by James Spencer
Recently, the UK’s youngest suicide bomber died in Iraq, and a British convert to Islam was killed fighting for al-Shabaab against the Kenyan Army. At much the same time, President Obama has confessed that the US still doesn’t have a complete strategy to counter the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). IS itself has taken the cities of Palmyra and al-Ramadi, and sent suicide bombers against Shi’a mosques in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Pentagon has admitted that IS seems to be winning the propaganda war. Things are not looking good.
One of the problems for President Obama is knitting together all the different, competing foreign policy agendas of the region’s nations into one coherent strategy against IS. Syria’s al-Assad is the devil the Israelis know. He is loathed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but supported by Iran and Iraq. And yet the US has at least a working relationship with most of these countries.
A more formidable obstacle is articulating the counter-narrative: a vision for the ordinary inhabitants of the region of a better future that can help them resist the nihilism of IS. Such an Islamic vision for the future would offer an alternative to the backwards-looking Salafi-jihadi version. For obvious reasons, an Islamic reformation is something that few in the West have the religious authority to articulate or competence to achieve. Most efforts in the West have tried to prevent individuals from joining Salafi-Jihadi groups rather than articulate a positive narrative.
Further complicating the issue of a counter-narrative is the similarity between IS’s dogma and the Wahhabism of Sa’udi Arabia, the former being an extreme version of the latter. Ironically, similar attempts by Wahhabi uber-zealots—the Ikhwan—to seize Bilad al-Sham were an aspect of Abd al-Aziz Al Sa’ud’s rise to power, as was their categorization of all non-Wahhabis as infidels. The Ikhwan rebelled against Ibn Sa’ud, which resulted in the Ikhwan’s destruction at the Battle of Sabilla in March 1929.
It is therefore interesting to see not just one but two countries take a stand against IS’s blinkered vision of Islam. In these modest articulations of an alternative can perhaps be seen the kernels of an Islamic reformation.
During Jordan’s Army Day, King Abdullah II presented the army with the Hashemite standard, first used by Sharif al-Numi in 1515 and most famously during the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans 100 years ago. It is very different from the Arab national flag of Jordan: intrinsically Muslim, it “combines the al-Shahada (the declaration of faith), and two blessings—‘In the name of God, most gracious, most Merciful’ and ‘Praise be to God, Lord of all worlds.’ The seven-pointed star represents the opening seven verses of the Quran [while t]he dark red colour is supposed to symbolise sacrifice.”
As al-Araby recorded, Jordanian commentators were clear about its politico-religious statement. Mahir Abu Ta’ir, of al-Dustur (The Constitution) wrote: “displaying [the standard] publicly…is a response to challenges, and a message to those who use religious slogans to justify their actions, to tell them that the al-Shahada [on their flags] is not theirs alone.” Islam al-Sawalha was even more emphatic: The standard “is an attempt to delegitimise IS and stress that the caliphate historically and religiously should belong to the heirs of the Arab revolt.” He further noted that this might “upset neighbouring Saudi Arabia.” Al-Rai opined that the re-emergence of the standard was a response to the “kharijites and murderers,” which may upset the Ibadis of Oman and Libya, who are theological descendants of the Khawarij.
How accurate any of these analyses are is moot. But it seems that the king has stepped into the breach to take the ideological battle to the foe, with colors flying.
In a very different way, on the other side of the peninsula, another, quieter, and more subtle program is preparing the intellectual grounds for the long-term battle. Interestingly, Qatar—the only other mainly Wahhabi state—is in the vanguard of this effort, with its Ramadan Dialogue, a three-day event hosted by Qatar’s Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs and broadcast live on Qatar’s Al Jazeera Mubasher channel.
The promotional material for the event does not cast the Dialogue in terms of ideological jousting. But the topics covered clearly map the same ground as IS and other such retrograde Islamist groups:
Muslim youth identity, contemporary Muslim attitudes on justice, equality, freedom and societal progress in the Muslim world and the challenges these principles encounter today, misconceptions of Islamic values, the declining influence of established religious institutions, disunity in the Islamic nation and the threat of cultural insecurity. Other themes up for debate include: Scholars and the Call to Review Fiqh, Scholars and the Reality of Ijtihad and Ifta, The Role of Scholars in Correcting the Image of Islam in the West, and Scholars and Moderation in Times of Conflict
The roster of speakers and interlocutors is also interesting. It contains not only theological heavyweights but also pragmatic Islamist politicians such as Tunisia’s Rashid al-Ghannushi.
Qatar’s forward-looking stance is doubtless helped in part by the fact the amir of Qatar’s position is not merely founded on a political alliance with Saudi Arabia’s leading religious family—the Al al-Shaikh, descendants of the originator of the Wahhabi sect). Rather, many of the Qatari elites are actually descended from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which gives the rulers considerable political latitude. Further, as the inhabitants of the Gulf littoral, the Qataris experienced the outside world as Wahhabism evolved, generating a pragmatic, worldly Wahhabism rather than the harsh version that holds sway in the bleak interior. Most of all, Qatar never converted its intellectual Wahhabis into militants as happened with the Ikhwan, so the Qatari religious struggle is a personal, internal matter. Their crusade is moral rather than violent.
In truth, the key problem is not the values of Wahhabism—or any other ultra-orthodox religion per se—but rather its imposition, often by violence when reason fails. Indeed, to remove some of the essentials of Wahhabism might risk leaving “de-Wahhabized” youths open to the same manipulative forces as youths of other “detuned” religions seeking meaning in life. Instead, all that is needed is to remove the case for the violent imposition of religion on others.
The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, succeeded in generating a conservative Islamic movement. Meanwhile, his younger brother Jamal al-Banna—a weakling left to traditional education—developed a liberating Islamic philosophy that must surely have been in the mind of the All-Merciful, All Compassionate, the Sustainer and Cherisher of worlds. The moral of that story is to let Islam come to its own conclusions. The Jordanians and the Qataris are asking many of the right questions. If such an Islamic reformation succeeds, an intellectual awakening might soon follow. Then Baghdad and Damascus would no longer be infamous for their dogma and brutality but again renowned for their arts and sciences. That’s food for thought in Ramadan.
Photo: King Abdullah II of Jordan
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.