Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Militant Islam - the universal threat

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2014.  Examine what he said, and it is clear that he is in the process of developing a new pragmatic approach to those political problems, emanating from the Middle East, that encompass the Western world.  Will he be able to persuade its leaders of the validity of his vision?

Two main aspects of his concept strike a novel note. 

The first is his use of the term “militant Islam”, not once but many times, and how he explains it.  It is not, he says, militants as such; nor is it Islam.  Militant Islam, he asserts, is a self-defining entity composed of organizations with a common objective which is – and he demonstrates this with chapter and verse – to dominate the world.  Contrasting the support that the UN General Assembly gave President Obama for confronting ISIS, with their opposition to Israel for confronting Hamas, he says: “They evidently don’t understand that ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree. ISIS and Hamas share a fanatical creed, which they both seek to impose well beyond the territory under their control.”

His equating of the self-styled Islamic State with Hamas is not new.  Netanyahu has drawn that parallel several times, even though – so far – it has not met with general acceptance.  Recently the US State Department spokeswoman said there was no comparison.  But Netanyahu makes a stronger case when he defines what he now understands militant Islam to be – groupings of Islamist extremists, no matter what name they give themselves, no matter where they operate, who share a fanatic ideology.

“Boko Haram in Nigeria;  Ash-Shabab in Somalia; Hezbollah in Lebanon; An-Nusrah in Syria; the Mahdi Army in Iraq; the Al-Qaeda branches in Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, India and elsewhere.  Some are radical Sunnis, some are radical Shi'ites. They operate in different lands, they target different victims and they even kill each other in their quest for supremacy. But they all seek to create ever-expanding enclaves of militant Islam,” he asserts, “where there is no freedom and no tolerance – where women are treated as chattel, Christians are decimated, and minorities are subjugated, sometimes given the stark choice: convert or die. For them, anyone can be an infidel, including fellow Muslims.”

Netanyahu draws a comparison between militant Islam’s ambition to dominate the world, with the same global ambition of the Nazis in the mid-twentieth century.

“The Nazis,” he says, “believed in a master race. The militant Islamists believe in a master faith. They just disagree about who among them will be the master of the master faith.”

Will militant Islam have the power to realize its unbridled ambitions?  His answer: Yes, if the world fails to understand that militant Islam encompasses also Iran. 

“For 35 years,” he says, “Iran has relentlessly pursued the global mission which was set forth by its founding ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, in these words: ‘We will export our revolution to the entire world, until the cry "There is no God but Allah" echoes throughout the world…’  And ever since, the regime’s brutal enforcers, Iran's Revolutionary Guards, have done exactly that.”

And now Iran stands on the brink of realising its aim of becoming a nuclear military power.  Netanyahu begs the P5 + 1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), who are negotiating with Iran over control of its nuclear program, not to be “bamboozled” into an agreement that will remove the sanctions it still faces, and leave it with the capacity of thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium.

“It’s one thing to confront militant Islamists on pick-up trucks, armed with Kalashnikov rifles,” says Netanyahu. “It’s another thing to confront militant Islamists armed with weapons of mass destruction.”

“ISIS must be defeated,” he asserts. ”But to defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war.”

That is one of the two strands of innovative thinking that Netanyahu offered the General Assembly. The other was to step onto very thin ice indeed – the concept of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and Islamic State and Iran in particular.

“After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy,” he declared, “leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that, together, we and they face many of the same dangers. Principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership – one that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.”

The ice is thin because, however willing some Arab governments may be to enter into a recognised relationship with Israel, they would find difficulty in carrying popular opinion with them. Netanyahu must understand this, but he soldiers on.

“Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab World. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

To achieve that peace, he asserts, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere. He is, in effect, inviting the active involvement of Arab countries into the peace process. 

This concept he carefully links to his earlier argument.  He points out that Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza created two militant Islamic enclaves on its borders from which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel.

“Israel cannot have territories from which it withdraws taken over by Islamic militants yet again. That would place the likes of ISIS within mortar range – a few miles – of 80% of our population.” 

So any peace between Israel and the Palestinians involving other Arab states must be anchored in mutual recognition and what he calls “rock solid security arrangements on the ground”. Not without reason Netanyahu asserts that today there is a new Middle East presenting new dangers, but also new opportunities. Israel, he maintains, is prepared to work with Arab partners and the international community to confront those dangers and to seize those opportunities.

“Together,” he says, “we must recognize the global threat of militant Islam, the primacy of dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and the indispensable role of Arab states in advancing peace with the Palestinians.”

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 October 2014:

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Distorting Islam

          Writing in the London Daily Telegraph on September 18, Dr Hasanat Husain, a prominent British Muslim, depicts the Islamic State as “composed of people who have vowed to establish a blood-drenched caliphate in which only their distorted version of Islam – a fusion of misogyny, intolerance and mayhem – will hold sway. We have an obligation,” he asserts, “to snatch our faith from the clutches of these killers. These so-called Muslims are damaging Islam and dishonouring the Prophet.”  He calls on Muslims “in particular” to stop IS from the pursuit of its unacceptable objective.

            Dr Husain is surely correct in maintaining that the bloodthirsty activities of IS are damaging Islam certainly so in the eyes of the non-Islamic world.  He does not, however, go quite as far as British prime minister, David Cameron, a few days earlier, in his televised address utterly deploring the beheading by IS of its third victim, aid worker David Haines.  “Islam,” declared Cameron, “is a religion of peace.”

There is a widespread belief that the word “Islam” is derived from “al-Salaam” (which is “peace”).  However, Lissan al-Arab, perhaps the most authoritative lexicon of the Arabic language, states that it is derived from the root verb istaslama, which means 'to submit' or ‘to surrender' (meaning, of course, submission to the will of Allah).

             Cameron’s assertion instantly stirred up a hornets’ nest of comment.  Quoting all sorts of chapters and verses from the Quran and elsewhere, writers fell over each other to maintain that the Muslim religion was nothing of the sort.  Indeed, when Pope Benedict XVI was asked whether Islam could be considered a religion of peace, he refused to respond positively. "It certainly contains elements that can favour peace,” he said. “It also has other elements.  We must always seek the best elements."

            The best elements must surely include the five tenets of Islam which are the foundation of observant Muslim life, and which together constitute the basic religious duties every Muslim must perform.  These are first the declaration of faith (“There is no god but God, and Muhammed is his messenger”); secondly undertaking ritual prayer five times a day; thirdly compulsory alms-giving of at least 2.5 per cent of one’s income; fourthly fasting in the month of Ramadan; and fifthly making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once, if possible.

It is, perhaps, when examining the broader principles underlying the faith that Pope Benedict’s misgivings are revealed.  They are summarised rightly or wrongly by author and film-maker Gregory M Davis, who writes:  “Islamic scholarship divides the world into the House of Islam (i.e., those nations who have submitted to Allah), and the House of War (i.e., those who have not). It is this dispensation that the world lived under in Muhammad’s time and that it lives under today. Then, as now, Islam’s message to the unbelieving world is the same: submit or be conquered.”  Supporting this contention, journalist Melanie Phillips in a recent article wrote: “Millions of Muslims believe that Islam should rule the world, and that jihad is the path to this end. The fact that millions of other Muslims do not believe this does not make it any less of a core Islamic tenet.” 

But for the vast majority of the Muslim world considerations like these are academic, if not arcane.  Most people know that there is ample opportunity in the sources and holy writings of Islam, no less than of Judaism or Christianity, for zealots, extremists or opponents to place their own distorted interpretations on the faith.  William Shakespeare, as ever, puts the case in a nutshell and most felicitously in “The Merchant of Venice”:

                    “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
                      An evil soul producing holy witness
                      Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
                     A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
                    O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

Of course, most Muslims deplore the brutality and violence being perpetrated in the name of their religion by extremists, seeking dominance and power.  These sentiments were expressed with some force in a letter sent to the UK prime minister on September 14 by a coalition of imams and organisations representing British Muslims.

            “Dear Prime Minister,” they begin, “as human beings, we have been sickened by the murders committed by the terror group ISIS.  As Britons, we have been troubled that some young men from our society have been misled into believing that taking part in such hatred and poison would be some kind of adventure.  And, as Muslims we have been appalled that these actions are being undertaken by those who claim to be inspired by our faith, which is a vicious libel on the Islam we believe in.”

They continue: "We do not believe the terror group responsible should be given the credence and standing they seek by styling themselves Islamic State. It is neither Islamic, nor is it a state… we believe the media, civic society and governments should refuse to legitimise these ludicrous caliphate fantasies by accepting or propagating this name. We propose that 'Un-Islamic State' (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternative name to describe this group and its agenda – and we will begin to call it that."

There could be no more unequivocal a rejection of the distorted concept of Islam espoused by IS and other jihadists, both Sunni and Shia, who are making hay while the sun shines on a war-torn Iraq and Syria. 

These leading British Muslims speak also for others in their community.  On September 17 a group of young British Muslims joined the fight back against IS militants with a video and social media campaign which they call Not In My Name. Their intention is to show that IS does not represent the Islamic faith or the Muslim community, and to spread the word that British Muslims reject IS, its ideology and actions that "use Islam to justify evil objectives.”

In the years since the growth of indiscriminate terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, there have been many calls to the Muslim world to take a more proactive stance against those who carry out these acts in the name of Islam.  It has taken the emergence of IS, and its particular forms of brutality, at last to rally moderate and reasonable Muslim opinion against the distortion of their faith.  

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 September 2014:

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The battle for Western values

          At long last the Western world is waking up to the fact that it faces a real and present danger - nothing less than a determined assault on its very existence.  Appeasement is not a practical option. This is an enemy fired up by religious zeal, utterly committed to its unacceptable purposes and not susceptible to discussion or negotiation.  In short, as much as liberal opinion in the civilized world may flinch from the prospect, there is a battle to be fought and won. On Wednesday, September 3 – coincidentally 75 years to the day after Britain declared war on Nazi Germany ­– US President Obama said: “Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL [the self-styled Islamic State(IS)].”

For his part, UK prime minister David Cameron has vowed that IS will "be squeezed out of existence". His remarks, made to a packed House of Commons, appeared to be preparing the ground for a broad coalition to drive out IS, following a formal invitation from the Iraqi government.  At last week’s NATO summit in Wales, US Secretary of State John Kerry pulled together a coalition made up of Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark, along with Australia, to do just that, however long it takes.

It has certainly taken a long time for the penny to drop, but now the foe has been identified – exemplified by the so-called Islamic State, currently spreading across northern Iraq and Syria, but far from the enemy’s only manifestation.  Old inhibitions among the politically correct about being dubbed Islamophobic, are rapidly being replaced by an acknowledgement of the distinction that must be drawn between Islam and Islamist. 

Islamist extremists are scattered across the world in a great variety of organizations and groupings.  To mention but a few there is Boko Haram (meaning “Western education is sin”) active in the north of Nigeria;  Al-Shabaab, centred in Somalia, but active in Kenya and across east Africa; Al-Qaida, now headed by the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, and active in a variety of countries including Algeria, northern Mali, and Yemen; the Al-Nusra Front, an official offshoot of al-Qaida and one of Syria's main rebel groups, though at loggerheads with IS; the Ansar al-Sharia organizations in Tunisia and Libya; Hezbollah in Lebanon, now fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria; and, of course, Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose goal is the destruction of the state of Israel.

Not all see eye-to-eye on all issues, but all are united in their loathing of the West, its democracy, its way of life, and its values.  All are determined to undermine and eventually destroy it, spread their concept of extremist Islam back across what was once the Muslim caliphate, and then beyond it and, if they can, subject the world to their version of Sharia law.

The founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 was a reaction to the formal abolition of the Ottoman caliphate by Kemal Ataturk in 1924.  The Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, declared: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

The process of infiltrating Europe, as a precursor to destroying it from within, is well under way. Political author Lorenzo Vidino has demonstrated how, since the early 1960s, Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathisers have “moved to Europe and slowly but steadily established a wide and well-organised network of mosques, charities and Islamic organisations”. The Brotherhood has active branches in the US, the UK, Germany, France and numerous other European countries. This systematic penetration into Europe of extreme Islamist notions expounded by extremist clerics, explains in large measure how young Muslims across the continent have been indoctrinated to the extent of volunteering to undertake suicide terrorist attacks and of flocking to join the ranks of IS in Iraq and Syria.  It explains, to the evident dismay of both President Obama and prime minister David Cameron, how it is that a young British-born Muslim has apparently beheaded, on video, two American journalists, and threatened to do the same to a third, this time a Briton.

It is not only in Europe that civilized values are under attack. On September 4, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced a new branch intent on bringing its holy war to India and South-East Asia. He announced that Islamist militants in India had been united under one commander, pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader. It would, he said, "liberate Muslim lands" and "revive its caliphate". Zawahiri’s support for a caliphate under Mullah Omar affirms his rejection of the global caliphate proclaimed by IS. The split between al-Qaida and its offshoot, IS, is complete. 

The emergence of modern international terrorism, practised so assiduously by Islamist extremists, is directly connected with the Arab-Israel conflict. In particular, the outcome of the Six Day War in June 1967 led Palestinian leaders to realize that the Arab world was unable to defeat Israel militarily. So in the late-1960s the belief developed within Arab nationalist movements that terrorism could be effective in reaching political goals.  Radical Palestinians took advantage of modern communication and transportation systems to internationalize their struggle. They, and the Islamist extremists who followed, launched a series of hijackings, kidnappings, bombings, shootings and spectacular onslaughts against Western targets, as in New York on September 11, 2001.

These ruthless and indiscriminate terrorist methods, refined by ever more sophisticated techniques, have characterised the activities of those extreme Islamists who have taken the fight into the Western world.  The same methods are used by Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza strip, in their more limited vendetta against the very existence of the state of Israel. Despite their differences, which are many, Hamas, like the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, IS, and the other jihadi groupings, have the identical overall aim the eventual triumph of their particular extreme version of Islam over the values of the West, which they despise. 

It is in this sense that, for the past forty years, Israel has been in the vanguard of the fight against the forces that would undermine, tear down, and replace the open, democratic way of life that the vast majority in the Western world cherish.  But realization comes slowly.  Yes, the inhuman slaughter of the two journalists seems to have stiffened the resolve of some Western leaders to bring down IS.  Yet the US, unhappy at Egyptian President al-Sisi’s clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, has apparently been pressurizing the new Egyptian administration to allow Islamists to participate in the political process.

“The Americans,” said the former Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, in a television interview on August 31, “have not appropriately learned the lessons of dealing with terrorism.”

It is a lesson that President Obama, the leader of the Western world, will simply have to learn.   

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 September 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 September 2014: