Friday, 1st August 2014

ISIL ‘vision’ is an abuse of history

The picture across the Middle East is somewhat bleak, as GSN heads off for its brief summer break. The conflict in Gaza may be some way from the Gulf, but the brutality of Israel’s assault reverberates across the whole region. Meanwhile in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been making known its aspirations to establish an ‘Islamic Emirate’ in Hadhramaut, presumably inspired by the success of that former Al-Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which now calls itself the ‘Islamic State’, and claims to have established a new caliphate.

The news out of Mosul – which fell to ISIL on 10 June (GSN 972/1) – is grim. ISIL jihadists have begun targeting all those who do not conform to their extreme and distorted interpretation of Islam: according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), ISIL has been killing, kidnapping and threatening Turkmen, Shabaks and Yazidis (at least 200 seized, at least 11 killed), and ordered all Christians to convert to Islam, pay jizya, leave Mosul, or face violent consequences. ISIL thugs moved through Mosul putting marks on minorities’ properties to designate them as Christian, Shia Shabak or Shia Turkmen, HRW said.

Jizya is a sort of poll tax which Muslim leaders historically levied on the non-Muslim populations over whom they ruled, and which was abolished by the Ottomans in the late 19th century. Its revival by ISIL fits into the group’s wider attempts to hark back to an era of Islamic expansion, mostly clearly evidenced in ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, renaming himself Caliph Ibrahim. In a performance at Mosul’s Jamiat Al-Kabeer, which was filmed by an outfit calling itself Al-Furqan media, Al-Baghdadi wore black robes which many have seen as an attempt to conjure up the Abbasids (who were known in the east as ‘the black-robed ones’), that ill-fated caliphate whose power collapsed when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258.

Yet, what ISIL is perpetrating is an abuse of history, taking random facts and using them to feed the delusion of its ruler and the bloodthirstiness of its rank and file. As objectionable as any tax levied on the basis of religious or ethnic affiliation is, it is worth nothing that the jizya was paid by Ahl Al-Dhimma, that is, the people living under the protection of their Muslim rulers. In return, they were guaranteed freedom of worship and security; while those conditions were at times abused by power-hungry rulers, the jizya was not intended to be accompanied by the torching or looting of churches, destruction of religious monuments or terrorising of citizens. Nor have Muslims been spared: ISIL has attacked not only Shiites, but also Sunnis refusing to join its insurgency. The imam of the Grand Mosque Muhammad Al-Mansuri was reportedly executed on 12 June, one known victim among the hundreds of unnamed who have admitted to any form of belief other than ISIL’s.

Baghdadi has no more desire to return to the Middle Ages than he has to give up the flashy watch he displayed while giving his sermon in that very pulpit where Al-Mansuri used to preach. If the Abbasids represented a Golden Age of Islam, it was precisely because they interacted with those who were different, embracing advances in science, art, trade, philosophy, education, medicine. Black might have been the colour of ceremonial garb, but many a caliph was known for his ostentatious, trend-setting robes. It was a culture that at its best looked out, and forwards, and which embraced the melting pot which the Arab conquests had created. For all its pretence at harking back, ISIL’s vision is born of violence and narrow-mindedness, not history.

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