Arab Idols and the Religions of Jahiliyah

This is such a simple and well put-together podcast. I love every episode.

On the eve of Islam, Arabia was a mixture of hundreds of competing tribal gods, monotheism, Christianity and Judaism.  Sorting the history from the legends of this pre-Islamic past remains a challenging task.

65 – (0.2) The Religions of Pre-Islamic Arabia

Photo: 2nd century AD relief from Hatra depicting the goddess al-Lat flanked by two female figures, possibly al-Uzza and Manat.


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A return to jahiliyyah

painting of arab warriors charging

One of my favorite podcasts, The Golden Age of Islam, just returned after almost a year-long hiatus.

No judgment here. It happens.

This episode dives deep on Bedouin culture.

Like any religion, Islam was shaped by the culture in which it emerged.  The rules and values of the Bedouin – from the treatment of women to concepts of honor and leadership – would impact the Islamic society that grew out of Arabia.  In this episode, we take a look at that culture to understand what Islam preserved and what it changed.

64 – (0.1) The Bedouin Culture of Arabia

If you’re interested in the roots of early Islam, this is a great and accessible podcast. It is a must-listen for me.

Two fascinating things from this episode: 1) a discussion on anti-tribal poetry, which features lots of bragging and grandstanding – what Dr. DiMeo likens to ancient “epic rap battles,” and 2) the Bedouin concept of leadership succession, which was rooted in meritocracy, not bloodlines.

And of course, some ancient tribal code.

I against my brother. My brother and I against my cousin. And my cousin and I against a stranger.


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Islam, science fiction, and space mosques

a fantasy space mosque

This was different, and cool.

The Muslim world is not commonly associated with science fiction. Religion and repression have often been blamed for a perceived lack of creativity, imagination and future-oriented thought. However, even the most authoritarian Muslim-majority countries have produced highly imaginative accounts on one of the frontiers of knowledge: astrobiology, or the study of life in the universe. Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann (I.B. Tauris, 2020) argues that the Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extra-terrestrial life, and in this engaging account, Jörg Matthias Determann provides a survey of Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu texts and films, to show how scientists and artists in and from Muslim-majority countries have been at the forefront of the exciting search. 

New Books Network | Jörg Matthias Determann, “Islam, Science Fiction…

During the interview, Jörg mentions the SpaceMosque as part of an art exhibition. It is also very cool!


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Desert Wolverines: Living the ‘Red Dawn’ fantasy

holding an ak-47 red dawn
Wolverines!

I came across a few good articles challenging some of the common notions of what inspires ISIS fighters and supporters.

The first describes the worldwide phenomenon as more akin to a youth revolt, with Islam as its unifying thread. It’s not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.

The second discusses the “joy of ISIS.” That is, the general lack of understanding the West has towards recognizing that there is something that draws people to the cause in the first place: meaning, sense of purpose, happiness, joy.

I also revisited this short piece from five years ago on the Islamic State in Iraq (the predecessor to ISIS) where they repurposed the Call of Duty:Black Ops poster for their own propaganda. Youth and fun.

What I enjoyed about these articles is that they’re looking a little deeper at the ISIS phenomenon. The loudest voices I hear scream that it’s the religion that is to blame; it’s a “death cult.” Those voices flame more paranoia and fear which stoke stupid events like burning Qurans, lining streets with pig heads, proudly displaying ‘infidel’ labels, and so on.

Even before ISIS, I had a hard time believing that it was simply religion that inspired the IEDs, snipers, and ambushes I faced in Iraq after the invasion and later just before the surge. I was younger and dumber then, and while it would have been easy to simply say “It’s the religion, stupid!” and cast all of “them” as the other, just a tiny amount of critical thinking said there was something more going on.

Years later, sitting in a room with David Kilcullen, one of the chief advisors to Gen. Petraeus during the surge, I asked him if the chief motivation for some of the insurgents might simply be “the thrill of it?”

“Maybe,” he said.

When you peel back the layers of why young men and women join our own military, you’ll often find they do it for the experience – the thrill. As William Broyles wrote in Why Men Love War, “War offers endless exotic experiences, enough “I couldn’t fucking believe it!’s to last a lifetime.”

Similarly, James Jeffrey, a former British Armor officer describes the thrill this way:

“I defy anyone in a Challenger 2 tank, looking back over the commanders cupola at 20 armored vehicles kicking up curtains of sand, speeding across the smooth desert while enveloped in warm winds as the gunner traverses the turret to test fire the coaxially mounted machine gun, and then claim not to have enjoyed themselves.

One of the most addictive things about being in or around the military is the feeling of being “at the center of the world.” The obsession and interest people have with the military (news, movies, games, literature, etc.) makes it very easy for those who are a part of it to feel unique and a part of something greater. If you’re born in America, you can get close to that center through joining the military.

If joining the military isn’t your thing or isn’t possible, you can get on the same stage simply by joining ISIS. You don’t even have to join, you can just pledge loyalty and get on with it.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, there were some pundits that claimed Saddam was stalling on allowing Weapons of Mass Destruction inspectors, simply because he liked the attention. He liked being on the world stage. If America (and Iran) believed he had WMDs, it made him relevant and important.

Many of my peers in the military love the film Red Dawn, the story of a group of teenagers who find themselves waging a guerrilla war against an invading Soviet force. They call themselves the ‘Wolverines’ after their school mascot. It’s a fantasy, where they get to ambush the invading enemy, steal his weapons to grow more powerful, be the underdog and be the hero.

Invading a country is an odd experience, and when you think about it and talk about it, it doesn’t take long to realize that once you get to the insurgency, the “enemy” might simply be living that Red Dawn fantasy.

The Pashtuns, former Baathists, ISIS fighters – it’s Red Dawn, in reverse.


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Khalid ibn al-Walid, the “Sword of God”

the sword of god سيف الله
Khalid ibn al-Walid

I’ve always been fascinated by Khalid ibn al-Walid. He is a sort of folk hero in the early Islamic tradition. Nicknamed the “Sword of God,” he is credited with helping spread Islam in the days of the prophet and after his death.

Outside of the old texts, I’ve only found one biography about him, written by a Pakistani General in 1969.

Inside the tradition, he is described as being a fearless warrior. Today, his name often appears alongside modern-day Islamic radicals as a source of inspiration, as it did in the 2011 shooting of US Airmen in Germany.

The site of al-Walid’s mausoleum in Syria was being used as a headquarters for anti-Syrian regime rebels until it was wrestled away from them last summer.

While in graduate school, I wrote a paper on the way he is depicted in the Islamic tradition (read here). At times, al-Walid is revered as a magnificent warrior, while simultaneously disdained for being reckless. Here are some of the excerpts from that paper that readers of this blog might find interesting:

According to al-Waqidi, after the three appointed Muslim commanders were killed, Khalid assumed command and rallied the shaken Muslim troops bringing the battle to a draw.  The maghazi details the tactics Khalid uses to effect the outcome, such as making it appear [to the Byzantines] that Muslim reinforcements were arriving by circling his troops and changing the color of their [the Muslims’] banners.  These depictions seem to be an attempt to highlight Khalid’s military prowess and skill as a tactician. 

After being publicly censured for killing some prisoners:

Although the misdeed appears to be serious, Khalid is not dismissed and faced no real punishment.  In relation to this event, al-Waqidi informs us that Muhammad says (presumably later) “Do not curse Khalid b. al-Walid for surely he is one of the swords of God who drew his sword against the polytheists!”  Khalid’s actions are not explained away, but they appear to be tolerated given his overall service to the Muslims.

On Khalid’s dedication to the prophet and military prowess:

The last narrative in the maghazi concerning Khalid’s actions against the B. Jadhima eulogize Khalid by denoting in quick sequence the highlights of his career.  These include Khalid’s panic when his cap fell from his head in the midst of battle, and he ignored the battle to find his headgear, which contained a forelock of the Prophet’s hair.  Upon Khalid’s death, an attendant describes his body saying “no part of him was left unmarked by either a blow from a  sword, the piercing of a spear or the throw of an arrow head.”  Lastly, al-Waqidi claims that Umar forgives Khalid for his actions, saying “He was one of the swords of God!”


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Return of the Infidel

The other day, a reader who named himself كافر (infidel) left this comment on my post Infidel Redux:

I’m curious to know if you still think that things shouldn’t be looked at in a religious sense, now that ISIS is beheading Christian children. I for one am a proud Christian infidel, and IMHO this battle is religious in nature, whether you want to see it or not.

There’s been a lot of traffic to my infidel posts over the past few weeks, no doubt spurred by interest-based on the lightning advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq (see here for a good documentary on the group from Vice News). To answer the question the reader raised – has my position changed now that ISIS is beheading Christian children (an un-verified accusation, by the way), my answer is “no.”

The tragic news of James Foley’s gruesome murder also does not change my position. To summarize, I am of the belief that proudly wearing, displaying, or seeing oneself as an “infidel” is unprofessional in a modern military force (and potentially punishable under UCMJ), colors the conflict in religious hokum that doesn’t have a place in our war rhetoric, and plays directly into the enemy’s plan.

One of the smoldering remnants of the Global War on Terrorism is the way troops have embraced the term “infidel” as a kind of scarlet letter. Tattoos, t-shirts, bumper stickers, custom patches, knives forged in pigs blood – a whole industry has cropped up around the term. Dehumanization in war is normal – it happens in every war.

That, however, is not an excuse for it.

From Foreign Affairs (ISIS’ Gruesome Gamble):

If the United States decided to step in on behalf of its allies — as it did — then ISIS must have believed that it would be able to strengthen its position within the jihadi camp. ISIS could use the bombings as evidence that the United States is waging a war on Islam, and to portray itself as the defender of Muslims from “Crusader” aggression. In other words, ISIS would steal a page right out of al Qaeda’s playbook.

I'll see your jihad

The advance of ISIS, their brutal behavior, and the language they use themselves (constantly referring to others as infidels) has revalidated those who have embraced the infidel term. It’s an affirmation of their beliefs and it’s convenient to cast a conflict in religious terms – a cosmic struggle where both sides have the backing of God. On social media and on the web, outrage is spilling out – rightfully so – over the behavior of ISIS. But among military folk, that response is often being colored through “proud infidel” language. “I’ll see your Jihad and raise you a Crusade” is a popular phrase, often coupled with an image of a fantasy medieval knight.

It’s unlikely that the infidel trend will dissipate any time soon. Troops are still rotating in and out of war zones in the Middle East and there is an aggressive market ready to cash in on t-shirts and patches. No matter how nasty things get, and no matter how much “they” call us infidels, wrapping ourselves in their terminology plays into their own twisted fantasy while putting ourselves at risk of further dehumanization.


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So you wanna know about the Middle East?

Battle of Karbala

A friend recently sent me an email asking for book recommendations to get up to date on the Middle East. I didn’t have any good recommendations for her, but what I did share was the list of news sources and blogs that I read daily that helps keeps me up to date.

Shortly after firing off that email, I realized that it was a pretty good list and would make a good post.

Below are the sources in my feedly list that I have collected over the years.

If you know of any good ones that aren’t listed here, please let me know in the comments.

News:
Al Jazeera English (Middle East): News outlet with a focus on the Middle East.
Baghdad Bureau (New York Times): This is the ‘At War’ Blog at the New York Times. It often runs essays by military/veteran personalities and others usually in regards to wars in the Middle East.
Middle East Channel (Foreign Affairs): Short excerpts from Foreign Affairs on the Middle East.
NYT>Islam: News from the New York Time’s Islam section.
NYT>Middle East: News from the New York Time’s Middle East section.
The Independent – Middle East: News from The Independent’s (UK) Middle East section.
Robert Fisk: Controversial and outspoken journalist that covers the Middle East.
WP: Middle East: News from the Washington Post’s Middle East section.
BBC News – Middle East: Middle East section of the BBC.

Blogs:
hawgblawg – Ted Swedenburg, ME anthropologist. Mostly blogs about the kufiya and Arab pop music.
Informed Comment– Juan Cole. ME Studies Professor. Liberal bent. Very good ME stuff.
Jihadology – a source for translated statements from muslim extremist groups.
MEI Blog – Blog of the Middle East Institute. Sporadic historical posts.
al-bab – Blog of Brian Whitaker, Middle East journalist.
Letters from the Underground (was ‘Frustrated Arab) – blog by an anti-imperialist activist.
gary’s choices – Tumblr blog by Gary Sick, former National Security Council Advisor. Iran-hand.
intelwire – Blog of J.M. Berger, Middle East analyst focusing on extremism, especially in social media.
Jadaliyya – Ezine on Middle East. Mostly political stuff. English/Arabic.
Jihadology – Mostly translated Islamic extremist releases/messages.
jihadica – more jihad stuff.
jillian c. york – prominent blogger on ME issues and social media.
Marc Lynch – Formerly ‘abu aardvark,’ blog on ME stuff hosted at Foreign Policy.
Musings on Iraq – Iraq centric blog by Joel Wing.
Mondoweiss – Blog focusing mainly on Israel/Palestine issues.
Sandbox – blog by Middle East Scholar Martin Kramer.
Saudiwoman’s Weblog – Blog focusing mostly on Women’s Issues in Saudi Arabia.
The Arabist – blog about Arab politics and culture.
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer– Arab politics through football.
Views from the Occident – Blog by PhD student in Islamic Studies. Focused mostly on extremist groups and imagery.


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The New Iranian Drone – Fotros “a redeemed, fallen angel”

iran_fotros_drone_620x350-1

I read this morning in multiple places that Iran has unveiled their new drone, “Fotros,” which boasts a 2,000 km range.

I’ve always been interested in the naming conventions of military equipment, especially in Iran and the Arab states. While names can easily be dismissed as just dressing, sometimes the name of a device can tell more of the story, or how the equipment is intended to be used.

I did some quick Googling and found this about Fotros: “A fallen angel in Shia mythology which was redeemed by Husayn ibn Ali.”

I also found this description of the story of “fitrus” from a blog:

On the day Imam Hussain (a.s.) was born, it was said that Allah (swt) commanded Hadrat Jibraeel (a.s.) to descend upon the heavens and congratulate Prophet Mohammed (saas). While descending, Hadrat Jibraeel passed an island where an angel named Fitrus had been banished due to his delay in performing a command made by Allah (swt). He had his wings taken away from him and remained in that island for several years, just praying and asking for God’s forgiveness. When Fitrus saw Hadrat Jibraeel, he asked where he was going, and Hadrat Jibraeel said that he was going to congratulate the house of Imam Ali (a.s.) on the birth of Imam Hussain (a.s.). Fitrus begged him to carry him to the Prophet (saas) and see what he can do for this case. When they arrived, Hadrat Jibraeel (a.s.) gave the message Allah (swt) commanded him to deliver and then talked about Fitrus’ situation. The Holy Prophet (saas) looked at Fitrus, and told him to touch the newborn (Imam Hussain) and return to his place in Heaven and obey the commands of Allah (swt).  Fitrus touched the body of Imam Hussain (a.s.) and instantly got his wings back and was able to descend back to Heaven. Before Fitrus ascended back, he promised to Imam Hussain ”O Husain, from this day onwards, whenever anyone sends their Salaams to you, I will always deliver it to you.”

An interesting name, given the reports that this drone was at least partially reverse-engineered from the Predator drone that was captured in late 2011.

A redeemed, fallen angel.

I don’t know much (anything) about the mythology of Fotros other than what I found this morning. If anyone knows more and cares to share, please do so in the comments.


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Infidel Redux

major leage infidel hipster
Hipster

Without question, my short post last year on why it’s a bad idea for troops to embrace the term ‘infidel’ has been my most popular. It has garnered the most comments and is usually the post that attracts the most viewers per day. Judging by the comments, people get very emotional about this topic and have strong, mostly unshakeable and extreme opinions. Those who are ardent advocates of the brand cannot be convinced otherwise and in many cases, take to insulting me, my writing ability, or my credentials to make or punctuate their argument.

The point I was trying to make in that post was to say that while troops are entitled to their right to free speech, it is unprofessional to embrace the term infidel for the reasons I outlined. In reaction to my opinion, in the comments section, I have been accused of being a sympathizer of the enemy, an “incredible dumbass,” a poor writer, an empathizer, one who has a “hidden agenda,” dishonorable, a fobbit, an “embarrassment to our military and country,” someone “who needs a kick to the balls with a spiked combat boot,” and most recently, a traitor.

There is something deeper underlying that kind of defensive behavior that has led me to re-examine this phenomenon.

When I wrote the post, I knew it might attract some opposing views. I had no idea, though, that it would be so pervasive, persistent, and filled with hate.

Now, over a year later, I’d like to revisit the topic to see what has changed – if anything.

There is nothing outright “wrong” in displaying an infidel bumper sticker or getting it tattooed on the body. The word ‘infidel’ or its Arabic counterpart, kafir (كافر), is not in and of itself, extremist. This is not to say that those who brandish the term are or are not extremist. Some might just like the pretty Arabic script and others might just enjoy how ‘cool’ the word sounds. But I think some use the fact that the word is not considered a ‘hate word’ in the same way as a racial or ethnic slur to barely hide an extremist viewpoint.

Now, seeing the response and having thought harder on the subject, and having dug a little further into the regulations which cover extremist behavior, I think there may be a case for a closer examination as to whether this is appropriate behavior for service members.

The relevant portions of DoD Directive 1325.06Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces:

8. PROHIBITED ACTIVITIES

a. Military personnel must not actively advocate supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang
doctrine, ideology, or causes, including those that advance, encourage, or advocate illegal
discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin or those that advance, encourage, or advocate the use of force, violence, or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.

9. PREVENTIVE ACTIVITIES

a. Commanders should remain alert for signs of future prohibited activities. They should
intervene early, primarily through counseling, when observing such signs even though the signs may not rise to active advocacy or active participation or may not threaten good order and discipline, but only suggest such potential. The goal of early intervention is to minimize the risk of future prohibited activities.
b. Examples of such signs, which, in the absence of the active advocacy or active
participation addressed in paragraphs 8.a and 8.b are not prohibited, could include mere
membership in criminal gangs and other organizations covered under paragraph 8.b. Signs could also include possession of literature associated with such gangs or organizations, or with related ideology, doctrine, or causes. While mere membership or possession of literature normally is not prohibited, it may merit further investigation and possibly counseling to emphasize the importance of adherence to the Department’s values and to ensure that the Service member understands what activities are prohibited.

According to the directive, a service member does not have to be using direct hate speech or be an active member of an extremist group in order to warrant a command action, but merely be ‘in the orbit’ of such speech or behavior. I’d argue, given the vitriolic comments to my infidel post and the ease in which you can find extremist views just beneath the surface of a Google search for ‘major league infidel,’ that displaying these things just might warrant command action.

While free speech for service members is protected, hate speech or extremist views are not.

To quote Army Pamphlet 600-15Extremist Activities, “Our soldiers do not live in a vacuum.” Individual soldiers have a responsibility to understand the things that they do and the potential consequences, on and off duty.

I do not think that everyone that slaps an infidel bumper sticker on their car is an extremist or holds extremist views. But I know some of them do. It’s evidenced right here on this blog, by those who said as much in the comments. While soldiers have a responsibility to know what they’re getting themselves into when they start marketing an idea on their body or property, commanders have a responsibility to remind their soldiers that we are a military with values, and that extremist behavior is not compatible with those values. Additionally, given DoD Directive 1325.06, commanders have the authority to lean in if they suspect a soldier of being in the orbit of extremist activity. The way that the term ‘infidel’ is slung around, there is a good argument that brandishing it puts a person in that orbit.

Lastly, the thing that really bothers me about this theme is how it looks like it will endure longer than the actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a brand, an image. They sell ‘infidel’ shirts at the PX. What value is their as self-identifying as an ‘infidel’ if you go fight in some other war? It’s troubling to me, because a soldier should not be self-identifying as anything but a soldier (or marine, airman, what have you).


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Radical Islamists or football hooligans looking for a fight?

egyptians protesting

“You won’t understand the Middle East until you get lost in Cairo.”

That’s a piece of advice I received from a former American ambassador who spent a great deal of time living and working in the Middle East. What he meant is that understanding the Middle East is difficult and things are not always what they seem. To grasp what is going on, sometimes you have to go a lot deeper than what feels comfortable.

With images of violence streaming in from Egypt and across the Middle East, it is understandable that some would respond with anger – anger over the senseless death of one of our ambassadors, members of his team, and the Libyan guards who died trying to protect them. While the events in Benghazi appear to be a departure from the norm (the norm being violent protest at US embassies, but not resulting in the deaths of American personnel), it is hard to understand how anyone can protest on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and continue to do so after the violent attack in Benghazi. I get the sense that there are many who don’t want to “understand,” but rather want to “do something.” To react.

For those who simply want to react, there’s probably not much I can write here that will convince them otherwise. If a person get punched in the face, it is completely appropriate to punch the person back. But nations are not people. Nations have responsibilities that go far beyond the immediacy of emotion and reflex. It would be too easy to declare a simple cause, like “they” hate us or this is “their” religion. It’s easy to reach for that because it requires no extra thought or work. It’s the reaction of ignorance and laziness. It’s a way to cast things in stark contrast to one another. Right and wrong. Good versus evil.

If only things were that simple.

So the rest of this post is intended for those who understand and agree that the world is a complex place.

There are a number of things at play when trying to discern why there is violence against our embassies. Without question, the inflammatory video the “Innocence of Muslims” served as the catalyst for the inexcusable violence. But underlying this is a history of deep mistrust of the US because of foreign policy decisions and interventions of the past, anger over US support for Israel and our inability to mediate an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the constant stoking of emotions by leaders in these countries to push blame for almost anything on foreigners and meddling. This does not excuse the violence, but rather lays out that there is no single motivation for the behavior of a violent protestor.

In the case of Egypt, and probably other nations as well, domestic politics are influencing these events to a greater degree than is given credit. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, a “protest culture” has emerged which has proven that massing people for a common cause can effect real change. In Egypt, much of the violence between police and the population is accredited to the “Ultras” who are essentially what we would call football hooligans. Originally I wanted to write this entire post about the ultras, but I’ve found a couple of good sources that do a better job (The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and “Egyptian Ultras Emerge as Powerful Political Force“). And like in London last year, I suspect there are a lot of people that simply come out and do it for the lulz.

Among these protestors, there are radical Islamists. These are most likely the ones who are carrying the flag of al-Qaeda and pushing the violence to more extreme levels.

All of these actors come together with their different grievances and mass them against something they don’t like; in this case, the US (for whatever reason). Someone who protests at the embassy isn’t by default a radical Islamist. She could be an Egyptian college student who is angered by the United State’s refusal to take legal action against the producer of the inflammatory film (the notion of Freedom of Speech protecting even inflammatory speech is not always understood or respected). It can also be a member of a football club who showed up for a good fight. Or it can be a radical Islamist, who seeks to take advantage of a dangerous situation to advance his own agenda.

The point of this post is to hopefully encourage anyone interested in what is happening across the Middle East to dig deeper than the headlines and try to understand what is going on, instead of simply lumping millions of people together into a mush of anti-American radical Islamists.

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