafi jihadi scholar based in Jordan, opposed the orgy of violence against Shi'is in Iraq between 2003-2007 perpetrated by the Jordanian terrorist and al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers chief Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi preached violent jihad against the Shi'is, who he viewed as not only being non-Muslims but as cunning enemies to the "true Muslims" (Salafi jihadis) and agents of the U.S. and Britain. He outlined his beliefs in a crazed letter to al-Zawahiri in 2005.

The disagreement between al-Zarqawi on one side and al-Zawahiri and al-Maqdisi, al-Zarqawi's former teacher, over Shi'is is a prime example of a division which exists among Salafi jihadi circles. The overwhelming majority of Salafi jihadis, with perhaps a few solitary exceptions such as the Syrian ideologue Abu Mus'ab al-Suri (see Brynjar Lia's book Architect of Global Jihad for more on this), view Shi'i beliefs with hostility, as they view them as being "un-Islamic." As discussed in earlier, some key Shi'i beliefs and practices, such as the mourning rituals of 'Ashura which marks the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, are not practiced or recognized by non-Salafi Sunni Muslims either. Indeed, some of the 'Ashura rituals, particularly in South Asia and Iran, reportedly draw upon pre-Islamic rituals of mourning. Other practices, such as self-flagellation with blade-tipped whips and the cutting of the forehead with swords and knives, are not supported in Shi'i sources. Such rituals, while not practiced by the majority of Shi'is, are often "defended" even by non-practitioners who do not wish to see fellow Shi'is being criticized, even if it is for potentially legitimate reasons. Many Shi'i religious scholars ('ulama) also frown on such practices, seeing them as contradicting passages in the Quran and lacking (as they do) legitimatization from Shi'i historical sources such as the Ahadith (traditions that originate, it is claimed, from the Prophet or the Imams. Sunni Ahadith only includes traditions from the Prophet.)

Images of 'Ashura rituals and shrine visitation, which Salafis of all stripes (jihadi and non-jihadi), and many stricter Sunnis, oppose or are wary of, are frequent topics of Salafi polemics against Shi'is, and particularly against Twelver Shi'is, who form the largest Shi'i group. It is sometimes claimed that Shi'ism was a deviant sect founded by an Arab Jewish convert to Islam, 'Abdullah ibn Saba. Many Shi'i scholars claim that such an individual never existed. This "black legend" did not originally target Twelver Shi'is, it was a propaganda story devised by polemicists who sought to discredit the Isma'ili Shi'is, who were major political power players in the medieval period (see Farhad Daftary's The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis for more on this.) It should be mentioned that Twelvers have developed their own polemics against Salafis and Sunnis, and that Shi'is view themselves as the "most correct" Muslims. Many of these polemics are based on an equally selective and biased reading of history and sources. This is not, however, the subject of this post, and I will not discuss it further here. Suffice it to say, intra-Muslim polemics are not a one-side activity.

Below are examples of anti-Shi'i threads I found during research on my current project, "The Art of the Martyr and Mujahid," on the Arabic and English language sections of the Salafi jihadi al-Falujah al-Islamiyyah online discussion forums. I have selected to reproduce select images directly on Occident, but the entire threads can be viewed via Scribd here as well.

Shi'ism's Alleged "Jewish" Ties:

Former Iranian president and mid-level Twelver Shi'i religious scholar (Hujjat al-Islam, literally "proof of God") al-Sayyid Muhammad Khatami meeting a rabbi. Such images are frequently reproduced by Salafis and linked to the 'Abdullah ibn Saba polemical story.

Shrine Visitation and Shi'i "Worship" of Human Beings:

Former Iranian president al-Sayyid Muhammad Khatami at a Shi'i shrine

The late Iraqi ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim visiting a shrine. Al-Hakim was assassinated in a massive vehicle bombing outside of al-Najaf's Imam 'Ali shrine in August 2003, an attack reportedly masterminded by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's first outfit, Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Absolute Unity [of God] and Struggle).

The thread text for this photograph reads: "Is this Islam, O' Shi'a?" ( هل هذا اسلام ياشيعه; there is a typo: Instead of a taa marbuta, there is a "he").

The shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khumayni, in southern Tehran. He is often referred to as "the imam," a symbolically loaded title in Twelver Shi'ism, and is idolized by his supporters. Listen to a popular Iranian pro-Khumayni political song (the chorus says, "Khumayni is Imam"), and view a moving video of his last days (note the lofty symbolism used in the video.)

Shi'i pilgrims crawling to a shrine, probably either that of Imam 'Ali in al-Najaf or Imam Husayn in Karbala, both in southern Iraq. Such popular practices are opposed by Sunni (Salafi and non-Salafi) 'ulama and are not even universally supported by Shi'i 'ulama, as it suggests the worship or near-worship of human beings, which in turn contradicts the basic Islamic tenet that God alone is worthy of worship. Shi'i practices such as these, many of which have a basis more in popular cultural practices than religion, are not supported even in Shi'i historical sources.

Smoking is Bad, Shi'is Smoke so They are Bad (Makes Sense to Us):

Al-Sistani (left, then just an ayatullah) with his chief teacher in the Twelver Shi'i seminary in al-Najaf, al-Sayyid al-Qasim al-Kho'i (right) and a pack of cigarettes (in the yellow circle). Many, but not all, Salafis are opposed to smoking. Their view is not shared by the majority of residents in the Middle East from my anecdotal experience. In fairness, their interpretation that the Qur'anic prohibition on things which harm your body, which smoking certainly does, is not far-fetched.

Self-Flagellation & Other Cultural (and Base) Practices from 'Ashura:

Self-flagellation and the cutting of the forehead (first photograph) which are performed by some (minority) of Twelver Shi'is during the 'Ashura rituals commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn and his band at Karbala in 680 C.E. Such practices are largely cultural and many have their origins in pre-Islamic mourning rituals. These practices, unsupported in even Shi'i sources, are rightly frowned upon and criticized by Sunnis and many Shi'is for being backward cultural relics which contradict basic Islamic tenets. The forced participation of children by parents who perform such rituals is particularly odious and worthy of condemnation (and should be forcibly prevented, as the victims are children.) This is pictured in the complete thread (see below), but I find it so disgusting that I chose not to reproduce it directly on Occident.

In short, this is not Shi'ism and the minority who partake in such practices do not reflect upon the majority who do not participate in their bloody rituals.

This is the requisite comparison between the base cultural rituals pictured above and self-flagellation by young Roman Catholic men in the Philippines every Holy Week (the week before Easter.)

Khumayni, آية الشيطان (Ayat al-Shaytan):

The grand ayatullah's exile in France and protection by the French authorities is questioned in one of the al-Falujah threads.

Khumayni with the Armenian archbishop...Oh, No! He must be a Christian. Yes, very logical, oh Salafi jihadis...

Khumayni praying at a shrine...Bad, Khumayni ye-Imam...

الطواف على قبر الإمام الخميني
"Circumambulation of the tomb of 'imam' Khumayni"

Circumabulation is performed by Muslims at the Ka'bah, the building at the center of
Mecca's Grand Mosque.

Shi'a Photos (Falojah)
...View the complete thread HERE.

Matam (Falojah)
.....The Shi'i practice of rhythmic beating of the chest in mourning for Imam Husayn and his male companions is criticized here. A video download of this from South Asia, which includes music and what looks like a kind of dance, is linked-to in this thread. View the thread HERE.

Mutah in Iran (Falojah)
...A documentary on mut'ah ("temporary" or, more accurately, "short-term" marriages permitted in Twelver Shi'i jurisprudence) is linked-to here. Sunnis of all varieties are critical of this practice, as they view it as having been banned by the second Rashidun caliph whom they, but not Shi'is, recognize, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab. The documentary itself highlights abuses of mut'ah in Iran, which reportedly are not infrequent, and is not a Salafi jihadi production. View the thread HERE.

Shia Unitarians (Falojah)
...Shi'is as "Unitarians" who Deny the Prophethood of Muhammad. View the thread HERE.


Examples of anti-Shi'i, Salafi Web sites:

The videos linked-to in the last two threads are from this anti-Shi'i Pakistani web site:

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?