ISIS Costume Drama

The White House conference on “Countering Violent Extremism” represented an expected response. In the face of gruesome killings the gathering asserted the American values of openness, tolerance and faith in the healing power of bureaucratic acronyms.  There is much to admire there. It came amid an intellectual debate on whether ISIS represents or subverts Islamic values. Much of the debate seemed like neo-Scholasticism.  First we need to define “Islam”, which is as difficult as defining any religion that has more than a handful of faithful and has lasted more than a few years. A report in the New York Times is typical of the current debate. It presents the tale of a young man from Middle Class Heliopolis in Cairo who has recently joined ISIS. He was motivated by many difficulties and frustrations, including the inability to get a decent job as a physical trainer in a good gym. It has the air of the standard morality tale, which is to say that it contains more than a hefty dose of instruction. This kind of “there but for the grace of God go I” story is a bit like Chocolate Cake, enticing to sample and impossible to digest. We can find equal or better instruction in another tale from the Heliopolis of decades ago.

In the month before the 1967 war Egypt was whipping itself into war frenzy. A physical trainer at the Heliopolis Sporting Club decided to join in by turning his platoon of unruly boys into a “Kata’b Salah-Ed-Din”, or the Divisions of Saladin. He told the boys they will forgo the usual pushups and weight lifting in favor of battle training, with swords. He asked that they come dressed in historically appropriate uniforms as well. They had for guidance a hoary Egyptian epic of recent vintage (by the great director Youssef Shaheen), the story of how Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. The boys suddenly came face to face with the difficult art of historical costume design. At the next meeting most came in a random array of ill-fitting Galabyyias. One boy showed up in his older sister’s sun dress. The coach equipped them with sticks for swords, and when he ran out, threw in a couple of golf clubs. At the end of training he gave a short pep talk and asked for questions. The most difficult of boys inquired “Ustaz, where do we find the Yahood?”.  The coach gave no answer (years later the boy was to find his first Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where they proved unexpectedly likable and more disputatious than violent). In any case, the irritated parents quickly ended the farce. They had paid to have their boys’ energies drained, and possibly ward off bullying. Weeks later the boys would learn that success in modern warfare demanded more than courage and a uniform, it required advanced technical training, organization and close connection to higher cultural values. It is a lesson that most of the surviving members have not forgotten.

The same cannot be said about the various inheritors of that mantle. In the decades hence, excepting possibly Egypt’s credible performance in 1973, many regional military efforts have been deadly farcical. We can tick off all the various battles that should have instructed the participants in the above lessons, but never did. In fact, the most potent of efforts still seemed to lean toward that poor coach’s perception of how to succeed in modern warfare. They are cargo-cult historical re-enactments. Whether it is a Pediatrician from Ma’adi who dresses up as a Pashtun tribesman, or a Saddam army general who imagines himself a reincarnation of a seventh century warrior, the aspiration has been to retrieve greatness by imitation of form, rather than the progress of culture. Like any bankrupt ideology, every failure causes a doubling down on the original premise. The result is ISIS. When that fails, we should expect a worse incarnation, unless the entire ideology is ditched.

This brings us to the question of whether the ideology will be ditched. It is the relevant and difficult question, and history gives no easy answers. It is possible that the current Salafism rampant in the region will render it a vast recreation of the Aborigines in Van Diemen’s land, who, under the influence of religious thought, willed themselves into extinction by ratcheted atavism. If so, it will be an expensively deadly denouement. Alternatively, the region could dust itself out of this religion-besotted state and decide to chart a different path. If it were to do so, it will not be by consensus or pluralistic decision making. It will be at the behest of tough leadership with a clear vision, and little patience for drivel. If that leadership exists, it is currently in some disguise.

 

— Maged Atiya

 


It Is Libya

 

The policy makers of the Bush administration, secure in the wisdom lodged behind rimless glasses, argued that unless Saddam is brought to heel Al Qaeda will seek his protection. We now know the opposite to be true; the henchmen of Saddam have sought the protection of Al Qaeda and have become a significant part of the leadership of its bloody successor, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). While the US worked to endow Iraq with the laudable gifts of representative democracy and free markets, its opponents diligently pursued the task of starting a religious war. Al Qaeda, is at root wedded to a variant of Salafi Jihadi ideology, and therefore an implacable enemy of Shi’a Islam. In the empowerment of the Shi’a, it found a casus belli in Iraq. The US adventure there was meant to provide a shining example of how good governance can lift the fortunes of Arabs and Muslims and “drain the swamp of terrorism”. But Iraq was too far gone, a victim of its history of brutal coups and social fissures but mostly a casualty of the Iranian revolution. The revolutionary regime in Iran sought to export an eschatological revolution, thus firing the first shot in a broad religious war. Iraq was the first, and not the last, victim.

Even if one accepts the logic of creating an example of good governance in the region, one must question the choice of Iraq as the test bed. A far more hospitable place would have been Libya. Its dictator was as brutal as Saddam, but with less cunning and more insanity. It is further removed from Iran, and its religious makeup would have avoided the thorny issue of Shi’a empowerment, Sunni resentment, and the dodgy fact of having many of its potential leaders in bed with the likes of Hizboallah.  If the spread of nuclear weapons was a factor, then certainly Libya was a more provable case. Instead, Saddam was attacked and Qaddafi offered a sweetheart deal.

But now, a dozen years after the invasion of Iraq, and with the Levant in a crucible of horrors, there is a chance for a makeover. Rarely does history offer great powers a chance not to make the same mistake twice. Libya is in chaos. Its chaos is empowering the worst elements to flood in. The number of its insurgents is small, and their nature is rag tag. This may seem to be a reason for inattention, but actually it is not. Actors such as ISIS are likely to see in Libya a low lying fruit. It has a long coastline close to Europe, it has oil, and it is close enough to Egypt, with many smuggling routes across a 1000 mile border,  offering a tantalizing base of operation to destabilize the largest and most influential Arab country. The revolution against Qaddafi was likely supported from Qatar and Turkey, but NATO acted as tactical air power for actors it little understood. The resulting chaos offers a reprimand and a chance to redeem the original mistake.

If the original intervention was based on the legal theory of the “Right to Protect”, then that same theory demands further intervention. At risk then were the lives of rebels and the civilians under their control. At risk today are the lives of millions of Libyans, and potentially others in the surrounding countries. ISIS is a death cult, and it is hell-bent on extermination of Christians. The largest pool of native Christianity is next door in Egypt. The brutal execution, if proven, of 21 Copts in Libya and the accompanying document leaves no doubt as to the intentions of ISIS. Numbers make a chilling case. There are as many Copts in Egypt as there were Jews in Europe in 1933.

What is advocated here is an extension of the earlier intervention, via a small expeditionary force, mostly of European and other countries, to restore a functioning government to Libya, disarm all militias and eradicate any foreign fighters from the ISIS group. There are many reasons to think this will succeed. The ethnic and religious make up of Libya is such that a fair distribution of oil revenue (Libya has the same population and oil production as Norway) will keep them all happy and agreeable. A decent and mild man, King Idris, managed as much before. The proximity of Egypt and Algeria will mean that potential recruits to the insurgency will need to arrive by sea. Naval interdiction is something that the US excels at.  Keeping the southern rim of the Mediterranean free of chaos used to be an American strategic objective. It ought to be again.

The benefits reach beyond what is purely good for Libya. Defeat of the Jihadis there will protect Egypt’s back ,allowing it to focus on defeating the Sinai branch of ISIS. Tunisia will no doubt rest better knowing that its Eastern neighbor is not in chaos, especially as it has become a major provider of fighters to Syria and potentially ISIS. A win in Libya might even encourage nations such as Mali and Nigeria to clamp down on their religious warriors.

But the major win in Libya is to hand ISIS a major defeat. The West has suffered its own brutal religious wars, and has come through them with an understanding that the only way out is to empower nation-states as agents of governance based on citizenship rights. The Christian West, which increasingly has a major Muslim minority, must reassert that principle in the Middle East. Syria may seem intractable, but Libya is not;  and a solution there may radically alter the course of events elsewhere in the region.

 

— Maged Atiya

 

 


Orange is the New Black

The Christians of Egypt are indistinguishable from their Muslim Brethren. Both belong to the land and are bound by close historical ties that transcend the patterns of religious confession. It was this simple fact that made the foreign rulers of Egypt in the 1300s demand that Copts wear only black, otherwise there would be no way to mark them as targets for mob violence.  Clothing color as a social signifier is hardly unique to medieval Egypt. Armies, sports teams, company workers and others choose distinctive colors to emphasize unity and differentiation from others.

Orange is the color of the American prison system, and consequently of captured terrorists. The deluded souls at ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant) have adopted it as the distinctive dress of the innocent victims of their barbarity. Such is the depth of their confusion that they see parity between those who committed no wrong and those who sought to kill and maim. They are unable to distinguish between human rights and human vice.

The chilling sight of 21 Copts captured in Libya by ISIS, paraded in orange jumpsuits, reminds us of what is at stake today. The document issued along with the photographs reeks of the incitement that was, and still is, common to many of the supporters of former President Morsi. The colors have changed, but the hate lingers. Cries of “Crusader” betray ignorance and malice, whether issued from the mouths of fighters in Libya or Television announcers from Istanbul.

The 14th century was noted not only for its intolerance in Egypt, but also for the beginning of a gradual civilizational decline in both Egypt and many Muslim-majority countries. As always, the fate of the Copts prefigured that of all others. In the dejected faces of 21 innocent victims we should see less their Christian faith than their common humanity. Soon the affliction will know of no religion.

If orange becomes the new black, then surely further decline awaits everyone.

 

— Maged Atiya