May 26, 2006
Kharijism and Cultural WarBy J.R. Dunn
Five years into the War on Terror, the debate on our relationship with Islam remains on the level of 'Nuke 'em all' on one hand or 'Islam is the religion of peace' on the other. It never gets beyond those two points. Muslims are either soulless, robotic killers or big—eyed PC waifs. There is no third choice, no depth, no knowledge, and no understanding —— and no sign of interest in gaining any.
This is a serious failing. Everything is going well in the War on Terror apart from this single factor. The Al Queda is at bay and perhaps even in a state of collapse. Osama bin Laden remains cavebound in a very uncomfortable area. Abu Musab al—Zarqawi has been chastised by his one—time allies. The U.S. — knock wood — remains immune, for the time being, from further assaults.
But the argument concerning the war is being set by the Jihadis. Their efforts at propaganda and psychological warfare have borne valuable fruit in recent months, most vividly in the form of the Danish cartoon jihad, in which Western authorities were caught flatfooted while the Jihadis and their Muslim allies ran wild, with virtually nothing in the way of opposition.
Otherwise, we have a Western media that amuses itself with regular stories on Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and the Koran—in—the—toilet exactly as if these had no effect on the attitudes of the Muslim masses.
This is unacceptable. We can win every last battle, stop every last terror strike, and break up every network, but we will still be back where we started due to neglect of the single factor of connecting with the Muslim umma — the worldwide Islamic community — most of whom want nothing less in the world than an ongoing war in which they might be become targets.
The Battle for the Umma
This war is about integrating Islam into the global community. Nothing less will do. Victory can be defined in that way and no other. It is not about getting Muslim women out of headscarves. It is not about turning Muslims into Episcopalians. It is not a rerun of the Crusades, or the Reconquista. It is an effort to aid the Muslims in adapting their religion and way of life to global norms so that they can deal with the rest of the world — Christendom, the Hindus, Buddhists, and all the rest — on a level of cultural, political, and social equality. By this means alone will the extremists be forced into the open, their bases of operations ruined, and their ability to summon the support of misguided and ignorant members of the umma brought to an end. The Jihadis are well aware of this, and much of their overall strategy is designed to prevent any such outcome.
At this point, the Jihadis are able, virtually at will, to switch on hatred of the West, recruit new suicide bomb fodder, and whip up boundless support due to the fact that they have no organized opposition on the intellectual level.
The West has made no progress — and applied next to no effort —— into putting across its case to the Muslim masses. We seem to be acting in the belief that 9/11 gives us infinite amounts of credit in the international arena even though it gained no credit from the Cindy Sheehans of our own country. As a result, the Jihadis are able to twist our efforts, however sincere, into what looks like a low—level confrontation of civilizations despite all our rhetoric to the contrary.
Action is required. And it must be taken by us, by the West. We are the advanced civilization here, and the more advanced polity has to make the effort.
Why us? Why isn't this a job for the Muslims themselves? There are several reasons.
The Umma Needs Our Help in Modernizing
The first is that they simply don't have the resources. The Muslim intelligentsia, which is the sole reservoir of opinion leadership that can be placed in opposition to dictatorial governments and throwback preachers, is extremely small — too small even to refer to as a class. Many Muslim intellectuals are living in authoritarian states or worse, subject to harassment, arrest, and assassination by their governments or by terror groups themselves. (As nearly occurred to Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's master novelist and Nobel laureate, whose acceptance of the prize so infuriated a local neanderthal that Mahfouz — nearing eighty at the time — was stabbed in the back while walking the streets of his own neighborhood.) Many of these intellectuals are sympathetic to the West (they after all share many of our ideals), but we can't expect a few thousand out of a polity of one billion to take up that kind of a burden.
A second reason is that the Islamic media is, in almost all cases, controlled by government and acting as mouthpieces for the established order. (Al—Jazeera is only a partial exception.) No open debate is possible under these circumstances; no information contrary to the status quo will make it past the censors. Alternatives are in the process of creation, as we have seen with the establishment of blogging in liberated Iraq. But the infowave has only recently struck the Islamic world, and the establishment of an alternative Net culture will require time.
And third: to be frank, many of the Islamic umma remain in a medieval or even tribal mindset. Except for political and business elites, a majority are separated from the soil by one generation at best. They are still living with ancient concepts, attitudes, and beliefs. They are uncertain about modernity, and to some extent fearful of it. They are bewildered by things that we take as a matter of course. Often enough, that bewilderment is expressed as hostility.
None of this means that they are inferior or incapable. It means they are inexperienced, and require guidance from those who have gone before them. That guidance must come from us. By 'us', I mean, of course, the United States and other members of the Anglosphere; nobody else cares, and in point of fact, it's unlikely that the Muslim people would pay much attention to them if they did.
A final complication is mutual incomprehension. It would be surprising if this weren't the case. Islam and the West are, after all, different civilizations, with differing histories, worldviews, and values. Separate paths result in separate products.
Islam never went through a Renaissance, a Reformation, an Enlightenment, an Age of Exploration, or an Industrial Revolution. Beginning from the first years of the second millennium, the West has evolved into a bold, risk—taking civilization that is constantly pushing limits in all spheres. The thinking Muslim might well dismiss this as insane recklessness. Until the late 20th century, Islam was a civilization devoted to tradition, continuity, and economic and social balance, producing what we in the West might call 'stasis.'
Whatever changes have occurred are very recent — many only within the span of a lifetime. The modern Muslim is a being in free flight, frozen above an abyss, in the midst of a leap from an ancient and outmoded style of life into something bright, enticing, but not yet comprehensible. It is up to us, who are at home in that bright world, to assure that he does not fall before he gains his footing.
What is required of us is an effort to pinpoint ideas and concepts within Muslim culture and history that can act as points of commonalty between the West and Islam, anchor points for bridges between the two civilizations. Things that we can agree on while overlooking, for the moment, all the massive grounds for disagreement. Things that don't require debate, that can't be twisted into further barriers.
Which brings us to the Kharijites.
The Kharijites (the Seceders or Departers) were Islam's first sect, the group that brought schism into the new Islamic community. They began as followers of Ali bin Abi Talib, grandson of the Prophet, who became the fourth caliph in 657 after the assassination of Caliph Uthman.
Ali was immediately challenged by the governor of Syria, who refused to pledge his fealty. (Early Islamic history is a parade of one succession crisis after another.) By all accounts one of the most reasonable men of his time, Ali agreed to subject the matter to arbitration.
This set the Kharijites, who consisted of members of three tribes, ablaze. Ali, in their opinion, had been selected by no less than Allah, and in putting the divine choice up to human arbitration was committing a gross and unforgivable sin. Pulling up stakes, the tribes headed toward Kufa, south of Baghdad, in the process earning themselves their name.
Ali pursued them, first to remonstrate, and then, when that failed, to bring them to battle. The Kharijites were defeated, with many killed. Some of the remnant returned to Ali, but the hard core retreated across the Tigris. Ali let them go, assuming that they'd been taught their lesson and would be no further problem.
He was mistaken. In 661 he was assassinated, by a Kharijite. The Kharijites possessed a straightforward and easily—grasped theology. Anyone who was
For the next two centuries the Kharijites attempted to ensure the spread of this simple, invigorating faith by killing everyone who disagreed with them. They set up a series of independent theocratic states throughout the region, using them as operating bases to target the Ommayad holdings. They encouraged revolt, took over entire provinces and massacred those who refused conversion. They practiced a form of guerilla warfare, retreating onto the Iranian plateau when things went poorly only to burst out once again when opportunity beckoned. Their activities weakened the Ommayad caliphate so grievously as to guarantee the success of the Abbassid revolt. The Abbassids themselves required maximum effort to finally wipe out the Kharijites in the 9th century.
Although the Kharijites were destroyed, their influence lived on. A harmless, moderate offshoot, the Ibadites, still exists in Oman and some areas of Africa. But more unsavory ideas also found acceptance to one extent or another. Politicized religion, with the faith and commonwealth so intertwined as to be inseparable, became a hallmark of Islam in general. Various other notions —— takfir, fundamentalism, the legitimacy of schism, and terror — went underground, emerging only when a rebel or throwback preacher required an ideology to get the peasants roaring.
Some Islamic scholars claim that Kharijism never died, that it instead became the 'dark side' of Islam, a reservoir of intolerance and inhumanity bubbling beneath the surface, always ready to erupt. It's true that a number of groups exist directly influenced by Kharijite beliefs, including Takfir wa—l Hijra in
Others contend that Kharijism is a component of all Islamic terrorism, pointing out that Said Qutb, the inspiration of Osama bin—Laden and others, was well—read in Kharijite doctrine. Still others accuse the Wahhabis, with their fundamentalism, their eagerness to anathemize opponents, and their proselyte activities, of Kharijite tendencies.
(Many Westerners, Americans in particular, have never encountered a traditional Muslim, since the Saudis have assured that Wahhabism is the chief sect of the Muslim diaspora.)
So what does all this ancient history tell us? It tells us, first and above all, that the common Western belief that the Muslim umma is supportive of or at best indifferent to terrorism is seriously flawed. Muslims possess their own understanding of terrorism, derived from their own history and experience and based on their own principles. The Muslim view of terror, unsurprisingly, concentrates on the effect that it has on Islam and the Muslim community. The impact on the world beyond in strictly secondary.
But the crucial point is that the Muslim's Kharijite is the same as the Jihadi, the Jihadi the same as a Kharijite. For all practical purposes, they are identical. There is not an iota of difference between the two.
The "War on Kharijism"
So here is our bridge, our opening into Islamic culture. The Kharijite — the eternal enemy of all, both Muslim and Christian. By adapting the concept, the West can undermine Jihadi attempts to portray the War on Terror as a clash of civilizations or a campaign against Islam. It would define clearly and unambiguously what we're fighting against, and why. It would increase chances of gaining understanding and support from the Muslim umma. It would put in historical context the large mass of propaganda by the Jihadis, sent out over the internet or appearing on CD and DVD, as the behavior not of heroic rebels or defenders of Islam but of deadly misfits well—known to Muslim history.
Adapting the concept of Kharijism would assure Muslims that we're talking about the same thing and fighting the same battle. It would give the Muslim masses an enemy they can understand. It would go a long way toward explaining our own actions as simply a response against Kharijism, which has spilled over into our territory. It would enable Middle Eastern governments, often pilloried for allying themselves with the U.S., to lay claim to the high ground of defending accepted Islamic practice.
Nor would this simply be an exercise in propaganda or public relations. A civilization does not deal with a phenomenon like Kharijism without developing means of prophylaxis. It would be worth our while to discover what those might be. There's a lot we can learn from the Islamic experience with Kharijism, its offshoots, and its imitators. How such movements grow and develop; their methods and tactics, their effect on the Muslim umma as a whole, and — not least — their weaknesses and how they were destroyed. There are many Islamic scholars who have devoted decades of study to the topic. They should be viewed as resources.
Using Internal Concepts and Rituals
Any attempt to communicate with an alien culture must begin by using the concepts and rituals of that culture. This is what we'd be doing by adapting the Kharijite as a gate into Muslim thought and behavior. Other possibilities exist as well:
* The honor debt — This is something taken quite seriously in much of the Muslim umma. An honor debt is the sole reason that Kuwait is not a part of Saudi Arabia. Two centuries ago, the Al—Sabah family, hereditary rulers of Kuwait, protected the Saudis from destruction by a stronger clan. The Saudis never forgot this.
There is more than one honor debt owed to the U.S. by Muslims, involving Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and now Iraq. It would not hurt to make a point of this. A number of Islamic traditions hold that the honor debt is sacred even when involving a Nezerin (that is, a Christian). Saladin, among others, is an example of a Muslim who lived up to this standard.
* The People of the Book — The Koran is clear that Jews and Christians, as People of the Book, are believers and must be respected as such. Insisting that no religious symbols or activity be displayed in sight of Muslims is very likely a mistake. While many Muslims no doubt feel superior or even somewhat hostile to Christians, it is nothing compared to the loathing they feel toward the Godless Folk — what we would call seculars. Our status as believers in the One God is one of our most powerful tools. It should not remain unused.
* The Mutazilite School. The Mutazilites were a rationalist movement that appeared in Islam in the wake of the Kharijites. Based on Greek philosophical sources (with much reference to Aristotle), they believed in a reasoned analysis of all aspects of religion and society. They died out early, overwhelmed by the traditionalist Asharite school. But the movement has experienced a revival in the past century, in response to Islam's confrontation with modernity.
Since much of the difficulties afflicting Islam today arise from that very conflict, it would appear that a school of thought like Mutazila would be a high—value proposition. Like everyone else, Muslims will not adapt to modernity except on their own terms. Some idea of what those terms comprise could very well be found in Mutazila.
Cultures being as complex as they are, there are no doubt myriad other possibilities. I'm no scholar of Islam, and I'm offering no more than what I've stumbled across. All of which, I must emphasize, contradict a number of widely—held assumptions concerning Islam. Ignorance, sometimes willful, sometimes innocent, has often been the hallmark of American engagements with other cultures.
Nowhere has this been more true than in wartime. The closing months of World War II in the Pacific may well have been lengthened, and were certainly made more savage, by the American inability to grasp what 'unconditional surrender' meant to the Japanese. The phrase, uttered offhand by FDR at Casablanca, became policy by default. To Japanese thinking, it meant subjecting the Emperor, the divine presence on this earth, to criminal prosecution and the possibility of death. They could not allow this, as they proved with their blood at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Ignorance always accompanies tragedy. But ignorance is not excusable for us, not in our state of knowledge and experience. We need to utilize and expand our understanding of the Muslim milieu, both for their sake and ours. To do otherwise would be to allow the Jihadis — the Kharijites of our time — to win the cultural war without a fight. And that would be doing things very much the hard way.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor.