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Together with Ulysses, Abraham is the earliest culture hero in the Western world. More precisely, as Kierkegaard, who called him ‘the knight of faith,’ reminds us, he has remained, throughout the centuries, the prototype of the religious man, of the man of faith. The wandering Aramean from the Book of Genesis, who rejected his parents’ idols and native Mesopotamia to follow the call of the One God to the land of Canaan, started a saga reverberated not only in early Jewish literature, but also in the New Testament (Galatians 3: 6-8), and in early Christian literature.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), a quintessentially American writer and thinker, is also one of the most international. Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, French, British, and German philosophers and literary figures pervade his work. As we think about “Western values” and “the clash of civilizations” today, it may be useful to consider the significant role that Islam plays in Emerson’s thought.
The moral outrage at the actions of Islamic State (IS) is easy to both express and justify. An organisation that engages in immolation, decapitation, crucifixion and brutal corporal punishment; that seemingly deploys children as executioners; that imposes profound restrictions on the life-choices and opportunities of women; and that destroys cultural heritage that predates Islam is despicable. What drives such condemnation is complex and multifaceted, however.
The shooting spree in Copenhagen combines the old and the new of European jihadist phenomenon. Like virtually all European Holy Warriors, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein is not an immigrant, but the son of immigrants, Palestinians who settled in Denmark before his birth.
On 6 January 2015, I led a major event in the British Parliament at Westminster to launch and promote a recently completed survey of academic analysis and its policy implications, Religion, Security, and Global Uncertainties. The following day in Paris, the Houachi brothers shot dead twelve people in their attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo, professedly to avenge its alleged insults to the Prophet Muhammad.
Immigrant Muslims continue to rely on the Ramadan culture of their regional origins (whether African, Middle East, South Asian, etc.). What is the culture of Ramadan for American Muslims? Is that culture already present, or do American Muslims have to invent it? Whether pre-existing or to be invented, where does that culture come from? Does having or cultivating a culture of Ramadan diminish or enhance American cultural citizenship? Can the same question be raised for a culture of Thanksgiving or Christmas?
I am not suggesting by raising such questions that there is a single monolithic culture of Ramadan for all American Muslims, but mean to argue that American Muslims should reflect on how to socialize their children a common core of values and practices around Ramadan for this holy month to be as enriching for the children as it has been their parents. Part of the inquiry should also be how to avoid aspects of the culture of Ramadan for the parents which will be negative or counterproductive for their children. To begin this conversation, let me begin by presenting what I believe my own culture of Ramadan has been growing up along the Nile in Northern Sudan.
Ramadan Prayer. Photo by Thamer Al-Hassan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Fasting for a Muslim is total abstention from taking any food, drink, or having sex from dawn to sunset. Religiously valid fasting requires a completely voluntary and deliberate decision and intent (niya) to fast that is formed prior to the dawn of the day one is fasting. This intent to fast is entirely a matter of internal consciousness and free choice, but has two highly significant implications. On the one hand, the entirely voluntary nature of fasting and all Islamic religious practices is that the state cannot interfere with the choices Muslims make. That means that the state must be neutral regarding religious doctrine (i.e. secular) and cannot claim to be Islamic, or pretend that it can enforce Sharia because that would encroach on the ability of Muslims to act on their individual conviction and choice. On the other hand, abstention from food, drink, and sex with the required free and autonomous intent to fast must also be accompanied by maintaining appropriate decorum by avoiding harming other people, hurting their feelings, or using abusive language. Moreover, the more affirmative good a person does while fasting, as opposed to simply refraining from causing harm, the more religious benefit she or he achieves. The Prophet repeatedly cautioned against the futility of fasting, as abstention without realizing any religious benefit because of failure to observe the etiquettes (adab) of fasting.
The practice of fasting draws on much more than a religious mandate. There is a whole culture of Ramadan that sustains the practice, including the communal expectations and rewards of social conformity beyond the commands of religious piety. A culture of Ramadan defines and affirms the religious practice, including all the sounds and smells of the season, the shifting of the rhythm of social life to the carnival of evenings of sweet food and special drinks. Fasting the days of Ramadan entitles me to participate in the carnival of the evenings and sanctions my belonging to the community of believers.
As children we used to be excited with special activities, different foods, and delicious unusual drinks in the evenings, with slight apprehension for our own disrupted meals during the day, when grownups were too dehydrated and hungry to cook for us while they fasted. Although children are not allowed to fast until they reach puberty, so we used to dare each other to fast a few days, but often break the fast when we get hungry. Our social code of honor tolerated breaking the fast as children, but imposed harsh stigma and shame upon those who pretend to fast but cheat by eating or drinking in secret. I also remember my parents telling me not to fast because I was a child, but once I began fasting a day, I must keep fasting until sunset because breaking the fast may become a habit. Those were some of the values of the culture of Ramadan I grew up with.
Other values of the culture of Ramadan draws on what we observed in the behavior of our elders. As I recall, it was unthinkable for adults to speak of their ambivalence about fasting Ramadan. Yes, it was also clear to us that our parents were struggling to be productive and take care of us despite the hardship of fasting. All these mixed feelings were so deeply engrained into our consciousness as children that we grew up with a complex combination of love and apprehension of Ramadan. We were also socialized into the values of self-discipline and management of ambiguity and the ambivalence of religious piety and social conformity. When we became old enough to fast regularly, failing to fast was so alien and abhorrent to us, utterly out of the question. This deeply engrained aversion of failure to observe Ramadan may have been more social than religious, but it was social because fasting is one of the essential requirements of Islam.
Another social ritual of Ramadan is arguing about the sighting of the new moon, which signifies both the beginning and ending of the month of fasting. At one level, the debate has always about whether Ramadan should begin, or should end, because a new moon is confirmed. Who has the authority to confirm, however, is a highly charged political question within each country, and contested regional politics across the Muslim world. At another level, the underlying issue is whether to follow the literal language of the Quran and Hadith (physical sighting) or rely on astronomical calculations and trust human judgment and scientific advances. If either side concede the position of the other, that will have far reaching consequences in every aspect of religious doctrine and practice, indeed the totally of Sharia can be transformed as a result of the prevalence of one view or the other among Muslims globally. The debate over the sighting of the new moon also has some immediate practical implications for the ability of American Muslims to negotiate for religious accommodation in their work schedule by giving their employers (or school authorities) advance notice of religious holidays.
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law, associated professor in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, senior fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and senior faculty fellow of the Emory University Center for Ethics. An internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights, An-Na’im is the author of six books, including What Is an American Muslim?: Embracing Faith and Citizenship. He is the former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Africa.
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By James Gelvin
ISIS—now just the “Islamic State” (IS)–is the latest incarnation of the jihadi movement in Iraq. The first incarnation of that movement, Tawhid wal-Jihad, was founded in 2003-4 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi was not an Iraqi: as his name denotes, he came from Zarqa in Jordan. He was responsible for establishing a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in response to the American invasion of Iraq. Over time, this particular group began to evolve as it took on alliances with other jihadi groups, with non-jihadi groups, and as it separated from groups with which it had been aligned. Tawhid wal-Jihad thus evolved into al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had strained relations with “al-Qaeda central.” These strains were caused by the same factors that have created strains between IS and al-Qaeda central. Zarqawi had adopted the tactic of sparking a sectarian war in Iraq by blowing up the Golden Mosque in Samarra, thus instigating Shi’i retaliations against Iraq’s Sunni community, which, in turn, would get mobilized, radicalized, and strike back, joining al-Qaeda’s jihad
What this demonstrates is a long term problem al-Qaeda central has had with its affiliates. Al-Qaeda has always been extraordinarily weak on organization and extraordinarily strong on ideology, which is the glue that holds the organization together.
The ideology of al-Qaeda can be broken down into two parts: First, the Islamic world is at war with a transnational Crusader-Zionist alliance and it is that alliance–the “far enemy”–and not the individual despots who rule the Muslim world–the “near enemy”–which is Islam’s true enemy and which should be the target of al-Qaeda’s jihad. Second, al-Qaeda believes that the state system that has been imposed on the Muslim world was part of a conspiracy hatched by the Crusader-Zionist alliance to keep the Muslim world weak and divided. Therefore, state boundaries are to be ignored.
These two points, then, are the foundation for the al-Qaeda philosophy. It is the philosophy in which Zarqawi believed and it is also the philosophy in which the current head of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believes as well.
Islamic states (dark green), states where Islam is the official religion (light green), secular states (blue) and other (orange), among countries with Muslim majority. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
We don’t know much about al-Baghdadi. We know his name is a lie–he was not born in Baghdad, as his name denotes, but rather in Samarra. We know he was born in 1971 and has some sort of degree from Baghdad University. We also know he was imprisoned by the Americans in Camp Bucca in Iraq. It may have been there that he was radicalized, or perhaps upon making the acquaintance of al-Zarqawi.
Over time, al-Qaeda in Iraq evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq which, in turn, evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This took place in 2012 when Baghdadi claimed that an already existing al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, was, in fact, part of his organization. This was unacceptable to the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. Al-Jawlani took the dispute to Ayman al-Zawahiri who ruled in his favor. Zawahiri declared Jabhat al-Nusra to be the true al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, ordered al-Baghdadi to return to Iraq, and when al-Baghdadi refused al-Zawahiri severed ties with him and his organization.
There is a certain irony in this, inasmuch as Jabhat al-Nusra does not adhere to the al-Qaeda ideology, which is the only thing that holds the organization together. On the other hand, IS, for the most part does, although al-Qaeda purists believe al-Baghdadi jumped the gun when he declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq with himself as caliph—a move that is as likely to split the al-Qaeda/jihadi movement as it is to unify it under a single leader. Whereas al-Baghdadi believes there should be no national boundaries dividing Syria and Iraq, al-Jawlani restricts his group’s activities to Syria. Whereas the goals of al-Baghdadi (and al-Qaeda) are much broader than bringing down an individual despot, Jabhat al-Nusra’s goal is the removal of Bashar al-Assad. And whereas al-Baghdadi (and al-Qaeda) believe in a strict, salafist interpretation of Islamic law, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken a much more temperate position in the territories it controls. The enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law–from the veiling of women to the prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes to the use of hudud punishments and even crucifixions—has made IS extremely unpopular wherever it has established itself in Syria.
The recent strategy of IS has been to reestablish a caliphate, starting with the (oil-rich) territory stretching from Raqqa to as far south in Iraq as they can go. This is a strategy evolved out of al-Qaeda first articulated by Abu Musab al-Suri. For al-Suri (who believed 9/11 was a mistake), al-Qaeda’s next step was to create “emirates” in un-policed frontier areas of the Muslim world from which an al-Qaeda affiliate might “vex and exhaust” the enemy. For al-Qaeda, this would be the intermediate step that will eventually lead to a unification of the entire Muslim world. What would happen next was never made clear—Al-Qaeda has always been more definitive about what it is against rather than what it is for.
IS has demonstrated in the recent period that it is capable of dramatic military moves, particularly when it is assisted by professional military officers, such as the former Baathist officers who planned the attack on Mosul. This represents a potential problem for IS: After all, the jailors are unlikely to remain in a coalition with those they jailed after they accomplish an immediate goal. But this is not the limit of IS’s problems. Mao Zedong once wrote that in order to have an effective guerrilla organization you have to “swim like the fish in the sea”–in other words, you have to make yourself popular with the local inhabitants of an area who you wish to control and who are necessary to feed and protect you. Wherever it has taken over, IS has proved itself to be extraordinarily unpopular. The only reason IS was able to move as rapidly as it did was because the Iraqi army simply melted away rather than risking their lives for the immensely unpopular government of Nouri al-Maliki.
However it scored its victory, it should be remembered that taking territory is very different from holding territory. It should also be remembered that by taking and attempting to hold territory in Iraq, ISIS has concentrated itself and set itself up as a target.
IS has other problems as well. It is fighting on multiple fronts. In Syria, it is battling most of the rest of the opposition movement. It is also a surprisingly small organization–8,000-10,000 fighters (although recent victories might enable it to attract new recruits). The Americans used 80,000 troops in its initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was still unable to control the country. In addition, we should not forget the ease with which the French ousted similar groups from Timbuktu and other areas in northern Mali last year. As battle-hardened as the press claims them to be, groups like IS are no match for a professional army.
Portions of this article ran in a translated interview on Tasnim News.
The What Everyone Needs to Know (WENTK) series offers concise, clear, and balanced primers on the important issues of our time. From politics and religion to science and world history, each book is written by a leading authority in their given field. The clearly laid out question-and-answer format provides a thorough outline, making this acclaimed series essential for readers who want to be in the know on the essential issues of today’s world. Find out what you need to know with OUPblog and the WENTK series every month by RSS or email.
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Recently the jihadist insurgent group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) underwent a re-branding of sorts when one of its leaders, known by the sobriquet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was proclaimed caliph by the group’s members. In keeping with the horizonless pretentions that such a title theoretically conveys, the group dropped their geographical focus and embraced a more universalist outlook, settling for the name of the ‘Islamic State’.
As a few observers have noted, the title of caliph comes freighted with a long and complicated history. That history begins in the seventh century AD, when the title was adopted to denote those leaders of the Muslim community who were recognized as the Prophet Muhammad’s “successors”— not prophets themselves of course, but men who were expected, in the Prophet’s absence, to know how to guide the community spiritually as well as politically. Later in the medieval period, classical Islamic political theory sought to carefully define the pool from which caliphs might be drawn and to stipulate specific criteria that a caliph must possess, such as lineage, probity, moral standing and so on. Save for his most ardent followers, Muslims have found al-Baghdadi — with his penchant for Rolex watches and theatrical career reinventions — sorely wanting in such caliphal credentials.
He’s not the only one of course. Over the span of Islamic history, the title of caliph has been adopted by numerous (and sometimes competing) dynasties, rebels, and pretenders. The last ruler to bear the title in any significant way was the Ottoman Abdülmecid II, who lost the title when he was exiled in 1924. And even then it was an honorific supported only by myths of Ottoman legitimacy. But it’s doubtful that al-Baghdadi gives the Ottomans much thought. For he is really tapping into a much more recent dream of reviving the caliphate embraced by various Islamist groups since the early 20th century, who saw it as a precondition for reviving the Muslim community or to combat Western imperialism. Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is thus a modern confection, despite its medieval trappings.
That an Islamic fundamentalist (to use a contested term of its own) like al-Baghdadi should make an appeal to the past to legitimate himself, and that he should do so without any thoughtful reference to Islamic history, is of course the most banal of observations to make about his activities, or about those of any fundamentalist. And perhaps that is the most interesting point about this episode. For the utterly commonplace nature of examples like al-Baghdadi’s clumsy claim to be caliph suggest that Islamic history today is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Caliph Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This is not because Islamic history has no bearing upon the present Islamic world, but because present-day agendas that make use of that history prefer to cherry-pick, deform, and obliterate the complicated bits to provide easy narratives for their own ends. Al-Baghdadi’s claim, for example, leaps over 1400 years of more nuanced Islamic history in which the institution of the caliphate shaped Muslim lives in diverse ways, and in which regional upstarts had little legitimate claim. But he is hardly alone in avoiding inconvenient truths — contemporary comment on Middle Eastern affairs routinely employs the same strategy.
We can see just such a history-shy approach in coverage of the sectarian conflicts between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, we are usually told, has its origins in a contest over religious authority in the seventh century between the partisans of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and those Muslims who believed the incumbent caliphs of the day were better guides and leaders for the community. And so Shi’ites and Sunnis, we are led to believe, have been fighting ever since. It is as if the past fourteen centuries of history, with its record of coexistence, migrations, imperial designs, and nation-building have no part in the matter, to say nothing of the past century or less of authoritarian regimes, identity-politics, and colonial mischief.
We see the inconvenient truths of Islamic history also being ignored in the widespread discourse of crusading and counter-crusading that occasionally infects comment on contemporary conflicts, as if holy war is the default mode for Muslims fighting non-Muslims or vice-versa. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can wrap himself in black robes and proclaim himself Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State, when seventh-century conflicts seem like thorough explanations for twenty-first century struggles, or when a terrorist and mass-murderer like the Norwegian Anders Breivik can see himself as a latter-day Knight Templar, then we are sadly living in a world in which the medieval is allowed to seep uncritically into the contemporary as a way to provide easy answers to very complicated problems.
But we should be wary of such easy answers. Syria and Iraq will not be saved by a caliph. And crusaders would have found the motivations of today’s empire-builders sickening. History properly appreciated should instead lead us to acknowledge the specificity, and indeed oddness, of our modern contexts and the complexity of our contemporary motivations. It should, one hopes, lead to that conclusion reached famously by Mark Twain: that history doesn’t repeat itself, even if sometimes it rhymes.
On 1 July 2014, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) announced its latest judgment affirming France’s ban on full-face veil (burqa law) in public (SAS v. France). Almost a decade after the 2005 controversial decision by the Grand Chamber to uphold Turkey’s headscarf ban in Universities (Leyla Sahin v. Turkey), the ECHR made it clear that Muslim women’s individual rights of religious freedom (Article 9) will not be protected. Although the Court’s main arguments were not the same in each case, both judgments are equally questionable from the point of view of protecting religious freedom and of the exclusion of Muslim women from public space.
The recent judgment was brought to the ECHR by an unnamed French woman known only as “SAS” against the law introduced in 2011 that makes it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place. Although the legislation includes hoods, face-masks, and helmets, it is understood to be the first legislation against the full-face veil in Europe. A similar ban was also passed in Belgium after the French law. France was also the first country to ban the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” – directed at the wearing of the headscarf in public high schools — in 2004. Since then several European countries have established policies restricting Muslim religious dress.
The French law targeted all public places, defined as anywhere not the home. Penalties for violating the law include fines and citizenship lessons designed to remind the offender of the “republican values of tolerance and respect for human dignity, and to raise awareness of her penal and civil responsibility and duties imposed life in society.”
SAS argued the ban on the full-face veil violated several articles of the European Convention and was “inhumane and degrading, against the right of respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech and discriminatory.” She did not challenge the requirement to remove scarves, veils and turbans for security checks, also upheld by the ECHR. The ECHR rejected her argument and accepted the main argument made by the government: that the state has a legitimate interest in promoting a certain idea of “living together.”
By now, it is clear that Article 9 of the European Convention does not protect freedom of religion when the subject is a woman and the religion is Islam. While this may seem harsh, consider the ECHR’s 2011 judgment in Lautsi v. Italy, which found the display of the crucifix in Italian state schools compatible with secularism.
In Lautsi case, the Court argued that the symbol did not significantly impact the denominational neutrality of Italian schools because the crucifix is part of Italian culture. Human rights scholars have not missed the contrast between the Italian case and the earlier 2005 decision in Leyla Sahin v Turkey where the Court found that the wearing of the headscarf by students was not compatible with the principle of laicité or secularism.
The Court did not make a value judgment in SAS case about Islam, women’ rights in Islamic societies, or gender equality, as it did in earlier cases where they upheld bans on the wearing of the headscarf by teachers and students in France, Turkey and Switzerland. In all cases involving Islamic dress codes, the ECHR emphasized the “margin of appreciation” rule, which permits the court to defer to national laws.
The ECHR acted politically and opportunistically not to challenge France’s strong Republicanism and principles of laicité, sacrificing the rights of the small minority of Muslims who wear the full-face veil. Rather than protecting the individual freedom of the 2000 women, the ECHR protected the majority view of France.
The ECHR is the most powerful supra national human rights court and its decisions have widespread impact. Several countries in Europe, such as Denmark, Norway, Spain, Austria, and even the UK, have already started to discuss whether to create similar laws banning the burqa in public places. This raises concerns that cases related to the cultural behavior and religious practices of minorities could shift public opinion dangerously away from the principles of multiculturalism, democracy, human rights and religious tolerance.
The most recent law bans the full-face veil, but tomorrow, the prohibitions may be against halal food, circumcision, the location of a mosque or the visibility of a minaret; even religious education might be banned for reasons of public health, security or cultural integration. Muslims, Roma, and to some extent Jews and Sikhs, are already struggling to be accepted as equal citizens in Europe, where right wing extremism is rising, in a situation of economic crisis.
The ECHR should be extremely careful in its decisions, given the growth of nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.Considering this context, the EHCR’s main argument in this latest judgment is worrisome, since it accepted France’s view that covering the face in public runs counter to the society’s notion of “living together,” even though this is not one of the principles of the European Convention.
The Court recognized that the concept of “living together” was problematic (Para 122). And, even in using the “wide margin of appreciation” rule, the Court acknowledged that it should “engage in a careful examination” to avoid majority’s subordination of minorities. Considering the Court’s own rules, the main reasoning for the full face veil ban—“living together” seems to be inconsistent with the Court’s own jurisprudence.
Further concerns were raised about Islamophobic remarks during the adoption debate of the French Burqa Law, and evidence that prejudice and intolerance against Muslims in French society influenced the adoption of the law. Such concerns were more strongly raised by the two dissenting opinions. The dissent found the Court’s insensitivity to what’s needed to ensure tolerance between the vast majority and a small minority could increase tensions (Para 14). The dissenting opinion was especially critical of prioritizing “living together,” not even a Convention principle, over “concrete individual rights” guaranteed by the Convention.
While the integration of Muslims and other immigrants across Europe is a legitimate concern, it is vitally important the ECHR’s constructive role. The decision in SAS v France is a dangerous jurisprudential opening for future cases involving the religious and cultural practices of minorities. The French burqa law has created discomfort among Muslims. By upholding the law, the European court deepens the mistrust between the majority of citizens and religious minorities.
Yesterday’s events in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo were terrible (the word seems rather pathetic as I type it), and today’s post is my (somewhat insignificant but personally important) way of standing up for freedom of expression.
Rather than responding with derisive ridicule I feel that a response where we make efforts to better understand those we portray as enemies and those we simply don’t know would be much more constructive. Although humour has a place in helping us deal with the shock and horror of it all, laughing in the faces of those who acted yesterday isn’t going to stop this sort of thing happening again. Building understanding and reaching out might.
To that end, here’s a list of books for children and teenagers which might help spread understanding of what life can be like for Muslims living in the west. I haven’t read them all, but where possible I’ve indicated the (approximate) target age group. If you’ve further suggestions to make please leave them in the comments to this post.
With the rise of Pegida in Germany, and the continued anti-immigration, anti-Muslim commentary that fills much political “debate” around the world it seems more urgent than ever to me that we find ways of talking about multicultural life, its richness and challenges. I’d also like to see more exploration why people commit acts of terror in books for children and young people. Over Christmas I read Palestine by Joe Sacco, a graphic novel aimed at adults about life in Palestine. It was utterly depressing but essential reading, and I wish more of this sort of thing, which looks at injustice, conflict (and the West’s role in this) were available for children and young people.
As several of those murdered yesterday were cartoonists, lots of illustrators have responded how they know best. Here are some cartoons created by children’s illustrators:
Response from Chris Riddell. “I am Charlie”.
Art Spiegelman and Oliver Jeffers hold the eyes of Cabu, one of the cartoonists murdered in Paris.
Tomi Ungerer’s response. “There’s no freedom without press freedom”
Response from Stephanie Blake. “Mum, who’s Charlie Hebdo? It’s Freedom, Simon.”
Response from Benjamin Lacombe: “One can cut off heads, but not ideas”
A response by @TheMagnusShaw rather than Charles M. Schulz, but referencing of course Charlie Brown, “I am Charlie”.
A response from Albert Uderzo (shared by Wolfgang Luef)
My thanks go to Farah Mendlesohn, Rukshana Khan, Anabel Marsh, Marion, Melanie McGilloway, Melinda Ingram, Janice Morris and Alexandra Strick for their suggestions. I’m left thinking today especially of my French bookish friends Melanie and Sophie, and the families of everyone involved in yesterday’s events.
Cartoon by Sarah Macintyre, saying it better than I can in words
How can we, as children's writers, respond to the horrific massacre in Paris yesterday? As I watched people gather in Paris and London, holding pens in the air as a protest against those who seek to silence, I asked myself how can I use my pen, my ability to write, my privileged position as an author, to oppose and prevent future atrocities?
These are the inadequate answers that I came up with:
- Oppose extremism in every guise. Stress shared humanity and values. Never glorify violence, warfare or death.
- Give children the idea that conflicts can be addressed and even solved through talking.
- Feed and encourage their sense of humour.
- Support the education of children all over the world. The extremists of ISIS and Boko Harem are waging a war on children, slaughtering them in their schools, because they fear the power of reading, writing, thinking.
- Celebrate cartoonists and writers who poke fun at authority.
- Write about the real Islam, the moderate peace-loving Muslims, who are horrified by acts of violence carried out in their name and against many of their community. Do not allow the extremists to become the face of Islam.
- Champion freedom of speech, even if that freedom leads to offence. This is a difficult one, because there's a natural and correct strong urge to avoid giving offence, and so many words can be exceptionally hurtful. I've just written a book set in Amsterdam, where I lived for many years, and I was often surprised by Dutch bluntness - a by product of a deeply held belief in the freedom of speech, whatever offence that may cause. The assassination of film-maker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam by an Islamic extremist just over ten years ago was very similar to yesterday's attack. Van Gogh, like the Charlie Hebdo magazine, made a point of laughing at everyone,insulting everyone, including Muslims. Getting children to understand the appropriate responses to insults and teasing, to understand the difference between personal attacks and criticism of beliefs and ideas is a difficult conundrum - but completely essential. Ultimately the right to offend is an important freedom, even if it's not a very comfortable one
Je suis Charlie, say the placards in the Place de la Republique and Trafalgar Square; in Berlin, Montreal, New York, all over the world. Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie. But what are we going to do?
Today, 18 January 2015 marks World Religion Day across the globe. The day was created by the Baha’i faith in 1950 to foster dialogue and to and improve understanding of religions worldwide and it is now in its 64th year.
The aim of World Religion Day is to unite everyone, whatever their faith, by showing us all that there are common foundations to all religions and that together we can help humanity and live in harmony. The day often includes activities and events calling the attention of the followers of world faiths. In honour of this special day and to increase awareness of religions from around the world, we asked a few of our authors to dispel some of the popular myths from their chosen religions.
* * * * *
Myth: Quakers are mostly silent worshippers
“If you are from Britain, or certain parts of the United States, you may think of Quakers as a quiet group that meets in silence on Sunday mornings, with only occasional, brief vocal messages to break the silence. Actually, between eighty and ninety per cent of Quakers are “pastoral” or “programmed” Friends, with the majority of these living in Africa (more in Kenya than any other country) and other parts of the global South. The services are conducted by pastors, and include prayers, sermons, much music, and even occasionally (in Burundi, for instance) dancing! Pastoral Quaker services sometimes include a brief period of “unprogrammed” worship, and sometimes not. Quaker worship can be very lively!”
“Zen is known as the Buddhist school emphasizing intensive practice of meditation, the name’s literal meaning that represents the Japanese pronunciation of an Indian term (dhyana). But hours of daily meditative practice are limited to a small group of monks, who participate in monastic austerities at a handful of training temples. The vast majority of members of Zen only rarely or perhaps never take part in this exercise. Instead, their religious affiliation with temple life primarily involves burials and memorials for deceased ancestors, or devotional rites to Buddhist icons and local spirits. Recent campaigns, however, have initiated weekly one-hour sessions introducing meditation for lay followers.”
“This was a common cry in the nineteenth century – the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli made it – and it continues in the twenty-first century. Atheists respond in two ways. First, if you need a god for morality, then what is to stop that god from being entirely arbitrary? It could make the highest moral demand to kill everyone not fluent in English – or Hebrew or whatever. But if this god does not do things in an arbitrary fashion, you have the atheist’s second response. There must be an independent set of values to which even the god is subject, and so why should the non-believer not be subject to and obey them, just like everyone else?”
— Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, at Florida State University and an editor of The Oxford Handbook of Atheism
* * * * *
Myth: Islam is a coercive communitarian religion
“Claims of an Islamic state to enforce Sharia as the law of the state are alien to historical Islamic traditions and rejected by the actual current political choices of the vast majority of Muslims globally. Belief in Islam must always be a free choice and compliance with Sharia cannot have any religious value unless done voluntarily with the required personal intent of each individual Muslim to comply (nya). Theologically Islam is radically democratic because individual personal responsibility can never be abdicated or delegated to any other human being (see e.g. chapters and verses 6:164; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7; 52:21; 74:38 of the Quran).”
“One myth about Hinduism is that it is an ethnic religion. The assumption is that Hinduism is tied to a particular South Asian ethnicity. This is misleading for at least three reasons. First, South Asia is ethnically diverse. Therefore, it is not logical to speak of a single, unified ethnicity. Second, Hinduism has long been established in Southeast Asia, where practitioners consider themselves Hindu but not South Asian. Third, although the appearance of ‘White Hindus’ is a phenomenon rather recent and somewhat controversial, the global outreach of Hindu missionary groups has prompted scores of modern converts to Hinduism throughout Europe and the Americas. In other words, not all Hindus are South Asian.”
The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?
Sociologist Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina shares his thoughts.
Revolutions have been surprising experts for generations. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, for example, the CIA commissioned a report into why it had predicted, 100 days before the fall of the monarchy, that the Shah‘s regime would ride out the protests. During the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011, President Obama reportedly chastized the intelligence community for not having warned him in advance. Academics have a similarly checkered track record.
The reason is that revolutions are inherently unpredictable. They depend on the interactions and perceptions of large numbers of people at moments of confusion when normal routines and institutions are breaking down.
After a revolution, though, it is common to demand explanations that make the unexpected seem inevitable. Many experts are happy to satisfy our desire for a causal narrative, selecting evidence from the run-up to revolution that might serve as a sort of retroactive prediction.
So why did a revolutionary group calling itself al-Daula al-Islamiyya fi’l-’Iraq wa’l-Sham (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) manage to occupy territory in Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014? I might point to its extreme violence (though the Iraqi and Syrian governments were capable of extreme violence as well), or its ideology of self-sacrifice (also visible among other Syrian revolutionary groups), or the support it received from foreign governments (no greater than the support that the governments received), or its leaders’ strategic brilliance (knowable only post hoc), or any number of other factors. These are stories we tell to make ourselves feel that the world is an orderly place, where even the events we find most outrageous or troubling can be tamed through the causal logic of social science.
The real story of the revolution is that one group with weapons persuaded other groups with weapons to surrender or retreat, instead of shooting back. It persuaded large numbers of unarmed civilians to obey them or flee, instead of mobbing the revolutionaries and handing them over to other groups with guns. Those moments of conquest, enacted in confusion and panic with lives on the line—that is how this revolution occurred.
This is part two of a series of articles discussing ISIS. Part one is by Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanese journalist and editor. Part two is by Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Headline image: Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 by Email4mobile. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
My review of The Secret Sky as it appeared in the February, 2015, edition of School Library Journal. Author Atia Abawi is of Afghani descent and was a CNN correspondent in Afghanistan. Her insight into the life of a young Afghani girl is invaluable.
Young Adult ABAWI, Atia. The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Lovein Afghanistan. 7 CDs. 7:45 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2014. $77.75.ISBN 9781490627403. Playaway, digital download.Gr 9 Up-- This story is told through the alternating viewpoints of three young Afghanis--Fatima, a Hazara girl on the cusp of womanhood; Samiulla, a teenaged Pashtun boy disillusioned by the "religious" teachings of radicals; and Rashid, a believer in the harsh justice and rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalists. On the path to the well, Sami and Fatima meet by chance, sparking a platonic affection that will place the young people, their families, and their village in danger. In a land where every action is scrutinized and measured, their blossoming relationship is a sinful affront to propriety that cannot be accepted. Abawi does not shy away from the frank realities of a woman's life in Afghanistan. Scenes of torture and murder may disturb sensitive listeners; however, they make the couple's faith in the possibility of a better life all the more poignant and miraculous. The employment of a narrator of each gender, Ariana Delawari and Assaf Cohen (both Arabic speakers with believable accents), heightens the distinction between the sexes that permeates every aspect of every waking hour for rural Afghanis. VERDICT A perfect choice for libraries seeking topical and diverse titles
The story of Pakistan is the story of missed opportunity. As I began to write about the history of this land, I could not help feeling a sense of an intertwining of personal and national destiny in what was necessarily an account of my own missed opportunities [...]
Jamilah's dyed her hair blonde, wears colored contact lenses, and goes by Jamie at school. It's easier that way, if no one knows who she really is. Her school is full of racists and passing makes her life nicer--people see her instead of a Muslim stereotype. But she likes her Lebanese culture. She likes playing her darabuka drums in her band at Madrassa. Sadly, in hiding her heritage, she's hidden everything about herself. She thinks that people see the real her, but they see a girl with no self-esteem, a pushover.
I loved Jamilah's struggle with herself, her family, her friends at school and her friends at madrassa. I also really loved her family-- her activist sister, her slacker brother, her awesome aunt, and her father who is trying so hard to do the best he can as a single parent. (I especially loved her sister.)
It's a great book about self-acceptance against the odds. While I loved the look into Lebanese-Australian culture, I think Jamilah's struggles with defining and presenting herself are universal teen struggles.
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Almira Abdul is trying her best to honor Ramadan, an entire month where she is not allowed to eat from sunrise to sunset. While her family is not overly religious, and she has only been to a mosque twice, she feels that it's a good challenge for her... She thinks she can stand to lose a couple pounds.
What happens though is more than just food temptation! Her crush, Peter, starts noticing her at the same time her best friend starts noticing him! And while her traditional grandfather is teaching her to drive, he's also showing her how things would be if they weren't living in America.
Almira is a hilarious character. Her voice is unique and her inner dialogue charming. A few times I laughed out loud to the reference to her love of chocolate or her great infatuation of Rob Pattinson (and therefore her hatred of Kristen Stewart.)
Pop references aside, this is no light book. Almira is suffering from what many minority teenagers have difficulty with--how to blend in with the American culture while still holding onto her family's beliefs. It's not just about Ramadan. Her grandfather is a strong and aggressive character, representing the old ways. Her mother and father are somewhere in between.
Almira's friends are a diverse bunch of characters. Each has their own distinct personality and culture too. The conversations between Almira and her friends over AIM are hilarious. And let's not even get started on the new bomb shell of a girl that just started their school...
Sharif does a fantastic job navigating these touchy waters. Almira's voice is touching, desperate and loving. She is torn, observant and just doing the best she can. When there's drama at the end of the novel, Almira's sadness and panic came through brilliantly. This really feels like a high school teenager's account of her one month during Ramadan.
I really enjoyed this book. I didn't know what to expect from the back synopsis, but it's an adventure I'm glad I didn't miss. Kudos to Sharif whose story made me sit down in a quiet corner, with no distractions, and quietly ate up Almira's journey. To be honest, I wouldn't have normally picked this book up, let alone read it! (Or seek it out for that matter. I went to three Borders and two Barnes and Nobles with no luck. I had to buy it on amazon.) But it's well worth it!
By Nathan Schneider
Not long after his return from Cairo, where he was doing fieldwork, I spoke with Talal Asad at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Distinguished indeed: with books like Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, as well as numerous articles,Asad’s work has been formative for current scholarly conversation about religion and secularity, stressing both
By Richard Landes
In the years before 2000, as the director of the ephemeral Center for Millennial Studies, I scanned the global horizon for signs of apocalyptic activity, that is, for movements of people who believed that now was the time of a total global transformation. As I did so, I became aware of such currents of belief among Muslims, some specifically linked to the year 2000, all predominantly expressing the most dangerous of all apocalyptic
This Day in World History - October 10 marks a signal date in Islamic history. On that day, Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was defeated and killed at Karbala, in modern Iraq. His death cemented deep and lasting division among Muslims that persist to this day. In Iran, where the population is overwhelmingly Shia, the death of Hussein—“leader of the martyrs”—is regularly commemorated in passion plays.
On November 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat made an historic speech before Israel’s Knesset, or Parliament, becoming the first leader of an Arab nation to speak there. He was also the first of Israel’s Arab neighbors to publicly say anything like these words: “Today I tell you, and I declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice.”
By 1977, Israel and the nearby Arab states had fought four wars in less than 30 years. Sadat himself had been a principal architect of the most recent conflict, the Yom Kippur War of 1973. That conflict ended when Egypt, Syria, and Israel accepted a United Nations–imposed cease-fire. This time, though, the uneasy peace was not followed by yet another war. Sadat failed in peace talks to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had occupied in 1967. To break the deadlock, on November 9, 1977, he stunned the world by telling Egypt’s Parliament that he was willing to travel to Israel to negotiate peace. No Arab state had ever recognized Israel’s existence, let alone sent a leader to the Jewish state. Israel quickly accepted his offer, and arrangements for the historic visit were made.
Sadat’s bold move set in course discussions that resulted in the Camp David Accords the following September, and a peace treaty in early 1979—the first treaty signed by Israel and an Arab nation. Both Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin received Nobel Peace Prizes for their historic agreement. While Sadat was hailed across the world, he was less well received in the Arab world, however. The Arab League denounced Egypt in September of 1978, and Sadat was assassinated in his homeland by radical Islamists because of his overtures to Israel and the western world.
Roger Gaetani is an editor, writer, and educator who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He serves as the vice president for World Wisdom, an independent publishing company focused on religious and philosophical texts. With Jean-Louis Michon, he edited the World Wisdom anthology on Sufism, Sufism: Love and Wisdom. He directed and produced the DVD compilation of [...]
Religion has provided the world with some of the most influential and important written works ever known. Here is a reading list made up of just a small selection of the texts we carry in the series, covering religions across the globe.
Bede’s most famous work was finished in 731, and deals with the history of Christianity in England, most notably, the tension between Roman and Celtic forms of Christianity. It is one of the most important texts in English history. As well as providing the authoritative Colgrave translation of the Ecclesiastical History, the Oxford World’s Classics edition includes a translation of the Greater Chronicle, in which Bede discusses the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Bede’s Letter to Egbert gives further reflections on the English Church just before his death.
This work is William (brother of Henry) James’s classic survey of religious belief in its most personal aspects. Covering such topics as how we define evil to ourselves, the difference between a healthy and a divided mind, the value of saintly behaviour, and what animates and characterizes the mental landscape of sudden conversion, The Varieties of Religious Experience is a key text examining the relationship between belief and culture. At the time James wrote it, faith in organized religion and dogmatic theology was fading away, and the search for an authentic religion rooted in personality and subjectivity was something deemed an urgent necessity. With psychological insight, philosophical rigour, and a determination not to jump to the conclusion that in tracing religion’s mental causes we necessarily diminish its truth or value, in the Varieties James wrote a truly foundational text for modern belief.
This is one of Saint Augustine’s most important works on the classical tradition. Written to enable students to have the skills to interpret the Bible, it provides an outline of Christian theology. It also contains a detailed discussion of moral problems. Further to that, Augustine attempts to determine what elements of classical education are desirable for a Christian, and suggests ways in which Ciceronian rhetorical principles may help in communicating faith.
Along with the King James Bible, the words of the Book of Common Prayer have permeated deep into the English language all over the worldFor countless people, it has provided the framework for a wedding ceremony or a funeral. Yet this familiarity also hides a violent and controversial history. When it was first written, the Book of Common Prayer provoked riots, and it was banned before eventually being translated into a host of global languages. This edition presents the work in three different states: the first edition of 1549, which brought the Reformation into people’s homes; the Elizabethan prayer book of 1559, familiar to Shakespeare and Milton; and the edition of 1662, which embodies the religious temper of the nation down to modern times.
The Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over 1400 year ago. It is the supreme authority in Islam and the source of all Islamic teaching; it is both a sacred text and a book of guidance, that sets out the creed, rituals, ethics, and laws of Islam. The greatest literary masterpiece in Arabic, the message of the Qur’an was directly addressed to all people regardless of class, gender, or age, and this translation aims to be equally accessible to everyone.
Natural Theology is arguably as central to those who believe in Intelligent Design as Darwin’s Origin of Species is to those who come down on the side of evolutionary theory. In it, William Paley set out to prove the existence of God from the evidence of the order and beauty of the natural world. It famously starts by comparing our world to a watch, whose design is self-evident, before going on to provide examples from biology, anatomy, and astronomy in order to demonstrate the intricacy and ingenuity of design that could only come from a wise and benevolent deity. Paley’s work was both hugely successful, and extremely controversial, and Charles Darwin was greatly influenced by the book’s accessible style and structure.
‘I have heard the supreme mystery, yoga, from Krishna, from the lord of yoga himself.’
So ends the Bhagavad Gita, the best known and most widely read Hindu religious text in the Western world. It is the most famous episode from the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. Across eighteen chapters Krishna’s teaching leads the warrior Arjuna from confusion to understanding, raising and developing many key themes from the history of Indian religions in the process.
It considers religious and social duty, the nature of action and of sacrifice, the means to liberation, and the relationship between God and human. It culminates in an awe-inspiring vision of Krishna as an omnipotent God, disposer and destroyer of the universe.
Kirsty Doole is Publicity Manager for Oxford World’s Classics.
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Image credit: Saint Augustine of Hippo. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
African religions cover a diverse landscape of ethnic groups, languages, cultures, and worldviews. Here, Jacob K. Olupona, author of African Religions: A Very Short Introduction shares an interesting list of 15 facts on African religions.
By Jacob K. Olupona
African traditional religion refers to the indigenous or autochthonous religions of the African people. It deals with their cosmology, ritual practices, symbols, arts, society, and so on. Because religion is a way of life, it relates to culture and society as they affect the worldview of the African people.
Traditional African religions are not stagnant but highly dynamic and constantly reacting to various shifting influences such as old age, modernity, and technological advances.
Traditional African religions are less of faith traditions and more of lived traditions. They are less concerned with doctrines and much more so with rituals, ceremonies, and lived practices.
When addressing religion in Africa, scholars often speak of a “triple heritage,” that is the triple legacy of indigenous religion, Islam, and Christianity that are often found side by side in many African societies.
While those who identify as practitioners of traditional African religions are often in the minority, many who identify as Muslims or Christians are involved in traditional religions to one degree or another.
Though many Africans have converted to Islam and Christianity, these religions still inform the social, economic, and political life in African societies.
Traditional African religions have gone global! The Trans-Atlantic slave trade led to the growth of African-inspired traditions in the Americas such as Candomblé in Brazil, Santería in Cuba, or Vodun in Haïti. Furthermore, many in places like the US and the UK have converted to various traditional African religions, and the importance of the diaspora for these religions is growing rapidly. African religions have also become a major attraction for those in the diaspora who travel to Africa on pilgrimages because of the global reach of these traditions.
There are quite a number of revival groups and movements whose main aim is to ensure that the tenants and practice of African indigenous religion that are threatened survive. These can be found all over the Americas and Europe.
The concerns for health, wealth, and procreation are very central to the core of African religions. That is why they have developed institutions for healing, for commerce, and for the general well-being of their own practitioners and adherents of other religions as well.
Indigenous African religions are not based on conversion like Islam and Christianity. They tend to propagate peaceful coexistence, and they promote good relations with members of other religious traditions that surround them.
Today as a minority tradition, it has suffered immensely from human rights abuses. This is based on misconceptions that these religions are antithetical to modernity. Indeed indigenous African religions have provided the blueprint for robust conversations and thinking about community relations, interfaith dialogue, civil society, and civil religion.
Women play a key role in the practice of these traditions, and the internal gender relations and dynamics are very profound. There are many female goddesses along with their male counterparts. There are female priestesses, diviners, and other figures, and many feminist scholars have drawn from these traditions to advocate for women’s rights and the place of the feminine in African societies. The traditional approach of indigenous African religions to gender is one of complementarity in which a confluence of male and female forces must operate in harmony.
Indigenous African religions contain a great deal of wisdom and insight on how human beings can best live within and interact with the environment. Given our current impending ecological crisis, indigenous African religions have a great deal to offer both African countries and the world at large.
African indigenous religions provide strong linkages between the life of humans and the world of the ancestors. Humans are thus able to maintain constant and symbiotic relations with their ancestors who are understood to be intimately concerned and involved in their descendants’ everyday affairs.
Unlike other world religions that have written scriptures, oral sources form the core of indigenous African religions. These oral sources are intricately interwoven into arts, political and social structure, and material culture. The oral nature of these traditions allows for a great deal of adaptability and variation within and between indigenous African religions. At the same time, forms of orature – such as the Ifa tradition amongst the Yoruba can form important sources for understanding the tenants and worldview of these religions that can serve as analogs to scriptures such as the Bible or the Qur’an.
Jacob K. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School, with a joint appointment as Professor of African and African American Studies in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. A noted scholar of indigenous African religions, his books include African Religions: A Very Short Introduction, City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination, Òrìsà Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yorùbá Religious Culture, co-edited with Terry Rey, and Kingship, Religion, and Rituals in a Nigerian Community: A Phenomenological Study of Ondo Yoruba Festivals. In 2007, he was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit, one of Nigeria’s most prestigious honors.
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Image Credit: A map of the Africa, showing the major religions distributed as of today. Map shows only the religion as a whole excluding denominations or sects of the religions, and is colored by how the religions are distributed not by main religion of country etc. By T.L. Miles via Wikimedia Commons via the Public Domain.
Recent events in Iraq, as the militant group ISIS (or ISIL) strives to establish an Islamic state in the country that threatens to undo everything that western involvement achieved there after 9/11, illustrates well the volatility of the entire region and the interplay of religion and politics. Sunnis who felt cast aside to the periphery of political affairs by the Shiite government are rallying to ISIS. American-trained Iraqi forces (at a cost of several billions of dollars) have proved ineffectual, and who knows if the Iraqi government could fall, and what the country will look like — and be doing — in a year’s or even a matter of months’ time.
For well over a decade we have witnessed Western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly to benefit the wellbeing of the native peoples and in the case of Iraq, to stamp out the exploitive and murderous dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The result was going to be the introduction of democracy for an oppressed nation; the diverse factions and different religious faiths would unite, and ties with the West would thus enter a new (and grateful) phase. But the Iraqi war that Donald Rumsfeld confidently asserted would take only six weeks and certainly not more than six months took far longer than that and cost an inexcusable number of lives. And the strategies to what might be called nation building failed miserably. The last few weeks are proving that. The campaign in Afghanistan likewise hasn’t met its objectives. Taliban influence remains strong and even growing, and as the death count for military and civilian personnel bloodily grew, people realized Afghanistan was the unwinnable war. So the question is inevitable: will Afghanistan go the way of Iraq as well?
There is a lot to be said for the phrase “history repeats itself,” and a lot of lessons to be learned from history. Although analogies have sometimes been made to the earlier and unsuccessful British and Russian involvement in Afghanistan, Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the former Persian Empire and Central Asia over two millennia ago need to be studied more. He was the first western conqueror in the east, and the problems he faced in dealing with a diverse subject population and the strategies he took to what might be called nation building shed light on contemporary events in culturally dissimilar regions of today’s world.
The Macedonian empire of the later fourth century BC was the largest empire in antiquity before the Roman, stretching from Greece to India (present-day Pakistan) including Syria, the Levantine coast, and Egypt. Yet it took less than 40 years to form thanks to Philip II of Macedonia and especially his son Alexander (the Great). Alexander’s conquests in Asia opened up economic and cultural contacts, spread Greek culture, and made the Greeks aware that they were part of a world far bigger than the Mediterranean. When Alexander crossed the Hellespont in spring 334 and landed on Asian soil he had a clear strategy in mind: to replace the Persian Empire with one of his own. A decade later in some spectacular battles and sieges against numerically greater foes, he had done just that. In 323 he was all set to invade Arabia when he died, just short of his 33rd birthday, at Babylon.
Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
But as Alexander discovered to his detriment, and as makers of modern strategy know all too well, defeated in battle doesn’t mean conquered. Moreover, he hadn’t anticipated how he was going to rule a large and culturally diverse subject population, whose religious beliefs and social customs weren’t always understood by the invaders and even disregarded. When the last Great King of Persia, Darius III, was murdered, Alexander faced a dilemma: how to rule? There had never been a Macedonian king who was also ruler of Persia before. Alexander had to learn what to do on his feet, without a rulebook or foreign policy experts.
He couldn’t proclaim himself Great King as that would create stiff opposition from his men, who wanted only a traditional Macedonian warrior king. So he opted for a new title, King of Asia, and even a new style of dress, a combination of Macedonian and Persian clothing. In doing so he pleased no one — his men thought he had gone too far and the Persians not enough. Alexander also didn’t grasp — or didn’t bother about — the personal connection between the Zoroastrian God of Light, Ahura Mazda, and the Great Kings, whose right to rule was anchored in that connection. The religious significance of the great Persian palace centers were disregarded by the westerners, who saw them only as seats of power and home to vast treasuries. Then in what is now Afghanistan, Alexander banned the Bactrians’ custom of putting out their elderly and infirm to be eaten alive by dogs kept for this purpose. A barbaric practice to us, for sure, but another instance of high-handedness and imposition of western morality in a foreign land.
It is little wonder that Alexander was always seen as the invader, that his attempts to integrate his various subject peoples into his army and administration failed, and that “conquered” areas such as India and Afghanistan revolted as soon as he left so they could go back to how things used to be. Unwinnable wars indeed, then and now. Alexander’s dilemma of West meeting East set a pattern for history. He unashamedly set out to rule a great empire by force, and failed. Today, the West might embroil itself elsewhere to help spread democracy, but those best intentions can fall apart without understanding the peoples with whom you’re dealing. The problems Alexander faced in dealing with a multi-cultural subject population arguably can inform makers of strategy in culturally different regions of today’s world. But at the end of the day politics and religion are so tightly interwoven and misunderstood, and animosity towards the invader, be it Alexander then or the West now, so great, that for anyone from the West to talk of imposing stability and a new order is hubris. Iraq now is proving that, no different from the Persian Empire to outside rule two millennia ago.