The use and abuse of the ‘Islamic State’

While the beheading of US photo journalist James Foley has rightly drawn global attention to the violence of Salafi jihadi groups, the successes of the Islamic State (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS) are being exploited by various actors to score political points.   Continue reading The use and abuse of the ‘Islamic State’

The Islamic State and Saudi Arabia: Further Thoughts

The Islamic State movement is a crude caricature of what its leaders think an Islamic state was and should be. Its latest violent spectacular – throwing Christians out of Mosul – is as contrary to the general tenor of inter-faith relations in the classical period of Islam, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, as destroying non-orthodox Sunni places of worship. Those Islamic states made huge use of their large Christian populations, for one as translators of Greek thought and medicine. Periods of enforced orthodoxy were rare – the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun’s “inquisition” (al-mihna) of the religious scholars to oblige their adoption of Mutazila school’s theory of the Quran is the most obvious. In earlier periods there is even evidence that the Islamic states did not favour conversion of the largely Christian and Zoroastrian populations they had conquered, because the religion was for a period conceived of as an Arab patrimony and because the state wanted its jizya tax from non-Muslims. If we look at enforced covering of women and mass head-chopping there is similarly no indication of it as a defining feature of the caliphate. Continue reading The Islamic State and Saudi Arabia: Further Thoughts

The new caliphate: what it does and doesn’t mean

First published by European Council on Foreign Relations

The word “caliphate” sends many into paroxysms of horrified excitement. Following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Arab calques liked to raise the bogeyman of this demonic political institution which Egyptian presidential candidate for the Brotherhood’s eminence grise Khairat al-Shater and Ennahda leader Mohammed al-Ghannouchi allegedly sought to establish. The main proof in the case seemed to be little more than that the Brotherhood was established a few years after the Turkish republic abolished the office of caliph in 1924, plus a lot of paranoia. No one really asked what “establishing a caliphate” would mean in practice. Mainstream media have avoided shedding much light, beyond telling us that it is a “medieval” entity. Given that the first caliphate was established around 623 CE and the last one ended less than a century back, we can safely say that this is useless information. Continue reading The new caliphate: what it does and doesn’t mean

Not Time To Declare ‘Sykes-Picot’ Dead Just Yet

The words ‘Sykes-Picot’ must have been bandied around more than at any time since 1916 over the past few months. The sense that the region is in the midst of a reshaping of borders, identities, nationalities has been evolving since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the blatant appeal to sectarianism by the occupying powers. That shouldn’t be a surprise because foreign powers, anywhere, have always played the policy of divide-and-rule. That’s what Sykes-Picot, with its spheres of British and French interests – was all about. The Middle East subsequently featured areas of British and American influence in the Gulf, Russian interest in a range of states including Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq et al. with varying degrees of longevity, and the establishment of a Jewish settler state in Palestine. None of that was part-and-parcel of the Sykes-Picot arrangement per se, but it still accorded with the general principles. Continue reading Not Time To Declare ‘Sykes-Picot’ Dead Just Yet

Homogenising the Middle East

The destruction of a synagogue in Damascus is the latest manifestation of a fundamental, and troubling, shift going on in the Middle East. The Jobar Synagogue, thought to be 2,000 years old, was looted and burned to the ground. Both the government and the Islamist-dominated rebels are denying they were behind it, but either way the incident appears to have been a deliberate act. It’s not the first time historical sites have been damaged in the suicidal violence of the Syrian civil war, nor the first time that minorities have been targetted. Continue reading Homogenising the Middle East