Video

Gilbert Achcar: Syria and the Arab Uprisings

Gilbert Achcar, author of “The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprisings” and Professor of Development and International Relations at SOAS, sat down with Danny Postel, Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver for a discussion of the Syrian Civil War in the context of the Arab Uprisings.

The interview was filmed at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver on May 12, 2014.

The spectrum of Salafism

I wish to comment on this article on Salafism in Kuwait. This post is not concerned with the details of Salafism in Kuwait but the typology of Salafism noted in the article. The article makes the point that ‘purists’ are more inclined to some sort of outreach to other Muslims, while harakis (activists) are prone to theological sectarianism and even violence to achieve their goals.

Purists mainly focus on peaceful proselytization and daily religious practices and are willing to cooperate with other religious groups. Activists, or haraki, believe in broader political involvement and often see violence as acceptable to achieve their aims.

First, binaries like this tend to flatten the nature of differences within not only Salafism but also generally trends and movements. I would prefer to state that Salafism is a spectrum that from one end may include quietists to violent activists. Second, it is the strong quietists, stated as purists, that are known for their theological exclusivism and refusal to cooperate with other groups and trends, lest they dilute the distinctives of Salafi Islam. Strong quietists include trends such as Al-Jaamiah, Al-Madkhaliah and followers of Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i in Yemen. At this end harakis are aberrations and not part of Salafism proper, due to the accusation of external influences of Islamist factions on their beliefs and practice (this is often identified with Muslim Brotherhood writings in general and specifically the writings of of Sayyid Qutb). As stated this is a spectrum, so that the stronger quietists are willing to identify these opposing Salafis as blameworthy innovators (mubtadi’a) that should be shunned and warned against. For this reason one of the key distinctives of this stronger form of quietist Salafism is ‘al-jarh wa al-t’adil i.e. who is to be critiqued as outside the correct view of Salafism and who may be identified as a worthy follower of what is deemed as the correct Salafi methodology. The distinctives of what is held to be the correct understanding of Salafism is also applied to all Muslim sects and groups and thus theological sectarianism is a key feature of their approach to other trends; ironically this approach is stated as a following of a Qur’anic junction against sectarian factionalism. The problem with activist Salafis, according to this strong purist quietism, is their appropriation of ideas from outside groups, specifically teachings pertaining to open political activism and missionary work that may challenge political authorities. The correct Salafi methodology is one that applies only secret advise to political authorities and is otherwise obedient and patient to any transgressions from these authorities.

This is a spectrum and some softer quietists  may be open to some form of cooperation and even cordial relations with other Muslims on shared objectives. Thus there are known edicts by Salafi scholars such as Abdul-Aziz ibn Baaz, Muhammad ibn al-‘Uthaymeen and Muhammad al-Albani that encouraged Kuwaiti Salafis to participate in political life and vote for Salafi candidates. Other edicts, for example, would admonish other Muslim groups but also praise them for what they view as praiseworthy attributes (e.g. Deobandi Tablighi Jamaat). It should be stated that reformist Salafis and strong quietists both venerate these notable scholars and their views are a point of contention and even vitriolic debate between stronger quietists and reformist Salafis. In my opinion esteemed scholars, especially state sanctioned Saudi ones, can show conflicting opinions or sympathies with different Salafi positions but are broadly softer quietists in their practice.

Accordingly as we move along this spectrum, then activist inclined Salafis are more willing to identify what are deemed as good attributes of other groups, rather than practising shunning, and even recommend their literature for worthy and useful instruction; often the literature read would be from prominent Muslim Brotherhood cadres. Hence we have reformist Salafi scholars, such as Abdul-Rahman Abdu-Khaleq, who are known to legitimate this haraki turn, write tracts that admonish other Muslim factions and trends, yet write other tracts encouraging political group activism and working with other Muslims outside the Salafi fold. He accuses stronger quietist Salafis of excessive sectarianism in their exclusivist and partisan misapplication of scripture warning against factionalism in Islamic practice (for strong quetists factionalism includes any form of political activism). Activist Salafis are thus more open to other Islamist groups and movements, while quietists can be anything from high exclusivists to a more restrained and restricted Islamic ecumenism.

Finally, at the hard end of the activist spectrum would be Jihadi Salafi groups that view reformist practice as a misdiagnosis of the nature of political authority in what they terms as ‘Muslim lands’. It is here that violence is legitimated, though the application of violent means is open to strategy and timing (differences on the legitimacy of certain strategies and application of junctions can turn into significant normative disputes, as happened between Jabhat al-Nusrah and the ISIL). Despite the adoption of violent means and polarizing rhetoric, or may be due to it, Salafi Jihadi trends are themselves open to the writings of Islamist writers, even if not Salafi, such as Sayyid Qutb and Abul A’la Maududi. Highlighted texts would be those that polarize belief/disbelief or Islam/Jaahiliyah, as part of an ongoing cosmic struggle.

I would end by stating that it would be expected that Kuwaiti Salafi harakis are funding Salafi armed groups in Syria but this funding is broadly restricted to the ‘Islamic Front’ and their leaders such Zahran Alloush. This part of the Salafi armed struggle is not Salafi Jihadi but more broadly inclined to the ideas and views of haraki Salafis. The uprising to the Islamic Front is against a disbelieving tyrant and sect(s) rather than it being an issue of violence as an obligatory means of struggle against rulers in ‘Muslim lands’. Jihadi Salafi groups such as the ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusrah may receive funding from Gulf sources but this is likely funnelled from illegal underground networks of Salafi Jihadis than open and tolerated Salafi haraki groups.

ISIL affirming their Salafi Jihadi credentials

This is statement by the ISIL spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-’Adnani, seeks to affirm the Salafi Jihadi credentials of the ISIL and reasons for their differences with Al-Qaeda and their official affiliate Jabhat al-Nosra (the latter accused of deviating from the Salafi methodology):

So what has changed to cause the leadership of Al-Qāʿidah to cause us grief, and to label us as the descendants of Ibn Muljim, and to label us as Khawārij?! Fear Allah regarding your selves! Fear Allah regarding the Mujāhidīn! What is your evidence for this that you incite people against them, you cause their blood to flow, you work for the destruction of their State and standing in its way! Tell us, by your Lord, what is your evidence?! 

ISIL, penal laws and atonement

ISIL when amputating the hand of a man it claims confessed and voluntarily submitted to the ascribed punishment, commented that the punishment given would be a purification for his sin. The view that penal punishments are an atonement for sins and so lift any possible punishment in the hereafter, is with precedence in the Islamic tradition. There are similarities to this in Judaism; according to Hanina b. Gamaliel:

If by the commission of a sin one forfeits his soul before God, so much the more reason is there for the belief that, by a meritorious deed, such as voluntary submission to punishment, his soul is saved.

This idea of atonement is significantly present in Islamic scripture e.g. the ritual slaughter of animal livestock is considered as an atonement and a ‘qorban‘ or means to obtain a closeness to God. This understanding of animal sacrifice exists among observant Jews too and the Qur’an indicates the sanctioning of this practice as a continuity to previous revelations (Qur’an 22: 34). Christian scripture depicts Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ that takes away (atones) the sin of the world (e.g. John 1: 29), relating to the passover sacrifice.  Of course, the topic of atonement is more encompassing (also see here) and includes other forms that can be found in both Judaism and Islam e.g. suffering or tribulations are an atonement for sins, as is fasting and almsgiving.

Salafi armed groups and the sectarian dimensions of their armed struggle

Often different Salafi armed groups focus on a perceived sectarian identity of their enemy, however absurd the construal of this identity may be. Regardless, why would many of these armed groups identify their struggles in this sense? I believe this is partly due to an uncritical application of what is largely medieval Islamic juristic tradition to to all contexts and times. For example, medieval Muslim jurists defined ‘Jihad’ as ‘qital al-kufar’ i.e. specifically to fight the disbelievers. There are other types of combat, that include Muslims (e.g. to fight rebels or bughat that revolt against a Muslim authority) but this is strictly, according to jurists, not a form of ‘Jihad’. ISIL, for example, label Abu-Muhammed al-Jolani (head of Jabhat al-Nusra) as a sinner and ‘baghi’ or a rebel against what they view as their legitimate Islamic authority.

Jihad, by medieval jurists, was then differentiated to include defensive and offensive warfare, with any offensive war requiring the sanction of a Muslim ruler. However, the legitimacy of an offensive war has been challenged by contemporary Muslim scholars e.g. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Muhammad Sa’id Ramadhan al-Bouti, Wahbat al-Zuhayli and many more. The opinion that ‘Jihad’ is restricted to a defensive military struggle to defend the Muslim community or life and property is now the given orthodoxy (Salafi scholars still, by far, reject this opinion).

Thus to justify any military combat as a ‘Jihad’, Salafi groups will seek to ‘other’ their enemies along strictly religious categories, even if these categories are absurd and make no sense even to their enemies. Following from this, Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIL and others state their enemies as Zoroastrians, Nusayris, Rafidha and ‘secular’ apostates etc. There is also demonisation of their enemy as they are on the wrong end of a cosmic struggle and all of them are destined for eternal damnation and they, on the other hand, are the group of righteous believers foretold in scripture carrying the banner of ‘Jihad’ to the end times.

ISIL and reasons for excommunication

The ISIL are not the Khawarij documented by medieval Muslim heresiologists in their encyclopaedias of sects and religions; historically the Khawarij, as a sect, were not uniform but are now largely extinct. Nevertheless there remains the ‘Ibadia‘ that exists in Oman as a state sponsored form of Islam and also, as a lesser presence, followers of this sect can be found in Kenya and North Africa; but this sect is significantly different to the Khawarij of earlier centuries. The ISIL, on the other hand, are Salafi in doctrine and similar to other Jihadi Salafi groups, view other Salafi factions as misguided in understanding the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn-Abdul Wahhab. For example, there is the accusation that Muhammad Al-Albani (his writings remain a guide to the global Salafi movement and his many sittings with his students were recorded and some transcripts published), fell into errors regarding the relation between belief and works.

For Jihadi Salafis he distinguishes between belief and works, to the extent that no practice affects the status of belief and hence the plausibility of excommunication (takfir). Instead, in their position (e.g. see the writings of Abu-Muhammad Al-Maqdisi), the genus of religious practice is both fundamental and a condition for sustaining belief. Further, there is an accusation that he denied what they describe as acts that intrinsically justify excommunication and this includes, for example, mere utterance of blasphemy and importantly adopting ‘secular’ laws as state legislation or even joining the armed forces in any of the nation states that exist in ‘Muslim countries’ and so maintaining these ‘secular’ states. These acts are labelled as ‘kufr ‘amali’ or actions that intrinsically denote disbelief, as they relate to issues of belief and disbelief directly and hence become a basis for excommunication. It should be noted that excommunication does not extend to committing greater sins, as is the position of the classical Khawarij sects and hence they state their view, regarding excommunication, as the correct position of Sunni Islam (Sunni Islam means, in a very strict sense, a strand of Hanbali Islam that can be identified, predominately, in the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah). This far groups such as the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are in agreement.

The issue of difference is the view, by Jabhat al-Nusra, that ISIL have gone into extremes in their expansion and application of this category (actions that intrinsically denote disbelief) to include dissociation from any faction receiving funding from these states; this includes even explicitly Islamist coalitions such as the Islamic Front. This is further exasperated, according to the ISIL, as these groups receive funding on the condition they collaborate to uproot the ISIL from their territories (they are likened, in ISIL literature, to the Iraqi ‘sahwat’). To not dissociate and even worse abet these groups is to make allegiance with the enemy at times of war and this alone is a basis for excommunication (Quran 5: 51, for example, is cited to justify this as ‘kufr ‘amali’). The FSA, on the other hand, are viewed as a ‘secular’ coalition invested in a democratic state and aligned to the National Coalition that is directly supported by the US and the Saudi monarchy and that alone is sufficient to make outright excommunication of those under this coalition. Jabhat al-Nusra only agree regarding the excommunication of the leaders of the FSA and the National Coalition but hold the Islamic Front as believers and are willing to cooperate with them in military operations. The ISIL also accuse the Islamic Front and the FSA, with others, in attacking their positions and this, to them, is a broader conspiracy to exterminate the organisation from Syria.

In future posts I will attempt to note different Salafi discourses pertaining to collective guilt, de-humanising through identifying individuals to opposing religious collectives and the necessity to dissociate and despise all those considered outside the pale of Islam (the doctrine of ‘Al-Wala’ Wal Bara”). These different discourses figure, to different degrees, in all Salafi groups and play a part in how they perceive and treat the ‘other’.

Some observations regarding ISIL

I will be posting on the theological and religious complexities of Syria’s different armed groups. I think this is important, as there is a lot of inaccuracies and general judgements regarding the nature of differences between Islamist armed factions. For now, I just wish to observe that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is not a ‘Khawarij’ group, theologically or even a ‘takfiri’ group in that sense. In fact, the ISIL repudiated this accusation and stated their Salafi credentials on issues pertaining to excommunication from Islam. It is best to understand their difference with Jabhat al-Nusra to be an issue of extremity in application rather than a foundational difference regarding an understanding of religion.

Also, it should be noted, ISIL are a Jihadi Salafi organisation that adopts the idea that establishing an ‘imara’ or Islamic emirate is necessary for an armed Salafi group, even before any victory is sensed against the Syrian regime. To take this step from now is to avoid historic mistakes when, according to Salafi groups, it was ‘secular’ groups that reaped the harvest of religiously inspired armed struggles and then forcefully marginalised and persecuted Islamist factions. This way the armed group will be a vanguard that will gradually establish itself as a ruling force and continue with its armed struggle, whatever time it takes. This is an old and contentious issue with other Islamist groups that viewed state institutions, in it current forms, as open to gradual reform (Muslim Brotherhood groups) or the plausibility of seeking support from army forces to establish a Caliphate, after non-violent missionary work that brings about a supporting public opinion (the view of Hizb-ut-Tahrir). This idea of establishing small states that expand, through force, is shared by other Jihadi Salafi groups but the difference is an issue of strategy.

The state needs to retreat

A lesson can be learnt from Egypt, with the tribalism and ideological posturing of its political terrain. The equation of the Muslim Brotherhood to a neo-fascist group, as government officials have done, or the demonisation of its policies as ‘Islamist’ and worthy of banning or ostracisation is damaging and already the bitter harvest of these policies are being reaped and will accentuate in the future. Similarly there are those in the Syrian opposition who are adopting similar language and there is a danger, encouraged by Saudi interference, that public discourse will make strangers from any perceived difference. This does not bode well for the future.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not without flaws; it can be sectarian, authoritarian and insular. But it remains a reformist organisation that seeks to use civic organisations and organs of the state to push forwards with its reforms through democratic procedures (even though the process is flawed). It has also come some way from the years of conflict with Hafeth al-Assad’s regime. Furthermore the organisation itself was never a monolith (the Syrian branch has always been seriously fractious). In Egypt, when in power, it pushed forward its own views of religious orthopraxy, including the state as a moralising agent of change, with an assumption that its changes are organic to the very fabric of ‘Egyptian society’.

The Brotherhood historically adopted the discourse of ‘tamkeen’ (establishment and earthly inheritance), applying scripture (specifically Qur’anic verses pertaining to Moses’s struggle with Pharaoh) to its own cadres as historic players in an ongoing manichean struggle culminating in its own cadres or those similarly minded, as vicegerents and righteous inheritors of a Godly dominion (Muhammad al-Mursi was, in Brotherhood aligned media, Egypt’s first ‘Islamic’ president). It is a discourse developed from years of persecution to comfort and motivate that tribulations and testing are all part of divine providence. As with all Islamist groups the state remained a fixation and soon, when in power, it sought to push through a constitution, while not realising that outside its own insular subcultures, with its own logic, there were sections of Egypt’s society concerned with its moralising politics and in its attempt to impose medieval claims of religious (Sunni) consensus in regulating both state and politics.

Yet whatever its flaws and even polarising outlook, cultivated by many decades of persecution, it remains an important voice in Syrian politics and committed to some form of democratic politics. Persecuting or silencing its voice will only reconfirm the polarising outlook it had adopted. There is a significant difference between its politics and that of totalising Islamist groups seeking to control the state through violent means and imposing a derogatory status to those confessing different view-points or faith traditions, let alone viewing ‘others’ as members of communal blocs, de-humanised and enemies within. Yet it is this policy that many opposing the Brotherhood adopt; for them they are better quelled, even brutally quelled, and its leaders jailed.

Finally, the state is a means to meet needs and no end. Many years of potentates resulted in a vast and deeply embedded state security. The state has become reified and its organs become mechanisms to silence opponents and it is patriotic duty that dictates an identification with these same organs (hence the popularity of Egypt’s military). It is here that safe spaces need to be opened and for the state to retreat, so that these spaces become places for different viewpoints to be heard. Self-organising communities, cooperatives and so on, can become alternative means for political debate beyond the state. Instead of a strategic, partisan and polarising political practice, alternative spaces are places where normative debates can be had on what forms of human flourishing can unite and in what ways they may develop voluntarily. In this way differences between means and ends are pronounced, the latter negotiated to an extent that cannot happen when political practice is a mere struggle over state power in the pursuit of given ends.

Importantly, as Pierre Bourdieu notes, the struggle over the state is a struggle in the use of statist capital and so an access to symbolic capital and its production (the giving of value, in individual perceptions, to any other form of capital and its strategic distribution) entails coercion.

The state is the culmination of a process of concentration of different species of capital: capital of physical force or instruments of coercion (army, police), economic capital, cultural or (better) informational capital, and symbolic capital. It is this concentration as such which constitutes the state as holder of a sort of meta-capital granting power over other species of capital and over their holders. Concentration of the different species of capital (which proceeds hand in hand with the construction of the corresponding fields) leads indeed to the emergence of a specific, properly statist capital which enables the state to exercise power over the different fields and over the different species of capital, and especially over the rates of conversion between them (and thereby over the relations of force between their respective holders).

A struggle over statist capital thus corresponds to a struggle for power over the state and access to this statist capital. It is a struggle over force and coercion, so that safe spaces, noted above, cannot arise. This is an argument that many generations of Islamist thinkers have (ironically) made; their very marginalisation and persecution was due to their lack of access to this strategic meta-capital that access to state power will give them. It is when the state retreats that we can then plausibly address the pressing question – in what ways can we hold our differences and even tensions in life giving ways?

Let us return to Darʿā

We forget but it is important to return the conflict to the early uprising in Darʿā. This is an account provided by a now defected officer on the extreme brutality utilised to put down non-violent protests. His witness also provides the earliest account of militarisation of the uprising with the ad-hoc use of RPGs and disorganised armed clashes with the army. There is evidence of early arms smuggling and fighters moving between Syria and Lebanon, for example, so that is not new but his testimony confirms this. Nevertheless the uprising remained largely non-violent across the country for a considerable time, with credit to local organisers and activists. Activists in Hama, as I posted, made it a point to state the non-sectarian nature of their revolt, putting up banners and passing leaflets that their uprising is not an act of revenge but to end the decades old mukhabraat state. There was a welcoming of predominantly Alawite villages in Hama’s rural areas.

I return to these themes, after hearing Obama, resorting to orientalist caricatures and cliches, on “ancient sectarian differences” in the region. Sectarian differences exist and manifest themselves in divergent ways; this existed before Hafeth al-Asad’s rule. Sectarianism is a dynamic cultural form and is continually elaborated, in interaction with contingent events and their different factors. There is no primordial “ancient sectarian differences” that must manifest itself if there is to be a democratic shift. It is the contingencies of the Syrian uprising (geopolitics, Salafi armed groups etc.) that has rendered certain sectarian discourses salient. Sectarian discourses existed before the conflict but was it necessary to take this turn, fueling the conflict?

The racist condescending rhetoric of the US administration may articulate this logic, for whatever reason, including unconscious prejudices. Prejudices exists in all communities and in all locales, it is not something specific to levant. Surveys and opinion polls show significant prejudice, for example, in France towards French-Algerians. Had the uprising taken another turn, succeeded through popular pressure and non-violent activism, then it is possible a democratic shift would have been instigated with a more inclusive national discourse across all communities. Prejudices would have still existed and sectarian suspicions always lurking but that is not the same as a conflict that is often fuelled by sectarian discourses and its representations of difference. It is important, as much as this conflict seems to be, at this time, to be prolonged in even more cycles of violence, that all come together to build for a future that guards against any institutionalisation of difference, as in Lebanon and Iraq. There is nothing fixed and the trajectory of events can be altered, an institutionalising of a new politics and vision is always possible.

The opposition receives one of its largest shipment of arms

I don’t think it is a coincidence that opposition groups, at this very moment, have received a large shipment of arms:

Gulf-based supporters have sent a 400-ton shipment of arms to Syria’s rebels, one of the biggest to reach them in their two-year-old uprising, opposition sources said on Sunday.

As posted before, there seems to be a joint US/Saudi plan to flood the armed groups with even more weapons, to coincide with a US intervention, in an attempt to counter regime gains.

This article (Wall Street Journal) on Prince Bandar’s role is worth a read …