Thursday, March 30, 2006

Salafism as anti-Imperialism (part I)?

What prompted my earlier ramble on the current fragmented nature of left was trying to think of a better way of saying the following “currently one of the Shibboleths of the left is…” Clearly what follows isn’t a discussion of a Shibboleth of everyone who considers themselves progressive or leftwing, just some. If you want to know exactly whose Shibboleth it is, I refer you to my previous post. Having said that, lets start again.

Currently one of the Shibboleths of the left is that the wave of Jihadi terrorism that has been gripping the world’s attention since 9/11 is basically a new form of anti-Imperialism. This fits nicely with the “blame America” ideology that typified much of the opposition to the Iraq War and even, to a lesser degree, the response to the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001. At its most crude, this argument makes Bin Laden and his band of merry men out to be plucky freedom fighters resisting the new American empire of hegemonic Hollywood culture and neo-liberal free markets. This is a complex debate, but at its heart there is some truth to it, it’s just that the major flaw in this analysis is that it gets the empire wrong. The ideology of al-Qaeda can be called Salafi-Jihadi (al-Salafiyya al-jihadiyya), it is the violent wing of the Salafi movement. Salafism is often used interchangeably in the media with Wahabbism, the ultra-orthodox Saudi version of Islam, and with some justification as the two movements have increasingly merged over the last half a century – but they did not start out together. The Salafi movement began in the Middle East towards the end of the 19th Century as essentially a modernist movement. Its founders, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammed Abduh wanted the Muslim world to be able to compete with the rising powers of the West and believed that to do so they would need to borrow from the West ideas in science and even social organization. Although Afgani in particular was no fan of the British Empire, he was not an anti-imperialist per se. Firstly the Muslim world was at the time synonymous with the Ottoman Empire and even outside of the Ottoman’s realm he was not averse to taking the support of one empire, Russia, to tweak the nose another, Britain, if it fitted his agenda.

Afghani realised that the Muslim world had created a history of culture and jurisprudence that would see the use of Western ideas as heretical or ‘un-Islamic’. Abduh and al-Afghani set out to clear the decks of over a 1000 years of sedimented Islamic scholarship that would deny the legitimacy of their modernising ambitions and continued to leave the reactionary conservative scholars, the ulema of the Ottoman Caliphate in power. To do this they looked back to the time of the companions of the Prophet, and the generations of followers who came immediately after, who were known as the Salafi – hence the movements name. The Salafis of the 19th Century argued that this seventh century Arabian Islam was the purest, and hence correct, form of Islam and what had evolved since was unwelcome innovation – or Bida. This argument, although sounding conservative, was actually progressive as it took away power of the ulema alone being able to say what was and wasn’t acceptable. This de-legitimisation of the religious “establishment” gave theological breathing room to allow the importation of western ideas including liberal democracy and constitutional government into the Islamic discussion.

Yet the First World War intervened, destroying the Ottoman Empire which had so long staked its claim as the seat of the Caliph, and hence the centre of the Muslim world. The remains of the Ottoman Empire were divided up between the British and French empires, with most of the modern states of the Middle East coming into existence as vassals states of those empires. The idea of a modernist reform movement borrowing ideas from the West had made sense whilst much of the Muslim world had at least been nominally linked to the Caliphate – but once so much of the region had become part of the Western Empires, resistance took precedence over renewal. From the 1920s onwards under Rashid Rida, one of Abduh’s disciples, the Salafi movement became increasingly anti-western as the trauma of the dissolution of the Caliphate and the increasing power of the European empires made many in the Muslim world believe that West was interested in not only political dominance but also ideological hegemony – to undermine Islam itself. Now operating from inside the European empires and aimed at resisting them, Salafism had become by default an anti-imperialist ideology.

Abu Musab al-Suri and the Anbar Revenge Brigade

Two very interesting stories from the most recent Jamestown Terrorism Focus. Firstly the arrest of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, aka Abu Musab al-Suri. I’ve been digging around and reading up on this chap since being tipped to his importance by Reuvan Paz, one of the most consistently interesting and nuanced expert observers of the Jihadi scene. Al-Suri has been around, the most famous photo of him looks like it was taken in the UK where he was a well-known member of the “Londonistan” scene in the mid-90s. In London he was publishing the communiqués and a newspaper for the murderous GIA in Algeria (Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of al Quds in London who knew al-Suri from the UK, mentions being surprised [see page 3 in particular] to bump into him in bin Laden’s cave in Afghanistan in 1996). After 9/11 (which Atwan interestingly notes that al-Suri opposed) he disappeared and seems to have been writing. Dr. Paz has noted him as potential future leader for the global Jihad as he had both the history of personal involvement and bravery as well as being the most prominent strategic thinker amongst the movement. If he is in custody as seems likely, it is clearly a good thing.

Terrorism Focus says: “Pakistan security authorities again hinted that they were seeking confirmation that the man arrested last October 31 during a police raid in the southern city of Quetta was a leading Syrian linked to al-Qaeda, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar”. At the same time I can no longer find his page on the Rewards for Justice website where previously the US government had been offering a multi-million dollar bounty on him. Somewhere in Pakistan, could there be a couple of brave coppers, desperately searching the internet, one saying to the other “I’m certain I saw a page saying they’d give us five million bucks if we nabbed him!? Where has it gone?”. His partner is replying “why didn’t you bookmark it?! My missus has already picked out the swimming pool she wants!”

The second story is on the “Anbar Revenge Brigade”, raised and organised by tribal leaders in al-Anbar province, western Iraq. It has been reportedly capturing and killing Salafi-Jihadi fighters fighting for al-Qaeda in Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna. The most interesting note is that this brigade is getting support from both the Iraqi Government and the Coalition forces. Few tears will be shed for the terrorists they kill, but if the Coalition is operating against the so called Shia “death squads” being operated by the Ministry of Interior, you would think they would be careful about supporting what is basically another vigilante militia. Terrorism Focus notes: “Tribal leaders, however, do not envision the indefinite existence of the organization; they only see it lasting until they are satisfied that al-Qaeda fighters have been removed from their areas of control and until the coalition military has reduced its visibility in the province” but I’ll believe that when I see it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What's left of "the Left"?

The globalization of political discourse, increasingly through the blogosphere, is teaching many of us to think more about political labels. In everyday US political discussions the world liberal means something very different to what it has traditionally meant in Europe or the United Kingdom. Another foreign resident of this fair city, Phil at Finland for Thought, has been battling with himself for some time as to whether he is a liberal or not as he has become more used to the European sense of the word and more removed from the US rightwing habit of using it as an insult. Likewise, we can say the same about the Left. Previously I would have said without a second thought that I was generally “of the Left”, but now might do so more carefully. Again in the US debate it is striking that even the Dean wing of the Democrats doesn’t readily self identify itself as “the Left” even though it evidently is; preferring a label such as progressive. In the UK the big fight now in the Left no longer appears to be over how hard left you are on traditional economic matters (“not very” seems to be the answer for most of us who grew up in Thatcher’s Britain and got brainwashed despite our best intentions – I have a three year subscription to the Economist and actually quite enjoy a Starbucks double-latté, so what can you expect?) but rather between what in political science seems to get termed cosmopolitanism and communitarianism. Those are tricky to type, so perhaps its easy to discuss it as the pro-war Liberals versus the Guardian Comment page. This is of course a blatant over-simplification, not every neo-Wilsonian British liberal (indeed can you be a neo-Wilsonian British Liberal? I’m trying to think of a British muscular-liberal but keep getting blocked by the smiling, enthusiastic, oh-so-caring face of certain prime minister bobbing up and down and shouting “pick me! Pick me! Compare me to Wilson! Please! …errrrrr - you do mean Woodrow don’t you? Not Harold?”) thinks that sending the British Army to Zimbabwe tomorrow is necessarily the smartest thing to do right now. And not everyone who writes on the Guardian comment page is… well… Madeline Bunting. The end point of this is that now if you say you are of the Left this could mean that you are either Madeline Bunting or to all intents and purposes a Neocon and I’m not very happy with either.