Huntington in the Middle East

There is an escalating clash within the abode of Islam.

Smoke rises from a Shia mosque after it was destroyed in a bomb attack by militants of the ISIL group [Reuters]
Smoke rises from a Shia mosque after it was destroyed in a bomb attack by militants of the ISIL group [Reuters]

The Middle East is today caught up in the vortex of the worst violence to visit the region in years. Were Huntington to land in the Middle East today, he would be inclined to revise his “clash of civilisations”.

The absurdity of viewing the violence gripping the Middle East through a “civilisational prism” is obvious to all. The violence begotten from the current disharmony, intolerance, archaic forms of rule – with a contemptible interpretation of sacred texts by many learned scholars – spells a state of discord “fitna” in the body politic of the global Muslim community.

The “clash” is within – not outside – the abode of Islam itself.

The killing fields spanning this region of Muslim-majority societies do not bode well for the viability of states or the durability of communities with the potential to sustain age-old norms of peaceful intermixing of identities, sects and plurality in general.

Have leaders and citizens alike become so desensitised to the spread of violence and death that nothing is being done to stem the tide of rising bloodshed in Muslim lands? With very few qualified exceptions, have Muslim states and fragmented circles of self-appointed “learned scholars” thrown in the towel, by aiding violence instead of stopping it?

What clash?

Huntington is right. The power vacuum left by the retreat of the former superpowers accounts for dispersed violence all over the world. Maybe the bipolar global system of the Cold War contributed to keeping a lid on the explosion of conflict spawned by supposedly “clashing” religions and cultures.

But no evidence of that is at hand. Not even the events of 9/11 fulfilled Huntington’s far-fetched prophecy. Non-state actors dot the global geography of violence, more so than his scenario of warring states bordering civilisational fault-lines.

The mixed lineage and cultural background of the 44th US president is one example that renders Huntington’s concept of monolithic civilisations futile and largely unfeasible.

And instead of disharmony caused by irreconcilable religions and cultures, many African, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Latin-American, Muslim, and Slavic-Orthodox identities – Huntington’s seven civilisational “boxes” – stand united via mercantile interests and as stakeholders in the global market. Capitalism is their quasi-religion, with their cultural etiquettes and norms concurring at more than one level, across boundaries of theistic religion, history, and geography.

The Chinese are happily plugged into the global economy and will soon lead it. They squabble with the Americans or the Japanese over shares and profits – not religious precepts and edicts. The Muslim capitalists are no exception – they buy and sell instead of worrying about paradise and hell in the global market. Muslim and Western religious wars have thus far turned out to be, fortunately, no more than a figment in a cultural purist’s sophisticated imagination.

Muslims’ biggest worry right now is the ease with which violence explodes uncontrollably, and how Islam’s ideal of the sanctity of life that once commanded awe and loyalty among believers is today taken for granted and is in jeopardy.

Today, in Islam the most worrisome “clash” is within.

The new iconography of violence

The Muslim world is drenched in the blood of its children, and the horrors of violence by Muslim against Muslim. Spiralling violence from Morocco in the west of North Africa to Pakistan in South Asia signals further doom and gloom.

The spectre of violence, cruelty, brutality, sectarian strife, misogyny and uncertainty haunts many Muslim states and societies. They are daily news, and almost ubiquitous practice. Worse still, they are committed in the name of Islam, by Muslims against their co-religionists.

The silent majority may smoulder in indignation. Their distaste for the violence, extremism and obscurantism taking over their lives is invisible. What the world sees are the iconic images of burnt planes belching out fumes portending darkness in Libya; the agonising parents of girls abducted by Boko Haram in North-East Nigeria; Syrian and Iraqi children’s faces of despair and fear in displacement camps; Syrian children maimed by the unabated violence; the aftermath of car bomb explosions in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria; Muslim women and children scrambling for food; the rubble of the Mosul mosque that housed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, destroyed by the Islamic State group in late July.

The artificial Sunni-Shia divide is now claiming not only tens of thousands of fatalities, but has sunken to the nadir of Muslim-Muslim discord. The result is a failure to understand the difference between intellectual polemy and war and catastrophe.

The franchising of violence is now consuming the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda has now been cloned in North Africa and the Salafi-Jihadist Islamic State group mimics Al-Qaeda’s hatred of Shias and its ruthlessness in using violence against Muslim and non-Muslim alike. There is no exact count of the Muslim deaths and injured they have caused. Most probably, the toll is in the hundreds of thousands. And for what? When the madness will ever stop? Perhaps when the so-called “jihadists” take over Mecca?

These are groups whose nihilistic horizon is so broad that learned scholars have endorsed the dark days of “sexual jihad” “jihad al-nikah”, the victims of which have galvanised at least one Muslim country – Tunisia – to raise the alarm after the discovery that a number of its citizens had ended up in Syria to be used as “comfort women” – not unlike sex slaves of World War II.

The Muslim hero-saviour “al-batal al-munqidh” is a brand of masculine violence that sows death, and creates the spiral of violence that breeds more violence. It ignores the fact that in Islam the “ink of scholars” matters more than the “blood of martyrs”.

‘Manipulating jihad’

Violence is not specific to Muslims. What is specific to Islam – theoretically at least – is the ban on Muslim-Muslim bloodletting. It is at once a stereotype and an ongoing practice. It unfortunately defines the Muslim as “jihadist”, and erases the iconography of the Muslim genius that once contributed to science, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, geography, mathematics and more.

Abuse of “jihad”, “sexual jihad”, and “takfeer” are all old shibboleths, manipulated for political and ideological ends, and have nothing to do with Islam. For nothing in Islam sanctions illegal killing of any kind, and especially not the killing of Muslim by Muslim.

Noxious systems across the vast Muslim geography have allowed the excessive “politicisation” of Islam to the point of the total fragmentation of religious authority. The price is paid by both states and societies, and humanity at large. Many elaborate regime apparatuses of oppression – from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan to Saudi Arabia – turn a blind eye to scholars’ edicts for jihad of Sunni against Shia, and vice versa, of Sunni against Alawites; of Sunnis against Ahmadis, etc. It is a recipe for long wars of “all against all”.

Violence is today tectonic in the Muslim world – earth-shattering and life-changing. Muslims today suffer from insecurity, fear, violence, uncertainty, confusion and loss.

The answer does not lie with the US invading Syria or re-invading Iraq, or NATO putting boots on the ground in Libya, Afghanistan or Yemen.

The clash is within. The answers must therefore come from within. Re-reading the Quran is necessary to rediscover the meanings that have made Islam universal: dialogue with the “other” – Muslim and non-Muslim – mercy, the ennoblement of all humans regardless of religion, race, gender, nationality, colour, wealth or class, legality, modesty, non-compulsion, peace-making, and knowledge-seeking.

The dream that Muslim scholars should today strive to make real is to ban the killing of Muslim by Muslim – and all killing. It would be the proverbial – coup de grace – the morally courageous stroke needed to put the injured Muslim body politic out of its misery.

Nothing in Islam warrants Shia-Sunni bloodletting, much less civilisational fault-lines – a la – Huntington.

Islam needs its followers to be industrious, creative, dialogical, inventive, educated and read – not killers or dead.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University.

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