Monday, January 09, 2006

Future Jihad

A quick recommendation and a few thoughts on jihad. Walid Phares has just set the bar for analysis of the jihadi mindset with his new book "Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against America." It is an outstanding read, with especially sharp analysis about what jihad is, why understanding its historical development is critical to understanding modern jihadis, and what the modern jihadists want to accomplish.

In the past I have commented on what the jihadis want, stating that "Bin Laden wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate throughout the Arabic Middle East. To do that, he needs to remove the secular regimes that are currently in power." Phares confirms this analysis, but elaborates a great deal. His explanations are enlightening, especially given the mixed messages about the nature of Islam and the role of jihad in that religion as portrayed by Western media. It is common to hear, at least in the West, an "Islamic Scholar" telling us that Islam is a religion of peace, and that jihadis are distorting the true message of Islam. Phares explains that the actual situation is far more complicated than such simple notions. Jihad is not one of the 5 pillars of Islam (which are witness, prayer, pilgrimage, alms, and fasting). It is, however, considered an unofficial 6th pillar of Islam--and understanding what that means requires delving into a bit of history.

Immediately following the death of Mohammed, the council of elders of Islam--the de-facto ruling body--set up a a system where a single ruler would be selected--the Caliph--and he would lead the Caliphate. Because Islam requires that the umma, or Islamic community, be expanded, the initial Caliphate had to grapple with the fundamental problem of how to do that--by military conquest, or by more peaceful means. For a variety of reasons, well articulated by Phares, Islam made the watershed decision to embrace the doctrine of "Fatah" or conquest, whereby they would spread Islam through a continual war against the infidel. Islamic historians perceive that Allah blessed this decision, because within the next 100 years the Caliphate rushed forth and conquered territory at a rate unprecedented in history. Particularly impressive was how this backward and barefoot mix of Arabian tribes roundly defeated both the Byzantine and Persian empires--the world's two super powers of the day--at the same time. This initial rush of conquest initially petered out--and this led to perhaps the key feature of the Jihadi mindset: there is a strong correlation between the decadence, corruption, and drift from the fundamentals of Islam in the ruling Caliphate, and the fortunes of this Islamic empire. The initial Caliphate quickly conquered most of the known world, but then as they began to enjoy their riches and drift from the teachings of Muhammad, they were beset by defeats by the Christian crusaders and the Mongols. The Mamelukes then arose out of Egypt, a fundamentalist militant sect that carefully followed the "salaf" or early ways of the founding fathers of Islam (hence the jihadi word "salafi" or "salafist"). The Mamelukes defeated the once invincible Mongols, and expelled the crusaders from the Levant. This correlation between the following of the fundamentalist "salaf" ways and military victory was seen as again a blessing by Allah, and the Mamelukes took over the Caliphate. This is critical: military victory, especially in the form of a reversal of fortune, was the road to legitimacy of rule by the Mamelukes. But, as history goes, the Mamelukes soon became decadent and corrup themselves. Enter the Ottomans--another fringe group that followed the fundamentalist Islamic ways, and swept into the Islamic world with a wave of military victories in the Balkans, all the way to the gates of Vienna. This was again seen as a blessing by Allah, and led to the Ottoman Sultan taking over the reigns of the Caliphate. Until, not unexpectedly, they became decadent and corrupt, and the Caliphate was officially dissolved by Kemal Attaturk in 1923.

Each of these resurgent, fundamentalist groups that breathed new life into the Islamic world came onto the stage waging Jihad agaist the Infidel, and were awarded legitimacy based on the perception that their military victory in jihad was due to the blessing of Allah. And in each case, these jihads did in fact lead to a resurgence and blossoming of Islamic culture. It is through this lens that we must understand the modern Jihadi mindset: There is no legitimate Caliphate. The rulers of Islam have become decadent and corrupt. As a result, the former power and glory of Islam has been lost. It is their job--that of the Salafi Jihadist--to bring fundamentalism and military greatness back to the Islamic world. This theory is at least partially vindicated by the view that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan--first over the Infidel Soviet Union, and later against the corrupt Islamic warlords--is a sign of the renewed blessing of Allah upon this endeavor. And despite the opinions of geopolitical analysts and military strategists, backward and badly outgunned Islamic armies have in the past demolished the worlds superpowers. So given this insight, it is possible to better understand what Bin Laden, what Hamas, and others are thinking. They do not need to be endorsed by the all the people of Islam--they feel confident in acting in the name of Islam because they see their victories as the blessing of Allah upon their actions. In the eyes of the jihadi--as well as the eyes of the average middle eastern Muslim who was raised with the very history lessons recounted above--the events of 9/11 were a de-facto sanction on the actions of al-Qa'ida by the hand of Allah. Secular Islamic scholars disagree with this, but for those who were raised and taught the classical history of Islam mentioned above--which is standard curriculum in most Madrasas and elsewhere in the Islamic world--that is the meaning that they took away, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Ultimately, Walid Phares provides an insight into the cultural ethos of the Islamic world--particularly the ethos of the culture that is inaccessible to the average American, that of the rural schools and smoky teahouses that line the (literally and figuratively) impenetrable warren of Islamic society. It is the kind of insight that someone like myself, who has studied Islam (through Western sources), who has traveled to multiple Islamic countries for numerous reasons (military deployment to Qatar, plain tourism in Morocco) just cannot pick up.


gilemon said...

It seems that anybody who has been close enough to high-end military tech AND who managed to escape this stupid playground came out with a pretty scary clear vision of what’s reality – or maybe to be more accurate, of what we think reality is.
Right Jeff?

I don’t know how far you’ve been with autonomous attack systems, but it’s getting pretty frightening…

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Anonymous said...

That's actually very, very alarming. That mindset among the Jihadis, reinforced by hundreds of years of demonstrated "success" of jihad and "failure" of the later corrupted conquerors, seems to say pretty clearly that there will be no peaceful resolution, and that the only option for the rest of the world is to somehow ensure that this latest jihad fails utterly, thus showing that Allah has withdrawn his blessing.

I didn't realize it was that dangerous. Now I'm actually frightened.

Jay Denari said...

Hi, Jeff,

Interesting. Clearly, the jihadis knew they couldn't do it themselves, so they manipulated the US into taking out Saddam's distinctly secular and anti-jihadi regime. The fact that Bush had personal reasons to hate Saddam only made it easier.

Disillusioned kid said...

I think we need to be careful of terms like 'jihad'. Bear in mind that within Islam the word has a more complex meaning than the orientalist interpretation which prevails in the West. While we emphasise the violent aspect to the exclusion of all else, the term primarily refers to a spiritual struggle.

Oh, and if you want to get rid of the spammers enable Blogger's word verification thingy. (It's in the comment's settings part of the "dashboard" I think.)

Jeff Vail said...

I think that this is exactly one of Walid Phares' main points: that the concept of jihad as a "spiritual struggle" is essentially a propaganda tool of well-funded "middle-east specialists." Within most of the educational system of the islamic world (according to Phares, which again, is beyond what I can really speak with any claim to authority about), jihad isn't taught as a "spiritual struggle," it is taught as the actual and historical fight against the Kuffar (infidel). The more PC connotation is just what we're being fed.

Joshua said...


I'm not entirely sure this is cause for alarm. While it does suggest that there is no peaceful resolution, this particular history doesn't imply an existential danger, at least to the US.

All it shows is that the salafists are truly serious (which I think most people believe already) and have, in the past, been successful in restoring the Caliphate. But that they also have become weakened by their success, and never managed to extend the Caliphate into what would be considered the West.

If anything it also shows an inherent weakness within the idea of Fatah. At some point the jihadis will succeed and become the power elite, and it is at precisely this point that a new salafist will decide that they are not carrying the true torch of Islam. Internal discord and sectarianism will ensue diverting attention and resources from any further expansion.

I'll definitely pick up Mr. Phares' book, but from what little has been said here, Jihad doesn't seem substantially different from any other use of violence in pursuit of dogma. It seems to be about as strong and as weak, as dangerous and as doomed.

It would however be interesting to learn why exactly the Muslim armies were so spectacularly successful in the past, or at least hear some plausible explanations.

One last thing: I don't think your conclusion follows. A failed Jihad will not demonstrate to their satisfaction that Allah has withdrawn his blessing. They would most likely conclude that they weren't rigorous and faithful enough in their religious practice. From the point of view of the believer, events can only confirm the religious belief structure they never disprove it.

Ali said...

I haven't read Phares' book, but from the synopsis you presented here, I don't know if I agree with the main premise. I find this explanation of Islamic expansion conquest simplistic and under-developed.

Indeed, it may well be the case that in current times, many Muslims across the world (especially Al-Qaeda sympathisers) think of success in Jehad (such as against the Soviet Union) to be a blessing and an endorsement of authenticity by God; I hardly think that the same paradigm can be projected through the entire history of Islam.

I would much sooner consider that much of Islamic world conquests were conducted as struggles for political power, not necessarily as jehad against infidels or decadent and corrupt Muslims. The Abbasid overthrow of the Ummayad caliphate, rises and falls of different dynasties in Egypt, Turko-Afghan and Moghul expansion into the Indian subcontinent, and Ottoman rise to power, can all be seen as stemming for an urge to gain political power for the particular national or ethnic group - Mameluke, Ottoman, Mongol, Mughal etc. - not as a divinely inspired quest to reclaim the true Islam.

Of course it is true that at least a few movements had Islamist ideals behind them (examples include the Almoravids and the Almohads in the Maghreb and Andalusia), but this cannot be applied across the board.

In any case, I think the history of Islam and the Islamic empire is far too diverse to be pinned down by one single cause, jehadist or otherwise.

Weaseldog said...

So the obvious strategy is to deny the fight?

No fight, no glory, no converts...

Jeff Vail said...

I'm sure that this reading IS far too narrow an interpretation of the actual history--a statement that is almost always true with regards to anyone's history. However, the relevant argument from Phares is, I think, that this is how the Jihadis are selectively reading the history. As such, it is the foundation for their mindset, and the foundation for understanding their actions.

Even with my limited knowledge, I know that the Jihadi view of Islam isn't the only view. Personally, whenever someone makes a broad comment disparaging all Islam, I like to point out Sufism, which is something that I find (in most ways) a very admirable spiritual pursuit, even though I consider myself an atheist (I'm against religion, which I define as spirituality + hierarchy. I'm definitely FOR spirituality in all its diverse forms...)

Anonymous said...

Interesting, unfortunaltely I feel we are passed the observe and analyze stage in the cyclical development you pointed out. I believe we are trying to offer the middle east the concept of a democracy that lacks relevence to them due to social/cultural developmental differences between us. I also beleive that since I am not an extremist of any sort that it is perceptually impossible for me to even begin to understand the mind set, the percieved reality of the common muslim. Both points are to no fault of either culture. I am not optimistic in concept of global harmony and feel that it is not the "end of the world" but very well could be the end of an age. Fundamentally the players and the reasons are the same.

"Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum".