A monster in the birthplace of civilization

Many of us have by now seen the grisly images of rows of captured Iraqi soldiers murdered in cold blood by fighters of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS), the jihadi group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after it swept through Mosul, a city of two million.

Alongside the shock and horror at the sight of bearded, bedraggled, primitive-looking men celebrating the mass murder of their brethren and the giant leap backwards they have heralded for Iraq, two questions are bound to reverberate on our lips.

How, in the 21st century, can a society begat such monsters?

And why the Middle East? Why the Arab world?

The answers are not hard to find, if we find the courage, if only for a few moments, to set aside misplaced political correctness and longstanding taboos and superstitions.

Islamic State jihadis murdering Iraqi captured soldiers

Islamic State jihadis publicised pictures and footage of themselves murdering captured Iraqi soldiers

In a recent article, “A monster is born”, Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi wastes no time in getting straight to the point.

…the brutality and ruthlessness of IS in the name of Islam has once again brought to the fore the question of why does our region appear to be so prolific on the jihadi production line and poor in much else ? Note that jihad has another noble sense, but that holds no sway in our part of the world.

You may find the answer to that question in the sermon delivered by the self-proclaimed caliph, [Abu-Bakr] al-Baghdadi, delivered in the Mosul mosque on Friday 5 July.

Almost nothing he said in this sermon could not have been said by any Azhari (mainstream) cleric in Cairo or Tunisia or Beirut. Like any Friday sermon, it was replete with verses from the Quran and references to Islamic tradition. It was almost indistinguishable from any other mainstream Islamic discourse. No excesses or heresies. This is not a “twisted version of Islam” (a phrase used often by little knowing Western politicians who want to condemn militant Islam without offending ordinary Muslims).

That makes the challenge from Islamism all the more difficult and elusive to defeat as long as it uses the same lexicon, the same verses, and hadiths [sayings] of the prophet. It is not just a conflict of interpretation, but a conflict over who has the right/authority to interpret and act upon that interpretation. Those who prevail by the sword will impose their interpretation, as we see happening in Mosul today.

As others have noted, it should come as no surprise that the likes of Al-Baghdadi are the natural product of… traditional Islamic learning and history textbooks: the portrayal of the distant Islamic past as a continuous history of glory presided over by infallible and just Muslim rulers. Such a fallacy sustains the discourse of nearly all Islamists. Going back to that lost utopia is the only solution to Iraq’s or Egypt’s woes.

The solution, according to Abdelhadi, is not simple and requires courage, determination and stamina. It calls for the breaking of taboos and the sustained challenging of long-held dogmas and myths.

Dismantling such myths is the perhaps the best way to confront political Islam in all its current forms.

There’s no shortage of books — primarily by intellectuals for intellectuals — that deconstruct the Islamist discourse. But unless such ideas reach mainstream media, the mosque and the school textbooks the chances of reversing the Islamist tide will remain limited.

In an apparent response to Al-Baghdadi anointing himself as caliph in Mosul, several writers and columnists have begun wondering what had gone wrong with Arab societies to produce such cruel anomalies.

A leading Egyptian writer and broadcaster, Ibrahim Issa, devoted an hour-long television show to deconstruct the myth of the caliphate as the panacea to all Muslim woes, reminding the viewers that the caliph (except in rare cases) was a ruthless despot, and that there was no shortage back then (like now) of clerics defending his brutality in the name of Islamic shari’ah.

Whether this will develop into a larger trend or remain confined to television studios, and intellectual talk shows, it is too early to say.

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