Jihadis, ISIL and the Desperate State of the Islamic World

Jihadis believe in the possibility of the attainment of earthly paradise through a return to the literal word of the Quran and living the life in the ways in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his family and his first followers lived in the deserts of Mecca in the early 7th century AD. Living that life would make possible not only an earthly paradise but also the achievement of human perfection.

Considering the good thereby to be achieved, there is no price that is too high to pay. There are no means that should be shunned to achieve those goals.

Those who are too stupid, or naive or malevolent to understand the way to achieve the perfection of humankind need to be made to see the truth. Perhaps by instruction. More likely by violence. And those recalcitrant are first and foremost fellow Muslims.

This pattern is all too familiar to those who remember the history of the twentieth century.

Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot ordered – no, demanded – oppression and murder in pursuit of their achieving their utopian vision for their peoples.

This is the way of the Jihadis.

So just who are these “Jihadis”?

Islam is divided into two principal sects – Sunnis and Shiites. Some 85% of all Muslims in the world are Sunnis and somewhere around 10% are Shia with the rest distributed across minor sects.

These sects emerged after the death of the Prophet with the need to choose a successor to the Prophet as leader of the Islamic community he had established. The Arabic word for successor is Khalifa, or Caliph. His followers divided into two groups. One group suggested following the traditional Arab way – the elite sitting round the campfire and talking and talking, night after night, until it became clear that a new leader had emerged. They were called the Sunni, or those who followed the custom or tradition of the Arabs.

Another group argued that since the Lord had put his words into the heart of Muhammad, some sacred element had entered the Prophet’s blood stream. Therefore, they suggested, the Prophet’s closest male relative, his cousin (and son-in-law), Ali should be chosen. They became known as the ‘partisans’ or Shia of Ali.

As it turned out, the first three successors to the Prophet were Sunnis and the fourth was Ali – all of whom, are known as the “rightly guided” Caliphs.

Iran is the only officially Shia country. But a majority of the population of Iraq are Shia with large numbers of Shia in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen.

But the vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis. Overwhelmingly, they are ordinary folks, trying to raise their families in peace and security, trying to make a living that will ease their lot and trying to practice their Muslim beliefs in the traditional manner – prayer, alms, and all the rest.

But a very small proportion of these Sunnis have come to believe that this traditional Islamic practice has failed Muslims; that carrying on as Muslims have for centuries has produced no good for the Islamic world. Instead they have turned to living their lives in what they perceive to have been the “golden age” of Islam – the era when the Lord delivered his words to the Prophet Muhammad.

For the Salafists, as they are called, this regression to the 7th century is an especially easy move. But there is a problem. Muslims accept The Quran as the word of God delivered to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel beginning in 609 AD and continuing for 22 years. Every single word in the Quran is believed to be the word of the Lord.

Each of us human beings lives in history – each of us has a beginning, a middle and an end. That means that every one of us lives in an historical context in which our lives and the ways we live can be understood.

But the Lord has no beginning, no middle and no end. The Lord does not live in history. Therefore, the word of the Lord from the 7th century is as valid today as it was then. It is not be interpreted as “what the Lord’s word means in today’s context.” It is the literal truth today as it was then.

But the Quran is full of instructions for His followers living in the Arabian desert 14 centuries ago. How does one live by those instructions today?

How can one say, “well, what the Lord really meant was. . . ” or “what this means in today’s world is. . . ” He said what he said and that is as valid today as it was then.

So Muslims are stuck, in many ways, in the 7th century.

Add to this miracle of the Quran — God’s instructions — the 7th century was a “golden age” for Islam with the faith spreading from Mecca and Medina in Arabia across Africa, across the Middle East and into Europe. (In fact, the Islamic empire was at its peak as early as 850 AD.)

So an escape from the catastrophe of contemporary Arab countries by seeking to recreate life as it was lived in the 7th century is all the more attractive. That is what the Salafists are all about.

They seek to live by the literal word of the Quran and by the words of the Prophet and the ways in which he and his family and his earliest followers lived. Wearing white robes with long beards, they are an increasingly familiar sight on the streets of Arab cities.

Within this community of Salafists exist an even smaller percentage of Jihadis, those who believe that the commitments of the Salafis – the return to the age of the Prophet – should be brought about for all Muslims and by force if necessary. (It is, of course, fellow Muslims who are the principle target of the Jihadis.)

ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or just the Islamic State — is the current embodiment of these Jihadi ideals and its behavior represents the behavior we saw throughout the twentieth century on the part of all the true believer barbarian leaders.

What has driven so many Muslims to turn now to ISIL and to its single-minded pursuit of the notion of human perfectibility and the barbarism that its leaders believe is justified in the achievement of that goal?

Two sets of reality need to be understood to understand these Jihadis of ISIL. First, the social, political, economic, intellectual and cultural state of the “Islamic World.” Second, the psychological makeup of these Jihadis in the context in which they live in the “Islamic world.”

The “Islamic World” is, of course, a misnomer. There is no ‘Islamic World.’ There are only Muslims living in countries. The countries with majority Muslim populations stretch from East Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei; to Central Asia – the ‘Stans’; to South Asia – Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan; to the Middle East – Iran and the Arab countries; to Europe – Azerbaijan, Albania, Turkey and Kosovo; to North Africa – Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco; to Sub Saharan Africa – Mauritania, Somalia, Gambia, Burkino Faso, Mali and many other countries.

Nawaz Sharif, the deeply committed Muslim Prime Minister of Pakistan, recently described these countries in the most unflattering terms.

He pointed out that there are currently 57 majority Muslim countries with a world Muslim population of more than 1.5 billion people or 23 percent of the world’s population.

But, he argued, those 23 percent produce only 8 percent of the world’s total economic output – and a lot of that is the “free” money that comes from extracting oil and gas out of the ground by non-Muslim companies and selling it to non-Muslim buyers. Even with all that oil and gas, Islamic exports are only 14 percent of total world exports.

And even with all the revenues flowing from those natural resources, Gross Domestic Product in all those Islamic nations averages $4900 per capita; less than half of global per capita GDP.

As to intellectual or cultural achievements, he pointed out that only 1% of all scientific articles come from Muslim scientists.
(Speech at World Islamic Economic Forum, London, October 29, 2013.)

All this is most amazing considering the “free money” that Arab oil and gas exporters have received since the oil price spike of 1973. Roughly speaking, more than 6 trillion dollars have gone to those countries as revenue from hydrocarbon exports. It is difficult to see the fruits of that staggering windfall – except perhaps in the Sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf. (That is true especially in the “Disney World” of Dubai where one can find indoor snow skiing mountains and the world’s tallest building, the Burj al Khalifa.)

An astute Arab observer, Rami Khouri, has offered another view of the state of the Arab world. He says,

“For the past 40 years, at least since around 1970, the average Arab citizen has lived in political, economic and social systems that have offered zero accountability, political rights and participation; steadily expanding state dysfunction and corruption; ravaging economic disparities that have driven majorities into chronic poverty; humiliating state inaction or failure at confronting the threats of Zionism and foreign hegemonic ambitions; and, an almost absolute ban on developing one’s full potential in the fields of intellect, creativity, public participation, culture and identity.”
(Rami G. Khouri, “Antidote for the Islamic State Threat,” Agence Global, rights@agenceglobal.com)

There is something very wrong with the Islamic World.

What is wrong is not just economic or cultural, but political as well. With few exceptions – say Indonesia and Turkey — there are no democracies in the Islamic World.

Instead of democracies, there is plenty of oppression. Basic civil liberties and human rights are in short supply or non-existent. Corruption, censorship, police control, female subservience are the rule.

But let me focus on the Arab Middle East. In those countries, one sees the Islamic World in its most catastrophic state. And it is in the Arab Middle East that the Jihadi message has been by far the strongest and by far the most positively received.

The general conditions of the Arab countries are stunningly bad. But if one looks to particular conditions, one sees details that make daily life so humiliating for Arabs. (If you want a fine grained description of the daily humiliations of Mubarak era Cairo, you would do well to read the Yacoubian Building by Alaa-Al-Aswany, an Egyptian who once had a thriving dental practice in Chicago.)

Just to start, turn to Egypt. Some 63% of the caloric intake of the average Egyptian city resident is made up of subsidized bread. Egypt is the world’s largest grain importer and Egyptian women are, on average, the heaviest in the world. (Diabetes is rampant.)

Or take Syria where an Alawite regime took hold in 1970. (Alawites are now recognized as an offshoot of Shiism whose members are some 12 percent of the country’s population.) Hafez al Assad saw to it that the military was an Alawite military and that the ruling family and a coterie off Alawite businessmen were able to dominate the economy and enrich themselves and a small layer of their fellow Alawites. The 80 plus percent of the population who were Sunnis, except for the occasional figurehead, were left out of the good times.

Or take Iraq. Saddam Hussein consolidated his power in the early 1970s and from then on drove an increasingly ruthless dictatorship against his fellow Iraqis. But the ones who suffered the most were Iraqi Shiites. Shiites made up some two-thirds of Iraq’s total population. But Saddam ran a Sunni dictatorship and he saw Iraq’s Shiites as agents of Iranian imperialism. Iraqi Shiites lived lives of deprivation and humiliation under Saddam.

With Saddam’s ouster, the pattern reversed. With massive support from Iran, the Shiites took over with a vengeance. Under the first post-Saddam Prime Minister, al-Maliki, Sunnis were ousted from all significant posts. The day after the pullout of the last U.S. troops from Iraq, al-Maliki ordered the arrest of Iraq’s First Vice President – a Sunni!

(Of course the first head of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Paul ‘Jerry’ Bremmer, disbanded Saddam’s army. He immediately deprived hundreds of thousands of soldiers, mostly Sunnis, of their livelihoods and left the Sunni officer corps adrift. They became the backbone of the army of the Islamic State.)

So the humiliations in Iraq were and remain national – all Iraqis are subject to them.

Or take Saudi Arabia and its brand of Wahhabi Islam – the most conservative kind. It remains illegal for women to drive in the Kingdom. So the well to do – and certainly all the many thousands of royal princes — hire foreign servants to drive their wives and daughters around town. But ordinary Saudi families cannot afford to hire drivers. So the men have no choice but to become chauffeurs for their wives.

In fact, life in Saudi Arabia is so controlled and so restrictive that the Saudis have coined a word, tufshan, for the torpor and rejection that sets in, particularly in the life of young men. That tufshan or torpor easily transform into bouts of rage.
(The Economist, May 31, 2014)

Or think of the general segregation of women. Relations between men and women are rigidly circumscribed in most Arab countries. The result has been sexual deprivation for most, homosexual behavior and prostitution for many, with considerable frustration and sexual tension for all.

Or think of the response of young Arabs to the plight of their fellow Arabs, the Palestinians. All their Arab armies failed to crush the fledgling Jewish state when it declared independence in 1948. The mighty armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan collapsed in the face of the Israeli army in 1967. Since then, Israel launched devastating wars against Lebanon, particularly in 2006, and against Hamas in the Gaza, particularly in 2008-2009 and in 2014.

But through all this — the longest contemporary occupation of defeated lands — Palestinians are subject to the daily harassment and humiliation of the Israel occupation. No amount of Arab efforts is able to free their brethren.

In short, daily life in Arab countries is by and large a life of daily humiliations.

Arabs have responded to their sense of humiliation as do people everywhere – rage, depression, marital discord, eating, crime, war. But in recent years, the most widespread response has been a turn to Islam.

With the defeat of the Arab countries in the 1967 war, a process of questioning the authority of the state and of political leaders began to build. Today, that questioning has transformed into a crisis of authority focused on the Arab state and Arab political leaders but spilling over to all authority including the patriarchal family. The question for Arabs is now, “Who ought to have authority and what ought to be the nature of that authority?”

Over the decades of oppression in the Arab states, all competing sources of authority but one were ruthlessly eliminated by Arab governments – all political movements, whether communist, liberal democratic, or even fascist, were singled out and ruthlessly eliminated as a possible challengers to the established oppressive order.

What was left, what was not extirpated, was Islam. So the vacuum produced by the crisis of authority in the Arab world has been filled by Islam and various Islamic organizations – from al-Nahda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the various Salafist movements, the Jama’s Islamiya, Hezbollah, Hamas, and later the Jihadis, al Qaeda and ISIL.

The many failures of Arab states has produced a consolidation of the sources of authority rooted in Islamic ideology. The question now is to understand why any particular Muslim would join the ranks of the Islamic State. What psychological conditions might account for individual Muslims that have made them such fervent partisans of what they perceive to be this particular Islamic solution to their dilemmas.

Essentially, I want to argue that there is nothing particularly different about those Muslims who have joined Jihadi organizations, such as the Islamic State from those who have not.

Decades ago, extensive research was carried out on refugees from both the Soviet Union and from the earlier days of communism in China. The research produced similar and startling findings.

Researchers had expected to find that those who had fled communist oppression were more likely to be committed to democracy, free markets and thus were anti-communists. Much to their surprise, it turned out that the refugees each had a story about fleeing their countries. But the stories they told were invariably not based on hostility to communism or love of democracy. Instead, a fight with the parents, losing a job, breaking up with a girlfriend, having a friend who was taking the trip across the border, those and many similar stories were told by those escaping communism. Very few said they were fleeing to freedom.

So it is I suggest with the Jihadis – it is all a matter of degree and of circumstances. But the underlying psychological dynamic is there across the Arab world. A life of degradation and humiliation absent introspection producing a perpetual rage. The rage occasionally results in an act of violence. Witness Palestinians behind the wheel in East Jerusalem who decide to plunge their car into a group of Israeli pedestrians. More often, the rage results in daily dramas of hostility to others and of various forms of anti-social behavior against fellow Muslims. Rarer still will be the rage driving a Muslim into a Jihadi group such as ISIL.

So, as Lenin asked, “What is To Be Done?”

The place to start is the realization that the Jihadis will fail. No matter how many followers they may attract and no matter how much success they may have in seizing power, they will fail to ameliorate the condition of Muslims in the Arab world. No return to 7th century Islam can solve the problems of the contemporary world.

Moreover, Sunni Arab states are appalled by the hubris of the Jihadis in the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi refers to himself as the Caliph or successor to the Prophet Muhammad and, even more startling, calls him self Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr is the name of the first successor to the Prophet and was divinely guided. This Abu Bakr has some nerve.

So from a failure to achieve its goals and from the increasing hostility of Arab states aided by Western intervention, the Islamic State will eventually fail and disappear.

But where will that leave the Arab world? Essentially, where it is today – struggling in confusion and in great difficulty.

How then will the Arab countries emerge form their current state? Nothing short of an Islamic intellectual revolution is required. But no roots of that are anywhere visible. There is no revolution in sight.

So in the interim – however long that might be – the Arabs and the rest of us will have to live with the miseries and tragedies and humiliations of the Arab world.

That does not mean sitting idly by. The attempt to dismantle the so-called Islamic State is important but also extraordinarily challenging. The U.S. must maintain a meaningful coalition to strike ISIL without simultaneously keeping Hafez Al Assad in power and without offending all the non-ISIL Sunnis in Iraq. The U.S. must keep the pressure on the government in Iraq to broaden its outreach to Iraqi Sunnis to diminish their all too appropriate alienation.

Israel must deal in some more meaningful way with its occupation of Palestinian lands. With a pro-settler, far right Israeli government in power and the chaos of Arab states surrounding Israel, this will be an especially tall order.

For the rest, doing what can be done – what can be done by outsiders will be minor and on the margins, with relatively little impact on the Arab world.

We are in a holding pattern – a lengthy period of sectarian conflict and, most optimistically, waiting for Arabs to refashion the Arab world.