Thursday, September 25, 2014

A bunch of articles dealing with ISIS, Beheadings, and Islamophobia

by Salman Hameed

The territory currently controlled by ISIS (from Wikipedia) 

There are a lot people commentating on ISIS and what is going on in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and the Muslim world at large. The situation is complicated to say the least. The US is involved again in the fight and is planning a Goldilock strategy of supporting those rebel groups that are just right for US interests, i.e. they will fight ISIS and defeat it while at the same time will be able to topple Assad's regime in Syria. And all the while won't change their own views about the US and its allies and will remain pro-US when the job is done (see Clashing Goals in Syria Strikes Put US in Fix). This way the US can form an alliance with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar (whom the Iranian foreign minister recently called the "coalition of repenters" as they are also responsible in many ways for the creation of ISIS), while at the same time avoid a better suited regional cooperation with Iran and (reluctantly - sigh!) Syria. How can anything go wrong with such a strategy?? Though in all fairness, there are reports of back-chanel contacts of US with the Iranian and even the Syrians (see Coalition of the Presentable)

But since the topic of ISIS is intersecting issues of Islam, Muslim youth, modernity, religious violence, Islamophobia, etc., it is also relevant for this blog. What ISIS has been doing is grotesque and barbaric (just yesterday, they killed a prominent human rights lawyer in the center of Mosul for her criticism of ISIS). Here are a few reasonable articles that might help in understanding ISIS and its context within the larger Muslim world:

On checking the potential (and realized) Islamophobia in response to ISIS:

Here is Daniel Martin Varisco, The Trouble with ISIS:
So what is the trouble with ISIS?  For the people living in Syria and Iraq this is a disaster on top of a disaster.  The killing and wanton destruction have become routine in Iraq since the U.S. invasion and in Syria since the Arab Spring uprising.  Out of this morass of insecurity the most radical and extremist faction has emerged, brandishing an intolerant view of Islam that justifies killing fellow Muslims simply for being Shi’a, as well as any Christians and Yazidis they encounter.  The recent ISIS blitzkrieg, fueled in large part by an inept Iraqi army and the regime of Bashar al-Asad on the ropes, has made an unexpected advance, confiscating military hardware and cash.  But it is hard to imagine how ISIS can survive without air power, especially since the United States has stepped in with air support.  None of the surrounding states support ISIS, especially Iran and Turkey; nor have any mainstream Islamic groups or scholars given solace to this radical group.  Their tactics, which include intimidation, stealing, murder and rape, are not likely to foster long-term support. 
The trouble with ISIS goes beyond the loss of life and displacement of Syrians and Iraqis.  This is a disaster for Muslims everywhere, since these deplorable tactics feed Islamophobia.  Since most people in the West have a very limited view of the diversity of Islam, the trouble with ISIS easily becomes the trouble with Islam.  ISIS is doing as much harm to Islam as Osama Bin Laden did with the attack on the Twin Towers.  There will be no new caliphate and the self-proclaimed caliph al-Baghdadi will soon meet his fate.  But this will not end the trouble, a trouble not with religion but the overt and spiteful abuse of a religious veneer to justify political ambition and hateful vengeance.
Here is a fascinating position by Amina Wadud, who argues that who are we to say who is a Muslim and who is not. This avoids the problem of "good Muslim, bad Muslim" distinction:
Since the horrible events in the US on September 11th 2001 I have experienced an overwhelming tendency of Muslim apologia.  Any time anyone who identifies as Muslim commits horrific acts, Muslim civil organizations and community leaders have been quick to not to condone these acts.  Sometimes they use the language “this is not Islam”. This is a slippery slope and I still measure the extent to which they define their terms and what control or power they have over the discourse.  I also do not ever feel like I am personally responsible for every act performed by every Muslim, good or bad.  So I don’t apologize.  I do however continue to live what I believe (that is justice, honor, truth and dignity) and to assert its possibility where ever I can. That did not change for me at September 11th.  However, the ability to argue for it was affected. 
To engage in those arguments, I have become even more committed to the idea that Islam is NOT what every Muslim does and yet Islam is nothing if not lived by Muslims.  I do not then have to distance myself from every spurious action as a way to prove I am the true and good Muslim and they are the bad Muslim
 ---
Still, I demand some criteria for their definitions, some references to the two main sources of Islamic thought and action.  Instead, what I see is a blatant disregard for those sources even to their most absurd interpretations. 
This is not an apology for ISIS, because frankly they can just go to hell.  This is only to assert that the actions that they have been performing exceed even the recommendations about how to engage with an enemy in battle; where all the sources of Islam first demands that war itself has to be declared and respect for prisoners of war and non-combatants is paramount.  This sweep of ISIS across Iraq killing non-Muslims who never declared war, including journalists- to say nothing of killing other Muslims in mass genocide- cannot be connected to any evidentiary base within Islam. 
This is not a case of some one’s disagreeable interpretation of Islam. This is clearly outside of Islam.  So for those who oppose Islam, please recognize you have support amongst Muslims for putting a stop to this group.  We would uphold even our divergent interpretations while having a consensus that this is one bully we cannot claim and wish to employ all methods to put an end to. Do not use this as an occasion to sling Islam-hating which would distract us from coming together to stop them and to put its leaders on trial for crimes against humanity. 
But also see this news item that 120 Muslim scholars from around the world have sent ISIS an open letter denouncing them as un-Islamic.

Here is an article from Columbia School of Journalism Review that raises the question of how to cover the role of Islam in the ISIS crisis. You can find both sides of the arguments there, but here is a bit about the use of Quranic verses by ISIS:
ISIS’s eagerness to advertise its scriptural credentials suggests one possible explanation for the infrequency with which journalists mention the connection: a reluctance to be seen as legitimizing terrorist propaganda. As Quartz’s Ghosh argues, “When terrorists cite the Koran or the hadith, they do so selectively, choosing only those passages that can be interpreted to suit their perverse view of the world. When they can’t find citations, they simply make them up by resorting to ‘fatwas.’ These deserve no credence.” 
Bazian, of UC Berkeley, echoes this point, saying that noting the ideas in holy texts might be the impetus behind terrorists’ actions not only rewards the villains, but is indicative of “Islamophobia.” “When Islamophobes point to the Koran and Islam as the problem, they are epistemically reinforcing ISIS’s claims and also pushing every Muslim into the same categorization,” he says. Bazian further asserts that “Islamophobes look in the Koran, find a verse, and then argue that this is what Islamic belief is all about.” 
The accusation of “Islamophobia” is not to be taken lightly. In many parts of the United States, the terrorizing of Muslims is a serious problem. In 2008, for example, a group of white supremacists burned down the Islamic Center of Columbia, TN. And plans to construct a mosque provoked outrage in Murfreesboro, TN, where, in 2010, arsonists reportedly burned equipment meant to excavate the site. Bob Smietana, a former religion reporter for The Tennessean who now writes for Religion News Service, covered both of these events. He says that he still hears from people who want him to unequivocally condemn Islam.
Of course, one of the things that have set ISIS apart is its grotesque videos of beheading journalists. Now Saudi Arabia routinely conducts beheadings officially (it is their way of capital punishment). But the US also has capital punishment and uses lethal injection for that purpose. The larger problem here is capital punishment rather than the method. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is now helping the US in its campaign against ISIS. But here is an article that makes a comparison of beheading videos with pornography:
In recent months, there has also been a proliferation of amateur violent propaganda from ISIS and its supporters, ranging from photographs of bodily mutilation to grainy videos of executions filmed on cell phones. This visual and sickeningly macabre material is made and distributed by ISIS fighters themselves and represents a purer kind of gonzo. A few weeks ago, for example, Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, a 23-year-old British rapper from London whom British intelligence officials suspect may be the masked killer in the Foley and Sotloff beheading videos, uploaded to Twitter a picture of himself holding up a severed head. The caption read: “Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.” Other jihadists have similarly made use of social media to publicize their atrocities. 
Zarqawi was a pioneer of this particular brand of gonzo. His network, originally known as Tawhid and Jihad, publicly released more than 10 beheading videos between September 20 and October 7, 2004, in addition to the video, circulated in May of that same year, believed to show Zarqawi himself beheading the American businessman Nicholas Berg. Given ISIS’s promise to behead more Western civilians, these kinds of videos may yet become the group’s signature production. 
Like gonzo porn, ISIS’s beheading videos are way out there. But the new element isn’t violence. The new element is degradation. Walter Laqueur, the esteemed historian and luminary of terrorism studies, writes of the “barbarization of terrorism,” where the enemy “not only has to be destroyed, he (or she) also has to suffer torment.” ISIS represents the apotheosis of this development, completing the degradation of the enemy by filming the whole process. But the group’s propaganda also signifies a new phase in how terrorist acts are communicated and disseminated to the wider world. Forty years ago, the international terrorism expert Brian M. Jenkins remarked that “terrorism is theater.” What Jenkins could not have envisaged at the time was the speed and ease with which images of terror can now be produced and distributed. Nor could he have imagined just how prevalent and grotesquely pornographic terrorist theater has become, and how radically gonzo the groups are who stage it.
Here in an anthropological take on the beheadings by ISIS:
In beheading the journalists, the Islamic State was making a claim to statecraft. Even if it has declared the US and the West to be its enemy, and even if the expressed reason for the beheadings was that the US did not meet the demand of the Islamic State to stop bombing its territory, resources and subject population, the intended audience of the beheadings was surely not the US government, which the Islamic State must have expected to seek retribution. It was, instead, the existing and potential members of the subject population of the Islamic State. The beheadings are a classic case of what Rene Girard calls a founding violence—the violence at the origin of a new social order, usually directed at an outsider, a sacrificial victim, whose death is intended to dispel internal conflict. 
Many commentators have noted the suddenness with which the Islamic State has come into being. Just a year ago, it was not on the geopolitical map. Now it is the center of the map. I do not know the details of its emergence, but it seems clear from news reports that there has been much violence along the way. This violence was initially directed at internal others like Shias, Christians and Yazidis. It is now directed at external others like foreign journalists. 
As the US intervention to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State begins—and the fragile order founded on violence begins to collapse—the violence will escalate in an attempt to restore the emerging order. The beheadings will not only continue, they will occur more frequently, and they will be more violent than could be imagined.
And here is an excellent article by Scott Atran on why young Muslims may be attracted to ISIS, but he also, I think, correctly links the spectacle of beheadings with that of "sublime" terror:
Isis’s violence is far from being nihilistic – a charge usually levelled by those who are wishfully blind to the attraction of their foes. The moral worldview of the devoted actor is dominated by what Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime”: a need for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, a giving over to the ineffable and unknown. 
Western volunteers for Isis are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends, having left their homes and looking for new families. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways: through barbecues or on the web; because they were perhaps uncomfortable with binge-drinking or casual sex; or because their parents were humiliated by form-checking bureaucrats or their sisters insulted for wearing a headscarf. 
As I testified to the US Senate armed services committee, what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool. 
Volunteers for Isis are surfing for the sublime and all that is lacking in the jaded, tired world of democratic liberalism, especially on the margins where Europe’s immigrants mostly live. Many are just “vacationers” for jihad, going to Syria over school breaks or holidays for the thrill of adventure and a semblance of glory. The beheadings are doing what the images of the collapsing twin towers did for al-Qaida, turning terror into a display of triumph over and through death and destruction. In Burke’s sense, a display of the sublime. As philosopher Javier Gomá Lanzón recently mused: is this sense of the sublime part of Isis’s attraction? Is the west’s failing its cynicism about a visceral rather than purely intellectual quest for meaning? 
Atran then brings his work on "sacred values":
Awe of God and its myriad representations in art and ritual was once the west’s sublime, followed by the violent struggle for liberty and equality. The great historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets as such. In studies carried out with support from the National Science Foundation and the US defence department, my co-researchers and I found that most societies have “sacred values” for which their people would fight, risk serious loss and even die rather than compromise. In 1776, the American colonists had the highest standard of living in the world. Frustrated not over economics but “sacred rights”, they were willing to sacrifice “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” against the world’s mightiest empire. 
Is our ideal now merely one of “ease, security, and avoidance of pain”, as Orwell surmised in explaining why Nazism, fascism and Stalinism had such a strong pull on engagement and commitment, especially among adventurous youth? For the future of liberal democracies, even beyond the threat from violent jihadis, this may be the core existential issue.
The NYT has some good schematics that provide information about the government structure of ISIS as well as maps that explain how they have moved over the past year or so (see How ISIS works) and has maps of current airstrikes against ISIS.

And for a commentary on the current situation, watch our friend Vijay Prashad on Democracy Now:


More on publicity strategy of ISIS and on European recruits in the coming days. 

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