Analyst Attempts to Disarm Islamic HistoryThursday, July 7, 2016
“If the jihadists have weaponized history, we can counter by weaponizing historiography.”
Although Iraqi-born Hudson Institute jihadism expert Nibras Kazimi’s remarks at a Westminster Institute lecture in McLean, Va. (available in written form online) offered an intriguing thesis to undermine canonical Islamic historical narratives guiding various jihadists, the extent of the critical inquiry Islam can withstand still remains questionable.
Kazimi discussed the secular nationalist movements and regimes among Turks, Arabs, and Iranians under the Shah that had historically sought legitimacy. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, for example, rebuilt the ruins of Babylon south of Baghdad and, like the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar, had his name inscribed on the bricks. Hussein dubbed his 1980-1988 war with Iran the “Second Qadisiya,” an nod to the 636 Battle of Qadisiya in which Muslim Arab armies defeated the Persians, opening what is now Iran to Islamic conquest.
Yet, for jihadists, the “past is not a tool of mere inspiration or for marking enemies,” Kazimi said, arguing that “history books are recipe books” giving instructions on how to “reclaim that greatness of Islam.” Since its origins in 2006 Iraq, the Islamic State in particular saw itself emulating Islam’s founding followers from seventh-century Arabia under the prophet Muhammad, a community that ultimately conquered empires. The 2014 caliphate declaration of ISIS, a group perhaps even stronger than the initial followers of Islam’s prophet, reflected how Muhammad’s “calling compelled him to strike out boldly, against incredible odds.”
According to Kazimi, both Sunni and Shiite extremists often manage to exude an “aura of certainty” by wrapping themselves in the cloak of history, allowing them to withstand defeats like the 2007-2008 American surge campaign. He explained that these jihadists “can explain away setbacks. They can tell themselves that they got the recipe wrong somewhere, and all they need to do it to go back to the basics to try and try again until it gets going.” This cycle makes Islamic history the “springboard – the solid ground – used by the extremists to leap forward into their ambitious doctrinal ventures.”
Kazimi said that the jihadists making Islamic appeals to Middle East populations readily draw upon an “airbrushed version of history that predominates in curricula, Friday sermons and mass media.” He added, “When I leaf through stodgy, scholarly books on early Islam, I catch myself visualizing what I am reading as scenes from a particular movie, an epic and compelling production,” referring to the 1976 film “The Message,” which details Islam’s founding era.
“Growing up in the Middle East, I must have seen this movie some 20 times for the simple fact that it would reliably get aired at every Islamic occasion dotting the calendar,” Kazimi said, about “The Message.” Islamic State spectacles such as a Mosul victory parade featuring trucks and tanks preceded by warriors on horseback indicated that he was not the only one watching. “Clearly, the jihadists have latched on to a preexisting stage-set to amplify their messaging.”
Nonetheless, Kazimi said that he observes the “fog of doubt [that] permeates much of the historical record” the Islamic State and others revere. Many documents often considered canonical in Islam arose 150-200 years after the events they recorded upon the basis of oral transmissions. Kazimi noted that “difficult as it is to recall what one did last Tuesday, it is surely a heavy burden to recall the events on a Tuesday 200 years ago.”
With his various arguments, Kazimi called into question the existence of phenomena such as Abdullah Ibn Saba, a Jewish Muslim convert who Sunni polemics argued created Shi’ism to split Islam. In March 2007, the Islamic State’s first leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, claimed to have annulled the Pact of Omar, a document purportedly codifying a discriminatory protected status for Christians and others, but many scholars said that they consider this pact a forgery. Little evidence likewise exists for letters that Muhammad supposedly sent to Byzantine and Persian emperors, calling them to embrace Islam – letters that al-Baghdadi echoed in a November 2008 address to “the new rulers of the White House.”
“We need to deploy doubt in a systematic and relentless manner,” Kazimi said, calling for engagement in “polemical judo with extremists. Doubt, angst and cognitive noise should rain down like arrows into the bastions of ideological certainty upon which the extremists stand defiant.” This “cerebral approach” particularly concerns the jihadist “angry young man with a master’s degree” such as financiers and IT specialists, skilled individuals who form the “mid-level management of the jihadist venture.”
Although intriguing, Kazimi’s analysis prompted critical queries from Westminster Institute Director Robert R. Reilly, who observed that “people who create doubt in the Islamic world can get into a lot of trouble.” He cited the late Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, whose unorthodox analysis of the Quran led to a judicial annulment of his marriage on Islamic grounds and the Abu Zaids’ flight to the Netherlands. Reilly also pointed out that doubtful inquiry could extend beyond Islamic history like the Pact of Omar, named after Islam’s second caliph who took power in 644, to faith in the Quran itself, supposedly revealed to Muhammad (who died in 632).
Kazimi responded that “you are not going after the prophet; you are not going after the early companions.” He then advocated “actually passing judgment on the people who came down and started writing this history – the chroniclers 150 – 200 years after the events took place. We are not casting doubt on the faith.”
The jihadism expert himself displayed his awareness of Islam’s all-too-dangerous pieties, while noting an anonymous friend who – for more than 20 years – has been secretly researching a book, which thesis argues that the Quran had no miraculous literary qualities, as Islamic doctrine contends. The book proffers that the teachings of the Quran was simply derived from preexisting Arabic poetry forms known to Muhammad. Reilly and Kazimi therefore raised questions concerning how much factual inquiry Islamic faith can withstand. The true issue is, is there any “there” there in a rational religion, or does Islam ultimately demand the fanaticism of blind faith-based obedience?