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

 


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