Weekly Standard, by Reuel Marc Gerecht, Oct. 26, 2015:
With the war in Syria becoming ever more complex and murderous, it’s worthwhile to revisit a guiding principle of Barack Obama: The use of American military power is likely to do more harm than good in the Middle East, and even in the region’s violent struggles, soft power is important, if not decisive, in resolving conflicts. If Islamic militancy is to be defeated, better ideas, advanced by Muslims, backed up if necessary by Muslim soldiers, must be the principal means.
We do not know whether the president sincerely believes in this military-lite, soft-power-heavy, Muslim-versus-Muslim answer to Islamic radicalism; he may well just care about his progressive agenda at home. A non-interventionist foreign policy, and all the intellectualism that surrounds it, may be only an afterthought, a byproduct of his determination to keep his liberal aspirations for America undiminished by arduous and expensive foreign adventures.
But we cannot ignore the fact that terrorist safe havens now cover a large swath of the Middle East and may soon extend once again across southern Afghanistan. Let us assume that the president sincerely believes that Islamic militancy must be defeated by ideas for it to be downed on the battlefield. Let us also assume that this Middle Eastern question will eventually compel some sustained attention from Republican presidential candidates, since one of them may well succeed Obama and confront the Syrian war, which is rattling both Europe and the Near East. A Republican president could choose to ignore the conflict, citing the same arguments Obama does, with a conservative twist. Republicans don’t appear any more eager than Democrats to send American forces again into Muslim lands. Vladimir Putin’s arrival has probably made punting an even more attractive bipartisan option, since changing policy in Syria could well pit the United States militarily, indirectly or directly, against Russia. Barring a massive terrorist strike against America launched from the Islamic State or elsewhere in Syria, even a half-million dead Syrians—double the current accepted number—and millions more made homeless will likely not push Americans to intervene.
But fear of entanglement aside, does the president’s view make sense historically? Have Muslims viewed militant irruptions as preeminently battles of ideas? Or have they seen such struggles as contests of swords and gunpowder? In the past, what have been the winning strategies against “violent extremism” in the Middle East?
Taming the zealots
Historical parallels to the Islamic State are imperfect. Although Islamic history has seen an enormous number of politico-religious rebellions, the vast majority failed to displace the ruling powers, and successful movements seeking explicitly to revive the early caliphate have been rare. The Islamic State in this sense is a product of modernity: It couldn’t have happened without the rise of modern fundamentalism, which zealously ignores—or delegitimizes—the history, the perceived moral compromises, of medieval and modern Muslim empires and states and returns the believer to the most virtuous age, to the community of the prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs, the Rashidun, the Rightly Guided Ones.
But jihadist revivalism is a not infrequent occurrence. As Princeton’s Michael Cook noted in Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, an important book for understanding historically the moral reflexes and agony of faithful Muslims:
It was the fusion of this egalitarian and activist [Arab] tribal ethos with the monotheist tradition that gave Islam its distinctive political character. In no other civilization was rebellion for conscience sake so widespread as it was in the early centuries of Islamic history; no other major religious tradition has lent itself to revival as a political ideology—and not just a political identity—in the modern world.
Focusing on the more extreme and successful examples of this religio-political zeal offers some insights into how such fervency fades. Islamic history offers no sure strategy for defusing zealotry, but it certainly records the methods that Muslims, and non-Muslims, have used to combat the fanaticism of believers at war with the status quo. And the principal method has always been military.
The closest modern parallel to the Islamic State is the Mahdist movement in Sudan and Egypt in the late 19th century. In 1881 Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdallah declared himself the Mahdi, the Guided One, the messiah in Muslim theology. He and especially his successor, Abdallah ibn Muhammad, who called himself a caliph, created a jihadist state in Sudan that aspired, at a minimum, to the conquest of Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Both men gathered to the cause tens of thousands of holy warriors, bedeviling the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, the Egyptian-Turkish khedivate, and the British administration in Cairo. The renowned British general Charles “Chinese” Gordon fell victim to the Mahdi at the capture of Khartoum in 1885. The Ethiopian emperor Yohannes IV died in battle against the caliph’s army in 1889.
Like the Islamic State today, the Mahdist realm was essentially a war-machine, which evolved into a semi-functioning state that lasted less than 20 years. Mahdist forces’ tendency to slaughter Egyptian and Sudanese administrators in the employ of the khedive complicated their efforts at government. Christians within their reach also fared poorly, though better than Christians have done under the Islamic State, which has ruthlessly ignored the sharia’s command to respect the life and property of Christians, an inferior but protected class under the holy law.
The Turco-Egyptian, Sudanese, and Ethiopian forces proved utterly incapable of containing the Mahdist holy warriors, who called themselves the Ansar, or the Helpers, a term also applied to those who welcomed the prophet Muhammad in Medina after his flight from a hostile Mecca. The British at first wanted to avoid a head-on collision with the Mahdist movement, deeming it too costly, but after the death of Gordon and the continuing advances and depredations of the caliph’s armies, General Horatio Herbert Kitchener was dispatched with a British Army of 8,000 men supported by 17,000 Egyptian and Sudanese troops. Deploying Maxim guns and modern artillery (and Winston Churchill on horseback), the British wiped out a Mahdist army of 60,000 men at the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898. Within a year, the Mahdist movement was irretrievably broken.
As long as they relied on soft power, both the Muslim ruler of Egypt and the British administration proved unable to counter the religious appeal of the Mahdi and his successor in Sudan and southern Egypt. The khedive and the British believed, correctly as it turned out, that military success would destroy what we today would call a popular Islamist challenge.
Wahhabis Run Amok
West of the Indian subcontinent, Wahhabism has been the driving engine of Sunni jihadism since the 1970s. The rise of the Wahhabis in Arabia in the 18th century also offers parallels with the Islamic State. Muhammad ibn Adb al-Wahhab was born in 1703. By the 1740s, his revivalist movement, which arose in one of the most primitive regions of the peninsula, had caught the eye of religious scholars in Mecca, the great cosmopolitan pilgrimage city under the distant control of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. The Wahhabi creed, once married to the power of the tribal chieftan Muhammad ibn Saud in 1744, cleansed the Najd, the Saudi and Wahhabi heartland, of more tolerant preachers and scholars. The region became the incubator for a severe interpretation of Islam, at odds with the multicultural, relatively tolerant sentiments of the Ottoman empire. Wahhabi teachings, often skeptical if not dismissive of the great legal scholars of the past, ruthlessly reduce the sources of law to the Koran and the traditions of the prophet, the Hadith, that pass the requisite tests of purity.
An intolerant, often violent fastidiousness that sees lax and worldly Muslim practice as the same as unbelief is the hallmark of this doctrine. Wahhabism has a mania about idolatry, shirk, which makes its followers exceptionally hostile towards Shiites, with their adoration of the imams, the charismatic descendants of the Caliph Ali; of Sufis, who can see God in almost anything; and of Christians, with their obnoxious embrace of anthropomorphism and the Trinity. Wahhab put it clearly by citing a hadith in his declaration of faith, The Book of God’s Unity: “Whoever affirms that there is no god but God and denies all other objects of worship safeguards his blood, property, and fate with God.” In other words, if you don’t do that, you are fair game. The desire to purge Muslim society and subjugate or expel non-Muslims is an inevitable byproduct of this creed. The parallels with the Islamic State are obvious.
Saudi armies had conquered most of Arabia by the end of the 18th century. But the Wahhabi-Saudi thirst for power and pillage brought a reaction. Muhammad Ali Pasha—the great Ottoman Albanian lord of the Nile Valley, who’d modernized his armed forces and gained de facto independence from Istanbul—attacked. By 1819 he had destroyed the Saudi-Wahhabi state.
For a time, Egyptian rule was strong enough to check any Saudi-Wahhabi rebirth. But Egypt, always in a financial mess, lacked the resources to maintain sufficient forces in the Najd, and when the khedive eventually lost control there, a rejuvenated Ottoman empire, which had Westernized its armed forces, reestablished its sovereignty over most of the Arabian Peninsula. The British, the naval guarantor of the Trucial States (today’s small Gulf countries), checked Wahhabi plans to push east. Other Arabian tribal powerhouses, especially the pro-Ottoman Rashidis, who were slightly less hardcore than the Wahhabis, took advantage of Saudi tribal disunity and smashed Saudi forces at the Battle of Mulayda in 1891. Also, importantly, the Ottomans pushed back with soft power, backing clerics who waged an intellectual campaign against Wahhabi intolerance, the forerunner of what we now call takfirism, the practice of declaring “bad” Muslims infidels and thus subject to the sword.
Dark days for the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance continued until the charismatic Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud (1875-1953) rose to power, just as the Ottoman sultanate was ending. With the empire’s collapse after World War I, western Arabia saw a Saudi-Wahhabi advance. Taif and Mecca fell in 1924; Medina and Jeddah, the all-critical seaport of western Arabia, in 1925. Ibn Saud eponymously elevated the Kingdom of the Najd and the Hijaz into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The Saudi-Wahhabi union might have perished several times had it not been for the movement’s lasting success at cleansing the Najd of opposing religious views. Even after the devastating loss at Mulayda, the Wahhabis survived because they’d culturally transformed the landscape of their homeland. As the historian David Commins has noted, “the Rashidi amirs . . . had no interest in uprooting Wahhabi influence. There would be no repetition of the Ottoman-Egyptian efforts to stamp out Wahhabism. By the 1880s, generations of Najdi townsmen [including the Rashidis] had lived in a Wahhabi milieu. The strict monotheistic doctrine had been naturalized as the native religious culture.”
Although the Saudis, with their well-financed global Wahhabi missionary activity, have done horrendous damage to Islamic civilization since they came to power in 1925, they also illustrate what is missing today in the fight against the Islamic State and other radical Islamists who are developing emirates throughout the Greater Middle East. When Wahhabi warriors—theIkhwan, or the Brothers—were chomping at the bit to invade Trans-jordan and Iraq in the 1920s, which would have dragged Ibn Saud into a war with Great Britain, and were slaughtering affluent “bad” Muslim subjects of the Saudi monarch, Ibn Saud attacked. He divided the Wahhabi ulama, or clergy, from the Ikhwan and drove those hardcore holy warriors out of Arabia, where they surrendered to the British. The power of the Ikhwan, who were ideologically quite similar to many of the jihadists of the Islamic State, was permanently broken.
Yet there is no Ibn Saud today. There are no conservative Muslims with the prestige and power to put down radical Islamic revivalists. The Saudis have no might that they can project far from their borders even though they have purchased an enormous amount of Western weaponry. The odds are good the Saudis will lose their struggle with the vastly outgunned Shiite Houthis of Yemen. And if that military engagement does go badly, it could traumatize the kingdom and even delegitimize the ruling family. Although the Wahhabi establishment remains loyal to the House of Saud, religious dissent among the ulama has been visible for years. It’s a tossup whether official Saudi religious authorities now have more influence among religious youth than militant dissident clergy. The Saudis’ ability to broadcast an effective, nuanced message abroad—the Wahhabism of the Islamic State is bad, but our Saudi Wahhabism is good—is, to put it politely, questionable. Money can buy only so much.
Meanwhile in Egypt, a kind of charade in the name of religious reform continues. President-for-life Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an observant Muslim, likes to declaim about the need for a reformation within Islam and parade state-paid clerics from the state-controlled (and Saudi-financed) Al-Azhar seminary. But fundamentalism has become mainstream in Egypt, and violence aimed at an increasingly oppressive state is growing. Sisi is the past: Secular military dictatorship is one of the primary causes of the collapse of civil society and the radicalization of youth throughout the Middle East. The components of his political identity—Nasserite pan-Arabist, corrupt militarist, Egyptian nationalist, faithful Muslim—are a summation of the passions and conflicts attending Egypt’s startling decline since the 1950s. Sisi may have his fans in the United States, especially among House Republicans and conservative columnists, but despite his popular coup, he confronts the same dilemma as his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak: How does a poor military regime, dependent upon American arms, stay afloat in an increasingly religious country, deeply uncomfortable with that dependency and with Egypt’s diplomatic relations with Israel? The answer for all three men: Intimidate thefundamentalists, while culturally accepting, if not encouraging, most of the social mores—the “Islamic values”—dear to the religious.
Even before Sisi’s 2014 coup against a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president and an Islamist-dominated parliament, Egypt was an internally weak state, incapable of projecting its tired ideals, let alone its armed forces, abroad. Today, Cairo is broken and bankrupt, avoiding an administrative collapse only by means of Saudi cash. At best, Sisi is playing defense inside Egypt. The general’s open and growing sympathy for the Alawite Shiite regime in Syria—which surely puts him at odds with the vast majority of Sunni Arabs, his Saudi funders, and Al-Azhar’s ulama—reveals his concern that the Islamic State, with its narrative of revivalist violence and an increasing flow of arms across the porous Libyan-Egyptian border, is a serious threat to his rule. He’s probably right.
The Frightful Search For Virtue
The Islamic State is essentially a rebirth of the Kharijite schism. The earliest of Islam’s many schismatics, the Kharijites believed that the caliphate belonged to the most virtuous—not to descendants of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, or to the prophet’s tribe of Quraysh, which became the Sunni standard for succession. They practiced, or so it seems in the sources written by their enemies, an anarchic egalitarianism. In 661 a Kharijite killed Ali, the last of the Rashidun caliphs. According to the sources, the Kharijites were exceedingly violent. Overlaying Arab tribal customs onto the faith with extreme rigor, Kharijites could lawfully kill or enslave anyone—man, woman, or child—who failed to meet their demanding standards.
When the Wahhabis irrupted in the Arabian Peninsula, the Ottomans called the Saudi-Wahhabi warriors khawarij, or Kharijites. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, explicitly claims that by establishing a new jihadist realm in the heart of Iraq and Syria, core lands of classical Arab Islam, he has proven himself most virtuous by the gold standard in Islamic history—military conquest. Like the leader of any society so formed, Baghdadi runs the risk that others will see themselves as equally deserving through battlefield victories or, worse, see him as compromised if he starts losing. Another danger: Power tends to corrupt. Baghdadi and his inner circle may start to sin in the eyes of their followers. The original Kharijite movement was fissiparous: They were as likely to duel with each other as with non-Muslims. Although the arguments of the “secessionists” (the literal meaning of khawarij) have powerfully echoed through Islamic history, Umayyad caliphs had crushed the movement militarily by the early 8th century. Without success in war and unable to gain a sufficient number of new spiritual recruits, Kharijism faded as a serious challenge to the status quo.
We may hope that the Islamic State and other holy-warrior movements that have conquered lands will similarly evanesce—but even faster. Such movements are unlikely to die, however, unless they are defeated militarily. The Assad regime, which provoked the rise of jihadism through its savagery, probably cannot wipe out the Islamic State, even if powerfully reinforced by the Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Russians. It just doesn’t have enough manpower: The Shiite Alawite community, the backbone of Bashar al-Assad’s power, is only about 10 percent of the Syrian population, and the Russians and Iranians may not want to invest enough to end this fight.
So long as their own casualties remain low, both parties strategically benefit from continuing mayhem. The Russians are now indispensable in Syria; they have checked, if not checkmated, any future American or Turkish intervention against Assad; they have again spooked the Europeans and made themselves a player in a refugee crisis that is fraying the European Union, a Russian strategic goal topped only by the dissolution of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; and, last but not least, Putin has diverted attention from Ukraine, the democratic Achilles’ heel for a despotic Russia, and reminded everyone, again, that he’s aggressive, unpredictable, faithful to his friends, and not easily deterred.
Sectarian strife has only expanded Iranian influence. The mullahs would probably prefer Assad to win outright, but a certain Sunni threat, as in Iraq, keeps the Iranians in a secure avuncular position. The age of Iranian ecumenicalism, when the revolutionary movement tried hard to appeal to Sunni Muslims (Hassan Rouhani and his mentor, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, were big fans of this approach in the 1980s and 1990s), is over. We will have to see whether the Russians and the Iranians, through better weaponry and planning, can ramp up the lethality of the Alawite war-machine. Assad needs to slaughter on a much larger scale, and drive into exile millions more, before the Alawite future brightens.
Both Democrats and Republicans want to believe that the Islamic militancy developing in Syria will stay localized. Syria’s Islamic militants have a huge war to fight against enemies near at hand. Modern jihadism of the type we see in the Islamic State, however, will surely take aim, with increasing seriousness, at the United States and Europe. The Islamic State’s holy warriors are already far more globalized than the Afghan Taliban, who eagerly lent a hand to Osama bin Laden and have stayed loyal to al Qaeda, as al Qaeda has stayed loyal to them, through the arduous years since 2001. For such severe jihadists, globalization is as basic as the Koran and the magnetic conquest narrative of early Islam. And the Islamic State, unlike al Qaeda, now has thousands of Western Muslims within its ranks. That’s a lot of raw material to sift through and develop. And the European security services—especially the French DCRI and British MI5, the West’s frontline defense—are seriously stressed. We may choose to absorb future terrorist strikes by the Islamic State and respond just with bombs and drones. But if we decide we need to stop them, to deny them caliphates where they can conspire and multiply, we will have to put boots on the ground. We will not be able to leave prematurely, as we did from Iraq. Islamic history suggests we will have no other choice.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.