Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. By Karen Armstrong. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014. 528 pp.

“Whoever took religion seriously?” one exasperated American official remarked of the 1979 Iranian revolution. To him, as to many contemporary observers, the establishment of an Islamic republic in the country seemed atavistic: the modern age is a secular one, so why had mass protests ushered in a theocracy? Karen Armstrong, who cites the U.S. official in Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, sees no such contradiction. Rising religious fervor is often a reaction to secularization, the two go hand in hand. And, in the secular world, religion has served another purpose: as a scapegoat bearing the blame for conflict and violence. It turns out that no one stopped taking religion seriously.

It is this latter perspective on religion that Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun and author of several other books on religious topics including A History of God, The Bible: A Biography, and The Case for God, wants to challenge. “In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted … a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: ‘Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history,’” she writes. This may strike some as overblown; I have never heard anyone say this, and certainly don’t recall anyone suggesting that the First World War or Second World War were religiously motivated. Nevertheless, many do accept a diluted version of this argument. Rising sectarian tensions, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to other Muslim countries have certainly led many to conclude that in the Middle East religion has bred division and motivated followers to commit great acts of violence.

Armstrong’s exoneration of faith is an impressive work of scholarship, a dense yet sweeping review of almost five thousand years of human history, from the handsome King Gilgamesh, who ruled Uruk in what is now southern Iraq in the third millennium bc, to the U.S.-led “War on Terrorism.” The thrust of her argument depends on three points: firstly, that the modern, Western conception of religion—as a “coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions, and rituals, centered on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all ‘secular’ activities”—is both historically and culturally unique. It does not conform to pre-modern Western understandings of religion as something inseparable from the rest of human existence, or to the Arabic concept of din, which refers to a whole way of life, or the Sanskrit term dharma, which is a total concept, covering laws, justice, morals, and social life.

Second, Armstrong argues that violence is the result of two things, human nature and social organization, both of which are distinct from religion. “War gives us a resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble,” she writes. A soldier in battle experiences an intensity of emotion that is comparable to a religious encounter. Violence is also an inevitable consequence of human civilization. To support this assertion, Armstrong employs a quasi-Marxist perspective to analyze the way in which the transformation of society from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to industrial has depended on the use of force. The development of agrarian societies rested on the ability of a small elite to coerce the mass population into a life of toil and drudgery. This systemic violence afforded the elite sufficient leisure time to develop the science and arts that would drive human progress. Similarly, the formation of the modern nation-state was wholly dependent on the development of disciplined, well-organized armies.

Third, Armstrong argues that “like the weather, ‘religion does lots of different things.’” Its nature has changed through history. Faith often reflects the underlying structure of society, and although it sometimes justifies systemic violence, it has often checked it, too. The same texts and scriptures have been used to support very different actions, at different times and by different people. For instance, for centuries, the story of Imam Hussein’s death in 680 ad inspired Shiite Muslims to withdraw from political life, while more recently it has inspired political protests against tyranny.

Students of modern politics will be most interested in the final chapters, in which Armstrong applies these three principles to understanding the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East. That Islamic fundamentalism has tended to become an agent of violence has less to do with the content of Islamic belief or scriptures, she argues, and much more to do with the way in which secularism was introduced in the region. Unlike in the West, “modernity” arrived in the Middle East as a result of colonial subjugation, which was militarily and systemically violent. Organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt flourished as the country’s economy modernized rapidly and unequally, and were radicalized into violence in response to aggressive secularization. When the ulema or other established authorities are co-opted by government, “self-appointed religious leaders and more simple-minded radicals would step into the breach,” she writes. Men such as Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s propagandist, were radicalized in Nasser’s jails, just as decades on, the leadership of groups such as Al-Qaeda would develop their views in prisons throughout the Arab World.

Terrorism is almost as hard to define as religion, but one undisputed feature is that it is always about power. “Terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political, even when other motives—religious, economic, or social—are involved,” writes Armstrong. Contrary to popular belief, suicide bombing is not deeply rooted in Islamic tradition—it is a twentieth-century tactic deployed by people of different nationalities and faiths. Armstrong cites interviews with would-be suicide bombers that found most are motivated by the desire to become heroes, or to give their lives meaning through battle and not simply by religious devotion. In fact, she argues that most of those involved in the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States were not religious before joining Al-Qaeda and were under-educated theologically. “The problem was not Islam but ignorance of Islam,” she writes. A similar argument is often made of Western fighters who have joined ISIS: several of those who fled from the United Kingdom, for instance, actually ordered the book Islam for Dummies before their departure.

It is in this final section that Armstrong’s political purpose for writing Fields of Blood becomes clear. The scapegoating of Islam is a convenient way of absolving responsibility for the state-sponsored terror carried out by Western governments: military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen; the continued exploitation of the global poor. It is certainly important that Western governments and their populations acknowledge their role in fueling terrorism, and accept responsibility for the many thousands of civilians who have died in this heavy-handed, vague, but apparently all-encompassing “War on Terrorism.” However, it is perfectly possible to do this while still accepting that religion has played a role.

One problem is that having emphasized how hard it is to define religion, and how it is mistaken to think of it as a discrete practice, Armstrong then shapes her definition to fit her argument. If religion can be all encompassing, why can’t motivations be both political and religious? When she asserts that Al-Qaeda’s actions bear little resemblance to “normative Islam,” does this mean their motivations are not religious? To argue this, she would need to deploy a much narrower definition of religion than the one she advances in the introduction.

Armstrong ascribes one of the most devastating, violent acts of the twentieth century to secular impulses. “Born of modern scientific racism,” she writes, the Holocaust “showed what can happen once the sense of the sacredness of every single human being—a conviction at the heart of traditional religions that quasi-religious systems seem unable or disinclined to recreate—is lost.” While the Holocaust was not religiously motivated, her formulation of this point is problematic. If religion is so hard to define, how do you define “quasi-religious” in this sense? And if, like the weather, religion does lots of things, how can she assert that the sacredness of all individuals is at the heart of traditional faiths? Most religions, after all, distinguish between believers and non-believers, a distinction that has served at times to justify acts of aggression against the latter. As Armstrong correctly points out, the human rights movement and its intellectual roots in Western liberalism has a checkered and at times violent history, but what is it today if not an assertion of the principle of the sacredness of every human life—regardless of nationality, gender, or faith? The problem seems with the implementation, not the idea.

Having said this, Armstrong’s exploration of the role of faith in human civilization makes for a rewarding and thought-provoking read. Her reminder that both sides of the “War on Terrorism” have inflicted suffering on innocent civilians, and that Western governments must acknowledge this, is a timely one. If only commentators spent less time arguing over how “Islamic” ISIS is and more time unpacking the terrible, violent political dynamics that have created it, for instance. The thing is, you can subscribe to a very different history of religion and yet come to the same conclusion.

Sophie McBain is a journalist based in Cairo. She previously served as an assistant editor at the New Statesman. She has written for the New Republic, FT Weekend, Guardian, Monocle, and Spear’s. From 2008 to 2011 she worked as communications assistant for the United Nations Development Programme and a consultant for the African Development Bank based in Tripoli, Libya. On Twitter: @SEMcBain.

Answering the Call

Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt. By Abdullah Al-Arian. Oxford University Press USA, New York, 2014. 320 pp.

Abdullah Al-Arian carefully reconstructs the history of Islamic student activism on Egyptian university campuses in the 1970s and the subsequent integration of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya into the Muslim Brotherhood. His primary goal in Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt is to explain how Egypt’s leading Islamist movement successfully reconstituted itself in the 1970s after more than a decade of repression and political exclusion. The book is based on a rich and diverse set of sources including newspaper accounts, memoirs, interviews, published oral histories, student publications from the period (for example, pamphlets, conference programs, and student wall magazines that were posted on university campuses), in addition to Brotherhood publications. The author makes an important contribution to the scholarship on Egyptian politics and society, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist politics more generally.

When President Anwar Sadat began releasing Brotherhood leaders from prison in the early 1970s, the movement was battered and beaten. Yet within the short span of a decade it reemerged as the leading social and political opposition force in the country. How did this happen? Al-Arian’s answer focuses on Islamic student activism and particularly Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya. He convincingly argues that the group’s dynamism, social activism, political engagement, and its subsequent absorption into the Brotherhood breathed new life into the movement, enabling the Brotherhood to successfully return to prominence in the 1980s.

While acknowledging the critical importance of the 1970s for the Brotherhood, few Western scholars analyze the specific history of the period. Most focus on the more extreme offshoots of the Islamic movement during this period; distinguishing his work from that of Gilles Kepel and Emmanuel Sivan, for instance, Al-Arian concentrates on the much larger number of individuals who would join the Brotherhood in the 1970s.

Al-Arian provides essential background in his discussion of Shabab Al-Islam, a student group that emerged in the first years of Sadat’s presidency. The group was overshadowed by more prominent student groups but was important for reintroducing Islamic ideas and activism on university campuses after many years of absence during a period in which leftist ideas dominated student politics. Al-Arian examines the group’s complex relationship with the Sadat regime, which attempted to co-opt it as part of a general effort to repress communist, Marxist, and Nasserist ideas among Egyptian students.

Al-Arian shows how the Brotherhood leaders emerged from prison in 1971 to find an increasingly diverse Islamist field, one in which they were no longer necessarily dominant. In addition to a number of radical groups influenced by Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood encountered a public sphere that included popular preachers such as Abdel Hamid Kishk and Muhammad Al-Shaarawi, popular Islamic intellectuals such as Mustafa Mahmoud, and a new president who was increasingly adopting Islamic language and symbols to justify state policy. Here Al-Arian adeptly analyzes the internal debates within the Brotherhood about whether and how to reconstitute the movement in this new landscape of multiple Islamist actors and ideas, increasing societal Islamization, and a regime that had a vastly different orientation to Islam. Through this analysis we are reminded that one cannot fully understand the Brotherhood’s development without simultaneously examining the historical and political context in which it operated. Al-Arian’s account accomplishes this and by doing so he not only contributes to a deeper analysis of the Brotherhood but also to a richer understanding of Egyptian politics during this period.

The heart of the book is Al-Arian’s chronicle of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya’s rise as the most successful Islamist student organization in the 1970s. Many of the group’s leaders would go on to leadership positions within the Muslim Brotherhood: Essam El-Erian, Abul Ela Madi, Ibrahim Al-Zaafarani, Helmi Al-Gazzar, and the group’s brightest star, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Al-Arian introduces us to these young student activists, particularly Aboul Fotouh, and the student movement they created. He analyzes the group’s ideology and mode of operation, including its cultural and religious programs, awareness campaigns, and important summer camps. By 1977 Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya had become so popular that the group dominated student union elections across the country. But by the end of the decade, it found itself within the crosshairs of the regime.

Although Al-Arian tells us that the student activists and the Brotherhood both benefited from their merger, the Brotherhood arguably benefited more. Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya members were not allowed to join the Brotherhood as a group but were required to join individually and pledge allegiance to the general guide. The Brotherhood demanded loyalty and wanted to maintain control of its organization. The young activists who would move into senior leadership positions in the Brotherhood were ultimately unable to wrest control of the organization from its more conservative leaders, arguably with devastating consequences for both the Brotherhood and Egyptian politics. A number of student activists from this generation ultimately left the movement, like Madi and the others who founded Hizb Al-Wasat, or were marginalized or driven out, such as Aboul Fotouh. It is reasonable to suggest that the Brotherhood would have been more interested in establishing a genuinely democratic Egypt following the 2011 uprising (and less interested in dominating politics single-handedly) if leaders such as Aboul Fotouh and Madi had managed to gain control of the organization earlier.

Samer S. Shehata is associate professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt; and the editor of Islamist Politics in the Middle East: Movements and Change. He has contributed to the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon, Foreign Policy, and many other publications. 

Discontent and Its Civilizations

Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London. By Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books, New York, 2015. 240 pp.

Shortly after September 11, British-Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid submitted an article for an American publication. He wanted to capture the fears of his family, based in Pakistan, after this world-altering day and ahead of the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan. But according to Hamid, the piece was published without a passage he had included in the original: on the grievances of Muslims in the greater Middle East that might explain the motivations behind the attacks. “This was my first experience of what I would come to recognize as growing American self-censorship,” he recounts in his latest book, Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London.

It was a sensitive time. Then, the narratives of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terrorism were resolutely framed by Westerners, particularly non-Muslim Westerners. Over the past decade, however, it has become increasingly clear that the United States is not the only victim of terror. Iraqis and Afghans have been killed in great numbers by extremist militants as well as by Western forces. In Pakistan, Hamid’s home country, terrorist attacks alone have killed an estimated twenty thousand civilians over the last decade. Meanwhile, some sources tally the civilian death toll from U.S.-led drone strikes at nearly a thousand.

Since 9/11, space has also gradually opened for writers like Hamid whose diverse voices lend a new perspective on the sociopolitical experiences of Muslims in the West and the East. Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, set in 2000, captures the political and personal contradictions of a young Muslim man who is shaped by his experiences in both Pakistan and the United States. Now in Discontent and Its Civilizations, a collection of personal essays and writings on policy topics, he challenges the predominant narrative of 9/11—the United States and Americans as victims. In one essay, Hamid’s mother remarks about the day: “It is terrible, what happened. But now they are so angry. They talk about a war on terrorism. But they never seem to think what they do terrifies normal people here.” “Normal” is the key word: Discontent is an attempt to describe differing views as the norm, as part of the experience of today’s globalized world, and not just a fictional representation from one of Hamid’s novels.

Hamid has collected his articles spanning the years from 2000 to 2014 when he lived variously in New York, London, and Lahore; he resided in the United States just before 9/11, in Britain during the 2005 Tube bombings, and at the height of terrorist and drone attacks in Pakistan. Even when the War on Terrorism is not always the focus of his writing, its overbearing presence is felt. He recounts a humiliating experience at the Italian embassy where, in order to get a visa to visit his Italian girlfriend, he had to obtain a letter from her defining their relationship. Other essays span from personal stories of being stopped at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for further inspection before boarding a flight, to his views of Osama Bin Laden’s capture and the American drone policy in Pakistan.

Part of what makes Discontent an important addition to policy literature is that it offers an opening to Muslim experiences amid a xenophobic backlash in the West—experiences, perhaps, that can only receive a reasonable airing now after the passage of time. One of Hamid’s stories is about his decision against reporting a suspicious Pakistani character on the Tube, written a year after the London attacks; it was a choice made against the backdrop of anti-Muslim hysteria he had experienced. He doesn’t think the man on the train is a serious threat and suspects that his odd behavior—even if innocent—may prompt authorities to arrest him if Hamid had reported it. The story suggests a different sense of responsibility—the responsibility not to act—in the face of the “see something, say something” paranoia of the time. Today, it’s possible to read this incident not as a political statement against the West, but as an example of one Muslim man’s compassion to another Muslim. It is not evidence of “civilizational” unity, but simply of one’s experience. Familiar to them both is the practical struggle of being of a certain race and religion in a Western country.

These stories serve to help the reader develop a relationship with the author. In one sense, Hamid does this by organizing the essays in a non-chronological way, in three sections. The first section, titled “Life,” is meant to be a personal look at Hamid’s youth, his experiences with marriage and fatherhood, and his relationship with the three cities where he has resided. The second section, “Art,” is a collection of his musings on writing and literature. The last, “Politics,” puts forth his opinions on Pakistan, the U.S. War on Terrorism, drones, and so on. The arrangement is crucial. It is an effort to help the readers recognize the author as an individual rather than part of a collective (as a Muslim, as a Pakistani), and then to accept his views on the world as legitimate experiences, not marred by bias because of his nationality and religion.

As such, Discontent is not just a Muslim writer ranting about the War on Terrorism. These essays depict the personal and political experiences of a global hybrid. Hamid challenges the notion of a world defined by 9/11 as the only reality. If 9/11 was seen as solidifying civilizational boundaries, globalization has been tearing them down. Globalization is what allows Hamid to be at once American, British, and Pakistani. Even terrorism in today’s world seems to defy cultural categories. As he writes in one of his essays, what civilization is being targeted when a terrorist bombs Pakistan?

If anything, Hamid’s book suffers from the possibility that readers will misrepresent its significance—that it is one voice among many. “Our civilizations do not cause us to clash. No, our clashing allows us to pretend we belong to civilizations,” he tells us. As countries battle not just with each other, but with themselves, we see renewed efforts to “reclaim” nations and civilizations: bringing back America, or Pakistan, or Britain, and so forth. In such a context, it is tempting to view Hamid’s voice as the rational voice for the Muslim collective. But it is up to the reader to recognize his book as an individual’s perspective, not as a representation of a civilization. After all, civilizations are just a construction of our own making.

Rozina Ali is senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. From 2010 to 2013, she served as deputy editor for management thinking at the Economist Intelligence Unit in New York. She has contributed to Al Jazeera America, Foreign Policy, Guardian, New York Times, and Salon. On Twitter: @rozina_ali.

Failings of Political Islam

اقرأها بالعربية

Political Islam is in crisis. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamist organization operating in the Arab World, is banned in Egypt and designated a terrorist organization in the most influential Arab countries. Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, arguably the Islamist group in the region with the most developed political thinking, lost the parliamentary election in October 2014 and has been repeatedly forced to distance itself from the militant Islamists now threatening Tunisia. Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, known as PJD, may be the first Islamist party to lead a governing coalition in the country, but its leaders well understand the monarchy’s supreme position in the kingdom’s political system.

Today, it is the extremely violent Islamist groups who are demonstrating the most impact. Jihadist organizations in Iraq and Syria control a geographical area larger than some European countries, wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East in the name of the religion. They are trying to revive a seventh-century state in the second decade of the twenty-first century, yet without the moral, historical, and cultural features that had made the original one a seed for a rich civilization. For many, this is a surreal phenomenon. For others, it is the result of decades of lethargy, intellectual decline, and failing socioeconomic policies in large parts of the Islamic World and notably in the Arab region.

In this evolution of politicized religion, Islam itself has become suspect. Large sections of today’s highly connected observers, especially in the West, have come to see Islam as a religion that tolerates, if not embodies, violence. Economics aside, fear of Muslims is at the heart of the anti-immigration sentiment across Europe. There is a strong feeling in many quarters that Islam is an intellectual opponent of humanism and liberalism.

The most venerable Islamic institutions, the seats of theological learning, have so far failed to address these challenges. It does not help that the thinking found in such places has been shaped by the heritage of the last ten centuries, a period in which they were not subjected to the social pressures for change that Western religious institutions had faced. The result: the largest, richest, and most prominent Islamic institutions continue to inhabit an intellectual world that has not changed much in the last three hundred years.

The Rational Religion

The contemporary failures of political Islam stem from the struggle over the past hundred and fifty years to find a common ground between Islam and modernity—not with the tenets of the belief, the rituals, or the values associated with the religion, but rather the political, legislative, and social roles that Islam came to play in society and that many believe are integral to the essence of the religion.

In the past ten centuries, as the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and parts of southern Europe and Asia Minor became the boundaries of an Islamic World, Islam emerged as the most influential social determinant in these “Islamic lands.” Despite different understandings of Islam that appeared in each of these places and that helped shape very different cultures, Islam (or how it came to be interpreted in each region) was the decisive factor in legitimizing political rule, organizing society, passing laws, and identifying the state (any state) as Islamic.

This changed in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The arrival of European colonial powers in the Middle East exposed to Arab and Muslim publics the shocking disparity between their knowledge and means of power and that of the Westerners. This realization triggered a determination, at least within some of the elite, to escape that lethargy and catch up with the West. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Mohammed Ali dynasty in Egypt, several Ottoman sultans such as Mahmoud II, Persian shahs such as Naser Al-Din, and North African rulers such as Tunisia’s Hussein Bey modernized their armies, overhauled agrarian systems, introduced modern manufacturing, and supported changes in social norms.

The reforms, which included the general introduction of modern European-style education, diluted the political and social role of religious institutions, weakened the economic influence of religious endowments, and resulted in the replacement of religious authorities in royal courts, political circles, and judiciary positions by secular professionals. Modernity was unmistakably curtailing the role of Islam in society.

Not surprisingly, authorities in major Islamic institutions condemned this modernity. They opposed introducing secular education, gender mixing, and Western forms of financing; translating Western works of art and importing cultural phenomena such as theater; and moving away from traditional ruling and governance systems. These were apostasies to be rejected, and if need be, fought.

Some religious scholars, however, understood that the wave of modernity was unstoppable and indeed crucial for the development of their societies. They argued that modernity does not negate Islam. For them, Islam was a “rational religion” that had saved the Arabs from ignorance. In their view, the social manifestations that were superimposed on Islam in the previous centuries were creations of local cultures, poor interpretations of the religion’s rules and teachings, and deviations of reasoning. The most influential strand of this line of thinking was led by Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani and later by his disciple Mohammed Abdou. They promoted a view of Islam as a “message” that had inspired a rich civilization, added to the human accumulation of knowledge and reservoir of culture, brought peoples from vastly different backgrounds together, borrowed from other traditions (from the Hellenic to the Persian), and nurtured tolerant and often areligious philosophies such as those of Al-Razi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). This school framed Islam as a “reference” that was supposed to guide Muslim societies as they embarked on their inevitable (and in this view needed) modernization. The objective was to welcome in Muslim societies the tools (including the thinking) that had allowed the West to progress, without losing the religious and cultural features that defined Islamic identity.

Al-Afghani and Abdou became celebrity intellectuals in parts of the Islamic World. But their ideas never gained wide appeal, or acquired a huge momentum within the largest sections of Muslim-majority societies. Though in the late nineteenth century Al-Afghani had briefly been a close advisor to the Ottoman sultan Abdel Hamid II, this school of thought never had any serious state sponsorship. The ideas of Al-Afghani, Abdou, and their followers, thus ensconced in intellectual ivory towers, and disconnected from the lives of the vast majority of Muslims, remained limited in their impact. The school failed to reach, let alone convince, a critical mass of Muslims and convert them to its view of how Islam can be situated in a modern (or modernizing) society.

Another modernization project saw no place at all for Islam in society. In Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, Kamal Atatürk sought to purge all of Islam’s political and social manifestations from the new state he created on the ruins of the Ottoman caliphate. For Atatürk and his followers, Islam was at best a faith that individuals could respect and practice in their private lives as long as it exerted no influence on the state or maintained a conspicuous presence in society; at worst, its heritage was an obstacle to progress. In Tunisia three decades later, in the 1960s, Habib Bourguiba put forward similar thinking, but with a twist. Bourguiba did not position his modernization program in opposition to Islam. He did not argue that society should sever its links to Islamic heritage altogether. Instead, he emphasized that Islam was, at heart, a faith and a set of values; that Muslim societies needed the inspiration from these values to escape the lethargy of past centuries, but that they should not tolerate the religion’s political and social manifestations. For him, the “bigger jihad” (self-exertion) was in embracing the means that would allow Muslims to catch up with the world. And if that meant sacrificing the features that most Muslims associate with Islam’s presence in society (from sharia law to praying and fasting during Ramadan), then that was an acceptable price.

Atatürk’s state and Bourguiba’s regime lasted for decades. But they proved extremely lacking as political models. The electoral successes of Turkish Islamist parties from the early 1990s up to the present time demonstrates that Atatürk’s state was a top-down imposition of a system by a highly secular elite over a society in which large segments longed to express their piousness and connect their centuries-old Islamic heritage with the modernization they were willing to embrace. The uprising in Tunisia in late 2010 and the subsequent rise of the Islamist Ennahda Movement betrayed the rot that country’s secular state had become, and revealed that large sections of middle-class and poor Tunisians continued to see a key role for Islam in their lives, society, and state. The lesson of Turkey and Tunisia is clear: it is impossible to eradicate Islam’s political and social manifestations from a Muslim-majority society.

Some Arab nationalists sought an approach between the school of Al-Afghani and Abdou and the experiment of Atatürk. The Arab nationalist project, especially in its heyday under Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, was centered on the idea of a secular, socialist renaissance that would “free the Arab World,” bring social equality to masses of poor Arabs, and “resurrect the Arab will.” Islam hardly featured in this vision. But the faith and Islamic heritage were nonetheless conveyed as “the civilizational umbrella” overarching Arab nationalism. The wording was intentionally vague; it left it to the nationalist leaders (or their propagandists) to promote or marginalize Islam as they saw fit. Still, the approach was an attempt at advancing modernization without rejecting society’s connection with Islam. Unlike in Atatürk’s model, Islam was neither the intellectual opponent of modernization nor the obstacle to progress. But, unlike in the Al-Afghani–Abdou model, Islam was not the main identity to be preserved nor the framework against which new ideas would be measured.

This approach, too, failed. Military defeats and poor economic performance aside, the variants of Arab nationalism (Nasserite or otherwise) proved unable to deliver on the huge expectations stirred in the 1950s and 1960s. The crushing of the dream weakened the notion of Arabness. It created a colossal, and for many a painful, vacuum in the Arab psyche. Nothing was more effective at filling it than a return to “our real identity”: Islam.

Several factors helped. The exponential increase in oil prices in the 1970s triggered a huge wave of migration from non-oil exporting Arab countries to the Gulf states. Millions of Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans, Palestinians, Syrians, and Sudanese went to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates at a time when these countries were much more conservative than they are today. This coincided with a gradual but unmistakable change in the role of the state in poor Arab countries. These states were increasingly unable to meet the obligations they had assumed in the 1950s and 1960s: free education and healthcare, and highly subsidized food and energy.

In the span of two decades, these developments caused a transformative change in the composition of the middle classes of several large Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria. Traditionally conservative social groups were climbing the social ladder; strict values (and religious doctrines such as the Saudi-funded Wahhabism) were exported from the Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. The look and feel of Arab societies were being altered: from a dramatic rise in the percentage of veiled women to conspicuous changes (many would say deterioration) in the quality of Arab culture, art, and entertainment. Some Arab regimes, most notably that of President Anwar Sadat in Egypt, gambled on the conservative religious trend to weaken the nationalist legacies of their predecessors and rivals and consolidate their legitimacy. They empowered Islamist groups in universities, professional syndicates, and in the mass media at the expense of secular Arab nationalists.

The fall in 1979 of the shah of Iran’s highly Westernized regime in a fiery Islamic revolution inspired hard-line Muslims to dream of removing secular political systems and returning society to the “righteous path.” The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, also in 1979, provided the Islamist movement with tens of thousands of battle-hardened fighters. Several countries, led by the United States, worked to turn the Soviet adventure into a struggle in which Islamic fighters fought to expel the “atheist Soviet Union from Islamic Afghanistan.” A decade after the Soviets withdrew, those victorious fighters returned to their home countries to use their way of jihad—guerrilla war—against the “infidel regimes soiling the Islamic lands.”

All of this gave strong momentum to longstanding Islamist political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as well as to militant organizations and militias that emerged in the Arab World in the 1980s and 1990s. None of these groups, however, was concerned with putting forward thinking that addresses the challenge of reconciling Islam’s social and political manifestations with secular modernity. On the contrary, they seemed to represent different versions of Islamism that negated the experience of Arabs and Muslims in adapting to modernity over the previous century.

Islamists who opted to work through existing political systems managed to build solid constituencies; establish expansive support and services networks catering to the poor and the lower middle classes; and even in some cases develop large and sophisticated economic and financial empires and media platforms. But their Islamism was primarily concerned with social features (for example more mosques and less gender mixing) and legislation (strengthening the influence of Islamic jurisprudence on civil and criminal laws, opposing modern financial products, and resisting social reforms, for example in women’s rights).

Militant jihadists, for their part, worked toward overthrowing regimes. They also sought to bring about social revolutions to Islamicize their societies (in the way they defined Islam and its political and social manifestations). For them, modernity was an affront not only to their Islamic heritage but to Islam itself. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the militants consisted of bands of jihadists fighting isolated and unsuccessful guerrilla wars in different parts of the Arab World. They justified their acts of often extreme violence on the notion that if sections of society were unwilling to adopt, implement, and live by the rules of Islam (as the militants defined them), then they were effectively rejecting Islam and becoming apostates. The Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, arguably the godfather of contemporary militant Islamism, viewed these Muslims as living in jahiliya (ignorance) as the entire world did until the Prophet Mohammed brought God’s message to mankind. Qutb’s thinking became the intellectual framework for those bent on fighting ruling regimes and their own people for “rejecting God’s rule.”

The Islamists, whether working within existing systems or using violence to overthrow them, have failed. Neither approach has succeeded in taking control of a single Arab country. By the early 2000s, all Arab countries seemed secure under hereditary monarchies or secular military-backed republican regimes. Most Arab Islamist groups became aware that to have any serious presence in politics, even at the margins, they needed to assure ruling regimes that they posed no threat and were willing to operate by the rules like other legal or tolerated opposition groups. They began to cautiously contest elections, making sure that they did not overly mobilize their constituencies or flaunt their financial resources lest they trigger an anti-Islamist backlash. The situation was different for the jihadists. Their repeated confrontations with the secular regimes (most notably in Egypt and Algeria throughout the 1990s) left them decimated and unable to operate. Some of them immigrated to Europe, where they used the protections afforded by political liberty to launch media campaigns against rulers back home. Others relocated to militant-friendly strongholds such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they grouped into new structures such as Al-Qaeda.

Arab Awakening

Misrule, corruption, and economic stagnation eventually took a toll on the secular regimes of the Arab World. Some of them were quickly swept aside by the uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread throughout the Middle East. The so-called Arab Spring started a decisive political and strategic transformation of the region. It catapulted Islamist groups to the upper echelons of power. Islamist groups came to control parliaments in Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia, and to a lesser extent, Libya; in the case of Egypt, they ascended to the presidency.

The positioning and rhetoric of these groups changed substantially. Since the mid-2000s, they had begun to put forward Islamism as a frame of reference for their societies. This meant taking lighter-touch approaches on how traditional interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence should influence politics, legislation, and economics. Several prominent Islamic scholars, most notably Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, repeatedly invoked the compatibility of Islamic jurisprudence with the tenets of democracy as they are understood in the West. By effectively accepting the notion of secular states governed by man-made laws, some scholars seemed to have resolved the dilemma of dual loyalty to the Ummah (the global community of Muslims) and to one’s own nation-state. The Muslim Brotherhood put forward social and economic initiatives inspired by case studies from Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey. Here, the Islamists were (and without challenging ruling regimes) positioning themselves as providers of social support networks serving the poor and needy and, subtly, as potential managers of their countries. Increasingly the leadership of these groups seemed forward-looking: traditional Islamic scholars were replaced by younger leaders drawn from the Islamists’ business and social services networks. Several Arab Islamist groups selected young females as spokespersons. The Islamists took every opportunity to put themselves and their organizations online, adapting to the immense social changes brought by the revolution in communication technologies.

All of this improved the standing of the Islamists at home and abroad. Islamists seemed to want to transcend the divide between Islamism and the secular modernity that their societies had experienced in the previous hundred and fifty years. Their ascendance into government through free elections after the Arab uprisings marked the beginning of a promising new attempt at resolving the Islam–secular modernity conundrum.

The promise proved short lived. Most of the Islamists exhibited inexperience, even incompetence, in governance. They found themselves having to handle severe social problems and economic challenges after decades of mismanagement, ineptitude, and corruption on the part of ousted regimes. Some Islamists such as Morocco’s PJD and Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement did not envisage changing their countries’ political systems. In Tunisia, Ennahda was more ambitious. Coming to power in arguably the freest election in the Arab World in the previous half-century encouraged Ennahda’s ambitions to try to merge its Islamist thought (influenced by its leaders’ intellectual work in the previous twenty years as well as by decades of exile in Britain, France, and Italy) with the country’s secular heritage. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood went further. It sought to control key state institutions, widen its economic influence to the most lucrative sectors in the country, and imbue legislation and public life with assertively Islamist tones and connotations. The Muslim Brotherhood rise was accompanied by an air of imperiousness, having finally taken the helm of power after decades in the wilderness of political repression and exile.

But the Islamists coming to power resulted in a deep social polarization. Across the Arab World, large segments of society became apprehensive about what they perceived to be an Islamicization project. Especially in countries with rich secular heritages such as Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, many feared that the Islamists’ rise would bring not merely gradual changes in the political and economic structures but a complete transformation of the identities, social dynamics, and look and feel of societies. The fears were only heightened when austere, apolitical, and once marginalized groups such as the Salafists (those who revere the salaf—the predecessors, a reference to the earliest communities of Muslims in the seventh century) emerged as a social and political power to be reckoned with.

To be sure, many Arab secularists stoked the polarization. For them, the rise of the Islamists was a painful experience. The older generations of secularists saw it as the final blow in a succession of failures throughout the past half-century in which they were used and abused by regimes run by monarchists, Arab nationalists, and militarists. Young secular activists felt that they played a significant role in triggering the Arab uprisings only to find themselves facing Islamist groups that were by far richer, much better organized, and enjoyed significantly larger social constituencies. As the secularists were dealt one electoral defeat after another, many felt they were fighting in an unfair game.

The social polarization was exacerbated, of course, by the fears of religious minorities. For some years even before the ascent of the Islamists, Arab Christians and other minorities looked with trepidation on emerging trends: the strengthening of the role of sharia in civil and penal codes, constitutions brought into closer conformity with Islamic law, the emergence of known militant Islamists in political life, unmistakably strong Islamist rhetoric in domestic discourse and in foreign policy, and a palpable feeling that diversity and “un-Islamic” lifestyles were becoming unwelcome.

The fears were hardly quelled by the spread of shockingly violent jihadist groups in the region. Offshoots of Al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), espoused more or less the same ideology as the militant jihadists of the previous few decades. But their resources became significantly larger at a time when the Arab state system that emerged in the aftermath of the First World War and collapse of the Ottoman caliphate was finally crumbling. The demise of central rule in Iraq and Syria undermined the nation-state in the eastern Mediterranean, gave space for sectarianism to flourish, and allowed non-state actors—and especially the militant Islamist groups—to entrench themselves in parts of the region.

The chaos convinced national security establishments in the Arab World that Islamists were part of a larger effort (some are convinced of a “conspiracy”) to redesign the region: divide some countries, redraw the borders of others, and crucially, undermine the secular Arab nation-state. For these Arab national security establishments, fighting the Islamization project in all of its forms—whether in politics or on the battlefield—became a national mission to “save” their countries.

Five years after the Arab Spring, political Islam in the region, despite a brief moment of ascendancy, has returned to its earlier status: marginalized, mistrusted, or persecuted. The potential for a reconciliation of Islam with secular modernity has gone unfulfilled.

In Tunisia, social polarization, the spread of Salafism, and the coalescing of secular forces from the old Bourguiba establishment against Ennahda forced the Islamist movement to hand over power to a technocratic government. Ennahda’s political opponents formed a formidable political bloc that received significant financial backing from inside and outside Tunisia and secured victory in the country’s 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections. Ennahda retreated from its ambition of promoting its progressive views about how Islam can be a frame of reference for a modernizing society, and became concerned with defending its ideology and differentiating it, to any listener, from the militant Islamism that has spread in Tunisia. In Egypt, the Islamist­–secularist divide evolved into a confrontation between Egyptianness (the traditional understanding of the nation’s identity and way of life as held by the middle and upper middle classes) and what large social segments perceived as an aggressive Islamicization project led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Large demonstrations in the summer of 2013 championed a military intervention that ejected the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

“Islam Is the Solution”

The experience of the past five years has made reconciliation between Islam’s social and political manifestations and secular modernity even more problematic. For many Arabs, these manifestations have now become associated with Islamists and the notion of political Islam, which they have come to mistrust as rarely before. From the perspective of the Islamists, the rejections they experienced, and the fierce and often bloody crackdowns to which they were subjected, clearly showed that large segments of society (including self-described liberals) were willing to sacrifice democracy to deny them power. A desire for revenge has been gaining ground within some Islamist groups, and especially amongst their young cadres. In this view, large sections of Arab societies are not opposed to Islamists but to Islam itself.

This view drives many Islamists to draw the wrong lessons from the Arab Spring. Highly influential Islamists now reduce the history of the last century and a half to a mere confrontation with the secularists. To them, the Arab uprisings signaled the failure of Arab liberals and socialists, and marked the beginning of the Islamists’ age. Secularists had ruled the Arab World (and Turkey and Iran) since the region’s first encounter with modernity in the nineteenth century, the reasoning goes, and they had failed. The displacement of Islam as the basis for political legitimacy, and relegating it to being a mere component of a rich social fabric, was an affront to God’s rule. To the Islamists, it was now the time for them to enter power and correct what had gone wrong. Their rise to power was the dawn of a new age of Islam. When the Islamists instead found themselves ejected from power, they viewed it as a strike against Islamic rule and even a rejection of Islam. Few of their leaders paused to consider why large sections of the Arab public had turned against them so rapidly. The rhetoric focused on the Islamists’ confrontation with the powerful nationalist institutions that fought them. They seemed oblivious to legitimate concerns that accompanied the rise of the Islamists, such as deep social polarization, weakened national security, and lack of preparedness in confronting acute economic challenges.

Equally problematic, especially after what appeared to have been a serious evolution of Islamist thinking before coming to power, is that the Islamists in ascendance did not provide any answers to some of the most difficult questions Islamism has always triggered. Islamists have always looked at episodes in Islamic history as ideal epochs. The first three decades in Islamic history have always been regarded by most Muslims as the purest era of the “rightly guided” leaders. Other Islamists look at the ninth century (the Abbasid dynasty, when the Islamic caliphate was, arguably, the most powerful and richest state in the world, and the preeminent center for science and the arts) as the “golden age” of the Islamic civilization. Islamists who invoke Islamism’s acceptance of “others” (and especially Christians and Jews) cite Islamic rule in Iberia (the Andalusian era) as an example of how Islamic regimes could (and should) maintain an inclusive and harmonious society. Many Islamist thinkers reflect on the second half of the nineteenth century as the time when Islamist reformers (such as Al-Afghani and Abdou) put forward ideas that incorporated modernity without sacrificing the “Islamic nature” of the state and the “Islamic identity” of society.

The problem is the Islamists’ backward-looking perspective. Apart from the romanticizing of these eras (which were hardly examples of utopian social harmony), they all were the products of social, political, economic, and cultural circumstances that are vastly different from the ones that have shaped today’s Middle East. Invoking these “ideal” historical epochs could, at best, inspire, but at worst, mislead. In reality, they do not correspond at all to the present. These, and other episodes of Islamic history, will always be integral parts of Islamic heritage; they will always be important anchors of the cultures of societies with Muslim majorities; they will continue to enrich the identity of anyone associating him or herself with Islam (as a faith and/or a cultural background). But they will not guide political and economic systems in today’s world.

Islamists also continue to clutch to a naïveté that is inconsistent with their long and rich experience. Many Islamists invoke al-Imam al-fadel (the righteous leader), al-madina al-fadila (the ideal city), and the notion that “Islam is the solution.” Several Islamist groups continue to use these slogans to mobilize the public, especially in elections. In the early twentieth century, some founding fathers of political Islam derived these terms from medieval schools of Islamic philosophy and tried to imbue them with meanings that relate to twentieth-century Arab societies. These attempts had some merit in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps they were acceptable in the 1970s when Islamism was recovering from its marginalization and persecution under Arab nationalism. They could have been passable in the 1990s when Islamism was refashioning its thinking. But after the Islamists’ long experience in the last eight decades, and especially the serious social turmoil they have recently been embroiled in, such emotionally charged terms have become meaningless, if not delusional. These terms could be effective sound bytes, but they, and the thinking behind them, have nothing to offer to societies confronting serious social and economic difficulties in need of tangible and implementable solutions. Today, Islamists, let alone the jihadists, lack the intellectual tools (and perhaps the will) for another attempt at resolving the Islamism–secularism dilemma.

Islamism in the modern age thus seems to have come full circle, back to where it was in the nineteenth century. Some Islamists are looking back to the “tenets of the rational religion,” trying to merge them with modernity, openness to change, and highly flexible understandings of what an Islamic frame of reference means. Others are looking back in anger, rejecting modernity, seeing secularism as a threat destroying Islamic heritage, and insisting on a combative Islamism that rejects moving forward and repudiates the “other.” Today, as it was a hundred and fifty years ago, the Arab World, the heart of the Islamic World, is undergoing an immense political and social transformation. The difference is that today’s transformation is significantly bloodier, and therefore more intense and painful. Also today’s Arab secularists have by far less respect for genuine liberalism than that of their intellectual predecessors a century ago. In this context, it is understandable that jihadism is the most potent form of Islamism operating today.

As a result, no serious attempt at solving the Islamism–modernism dilemma is in sight. Feelings are inflamed, societies are deeply polarized, the most promising Arab and Muslim youths are disillusioned, and large sections of the secularists and Islamists in Arab and Islamic societies are severely disconnected, eyeing each other with distrust, and often contempt.

Time will have to heal the wounds that have been opened in the past five years. It must be hoped that secularists will finally recognize that, irrespective of the level of force and oppression they employ, it is impossible to extinguish Islamism from Muslim-majority societies. It must be hoped, too, that new leaders will emerge within the Islamist camp, with innovative thinking that will have absorbed the Islamists’ multiple mistakes.

Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink and the forthcoming Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World from Yale University Press. He was the writer and presenter of the BBC documentary series “The Making of the Modern Arab World” in 2013 and “Saudi Arabia: Sands of Time” in 2015. He has appeared as a commentator on international news networks including CNN and Al Jazeera English, and has written for Foreign Affairs, Financial Times, and Project Syndicate. He is the political counselor for the Arab World at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. On Twitter: @TarekmOsman.

Rule of Terror

The armed group, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has made calculated use of public brutality and indoctrination to ensure the submission of communities under its control. A terrorist group, as designated by the United Nations Security Council under Resolution 2170, it has become synonymous with extreme violence directed against civilians and captured fighters.

This report is based on first-hand victim and witness accounts describing the impact of ISIS’s rule on their lives. Based on over three hundred interviews with men, women, and children who fled or who are living in ISIS-controlled areas in Syria, we bring to light the voices of Syrians ISIS has sought to silence.

In addition, the report is informed by the publications, photographs, and video footage distributed by the armed group. The material disseminated by ISIS actively promotes their abuses and crimes. This is in marked contrast to the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and other belligerents who conceal evidence of their violations and abuses. While this report addresses ISIS conduct, this should not obscure that other parties to the conflict continue to commit egregious violations against civilians and captured belligerents.

By publicizing its brutality, ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups, or states that challenge its ideology. The group has attacked journalists and activists trying to communicate the daily suffering of those living under its yoke. Those still living inside ISIS-controlled areas are often too frightened to speak out, fearing retribution.

The Rise of ISIS in Syria

Initially, ISIS was one faction among hundreds of other armed groups in Syria. In April 2013, it began to develop into a well-organized, dominant armed force in control of large swaths of populated areas in Syria and Iraq, posing a significant threat to peace and stability in the region.

Its origins lie in the establishment of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in 2004. After merging with other Iraqi jihadist groups in 2006, AQI rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). Although degraded by the 2006–2011 U.S. counterterrorism campaign in Iraq, the group took advantage of the instability in the region to further recruit and mobilize, a process that accelerated with the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. In 2011, ISI members joined local radical militants in Syria as part of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra (Nusra Front) armed group to fight against government forces.

Following a split with Jabhat Al-Nusra in April 2013, the newly established ISIS appropriated most of Al-Nusra’s capabilities and manpower. Prioritizing the construction of a “state” over fighting the Syrian government, ISIS consolidated its authority by stifling dissent and targeting local community leaders, other armed group commanders, and activists. This triggered mounting resentment, which led to armed confrontations with other major armed groups in early 2014. Following a withdrawal to its strongholds in northeastern Syria, the group consolidated its military control and financial capacity.

ISIS’s resources were eventually reinforced significantly by the group’s gains in Iraq in July 2014. Since then, the group has steadily expanded its control over natural resources and territory in eastern Syria. Sporadic fighting in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria escalated into a protracted, intense sub-conflict between the Kurdish armed group People’s Protection Units (YPG) and ISIS.

The group’s ideology and financial capabilities found resonance among socially and economically desperate communities. Locally, it exploited the gradual empowerment of the most radical armed groups and the existing social fragmentations along sectarian and tribal lines to secure a new network of alliances among local and external supporters.

Until the group’s successful campaign in Iraq, the threat it posed to regional stability was underestimated by the international community. The failure to find a political solution or any other alternative to stop the violence in Syria and to relieve the population’s suffering left a dangerous vacuum that was filled by radicals and their foreign backers.

The external support provided to all belligerents in Syria has contributed to the radicalization of armed groups, ultimately benefitting ISIS. Charity organizations and wealthy individuals funded radical entities willing to promote their ideologies and serve their agendas. Arms and support provided to armed groups deemed as moderate have repeatedly fallen into the hands of more radical actors, including ISIS.

The arrival of large numbers of foreign fighters has contributed to the group’s expansion as the most extreme and experienced individuals have joined its ranks. Until very recently, the international community and neighboring states failed to put in place efficient measures to prevent access to the conflict area.

ISIS functions under responsible command and has a hierarchical structure, including a policy level. The group has established a command and control system under Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi, who holds absolute power and is supported by a number of entities including a military council. ISIS also depends on a network of regional and local emirs and military commanders to enforce tight discipline among its ranks and ensure full control of its territory. In recent months, the group has also relied on its centralized military leadership to coordinate large redeployments of fighters and equipment to different frontlines. Despite the recruitment of thousands of Syrians to its ranks, the ISIS leadership structure is still largely dominated by non-Syrian fighters.

The armed group’s military capabilities have grown. It has extensively employed brutal tactics, including the use of explosive weapons, mass civilian casualty attacks through suicide or remote-detonated car bombs, and the execution of fighters captured during military operations. The group has also relied on its increased mobility and firepower capabilities to surprise its opponents and ensure local superiority. Its military strategy also includes the negotiation of local agreements with various groups as part of a divide-and-rule policy.

ISIS initially relied on military hardware looted from the other Syrian armed belligerents including materiel provided by their external backers. The group significantly boosted its military capabilities after its successful campaign in Iraq. Its financial independence has further allowed the group to acquire military hardware through local markets.

ISIS simultaneously battles Syrian government forces, anti-government armed groups, and Kurdish forces on a number of distinct fronts. Throughout 2015, ISIS captured strategic areas in central Syria, including Tadmur, which includes the ancient ruins of Palmyra, in May 2015, and Al-Qaraytain, in August 2015. These successes allowed access to new resources, including oil fields east of Homs and armament depots near Tadmur.

ISIS was also able to open better lines of communications with its positions in the central and southern governorates. There the group has significantly increased its presence and activities, often by absorbing new loyalties among local militant groups operating far beyond its strongholds.

In April 2015, ISIS attempted to seize the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Damascus, attacked rebels in eastern Aleppo governorate, and expanded in areas in Suweida and Daraa governorates. While these operational gains and losses have led to the deaths of many ISIS fighters, including commanders, more have joined the group, many clandestinely crossing Syrian borders.

Since January 2015, ISIS has suffered a string of losses in northeastern and eastern Syria at the hands of the YPG, which has been supported by the international coalition airstrikes and armed militia including Assyrian and Arab tribal groups. The anti-ISIS international coalition efforts have proved effective only when conducted alongside ground operations by the YPG.

In Al-Raqqah and other areas it controls, ISIS operates a primitive but rigid administrative system that comprises the Al-Hisbah morality police, the general police force, courts, and entities managing recruitment, tribal relations, and education. The group sustains the areas under its control by maintaining some basic services in a highly repressive environment.

On June 29, 2014, ISIS proclaimed itself a caliphate initially based on, but not limited to, territories it controls in Syria and Iraq. Its creation had formed an integral part of the group’s rhetorical and military expansionist aims since the outset of its activities. For those inclined to join the movement, the existence of the newly self-proclaimed entity served as an additional motivating factor to join the group. New recruits were not only expected to engage in military activity but also help with building the emerging “state.” This declaration demonstrates that the group envisions a long-term plan and has undertaken military operations toward this end.

At the core of ISIS’s propaganda strategy is an effective use of modern communications, particularly social media for purposes of recruitment and fundraising. Many new recruits, from the region and beyond, have been influenced by widely disseminated violent images of executions, beheadings, and stonings.

Impact on Civilian Life

I told the guards that my cousin was imprisoned only because he had said something that ISIS considered to be blasphemous. I said this was not correct, and that it should be for God to deliver his own sentence. This made the guards very angry. They pushed me violently, forcing me to the ground and beating me. I was whipped four hundred times and imprisoned for several weeks.

—Interviewee from Aleppo

The ISIS emir answered me in a harsh tone: “Why? Do you have your house here? Do you have your village here? This is not your village and you have no house. I don’t want to see you talk about a house here. You don’t belong here. By tomorrow not one of you will remain here or come back here.”

   —Kurdish interviewee forced from his home in northern Aleppo

Civilians, including men, women, and children, and ethnic and religious minorities, who remain in ISIS-controlled areas, live in fear. Victims and witnesses that fled consistently described being subjected to acts that terrorize and aim to silence the population. ISIS has systematically targeted sources of dissent, detaining and threatening activists, non-governmental organization workers, and journalists with death. Most have fled and ceased reporting from ISIS areas.

In areas under the armed group’s control, civilians have experienced a relentless assault on their basic freedoms. ISIS enforces its rules summarily, inflicting harsh penalties discriminating against those who transgress or refuse to accept their self-proclaimed rule. ISIS has obstructed the exercise of religious freedoms, the freedom of expression, assembly and association, which are guaranteed by international law. The group has systematically enforced its edicts through its Al-Hisbah morality police to conduct constant surveillance within local communities. Children have been asked to inform on their parents’ compliance with ISIS rules. Civilians who fled described a rapid imposition of strict social instructions followed by brutal enforcement. ISIS has attacked social and cultural practices—including weddings, musical events, and traditional ceremonies—deemed incompatible with their self-proclaimed beliefs in both urban and rural areas, demonstrating their intent to eradicate these aspects of Syrian culture.

Many residents of ISIS-held areas complained of the brutality of violent acts perpetrated under the guise of corporal hudud punishments based on the group’s radical interpretation of sharia law, including lashings and amputations, for offenses such as smoking cigarettes or theft. Victims of ISIS punishments described being subjected to a system based on the principle that “you are guilty unless you can prove your innocence.” Corporal punishments are imposed during public events in an effort to deter those who may oppose the group’s rule and to spread terror among the civilian population.

Humanitarian actors supporting the population’s access to food have been unable to reach some six hundred thousand people in ISIS-controlled Dayr Al-Zawr and Al-Raqqah governorates since May and July 2014, respectively. In Al-Hasakah governorate, ISIS obstructed the importation of medicine by doctors and medical personnel. One interviewee said that, in April 2014, “once ISIS took over, people who left ISIS areas to get medicine risked being arrested by ISIS.” Doctors and nurses described fleeing due to the restrictions on their professional activities imposed by ISIS. By preventing the supply of humanitarian aid, the group reinforces the dependence of civilians on the services it controls.

The group deploys its fighters and materiel in close proximity to civilian areas. Since the start of the international coalition’s aerial attacks on ISIS (Operation Inherent Resolve), civilians living in Manbij in Aleppo governorate described how ISIS fighters began to position themselves in civilian houses and farms. Airstrikes on ISIS positions have led to some civilian casualties. In one instance, a civilian whose relatives were killed in a coalition airstrike was forced to flee because he complained to ISIS about its presence near his home.

Where ISIS has occupied areas with diverse ethnic and religious communities, minorities have been forced either to assimilate or flee. The armed group has undertaken a policy of imposing discriminatory sanctions such as taxes or forced conversion—on the basis of ethnic or religious identity—destroying religious sites and systematically expelling minority communities. Evidence shows a manifest pattern of violent acts directed against certain groups with the intent to curtail and control their presence within ISIS areas.

Between September and October 2013, ISIS fighters attacked three Christian churches in Al-Raqqah governorate, destroying the Greek Catholic church, occupying Al-Shuhada Armenian Orthodox church in Al-Raqqah city, and burning an Armenian church in Tel Abyad. As ISIS spread throughout eastern Syria, Christians and their places of worship continued to be attacked. In September 2014, ISIS fighters destroyed an Armenian church in Dayr Al-Zawr.

On February 23, 2014, ISIS published a statement addressing Christians that had fled Al-Raqqah establishing conversion to Islam and the payment of a jizya tax as conditions for their return. The forced conversion of several Assyrian Christians has been documented.

Father Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest and a peace activist who had been exiled from Syria in 2012 after criticizing the government, was abducted in Al-Raqqah city by ISIS on July 29, 2013. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

ISIS began to forcibly displace Kurdish civilians from towns in Al-Raqqah governorate in July 2013. After demanding that all Kurds leave Tel Abyad or else be killed, thousands of civilians, including Turkmen and Arab families, fled on July 21. Its fighters systematically looted and destroyed the property of Kurds, and in some cases, resettled displaced Arab Sunni families from the Qalamoun area (Rif Damascus), Dayr Al-Zawr, and Al-Raqqah in abandoned Kurdish homes. A similar pattern was documented in Tel Arab and Tel Hassel in July 2013. As ISIS consolidated its authority in Al-Raqqah, Kurdish civilians were forcibly displaced from Tel Akhdar and Ayn Al-Arab (better known by its Kurdish name, Kobane) in northern Aleppo governorate in March and September 2014, respectively. As a direct consequence of ISIS conduct, which runs contrary to international humanitarian law and amounts to the war crime of displacing civilians, the demographics of northeastern Syria have been altered.

Perpetrated as a widespread and systematic attack against the Kurdish civilian population, these acts amount to the crime against humanity of forcible displacement. According to former residents, attacks on Shiite husaynias and homes in Al-Raqqah caused mass displacement, while others converted “to survive.” The complete destruction of the Uwais Al-Qarni Shiite Mosque and the desecration of seventh-century tombs on May 31, 2014 in Al-Raqqah were carried out as part of an assault against Shiites in the area. Sunni mosques constructed around tombs or shrines of religious figures have been considered idolatrous and also destroyed by ISIS.

ISIS carries out large-scale victimization through the systematic imposition of harsh restrictions on basic rights and freedoms indicating an underlying policy. The brutal nature and overall scale of abuses is intended to reinforce the group’s absolute monopoly on political and social life to enforce compliance and conformity among communities under their control. Imposition of severe measures disguised as religious edicts has formed part of the attack against the civilian population, in addition to the perpetration of armed violence against civilians, mistreatment of persons taking no active part in hostilities, and violence against identified communities.

In attacking churches, historic monuments, and buildings dedicated to religion and culture, which did not contain any military objectives, ISIS violated its obligations under customary international humanitarian law. Targeted as such, ISIS has perpetrated the war crime of attacking protected objects. These crimes were committed as part of ISIS’s attack on the civilian population in Al-Raqqah, Dayr Al-Zawr, and Aleppo governorates, deliberately inflicting terror. The result of these attacks has been the expulsion of large segments of these communities and the subjugation of those who remained.

Attacks on the Civilian Population

Both victims’ hands were tied to each side of the improvised cross. I went to read the placards. On the first one it read, “This is the fate of those who fight against us.” I realized that my 7-year-old son was next to me, still holding my hand and watching this horrifying scene. He later asked me, “Why were they there? Why was their blood on the heads and bodies?” I had to lie to him and say they were waiting for ambulances to come and rescue them.

—Witness to the displayed bodies of ISIS victims, Dayr Al-Zawr

ISIS declared through mosques that hudud, in this case for looting, would be implemented against someone in [a public square]. At the designated time on the following day, a man was brought to the square, blindfolded. A member of ISIS read the group’s judgment. Two people held the victim tight while a third man stretched his arm over a large wooden board. A fourth man cut off the victim’s hand. It took a long time. One of the people who was standing next to me vomited and passed out due to the horrific scene.

—Witness to an amputation in Al-Raqqah

ISIS has beheaded, shot, and stoned men, women, and children in public spaces in towns and villages across northeastern Syria. ISIS employs the practice of takfir, declaring someone to be a heretic, in order to justify attacks on any individual or group it perceives to be a challenge to its dominance. Many of those executed were accused of being affiliated with other armed groups or collaborating with the government. In public declarations made before the executions, ISIS has designated such people as kufar or infidels.

The mutilated bodies of male victims are often placed on display, a warning to the local population of the consequences of failure to submit to the armed group’s authority. One man, a witness to the killing of a 16-year-old boy in Al-Ashara (Dayr Al-Zawr governorate), said the boy’s body was hung on a cross in a public square “for people to see what it looks like to be punished by ISIS.”

Executions have been recorded in Aleppo, Al-Raqqah, Idlib, Al-Hasakah, and Dayr Al-Zawr governorates. They follow a consistent pattern. ISIS, often through the Al-Hisbah morality police, informs residents of the time and place of the execution and urges them to attend. Those found on the streets nearby are taken by force to witness the killings. Before executions, ISIS fighters announce the victims’ “crimes.” Following the killings, the corpses are placed on public display, often on crosses, for up to three days, serving as a warning to local residents. Witnesses saw scenes of still-bleeding bodies hanging from crosses and of heads placed on spikes along park railings.

Interviewees have remarked that executions have become common and that there are “always” heads and bodies on display in the squares and roundabouts of the larger towns. The growing desensitization underpins the trauma of the civilian population.

ISIS also carries out amputations and lashings in public spaces in its areas of control. Men have had their hands amputated for allegedly committing theft. The group has also amputated the fingers of men caught smoking. Men have been lashed for being in the company of women who ISIS considers to be “improperly” dressed, for smoking, not attending Friday prayers, trading during prayer times, and for having tattoos.

ISIS regards the Yazidi Kurdish community as infidels and their religious practices “deviant.” On May 29, 2014, ISIS attacked Al-Taliliyah (Al-Hasakah governorate), which used to contain a Yazidi Kurdish community. The village had been taken over by internally displaced persons, most of whom were women and children, from Al-Safira (Aleppo governorate). ISIS fighters—mainly foreign fighters who did not speak Arabic and so could not understand the protestations of those they were killing—believed their victims to be Yazidi Kurds. The executions halted only when an Iraqi fighter arrived and translated to the other ISIS fighters that the civilians were Sunni Arabs.

ISIS has set up detention centers in former government prisons, military bases, hospitals, schools, and in private houses. Former detainees described being beaten, whipped, electrocuted, and suspended by their arms from walls or the ceiling. Witnesses to public executions remarked that the victims often bore signs of prior beatings. Detainees are held in dirty and overcrowded cells. Many spent long periods of time in handcuffs. Detainees interviewed stated that neither they nor their cellmates received medical treatment. One detainee recalled a Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter being left in his cell beaten, with his hands cuffed behind his back and an open fracture on his leg.

ISIS has sought to control the flow of information in the areas it holds. Scores of Syrian journalists and human rights activists have been abducted, disappeared, tortured, and executed. Their targeting largely failed to attract widespread media attention. As early as June 2013, ISIS began to abduct and torture Syrian journalists in Aleppo and Al-Raqqah governorates. Former prisoners stated that the most brutal treatment inside ISIS detention centers was meted out to those suspected of being part of other armed groups, local media workers, and fixers working with international journalists.

One journalist, abducted in June 2013, was beaten in the ISIS detention center in Jarablus (Aleppo governorate) and accused of being a spy. Another Syrian journalist, held in an ISIS detention center in Al-Raqqah governorate in January 2014, was beaten and, upon release, was threatened with death if he photographed or filmed any of the armed group’s activities, with one fighter telling him, “We will make sure you will never again be able to do anything on top of the earth.”

In October and November 2013, journalists working for international television channels were killed in Aleppo city. Since that time, media workers have disappeared in ISIS-controlled areas; their fate and whereabouts remain unknown. On or about August 19 and September 2, 2014, ISIS executed two American journalists. On September 13, 2014, the group executed a British aid worker. All three had been abducted and detained in Syria. The group filmed the executions, attempting to impact international policy and the anticipated aerial attacks on their positions.

Journalists and activists working to document the violations and abuses suffered by their local communities under ISIS have been denied their special protection under international humanitarian law and have been disappeared, detained, tortured, and killed.

As an organized armed group exercising effective control over territory, ISIS has an obligation to ensure humane treatment. By regularly using violence to life, torture, mutilation, and cruel treatment, ISIS is violating binding international humanitarian law. Its commanders can be held individually responsible for the ensuing war crimes.

Subjecting persons to mutilation, by permanently disfiguring or disabling them through the removal of appendages, amounts to the war crime of mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture. Displays of dead, mutilated bodies are deliberate acts intended to humiliate and degrade the victims and their families, amounting to the war crime of outrages upon personal dignity.

By orchestrating systematic harm against a civilian population, ISIS has demonstrated its capacity and intent to willfully apply measures of intimidation and terror, such as violence to life, and inhuman treatment inflicting great suffering and injury to bodily integrity.

ISIS has committed torture and murder as part of an attack on a civilian population in Aleppo, Al-Raqqah, Dayr Al-Zawr, and Al-Hasakah governorates, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The war crime of murder has been committed in Idlib governorate. The group has further committed the crime against humanity of enforced disappearance in Al-Raqqah and Aleppo governorates.

Violations Against Women

A 19-year-old university student committed suicide because her parents forced her to marry a man from members of ISIS. Many families marry their daughters (including those under 18) to ISIS members because of their fears to be arrested or killed.

—Interviewee from Al-Raqqah

After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the sharia amongst the fighters … who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one-fifth of the slaves were transferred to the IS’s authority to be divided as khums [spoils of war].

Dabiq (ISIS publication)

In ISIS-controlled areas of Syria, women and girls have largely been confined to their houses, excised from public life. ISIS regulations dictate what women must wear, with whom they may socialize, and where they may work. Women and girls over the age of 10 must be fully covered when venturing outdoors. One woman, who had fled from the ISIS stronghold of Manbij (Aleppo governorate), described her clothing being checked at multiple checkpoints as she moved about the town. She explained, “You can hardly see your way. . . . I fell many times. It is hard to breathe. You are walking in the street but it feels like a prison cell.” Women and girls are not permitted to be in the company of men outside of their immediate family. For women whose male relatives are dead, missing, or fighting, the simple act of going to purchase food has become a hazardous undertaking.

ISIS rules exacerbate the subordinate role of women in society, reinforcing patriarchal attitudes. Failure to abide by these rules is punishable by lashing. Punishments may be carried out by the Al-Hisbah morality police but increasingly they are the responsibility of the all-female brigade, Al-Khansaa, which assists in monitoring adherence to dress codes and enforcing punishments.

These enforcement brigades act in violation of international humanitarian law and perpetrate the war crimes of outrages upon personal dignity, torture, and cruel treatment against women. The psychological and physical harm caused by ISIS’s treatment of women, the onerous instructions imposed on their dress code, and restrictions on their freedom of movement demonstrate discriminatory treatment on the basis of gender.

Unmarried women—whom ISIS considers to be females over the age of puberty—pose a particular threat to the armed group’s enforced social order. Parents of unmarried women and girls are terrified of their daughters being forced to marry ISIS fighters and as a result, early marriage is on the rise. Their fears are not unfounded. There are distressing accounts of fighters taking girls as young as 13 away from their families, resulting in violations of international humanitarian law and acts that amount to war crimes of cruel treatment, sexual violence, and rape.

ISIS has executed women, as well as men, for unapproved contact with the opposite sex resulting in charges of adultery. In Al-Raqqah governorate, ISIS executed eight women on these grounds on three separate occasions in June and July 2014. Most were stoned to death, ostensibly for adultery. Others interviewed indicated that the women had been discovered helping fighters from other armed groups. According to footage released by ISIS, the women were made to stand, while veiled with their hands bound to their sides, in a shallow grave, while men hurled large rocks at their heads until they collapsed and eventually died from their injuries. Stonings, perpetrated by ISIS and allied clans, have recently been documented in Dayr Al-Zawr and Hama governorates. In August 2014, ISIS detained and beheaded a female dentist in Al-Mayadin (Dayr Al-Zawr governorate) who had continued to treat patients of both sexes. These killings violate binding international humanitarian law and amount to the war crimes of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, murder, and sentencing and execution without due process. The killings and acts of sexual violence, perpetrated by ISIS as part of its attack on the civilian population, constitute the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, rape, and sexual violence.

During its early August 2014 attack on Sinjar in northern Iraq, ISIS abducted hundreds of Yazidi women and girls. Some abductees have been taken into Syria and sold as “war booty” in markets in locations across Al-Raqqah. Regarded as chattels, these women and girls are imprisoned in houses and are being held in sexual slavery. As of mid-2015, ISIS held over one thousand Yazidi women and girls in sexual slavery. Sold and re-sold, girls as young as age 9 are subjected to repeated rapes and beatings.

While some women appear to have been sold to individual men living in Al-Raqqah, others are held in ISIS rest houses in urban areas in the governorate. Those held by ISIS are suffering rapes by multiple fighters returning from the battlefront. The systematic sexual violence and enslavement—perpetrated by ISIS and by the men who have bought them at public auction—is continuing.

ISIS has publicized its own intentions regarding these violations, stating, “After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the sharia amongst the fighters … who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one-fifth of the slaves were transferred to the IS’s authority to be divided as khums [spoils of war].” The group, in its magazine, welcomes the enslavement of the Yazidi women, declaring one of the signs of the hour [apocalypse] to be when “the slave girl gives birth to her master.” In sexually enslaving Yazidi women and girls and forcing them to bear the children of ISIS fighters, the armed group views the offspring as belonging to the father, superior to the mother, and prevents another generation of Yazidis from being born.

ISIS attacks on Yazidi women and girls now being held inside Syria are violations of international humanitarian law and amount to the war crime of sexual slavery, sexual violence, rape, and forced pregnancy.

The enslavement of Yazidi women was undertaken as part of ISIS’s attack on civilian communities considered to be infidels. Their treatment in unlawful confinement and stated motivation behind their capture and enslavement demonstrate the intent of ISIS to forcibly impregnate and thereby affect the ethnic and religious composition of the group. Undertaken as part of a widespread and systematic attack, these acts amount to the crimes against humanity of enslavement, rape, and sexual violence. The nature of attacks on the Yazidis, taken together with ISIS’s public statements over social media, suggests a denial of this religious group’s right to exist.

Violations Against Children

I saw at least ten armed ISIS members aged 13–14 years old. These boys served as guards at ISIS headquarters and at checkpoints. They were armed with Kalashnikovs and grenades.

—Interviewee from Al-Hasakah

People who were caught eating during the fast of Ramadan were lashed in the streets. An ISIS member approached a 14-year-old boy after seeing him drinking water, then dragged him to the middle of the crowd in the street, announced his “crime” and lashed him seventy-nine times.

—Interviewee from Al-Raqqah

Children have been the victims, perpetrators, and witnesses of ISIS executions. Boys under the age of 18 have been executed—either beheaded or shot—for alleged affiliation with other armed groups. ISIS fighters under 18 years of age are said to have performed the role of executioner. A 16-year-old fighter reportedly cut the throats of two soldiers, captured from Tabqa airbase in late August 2014, in Slouk in Al-Raqqah governorate. Children are often present in the crowds at the executions and cannot avoid seeing the publicly displayed corpses in the days that follow. One father from Dayr Al-Zawr stated that the first time he saw the body of a man hanging from a cross in Al-Mayadin in late July 2014, he stood for several minutes, transfixed by the horror of the scene, before realizing that his 7-year-old son was with him, also looking at the body. That night, his son was not able to sleep and woke up repeatedly in panic. His father described feeling immense guilt for exposing his son to such cruelty.

The public execution of 15-year-old Mohammed Qatta, a coffee seller in Aleppo, on June 9, 2013 was an early demonstration of the brutal way in which ISIS punishes and uses terror to ensure discipline among children, in particular boys. Collected information reveals that ISIS prioritizes children as a vehicle for ensuring long-term loyalty, adherence to their ideology, and a cadre of devoted fighters that will see violence as a way of life. The formation of new “cub” training camps has been documented.

Education is employed as a tool of indoctrination, designed to foster a new generation of supporters. In many areas, the school curriculum has been amended to reflect ideological priorities and weapons training. It has established training camps across areas under its control. Since September 2013, Al-Bouhtri School in Al-Bab (Aleppo governorate) has been used as an ISIS recruitment and military training facility for boys under the age of 18. The sharia youth camp near Tabqa (Al-Raqqah governorate) reportedly trains over three hundred fifty boys between the ages of 5 and 16 years for combat roles. The armed group also deliberately aims propaganda at children. In Al-Raqqah city, children are gathered for screenings of videos depicting mass executions of government soldiers, desensitizing them to extreme violence. By using, conscripting, and enlisting children for active combat roles, the group is perpetrating abuses and war crimes on a massive scale in a systematic and organized manner.

Following the abduction of 153 Kurdish boys, aged between 14 and 16, on May 29, 2014, the group detained them in a school in Manbij (Aleppo governorate), screened videos of beheadings and attacks, and subjected the boys to daily instruction on militant ideology for a five-month period. Those who disagreed were punished with severe beatings. Upon their release, they were told they had completed their religious training. Parents of the boys described fearing that their sons were deliberately groomed to inject ISIS’s worldview into their Kurdish communities.

ISIS has instrumentalized and abused children on a systematic scale. The deliberate nature of violations against children is apparent. By exploiting schools to indoctrinate children, the armed group fails in its obligations to ensure education and the protection of children from the dangers arising in war. In training and using children for combat roles, ISIS has violated international humanitarian law and perpetrated war crimes on a mass scale.

Violations Committed During ISIS Military Assaults

The exhibition of heads (of the captured soldiers) by ISIS took place in the center of the town. It seems that they were killed just a short time earlier, as the signs of blood were still apparent.

—Interviewee from Al-Raqqah

The senior judge came and said, “We do this in front of your eyes, so you can go back and tell your children and your neighbors that this is how kufar end up, this is what they will eventually face.”

—Witness to an execution of a Kurdish fighter in Al-Raqqah

By mid-2014, ISIS had besieged the 17th Division’s base in Al-Raqqah city and the Tabqa airbase, two of the last Syrian army positions in Al-Raqqah governorate. When the 17th Division base fell on July 25, 2014, the armed group committed large-scale violations of binding international humanitarian law and the war crime of murder and mutilation, killing the soldiers captured inside and later beheading many of their corpses. Residents of Al-Raqqah city and Slouk described that, in the days that followed the attack, ISIS displayed the bodies and heads in the town squares. Videos, some recorded by the group, showed children looking at the mutilated corpses.

By August 23, 2014, the group had launched its final assault on Tabqa airbase. As it became apparent that the base would fall to ISIS, some soldiers fled across the desert. While a few made it to the safety of army positions many miles away, others were captured and killed. Two soldiers, captured outside the base, were brought to Slouk and executed in a public square between August 28­­­–30. ISIS read the judgment, declaring that the soldiers, who were Sunni, were traitors and kufar before cutting their throats. Two more captured soldiers were executed publicly in Tabqa in late August 2014.

After killing the soldiers captured near the base, ISIS mutilated their bodies. The group placed the decapitated heads of some of the soldiers on public display in squares and on roundabouts in Tabqa and Al-Raqqah cities, terrorizing the local population. Other soldiers, injured during the attack on the base and weakened from lack of water, died in the desert.

More than two hundred men, most captured still inside the Tabqa airbase, were stripped to their underwear and forced to walk into the desert. A video of this forced march was recorded and later distributed by ISIS. A later video showed hundreds of bodies lying dead in the sand, bearing gunshot wounds to the head.

In mid-July 2014, ISIS fighters seized the Shaar gas field in eastern Homs, allegedly killing three hundred fifty people in close quarters after capturing the area. Among those killed were technicians and other staff working at the gas fields and their family members, including children. The body of a doctor who was killed in the attack was found on July 27 in his medical clinic, with his hands tied and shot at close range. Civilian residents of nearby villages, such as Al-Mahfoura, were also killed in the attack.

Al-Raqqah, Dayr Al-Zawr, and Al-Hasakah governorates, with dominant tribal communities, have posed a particular challenge to ISIS rule. The massacre of the Al-Sheitat tribe in Dayr Al-Zawr in August 2014 was perpetrated in a struggle for control of oil resources near the town of Mohassan. One survivor described seeing “many heads hanging on walls while I and my family escaped.” Individuals living nearby reported seeing freshly dug mass graves. Published video indicates that ISIS fighters conducted a mass execution of fighting-age male members of the Al-Sheitat tribe. On November 6, 2014, it was reported that the ISIS commander, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, issued a statement, granting members of the Al-Sheitat tribe permission to return to their homes, upon the condition that they do not assemble, surrender all weapons, and inform on all “apostates” to ISIS. All “traitors” would be killed.

In 2014, ISIS besieged the predominantly Kurdish region of Kobane, cutting off supplies of food and electricity into the area. The group had launched several attacks, which had been successfully repelled by the YPG, Kurdish forces fighting inside Syria. On September 15, 2014, buoyed by its recent successes in Syria and Iraq, ISIS launched a multi-front attack on the Kobane region with heavy weapons, artillery, tanks, and thousands of fighters.

Between September 15 and October 5, ISIS advanced quickly through the countryside, amidst heavy clashes with the YPG. By the first week of October, the group entered the city, seizing some of its outer neighborhoods. As ISIS moved toward Kobane, more than two hundred thousand persons were displaced as they fled ISIS attacks. Most of those interviewed stated that they feared executions, rape, and abductions that ISIS reportedly committed against the Yazidi Kurds in Sinjar, Iraq, during the ISIS attack there in September 2014. Close to four hundred villages were emptied. Some of those who did not flee—who were too old, too infirm, or who had remained to protect their property—were executed by ISIS. Others were taken by force to Tel Abyad in Al-Raqqah governorate where they were detained and beaten. On release, they were forced to leave the area. Houses in rural Kobane were systematically looted by ISIS fighters, with goods and livestock transported to markets in Al-Raqqah governorate.

ISIS has executed Kurdish fighters captured during its attack. In mid-September 2014 in Tel Abyad, ISIS executed a female Kurdish fighter before a group of detained civilians from Kobane. Before cutting her throat, a fighter told the crowd, “She has fought us for three months with the kufar, and now we will behead her in front of you, and then, when you leave, you will tell your children, and neighbors, that this is the end and the fate of kufar.”

In one of its largest attacks to date, the group infiltrated Kobane city on June 2015 and killed more than two hundred fifty civilians in forty-eight hours. Also in June 2015, ISIS executed men in the Roman amphitheater of Palmyra accused of fighting or collaborating with government forces or armed groups.

In carrying out mass killings of captured fighters and civilians following military assaults, ISIS members have perpetrated egregious violations of binding international humanitarian law and the war crime of murder on a massive scale.

Criminal Responsibility

The testimonies collected reveal that ISIS seeks to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror, indoctrination, and the provision of services to those who obey. ISIS has sought to entrench its militant extremist ideology by indoctrinating children and suppressing freedom of expression. Surveillance, coercion, fear, and punishment are used to inhibit any dissent. Discrimination on the basis of gender is used to implement rigid social norms.

As an armed group bound by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and customary international law, ISIS has violated its obligations toward civilians and persons hors de combat, amounting to war crimes. In areas where ISIS has established effective control, ISIS has systematically denied basic human rights and freedoms and in the context of its attack against the civilian population, has perpetrated crimes against humanity.

Since its establishment, ISIS has acted toward a common purpose. The level of organization, character of its ranks and membership, and long-term vision indicate a cohesive and coordinated group. The military operations carried out by ISIS have been motivated by the group’s desire to seize natural resources in northeastern Syria and to subdue the civilian population living in areas under its control.

ISIS functions under responsible command and has a hierarchical structure including a policy level. The group has demonstrated its capacity to impose a policy on its members and ensure the coordinated implementation of decisions made by its leadership. With the capacity and means to attack the civilian population on a large scale, ISIS has carried out mass victimization against civilians, including segments of the population on the basis of gender, religion, and ethnicity. According to the evidence collected, there are reasonable grounds to believe that ISIS has carried out attacks in accordance with an organizational policy.

ISIS has perpetrated murder and other inhumane acts, enslavement, rape, sexual slavery and violence, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance, and torture. These acts have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population in Aleppo, Al-Raqqah, Al-Hasakah, and Dayr Al-Zawr governorates. This attack has emerged from April 2013 to the present day and is manifested through the coordinated campaign of spreading terror among the civilian population. The terror inflicted on the civilian population is clearly evidenced by witness and victim accounts. The abuses and crimes committed led to the intended submission of the civilian population. This terror was inflicted through a systematic imposition of restrictions on basic rights and freedoms and through the widespread commission of international humanitarian law violations and war crimes, including sentencing and executions without due process, killing, mutilation, rape, sexual violence, forced pregnancy, torture, cruel treatment, the use and recruitment of children, and outrages upon personal dignity.

The abuses, violations, and crimes committed by ISIS against Syrians have been deliberate and calculated. The commanders of ISIS have endorsed and directed harm against the civilian population under their control. The commanders of ISIS have acted willfully, perpetrating these war crimes and crimes against humanity with clear intent of attacking persons with awareness of their civilian or hors de combat status. They are individually criminally responsible for these crimes.

This essay is adapted from Rule of Terror: Living Under ISIS in Syria, a Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, originally issued on November 14, 2014. The commissioners are Karen Koning AbuZayd, Carla Del Ponte, Vitit Muntarbhorn, and Paulo Pinheiro (chairman).

Karen Koning AbuZayd is a commissioner of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. She served as commissioner-general for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) from 2005 to 2010. Based in Gaza, she oversaw education, health, social services, and microenterprise programs for four million Palestinian refugees. From 2000 to 2005, she was deputy commissioner-general of UNRWA. Previously, she worked for nineteen years in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Carla Del Ponte is a commissioner of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. She was the attorney general of Switzerland from 1994 to 1999, and served as the Swiss ambassador to Argentina from 2008 to 2011. She was a prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from 1999 to 2003, and for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from 1999 to 2008.

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a commissioner of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. He was the chair of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Ivory Coast in 2011. An international law professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, he was awarded the UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize in 2004. He served as the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from 2004 to 2010 and as special rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography from 1990 to 1994.

Paulo Pinheiro is the chairman of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. He was one of seven members of the Brazilian Truth Commission created in 2012 to examine human rights violations during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. He is also visiting adjunct professor of international relations at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Previously, he served as commissioner and rapporteur on children at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States from 2003 to 2010, and as the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar from 2000 to 2008. He was the Brazilian federal secretary of state for human rights from 2001 to 2002. He was the UN special rapporteur for Burundi from 1995 to 1999.

A Portrait of Caliph Ibrahim

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has been extremely successful in maintaining a high degree of anonymity and secrecy. He achieved this first in his role as leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) from 2010 and now as the emir and caliph of Islamic State (IS)* as he declared it on July 4, 2014. He rarely appears in public. Until recently he made few public statements, whether in writing, audio recordings, or videos. This is largely a consequence of advice from his security staff, who is well aware that any kind of public profile might present foreign intelligence with leads as to his whereabouts. It was a careless, boastful video, shot in the desert, that led American assassins to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in 2006.

However, I have been able to piece together an idea of the man through interviews—including speaking to a valuable source who is very close to the IS leadership and was in prison with Al-Baghdadi for two years—and various Arabic online sources. What follows is therefore a mosaic, and many fragments are, for the moment, missing. However, when assembled, this information paints a striking portrait of the world’s most dangerous man.

Personal Life

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Duaa, Doctor Ibrahim, Awwad Ibrahim, Al-Shabah (the phantom), and “the invisible sheikh” (due to his habit of wearing a mask when addressing his commanders), was born in 1971 in Samarra, fifty miles north of Baghdad. His real name is Ibrahim Bin Awwad Bin Ibrahim Al-Badri Al-Qurayshi. He is from the Bobadri tribe, largely located in Samarra and Diyala, which includes the Radhawiyyah, Husseiniyyah, and Adnaniyyah tribes, as well as, crucially, the Prophet Mohammed’s Quraysh tribe. One of the key qualifications, historically, for becoming caliph is to be a descendant of the Prophet. Commentators have pointed out that Al-Baghdadi used a miswak (cleaning twig) to clean his teeth before delivering his famous sermon at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul on July 4, 2014, declaring the caliphate. In this he was emulating the Prophet Mohammed’s reported practice. Thus he was linking himself through word, gesture, and blood lineage to the Prophet, as well as referencing the Salafist desire to return to the lifestyle of the first Muslims.

According to a biography posted online by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center and widely circulated among jihadist websites, Al-Baghdadi is from a religious family that includes several imams and Quranic teachers. His mother is from a distinguished family within the Bobadri tribe. He attended the Islamic University of Baghdad, receiving a BA, MA, and PhD. His doctorate focused on Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic culture and history. His religious credentials are taken to confer legitimacy on his claim to be not only a military and political leader but also a religious guide. This is something even Osama Bin Laden could not lay claim to. Both Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, had more secular professional backgrounds. Bin Laden was involved in the construction industry, while Al-Zawahiri was a surgeon.

People who have met Al-Baghdadi describe him as quietly spoken and serious. A contact close to the IS leadership, whom I cannot identify for security reasons, was imprisoned with Al-Baghdadi in the U.S. detention center Camp Bucca, Iraq, for around two years from 2004. He said Al-Baghdadi always had a serene smile on his face and was “calm and self-possessed.” This person, who had also been in Osama Bin Laden’s coterie, said that Al-Baghdadi reminded him of the late Al-Qaeda leader. The same source told me that Al-Baghdadi is extremely charismatic and that, sitting in a room with him and listening to him talking, “it is very difficult not to be influenced by him, his ideas, and his beliefs.”

Al-Baghdadi can also be ruthless and menacing. My contact told me that when Al-Baghdadi was released from prison, he told the American guard at the gates that he would be seeing him again. “We will find you on the streets somewhere, someday,” he threatened, “either here or in New York.” Enemies are not forgiven or forgotten by this quiet leader: after Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi was assassinated in 2010, two of the eleven members of the Shura Council convened to choose a new emir did not approve the choice of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. One of them, Jamal Al-Hamdani, was murdered shortly afterward.

As a military leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is shrewd and calculating. Though he has never fought abroad—unusual in a global jihadist leader—he has extensive battleground experience. He is an intelligent opponent too, having carefully evaluated and analyzed the experiences of “successful” longstanding jihadist organizations like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. He recognizes the effectiveness of hijra (flight); he will immediately order full withdrawal from a battle that cannot easily be won, concluding that hijra is key to the survival of Al-Qaeda affiliates from Somalia to China.

Al-Baghdadi understands the value of a well-run organization. Like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in its late 1990s heyday in Afghanistan, under Al-Baghdadi, ISI and then IS have adopted a complex, hierarchical, administrative, and decision-making structure, with departments and committees for everything from kidnapping to salaries and propaganda.

Comparisons with Osama Bin Laden are inevitable and frequent. Al-Baghdadi is held in as much esteem as Bin Laden was among Sunni fighters for his prowess as a military and religious leader; this is something Al-Zawahiri has not been able to achieve. Al-Baghdadi did not embark on his journey to the leadership with the benefit of wealth, like Osama Bin Laden. His progress has been due to his reputation alone, which appears to have won him praise and loyalty among the extremists. He has claimed that he, rather than Al-Qaeda’s present leader, is the true successor to Bin Laden’s legacy and the person most likely to fulfill his agenda. A Syrian fighter with IS once said, “Sheikh Al-Baghdadi and Sheikh Osama are similar. They always look ahead, they both seek an Islamic state.” Speaking to the same reporter, a non-Syrian fighter added, “The group Al-Qaeda does not exist anymore. It was formed as a base for the Islamic State and now we have it, Al-Zawahiri should pledge allegiance to Sheikh Al-Baghdadi.”

The indications are that Al-Baghdadi has, or has had, two or three wives. He first married when he finished his PhD, and his first son was born in 2003. According to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, his first wife is called Israa Rajab Mahal Al-Qaisi. He married Saja Hamid Al-Dulaimi in 2010 or 2011. Saja’s former husband was jihadist commander Fallah Ismail Jassem, of the Iraqi insurgency Jaish Al-Rashideen (Army of the Guides). He was gunned down by the Iraqi army in the province of Anbar in 2010, according to media reports. Saja is from an extremist family whose members all adhere to Salafist-jihadist ideology. Her father was a commander in the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), killed in battle with the Syrian Army in September 2013. It has also been reported that her sister, Duaa, carried out a suicide attack on a Kurdish gathering in Erbil, and her brother is reportedly facing execution for a series of bombings in southern Iraq.

The Al-Dulaimi tribe, from which Saja hails, is one of the largest tribes in the Arab World, with over seven million members. This is of immense significance in a country where tribal networks are a dominant sociopolitical factor; the U.S.-orchestrated Awakening campaign, which began in 2006, saw a significant (if temporary) reversal of fortune for Al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq), when tribal leaders were persuaded to turn against the jihadists. Jihadist leaders have a tradition of making political marriages to ensure tribal support. Osama Bin Laden’s fifth wife, for example, was a young Yemeni woman from Taiz: Amal Al-Sadah. Taiz is Yemen’s second largest city and, by marrying Amal, Bin Laden secured the protection of her tribe for Al-Qaeda members migrating to Yemen. According to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Al-Baghdadi married another Al-Dulaimi, Asma Fawzi Muhammad, sometime in the 2010s. It is not known if this marriage has endured. The Al-Dulaimi connection, along with Al-Baghdadi’s own extensive tribal network, may ensure greater loyalty and protection.

Saja’s identity was revealed when she was photographed during an exchange of prisoners. At some time in 2014 the Al-Qaeda group Al-Nusra kidnapped a group of Syrian nuns in the town of Maaloulah. They were subsequently swapped in a deal with the Damascus regime. Among the female prisoners released by Bashar Al-Assad’s government was Saja. Abu Maan Al-Suri, an Al-Nusra member, told reporters that Al-Baghdadi’s wife had been imprisoned along with her two sons and a younger brother. In November 2014, Saja was arrested crossing into Lebanon with two sons and a daughter, the latter, Al-Baghdadi’s child. According to a source interviewed by the New York Times, Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian, and American intelligence coordinated in Saja’s capture, in the belief that she will have a lot of valuable information. The Lebanese government also sees members of Al-Baghdadi’s family as useful bargaining tools should any of their nationals be seized by Islamic State.

A large amount of rumor and disinformation designed to paint Saja as a less high-value prisoner has followed her detention, including the suggestion that her marriage to Al-Baghdadi lasted only three months and that she is now married to a Palestinian by whom she is pregnant. Saja and her 10-year-old daughter have remained remarkably tight-lipped about their relationship with Al-Baghdadi; at one point Saja told interrogators that her husband was dead. The real status of Saja’s marriage to Al-Baghdadi is unlikely to be revealed by her. In any case, her position is now compromised—the same New York Times article quotes an American intelligence officer who captured one of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi’s wives in Iraq: “We got little out of her . . .and when we sent her back, Zarqawi killed her.” Saja’s high status among the jihadi brides suggests that she is far from ostracized by her husband or his close associates. This situation would be unlikely if the couple were divorced—and the idea that she would have absconded for another man is simply ridiculous.

Becoming Radicalized

In the 1990s, Al-Baghdadi lived at the mosque in Tobchi, an impoverished suburb in east Baghdad. Locals recall him arriving; they say the young man was quiet and polite. He gained his first experience as a preacher at the small mosque, taking prayers and the occasional sermon when the imam was away.

Like Osama Bin Laden, Al-Baghdadi enjoys sport. In Bin Laden’s case, this was basketball; Al-Baghdadi loves football, according to Daily Telegraph interviews with his contemporaries. By some accounts he was an impressive striker. It was not all fun and games, though. Tobchi locals remember him espousing fundamentalist values, losing his temper when he saw men and women dancing together at a wedding, and, finally, falling out with the mosque when its owner became associated with the political Islamic Party—his extremist ideology held that political parties are sacrilegious. The mosque owner’s tribal allegiances worked to squeeze Al-Baghdadi out, and he began preaching at the Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal Mosque in Samarra, which was frequented by several hardliners. It was around this time that he began to be known as Sheikh Ibrahim, the most common name for him in jihadist circles before he became Caliph Ibrahim.

Al-Baghdadi moved to a small town called Qaim, in Anbar province, following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Angered by the invasion of his country by foreign soldiers, he adopted the pseudonym Abu Duaa and became part of an insurgent extremist group, probably under the umbrella of Jaish Ansar Al-Sunna (Army of the Followers of the Teachings). It seems highly likely that it was here he became associated with Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and his group Al-Tawhid wal Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), which was also based in Anbar province. However, it is known that he did not at this point offer any form of allegiance to Al-Zarqawi.

In late 2004, he was arrested for “militant activities” and imprisoned without trial by the Americans in their Camp Bucca prison, deep in the desert. It was here that my source first met him, having been interrogated in Abu Ghraib prison first and then sent on to Bucca—a process my contact says was normal American practice at the time. If he was not entirely radicalized before prison, Al-Baghdadi certainly became so during his incarceration, where he met many Al-Qaeda men. As a Quranic teacher, Al-Baghdadi gave classes and lectures to many prominent Iraqi and foreign extremists in Camp Bucca.

He was released in 2006, according to my source—conflicting accounts, including official U.S. intelligence reports, have him in jail until 2009, but this is not possible given the chronology below. He co-founded a new extremist group called Jaish Ahl Al-Sunna wal Jamaa (Assembly of the Helpers of Sunna), which was active in the areas around and including Diyala, Baghdad, and Samarra, where he was a regular preacher in the mosque. Al-Baghdadi was the head of the sharia committee of Jaish Ahl Al-Sunna wal Jamaa.

He was close to some leaders of Al-Qaeda in Iraq but did not give his bayat (allegiance) to Al-Zarqawi or his successor, Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir. Al-Baghdadi liked and greatly respected the latter; he described him to my source as “a wise leader” because he sought to avoid conflict between the various jihadist groups then fighting in Iraq. It was Abu Hamza who persuaded the Jordanian Al-Zarqawi to give his bayat to Osama Bin Laden and who took his oath of allegiance on behalf of the Al-Qaeda leader. Abu Hamza then gave a special kind of bayat to Al-Zarqawi, whereby he pledged loyalty to him as a military, rather than a spiritual or religious, leader.

When Al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, Al-Baghdadi brought his group under the Majlis Shura Council (MSC) umbrella, at Abu Hamza’s invitation. The MSC incorporated Al-Qaeda and would soon be repackaged as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Al-Baghdadi was on the sharia committee and the central advisory (Shura Council) of the MSC. When ISI was inaugurated it was considered necessary to have a native Iraqi leader, because local people, as well as indigenous insurgents, were becoming indignant about the large numbers of foreign jihadists mustering in their country. The first indigenous leader went by the kunya (honorific) Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi; he was from the same Qurayshi tribe as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and Al-Baghdadi gave him his bayat. Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir—a non-Iraqi—was made the chief representative of the foreign jihadists on the consultative Shura Council. Al-Muhajir and Al-Baghdadi had a close relationship based on mutual respect. Al-Muhajir recommended that Al-Baghdadi, who was by then already the general supervisor of the ISI’s sharia committee, be promoted to deputy leader of ISI.

When Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2010, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was chosen as the group’s emir by the Shura Council, meeting in Ninevah in northern Iraq. Even though there were older, more experienced jihadists also under consideration, nine of the eleven men on the council decided in Al-Baghdadi’s favor. In little more than a decade he had gone from quiet, pious obscurity to becoming the leader of one of the most feared terror groups in history. Yet those who know him affirm that he has always disliked the limelight and would never have pushed himself forward as a leader.

Bold Leadership

Like all successful leaders, Al-Baghdadi knows how to seize the moment. He decided to exploit the chaos in neighboring Syria to establish a branch there, creating the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) almost overnight in 2013, seizing territories before the regime or the opposition knew what was going on. ISIS thus established a stronghold in Al-Raqqah, a city that was soon under its full control.

From the outset, Al-Baghdadi’s military style was robust and confrontational, favoring hit-and-run strikes and full-on raids. With breathtaking daring, the newly configured ISIS set about robbing banks and commandeering oilfields in the Syrian province of Dayr Al-Zawr. Al-Baghdadi knew that Al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden had, in its heyday, been very wealthy and extremely well equipped. Such circumstances greatly increase a group’s recruitment potential (it can pay its fighters) and its reach (via a much more sophisticated arsenal and intelligence). In Bin Laden’s case, much of the money at Al-Qaeda’s disposal came from his own personal fortune and connections in the Gulf. Al-Baghdadi decided not to rely on Arab sponsors (although Islamic State certainly has them) but simply to seize millions from whatever source came within his range.

Next, Al-Baghdadi squared up to the new Al-Qaeda leadership. He ignored orders from Al-Zawahiri to limit his operations to Iraq, effectively mounting a leadership challenge for the growing global jihadist army mustering on both sides of the border. It seemed clear that Al-Baghdadi intended to wrest control of the Global Jihad Movement (a pan-Islamic rather than predominantly Sunni movement), which Al-Zawahiri had co-founded back in 1998, from the aging fugitives in the Hindu Kush.

In contrast to his placid demeanor, Al-Baghdadi fully understood and exploited the power of extreme violence. Using the Internet and social media platforms, IS’s slick propaganda wing launched a grisly campaign disseminating images of massacres, beheadings, public executions—some by young boys—and amputations. Al-Baghdadi’s background as a scholar of the Quran and jurisprudence lent some authority to his organization’s harsh justice. With the populations of both Iraq and Syria exhausted by lawlessness and fear, Al-Baghdadi is aware that any kind of judicial system might be viewed by them as a relief, at least initially. The Taliban was welcomed after the Afghan civil war for much the same reasons.

The boldest move of all came when Al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of the caliphate at the beginning of Ramadan 2014 and then declared himself the caliph, leader of all the world’s Muslims, in the Grand Mosque in Mosul, which IS had overrun days before. Statements since attest to an unlimited vision of world domination, with Rome, as well as Mecca and Medina, in the new caliph’s sights. Is he a visionary or a megalomaniac crackpot? Most of the Western and international media know where they stand on that one; the jury is still out in much of the Arab World.


Most successful popular movements have a charismatic leader who acquires legendary status—in their own very different fields we might think of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, or Gandhi. At the height of its success, Al-Qaeda became almost synonymous with Osama Bin Laden. Even though jihadist groups are careful to train two or three deputies for every man in a leadership role, Al-Qaeda has undeniably suffered from the loss of its poster boy and his replacement by the dour Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

Al-Baghdadi’s boldness, defiance, steadfastness, and reputation as a clever battlefield strategist (borne out by his many military successes) have won him thousands of admirers across the Muslim World. For example, polls show that 92 percent of Saudis approve of the caliphate. As with Bin Laden, Al-Baghdadi’s face—and the black and white shahada (I testify) flag that IS has made infamous—can be found on a whole range of merchandise, from t-shirts to mugs and badges, all of which were freely available on Facebook at the time of writing.

Al-Baghdadi also benefits from the support of an extensive tribal network. Al-Baghdadi’s influence in his own tribal group—the same group as that of his predecessor, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi Al-Qurayshi—is such that its elders immediately gave their bayat to the self-proclaimed caliph and the Islamic State as soon as it was born. Tribes from Samarra and Diyala had earlier supported ISI under Abu Omar, out of loyalty to Al-Baghdadi.

After Al-Baghdadi took over the leadership of IS, his first public utterance was a written eulogy for Osama Bin Laden on May 9, 2011; four audio messages are all that followed for the next two and a half years. Al-Baghdadi’s video debut—the Grand Mosque sermon in which he declared the Islamic State and himself as caliph—was streamed the next day on the Internet, went viral on Twitter, was archived in the cloud, and afterward digitally disseminated to the world’s media. Apart from that, his absence from the world’s television and computer screens creates a mystique.

This is what we know of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi: he is a man of calm and pious manner and appearance but is calculating in his use of extreme violence; he is a shrewd and intelligent military tactician; he is a scholar of both law and scripture; he is a persuasive talker and preacher whose deliberate eschewing of publicity only enhances his charisma; and he is a careful manipulator of tribal loyalties, unafraid to topple others and take control himself.

Like Osama Bin Laden, he has been the subject of tributes by the poets of the jihadist world. September 2013 saw him praised in this nasheed. It was first posted on the IS YouTube channel (since deleted) and then widely circulated on the Internet. It seems to sum up the status and popularity the man enjoys, as well as the way he is perceived by the thousands of extremists who support Islamic State:

They have closed ranks and pledged bayat to Al-Baghdadi,
For he is our emir in our Iraq and ash-Sham [Syria].

For the Caliphate of God: I am its symbol.
Its glory has been decreed by our blood.
They have promised each other to protect the Caliphate.
From corner to corner
They have not held back from giving their lives for its survival.

They have closed ranks and pledged bayat to Al-Baghdadi,
For he is our emir in our Iraq and ash-Sham.

They have pledged bayat to our emir,
They are your heroic knights and our own weapon.
For he is the one to whom bayat is pledged in our land of Iraq and our land of ash-Sham
And the land of all the Muslims.
He is our emir.

They have closed ranks and pledged bayat to Al-Baghdadi,
For he is our emir in our Iraq and ash-Sham.

Preserve the soldiers of Allah, oh our custodian.
The cross has returned to our land and our homes.
We offer our lives on our skulls,
We will vanquish oppression
While our enemies lie low.

They have closed ranks and pledged bayat to Al-Baghdadi,
For he is our emir in our Iraq and ash-Sham.

Excerpted from Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, by Abdel Bari Atwan, published by the University of California Press. © 2015 by Abdel Bari Atwan.

* The Islamic State also has been known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Abdel Bari Atwan is editor-in-chief of Rai Al-Youm and founder and former editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. He is the author of The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida; After Bin Laden: Al-Qa’ida, the Next Generation; and most recently, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate. He has contributed to the Guardian and Scottish Herald and appears regularly on the BBC’s Dateline London. On Twitter: @abdelbariatwan.

The Problem with Radicalism

What are the root causes of radicalism? Admittedly, this is a very broad question. Yet, it requires serious thinking if we really want to understand why so many young people from diverse backgrounds become extremists and join violent movements. Today organizations associated with political Islam, such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Hamas, and Hezbollah, have become a focus for such discussions. Yet, world history is full of different flavors of extremism and radicalism not necessarily related to religion. With organizations from the not-so-distant past like the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, and the Irish Republican Army in Britain, ideological and ethnic terrorism with secular roots is not an alien concept to the West. Investigations into what causes radicalization and who joins terrorist groups should therefore go well beyond political Islam and improve our understanding of conditions that lead to extremist violence.

The question about the root causes of radicalism has generated a very polarized and so far inconclusive debate. Generally speaking, two major views have emerged. In one camp, there are those who see ideology, culture, and religion as the main drivers of radicalization. In the opposing camp, social and economic factors such as lack of education, unemployment, and absence of upward mobility trump other causes. The correlation between deprivation and radicalism is strongly rejected by the first group focusing on ideology for a simple reason: most terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated. In fact, the majority of terrorists seem to come from middle class and ordinary backgrounds. Terrorism is therefore almost exclusively perceived as a “security threat” with no discernible socioeconomic roots or links to deprivation. As a result, while the second group wants to prioritize development, education, and good governance to struggle against radicalism, the first group defines the fight against terrorism as a security issue with a single-minded focus on ideology.

Both camps make valid points with major implications for policymakers. Yet, attempts to create a single typology of terrorism or generic profiles for terrorists are not helpful. Radicalization is too complex of a phenomenon and it has multiple causes. An ideal breeding ground for recruitment emerges when various social, cultural, economic, political, and psychological factors come together. Dismissing the economic and social roots of radicalization on the grounds that most terrorists have middle class backgrounds is simplistic and misleading. It is equally wrong, however, to argue that ideology, culture, and religion play no role in the radicalization process.

The key to understanding who joins violent movements is to go beyond social and economic factors or pure ideology. The challenge is to see the interaction between cultural and economic factors without focusing exclusively on ideology or development. In other words, instead of cultural or economic determinism, we have to avoid deterministic, mono-causal explanations and focus on how ideological and socioeconomic factors interact. Only by adopting such an inclusive methodology can the two camps find common ground and come up with more effective prescriptions for policymakers in the fight against radicalism.

The place to start is to accept that ideology becomes much more important when socioeconomic aspirations are on the rise. This is why the concept of relative deprivation—rather than absolute deprivation—deserves more attention. Unlike absolute socioeconomic deprivation, which looks at the consequences of abject poverty or absence of formal education, relative deprivation is all about aspirations and expectations relative to opportunities. Relative deprivation is a growing problem in a world where aspirations and expectations remain unfulfilled and therefore contribute to a process of individual or collective radicalization.

As a conceptual tool, relative deprivation is useful in bridging the gap between the diverging camps concerned about socioeconomic factors versus ideological ones in the radicalization process. As the gap between expectations, opportunities, and accomplishments widens so does the possibility for ideological radicalization. It is precisely when people develop high expectations, aspirations, and hopes for upward mobility that we have to pay more attention to the potential for frustration, humiliation, and ideological radicalization. In addition to studies focusing on how rising expectations may cause revolutions, there is a growing body of literature that looks at “frustrated achievers” with high ambitions and high levels of individual dissatisfaction.

Dismissing the importance of socioeconomic factors as potential drivers of radicalization can therefore be a faulty approach in the context of developing societies. Improving educational standards without increasing prospects for employment, or providing jobs and economic benefits without creating outlets for political and social participation, create a combustible environment where frustrated achievers are increasingly tempted by radicalism. Education without employment, or employment without a sense of political empowerment, fuel the dynamics of humiliation, alienation, and frustration. This is why the growing numbers of educated but unemployed youth are particularly alarming for those who are concerned about the rise of frustrated achievers in the Arab World—and among Muslim minorities in Europe, where there are additional identity issues exacerbating the problem.

Based on this methodology focusing on relative deprivation and frustrated achievers, it makes sense that a small country like Tunisia, which has comparatively high levels of educational attainment in the context of the Arab World (but also very high unemployment rates) provides disproportionately high numbers of recruits to ISIS. Similar dynamics of relative deprivation are at play in Europe, where significant portions of Muslim populations are young, frustrated, and relatively educated but often unemployed and uprooted from any sense of belonging.

A small country like Belgium—with serious national identity, unemployment, and Muslim integration problems—provides the perfect example of a toxic breeding ground where, like Tunisia, a disproportionately high number of ISIS recruits have emerged. In that sense, concepts such as relative deprivation and frustrated achievers provide excellent analytical tools shedding light on links between socioeconomic factors and ideological radicalization.

It would be reductionist to look only at the Muslim World or at Muslim minorities in analyzing the problems of relative deprivation and frustrated achievers. We live in a global context and globalization itself further complicates the problem of relative deprivation. Poverty is no longer an absolute concept in the context of globalization. Globalization creates an acute awareness about opportunities available elsewhere. But the absence of opportunities relative to expectations is particularly acute in the Arab World and larger Islamic World. Socioeconomic decay in the Islamic World often creates considerably more frustration than in other parts of the developing world for historical and civilizational reasons.

One can argue that culture and the religion of Islam add a further layer of complexity to relative deprivation in the Islamic World. Particularly in the Arab World, a sense of nostalgia for the golden age of Islam—during which Arab civilizations far surpassed Europe—is deeply ingrained in the political culture. Unlike other developing regions of the world, Arab countries have a historic, cultural, and civilizational sense of rivalry with the Christian West. Geographic proximity further complicates this picture. Europe is often a historic point of reference in terms of social, economic, and political success. Feelings of a historic sense of superiority combined with the more recent memories of colonial subjugation and military defeat create a dangerous sense of victimization, resentment, and injustice in much of the Arab World. All these factors significantly compound the level of frustration of a great civilization nurturing great expectations and aspirations.

In a sense, Islam as a civilization is a frustrated achiever. Islam created a great civilization that once surpassed the West in terms of its scientific, artistic, economic, and military achievements. Today, however, the Islamic World collectively shares a sense of frustration and humiliation because it has little to boast about in terms of economic, political, and cultural success. Yet, Islam still has high expectations and aspirations fueled by past accomplishments. Millions of Muslims share these mixed feelings of pride and shame. The mix of these cultural, religious, economic, and political dynamics lead to frustration among growing cohorts of urbanized, undereducated, and unemployed Muslim youth who are able to make comparisons across countries. The scale of youth frustration is compounded by a demographic explosion, growing expectations, weak state capacity, and diminishing opportunities for upward mobility in most parts of the Islamic World. It does not take much of an analytical leap to see that these socioeconomic and political problems have also been the driving forces behind Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

A New Political Vocabulary

An effective strategic campaign against the root causes of radicalism in the Arab World and Islamic World at large should take the socioeconomic dimension of collective frustration very seriously. Little can be done in the short term about deeply rooted cultural and psychological grievances. But quite a lot can be done in the social and economic sphere with a program emphasizing development and good governance. An agenda based on human development with equal emphasis on education reform, democratic reforms, and socioeconomic advancement can address the ideological as well as economic root causes of radicalization.

Take the question of fighting the power of political Islam, for example. Most states in the Islamic World are often unable to provide adequate social and economic services. The capacity gap within Muslim states such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Pakistan creates a vacuum that is frequently filled by grassroots Islamic organizations that provide goods and services in crucial areas such as health, education, and housing. The absence of effective public services opens the field for the rise of Islamist networks with their own political agendas. Yet, economic development alone will not stop radicalization.

Democratization should also be considered as an effective antidote against more radical forms of political Islam because in addition to socioeconomic decay, the absence of liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly brings a political dimension to relative deprivation in the Arab World. In other words, there is a growing gap between political aspirations and the realities on the ground. The combustible mix involving the growing numbers of educated but unemployed youth in the Arab World needs to be given priority attention in the fight against political and ideological radicalization. It is, after all, the educated youth who have the highest political aspirations and expectations, and thus, it is they who are the most frustrated when their expectations are unmet. The growth of unemployment among the educated often creates a class of frustrated achievers who may end up becoming radicalized militants looking for a political cause to hang on to. Repressive political systems exacerbate these dynamics. In most authoritarian Muslim countries, the mosque is the only institution not brutally suppressed by the regime. And when the mosque is the only outlet for mass politics, the outcome is predictable: the Islamicization of dissent. As dissent turns Islamic, what naturally follows is the politicization of Islam.

Political Islam thus slowly evolves into a resistance movement against injustice, state oppression, and Western support for repressive regimes. As authoritarian governments become more repressive, a vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence emerges. Once political Islam is pushed underground, it turns more radical, aggressive, and resentful. It is therefore absolutely necessary to provide legitimate political outlets other than Islam and the mosque for opposition movements in the Islamic World.

The case for socioeconomic development and democracy in the Islamic World should not be made in the context of counterterrorism. There is no point in denying that counterterrorism is primarily about security measures. Terrorist networks would not be deterred by anything less than the strongest security measures involving the use of force. The debate about the root causes of terrorism, however, should go beyond counterterrorism. The root causes debate is about fighting the conditions that create terrorism, not terrorists themselves. This is why we need a new political vocabulary, one that goes past the narrow confines of terrorism and counterterrorism when we are analyzing the root causes of the phenomenon.

The prioritization of “radicalization” as a “process” over terrorism provides a better paradigm and framework for a number of reasons. First, radicalization more accurately reflects the political and ideological dimensions of the threat. No matter how diverse the causes, motivations, and ideologies of terrorist organizations, all attempts at premeditated violence against civilians share the traits of violent radicalism. Second, while terrorism is a deadly security challenge, radicalism is primarily a political threat against which non-coercive measures should be given a chance. There is nothing preordained in the potential transition from radicalism to terrorism. Most terrorists start their individual journey toward extremist violence first by becoming radicalized militants. All terrorists, by definition, are radicals. Yet not all radicals end up as terrorists. In fact, only a minority of radicals venture into terrorism. Focusing on the journey of radicalization amounts to preventing terrorism at an earlier stage, before it is too late for non-coercive measures. This effort at prevention can be conceived of as a first line of defense against terrorism.

Moreover, radicalism, unlike terrorism, has social dimensions involving large segments of society. One can identify radicalized societies where acts of terrorism find sympathy and even some degree of support. Yet, there are no “terrorist” societies. The relative popularity of certain terrorist networks in the Islamic World can only be explained within the framework of radicalized societies where extremist violence finds a climate of legitimacy and connivance. Such radicalized societies are permeated by a deep sense of collective frustration, humiliation, and deprivation relative to expectations. This radicalized social habitat is easily exploited by terrorists.

As far as the economic background of terrorists is concerned, it is important to remember that effective terrorist groups rely on a division of labor between young and uneducated “foot soldiers” and ideologically trained and well-funded elite operatives. While terrorist masterminds and operative leaders tend to come from professional or middle class backgrounds, the foot soldiers are often poor and uneducated. One should also not be confused by the fact that at the highest level, the implementation of terrorist activity requires proficient organizational skills and sophistication. The poorest and least educated can be recruited and radicalized by terrorist masterminds. Yet, they would make ineffective terrorists in a complex operation. Indeed, the more complex an operation is, the greater security risks it entails, and the more likely the participants are to be elite—the result of a careful screening process. All these factors only reinforce the importance of addressing the question of relative deprivation, frustrated achievers, and radicalism as a social milieu. At the end of the day, what we should really be focusing on is not the decision of a particular individual to become a terrorist. Rather, we should be looking at the social conditions that make dissident movements more likely to turn to terror and—more importantly—the circumstances under which such dissident movements receive popular support.

This is why the economic and social context within which radicalism takes root is profoundly important. Without societal support, most terrorist movements are doomed to fail. It is not a coincidence that prosperous and democratic countries have an easier time overcoming terrorism compared to impoverished and politically unstable countries where terrorism becomes a systemic problem. The most successful terrorist groups usually seek failing or failed states in which to set up shop. Failed or failing states such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and Sierra Leone easily turn into terrorist havens and are often engulfed in a vicious cycle of civil war, political violence, and radicalism.

When thinking about terrorism, we have to remind ourselves that it is primarily within a radicalized social, economic, and cultural environment that the engineers of terrorism can freely recruit thousands of frustrated achievers. Addressing the root causes of terrorism requires prioritizing human development and tackling relative deprivation. The challenge is to avoid an exclusive focus on either economic development or ideology. The best policy prescriptions will be ones that include a combination of both.

Ömer Taşpınar is professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College and director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution. He was previously an assistant professor in the European and Eurasian Studies Department of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of Political Islam and Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey; and Winning Turkey: How America, Europe and Turkey Can Revive a Fading Partnership. On Twitter: @otaspinar.

Turning Somalia Around

Somalia has long been a byword for a failed state. Amid the civil war in the early 1990s, the central government ceased to exist. Apart from pockets of relative stability in the north (in Somaliland and in part of Puntland), the people of Somalia have been living in a perpetual state of crisis, struggling for daily survival under the constantly changing influences of warlords and clan militia leaders, corrupt temporary authorities, and brutal Islamists.

In 2012, hope finally arose for Somalis, with prospects to move away from state failure and onto a path of state building and stability. Under strong international pressure, the Somali political elite agreed on a provisional constitution and the formation of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS). This government has gained international recognition and funding and, supported by African Union troops, stands as the best chance Somalis have seen to achieve peace.

New faces hailing from the business community, civil society movement, and the diaspora took the helm. They included President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and federal parliament Speaker Mohamed Sheikh Osman Jawari, who came into power in 2012 following a surprise vote within the new parliament, that stalwarts of the Somali old guard were seen as sure to win. The year 2015 is viewed as a “make-or-break” year, given the transition timeline set in the provisional constitution that calls for the popular adoption of a final constitution and holding new elections across the country by 2016.

Yet, many Somalis and international partners have been losing confidence in the process. There have been three cabinet changes in three years, due to political infighting, primarily power struggles between the president and successive prime ministers, in the context of ongoing clan tensions. The current political settlement remains very fragile, and security conditions are dire. There are serious questions about whether peace efforts can withstand a serious escalation of the nation’s protracted crisis. 

The Quest for Security

The most important change the Somali people expect from the current transition is better security. Large parts of Somalia are still outside government control and function under the threat of unsanctioned violence by non-state actors, rather than rule of law. Without doubt, the FGS is held in place because of the presence of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), currently the dominant military force in Somalia.

Current AMISOM strengths are authorized for just over twenty-two thousand; countries providing troops are Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Ethiopia. It is responsible for protecting Somali government institutions and is at the forefront of the military offensive to reclaim territories across south and central Somalia. In support of FGS forces, AMISOM has made significant advances in regaining territory from the Al-Shabab group, starting in Mogadishu, and in south and central Somalia, by the borders with Kenya and Ethiopia, the crucial port of Kismayo, and, most recently, the militant stronghold of Barawe.

The largest threat to security continues to come from Al-Shabab. The group has been on the defensive, but still controls major parts of Somali territory, mainly outside of urban areas (though it keeps a presence in them). Al-Shabab has successfully implemented its strategy of guerilla warfare with attacks on government and foreign targets across the country. It has also launched attacks outside Somalia, most notably on crowds watching the televised FIFA World Cup final in Kampala in 2010, the Westgate Shopping Mall killings in Nairobi in 2013, and the Garissa student massacre in 2015. These attacks are designed to prove that the group is a viable fighting organization, and to ensure a steady flow of support from jihadists and extremists in the Horn of Africa and foreign supporters. They also aim to demonstrate (successfully) the weakness of the Somali security apparatus and to undermine the international security presence. The capital Mogadishu itself is so vulnerable that Al-Shabab has managed to attack the presidential palace Villa Somalia and the parliament despite AMISOM protection. Al-Shabab has targeted the offices of the United Nations and other international organizations, hindering efforts to rebuild key Somali institutions.

The security environment also continues to be weakened by clan disputes and conflicting personal interests, involving corruption related to vast networks of patronage and fighting for financial gain. These tensions persist within various institutions, including the national army, the police, the security agencies and intelligence services, as well as various guard forces and sub-clan militias loosely aligned with the government.

Local militias have also been consolidating their influence, particularly in proximity to the Ethiopian and Kenyan borders, amid the lack of local government structures and central government presence. This influence has undermined the processes of forming new federal states and local administrations in areas where tensions with the federal government were already high.

Somalia’s resilience has also been tested by a continuing humanitarian crisis. The question of food security persists in the country, which has endured famine on numerous occasions in the last twenty-five years. While the situation has improved since 2011, an estimated three million people remain in need of humanitarian assistance and more than eight hundred fifty thousand in need of emergency food supplies.

Somalia’s food security troubles are strongly rooted in the realities of conflict and lack of governance structures. The population keeps growing, with high birth rates, and experiences displacement due to ongoing fighting in the south and central parts of the country. People remain fragile to shocks, mainly from drought and floods, as local institutions don’t exist or are unable to cope with these problems. If food is scarce, food prices rise, and distribution patterns are abused—all showing lack of regulatory and security support.

The ongoing conflicts have crippled the Somali economy. Economic institutions are very weak. Somalia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Gross domestic product per capita is about $300, annual internal revenues at only around $80 million. The key lines of income are from remittances (around $1.3 billion per year) and external economic aid (around $1 billion annually for all official development assistance).

The Islamist Factor

Political Islam is a relatively new phenomenon in Somalia. The religious identity has a variety of dimensions that have evolved during the era of state collapse and that now have a profound effect on the political process. Exploring these dimensions and taking them into consideration for policy and polity in Somalia is crucial for governance during the transition period and for bringing peace to the country.

The emergence and downfall of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) played a large role in shaping the current political scene in Somalia. The ICU was a group of sharia courts that temporarily created a rival administration to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2006. Several conditions explain its rise: 1) Somalis identified with ICU’s commitment to Islam, which during decades of dire living conditions became a source of hope and strength; 2) ICU’s approach to government was close to what Somalis knew as the traditional justice system run by elders and local religious leaders; and 3) Somalia’s business community saw ICU as a potential bulwark of stability for commerce to resume.

ICU bolstered its position by temporarily bringing a rare degree of stability to south-central Somalia, primarily in Mogadishu. This came at the height of the U.S.-led “War on Terrorism”; fearful of growing extremism in the Horn of Africa, the United States (encouraged by the TFG) sponsored an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to battle the forces of the ICU (which also had made revanchist provocations toward Ethiopia at the time). As the mainstream ICU was militarily weak, most of the defense came from their most well-organized fighting arm, Al-Shabab, whose young and energetic members had been hungry for a cause. These events split the ICU into several factions. Some joined the TFG forces they had fought against while other leaders split off to cling to regional power.

As a side result of the Ethiopian intervention, Al-Shabab won a popular reputation for defying a foreign invasion and gained an independent identity. Despite its brutal conduct in enforcing an extreme interpretation of sharia law, the population initially welcomed the organization for bringing some order and stability. The group has also been successful in raising resources. Al-Shabab has been particularly effective at playing on the political aspirations of smaller and less-privileged groups by forming alliances for territorial control and taking advantage of various sorts of taxation, including through charcoal exportation from the south and on road connections between cities and towns. The group also continues to receive funding from abroad, including from the Somali diaspora.

In the last few years, Al-Shabab attracted many recruits who enlist for financial gain (including many young men with no prospects in life), and more ideological jihadists who arrived from abroad to join their ranks. Yet, its ideology and politics do not have true support across Somalia. Civilians have become weary of Al-Shabab’s brutality and ultimate failure to govern. Al-Shabab’s popular support has faded, but moderate leadership among the clans has failed to fill the vacuum and forge stable and lasting governing structures where Al-Shabab had lost support.

An additional element in the development of political Islam in Somalia is the role and influence of groups emerging from the Muslim Brotherhood. President Mohamud and his closest allies come from Damul Jadiid (New Blood), a faction of Al-Islaah, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s Somali wing. The group’s activities focused on promoting moderate Islamism; it has led one of the few successful drives for education and civil society activity in the war-battered country. These initiatives have created leaders, given Damul Jadiid a degree of credibility, and strengthened the footing for Islamism as a political movement in the peace- and state-building process in Somalia.

Damul Jadiid’s loose alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood has implications on Somali politics in the broader region. The current government continues to strengthen relations with the Islamist government of Turkey, and to receive resources from Qatar, known supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also important to note that while 2012 brought fresh hope for a state-building process, a drive for secularization did not come with it. On the contrary, many of Somalia’s leaders favor political Islam, indicating that it will be the dominant ideology for the foreseeable future.

Perils of Foreign Involvement

External forces have staged significant interventions in Somalia over the last two decades. On a number of occasions, outpourings of humanitarian support have helped save many Somali lives, such as the first U.S. intervention in 1992 in support of the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). However, too much interference in the political process and numerous international mistakes in developmental and humanitarian attempts have also fueled clan conflict. These included shortsighted policies such as backing different warlords in the 1990s. The U.S. misinterpretation of its role in Somalia amounting to forced intervention eventually led to the Black Hawk Down episode, deaths of U.S. soldiers, and the American retreat from the country. America’s enabling of the Ethiopian military intervention, furthermore, helped put Somalia into the hands of extremists.

Following these failures and collapse of state institutions, for many years international actors treated Somalia as a hopeless case. It took several mediation processes, transitional governments and road maps, and joint initiatives from the United States, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) countries, and European countries to reach the 2012 political settlement. Somalia’s adoption of the provisional constitution and the selection of a new government in 2012 won the country new international confidence. Many conferences and meetings on the Somalia issue, in London, Brussels, and elsewhere, have attracted leaders from around the world. Western governments (including the United States) officially recognized a Somali government for the first time in two decades. These commitments to Somalia’s transition process have been translated into an agreement called the New Deal Compact, adopted in September 2013. The breakthrough document outlines a path for prioritization and coordination in state building and achieving a peace settlement, and has a financial pledge attached of almost $2.5 billion.

Progress toward implementation of the compact has been slow. Somalis and international experts have questioned whether an international template rather than a Somali-grown and -owned process is the most appropriate to guide the federal government and to meaningfully address root causes of the conflict. The ultimate implementation plans will most likely be last-minute elite compromises, limiting popular buy-in and broad stakeholder consultation. Meanwhile, frustrations with the process are building in the international community, mainly due to Somali inability to agree and work together.

Many Somalis in turn question the sincerity of the international community’s promises and its ability to deliver on them. In fact, containment seems to be the international default policy—global actors are primarily interested in making Somalia stable enough to prevent the return to widespread fighting and the growth of extremism. There is little political will to go beyond that containment by investing enough resources (including political, diplomatic, and human) to truly focus on growth, development, and setting a better governing environment for Somalis taking the helm.

Geopolitics has been a blessing and a curse for Somalia. The country has the longest coastline in Africa, with direct access to the world’s key shipping and trade routes through the Gulf of Aden. The territorial waters carry enormous fishing capacity and the potential for offshore oil and other resources. Access to the Indian Ocean, as well as potential trade routes to the modernizing and growing populations of central and eastern Africa, all create prospects for economic development. All of this could one day benefit a strong country on the path to development.

But these factors are also considered potential threats by Somalia’s neighbors, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia. These countries have deeply rooted interests in the shaping of the Somali state and the direction of its political process. As a result, these governments constantly seek to influence political development in Somalia, including the establishment of border militias, often contrary to Somali state-building interests. This is strongly linked to the historical background of the Ogaden War of 1977–78 when the Mohammed Siad Barre regime switched its allegiance to the United States and the West and attacked Ethiopia.

Somalia’s attempt to take over Somali ethnic territory in neighboring countries still casts a shadow over its relations in the Horn of Africa. Large Somali populations and swaths of ethnic Somali territories in Ethiopia and Kenya are constant sources of concern and increasingly identified as internal security threats. Somalia’s neighbors know that without a viable Somali state they will not be able to contain extremism in the region; on the other hand, they don’t want Somalia to become too strong in the future. The ultimate policy of Somalia’s neighbors will strongly influence the course of political development in Somalia.

Power-Sharing 4.5

The Somalia case is unique among other conflicts in Africa as it is driven neither by ethnicity nor religion. Nor is it underpinned by ideology. Somalis are people who mix traditional African, nomadic, pastoral, and Islamic cultures and despite decades of dire conditions, they are good humored, proud, and resilient. Yet when Somalis search for a unifying identity, their allegiances are being manipulated for political power and financial gains from clan, militia, and other political leaders. Somali federal authorities publicly condemn the manipulation, and profess a strong Somali national identity as their goal, but accept it for everyday political purposes.

Clan allegiance, which underlines both the social and political fabric of Somalia, arguably remains a force that blocks change and peaceful development. In an environment with little opportunity for financial gains and development, holding power is equated with personal gain, and perceived as such across the political leadership. The main method of conflict management between the Somali clans is the so-called 4.5 Clan Power-Sharing Formula (formally first defined during a national reconciliation conference in 1996–97). The 4.5 refers to the four major Somali clans (Rahanweyn, Dir, Hawiye, and Darood) and the additional 0.5 refers to space allocated for minorities. This breakdown determines the distribution of positions in government and political institutions. Seats in legislature are assigned based on this formula and it also serves as the unwritten rule used to balance civil servants compositions across ministries.

Since its adoption, the formula has remained central to political governance in Somalia. Supporters point out that while the formula may be imperfect, it has allowed for a broad consensus among clans, paving the way for many deals and preventing major clan warfare as seen in the early years of the conflict. Yet the formula has provoked major controversies. It has been labeled as contrary to the principles of democracy and an obstacle to free, fair, and transparent elections. Many politicians, community leaders, intellectuals, and academics have dismissed it as ineffective due to its inability to prevent recurring violent clan disputes. The governments formed after the adoption of the 2012 provisional constitution (and election of the current federal parliament) were established on the basis of the formula despite the constitution’s vision of politics based on policy and merit rather than clan allegiance. The realities on the ground show that this vision is still a distant prospect.

Several short-lived peace agreements of the past fifteen years have shown the inability to sustain compromises and address conflict root causes. The lack of political will for compromise results from the characteristics of the Somali political elites. Being a political leader in Somalia is a balancing act between clan identity and allegiance, armed groups and warlords, and external influences, as well as ability to create financial gains for personal (and closest constituency) interest. Somali elites have become very resourceful and extremely skilled in playing this game, Machiavellian at its heart. But often they display a stunning tendency to outmaneuver themselves, with their inability to share power. It creates a need for constant manipulation and preventing agreements necessary for the early stages of reconstructing the Somali state. These elites may win short-term gains, but the people they represent, and prospects for stabilizing and developing Somalia, are victims of the system.

2016 and Beyond

To achieve the promise of the 2012 agreement, Somalis must take strong measures to address security, justice, governance, economic, and ultimately political issues that hinder progress, the majority of which will need to take root primarily at the local level to succeed.

The dominant role of local militias in many areas clearly shows that the security strategy must be aligned with a strong push for political agreements in territories where new local authorities can be established following AMISOM’s military offensive. This means not only prioritizing a “stabilization” policy in reestablishing security and territorial control, but putting much more emphasis on advancing political settlements ensuring rapid establishment of local government. That approach should also form the core of the strategy to defeat Al-Shabab.

The fact that extremists continue attracting support in Somalia cannot be ignored in exploring political solutions to the conflict, especially in considering the need to develop political parties and groups that can accommodate some of the conservative Islamist politicians into the political mainstream. Al-Shabab cannot be eradicated solely through security operations—a political process that will consider elements of political Islam to be paired with the “stabilization” policy will be key.

A similar effort must be made with the economy. One of the economy’s few successes is livestock production (mainly in the north). Somalia has developed mobile banking (out of necessity, as no banks exist) and telecommunications systems. However, for Somalis to buy into the political transition, they must see “peace and stability dividends”—change in the form of job creation, basic livelihood improvement, and the production and trade of goods. In particular, if careful attention is paid to farming and the livestock export business, these areas can experience quick, bolstering improvements—especially when local-level investments are made.

Standing up local governments is also essential for Somalia’s progress in delivering services and relief to stranded populations. Traditional mechanisms such as councils of elders (gurti) can play important roles. Civil society organizations such as women’s associations, youth groups, religious organizations, and other local groups should be engaged to fill gaps while institutions are being established. Because these groups already have community trust, they can be valuable in defining community priorities, resolving disputes, and making resource allocation decisions. Building viable local governments will also mean relying on the traditional Somali system of governance called xeer, which consists of contractual agreements and customary laws that define the rights and responsibilities of an individual in relationship to his or her family, neighborhood, and clan. Balancing traditional rules and customs with new government initiatives through community institutions can lead to improved service delivery at the most basic level. And it will be crucial for delivering some visible change to the lives of people on the ground.

Today, more than 70 percent of Somalis are under the age of 30. Yet prospects for good education and employment are bleak; and moreover, these seem to be secondary issues for Somalia’s political leaders. Inspiring a new generation of leaders could be an important catalyst for change. Despite increasing attempts by young activists to participate in the political sphere, members of the country’s old generation continue to hold a majority of the key positions of power. The risk in marginalizing the youth is clear: without political outlets or livelihoods, young people are ripe for recruitment by local militias and extremist groups.

For local governments and economies to grow, mechanisms for justice and arbitration must be developed. Establishing a justice system is complicated in the Somali context due to the parallel existence of a secular law system, sharia law, and the xeer system—the traditional method of resolving disputes with the help of clan elders. Combining this with modern approaches to allow for better dispute management, increased trust in the judicial system, and the application of a written law remains the challenge. It’s a process that will take time and require compromises. Still, progress for indigenous state building will occur as populations (and businesses) put trust in hybrid judicial mechanisms and experience a gradual decrease of corruption and impunity.

Questions about post-conflict reconciliation and war grievances hinder Somali social cohesion, and need to be taken into consideration in the formation of local and regional policies. While justice and reconciliation processes are very important in a transition from civil war, they cannot be seen in Somalia through Western models and understanding of peace and justice. Even though a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was envisioned in the 2012 provisional constitution, the process of establishing the commission has not even started, and is generally seen by Somalis as an instrument imposed by the West. To quote a prominent Somali politician, elder, and scholar: “Somalia needs not truth and reconciliation, but forgiveness and conciliation, and this will appear closer to traditions of the society.” In the Somali context this approach is strongly linked to the reestablishment of local government, which will require compromise among groups who have fought sometimes for decades. A governance model also needs to identify spaces for thousands of citizens (many very young) who know only fighting as a way of making a living and need a new role in their lives. Traditional consensus building and cross-clan elder support can help achieve these steps. These mechanisms should be preserved and woven into permanent structures of governance, allowing for the quickest integration of societies.

The Challenge of Governance

Creating a sustainable governing structure is the key to escaping Somalia’s vicious circle of state failure. The adoption of a federal constitution through popular vote would amount to a peace agreement that could end decades of turmoil. But there are many obstacles in the way.

The process needs to include agreements on power sharing between state and federal authority. This comprises allocation of natural resources, resolutions to questions regarding federal and state tax income, and an outline of an electoral system that will establish future political authority.

The provisional constitution mandates that institutions reach agreements on some of the most contentious issues facing Somalis, but provides only general guidance on how to achieve this. This has proven to be a major obstacle; disputes are ongoing among key political actors on institutional prerogatives.

Apart from political elite deal making, the process of finalizing a revised constitution should arise from participatory political agreements and be at the center of a national dialogue that can lead to a strong mandate. Achieving broad and fair representation in the process is a major challenge. It is not clear which groups will be granted representation in a national dialogue, and agreement on representation will be difficult given the tight mandated timelines. While implementation of the constitution is a priority, it needs to be a central component of a broader peace process that adjusts to the realities of gradual agreements and settlements.

Among those in the Somali political class, the concept of a federal Somalia has been discussed extensively over the years and remains the preferred solution for shaping the future state. Most players agree that this power-sharing model can best accommodate all the diverse regional and clan interests. However, federalism itself is a puzzle to many Somalis—it raises as many negative feelings as positive ones. Many argue that federalism is a foreign concept, unknown to Somalia, and that a federal Somalia would be much weaker than a unitary nation. These critics argue that the federal states will be at the mercy of more powerful regional actors and their proxy militias, allowing external influences on Somali affairs to persist, and could be a breeding ground for more internal infighting.

The federal government’s first priority is to form federal units, to represent various interests throughout the constitution-making process leading up to elections by 2016. Several processes have been ongoing (in the Jubas, in Bay-Bakool, Galmudug), with various degrees of progress and success, marred by political crises.

Within these circumstances, debates continue around the extent to which the creation of the federal member states should come from a bottom-up process—driven by local communities, clan elders, and local authorities—or a top-down process driven by the federal government.

Timing is also a factor. Federations are not born in days, but develop over decades. Yet Somalia cannot afford to wait, since a federal structure providing fair representation is essential to the shaping of a final federal constitution. Currently, there is only one functioning state: Puntland. As such, it plays a key role in reaching agreements on formation of other states, future elections, and the political process for reviewing the provisional constitution. Puntland’s relations with Mogadishu are central to achieving these agreements, yet they remain difficult.

Elections could be a key step in legitimizing Somalia’s new political system, but its hard to see how the government can enable safe and secure voting across the country for “one man one vote.” Somalia is far from establishing an electoral system, an electoral commission, and viable political parties governed by laws. The absence of organized federal structures also prevents agreement on an election system by all potential representatives. Some hybrid systems including selection rather than direct election, or different voting methods in different territories, are being debated.

The likelihood of missing the 2016 deadline for holding elections has sparked a new political crisis, with strong suspicion the president is seeking automatic term extension beyond current mandate. Whatever the outcome of the electoral dispute, progress in changing the politics of Somalia will require a more participatory process for establishing political authority—and eventually a vote across the whole country.

Keys to Moving Forward

The adoption of the provisional constitution in 2012 and the signing of the New Deal Compact in 2013 were steps in the right direction, yet the progress still needed is enormous. To many, Somalia continues to be an unreliable state on the brink of total collapse. If peaceful developments are to occur, key change factors are needed for policy and political processes. These are changes that will ensure checks and balances, and will mitigate the risks of reverting to a collapsed state. They would also add momentum and political will to move Somalia out of perpetual crisis.

Creating a critical mass for political consensus. Given the complex web of interests and parties, it will be extremely difficult to gather sufficient political backing for a common agenda. The existing power divisions also make clear that it is highly unlikely that one group can emerge with enough influence to dominate the others and take the political helm.

What is required is a sustained attempt to create a critical mass of political will, converging interests toward the success of key policy decisions. There must be a strong consensus to advance the processes agreed upon in the provisional constitution, to find agreements with enough support, and to push through the stages of implementation. Importantly, this critical mass for progress has to be sustained in time to block potential crises and attempts at hindering the process.

This means finding commonalities among the interests of various parties and agreeing to make compromises. It could involve much stronger international pressure. It could require larger media campaigns aimed at rallying popular support, and building coalitions and agreements to isolate those obstructing progress. As momentum for changes occurs, all involved players must redouble their efforts to make deals in a comprehensive and inclusive manner that will eventually lead to strong backing for a peace settlement with agreements on power sharing and state structure.

Rethinking clan politics. Clan identity and boundaries of territorial influence are defining factors of Somali politics. Though enshrined in Somali history and culture, the clan system may also be the largest obstacle to escaping the current cycle of state failure. Breaking down clan barriers will be a key element in building a critical mass for political consensus. As Somalia considers change factors for the next generation, a consensus to start rethinking the role of the clan in social and political life will be required. This in turn entails strengthening the Somali national identity.

Renewing approaches to international and regional interests. Somalia strongly relies on external assistance for the execution of core state functions. It is clear that Horn of Africa regional politics and broader international considerations influence events on the ground, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Given the significance and high stakes of international involvement in Somalia, one could argue that a renewed and recharged approach is needed. Signing the New Deal Compact with donor governments was an important step that created a blueprint, but achieving its goals is nearly impossible in the timeframes proposed. In order to change that, much more political will would be required from external actors, to leverage more pressure for progress. Also needed are increased investments in security and operational conditions for the federal government and its international partners; this could take the form of more fortified central perimeters for key institutions—a “green zone”—along with an increased engagement of intelligence and special operations in support of securing Mogadishu.

The renewed international approach should include a long-term political engagement strategy, based on an immediately increased political and resource investment. The strategy should be viewed as a geopolitical investment into a strategically positioned country that can become a useful ally. This approach could benefit objectives of many states, including the United States, United Kingdom, as well as other countries of the European Union, Turkey, and the Gulf states. This would be a marked shift from the current policy of containment and troubleshooting and would be enormously beneficial to the growth and development of Somalia.

In addition, a renewed regional approach to political engagement is needed in East Africa. The key external players in Somali politics are the countries of IGAD, an eight-nation trading bloc. Frequently, IGAD’s policies are not in the best interest of Somalia. A smart international political approach must take the interests of these countries into consideration. Some security and border guaranties could be made, in exchange for a shift of policies allowing Somalia to stabilize and develop. In essence, this would be a political decision to shift from a policy of containment to a policy of opportunism and accelerated progression that can yield better results both for the country’s development and for achieving true progress in the fight against extremism and terrorism.

Searching for leaders. In order to eliminate individual as well as group and clan corruption on all levels of political and society relations, an individual commitment to change must come first. Somalis deserve to have leaders who can rise above personal and temporary interests for the sake of directing the country on a path away from state failure and toward stability and growth. Many countries that emerged from deadly conflict did so with the guidance of powerful central leaders. In Somalia, this is essential.

Leaders with enough charisma to grasp hearts and minds must convince people of the sacrifices and patience needed to create change. They must reach a hand through clan divisions. Such leaders can garner a true following and help foster political agreements. Somalia has not seen leaders of such stature, but history shows it is transformational moments like the one Somalia is experiencing that sometimes create them. At the same time, a spirit of responsible leadership has to spread among the hundreds of individuals in positions of influence and authority. Everyday leaders, the silent heroes, who shy away from personal gain first, can promote the process of building institutions and managing disputes peacefully; in turn, they can be an example for grooming the next generation of leaders. It is time for Somali change champions to step forward. Without visionary political acts and previously unheard-of progress in achieving political consensus among Somalis, it may be impossible to break out of the cycle of crisis.

Marcin Buzanski is a principal at the IGD Group. Previously, he was the project manager coordinating the Inclusive Political Process support project in Somalia for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) from 2012 to 2014. He was a crisis governance and state-building consultant with UNDP headquarters from 2010 to 2012, supporting programs in Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. He has also served as a consultant with the United Nations and UNDP in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Liberia, and Kazakhstan and worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) from 2004 to 2007.

A Century After Sykes-Picot

The British wartime alliance with the sharif of Mecca would be concluded after months of increasingly anxious negotiations, with both sides driven by wartime fears. Sharif Hussein had reason to believe the Young Turks sought his overthrow. Moreover, to realize his ambitious goal of carving an independent Arab kingdom from Ottoman domains, he needed Great Power support. The British feared their recent string of defeats to the Ottomans would encourage colonial Muslims to rebel against the Entente Powers. War planners in Cairo and Whitehall hoped that an alliance with the custodian of Islam’s holiest shrines would neutralize the appeal of the Ottoman sultan-caliph’s jihad at a moment when Britain’s military credibility was at its lowest point since the start of the war.

On the eve of the Arab Revolt, the Anglo-Hashemite alliance offered far less than both sides originally believed they were securing on first entering into negotiations. The British were not the invincible power they had appeared to be in early 1915 when first setting off to conquer Constantinople. The Germans had inflicted terrible casualties on the British on the western front, and even the Ottomans had dealt them humiliating defeats. Sharif Hussein and his sons had every reason to question their choice of ally.

Yet the Hashemites were in no position to bargain. All through their correspondence with Sir Henry McMahon, the high commissioner in Egypt, Sharif Hussein and his sons had presented themselves as leaders of a pan-Arab movement. By May 1916 it was apparent that there would be no broader revolt in Syria and Iraq. The most the sharifs could do was challenge Ottoman rule in the Hijaz. Success depended on their ability to mobilize the notoriously undisciplined Bedouin to their cause.

Arguably, the alliance survived because the Hashemites and the British needed each other more in the summer of 1916 than ever. Sharif Hussein had strained relations with the Young Turks to the breaking point; he knew they would seize the first opportunity to dismiss—even murder—him and his sons. The British needed the sharif’s religious authority to undermine the Ottoman jihad, which officials in Cairo and Whitehall feared recent Turkish victories had strengthened. Whatever the results of a Hashemite-led revolt, the movement would at least weaken the Ottoman war effort and force the Turks to divert troops and resources to restore order in the Hijaz and possibly in other Arab provinces. For their own reasons, both the British and the Hashemites were in a hurry to launch the revolt.

It fell to Sharif Hussein to fire the opening shot of the Arab Revolt from his palace in the holy city of Mecca. On June 10, 1916, the emir of Mecca took up a rifle and fired once at the Ottoman barracks to initiate the uprising. The Hashemites were at war with the Turks in the name of the Arab peoples.

British and French war planners came to view the Arab Revolt as a distinct asset in the Great War. As early as July 1916, the War Committee had based new strategic objectives for its forces in Egypt on the strength of early Hashemite gains in the Hijaz. The committee instructed the commander in chief in Egypt, Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Murray, to establish British control along a line extending across northern Sinai from El-Arish on the Mediterranean to the tiny port of Aqaba on the eastern head of the Red Sea. British war planners maintained that these measures would “threaten communications between Syria and the Hijaz, and encourage Syrian Arabs” in support of the Arab Revolt. So began the fateful link between the Hashemite revolt in Arabia and the British campaign in Palestine that, between them, would ultimately spell the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.

“A Shocking Document”

In correspondence exchanged between November 5, 1915 and March 10, 1916, Sir Henry McMahon concluded the alliance with Sharif Hussein. The weeks that passed between their letters were punctuated by British defeats in both the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia. McMahon’s letter of December 14 followed both the British cabinet’s decision to evacuate the Suvla and Anzac positions in Gallipoli (December 7) and the beginning of the siege of Kut Al-Amara (December 8). The high commissioner’s letter of January 25, 1916 followed the final evacuation of Gallipoli (January 9). Unsurprisingly, McMahon’s last letter, dated March 10, noted British victories over the Sanussi tribesmen in Egypt and Russian victories in Erzurum without mentioning the impending surrender at Kut. He must have felt his hand weakened by this string of British defeats.

Knowing that he was negotiating with a beleaguered Britain, Sharif Hussein drove a hard bargain. Instead of seeking recognition of Arab independence, the emir increasingly wrote of an “Arab kingdom” and of himself as its chosen leader. Yet the emir of Mecca consented to significant territorial compromises. He claimed “the Iraqi wilayets” as integral parts of the future Arab kingdom but consented to leave “those districts now occupied by the British troops” under British administration for “a short time” in return for “a suitable sum paid as compensation to the Arab kingdom for the period of occupation.”

French claims to Syria were harder for the emir to accept. The Syrian provinces, he insisted, were “purely Arab” and could not be excluded from the Arab kingdom. Yet in the course of their exchange, Sharif Hussein conceded he wished “to avoid what may possibly injure the alliance of Great Britain and France and the agreement made between them during the present wars and calamities.” However, he warned McMahon, “at the first opportunity after this war is finished . . . we shall ask you for what we now leave to France in Beirut and its coasts.” The remainder of the correspondence focused on the material needs for a revolt: the gold, grain, and guns to sustain the future Arab war effort against the Turks.

Sir Henry McMahon could not have done better. He succeeded in concluding an agreement with the sharif of Mecca excluding Syrian territory claimed by the French and the Iraqi provinces the British wished to retain. The fact that the boundaries of the territories conceded in the Hussein–McMahon Correspondence were vague was an advantage in wartime Anglo-Arab relations. In the interest of Anglo-French relations, though, a more precise agreement on the postwar partition of Arab lands was needed.

The British government was bound to seek French agreement on promises made to Sharif Hussein. The foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had previously recognized France’s special interest in Syria. In October 1915, after authorizing McMahon’s territorial concessions to Sharif Hussein, the Foreign Office requested that the French government send negotiators to London to put some clearly defined boundaries to French claims in Syria. The French foreign minister designated the former consul general in Beirut, Charles François Georges-Picot, to negotiate with Sir Mark Sykes, Lord Kitchener’s Middle East advisor, in drafting a mutually acceptable postwar partition of Arab lands.

The fact that the British and French were dividing amongst themselves lands that Sharif Hussein was claiming for the future Arab kingdom has led many historians to denounce the Sykes-Picot Agreement as an outrageous example of imperial perfidy—none more eloquently than Palestinian historian George Antonius: “The Sykes-Picot Agreement is a shocking document. It is not only the product of greed at its worst, that is to say, of greed allied to suspicion and so leading to stupidity: it also stands out as a startling piece of double-dealing.” Yet for Britain and France, whose past imperial rivalries had nearly led them to war, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was an essential exercise for France to define precisely the territories it claimed in Cilicia and Syria and for Britain to stake its claim in Mesopotamia—the lands Sir Henry McMahon tried to exclude from his pledge to Sharif Hussein.

There are many misconceptions about the Sykes-Picot Agreement. A century later, many still believe the agreement set the borders of the modern Middle East. In fact, the map as drawn by Sykes and Picot bears no resemblance to the Middle East today. Instead, it defined areas of colonial domination in Syria and Mesopotamia in which France and Britain were free “to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire[d].”

In the “blue area,” France laid claim to the eastern Mediterranean coastline stretching from Mersin and Adana, around the Gulf of Alexandretta and southward through the shores of modern Syria and Lebanon to the ancient port town of Tyre. The French also claimed an extensive part of eastern Anatolia to a point north of Sivas and to the east of Diyarbakır and Mardin—all towns comfortably inside the modern Turkish Republic. In the “red areas,” the British secured recognition of their claim to the Iraqi provinces of Basra and Baghdad.

The vast lands between the blue and red areas were divided into separate zones in which Britain and France would exercise informal influence. Zone A placed the major inland cities of Syria—Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Damascus, as well as the northern Iraqi city of Mosul—under indirect French control. The British claimed informal empire over Zone B, which spanned the deserts of northern Arabia from Iraq to the Sinai frontiers of Egypt. These two zones were to be part of “an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States . . . under the suzerainty of an Arab chief”—a formula that fell well short of Sir Henry McMahon’s pledges to Sharif Hussein.

The one area on which the British and French could not agree was Palestine. They could not resolve their conflicting claims and anticipated that Russian ambitions would further complicate negotiations. Sykes and Picot decided to paint the map of Palestine brown, to distinguish it from the red and blue areas, and proposed an “international administration” whose ultimate shape would only be decided in negotiations with Russia, the “other Allies, and the representatives of the Shereef of Mecca”—the only explicit mention of Sharif Hussein in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

In March 1916, Sykes and Picot traveled to Russia to secure their Entente ally’s agreement to their partition plan. In addition to their earlier claims to the straits and Constantinople, confirmed in the 1915 Constantinople Agreement, the tsar’s ministers sought British and French recognition of the annexation of the Turkish territories that the Russian army had recently overrun—Erzurum, the Black Sea port of Trabzon, the shattered city of Van, and Bitlis—as the price for their acquiescence to the terms of Sykes-Picot. With Russia’s support secured by May 1916, the Allies had achieved a comprehensive agreement on the postwar partition of the Ottoman Empire. And for the moment, they managed to keep the whole matter secret from their Arab allies, Sharif Hussein and his sons.

The twelfth of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points assured the Arabs, along with the other subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire, “an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” Political activists were at work in Syria and Mesopotamia debating different political visions, freed from the constraints imposed by decades of Ottoman political repression. In Egypt, political elites knew precisely what they wanted. After thirty-six years of British occupation, they wanted Egypt’s total independence.

A group of prominent Egyptian politicians approached the British authorities in Cairo to request permission to present their case for independence at the Paris Peace Conference. Sir Reginald Wingate, British high commissioner, received the delegation led by veteran politician Saad Zaghloul two days after the armistice with Germany, on November 13, 1918. He heard the delegates out and promptly declined their request to attend the peace conference in no uncertain terms. The Paris Peace Conference was to decide the fate of the defeated powers and in no way concerned Egypt. When Zaghloul and his colleagues persisted in their efforts, they were arrested on March 8, 1919 and deported to Malta. The following day, Egypt exploded in demonstrations that rapidly spread nationwide and across the different social classes in a common demand for independence.

Egyptians in town and countryside attacked every visible manifestation of British imperial power. The railways and telegraph lines were sabotaged, government offices burned, and government centers confronted with huge crowds of protesters. The British dispatched soldiers to restore order, but soldiers are blunt tools for crowd control, and casualties began to mount. The Egyptians accused British soldiers of atrocities—of using live fire against demonstrators, burning villages, and even committing rape. By the end of March, eight hundred Egyptian civilians had been killed and a further sixteen hundred injured in the violence.

To restore the calm, the British allowed Zaghloul to return to Egypt and lead a delegation to Paris in April 1919. Before the Egyptian delegation reached Paris, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had persuaded his French and American allies that Egypt was an “imperial and not an international question.” The day the Egyptian delegation reached Paris, President Wilson recognized Britain’s protectorate over Egypt. The delegation was never granted a formal hearing by the peace conference. The war might have ended, but British rule in Egypt had not.

No Peace

After the war’s end, Emir Faisal presented his case for Arab independence to the Supreme Council of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919. In light of the extensive territory Sir Henry McMahon had promised Sharif Hussein in their famous correspondence, Faisal’s position was very moderate. He sought immediate and full independence for Arab kingdoms in Greater Syria (corresponding to the territory of the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority) and the Hijaz, then ruled by his father, King Hussein. He accepted foreign mediation in Palestine to resolve conflicting Arab and Zionist aspirations. And he acknowledged British claims to Mesopotamia, while expressing his belief that these territories would eventually join the independent Arab state he hoped to persuade the peacemakers to create.

While accepting less than the Hashemites believed their British allies had promised, Faisal demanded more than the British could deliver. Prime Minister David Lloyd George needed French consent to secure British claims to Mesopotamia and Palestine. And from the very outset of the war, France had named Syria as its price. Unable to reconcile these rival claims, Britain backed its essential ally, France, and left Faisal to fend for himself.

On November 1, 1919, the British withdrew their army from Syria and handed the country over to French military rule. The Syrian General Congress, an elected body convened by Faisal’s supporters with representatives from the different regions of Greater Syria, responded on March 8, 1920 by declaring the independence of Syria with Faisal as their king. But Faisal’s Syrian kingdom was not to survive. The French dispatched a colonial army from Lebanon to take control of Damascus. Encountering the remnants of Faisal’s Arab army in a mountain pass on the road between Beirut and Damascus, the French easily defeated the token force of 2,000 defenders at Khan Maysalun on July 24, 1920 and advanced into Damascus unopposed to overturn Faisal’s short-lived Syrian kingdom. Faisal carried the dashed hopes of the Arab Revolt into exile with him.

The fall of Faisal’s government in Damascus left the Palestinians to face the British occupation—and the Balfour Declaration—on their own. Notables from Palestinian towns and cities had played a key role in the Syrian General Congress, and the townsmen and villagers they represented made their views known to the American commission of inquiry sent in the summer of 1919 by the Paris Peace Conference. Between June 10 and July 21, the King-Crane Commission traveled across Greater Syria to gather evidence and assess public opinion about the region’s political future. It was clear that a strong majority of Palestinian Arabs wished to be ruled as part of Faisal’s Arab kingdom.

Moreover, the King-Crane Commission reported that the Palestinian Arab population was “emphatically against the entire Zionist program” and that “there was no one thing upon which the population of Palestine were more agreed than upon this.”

Tensions ran high in 1920 as Jewish immigration, encouraged by the Balfour Declaration, accelerated. Between 1919 and 1921, over 18,500 Zionist immigrants flocked to Palestine’s shores. Rioting broke out in Jerusalem in the first week of April 1920, leaving five Jews and four Arabs dead and over two hundred people injured. Worse violence followed in 1921, when Arab townsmen intervened in a fight between Jewish communists and Zionists in the port of Jaffa during May Day parades. In the ensuing riots, forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs were killed, and over two hundred people were injured. The contradictions raised by the Balfour Declaration—in its declaration of intent to create a national home for the Jews that would not adversely affect the rights and interests of the indigenous non-Jewish population—were already apparent.

The political elites in Iraq watched events in Egypt and Syria with mounting concern for their own future. They had been reassured in November 1918 when the British and French issued a declaration pledging their support for “the establishment of national governments and administrations” in the Arab lands through a process of self-determination. But the Iraqis grew increasingly suspicious as the months passed without any tangible progress toward the promised self-government. News in April 1920 that the Great Powers had agreed in San Remo to award their country to Britain as a mandate confirmed the Iraqis’ worst fears.

At the end of June 1920, Iraq erupted in nationwide rebellion against British rule. Disciplined and well-organized, the insurgency threatened the British in Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, but the center of operations lay in the same Shiite shrine towns of the Middle Euphrates that had risen against the Ottomans during the Great War. As the uprising spread, the British were forced to move additional troops into Mesopotamia to suppress determined Iraqi resistance on all fronts. Reinforcements from India were rushed to bolster the sixty thousand troops yet to be demobilized from the Mesopotamia campaign, raising British forces to over one hundred thousand by October. Using aerial bombardment and heavy artillery, the British re-conquered the Middle Euphrates region with scorched-earth tactics that crushed the resistance. “In recent days there has been bloodshed and the destruction of populous towns and the violation of the sanctity of places of worship to make humanity weep,” one journalist in Najaf wrote in October 1920. By the time the uprising was crushed at the end of October, the British claimed that 2,200 of their own forces and an estimated 8,450 Iraqis had been killed or wounded.

Sharif Hussein, now king of Hijaz, followed events in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq with a deepening sense of betrayal. He had copies of every letter exchanged with Sir Henry McMahon and felt the British had broken every promise they contained. Having aspired to be king of the Arabs, Hussein was now confined to the Hijaz—and he wasn’t even secure there. A rival monarchy in central Arabia, led by Abdulaziz Al-Saud, better known in the West as Ibn Saud, threatened to overrun the Hijaz. To add insult to injury, Ibn Saud enjoyed a treaty with Great Britain and received a generous monthly stipend from the British treasury.

The British too were concerned about the future of the Hijaz. While they had secured a formal treaty with Ibn Saud back in 1915, their relations with the Hashemites had been concluded in the form of a wartime alliance. Once the war was at an end, so too was the alliance. Unless the old king of the Hijaz concluded a treaty with Britain, Whitehall would have no legal basis to protect his territory. But to get King Hussein to sign a treaty, they had to get him to accept the postwar settlement hammered out at San Remo. In the summer of 1921, T.E. Lawrence was given the impossible mission of negotiating the terms of an Anglo-Hijazi treaty with the embittered King Hussein.

By the time Lawrence met with King Hussein, Britain had gone some way toward redeeming Sir Henry McMahon’s broken promises. Winston Churchill, now secretary of state for the colonies, had convened a secret meeting in Cairo in March 1921 to determine the political future of Britain’s new Middle Eastern mandates. At that meeting, the British dignitaries agreed to install King Hussein’s son Faisal as king of Iraq and Abdullah as ruler of the as yet undefined territory of Transjordan (which was formally separated from Palestine in 1923). With Hashemite rulers slated for all of Britain’s mandates bar Palestine, Churchill could claim to have worked within the spirit, if not the exact lettering, of McMahon’s wartime undertakings.

Between July and September 1921, Lawrence sought in vain the formula for reconciling King Hussein with Britain’s postwar position in the Middle East. Hussein refused to confine his own ambitions to the Hijaz. He objected to the separation of Syria and Lebanon from the rest of the Arab lands and their placement under French mandate. He rejected the British mandates in Iraq and Transjordan, even if they were to be nominally ruled by his sons. And he refused to sanction the pledge to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine. As King Hussein could accept nothing in the British postwar settlement, there was no scope for an Anglo-Hijaz treaty of alliance. Lawrence returned to London empty-handed.

The British made one last attempt to conclude a treaty with the Hijaz in 1923, but the bitter old king refused—forfeiting British protection at the very moment Ibn Saud was preparing to conquer the Red Sea province. On October 6, 1924, King Hussein abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Ali, and went into exile. King Ali’s reign ended in late 1925 when the Saudis completed the conquest of the Hijaz. Like the Ottomans before them, the Hashemites made their last stand in Medina, surrendering the holy city in December 1925—nearly seven years after Fahri Pasha’s capitulation.

Legacies of the Great War

In the end, the Ottoman front proved more influential in the First World War than contemporaries ever imagined. Allied war planners, believing a quick victory over a weak Ottoman Empire might precipitate the Central Powers’ surrender, found themselves drawn into a series of campaigns that lasted nearly the full length of the war. The battles in the Caucasus and Persia, the failed attempt to force the Dardanelles, the reversals in Mesopotamia, and the long campaign through Sinai, Palestine, and Syria diverted hundreds of thousands of men and strategic war materiel from the primary theaters of operations on the western and eastern fronts. Rather than hastening the end of the conflict, the Ottoman front served instead to lengthen the war.

Much of the Allied war effort in the Middle East was driven by what proved to be an unwarranted fear of jihad. While colonial Muslims remained largely unresponsive to the Ottoman sultan-caliph’s appeal, the European imperial powers continued to assume that any major Turkish success or Allied setback might provoke the dreaded Islamic uprising in their colonies in India and North Africa. Ironically, this left the Allies more responsive to the caliph’s call than his Muslim target audience. Even a century later, the Western world has yet to shake off the belief that Muslims might act in a collectively fanatical manner. As the “War on Terrorism” after September 11, 2001 has demonstrated, Western policymakers continue to view jihad in terms reminiscent of the war planners from 1914 to 1918.

The First World War was itself tremendously influential in the making of the modern Middle East. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, European imperialism replaced Turkish rule. After four centuries united in a multinational empire under Ottoman Muslim rule, the Arabs found themselves divided into a number of new states under British and French domination. A few countries achieved independence within frontiers of their own devising—Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia stand out in this regard. The imperial powers, however, imposed the borders and systems of government of most states in the region as part of the postwar settlement.

The postwar partition of the Ottoman Empire was the subject of intense negotiations between the Allies that ran the length of the war. In hindsight, each of the partition agreements only makes sense within its wartime context: the Constantinople Agreement of 1915 when the Allies anticipated the quick conquest of Istanbul; the Hussein–McMahon Correspondence in 1915 and 1916 when the British needed a Muslim ally against the Ottoman jihad; the Balfour Declaration in 1917 when the British wanted to revise the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement to secure Palestine for British rule. These outlandish agreements, which were only conceivable in wartime, were concluded solely to advance Britain and France’s imperial expansion. Had the European powers been concerned with establishing a stable Middle East, one can’t help but think they would have gone about drafting the boundaries in a very different way.

The borders of the postwar settlement have proven remarkably resilient—as have the conflicts the postwar boundaries have engendered. The Kurdish people, divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, have been embroiled in conflict with each of their host governments over the past century in pursuit of their cultural and political rights. Lebanon, created by France in 1920 as a Christian state, succumbed to a string of civil wars as its political institutions failed to keep pace with its demographic shifts and Muslims came to outnumber Christians. Syria, unreconciled to the creation of Lebanon from what many Syrian nationalists believed to be an integral part of their country, sent its military to occupy civil war Lebanon in 1976—and remained in occupation of that country for nearly thirty years. Despite its natural and human resources, Iraq has never known enduring peace and stability within its postwar boundaries, experiencing a coup and conflict with Britain in the Second World War, revolution in 1958, war with Iran between 1980 and 1988, and a seemingly unending cycle of war since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq to topple Hussein.

Yet the Arab-Israeli conflict, more than any other legacy of the postwar partition, has defined the Middle East as a warzone. Four major wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors—in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973—have left the Middle East with a number of intractable problems that remain unresolved despite peace treaties between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and between Israel and Jordan in 1994. Palestinian refugees remain scattered between Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; Israel continues to occupy the Syrian Golan Heights and the Shebaa Farms in southern Lebanon; and Israel has yet to relinquish its control over the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. While Israel and its Arab neighbors share primary responsibility for their actions, the roots of their conflict can be traced directly back to the fundamental contradictions of the Balfour Declaration.

The legitimacy of Middle Eastern frontiers has been called into question since they were first drafted. Arab nationalists in the 1940s and 1950s openly called for unity schemes between Arab states that would overthrow boundaries widely condemned as an imperialist legacy. Pan-Islamists have advocated a broader Islamic union with the same goal. In 2014, a militia calling itself the Islamic State tweeted to its followers that it was “smashing Sykes-Picot” when it declared a caliphate in territory spanning northern Syria and Iraq. One century after Sykes-Picot, the borders of the Middle East remain controversial—and volatile.

The centenary of the Great War attracted little commemoration in the Middle East. Aside from Gallipoli, where Turkish and Anzac veteran associations have long gathered to remember their war dead, the struggles and sacrifices of the global armies that fought on the Ottoman front have given way to more pressing contemporary concerns. Revolutionary turmoil in Egypt, civil war in Syria and Iraq, and enduring violence between Israelis and Palestinians preoccupied the Middle East on the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War. Yet as the war is remembered in the rest of the world, the part the Ottomans played in that conflict must be taken into account. For the Ottoman front, with its Asian battlefields and global soldiers, turned Europe’s Great War into the First World War. And in the Middle East more than in any other part of the world, the legacies of the Great War continue to be felt down to the present day.

Excerpted from The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920, by Eugene Rogan. Copyright © 2015 by Eugene Rogan. With permission of the publisher, Penguin Books.

Eugene Rogan is professor of modern Middle Eastern history and director of the St. Antony’s College Middle East Centre at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Arabs: A History; and Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire; and co-editor of The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948. His most recent book is The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920.

Greek Debt, German Hubris

In 416 bc, during the Peloponnesian War, representatives of the powerful city-state of Athens gave the people of Melos an ultimatum: the small island in the Cyclades either had to join the Delian League, an alliance controlled by Athenian imperialism, or be destroyed. Members of the League had to follow the military strategy of Athens against archenemy Sparta and pay an annual tribute. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes the encounter between the Athenian envoys and the Melos authorities. The envoys were asked why Melos must join the League; after all the island had remained neutral during the first twenty years of the war and did not represent a danger for Athenian democracy. But for the representatives of Athens, anyone who is not with them was against them. “The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept,” the Athenians responded. It was a matter of obedience, a question of who is the master of the game. Catastrophe soon befell Melos, an Athenian lesson for any others who would dare to disobey.

This is essentially what happened in the negotiations between the Greek government elected in January 2015 and Greece’s partners and creditors, mainly Germany. The government was elected on the basis of a program that would put an end to the austerity that the same forces had imposed on previous Greek governments with disastrous results: fall of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 25 percent; an economic decline greater than that of the United States during the Great Depression; unemployment among young people nearing 60 percent; political and social destruction.

The new government stated upfront that it had no intention of challenging the rules governing the eurozone countries, the nineteen European Union (EU) nations (out of twenty-eight) that have adopted the euro as their common currency. “My government is planning, and I am planning, to compromise, compromise, and compromise, but we’re not going to be compromised,” the then-Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis repeatedly affirmed to his colleagues. Varoufakis simply wanted a revision of the agreements in order to give space and time for development. Almost all serious economists agreed, including Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, winners of the Nobel Prize in economics, that Varoufakis’ proposal was the only realistic plan that could pull Greece out of its economic crisis.

However, from the beginning of negotiations that would last five months, Greece’s creditors had exactly the opposite goal. “I’ve lost count of how many times we faced the threat of closure of our banks because we rejected a program which had demonstrated its inefficiency,” Varoufakis wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique in July. “The creditors and the Eurogroup closed their ears to our economic arguments. They wanted us to surrender.” In the end, and while there was not a single euro left in the Greek treasury, the Greek government was faced with an ultimatum comparable to that faced by Melos twenty-five centuries ago. The main difference was that this time the weak faced not a mighty fleet and the swords of the strong, but the European Central Bank and other powerful economic weapons of the European Alliance. Greece’s dilemma was to either reject the ultimatum, which would result in the collapse of Greek banks followed by economic and political chaos, or sign up for yet another devastating austerity program.

The shock therapy imposed on Greece as well as on other countries of the European south has been presented—to international and especially German public opinion—as programs of free help and salvation. In fact they are loans; and even in 2010 when the first memorandum was signed between Greece and its lenders, the loans carried high interest rates (although in subsequent programs those punishing rates were reduced). The main issue is that in reality countries such as Greece, and Portugal, were not rescued. Naturally, the Greek government and others took advantage of entry into the euro currency in the early 2000s to shamelessly borrow at low interest rates. In the case of Greece, these loans were used for making corrupt weapons purchase deals (basically with French and German companies) or for financing political clientelism and Pharaonic projects—at the time, Greece was preparing to host the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. These projects were being realized with the participation of companies originating from the northern, industrialized countries of Europe, Germany being at the top of the list.

However, when the global economic crisis in 2008 dried up the sources of low-cost borrowing capital, not only were the Greek and other governments exposed, but also German, French, and northern banks that had lent them money without serious safeguards. When the question was raised whether to save Greece or their own banks, Paris and Berlin did not hesitate for a moment: they rescued their banks. They disregarded the effect of austerity measures on countries that were obliged to sign the infamous memorandums and to accept that the hated troika—the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and European Commission—would have a decisive role in shaping their national economic policies. Since then, various IMF representatives have publicly stated that in the case of Greece it was clear from the outset that the debt was so large in relation to GDP (120 percent) that the draconian measures were doomed to fail.

The whole dirty deal is one of the largest debt transfers in history: Greek bonds were transferred from the exposed private banks to European Union member states and the IMF, against an IMF statute that prohibits lending to countries with unsustainable debt. However, for the voters in the creditor countries who did not understand the fraudulent transaction, a scapegoat was invented: the lazy and disorganized southern Europeans who cannot put their financial houses in order. In a speech in the summer of 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused the Spaniards, the Portuguese, and the Greeks of working less, retiring earlier, and enjoying more vacation time. In fact, it is the German citizens who have more privileges in these areas, not to mention wages that are much higher in Germany. In the case of Greece, the defamation campaign took on racist overtones, as the Greeks were accused of all the evils of the world, from laziness to stupidity. It is also worth noting that, according to official European data for 2014, Greeks work a lot more hours per year (2,042) than the Germans do (1,371). It is true that productivity is lower and corruption is higher in Greece than in Germany, but it takes two to tango: Greek officials and Siemens, one of the largest German companies, are starring in the biggest corruption scandal of the last decades in Greece.

As the “salvation” programs had other purposes than what was publicly claimed, the result was disastrous. Apart from the recession and the unemployment they caused, even in the case of Greece’s debt, which was assumed to be its main problem, it actually increased from 120 percent when the crisis started to 180 percent as a percentage of GDP. Besides, about 93 percent of the loan money never really landed in Athens: it was used to repay the previous loans.

The lenders justified the negative effects of the austerity programs by arguing that Greece did not move forward with the agreed fiscal discipline measures and consolidation of its public sector. These charges have nothing to do with reality. In accordance with the report of the European Commission on Greece for 2014, Greece’s total public sector employment declined from 907,351 in 2009 to 651,717 in 2014, a decrease of more than 255,000 representing a drop of more than 25 percent. As for public deficit, Greece has reduced its fiscal deficit from 15.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 2.5 percent in 2014, “a scale of deficit reduction not seen anywhere else in the world,” Karl Whelan, economics professor at University College Dublin, wrote on his blog. “Stories about Greeks retiring early appear to have had a major impact on the hardline attitude of the German public towards Greece over the past few years.” In reality, he added, “Greece has undertaken the most significant pension reform in Europe.”

There are two reasons that the German leadership and some of its allies in the north do not want to accept the results of their policy. One is economic and the other political. On the economic front, the German government and other northern governments benefit from the eurozone crisis. According to a recent survey by Germany’s Halle Institute for Economic Research, the savings of the German budget are estimated to be more than 100 billion euros (or in excess of 3 percent of GDP) during the course of 2010 to 2015. “The balanced budget in Germany,” explained the Halle Institute, “is largely the result of lower interest payments due to the European debt crisis. Research shows that the debt crisis resulted in a reduction in German bond rates of about 300 basis points. A significant part of this reduction is directly attributable to the Greek crisis. When discussing the costs to the German taxpayer of saving Greece, these benefits should not be overlooked, as they tend to be larger than the expenses, even in a scenario where Greece does not repay any of its debts.”

This estimation takes into account neither the benefits for German exports from the rate of the euro that remains weak because of the crisis, nor the direct German profits from the interest on the loan given to Greece, estimated to be about a half billion euros as of September 2015.

The Halle Institute report contains another very important conclusion: “Faced with crisis, investors look for safe investments (flight to safety). During the debt crisis within the euro area, Germany benefited disproportionally from this effect: Any time there was bad news about Greece, yields on German government bonds fell, and any time there was good news about Greece, German government bond yields rose.”

That conclusion introduces us to the political basis of German behavior: hubris. François Mitterrand, president of France when the Berlin Wall fell, was afraid that a big Germany in the middle of Europe might seek political dominance once again. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher believed so, too. German author Günter Grass believed his country would return to its old hubris, its arrogance, feelings of superiority, and eventually abuse of its power.

The Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the introduction of the common currency later was intended to prevent recurrence of Europe’s bloody history, to ensure the integration of Germany so that it would not seek again to dominate Europe. At the same time, the common currency and the measures supposed to accompany it, aimed to reduce the differences between the rich countries of the north with the poorer regional countries and those in southern Europe. Neither target has been achieved. Rich countries took advantage of what to their economies was effectively a weak euro to further strengthen their industry and exports, while the poor ones were forced to use what to them amounted to a relatively strong currency and became de-industrialized. Since balancing mechanisms like currency devaluation do not exist in the eurozone, helping the poor is left to the goodwill of the powerful.

Based on its skills of discipline and organization, Germany managed to prevail. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the German government implemented austerity policies and fiscal discipline, long before other European governments. When the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, by the time it crossed the Atlantic and reached Europe in 2009 through Greece, Germany had its economic situation in order along with fiscal reserves. It was the Aesop fable of the foresighted, hardworking ant and the careless, unprepared grasshopper. After unification the most populous and financially strongest country in Europe, Germany, was in an advantageous position. Since the turn of the millennium and the introduction of the euro, Germany’s trade surplus has almost quadrupled and now stands at 217 billion euros ($236.4 billion). The common currency, which was originally meant to bind Germany to Europe, has had in the end the opposite effect. Thanks also to the Greek crisis, an account surplus of 7.5 percent of GDP gives Berlin absolute superiority. After reunification, Germany also managed to take almost all ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe under its control, using its own economic power and taking advantage of the satellite mentality that still pervades countries that were under Soviet rule.

The Semi-Hegemon

From the first moments of the European Common Market, the economic union that preceded the EU, Germany was the strongest country economically in Europe. However, the postwar German strategy was based on consultation with European allies, to echo the leading German intellectual Thomas Mann: we should never again seek a German Europe but a European Germany.

Nonetheless, when in 2009 the euro crisis erupted, at the Berlin chancellery there was a politician who did not belong to the war generation, as did her predecessor in the leadership of the Christian Democrat party, Helmut Kohl. She had not been nurtured by the ideas of the European Union either. Angela Merkel was 35 years old when the wall fell and managed to pass from East to West Germany. In the People’s Republic of Germany there was really never a substantial criticism of Nazism (which was attributed to the capitalists of the West) and of course they had no idea about the plans of a united Europe, as they had grown up with COMECON, the Warsaw Pact, and had their eyes looking toward Moscow.

Merkel is a politician who hesitates to decide. She never says a clear yes or no; she says yes and no. But if you have the money and the other side is waiting for you to lend it, this leadership weakness transforms itself into a strategic advantage. The other countries of Europe began to depend on Berlin’s hesitations and decisions. “Today all of Europe speaks German,” Volker Kauder, the conservatives’ German parliament floor leader, triumphantly concluded in his speech at a party conference of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Leipzig. “This is not a monetary union,” the Financial Times wrote in May 2012. “It is far more like an empire.”

The change in Germany’s approach to Europe has been dramatic. Previous German leaders sought to avoid isolation at all costs when it came to important negotiations, but Merkel has completely rejected that approach. “I am rather alone in the EU, but I don’t care,” she said to a group of advisors, according to the weekly magazine Der Spiegel. “We are in Europe what the Americans are in the world: the unloved leading power.”

Again in the twenty-first century, Europe is trying to cope with the same problem that gave birth to so many tragedies: the German question. Germany is too strong in Europe, but too small to rule over Europe by itself. History is repeating itself. After victories over Denmark, Austria, and France, the Kaiserreich that Bismarck founded in 1871 was soon dominated by the German hubris we see and hear almost daily these days: a feeling of being superior to others, to know better and to be better. Germany was acting like a “semi-hegemon,” German historian Ludwig Dehio said when describing Germany’s position in Europe after 1871. The then-powerful Germany, yet too small to rule Europe alone, had to form alliances that ended up in the First World War. The apotheosis of hubris, Hitler used his powerful war machine to dominate but was unable to defeat the Allies in the second war Germany had provoked in a century.

Nevertheless, unlike the United States after the Second World War, Germany the semi-hegemon is not taking full responsibility for its new role. It has a significant say in the fates of millions of people from other countries, but it only wants the benefits of that. Germans are not at all ready for an American-style Marshall Plan.

They deny Greece and other heavily indebted eurozone countries the possibility of a debt trim, forgetting that it was German debt’s drastic haircut in 1953 that allowed the German economic miracle to unfold. They refuse to issue Eurobonds that would serve the countries of the south, even to provide salary increases to German workers to facilitate consumption and imports in Germany. This is a skimping, selfish empire, but one ready to point fingers at the weak. A lawyer by profession, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has imposed Germany’s own dogma: if you apply austerity and respect the given rules, you will do well. If you question or try to change them, you will suffer. It is as simple as that.

Within this environment, the new Greek government tried as of January 2015 to challenge the German austerity doctrine. The response was clear from the beginning, according to the Greek finance minister: “In fact, they had one goal: to humiliate our government and force us to capitulate. Even if it meant the definitive inability of lending countries to recover their money or failure of the reform agenda that only we could convince Greeks to accept.”

The election result was treated with the same hubris. Schäuble said, according to Varoufakis: “When there’s a program that everybody has agreed to, that’s it. Elections cannot change anything, because, then, every time there’s an election everything will change.” This view was expressed publicly by several allies and satellites of Herr Schäuble.

The negotiations lasted for months, but while the Greek economy was paralyzed, the German government benefited from actually having lower interest rates with every new episode of the crisis. As the Halle Institute report said, “The effects are symmetric and amount to 20 to 30 base points a day for important events, such as the time in January of this year when the likelihood of a Syriza party victory in the elections became high, or a little later when the new [Alexis] Tsipras government refused any further talks with the troika.”

At the end of June, an exhausted Greek government stated its readiness to capitulate. It insisted only on a small debt restructuring without a haircut, through the exchange of shares. It had accepted nine-tenths of the requirements of partners and lenders, asking for a small return, in order to present to the Greek public opinion something that seemed like a fair deal. As a response, it received a disastrous program in the form of an ultimatum: “Take it or leave it.”

Prime Minister Tsipras had few options. He was almost forced to ask the Greek people in a referendum if they were willing to accept such a disastrous agreement. He hoped that he would use the result as a bargaining chip. He received retaliations as a response. In the negotiations that followed, Berlin would not accept even an offer of drastic austerity measures worth more than thirteen billion euros that Athens had drawn up in collaboration with Paris. Merkel’s government threatened a temporary exclusion of Greece from the euro and demanded the transfer of Greek state assets worth fifty billion euros to an obscure trust fund controlled from Germany and Schäuble personally. It was like a proposition coming from a hit man, not from an EU minister.

Finally Greece had to surrender to almost all German demands. As the Athenian envoys said in Melos long ago, “The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.” Melos was eventually destroyed, but Athens lost the moral superiority that every decent hegemon needs to rule. And never recovered after that.

Stelios Kouloglou is a member of the European Parliament representing Greece. He is an independent documentary maker whose films have included Confessions of an Economic Hit Man; Oligarchy; and The Godmother. He was editor-in-chief and anchorman of the Greek national television’s current affairs program Reportage Without Frontiers from 1996 to 2012. He has served as a political analyst for Le Monde Diplomatique and as a foreign correspondent in France, Russia, and Yugoslavia. He is the founder of the Greek news portal TVXS (TV Without Frontiers). On Twitter: @SteliosKoul.

The Iran Nuclear Deal

How to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons is perhaps the single greatest diplomatic challenge of our age. A particularly serious concern arose in 2002 when evidence came to light that the Islamic Republic of Iran was conducting secret nuclear activities. Iranian leaders steadfastly denied any intention to build a bomb, insisted on Iran’s sovereign right to peaceful nuclear energy, and threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Western powers demanded strict compliance with NPT requirements, and stepped up pressure on Iran with economic sanctions and warnings of military intervention.

European negotiations with Iran began in 2003 and eventually expanded to include all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council as well as Germany—known as the P5+1. The United States began participating directly in the negotiations in 2013, the highest level of talks since the Iranian revolution and U.S. embassy hostage crisis in 1979. On July 14 came a dramatic announcement at Vienna’s Coburg Palace: the parties reached agreement on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The agreement permits but restricts Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities for a period of fifteen years, and allows for intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It extends for five years and eight years, respectively, United Nations embargoes on sales of conventional weapons and ballistic missiles to Iran. The deal lifts crippling international economic sanctions that have curbed Iran’s oil exports and access to global financial systems, and frees an estimated $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets.

What does the deal mean for Middle East peace and democracy in Iran? Will it lead to a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington? Eight Cairo Review contributors discuss these and other questions in this special edition of Tahrir Forum.

Overcoming a Hard Legacy by John Limbert

With the announcement of a nuclear deal in Vienna, a three-decade freeze in relations between the U.S. and Iran is beginning to break. A former American diplomat with a deep knowledge of Iran explains the way forward. 

Why Arabs Are Concerned by Nabil Fahmy

The proposed nuclear deal with Iran is far from sufficient. It delays, but does not close the door on potential Iranian breakout. There is profound concern among Arab leaders, and for good reason. 

Beauty of the Pleiades by Turki Al-Faisal

Arabs have the greatest respect for the faith and culture of Iranians, as well as the indelible Persian contribution to the marvels of Islamic society. But like all worthwhile achievements, Persia’s greatest masterpieces were the product of cooperation and education, of learning from and with people of other backgrounds.

Democracy in Iran by Nader Hashemi

The debate on the Iran nuclear deal has largely ignored the effects that an accord might have on politics and society within the country. An Iranian scholar considers what the future might hold. 

Human Rights Is Good Business by Gissou Nia

Amid all the excitement over an Iran deal, there has been scant discussion of Iran’s dismal human rights record. The lifting of sanctions presents an opportunity not only for big profits, but gains in the country’s human rights standards.

Tehran’s Post-Deal Dilemma by Tarek Osman

A major success in Tehran’s foreign policy, the nuclear deal imposes an acute dilemma on the regime at home. So far, its leaders seem neither willing nor able to resolve the challenges facing them.

Ending the Iranian-Saudi Cold War by Reza Marashi

A diplomacy deficit between Iran and Saudi Arabia has exacerbated volatility across the Middle East. Ending the Iranian-Saudi cold war, and building a collective security framework for the Middle East is the only option likely to succeed. 

Behind Netanyahu’s Obsession by Owen Alterman

Some say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is obsessed with the Iranian nuclear issue; others say he just cares deeply about it. Jewish history influences the leader’s policies today.

All-American Sheikh

As he tells it, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, born Mark Hanson in Walla Walla, Washington, hails from a family of seekers. His journey to Islam began at age 17, when a head-on automobile accident led him to serious reflection on the meaning of life. In a spiritual quest over the ensuing decades, he converted from Christianity to Islam and studied with Muslim scholars in Britain, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Morocco, and perhaps most notably, with Sheikh Murabit Al-Hajj and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah of Mauritania. Today, Yusuf is widely regarded as one of the leading Western scholars of Islam and one of the most influential Muslims in the United States.

In 1996, Yusuf, 55, co-founded the Zaytuna Institute, which in 2009 became Zaytuna College, located in Berkeley, California, America’s first Muslim liberal arts college. As Zaytuna’s president, and in the classroom as a professor, he is on a mission to upgrade the quality of Islamic education, revive the classical teachings and sciences of the faith, and prepare Muslims for the modern world. Zaytuna offers a rich curriculum designed to integrate Islam and Arabic with the Western canon. “Mr. Yusuf dazzles his audiences,” the New York Times wrote in 2006, “by weaving into one of his typical half-hour talks quotations from St. Augustine, Patton, Eric Erikson, Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Auden, Robert Bly, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, and the Bible.” Earlier this year, Zaytuna became the first accredited Muslim institution of higher education in the country.

Yusuf has also been a passionate opponent of U.S. policies in the Middle East as well as a vocal critic of Muslim extremists—condemning the September 11 attacks as an act of “mass murder, pure and simple.” Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Yusuf on August 27, 2015, in his office at Zaytuna College, located in Berkeley’s tranquil Holy Hill neighborhood, known for its small theology schools and seminaries.

CAIRO REVIEW: What does the Muslim faith mean to you?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I essentially see Islam as a culmination of the Abrahamic traditions. I came out of the Abrahamic traditions. I was an Orthodox Christian. My father was Roman Catholic, Irish Catholic, my mother was half-Greek and half-Irish, so her father, who was an Archon in the Greek Orthodox Church, raised us Greek Orthodox and my father didn’t have a problem with that. My mother was very open-minded and she raised me to believe that religion, for most people, was largely an arbitrary phenomenon because they tend to take the religion they were born into. So, if we were in Sri Lanka we would be Hindus or Buddhists or in Poland we might be Jewish or Catholic. I really took that to heart. I did go through the various religions when I was 17, and Islam was the last on my list. There is something very troubling about Islam for a lot of Westerners because it’s the similar that’s not similar. We have about fourteen hundred years of conflict, with few bright spots: Sicily during Roger II, or Frederick II, the Peace and Friendship with Islam, Eternal Enmity to Rome. Then Spain, during a very brief, shining moment, the Convivencia, when there were Jews, Christians, and Muslims living together relatively harmoniously. But I think for most Western people there’s just a lot of prejudice that’s there. I was fortunate that I was raised in a household that—my mother had antibodies towards racism, sexism, prejudice, so we were raised not to look at things with a prejudicial eye as much as anybody is capable of doing that. When I studied Islam, I felt this has my Abrahamic faith with a lot of the things missing that bothered me about the Abrahamic faith. It was, for me, a very good fit.

CAIRO REVIEW: What does it mean that you’re a Muslim and not a Christian?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Everything that I loved about Christianity I got to bring into Islam. I didn’t see Islam as an abandonment of my Christian upbringing. I saw it as a fulfillment of it. I really didn’t have any conflict there. The Ten Commandments, I got. Jesus is a prophet as opposed to an incarnation of the divine, but one of the highest honored prophets. Mary is still a virgin in the Islamic tradition. The love of Jesus is in the Quran, but also the justice of Moses. So the Quran, although it appeals to the better angels of ourselves and asks us to be more Jesuit in our attitude towards the neighbor, it also allows for the redressing of wrongs. Muslims get that choice between the Mosaic justice and the turn-the-other-cheek of Christianity. I really felt that Islam was a fulfillment of that Abrahamic trinity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Final Testament.

CAIRO REVIEW: In the sweep of this history of fourteen hundred years, how has Islam benefited individuals, societies, and humanity?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Most people are unaware of the incredible contribution that Islam has made to human civilization. We call our numerals Arabic numerals. Many of our stars have Arabic names because the great Muslim astronomers were the ones that wrote the most advanced books on astronomy. When I went to Turkey I was so struck by how much of European civilization came from the influence of the Ottomans. John Locke, who wrote the treatise on toleration, was a student of Edward Pococke, at Oxford, who happened to be the foremost authority on Islam at the time. Locke was very interested in Islam. I think there’s a clear indication that Locke was influenced by the Ottoman way of dealing with multiple religions. The first Edict of Toleration in the West was in Transylvania, which [had] a heterodoxic Christian ruler working under the Ottomans who decided on tolerating other Christian sects. The Ottomans never persecuted the Protestants, so Protestants would flee to Ottoman Turkey from Catholic countries where they were being persecuted. The Jews, when they were being persecuted in Spain, went to Turkey, and Bernard Lewis highlights that in his book on Islam and the Jews. One of the most ironic things to me is that St. Thomas Aquinas, who really becomes the chief spokesperson and greatest theologian of the Catholic Church, Augustine notwithstanding, he was heavily influenced by Muslim theologians and he has them in his bibliography. He was influenced by Averroes, by Avicenna, by Al-Farabi, by Al-Ghazali. And you can see things in the Summa that are directly lifted from Muslim theological treatises. The Catholic Church itself has a debt to Islamic theology. A lot of people don’t know these things and it’s unfortunate, but there are many Western scholars who do know these things. California historical textbooks, because of Muslim advocacy, have actually begun to change that. And there’s pushback, obviously, from some of the more either secularist or fundamentalist Christians that don’t like the fact that Islam could be presented in any good light.

CAIRO REVIEW: You have fantastic epochs in the Islamic civilization. What went wrong?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Well, that’s the question that Bernard Lewis posed, “What went wrong?” In some ways, we could ask the same questions about the West. I find it ironic that the moral capital of our civilization is so low at a time when we’re condemning Muslim civilization. ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], for instance, is a pure outgrowth of a war that even the Pope declared unjust, that was waged by our administration on the Iraqi government. Yet we don’t take any responsibility for that. These are just “crazy Muslims” that arose out of a completely insane situation where a repressive regime was removed. But I would say that more things have gone right in the Muslim culture. You’re living in Cairo, so you know the family is far more intact in the Muslim World than it is in the West. We are now witnessing the disintegration of the family in the West. One of the things that really strikes me—I was just in Turkey, and people just look normal. And when I come back to my country, I feel like I’m in a freak show. What I realized recently was I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that in the Muslim World children still grow up with two parents and the mother is actually home so they get all the attention they need when they’re young and they don’t need to do all these attention-grabbing antics when they get older. Whereas in the West so many people don’t get that attention when they’re young so they spend the rest of their life looking. “Look at me, I have to tattoo my whole body to get people to look at me because I didn’t get the gaze of the significant other when I was a child so now I need the gaze of the insignificant others as an adult.” So I think a lot of what we’re seeing in the West, to me, is profoundly troubling, and in the Muslim World there are a lot of things that are actually positive so I’m not totally convinced that this whole question, “What went wrong?” is even a valid question. What’s happening in the Muslim World, the media’s magnifying glass has focused on one area that is definitely dysfunctional and having really severe crises, but there are many other areas of the Muslim World that are actually functioning quite well.

CAIRO REVIEW: For example?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Every year I spend a month in Turkey and I feel so much safer, it’s one of the cleanest countries I’ve been to, it has all of the modern amenities that I find in my own country, and it has really nice people. Istanbul is rated almost every year as the number one spot to visit on the planet for tourists because of its beauty, because they have incredible cuisine, they have amazing history. Malaysia is an amazing country. Multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious. The Malay Muslims live with the Chinese, live with the Orang Asli, the aboriginal peoples. And then Africa, Morocco, with all the problems that it has, is another country that I love to visit. There’s a lot of problems but it’s not one of the Arab countries that imploded. A lot of the Arab countries have real problems. Some of them are economic. Some of them have to do with the fact that dictatorship and oppression have been part and parcel of those countries for a long time. Oppression is a horrible thing to live under. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever read Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, those cycles are difficult to break.

CAIRO REVIEW: This is what I’m getting at.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think in some ways they are failed states, to lesser and greater degrees. Civilizations, like people, have ages. They have youth, they have middle age, and old age, and in many ways these are decrepit societies perhaps waiting for a reincarnation to be reborn because societies do get renovated. They are renewed. We’re a relatively new civilization and yet we’re, I think, looking pretty world-weary of late. But the American civilization has been a very dynamic civilization because it’s a relatively new civilization. Europe is, I think, having a lot of troubles. The whole planet, in some ways, is going through this. There’s a whole set of philosophical problems: the collapse of traditional societies, the collapse of traditional worldviews, the introduction of Western philosophical ideas, the Enlightenment, secularity. These have been introduced in the Muslim World that emerged in very different environments than they did in the Western world. The Western world had a gross reaction against religion because of a lot of the repressive tendencies of religion. In the Muslim World, knowledge was not the domain of religion itself. There was no priesthood to keep knowledge limited to a select group of people. For that reason, Muslims did not have this crisis of religion as a repressive force as it did in the West. Secularity, which is a reaction to that, laicism, which is the extreme reaction, did not occur to the Muslims. That’s why the imposition of secularity on them has been very traumatic for these societies because they are deeply religious societies. They’re still theocentric societies. That’s shifting. I agree that there are shifts happening in the youth because of the Western culture that is incredibly pervasive because of all the new technology. People are now exposed to things. Thirty years ago in Cairo they were watching Bahibbak Lucy, I Love Lucy, reruns, or something. Now they’re streaming from YouTube whatever they want to watch from the West. If you’ve watched The Square it’s very clear the incredible influences of these technologies even on the quote-unquote Arab Spring. These are complex questions.

CAIRO REVIEW: If we look at countries with major Islamic heritages—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia—many are very problematic places and societies today.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Historically, to use Saudi Arabia as an example, in Saudi Arabia two hundred years ago, a movement emerged which was a puritanical movement which was a radical departure, it was more of a protestant movement against a kind of Catholic Islam. It was more of a protest movement against a traditional Islam. People say Islam needs a reformation; this is what we’re witnessing. People that say Islam needs a reformation don’t know how bloody the Western Reformation was and how horrible it was and how it fragmented Western culture, and because of it, secularism arose as a treatment. William Cavanaugh would argue against that in The Myth of Religious Violence, but generally secularism came as this so-called arbiter between these religious conflicts. The truth is that secularism has a history that actually outdoes religion in its severity and barbarity. I mean, nobody has been as bloody as the secular ideologues, Stalin and Hitler.

CAIRO REVIEW: In these countries with Islamic heritage, why have things deteriorated so much?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: If you want to get to core reasons, one of them is that there was a collapse of the school systems in the Muslim World. Ibn Khaldun already in the fourteenth century is arguing that there was an ossification that had penetrated these school systems to where they were no longer thinking creatively but rather just simply rote memorization. There are many places outside of Western civilization where that is the norm, where you just regurgitate information and parrot it back to the teacher. So that is one aspect of this idea of what they call taqlid in the Islamic tradition, which is blind imitation. Toynbee argues that civilizations rise or fall based on how they respond to challenges and the response has to come from what he called a creative minority. Historically, the Muslims had these creative minorities and they were able to deal with their challenges, but these creative minorities diminished until they became just individuals that weren’t able to really address the crises that were confronting them. In the West we still have a lot of creative thinkers. One of the things that really strikes me about the West that I don’t see in the Muslim World is that [when] I go to the bookstores in the spring and in the fall when they release the new books, I’m always amazed by the amount of serious literature and study. In the Muslim World, crises come and go and there are no books that analyze them. Most of what’s published in the Arab World, the best stuff is just critical editions of books that were written a thousand years ago.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why have these Islamic societies fallen into such states of decay?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: A couple of things. One is taqlid, and the ossification of the creative process in the traditional school systems. Another aspect is, if you’re familiar with Eckstein’s Congruence Theory. Eckstein said that whatever the ruling model of a society is, it’s only successful to the degree with which the model is replicated in the other social institutions of the society. If you have a patriarchal society, or you have an authoritarian society, like a dictator, then you need teachers that behave like dictators. You need parents that behave like dictators. One of the things that strikes a lot of my Muslim friends as odd when they come to America is the idea of asking children what they want for dinner. They just think that that’s really a weird thing to do because you just give children food. But part of asking the child is enfranchisement. It begins early and you enculturate them into the idea that they are a sovereign citizen of the household and they participate in decisions and choices. That type of enculturation of democracy that happens organically in our culture, it’s so far from happening in the Muslim World. That’s why if you get rid of the dictator but the models that enable the dictator to be successful are still replicated in all of your social institutions, you’ve changed nothing. You’re only going to wait for the next dictator to come and act it out.

CAIRO REVIEW: How did this happen?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Cultures decline and fall. The decline and fall of Islam was the rise of Europe. Don’t forget that Europe rose with the introduction of all the Islamic sciences that came into it with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the fall of Granada in 1492. This is the transformation of the West. This is when all these great works were translated into Latin. The translation movement was amazing. It stimulated Europe and they took it and they’ve been going for five hundred years now. But the truth is the Muslims were going for a thousand years before that. People forget, when you look in terms of the long-term vision of it, what happened in the Muslim World will happen here, it’s only a matter of time. The Romans had their time. Civilizations have their time. They decline and fall. Does that mean that Islam declines and falls? No, this is where the conflation of Islam with the so-called Islamic civilization is a fallacy. For instance, I’m here in California and we’ve started a Muslim liberal arts college that is filled with people that were born in the United States of America. This might be the seed. It might be, I’m not saying it is, but Islam has historically moved to different places. It left the Arab World a long time ago and it moved to different places. The Turks had it and they declined and they fell. They’re trying to have their own renaissance in a way and it might happen because they have a lot of really interesting thinkers and they’re very sharp and they have a very dynamic culture.

CAIRO REVIEW: You mentioned The Colonizer and the Colonized. Is that part of what’s at play?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: It’s part of it. I think Muslims have a profound chip on their shoulder. I call it the “post-colonial traumatic stress syndrome.” The trauma of being colonized, especially when you were as great as the Muslim civilization was. They live in the ruins of greatness. If you’re in Cairo, it’s very hard to ignore the Mamluk majesty. It’s very hard to ignore the incredible past that they had; even the pyramids and the Pharaonic history. They live in the ruins of greatness. And, when they were colonized, beginning with the Napoleonic invasion, and then with the coming of the English and Lord Cromer, I think they really grappled with the collapse. Unfortunately, they identified the crisis with a lack of know-how. Most of the Muslims really believed that the reason that we were colonized was because the West got ahead of us. Hence, they direct all of their young people to study things like engineering and medicine because if we could just get the know-how and learn how they do these magical things, we’ll once again restore our greatness. The problem with that is that the real foundation of any civilization is morality. That’s where the real crisis is in a lot of the Muslim World, public morality. I think in some ways the private morality and generally sexual morality and things like that, family, those things are more stable in the Muslim World. I’m not naïve of all the hanky-panky that goes on everywhere, but generally you find that. Partly it’s because of the segregation that occurs and the opportunities are not as available.

CAIRO REVIEW: You’re saying that this corrosion is not because of Islam, but because there’s not enough Islam?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: That’s my thesis. Western people think that religion is a scaffolding that we built our civilization with and now that it’s built we can get rid of the scaffolding. I think there’s a very strong argument that it is the civilization, and if you get rid of it you’re left with buildings that are devoid of meaning. I think that’s what a lot of Western people are struggling with. The Muslims don’t have that crisis. Their crisis is that buildings are derelict but they still have meaning in them. And they don’t have the wherewithal to renovate. Renovation is a beautiful word, because in the Islamic tradition people are called to renovate, to renew.

CAIRO REVIEW: Are Islam and democracy compatible?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: There are a lot of people in the West that are asking, “Are democracy and corporatism compatible?” Democracy is a very fragile form of government and there are strong arguments now in the West that we’ve lost our democracy. That we don’t really have that much say, that we’re more kind of happy farm animals. They take care of us and we provide income tax dollars and consume their corporate products. Democracy is a contested term and if you mean by that, can Muslims vote and participate in the government, I think Turkey is an example of where Muslims clearly have worked within democratic institutions successfully. Malaysia is another example. It’s different; it’s not Western democracy. One of the things about the West is that we love to create others in our own image. When we were Christians we went around proselytizing Christianity, trying to form people into a Christian version of ourselves. Hence Amazonians singing Latin psalms. But, now that we’ve abandoned Christianity and we’re liberal democrats and consumers, the idea is to go and proselytize liberalism and consumerism. Part of our egocentricity and ethnocentricity is that we want to create the world in our own image. For instance, the Gulf states, like the Emirates, or Qatar, or Kuwait, for example, are places where the people being ruled are actually quite content with their rulers, by and large. Al-Nahyan has a very, very high rating amongst their people. It’s not a democratic environment, but it’s a type of benevolence, a benevolent paternalism, that works for them—setting aside labor problems of people coming from very impoverished areas. I’m not convinced that democracy has to be this universal way of governing ourselves. I would be perfectly content to live in a constitutional monarchy. I’d be perfectly content to live in a place like the Emirates. I could live in the United Arab Emirates and not have a problem with it. I spent four years in the Emirates so I’m speaking from real experience. I think we have to be very careful in trying to recreate the world in our own image. I think other places have to determine what’s right for them and if that’s democratic, then fine. I’m not an Islamist by any stretch of the word, but when an Islamist government was elected in Algeria, they were overthrown. One of the French commentators said sometimes we have to subvert democracy in order to save democracy. And this is the odd thing about it. If you give Muslims an election, very often they will actually vote in the Islamists because they actually believe that they represent God and that we should follow God and if they are going to apply Islamic law then we should vote for them. There’s a lot of Muslims that believe that.

CAIRO REVIEW: My definition of democracy would be more the values than institutions, like the right to individual liberty, the culture of tolerance, the culture of community decision-making rather than top-down decision-making, treatment of minorities, treatment of women.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think all the things you said, I think people would be shocked at how progressive Islam is in a really proper understanding of it.

CAIRO REVIEW: Can you explain that?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: For instance, women’s rights. One of the things that only recently they are acknowledging is the fact that women that work at home actually are contributing to the GDP. This is very recent. In the Islamic tradition, the jurists of Islam, thirteen hundred years ago, argued, and this is actually considered canon law in Islam, that women are entitled to be paid for their domestic service in their homes. They can actually charge their husbands for their domestic service if they choose. It’s a choice for them. That was understood, that they don’t have to serve a husband. That’s only very recently even an idea in the West. A lot of divorce in our country is over domestic chores, because you have two-income families and then the husband comes home and expects the wife to do the laundry and make the dinner. That stuff was dealt with centuries ago in the Muslim World. I think, in terms of minorities, in some ways the West has surpassed the Muslim World. There is full enfranchisement. There’s a lot to be desired undeniably, and there’s still a lot of racism in our culture, but I think Europe and America and Canada have done amazing things in that area. Unprecedented. It’s quite sad that there’s so much racial tension in our country because for the first time America is a society that was really beginning to overcome some of this. There’s a lot of historical baggage. In the Muslim World, minorities were always protected but they were seen definitely as subjects and second-class citizens, but they were protected. I think there is a reading of Islam, and that’s certainly the one that my teacher, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, has—he argues recently [that] the whole concept of jizya is only one among different possibilities. So the idea of a poll tax for non-Muslim minorities is one. The other model is what they call the Constitution of Medina, where the Prophet fully enfranchised the Jewish tribes and that was the first model. It was replaced by the jizya model. He argues that it was never abrogated and I think there’s a solid argument for that. He does feel that that’s the most appropriate way, that minorities should be fully enfranchised.

CAIRO REVIEW: Would you argue that Islam has a space for these democratic values?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think they are certainly compatible with Islam. I think there are definitely areas—for instance, pornography, violence—when we argue that freedom also means the freedom to corrupt people, this is where you’re going to get into some entanglements amongst the Muslims. In the West, even though these are recent ideas, is the idea that the pornographer has the right to be a purveyor of smut in the society and that’s his individual right. The Muslims would say that if harm overrides benefit, if the social harm is greater than the social benefit of something, then in Islamic law it’s prohibited. And, certainly with pornography, the evidence of the social harm is immense. I’ve read a lot in this area. Oddly enough, Muslim civilizations tended to be a lot more tolerant of what until recently was called sexual deviancies. Muslim cultures had a greater tolerance of these things, even though they are prohibited. The actual cultures tended to be tolerant. One of the interesting things that has always struck me as odd is [that] nobody has ever looked at the Muslim transvestites. They call them mukhannathoon; we find them in India, in the Arab World, West Africa. They go to the weddings and they are men that behave like women. Muslims have always recognized that there is a spectrum of behavior amongst peoples and I think they’ve been a lot more tolerant to human foibles and idiosyncrasies than a lot of Western cultures, which demand a type of conformity. But puritanism tries to stamp that out and a lot of what we’re seeing today is the rise of this puritanical Islam that is very repressive and makes it very difficult for people that are not in that.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is that legitimate? Is it Islam?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Arguably there are elements that are Islam. Undeniably. But the way that it is practiced and the cruelty with which it is practiced are very alien to Islam and to the Muslims. This Graeme Wood argument [in the Atlantic magazine], that he made using Bernard Haykel and a few other people, that what ISIS is practicing is Islam, I think that argument is a very fallacious argument for anybody that knows the Islamic tradition.

CAIRO REVIEW: The Arab Spring gave so much hope to the young generation. Part of the failure is that the Islamist movements have not been successful. How do you read that? Why hasn’t the Islamic movement brought about a just society?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: First of all, I think it’s akin to the Spring of Nations which happened in 1848 with the revolutions in Europe that were quickly squelched by the authoritarian regimes. But, over time, that gave rise to major changes that happened with World War I. That might be what it will take, a horrible World War III, and then from those ashes will emerge more equitable societies. I would hate to see that but I think it’s very possible. The Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollern, the Romanovs, they all collapsed but they should have reformed in 1848 when people rose up against these ossified, petrified regimes, but they didn’t. The same is true with the Ottomans, with Abdul Majid who made incredible reforms with the Tanzimat and then Sultan Abdul Hamid, for whatever reasons, suspended the constitution. I mean, he had his justifications for doing it but it was suspended, the parliament was shut down. So, those reforms were not fulfilled and then comes the Young Turks and the overthrow of the Ottoman caliphate. I think these things eventually are going to play out. I don’t know how brutal it’s going to be but people can’t take tyranny, and they rise up. Aristotle, in his book of politics, has a section on revolutions, and I think his descriptions of why revolutions occur are as valid today as they were when he articulated them two thousand five hundred years ago. It’s very clear that when you have diseased societies, the disease has to come to a head, like the boil that brings all the pus out of the body. So I think this was just the beginning, it’s a kind of bloodletting and if they don’t make the reforms that are necessary, it’s going to happen again. This happened back in the 1950s. People forget because they don’t read history, all this happened in the Arab World in the 50s. They had these great revolutions, Gamal Abdel Nasser came, everything was going to be different. It was going to be a great society. And that spread like wildfire. They overthrew the government in Iraq, the king. They tried to overthrow the monarchy in Morocco several times. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. And it was squelched and those revolutionaries became the very same thing that they had overthrown. King Farouk was much better than Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt was better off during Farouk’s rule.

CAIRO REVIEW: Where is Islam in all this?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think Islam is just enlisted as an impressed sailor on this mutinous ship. That’s how I view it.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a role for Islam in governance? Does the world need another caliphate?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: No. Well, let me qualify that. I would want that the rulers of the Muslim World, especially if you have very large populations of Muslims, that they recognize the authority of Islam in the state, especially for those things that directly affect people. The single most important aspect of the sharia after personal law of marriage and things like that are the commercial laws. If you look at all Islamic books on Islamic law, the vast majority of them relate to commercial law. And those commercial laws, if they were implemented today, we would have far more just societies, because much of it is the prohibition of these commercial transactions that exploit people. So, I think there is definitely a role for commercial law. In terms of the penal codes of Islam, most of them are at the discretion of the judge. The punishments of Islam, these ideas of cutting off the hand and stoning the adulterer and crucifying, what ISIS is doing, they say that in eight hundred years of Ottoman rule, they never stoned anybody. These were not applied because, like the Jewish tradition, to actually apply them would take basically a confession. It’s almost impossible to determine. For instance, for fornication, you have to have four witnesses that actually see penetration, basically legal fiction. It’s not going to happen. Pregnancy can be explained away if they do. According to the Shafi’i madhab, repenting from the sin actually removes the hadd, punishment. So a person can actually be forgiven if they sincerely repent from the sin. So even the penal codes would not be a problem in most modern applications of them.

CAIRO REVIEW: So ISIS has declared a caliphate.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: It’s bogus. It doesn’t mean anything.

CAIRO REVIEW: They’ve taken territory.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: No, no, it’s completely bogus. First of all, the caliphate has to be agreed upon by Muslims and that’s in the most authoritative text, in Al-Bukhari, which all Sunni Muslims accept. In Al-Bukhari, Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph, says, “If anyone claims to be caliph, do not accept his caliphate until all the Muslims agree on it.” That’s right in the text. I could declare California as the land of the caliph and I’m the caliph, come and take bay’ah with me. It’s bogus, it doesn’t mean anything.

CAIRO REVIEW: But a lot of stuff is happening there. They’re creating a lot of chaos.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: You know what? A lot of stuff is happening with drug dealers just south of the [American] border. They’re cutting off heads. They’ve killed thirty thousand people. A lot of them were beheaded. They have a drug caliphate there. Why doesn’t anybody talk about that? Americans don’t know a lot about that. Every once in a while they read about people disappearing in Juárez or something like that. There’s bad things happening all over the planet.

CAIRO REVIEW: True, but huge numbers of Muslims are being adversely affected by ISIS.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Yes, it’s horrible. Also, huge numbers of Muslims were being adversely affected by Shia militia which gave rise to ISIS. They were a response to these Shia militia that were totally out of control that were tyrannizing the Sunni villages. Initially, if you read the most accurate reporting on this, initially, a lot of these villages welcomed ISIS in. In fact, in The Week they have an article about this, that initially Iraqis wanted ISIS because they were bringing some semblance of order back to an anarchistic situation. Then ISIS revealed themselves to be the demons that they are and now people are turning against them. We created that vacuum. The United States of America, my country. We created that vacuum. Even Bush the First did not take out Saddam because, like Kissinger, he knew what political vacuums bring. They bring chaos and anarchy. Bush Senior wouldn’t go in. They could have gone in and finished it but they didn’t want to create that vacuum because they thought it was too volatile, especially in the region. But these neoconservatives were planning on taking out Saddam and Iraq in the 90s and writing about it. They got into power and they fulfilled their wish. They created and wreaked havoc.

CAIRO REVIEW: What does the world do with ISIS now? Should the United States intervene?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I’m a libertarian when it comes to that. I think America has done enough intervention.

CAIRO REVIEW: We can’t have a humanitarian intervention?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I don’t think we’re capable of it.

CAIRO REVIEW: Who’s going to stop ISIS then?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think the Muslims have to deal with it. I think the Arab states do. It’s embarrassing. They have armies. I think they should be intervening. I think they should send their own troops in there. But they would demand that they have more just governments and they treated their soldiers better. Because they’re worried that they’ll go in there and they’ll join the opposition. That’s a fact. But they’re the ones who should be doing it. I don’t think it should be left to the Turks. The Turks will probably have to get involved because it’s threatening their borders and as the terrorism increases. And then they have the Kurdish problem as well. No, I think this whole idea of America being the global policeman, it’s over. We’re almost bankrupt, if we’re not already bankrupt. We’ve got trillions of dollars in debt. We can’t afford these budgets anymore. Americans are living in a fantasy world. They really are. Look at the debt that China holds on us. If you want a security threat to this country, it’s the trillions that are in Chinese coffers. They’re buying up all the real estate in California because they have all these dollars and they’re just dumping it on real estate because it’s a hedge against inflation. So, I think we need to take care of our country.

CAIRO REVIEW: How would you explain Muslim extremist violence?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: It can’t be summed up in some short sound byte, unfortunately. It comes from a profound misreading of the Islamic tradition. Revelation is very dangerous. Historically, the Catholics developed a system to ensure that common people did not read the Bible on their own. Protestantism said no, common people should read the Bible on their own. This led to horrible religious wars and the fragmentation of Christianity, which led to the rise of secularism to be an arbiter so that people who were interpreting the Bible on their own were demilitarized. You could have your own church on the corner of the street, but don’t get violent about it. Well, in the Muslim World, this is what has happened. You have people reading primary sources, the Quran and Hadith, without the requisite tools to read those sources, and they are very dangerous without those tools. I’ll give you one example. In the Islamic tradition, the Prophet, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, prohibited burning people. He said only God can punish with fire. That’s in Sahih Al-Bukhari, which is considered an absolutely sound hadith. In fact, the full hadith says, “Burn this person and that person as a punishment for them burning some other people,” but then he came back and said, “No, don’t do that,” because he was given a revelation not to burn and he said, “I told you to burn, but don’t burn, because only God can punish with fire.” That hadith stands but there are other traditions that say, for instance, that Ali burnt people for apostasy in Palestine. That hadith is also sound. But the narrator of that hadith, whose name is Ikrimah, was in a group that was against Ali. So even though the hadith has soundness, it has a problem. So ISIS takes that hadith and burns this Jordanian [captured air force pilot], claiming that they have an authoritative source to do this. They don’t. It’s just ignorance. And then to top that, there’s no application of lex talionis in war. That’s agreed upon by Muslim scholars. Even their application of lex talionis was not correct because in war there’s no qisaas, there’s no killing people for killing people because war is war; the point is to stop the cycles of violence. It’s a gross ignorance. Look at them, they’re all kids. There’s no old people there who have studied. I mean, I’m almost 60, this tradition takes years to learn. I don’t even feel that I’m qualified or adept and I’ve been studying it seriously for many, many years. Historically, you have what are called shuyukh, which literally means “old men,” like senators, from senatus, which is Latin for old. There’s a reason why you can’t be a senator until you are 30; you’re hoping some wisdom will kick in.
CAIRO REVIEW: Where are the scholars?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I’ve been to so many conferences condemning this stuff. The media ignores us. There are books written on this.

CAIRO REVIEW: But are Muslim populations listening to these scholars?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: A lot of the Muslim populations, particularly in the Arab World, they’ve been poisoned against the scholars, largely from the Islamists. It’s a competing narrative, because most of the scholars are against political Islam. So the Islamists have painted the scholars as lackeys and basically supporters of tyranny and as these traditionalists that just want to calm everybody down. Unfortunately, there is a war going on, a war of ideas, and the traditionalists have been losing it.

CAIRO REVIEW: After 9/11, the idea of a clash of civilizations took hold and this became a narrative in the West. What did you make of that at the time?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Duncan MacDonald said that the three great civilizations on this planet are the Sinic, the Islamic, and the Christian. Until they find a way of living together harmoniously, we’re always going to be faced with the threat of these civilizations clashing. He wrote that in 1906, I think. We’ve been clashing for a long time. I think partly there are forces working on the world that don’t mind those clashes because they make a lot of money out of them. We have a huge armaments industry, the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned this country about. I think they need bogeymen to scare people into having half their taxes going to military budgets. I’m as cynical as believing that they really don’t mind. I think they have some sociopathic tendencies that human suffering doesn’t seem to bother them a whole lot.

CAIRO REVIEW: What about on the Islam side?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: The Arabs are a very proud people. Palestinians have been humiliated for so long that they feel the one thing they can do, “We can kill ourselves and we’re not afraid of dying and you Jews have to build walls.” I think there are issues that relate to the psychology of the people themselves. Osama Bin Laden said we’ve been living in humiliation for eighty years. I think humiliation has a lot to do with the violent reactions. In the African American community, I learned this from personal experience. They have something called stepping on toes. It’s an insult to step on toes. You will sometimes get a violent reaction if you do it, even inadvertently, because it was a way of dissing somebody. There’s a lot of stepping on toes going on around the planet and people get violent. Even the pope said if somebody makes fun of his mother, he would get violent with them. Do you remember that quote? That’s an Argentinian speaking, not an Italian. I think a lot of it is about that. It’s just honor. It’s not really a word that we use anymore. We forget that we used to have dueling. Dueling was outlawed in the 1840s. These were before libel suits, we demanded satisfaction. We had a vice president who killed a [former] secretary of the treasury in a duel. That’s pretty amazing. It was over honor. People take these things very seriously even if we don’t anymore.

CAIRO REVIEW: What about your concern about Islamophobia in the West?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Phobia is an irrational fear. In some ways there’s a valid and legitimate concern about terrorism because we’ve seen a lot of examples of Muslims behaving badly. However, we do forget that one out every four people is Muslim and these terrorists represent an incredibly insignificant number of people in relation to the overall numbers of Muslims. The Ku Klux Klan, which was clearly a terrorist organization in the United States at one point, had about three to five million members. I would argue there’s not anywhere near that number of terrorists in the Muslim World. You’re dealing with tens of thousands, maybe. Even ISIS, they haven’t reached huge numbers. I think people have to keep things in perspective. I’m concerned with a rightwing element in this country that has a very clear agenda. Partly, there are elements that are very pro-Israel and Zionist, and are worried about Muslims having a greater voice in relation to Middle Eastern politics and the support of Israel because America has a really unconditional love affair with Israel since Truman. That’s a concern and it’s a legitimate concern from the Jewish community. But there are certain rightwing elements within that community that have used 9/11 as an opportunity to really paint the Muslims as this fifth column in the United States and to create a lot of fear about that. And they have allied with fundamentalist Christians that see Islam as a kind of competing corporation for consumers of their religious goods.

CAIRO REVIEW: What does that mean for American Muslims?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I think it endangers us. It’s interesting that ISIS has issued fatwas against scholars who have spoken against them publicly. I guess that came from the khutbas against them, which some of us have given. Then I’ve got these rightwing people saying that I’m a stealth jihadist. There have been several books where they’ve put that in there. I think it threatens me personally; I don’t feel like I did before. It’s a serious concern with me. I think a lot of our mosques feel it now. A lot of Muslims feel that their mosques are no longer these safe havens. Which is really sad because, again, America is one of the few places that really was beginning to become an exemplar for a multireligious, multicultural civilization. That’s very sad for me.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why have you spoken out publicly against ISIS?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I gave a khutba that went viral, called “The Crisis of ISIS.” It was seen all over the Middle East. It was translated into Arabic. It was tweeted by even some of the heads of state. I guess they didn’t like that too much. I drew blood first.

CAIRO REVIEW: What was your message?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: That they have nothing to do with Islam.

CAIRO REVIEW: We have ISIS saying that they represent Islam and we have you saying they have nothing to do with Islam.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: There are insane Christians that say they represent Christianity. Did Rabbi Kahane represent Judaism? Baruch Goldstein, who killed all those people in the masjid: did he represent Judaism? There are a lot of people who claim to represent something. They don’t represent anybody but themselves.

CAIRO REVIEW: But the image of Islam…
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Has been tainted greatly. Partly the media is to be blamed. The great antichristic media. They have been so egregiously derelict in their duty in the way that they’ve portrayed Islam.

CAIRO REVIEW: Talk about that a little more. What have the media done wrong, and what could they have done?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: One, they have to educate people about what’s happening in the Middle East, and why these things are happening. For instance, Mark Twain visited Palestine a hundred years ago and wrote about it. Just read his memoirs. Palestine was not like it is today. So what changed? Somebody like Gertrude Bell lived in Iraq as an English woman and went into the governor’s office without any protocol. What changed? The idea that this [ISIS] somehow represents Muslims and Islam is insane. We live in this temporal idolatry of now and there’s no historical context given to these things. Nobody ever gets an idea of what’s going on. Muslims and Jews weren’t always fighting. It’s a lie. It’s a historical lie, but how many times have I heard that canard reiterated: “Oh, it’s always been like this.” It’s not true. It wasn’t always like that. I recognize that we’re dealing with a largely inattentive, relatively uneducated, and highly distracted population. So, it is hard to get in-depth. If you go to Great Britain for instance and look at the BBC coverage of some of these issues, it’s just a lot more nuanced. That’s a fact. Even Haaretz, even the Israeli media, is more nuanced. We just have a cartoon worldview here that really bothers me.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a role in changing this imbalance for the Islamic scholars?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Definitely. That’s not the main reason that we’re doing what we’re doing, but part of the reason is to educate Muslims here that can play that role. That’s definitely one of the aims of Zaytuna College. Yes, I do think we need educated spokespeople.

CAIRO REVIEW: Tell me a little more about Zaytuna College and the reasons why you founded the institution.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I come out of a liberal arts tradition. My father was a humanities professor. When I went and studied overseas, it really struck me how similar traditional Islamic education was to what we call the liberal arts. I was really flabbergasted by the emphasis on literature, the emphasis on logic, the emphasis on rhetoric, grammar. I think the liberal arts has disappeared from the Muslim World to a large degree. I was fortunate to study with some truly great scholars, but the West African school is one of the few places where it’s still there. There is some in Turkey as well. There is some at Al-Azhar, but it’s lost. Part of it is to revive that tradition but also with contextualizing it in the modern world. Today in ethics class we’re grappling with nominalism, and essentialism, and philosophical debates about ethics, command-theory ethics versus deontological, consequential ethics. Grappling with these things and where does Islam fit into all of this? Getting them to think about these things. Today I introduced to them their thesis they have to write and I told them they could write on any ethical problem. For or against, I don’t care. If you want to write for gay marriage in the Islamic tradition, like Scott Kugle is arguing for, and you want to put forward that argument, and it’s well written, I won’t agree with you but you can write on that. So, it is trying to get them to think creatively and deeply about problems that we’re facing as modern people with a religion that is fourteen hundred years old.

CAIRO REVIEW: You were born Mark Hanson. How did you become Sheikh Hamza Yusuf?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: I come from a family of seekers. There’s a metaphysical bookstore in San Francisco, Fields Bookstore, which was opened in 1931, and that was my uncle who opened that. He had books on Sufism and Islam there back in the 30s. My grandmother left the south with that uncle, her brother, because they were interested in Buddhism in the 1920s and they didn’t like the racism in the south so they actually moved to San Francisco which at that time was considered one of the most open-minded places. My mother was a seeker. My father was definitely a seeker, more in philosophy. Plato and Aristotle were his focus in his seeking, he really came out of that tradition. All my brothers and sisters were like that, too. The real catalyst was a car accident when I was 17, which was a head-on collision. That forced me to confront mortality in a way that I hadn’t done before that. Everybody will confront mortality at a certain point in their life but sometimes it takes much longer than others. It happened to me very early on.

CAIRO REVIEW: So it’s really an American story?
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: Yeah, I thought that if I ever wrote an autobiography, I thought of calling it “American in Mecca.” Or “Renegado.” The Europeans who fled to the Muslim World and became Muslim—they called them renegados.

Archives Diplomatique

Boutros Boutros-Ghali has led a diplomatic career of rare distinction. He served many years as the Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs, before becoming the first Arab and first African secretary-general of the United Nations from 1992 to 1996. Now 93, the elder statesman has donated his library of books and papers to the American University in Cairo.

The collection includes fifteen thousand volumes, as well as personal papers, photographs, and miscellaneous objects. Roughly three-quarters of the collection consists of texts on international relations, politics, and human rights, while the rest spans a range of topics with a heavy concentration of works on Coptic art and architecture. The collection includes many first editions and out-of-print works, volumes that the university would normally not be able to acquire.

It took a six-person team led by Mohamed Abu Bakr, chief conservationist at the AUC Library, five days to pack the collection into 241 boxes and transport it from Boutros-Ghali’s home along the Nile River in Giza to the AUC campus in New Cairo. “It’s about his whole life,” said Eman Morgan, manager of new collections at the library. “There’s enough to write his own story here.”

Boutros-Ghali distinguished himself with repeated calls for tolerance and peace in a world struggling with multiculturalism. He was privy to some of recent history’s great turning points. He was a senior foreign ministry official in the years following President Anwar Sadat’s opening to the West and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. His term at the United Nations followed the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall and breakup of the Soviet Union. As the sixteenth UN secretary-general, he dealt with the breakup of Yugoslavia as well as the Rwandan crisis—and faced complaints that the UN did not do enough to stop the genocide there. He presided over the organization’s fiftieth-anniversary commemoration.

On display in the library’s exhibition room are stamps that some member states issued to mark the occasion. Among them, Ghana’s features Boutros-Ghali’s portrait. His UN tenure was not without controversy, however. His bid for a second term as secretary-general was blocked by the United States; in his 1999 book, Unvanquished: A U.S.–U.N. Saga, Boutros-Ghali said the Bill Clinton administration opposed his independence and recounted how his leadership of the UN became an issue in Clinton’s own reelection campaign in 1996.

Marginalia, inscriptions, and book slip-ins hidden throughout the collection give a fascinating glimpse into an influential statesman’s life. One unremarkable form card announced the gift of a book, Israel: A Developing Society, to Boutros-Ghali on the occasion of a visit to Tel Aviv University on December 19, 1980. His visit, however, would have been anything but ordinary—it came only a year after Egypt and Israel ended decades of enmity. A short note from Bernard Lewis, a leading historian of the Middle East and professor at Princeton University, inscribing his book Islam in History, refers to a passage defending Boutros-Ghali’s “vision and courage” in negotiating peace with the Jewish state and guiding Egypt’s alignment with the West.

Another inscription came from Cuba’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. In spidery handwriting in Castro’s book, The World Economic and Social Crisis, he politely refers to their disagreement over the Cuban leader’s views on the subject. “For my respected adversary,” wrote Castro. The collection includes inscriptions from famous allies in Egyptian diplomacy, too. There is a heavily illustrated volume, The Arts of Persia, by R.W. Ferrier, signed by the Iranian Empress Farah Pahlavi on her visit to Cairo in July 1990. When Boutros-Ghali was minister of state, Sadat honored the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who died of cancer in a Cairo hospital, with a state funeral.

Boutros-Ghali hails from a patrician family steeped in Egypt’s Francophile past; his grandfather was Egypt’s first Coptic prime minister. While the collection includes many English and Arabic editions, the majority of the works are in French. Inside many of Boutros-Ghali’s childhood books the owner is identified as Pierre, the French form of the prénom Boutros. Among them is a rare 1855 edition of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

Oriental Hall, etc.

Could we have predicted that the dreams of the Arab Spring would become such a nightmare of violence and even collapse across the Middle East? “We cannot understand our own world unless we understand something about how it came to be,” Lisa Anderson, AUC president and political scientist specializing in Middle East studies, said in a September lecture on the AUC campus. “When a state is stressed, the patterns of the cracks that appear are best understood through the lens of history.” It is no wonder that most of the Tunisians who have joined the Islamic State are from the neglected hinterlands, argued Anderson—challenges to central authority have historically come from outside the capital, and the Arab Spring was ignited in the town of Sidi Bouzid in the far southwest of the country. Similarly, history helps explain Libya’s collapse into conflict, Anderson said—it was unsurprising that the uprising against Muammar Gadhafi began in the eastern city of Benghazi, “where opposition to the government was a long tradition and where a measure of political cohesion could be sustained.” But the revolt was poorly coordinated with western Libya, she noted, whose revolutionary movement ultimately fractured along the lines of old rivalries.

The Republic of South Sudan plunged into violence and instability after breaking away from the Republic of Sudan and winning its independence in 2011. The civil war between supporters of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar has killed some ten thousand people and displaced more than two million others. The authoritarian nature of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and disputes over oil-rich regions are often cited as factors in the crisis. Khalid Medani, associate professor of political science at McGill University, points to another critical yet often ignored element in the conflict: the erosion of communal land rights. Speaking at an AUC symposium in June, South Sudan: Past, Present and Visions of the Future, co-sponsored by AUC’s Middle East Studies Center and the Global Studies Consortium, Medani said that the SPLM government allocated large tracts of land to foreign investors without oversight or regulation, and defined the right to land as based on tribal rather than communal affiliation. “This forces people to compete over land and hardens and reifies ethnic identity,” he explained. As a result, he added, young men joined insurgent groups and militias, and perpetrated massacres and mass sexual assaults “out of fear and greed, to displace, depopulate, and take over scarce resources.” According to Medani, it is essential that South Sudan “reduces the incentives for conflict by diversifying the economy, reducing poverty, especially in rural areas, and safeguarding communal land rights.”

Saud Al-Faisal: Statesman Diplomat

My first encounter with Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who passed away in Ramadan this year, occurred forty years ago. Newly appointed as Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister after the assassination of his father, King Faisal, he came to visit my father, Ismail Fahmy, who was Egypt’s foreign minister at the time, at our beach house in Alexandria. Decades later when I served as foreign minister myself, it was moving to hear the prince state publicly, with obvious emotion, that he was proud to have worked with father and son. In every encounter we had as the foreign ministers of our respective countries, he broke protocol and precedent to be especially courteous and cordial.

My admiration for Prince Saud went beyond his refined civility. He showed steely backbone in standing firm against policies he objected to. He took a results-oriented approach to diplomacy, and came up with creative new ideas, pushing boundaries on intractable issues. He astutely agreed to proposals when less-than-ideal options were on the table. He showed great wisdom and professionalism in dealing with pressing issues without losing sight of the big picture or strategic objectives.

Many will remember Prince Saud’s strong positions and sustained efforts in support of Egypt after the June 30, 2013 revolution—emulating the support King Faisal gave to Egypt with the oil embargo after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. He was instrumental in negotiating the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended fourteen years of civil war in Lebanon. Also to his credit was the Saudi peace initiative adopted by the Arab Summit in Beirut in 2002 as the Arab Peace Plan.

Prince Saud often asked Egypt to pursue its proposal for a WMD-free Middle East, yet despite American double standards on the issue urged us (unsuccessfully) against boycotting talks on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2013, Saudi Arabia stunned the diplomatic community by refusing to accept a seat on the fifteen-member United Nations Security Council because of its ineffectiveness and the double standards of its members. Prince Saud listened patiently and seriously to my ultimately unsuccessful arguments to convince Saudi Arabia to reverse its decision.

Prince Saud’s wisdom was evident in our handling of the Arab position on President Barack Obama’s aborted endeavor to bomb Syria in 2013. On this tactical step Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab countries supported using force. Egypt and others did not. I had a meeting with Prince Saud, where it was evident that our positions were close on everything but the bombing. In our discussions I also emphasized to everyone’s astonishment that Obama would ultimately not bomb Syria. We drafted mutually agreed language that put the responsibility clearly and forcefully on the Syrian regime, but stayed short of paving the way for the United States to bomb Syria under the guise of an Arab League resolution à la Libya. For many months afterward Prince Saud would joke with me about my correct reading of American politicians.

Such tactical disagreements never affected relations between our two countries or their officials. In fact, they were catalysts to numerous phone calls and consultations between us on a wide range of things concerning our respective national developments and the ever-turbulent Middle East, with a view to building a better future for the region. Prince Saud Al-Faisal was a statesman diplomat and he will be missed.

Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999–2008, and as envoy to Japan between 1997 and 1999.

Fall 2015

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran helped drive a new wave of Islamist activism across the Middle East. Yet in the Arab World, Tarek Osman writes in “Failings of Political Islam,” his essay in the Fall 2015 issue of the Cairo Review, Islamist groups have proved unable to lead governments through democratic means. Jihadist groups, meanwhile, are achieving notable gains. As part of Special Report: Islam and Politics, we publish “Rule of Terror,” a disturbing account of life under the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Abdel Bari Atwan, a journalist well known for his inside reporting on Al-Qaeda, contributes a look at mysterious ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in “A Portrait of Caliph Ibrahim.” Further afield, Marcin Buzanski reports from Somalia on how the Al-Shabab group is complicating efforts to achieve a peace settlement there.

Is Islam inherently violent, as many people in the West believe? Ömer Taşpınar provides a thoughtful rebuttal to such views in the essay “The Problem with Radicalism,” which puts forth a theory on one of the primary roots of terrorism. No understanding of the current chaos in the Middle East would be complete without a discussion of the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement: we are very grateful to Eugene Rogan and his publisher, Penguin Books, for permission to publish an excerpt on the topic from his latest book, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920.

To discuss Islam and politics with an Islamic scholar, I traveled to an unlikely place to meet an unusual man: Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an American convert to Islam, who is co-founder of Berkeley’s Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the United States. Acknowledging the deep crisis in the Middle East, he reminds us that many other parts of the Islamic World are functioning quite well. Says Sheikh Hamza, “I find it ironic that the moral capital of our [Western] civilization is so low at a time when we’re condemning Muslim civilization.”

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor