New Forms of Religion and Conflict in the Middle East

Sunset prayers at Tahrir Square. photo from flick.com/Hossam el-Hamalawy

New Forms of Religion and Conflict in the Middle East

The horrible images of ISIS operatives in Iraq and Syria engaged in savage acts of terrorism and beheadings have erased the recent memory of the optimism of the Arab Spring. Yet the group that calls itself the “Islamic State” has in its own perverse way capitalized on the populist politics of the Arab Spring movements. It is not just al-Qaida warmed over. And the impact of the Arab Spring has not gone away.

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 10.57.16 AMThe Arab Spring was a game changer in the protest politics of the Middle East. Before the protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo that toppled the Mubarak regime in 2011, many Muslim activists were convinced that violent resistance was the only strategy that would work against such a hardened dictator. They imagined that acts of terrorism — against the regime and against the “far enemy” of America that they believed was propping up the Mubarak system — would eventually lead to a huge revolt that would end the dictatorship. They also thought that only the jihadi ideology of cosmic warfare — based on Muslim history and Qur’anic verses — provided moral legitimacy for the struggle. Ideologists such as Abd al-Salam Farad and Ayman al-Zawahri wrote as if violent struggle — including ruthless attacks of terrorism on civilian populations — was the only form of struggle advocated by Islam.

But the Arab Spring showed that there were other options for protesting and other ways of conceiving political opposition. The dramatic popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria all began as nonviolent demonstrations. Many did not stay that way, alas, as bloody attempts to repress them led in some instances to civil war. Yet compared with small cadres of terrorists, these popular uprisings — even those that have turned violent — have been far more effective, and have been supported with a wider moral and spiritual consensus.

People power flexed their muscle in the Middle East. What brought down the old regimes in Egypt and Tunisia was about as far from violent jihad as one could imagine. The crowds that poured into Tahrir Square and similar loci of uprising were largely middle class and relatively young professionals who organized their protests through Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. No doubt the passivity of the Egyptian military was also a critical factor; the army largely did not forcibly resist the protests, as the military did in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria. But in general, these were Twitter rebellions. Perhaps not since the peaceful overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines has the world seen such a dramatic demonstration of the power of nonviolent resistance. The protests were not weapons of violent jihad, nor were the voices of opposition the strident language of Islamist extremism.

The legacy of Tahrir Square

What was significant about the Arab Spring was not just the numbers of people who were involved in the popular uprisings, but also the moral momentum of the protests. In Tahrir Square, there was also a religious element. Partly this was a matter of timing. The largest crowds could gather after Friday Prayer. But in many cases they were exhorted to do so by sympathetic imams who urged the faithful to join the protest as a religious duty. But theirs was not the divisive, hateful voice of extremist jihadi rhetoric. In a remarkable moment when Mubarak’s thugs tried to attack Muslim protesters praying in the square, a cordon of Coptic Christians who had joined the protests circled around their Muslim compatriots, shielding them. Later a phalanx of Muslim protesters protected their Christian comrades as they worshipped in the public square, an urban intersection that was, for that time, transformed into a huge interfaith sanctuary.

The Arab Spring movement was not overtly religious in the way that the jihadi movements have pretended to be. Yet many Muslims regard this spirit of nonviolent protest as being more true to the faith than the strident messages of violent activists. Rather than separating Muslim from non-Muslim, and Sunni from Shi’a, the symbols that were raised on impromptu placards in Tahrir Square were emblems of interfaith cooperation. In my own visits to Tahrir Square during the 2011 demonstrations, I saw the cross of Coptic Christians displayed together with the Muslim crescent, an expression of a united religious front against autocracy.

Events throughout the Middle East since have shown that the new politics of mass protest have not replaced other means. The radical struggles of jihad have not fizzled into history. In 2014, the world looked on with astonishment as ISIS extremists poured over the border from Syria to Iraq, where they seized huge swaths of land. The rise of radical movements in the North African countries of Mali, Nigeria and Algeria also demonstrates that extremist Muslim ideologies have not been abandoned. In Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, the small group that forms the inner circle of al-Qaida has hardened its resolve. Like followers of millenarian movements who become more extreme and entrenched in their beliefs when their prophecies of the end of the world are not fulfilled on schedule, true believers of the jihadi militancy associated with movements like al-Qaida soldier on. They have become more extreme in their rhetoric, more desperate in using acts of terrorism to draw attention to themselves and to their increasingly impossible view of the world. Yet the inner circle of groups like al-Qaida and ISIS has never been large, and their organizations — though capable of carrying out horrible acts of terrorism — have never been consistent and widespread threats.

So although particular movements such as al-Qaida and ISIS may wane over time, the fate of the global jihadi ideology — or rather the worldview of cosmic war that the jihadi rhetoric promotes — is a different matter. This view of the world as a tangle of sacred warfare has been an exciting and alluring image among a large number of mostly young and male activists in different parts of the world, in Christian, Jewish and Buddhist societies as well as Muslims ones, since before the turn of the 21st century. It is an image that was brought to dramatic attention by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and stimulated by the perception that American military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were wars against Islam. The vision of sacred warfare has been propagated through the Internet, through postings on chat rooms and dissemination on YouTube of videos showing the terrible deeds of the enemy and calling on the faithful to respond. Images of warfare provide the moral justification for sporadic terrorist attacks by linking real acts of violence in the world with the divine struggle between the forces of good and evil, order and disorder, that lies within the mythology and symbolism of every religious tradition. And the idea of cosmic war provides a strategic legitimization of violence by the implicit promise — as a leader of Hamas once told me — that if one is fighting God’s war, one can never lose. God always wins.

Yet, as Tahrir Square showed, God does not have to win in the terrorist ways that jihadi warriors have imagined. In a couple of weeks of protests, peaceful resisters demonstrated the moral and strategic legitimacy of nonviolent struggle, succeeding where years of jihadi bloodshed had not produced a single political change. This is a profound anti-jihadi lesson, and the significance of Tahrir Square quickly spread around the world, from the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York to protest movements in Ukraine’s Independence Square. The rise of a new nonviolent popularism in the Middle East may seriously undercut the viability of the jihadi vision of violent social change.

On the other hand, a significant number of failures of nonviolent resistance have led to a violent backlash. Not all protests have ended like those in Tunisia and Egypt, and even in Egypt, the new government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, like Morsi before him, whose presidency ended in a military coup, has itself become a target of protest and attack. Others were ruthlessly crushed, including the Green Revolution in Iran and the Bahrain uprising in 2011. A few would claim victory only after nonviolent protest turned to bloody civil war, as it did in Libya. Failure of nonviolent revolution has, in the past, been the occasion for renewed acts of violence. So jihadi warriors again have had their day.

But Tahrir Square has become ingrained in the pattern of activist struggles in two ways that are as significant for states considering counterterrorism measures as well as for activists themselves. First, Tahrir is further proof that autocratic regimes can collapse. The sudden fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, and more recently, the collapse of the Russian-supported regime in Ukraine, show that political leaders and even iron-clad tyrants are not as invulnerable as they may appear.

Sunset prayers at Tahrir Square.  photo from flick.com/Hossam el-Hamalawy

Sunset prayers at Tahrir Square. photo from flick.com/Hossam el-Hamalawy

Second, Tahrir has shown that power can be released through popular uprisings. From the Occupy movement in the United States and Europe to the rebellion in Ukraine, activists around the world are remembering that individuals can have a voice and make a difference. These antiauthoritarian, decentralized tendencies are good news and bad news for groups like ISIS. On the one hand, extremists like the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, can try to exploit these sentiments and make it appear as if they are the appropriate channels for popular uprisings. On the other hand, this popularism is difficult to control and the masses are not very comfortable with the heavy-handed authoritarianism that is the usual organizational pattern of groups in the tradition of al-Qaida. Already in places like Mosul and Kirkuk, there are Iraqi Sunnis who have grown weary of ISIS’ rule by terror and demagoguery, and it is questionable how long it can survive as a coherent regime.

For these reasons, officials and concerned citizens who want to counter this extremism also have new ways to encourage the nonviolent and creative side of antiauthoritarianism, and quell the violent and destructive side. The old method of using massive military power to challenge the leadership of extremist groups may not work. Though military intervention in the short run might be essential to save lives, it could be counterproductive in the long run. It could provide a recruiting tool for publicity purposes, and create the image of a militant enemy against which the troops can be rallied. More effective counter-extremist methods would respond to popular support for resistance movements. Political solutions might be effective, such as helping to find a democratic alternative for opposition to autocratic rule and a role for disaffected communities such as Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq.

Religious-related activism has evolved in recent years, even as it continues to be a significant dimension of public life. It can enunciate a strident message but it can also articulate the need for acceptance and hope. The new forces of popularism with which religion is associated can move in many ways, for after Tahrir Square, public activism has not been the same.

Echoes of Arab Spring in ISIS

To understand how ISIS has capitalized on the popularism of the Arab Spring, it is important to remind ourselves how the movement came to power in the first place. Though its members are extremists and are portrayed in Western media as crazy bloodthirsty fanatics, that alone would not have allowed them to ascend to the heights of power they have now attained.

ISIS has wooed moderate Sunni supporters to its side in Syria and Iraq. According to an insightful article by Graeme Wood in The New Republic, ISIS supporters are one of three types — psychopaths, believers and pragmatists. The psychopaths and believers are largely recruited from outside the region. The cruel executioner in the videos of the beheadings of Westerners is likely a British citizen lured to the region as a soldier of fortune in a grand imagined war.

The pragmatists in ISIS ranks are local Sunni Arabs from Syria and Iraq who see the movement as their best hope for getting ahead. In both countries, Sunnis have regarded themselves as oppressed by Shi’a political leaders — Nouri al Maliki in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In both cases, the large Sunni populations had lost hope that they would ever be treated as more than second-class citizens.

This is where ISIS entered the picture. In Syria, it rescued a failing Arab Spring Sunni insurgency against Assad’s Shi’a Alawite regime. In Iraq, it employed former army personnel and government administrators from the days of Saddam Hussein in creating its own perverse version of an Arab Spring. In both cases, it gave Sunnis hope and a role to play in public life.

But unlike the psychopaths and believers among ISIS’ ranks, these pragmatist Sunnis could easily get tired of an ISIS regime run on beheadings, rigid social restrictions and strident ideology. They could turn away from the extremists if they were given a chance to become equals in Syria and Iraq.

This is exactly what happened in 2008 during the Awakening — a period in the United States’ occupation of Iraq in which Gen. David H. Petraeus called for a surge of American troops in the city of Baghdad to maintain order, while decreasing forces in the Sunni areas of Western Iraq where they had become an irritant and had driven young Sunni men into the hands of al-Qaida in Iraq — the predecessor of ISIS. With money and weapons from the United States, Sunni leadership turned away from al-Qaida, and then turned on them with a vengeance, effectively keeping al-Qaida out of the spotlight — until 2014.

Once again Sunnis have been lured by al-Qaida-style jihadi activists, now under the banner of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIL, since al Sham can be translated as Levant, the old name for greater Syria). More recently, in a fit of megalomania, it has called itself the Islamic State, as if there could be only one, but it does give a role to local Sunni leaders. Once again, a sense of alienation and disaffection has driven Sunnis into extremists’ hands.

Could these moderate Sunnis, the pragmatists in Wood’s words, be lured back as they were during the Awakening in 2008? That depends to a large measure on what happens in Damascus and Baghdad, whether the Shi’a governments there are open to shared governance. In other words, the solution to ISIS is the fulfillment of the vision begun by the Arab Spring.

What does religion have to do with it?

The appearance of ISIS and the bloody images of its beheadings that have circulated online have given rise to renewed Islamophobia in Europe and the United States. Yet President Barack Obama has said that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. And there is some truth to both assertions.

ISIS is a radical movement but remains a fragile coalition of groups and interests held together by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Despite his name, al-Baghdadi comes from the Iraqi city of Samarra and was previously a key figure in al-Qaida in Iraq before it was quelled by the Awakening movement.

Then the group returned, center stage. Al-Baghdadi merged the jihadi Nusra movement in Syria with his Iraq group, a move that Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s leader, protested. Angered, al-Baghdadi dropped the name “al-Qaida” and ISIS was born. In a blitzkrieg, the militant forces of ISIS spread out from eastern Syria, where they were well entrenched, to the Sunni-dominated areas of western Iraq, even conquering Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which they plundered for its wealth and military armament.

It is fair to describe ISIS as a terrorist regime, since it uses extreme acts of violence to intimidate its enemies and its own population. The beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers that were posted online were matched by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar beheadings of recalcitrant Sunnis under ISIS’ own control who refused to go along with its demands or people who dared to be identified as Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, or as modern people who liked to dress in a Western style. For ISIS, terror has been an instrument of governance.

A view of the Muslim Quarter from the Church of the Redeemer.  Flickr.com/Ariela Ross

A view of the Muslim Quarter from the Church of the Redeemer. Flickr.com/Ariela Ross

Yet it is governing. Though its state is not recognized by any other government and is despicable in its actions, the region under its control is administered as a state. According to some reports from Mosul, the city is better managed than it was before, largely because former Baath Party members and officers in Saddam Hussein’s army who had been denied employment by the Shi’a dominated government in Baghdad now had the opportunity to return to work and run the city efficiently. So despite our reluctance to honor it with the term “state,” ISIS is operating a kind of state.

Much the same can be said about calling it “Islamic.” Muslims around the world have risen up to protest against what they describe as the non-Muslim attitudes and actions of ISIS. Iyad Ameen Madani, the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group that represents 57 countries and 1.5 billion Muslims, said ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam and its principles.” Similar denunciations have been made by leading Muslim clergy from around the world including Egypt and Turkey.

Still, leaders of ISIS claim Muslim authority for their actions, strict Shari’a law as the basis of their jurisprudence and the promise of salvation for those recruited into its ranks. As I mentioned earlier, ISIS’ core supporters are an uneasy coalition of three groups: psychopaths, believers and pragmatists. The pragmatists are largely from Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq who have been disenfranchised by the Shi’a regimes in Damascus and Baghdad. The psychopaths and believers are often foreigners, some are Muslim youth from Britain, the United States, and other Western countries, including the executioner in the YouTube videos of the beheadings. One suspect is a 23-year-old former rap singer from West London.

The psychopaths and believers, young men lured by the thrill of battle, come with a variety of motives. Perhaps the strongest is the desire to be involved in a great war, a cosmic struggle that allows them to play out all their computer game fantasies of warcraft, valor and gore. But some also come out of a sense of extreme piety, a conviction that they are laying their lives on the line for their faith.

Al-Baghdadi’s credentials give some credibility to this religious appeal. He has a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and knows the scriptures and tradition of Islam better than most jihadi activists. Osama bin Laden had no religious credentials, and though he pretended to be an engineer, his college training was in business management. Ayman al-Zawahri was a medical doctor. Al-Baghdadi’s predecessor in leading al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was a street thug from Jordan. So by contrast, al-Baghdadi looks fairly credible.

His credentials do not make the movement Islamic, however. Nor does the Islamic whitewashing of the regime’s terrorist actions and cruel restrictions make it Muslim. The judgment is in the eye of the beholder. And to most Muslims, ISIS represents the antipathy of the faith.

Of course, much the same can be said of extremist movements in every religious tradition. In Christianity, the actions of Timothy McVeigh in bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and Anders Behring Breivik in attacking the youth camp in Utoya and others in Oslo were regarded by many Christians as alien to their faith, even though the literature related to both McVeigh and Breivik were all about preserving Christendom from the rabble of minorities and multiculturalism. Among Jews, most decried the extreme anti-Arab rantings of Rabbi Meir Kahane as un-Jewish. Many Japanese proclaimed that Shoko Asahara, the Buddhist master behind the release of deadly sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subways, was not really a Buddhist. Many Muslims around the world were convinced that the Sept. 11 attacks were not carried out by Muslims but by some conspiratorial cabal involving the CIA and Israeli secret police, since no Muslim could possibly do such a thing.

Yet some Muslims — and some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs — do bad things. And sometimes they do them in the name of their religion. This is the dark side of all religious traditions, and though it is difficult to accept, it is impossible to avoid. To accept the significance of the religious imagination is to accept all aspects of it, positive and negative, peaceful and violent. As much as we might despise what ISIS is and what it stands for, ultimately we have to make sense of it within the tradition of faiths.

Symbolic empowerment

Images of religion continue to be exploited by those who seek to cloak their venal political goals in religious garb, and they continue to provide the illusion of importance and a sense of power to pretentious activists. This is not just the case in Islam, but in every religious tradition, as Karen Armstrong convincingly shows in her new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Why is this so? Why do religious symbols convey an experience of empowerment and why is this experience so often related to violence?

Understanding the role of religion in providing a sense of empowerment might help to explain what may appear to be some of the more puzzling features of modern acts of terrorism and religious violence: assaults by extremist groups on opponents who are infinitely better armed. These attacks — including suicide missions by ardent followers of a desperate cause — seem destined to fail. It is hard to take seriously the notion that these are rational efforts to achieve power, at least by ordinary calculations. Yet to those undertaking them, there may be something exhilarating, perhaps even rewarding, about the struggle itself. This sense of empowerment may make the effort seem worthwhile. It can also, at times, lead to real political change.

“To die in this way” — through suicide bombings, the political head of the Hamas movement Abdul Aziz Rantisi, told me some years ago — “is better than to die daily in frustration and humiliation.” He went on to say that, in his view, the very nature of Islam is to defend “dignity, land and honor.” He then related a story that the Prophet Muhammad had told about a woman who fasted daily, yet was doomed to hell because she humiliated her neighbors. The point of the story, Rantisi said, is that dishonoring someone is the worst act that one can do, and the only thing that can counter it is dignity — the honor provided by religion and the courage of being a defender of the faith. In a curious way, then, both religion and violence are seen as antidotes to humiliation.

Countering dishonor with piety and struggle is a theme that runs through many incidents of contemporary religious violence. Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist in Israel, felt compelled to kill innocent Muslims in the shrine of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron because he felt Jews had been dishonored. Sikh militants were so angered the Indian government ignored them that they turned to violence to force it to take them seriously. Shoko Asahara, leader of the Buddhist new religious movement who ordered the nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subways, wanted to be not only “like a king,” as one of his former followers told me, but also “like Christ.” These are all examples of symbolic empowerment related both to religion and violence.

By describing this feeling of strength as “symbolic empowerment,” I do not mean to imply that the empowerment is not real. After all, a sense of power is largely a matter of perception, and in many cases, the power that the activists obtained had a very real impact on their community, relationships and themselves, as well as on the political authorities who feared them and granted them the respect of notoriety. But symbolic expressions of violence are empowering in a special way, for they do not lead to conquests of territory or personnel in the traditional definition of military success. For most of these quixotic fighters, success consisted simply in waging the struggle — the heady confidence they received by being soldiers for a great cause, even if the battles were not won, or were even winnable, in ordinary military terms.

By calling these violent acts “symbolic,” I mean that they are intended to illustrate or to refer to something beyond their immediate target: a grander conquest, for instance, or a struggle more awesome than meets the eye. As Mahmud Abouhalima, the Muslim activist involved in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, told me in an interview in prison, the bombing of a public building may dramatically indicate to the populace that the government or economic forces behind the building are seen as enemies, to show the world that they have been targeted as satanic foes. The point of the attack, then, was to produce a graphic and easily understandable object lesson. Such explosive scenarios are not tactics directed toward an immediate, earthly, or strategic goal but are dramatic events intended to impress through their symbolic significance. As such, they can be analyzed as one would any other symbol, ritual or sacred drama.

Hence, acts of religious violence are about religion as much as they are about violence. They are about religion because religion provides a way of thinking about the world that provides a sense of ultimate order. It takes the messy uncertainties of life, the dangers and the nagging sense of chaos, and gives them meaning. It locates disorder within a triumphant pattern of order. It does this especially effectively in thinking about the most difficult moment of chaos in one’s personal life — in thinking about death.

Religious resurgence in an era of globalization

Because religious ideas, values, symbols and rites relate to deep issues of existence, it should not be a surprise when religion enters the picture in times of crisis. The era of globalization is certainly one of those moments of social crisis, although in this case, one experienced on a global scale. This is why the response has been virtually global as well.

For centuries in Europe, America and other Westernized regions of the world, the nation-state has provided a secure sense of identity, accountability and security for stable societies. The nation-state format was spread throughout the world in the wake of European colonialism and its demise, especially in the era of nation-building in the 20th century. But this vision of social stability and justice was also a fragile one, certain to crash on the shoals of reality as new governments used the instruments of power for personal greed and ethnic privilege. No wonder, then, that a great loss of faith in secular nationalism swept across the world.

This sense that the nation-state had lost its legitimacy became increasingly widespread in the global era. Transnational economic systems undercut national structures of authority and control; new communication networks made instant contact possible across the planet; and huge demographic shifts meant that increasingly anyone could live anywhere, and many did. The idea of a homogenous national cultural identity became a relic of the past.

The era of globalization brought with it three enormous problems. The first was identity, how societies could maintain a sense of homogeneity when ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities were spread across borders, in many cases spread across the world. The second problem was accountability, how the new transnational economic, ideological, political and communication systems could be controlled, regulated and brought to justice. The third problem was one of security, how people buffeted by forces seemingly beyond anyone’s control could feel safe, increasingly without cultural borders or moral standards.

Religion provides answers to all three of these problems. Traditional definitions of “religious community” provide a sense of identity, a feeling of belonging to those who accept that fellowship as primary in their lives. Traditional religious leadership provides a sense of accountability, a certainty that there are moral and legal standards inscribed in code and enforced by present-day leaders who are accorded an unassailable authority. And for these reasons, religion also offers a sense of security, the notion that within the community of the faithful and uplifted by the hands of God, one has found safe harbor and is truly secure.

Critics of religion may observe that all these religious solutions are illusory. It is a sense of identity, accountability and security that religion offers, not solutions that are grounded in an enduring reality. The critics may be correct. But for the moment, the religious imagination provides a way of coping with the extreme problems of globalization. It also gives a motivation for engaging in conflicts related to global pressures and images of cosmic war that enlarge social conflict into the realm of the transcendent and give meaning to those who struggle not just as rebels but as sacred soldiers. To enter into such global conflicts transcends all the complications imposed by the new realities of a globalized era. From the Arab Spring to ISIS, for good or for ill, religion helps to convey new images of alternative ways of being in a changing world.

This piece was first published in the Fall/Winter 2014 print issue of The Islamic Monthly Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 10.38.44 AM

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on