War on a New Planet: Reimagining Conflict and Leadership in the Time of ISIS

by Ali Minai

Network1The terrible terrorist attacks by ISIS in Paris on November 13 have understandably generated a great surge of opinion and analysis – some of it insightful and some just opportunistic. It is precisely at times like these that the volume of immediate response threatens to obscure deeper issues, and for a problem as deep as the threat of jihadi extremism, this is truly dangerous. While people are still reeling from the actual attacks and decision-makers are reaching for the most obvious – and frequently bad – choices, it is critical that policy-makers move towards a more realistic understanding of the conflict they face, and not make things worse than they are. Of course, history suggests that this likely to be a vain hope – especially since the proper course is far from clear. This motivation behind this article is not to prescribe specific actions, but to provide a general perspective that may trigger further thinking.

Following the Paris attacks, President Hollande of France declared, “France is at war!” Similar pronouncements have been made by world leaders, analysts and pundits since 9/11. Some see the conflict with jihadi terrorists as a “clash of civilizations”; others as a “battle of ideas”, pitting modern liberal democracy against a regressive ideology. Yet others have declared it to be a “battle for the soul of Islam.” Those wedded to conventional geopolitics see it in terms of military engagements, covert operations and counterinsurgency. There is some element of truth to all these characterizations, but only in the sense that the five blind men of India had some part of the truth about the elephant. What has remained largely unacknowledged is the terrible truth that this is the first war of its kind – a brand new thing never before seen in history, and therefore one for which there is no prior wisdom. It is the first great conflict of the age of globalization, and its phenomenology reflects that of a complex, nonlinear, self-organizing networked world. To make an imperfect analogy, it is to ordinary warfare what quantum physics is to Newtonian physics. It is a war where things don't add up normally, where distant events can be strangely entangled, where common sense may be a liability, and where the very geometry of comprehension is distorted.

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The Spectre of History: Thoughts on an Islamic Reformation

by Ali Minai

KoranThe call for an “Islamic reformation” is ringing out across the world in response to the rise of jihadi militant groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, asking “Where is the Muslim Luther“? In the many opinion pieces and outright prescriptions gracing the pages of magazines, newspapers and blogs, one hears a clear message of “reform or die!” Given the menace posed by Muslim militant groups, this is neither surprising nor unreasonable. But is it really useful to think in terms of reforming the religion of Islam?

This article argues that seeking a religious reformation in Islam is neither feasible nor especially useful as a strategy for countering the current rise of Islamic militancy. While this militancy undoubtedly draws upon Islamic beliefs, groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are emergent products of an underlying societal attitude, and until that attitude changes, such groups will continue to arise. Of course, it is critical to fight today's particular militants with every available tactic, but it is even more important to understand why such groups emerge and persist in Muslim societies today, and how this dynamic can be changed.

Proponents of “Islamic reformation” have often invoked the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe as an example of the radical change that's needed in Islam today. But as perceptive commentators have pointed out, this argument is fatally flawed: An illiberal and puritanical movement directed at a specific institution – the Roman Catholic Church – is a poor model for reforming an illiberal and puritanical system with no institutionalized clergy. Ultimately, the possibilities for change in Islam are constrained by its historical nature. More than an organized religion, it is a normative ideology defined implicitly by the attitudes of believers towards sacred texts and personages. Unlike Christianity, which is mainly about doctrine, Islam is mostly about history – past and future, personal and universal.

Through its first three centuries, Christianity was a faith without temporal power. This is reflected in the New Testament, which focuses almost entirely on spiritual, ethical and doctrinal matters. When Christianity finally achieved power under Constantine, it necessarily institutionalized a distinction, though not yet a separation, between Church and State – a recognition that God had His domain and Caesar had his, albeit with God's sanction. Notwithstanding the active participation of the Church in politics for centuries thereafter, the formal aim of Christianity has always been to shape souls, with personal Redemption and Salvation as core ideas. In contrast, Islam acquired temporal power during its earliest period, and developed a strong vision of itself, not only as the basis of individual piety, but also as the shaper of history and an organizer of societies.

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ISIS and Islam: Beyond the Dream

by Omar Ali

A few days ago, Graeme Wood wrote a piece in the Atlantic that has generated a lot of buzz (and controversy). In this article he noted that:

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam”

The article is well worth reading and it certainly does not label all Muslims as closet (or open) ISIS supporters, but it does emphasize that many of the actions of ISIS have support in classical Islamic texts (and not just in fringe Kharijite opinion). This has led to accusations of Islamophobia and critics have been quick to respond. A widely cited response in “Think Progress” quotes Graeme Wood's own primary source (Princeton scholar Bernard Hakykel) as saying:

“I think that ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.”

Indeed. Who could possibly disagree with that? I dont think Graeme Wood disagrees. In fact, he explicitly says he does not. But that statement is a beginning, not a conclusion. What contingent factors and what historical events are important and which ones are a complete distraction from the issue at hand?

Every commentator has his or her (implicit, occasionally explicit) “priors” that determine what gets attention and from what angle; and a lot of confusion clearly comes from a failure to explain (or to grasp) the background assumptions of each analyst. I thought I would put together a post that outlines some of my own background assumptions and arguments in as simple a form as possible and see where it leads. So here, in no particular order, are some random comments about Islam, terrorism and ISIS that I hope will, at a minimum, help me put my own thoughts in order. Without further ado:

1. The early history of Islam is, among other things, the history of a remarkably successful imperium. Like any empire, it was created by conquest. The immediate successors of the prophet launched a war of conquest whose extent and rapidity matched that of the Mongols and the Alexandrian Greeks, and whose successful consolidation, long historical life, and development of an Arabized culture, far outshone the achievements of the Mongols or the Manchus (both of whom adopted the existing deeper rooted religions and cultures of their conquered people rather than impose or develop their own).

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Ebola And America, A Nation Of Hysterical Wimps

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

ImagesWhat is it about Ebola and America? We have fewer cases than you can count on one hand of this horrible disease, among a nation of 300 million plus, and we're freaking out as if ISIS has landed and beheaded everyone in Congress (not a bad idea, actually, they'd be doing us all a favor).

And now our President has gone and appointed an Ebola czar. What is this new Czar supposed to do? Go and comfort the families of the one dead from Ebola and the couple of others now in hospital? Big job. Jeez, why is our President acting like a scare-mongered wimp himself? He is supposed to be the grownup in the room. One would expect him to say something like this:

“My dear Americans,

Take a chill pill. Ebola is not a threat to our nation. The Republican Party is a bigger threat, the way they stand against raising the minimum wage for our folks who need to get food stamps even though they're working all day. Why do Americans who actually work have to earn so little that they can't even feed themselves? And why are we subsidizing Walmart and McDonalds who pay their employees so little they need food stamps? Walmart is costing you over $6 billion a year out of your taxes you pay in public assistance to their employees. Ebola is the least of our problems. Ignore it. I do. No need to act like a bunch of hysterical wimps. Let the GOP do that. They're good at being wimps. It's the other side of their coin. They act like wimps because they're bullies. So why don't you go out in November and vote against them? I need Congress back on my side so we can actually make some laws that will benefit the American people.”

But no. Obama, unprincipled politician that he is, has his finger to the wee fart of any slight political breeze, and he now appoints an Ebola czar so people will think he's doing something about something that's actually not worth a president's attention, or any American's.

But that's how Obama rolls. He has now decided he needs to degrade ISIS, because they beheaded some folks, and we Americans, hysterical wimps that we are, are all upset about it.

What Obama forgets is that everyone in the Middle East loves ISIS. Turkey loves them because ISIS kills Kurds. Assad loves them because they make even him look good. Israel loves them because they make the Arabs look like barbarians. Shia-dominated Iraq loves them because they give the Shia a good reason to kill more Sunnis. Iran loves them because their success makes Iraq more dependent on Iran. Saudi-Arabia loves them because they kill Shias. ISIS is exactly what the Middle East needs, and for us to degrade them, is exactly what the Middle East doesn't need.

To quote Obama, for us to take on ISIS is getting involved in a “dumb war.” We could be using ISIS to buy cheaper oil from them, which is the best way we have of taking advantage of their existence. That would be proper realpolitik.

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