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Islamic State: most potent threat to world peace in our time*

V S Naipaul

 

Picture queues of helpless men and women being marched by zealous executioners who nail them to wooden crosses and crucify them, howling and bleeding to death as crowds watch. 

Picture thousands of girls and women, their arms tied, being marched by hooded and armed captors into sexual slavery. Picture men being thrown off cliffs to their deaths, because they are accused of being gay.

All these scenes could have taken place in several continents in the medieval world. But they were captured on camera and broadcast to anyone with access to the internet. These are scenes, of yesterday, today and tomorrow in our own world.

I have always distrusted abstractions and have turned into writing what I could discover and explore for myself. 

So I must begin by admitting that I have not recently travelled in those regions threatened by barbarism – the Middle East, the north west of Africa, in pockets of Pakistan and in the Islamic countries of south eastern Asia.7

However, in the 1980s and early 1990s I undertook to examine the ‘revival’ of Islam that was taking place through the revolution in Iran and the renewed dedication to the religion of other countries. 

I travelled through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia attempting to discover the ideas and convictions behind this new ‘fundamentalism’.

My first book was called Among the Believers and the second, perhaps prophetically, Beyond Belief. Since those books were written, the word ‘fundamentalism’ has taken on new meanings.

As the word suggests, it means going back to the groundings, to the foundations and perhaps to first principles. It is used to characterize the interpretation given to passages of the Koran, to the Hadith, which is a collection of the acts in the life of the Prophet Mohammed and to an interpretation of sharia law.

However, the particular fundamentalist ideology of ‘Islamist’ groups that have dedicated themselves to terror – such as Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and now in its most vicious, barbaric and threatening form the Islamic Caliphate, Isis or the Islamic State (IS) – interprets the foundation and the beginning as dating from the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in the 6th Century.

This fundamentalism denies the value and even the existence of civilizations that preceded the revelations of the Koran. 

It was an article of 6th and 7th Century Arab faith that everything before it was wrong, heretical. There was no room for the pre-Islamic past. 

So an idea of history was born that was fundamentally different from the ideas of history that the rest of the world has evolved.

In the centuries following, the world moved on. Ideas of civilization, of other faiths, of art, of governance of law and of science and invention grew and flourished. 

This Islamic ideological insistence on erasing the past may have survived but it did so in abeyance, barely regarded even in the Ottoman Empire which declared itself to be the Caliphate of all Islam.

But now the evil genie is out of the bottle. The idea that faith abolishes history has been revived as the central creed of the Islamists and of Isis. 

Their determination to deny, eliminate and erase the past manifests itself in the destruction of the art, artifacts and archaeological sites of the great empires, the Persian, the Assyrian and Roman that constitute the histories of Mesopotamia and Syria. 

They have bulldozed landmarks in the ancient city of Dur Sharukkin and smashed Assyrian statues in the Mosul museum. Destroying the winged bull outside the fortifications of Nineveh satisfies the same reductive impulse behind the destruction by the Taliban of the Bhumiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has described this destruction of art, artifacts, inscriptions and of the museums that house them not only as a butchery of civilization memory but as a war crime. 

It is telling that the victims of Wednesday’s barbarous shootings were visitors to the great Bardo Museum in Tunis, a repository of art and material from Tunisia’s rich, pre-Islamic past.

Isis is dedicated to a contemporary holocaust. It has pledged itself to the murder of Shias, Jews, Christians, Copts, Yazidis and anyone it can, however fancifully, accuse of being a spy. It has wiped out the civilian populations of whole regions and towns. Isis could very credibly abandon the label of Caliphate and call itself the Fourth Reich.

Like the Nazis, Isis fanatics are anti Semitic, with a belief in their own racial superiority. They are anti-democratic: the Islamic State is a totalitarian state, absolute in its authority. There is even the same self-regarding love of symbolism, presentation and propaganda; terror is spread to millions through films and videos created to professional standards of which Goebbels would have been proud.

Just as the Third Reich did, Isis categorizes its enemies as worthy of particular means of execution from decapitation to crucifixion and death by fire. 

Whereas the Nazis pretended to be the guardians of civilization in so far as they stole art works to preserve them and kept Jewish musicians alive to entertain themselves, Isis destroys everything that arises from the human impulse to beauty. 

Such barbarism is not new to history and every nation has suffered mass murder and barbaric cruelty in the past. That a European country in the 20th Century launched a holocaust on the basis of race is a matter of the deepest shame. 

That Isis has revived the religious dogmas and deadly rivalries between Sunnis and Shias, Sunnis and Jews and Christians is a giant step into darkness.

The Arab lands, relatively stable under the Ottoman Empire, were divided up by the British and French victors of the First World War into the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Jordan at the Cairo Conference of 1920. Borders were drawn in straight lines and the sons of the Mufti of Mecca imposed on the newly carved territories as kings.

Winston Churchill was advised at the Cairo conference by T. E. Lawrence and by Gertrude Bell, who should have known that the Shia would not readily welcome or acknowledge a Sunni king and vice versa.

After upheavals, rebellions and military coups, the region settled down under dictatorships in the 1950s and 1960s. 

The Ba’athist Party was, in some senses, a modernizing force and Saddam Hussein, though a Sunni, ruled the predominantly Shia and partly Kurd nation of Iraq with a ruthless hand. Wherever two or three were gathered in the name of the Almighty, he sent in his police.

He may not have been a savory character but his overarching policies were holding on to power and modernizing Iraq. 

He was the cat that kept the rats of Islamism at bay. His invasion of Kuwait, another artificial sheikdom, poor in territory at the knee of Iraq but rich in oil, triggered the international reaction against him. The Bush-Blair alliance invaded Iraq and the puppet regime they set up executed Saddam. In the absence of the cat, the rats ran riot.

And so it has proved throughout the region. The Libyans, with the assistance of a European alliance, overthrew Gaddafi. The country is now at the mercy of Islamic militants. The same Arab Spring saw democratic protest against the Egyptian dictator and resulted for a while in an elected regime veering towards the repressions [typical] of Islamism. 

It was overthrown by a military coup whose leader, General el-Sisi, speaking to the clerics and supposed scholars of the authoritative Islamic university Al-Azhar, called on them to denounce Isis as the greatest threat to international peace and exhorted them to declare the ideology of Isis a heresy. The mullahs of Al-Azhar have not as yet complied.

In Syria, the conflict of groups opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad resolved itself in the formation of a Sunni Islamicist militia, which in turn evolved – after a significant bloodletting – into Isis.

Are Isis and its followers heretics? The politicians of Europe and America, including David Cameron, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande, after every Islamicist outrage insist on describing them as a lunatic fringe. Their constant refrain is that these perpetrators of murder and terror have as much to do with Islam as the Ku Klux Klan have to do with Christianity or the testament of Jesus Christ. But does such political assurance bear scrutiny?

Of course the politicians, church leaders and others who say ‘these atrocities have nothing to do with Islam’ are not making a researched or considered theological statement. They are attempting, quite rightly, to prevent civil discord in a world in which there are considerable Muslim immigrant populations in most countries of Europe and in the US.

So what impels the tiny minority of young men and women from immigrant communities to volunteer themselves to ‘jihad’ and to almost certain self-destruction, or young women to abscond from their families and from European reality to become jihadi brides.

When I visited Pakistan, I discovered what I have characterized as the effects of an ideological nurture. The Pakistani or Bangladeshi Muslim is taught that he or she has no historical antecedents before the conquest of parts of India and its conversion to the faith.

The pressures of poverty and promise bring this Muslim to Britain. He and his family don’t speak English. 

They are confined to work and live in an exclusively immigrant area of an inner city – say Bradford, Tower Hamlets or parts of Greater Manchester or Birmingham. 

Their children are raised as Muslims, some strict some not so strict, and are sent to the normal city schools which soon become almost exclusively immigrant.+7

Some find that the values that traditionally inform them are at variance with those of the lives they see around them. This is true for even those Muslim young men and women who are being educated, through Britain’s by-and-large egalitarian system, to be surgeons or computer programmers.

Islamism is simpler. There are rules to obey, a jihad to fight against the civilization you can’t comprehend, a heaven to go to when you martyr yourself and now a real fighting force in the world which you can join to simplify and solve your existence: no history to complicate your self-awareness, no art to distract you, no ambivalence and choices that ‘Western’ civilization offers you, no doubts about the fruits of martyrdom, no allegiance to the country in which you were brought up and which gave you a free education and perhaps welfare benefits. A gun, a half-understood prayer and the simplicity that a simple and singular upbringing craves.

That is why they go. And volunteer for death, and die.

In the past three or four centuries since Descartes, Leibniz and Newton, Islam remained encrypted in the revelations of the Koran and the Hadith of a 6th Century life.

The expansion of the scientific enquiry coincided with or possibly caused the maritime expansion of European colonialism. Empirical science, the progress of liberal religion and the germination of modern democratic ideas coincided with European colonial dominion over Asia and Africa.

The process of decolonization in the 20th Century gave rise to the idea that every advance in civilization, scientific or democratic, was to be condemned as ‘colonial’. There may be no ideological answer to such bigotry. 

The Islamic world does contain currents that are opposed to the interpretations that Isis gives to the Koran, the Hadith and to sharia. These are yet to declare themselves.

Though the appeal of Isis can be challenged by other strands of Islam, its murderous presence persists in the failed states of Iraq and war-torn Syria and threatens to spread through northern Africa.

The crippled Iraqi government has launched its reluctant armies against Isis. The Iranians, being Shias opposed to Sunni Caliphates, are supporting the Iraqi army and the Shia militias, who are a considerable force independent of the Iraqi government, are in a coalition to fight Isis on the ground. With air support from the West, they may manage to push Isis back.

Such an offensive, with the immediate objective of regaining Iraqi territory has to be urgently expanded. Isis has to be seen as the most potent threat to the world since the Third Reich.

Its military annihilation as an anti-civilization force has to now be the objective of a world that wants its ideological and material freedoms. 

*From the Mail on Sunday March 22 2015