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.

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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’.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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 …

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Why is the US intervening now?

Those who are argue there is no alternative to a US military intervention are mistaken, as all sides have intervened since the militarisation of the uprising. The direct US military intervention is just one stage in this broader intervention. The US postponed Geneva 2 (intended for last July) to September, after the regime’s advances and the weakening of the armed opposition groups. It seems that the US direct intervention, at this time, is to provide some leverage and some balance to the opposition groups in the conflict and so garner some geostrategic leverage for the US, against Russia, in whatever negotiations. As stated, the US has already been intervening, with Saudi funneling money/arms and the CIA training opposition groups in Jordan. I expect this to intensify, with the upcoming US military intervention. Also, the intervention will only increase the violence, as the opposition will view this as an opportunity to intensify the conflict, spiralling an even more vicious cycle of violence, with the regime likely increasing its shelling of civilian areas and the opposition retaliating. Al-Jazeera (Arabic), let alone the Saudi monarchy channel (Al-Arabiyya), is already selling the US intervention as a mission to “save the Syrian people”.

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Said the unnamed ‘Western diplomatic source’ citing ‘intelligence reports’

Reuters deemed it newsworthy to report an ‘exclusive’ from a “Western diplomat” citing “intelligence reports”:

The equipment being transferred by both companies (Iran and Mahan Air) … ranges from communications equipment to light arms and advanced strategic weapons, some of which are being used devastatingly by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime against the Syrian people,” said the Western intelligence report.

Neither is the report or diplomatic source referenced by Reuters but somehow an unnamed source from one side of a geopolitical struggle seems authoritative to be cited regarding another. I’ve previously posted about this sudden upsurge in ‘credulity’ in covering Syria.

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A growing confrontation between Qatar and Iran

It appears that Qatar is now in direct confrontation with Iran, after its strong overturn to go beyond the normalising of relations with Egypt. There is a sense that Iran is now attempting to garner strong relations with the Muslim Brotherhood to re-align itself in response to regional shifts. It also demonstrates that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, at least, is not dictated to by Qatar. The problem is Qatar’s vision of an opposing bloc to Iran and Saudi – a bloc that includes Turkey and Brotherhood led governments, with a future Syria seen as part of that.

Iran, on the other hand, wishes to not only open preferential trade agreements with Egypt but also other forms of strategic coordination, that will include both Hamas and Hezbollah. There is also a reciprocity of distrust and growing animosity, with Iranian officials also explicitly separating Qatar for special mention, as a belligerent influence in Syria and beyond. This confrontation has extended to Al-Jazeera’s (Arabic) coverage, that is now providing an Iranian angle similar to the Saudi owned Al-Arabiyya.

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Hezbollah and Syria’s refugees

Hezbollah is culpable for its wrong-headed and debased alignment with the Syrian regime – nothing justifies this position; whatever the make-up of many of Syria’s sectarian and imperialist backed opposition factions. However, little has been reported (for clear and obvious reasons) on their work in providing support and shelter for Syria’s refugees. This article, with some expected quips, is an exception. There is nothing new here and it is consistent with their position that  supporting and sheltering Syrian refugees should be considered a humanitarian issue.

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