When History Tags Along: Key Events That Shape Today’s Islamic Militancy
Two decades ago I literally stumbled upon the only archeological discovery I have ever made. I was in southern Iraq, visiting the ruins of Ur, one of the earliest Sumerian cities and mythical birthplace of the Patriarch Abraham. Not far from the ancient ziggurat, I found, by chance, a mud-brick, identical to the ones that were used to build the ziggurat. I picked it up and, to my utter surprise, I saw that it was inscribed with cuneiforms. The brick was thousands of years old. I asked one of the Iraqi minders that were accompanying our group whether I can take it home. Obviously, the man told me to put it back where I found it. Ever since then, I have imagined that, maybe, I had brushed up against a piece of the Epic of Gilgamesh – Uruk, the fabled king’s city is not that far from Ur. Most likely, it was a list of some sort or just scribbling by some bored clerk supervising the construction workers.
About seven years later I was working on a story about the looting of the Iraqi National Museum after the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003. While interviewing the director of the museum, George Donny, one of those scholars that are so passionate about their work that listening to them leads to a sort of trance state, I told him about my discovery in Ur and asked him how it was possible to have such artifacts lying around. He answered that Iraq has a huge number of archeological sites – about 10.000 – and that even in peacetime it would be impossible to excavate them all. So, during the raining season, some artifacts may be revealed while others get buried back. To this day, I find this idea fascinating: history being brought back to life, before our eyes, by something as random as rain in the desert, and then being hidden again by another rain, or maybe a sandstorm. Nonetheless, whether it is hidden or in plain view, history – sometimes manifesting itself as a brick that might be inscribed with a missing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh – is always there.
Not long after my meeting with George Donny I learned that history can find other ways as well to enter unexpectedly into one’s life. I learned this from an anecdote I was told by Rana, a good friend and one of the best producers covering the war in Iraq in its early years; many journalists were safely taken by her in and out of the most dangerous places in the country. Rana was an Ayyubi – and her family name meant that she was a descendent of Salah ad-Din, known to Europeans as Saladin, conqueror of Jerusalem and a medieval example of chivalrous conduct. Before establishing his own dynasty, Saladin was a general of the Egypt-based Fatimid dynasty, which he overthrew. Eight centuries later, during the bloody Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, Rana’s uncle, an Ayyubi as well, was captured by the Iranians. Someone tipped them off about his family name, so his capturers asked him whether he knew who his ancestor was and what he had done – namely that Saladin, a Sunni general, had overthrown a Shia dynasty. The man answered that he was quite aware of Saladin’s story and that he was proud of his ancestor. Because of that answer he would spend years in a prisoners’ camp, being released only 15 years after the end of the Iraq – Iran war.
I had no way of fact checking Rana’s story; what I know for sure is that she believed it, and that alone tells a lot about the Middle East. There, history is very much alive, and even if sometimes it feels like it is forgotten, it lies patiently under the surface for a chance reveal.
I remembered these two stories when I was asked to contribute a piece about Middle East for “The Market for Ideas”. I was thinking about the current state of affairs in the region: several civil wars, a Saudi-Iranian conflict fought through proxies in places like Syria and Yemen, the jihadists from the Islamic State and Al Qaida, with their respective allies and affiliates, raging across the region, the Russian and American campaigns, the Kurds getting bolder as they move towards de facto independence, Turkey moving in to contain the Kurds, a possible war in the waiting between Israel and Hezbollah, the shifting alliances, and so on and so forth. How did they get there? When did it actually start – or, rather, when were the seeds planted? I realized that there is a lengthy sequence of events, some in our day and age, some going back in time centuries. Just like the brick in Ur or Saladin’s story, many of these events just pop up unexpectedly in the propaganda, reasoning or actions of this and that group.
I decided to make a list of such events. Obviously, no such list could ever be exhaustive, nor could it be universally agreed upon. I have skipped many crucial events. Take, for instance, the battles of Yarmuk and al-Qādisiyyah, which opened the way for the early Muslim armies to the West and to the East, severely weakened the Byzantine Empire and crushed the Sassanid one. Or the battle of Hattin, that dealt a decisive blow to the Crusader states. Or the political alliances that led to the rise of Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula. Closer to our times – the Sykes-Picot agreement that partitioned the Middle East disregarding the mosaic of ethnicities and religious groups, which is widely designated as one of the main causes of today’s upheavals. The partition of the mandate of Palestine that triggered the Arab – Israeli conflicts that still play a huge role in the collective mindset of the region. The Arab Spring. The list could go on and on. I decided to focus, instead, on some of the events that are connected to today’s Islamic militancy – both Sunni and Shia – because, as we have seen since at least the turn of the century, non-state actors pose a much bigger threat than the somewhat more predictable and easier to coerce state actors. Take Hezbollah, Al Qaida, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, etc.
Ten years after my discovery in Ur, I was a journalist embedded with the Romanian battalion that was camped just a few kilometers from the ziggurat, when news broke about the bombing of the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra, almost 500 km North of where I was. Although there were no casualties, I immediately knew that this was big news: Al-Askari is one of the holiest places for Shia Muslims as the 10th and the 11th imams are buried there. Moreover, it is adjacent to the place where the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi – a Messianic figure for the Twelver Shia Muslims, who would return for the final battle between Good and Evil – entered his occultation. The bombing of Al-Askari was immediately blamed on Al Qaida in Iraq, a group from which the current Islamic State evolved, whose founder and leader at the time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had been trying to trigger a civil war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites. Al-Zarqawi had ordered numerous suicidal attacks against Shiite civilians, but, up to that point, Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization had generally shown restraint. Not this time. The Al-Askari bombing triggered a wave of revenge attacks against the Sunnis and it soon ignited the 2006 – 2007 Iraqi Civil War.
The Shia reverence for the Imams goes all the way back to the early days of Islam and the disputes surrounding the appropriate successor to the Prophet Muhammad at the helm of the nascent Muslim empire. Following the death of Muhammad, some in the community argued that his successor – or caliph, the one that replaces the Prophet in leading the prayer – should be his cousin Ali, husband of his favorite daughter, Fatimah, and one of the earliest, most pious and bravest Muslims. Ali would eventually become, 24 years after Muhammad’s death, the fourth and last of the so-called Rashidun, rightly-guided caliphs. His five year reign was marked by the first Muslim civil war, the schism of the Kharijites and the rebellion of Muawiyah, who would later become the first of the Umayyad caliphs. Ali was killed by a Kharijite in 661. His death deepened the rift between an important part of the community, who would come to be known as the Sunni, and his supporters, “Shiatu’ Ali”, followers of Ali, who now believed that the Caliphate should be passed to his and Fatimah’s descendants, the so-called Ahl al-Bayt, People (or family) of the House [of the Prophet]. The defining moment of the conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis would come some two decades after Ali’s death, when his and Fatima’s son, Hussein, was killed in battle, together with his party, by troops loyal to the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid I. Hussein’s martyrdom is still commemorated to this day during Ashura, one of the most important dates of the Shia religious calendar, made famous throughout the world by the images of self-flagellation with chains and swords. Even without the Ashura, most Shiites have a subtler, daily, way of remembering Hussein’s death: it is customary to use, during the five daily prayers, a piece of clay, called turbah, which symbolizes the purity of the Earth. Many – if not most – of these pieces of clay come from Karbala, where the third Imam was killed.
Shiites hold in huge reverence Ahl al-Bayt in general and the 12 Imams in particular. I mentioned above how the desecration of Al-Askari shrine lead to the Iraqi civil war; years later, Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan joined the war in Syria in order to defend the shrine of Sayydah Zaynab, Hussein’s sister. The Shiite sense of historical persecution is connected to the fate of the Imams – all, with the exception of the Hidden One, Al-Mahdi, were murdered – and Sunnis were blamed for all of those deaths, except Ali’s. There is still more when it comes to Hussein, an undertone that plays right into the hand of some of today’s Shiite Islamist militias: a desire to revenge him and a willingness to sacrifice – that is, to follow Hussein on the path of martyrdom.
This becomes even more obvious when we look at another symbol: the flag. Shiites use differently colored flags, which are raised above shrines and mosques, carried at public events and so on. The green flags are associated to Ahl al-Bayt and especially Ali; the black flags are carried by Al-Mahdi’s followers. Hussein’s flag is red – a constant reminder of the blood that was spilled and needs to be revenged. Some of the Shiites even believe that there is a prophecy saying that when the Mahdi will return his armies will exact revenge on the descendants of those that killed Hussein, that is, the Sunnis.
Hussein’s pictures adorn the offices, checkpoints and even the fighting vehicles of the Shiite militias; it is the closest thing to a Christian icon that I’ve seen in Islam. Hussein’s name is used as a rallying and battle cry by the Shiite militias. Some of these militias were involved in what amounts to war crimes against Sunni civilians in Iraq; others were behind terror attacks – including suicidal ones – starting with the ‘80s; finally, Shiite militias are now fighting in Syria, on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Of course, one should never forget Israel – regarded as the true enemy by groups such as Hezbollah.
The Mongol Invasions
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s rise to fame as a terror master-mind was fast and bloody. A virtual unknown before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, by the time of his death, in 2006, Zarqawi had a 25 million dollars bounty on his head, as high as Osama bin Laden’s. His group was responsible for countless suicide attacks that mostly targeted civilians, for triggering the 2006 – 2007 Iraqi sectarian conflict, for popularizing the terror tactic of beheading foreign hostages and videotaping the horrific executions. After Zarqawi’s death, his group went through several changes and it eventually morphed into today’s Islamic State. As a token of Zarqawi’s legacy, the motto of the Islamic State’s English propaganda magazine is a quote from the group’s late leader: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify... until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". This serves as a reference to the apocalyptic credo of the Islamic State, whose followers believe that the time of the final battle between the believers and non-believers and the coming of the Mahdi – though not the same Mahdi as the hidden Imam of the Shiites – is near.
Zarqawi’s terror attacks were considered excessive even by the Al Qaida’s leadership. The terror network’s second in command at the time, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sent Zarqawi a letter, in 2005, warning him that, because of the indiscriminate killings, he risked losing the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Muslims.
Zarqawi rebutted al-Zawahiri’s criticism in an audio-recording in which he even tried to justify killing fellow Muslims, which is strictly forbidden by the Quran. By fellow Muslims he understood Sunni Muslims: the Shiites were considered apostates, and so were the political leaders of the Muslim countries and even the religious scholars that supported them. The title of Zarqawi’s recording is relevant: “And the grandchildren of Ibn al-Alqami have returned”. Ibn al-Alqami was a Shiite vizier at the court of the last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta’sim Billah, and Sunni sources claim that his betrayal led to the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.
The fall of Baghdad was a hugely traumatic event for the Muslim world. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, the famous Library of Baghdad was burned, and with it thousands of books and documents were lost forever. Baghdad was, for centuries, one of the most important cultural and political centers of the Muslim world; its sacking spelled the end of what is known as the Islamic Golden Age, a period of great achievements that spanned some five centuries.
1258 may also be interpreted as the end of the Caliphate, the state in which, theoretically, all Muslims should live under the authority of the caliph. It is true that, by the 13th century, the Muslim empire established and enlarged by the Rashidun caliphs, the Umayyads and the early Abbasids had long been fractured, but the caliph in Baghdad still had some religious and political authority and, more importantly, he had legitimacy. Following al-Musta’sim’s death, some surviving Abbasids would become puppet-caliphs, with a strictly ceremonial role, at the court of the Mamluk sultans. Then, after Egypt fell under Ottoman rule and the last Abbasid died, the title of caliph would be assumed by the Ottoman sultans until its abolition by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924; however, none of those caliphs ever had the legitimacy of the ones from the Golden Age.
The sack of Baghdad was the high mark of the Ilkhanid Mongols’ drive westward, straight into the Middle-Eastern hearth of the Muslim world. The Mongols reached the very gates of Egypt before being pushed back by the Mamluks in 1260 – and it can be argued that, if it hadn’t been for the Mongol power struggle in the era, that forced Baghdad’s conqueror, Hulagu, to relocate most of his troops to the East, the outcome might have been different. Subsequent attempts, over the next 50 years, to expand the Ilkhanid Khanate into the Levant failed, but the Muslim world was on the defensive. That perilous climate shaped the thinking of possibly the most important ideologue of jihad, Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, a follower of the conservative Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence. Ibn Taymiyyah’s importance cannot be overstated: during his lifetime he helped rally the Mamluk lands against the Ilkhanid armies, and later on he would be a major influence for Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, founder of the Salafist movement that bears his name, and the modern ideologues of Islamism and jihad – Sayyid Qutb and Abd al-Salam Faraj. Osama bin-Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi held Ibn Taymiyyah in high regard and used his writings to try to justify their acts, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians on 9-11 and the wave of suicide attacks in Iraq.
Ibn Taymiyyah argued that jihad is a religious obligation and the only source of legitimacy for a ruler; moreover, those rulers that would not govern according to the Islamic law, Sharia, could be considered apostates, kufr (also spelled khaffir), and the same reasoning applies for Muslims that neglect their religious duty. The jihadists’ rebellion against secular governments in the Muslim countries, their efforts to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia and their use of tafkir – proclaiming their Muslim opponents apostates – can all be traced back to Ibn Taymiyyah.
The Safavids’ Rise to Power
One of the terms used as a pejorative for Shiites by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers was “Safavides”. It referred to the Azeri dynasty that ruled Persia from the 16th to the 18th century and was responsible for the country’s conversion from Sunni to Shia Islam; its reign was marked by near-constant warfare with the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Before the Safavids, the Iranian plateau was part of the Sunni world, with its population being converted to Islam after the collapse of the Sassanid Empire that followed the battle of al-Qadisiyyah in 636 AD. However, the region was never truly assimilated, and it left its own mark on the Caliphate: the Abbasids launched their bid to overthrow the Umayyads from the Iranian plateau, and their state was deeply influenced by the Persian culture.
The powers of the Iranian plateau had always been tilting West, towards Mesopotamia and beyond, and that fatally made them clash with whoever was there: Persians vs. Greeks, Parthians vs. Romans, Sassanids vs. Byzantines; the local populations of Mesopotamia and its vicinity were always part of the mix, as the region changed hands and it regularly launched its own bid to be a regional power. From this perspective, Iran’s modern-day efforts to build a sphere of influence all the way to the Mediterranean – supporting the Lebanese Hezbollah, aligning itself with a Syrian regime that, although secular, is dominated by the Shiite Alawite sect, influencing the Iraqi government through Shiite religious parties and militias – are nothing new. The novelty brought by the Safavids to this age-old Middle Eastern “great game” was a religious undertone that drew upon an already established schism within Islam. The conflict was no longer just Mesopotamian/Arab/Anatolian/Turk etc. vs. Persian – it was also Sunni vs. Shiite, with the latter having now a state of their own where they represented the majority of the population – a feat they had been unable to achieve in other Shiite-dominated states such as the Fatimid Caliphate.
(To be continued.)