Posts Tagged ‘Jihad’

Modern Islamic Warfare Ethics

November 10, 2019

Modern Islamic Warfare Ethics

[Bismillah.  Part of the conclusion to Usama Hasan & Salah al-Ansari’s Tackling Terror: A Rebuttal of ISIS’ Fiqh al-Dima’  or Jurisprudence of Blood (Quilliam, 2018), consisting of 13 aspects of modern, Islamic warfare ethics as discussed by 20th-21st century Muslim jurists.]

During the course of this study, we have been able to demonstrate that ISIS’ warfare ethics are often medieval. We have also countered their positions by pointing out the balanced positions of mainstream scholars that effectively constitute modern Islamic warfare ethics. We summarise those here, as a positive alternative to ISIS’ medieval barbarism.

1.  Warfare can only be waged legitimately by modern nation-states.

2.  Peace is the default, basic norm governing international relations.

3.  War is only permitted for self-defence or to remove persecution in accordance with international law, not to coerce others into Islam.

4.  Suicide is prohibited, according to Islamic ethics. Suicide attacks are unethical, inhuman and un-Islamic.

5.  Islamic warfare ethics have always distinguished between combatants and non-combatants. Modern interpretations agree with the Geneva Conventions on legitimate targets in warfare.

6.  Weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and “scorched earth” operations including the killing of animals, are prohibited by Islamic warfare ethics.

7.  The kidnapping of civilians is not permitted in Islam and contravenes basic human rights and the Geneva Conventions, to which Muslim-majority states have generally signed up.

8.  Mutilation and decapitations (beheading) are prohibited; this prohibition of mutilation also includes the harvesting of organs for sale or trafficking.

9.  In a nation-state where the citizens are equal before the law, the army is composed of personnel whose loyalty to one another lies not in their religious affiliation but in their shared sense of obligation and citizenship.

10.  There is no harm in any state recruiting anyone who is eligible to work in the army; and, moreover, that no impediments should be made because of a citizen’s religious beliefs. Equally, there is no harm in a state going into an alliance with foreign forces if it is believed that this will achieve the best interests of their nation.

11.  There is great similarity between modern Islamic morality and humanitarian international law. The two moral frameworks agree that espionage is a punishable crime but that the punishment varies from one country to another. International law gives a special status to combatant spies. According to The Hague Regulations (1899), Article 31 provides that: a spy who, after re-joining the army to which he belongs, is subsequently captured by the enemy, is treated as a prisoner of war. Moreover, they are to incur no further punishment for their previous acts of espionage. This is consistent with the modern adapted principles of the sharia.

12.  The Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war (POWs) are in harmony with the Islamic tradition of warfare ethics.

13.  Military retreat, surrender and other strategies are acceptable, depending on pragmatism; there is no religious requirement to “fight to the death.”

TEN TRUTHS ABOUT JIHAD

November 10, 2019

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

 

TEN TRUTHS ABOUT JIHAD

 

Bismillah. During the Islamic lunar month of Rabi’ al-Awwal [originally, the “first month of spring”], when the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was born and died, thus fulfilling an ancient Jewish or Israelite prophecy about the Prophets being born and dying on the same date, thus completing a cosmic cycle, I am moved to republish this article that I wrote in 2017, since the Prophet and his name continues to be praised and vilified around the world.  I suggest that it may be useful as a basis for Friday sermons (Jumu’ah / Jumma khutbahs) about Jihad, for those who agree with this content.

Within those last two years, some more things have happened:

(1) I was reminded that there are narrations in the Sirah tradition saying that the Prophet’s birth name was not Muhammad, but Qutham, and that Muhammad (“The Oft-Praised One”) was a title given to him later.  If these are true, then “Muhammad” would be much like “Christ” or “Buddha,” i.e. a title originally, not a name, although of course many titles become names later, and vice-versa, as with Caesar.

(2) Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson recommended to me the book by Juan Cole, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Hachette USA, 2018).  I’ve read a few chapters, and it is a very interesting read.  And it tends to confirm my own conclusions that I wrote on 1st August 2017 for the Muslim Reform Movement, and that are republished here as: Ten Truths About Jihad.  In particular, see the quote from Ibn Sa’d via Ibn al-Qayyim on the context of Qur’an, Repentance, 9:29, that appears to be the most militant verse in the Qur’an, but the context again suggests a meaning of self-defence!

(3) A modified version of this article was included by me and my friend, Sheikh Dr Salah al-Ansari al-Azhari in our Tackling Terror (Quilliam, 2018), a rebuttal of ISIS’ Fiqh al-Dima’ or Jurisprudence of Blood.

(4) I also discussed some of this with Prof. Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dr. George Chryssides in our chapter on “War and Peace” in our People of the Book – How Jews, Christians and Muslims Understand Their Sacred Scriptures (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018)

But here we are, back to my original article [with a few additions in square brackets]:

 

TEN TRUTHS ABOUT JIHAD

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

[Note: the Meccan period of the Prophet’s mission represented peaceful preaching under persecution; the Medinan period represented city-state-power and included war. Hence the reference to Meccan & Medinan verses, to understand context.]

 

  1. THE ESSENTIAL QUR’ANIC TEACHING ABOUT JIHAD IS THAT IT IS A LIFELONG, NONVIOLENT STRUGGLE FOR GOODNESS, JUSTICE AND TRUTH AGAINST EVIL, INJUSTICE AND FALSEHOOD

The essential Qur’anic teaching about Jihad is that it is a non-violent struggle for goodness of all kinds, and against evil of all types.  This is clear from the following Meccan verses of the Qur’an:

“Struggle in God, as the struggle (jihad) deserves …” (Pilgrimage 22:78); and

“Obey not the concealers (of truth), and struggle against them with it (the Qur’an): a great struggle (jihad).” (The Criterion 25:52)

 

  1. DURING HIS 13 YEARS’ MISSION IN MECCA, THE PROPHET AND HIS FOLLOWERS WERE SUBJECTED TO PERSECUTION, BUT WERE ORDERED TO REMAIN PATIENT & NONVIOLENT

This is clear from verses such as the following:

“Withhold your hands (from violence in self-defence): establish prayer and give in charity” (Women 4:77)

Note that during this time, the Prophet’s followers were persecuted, tortured and killed. He himself was the subject of assassination attempts and plots (Spoils of War 8:30), but the Muslim response remained peaceful and nonviolent.

 

  1. DURING THE PROPHET’S 10-YEAR MISSION IN MEDINA, MILITARY JIHAD IN SELF-DEFENCE WAS EVENTUALLY PERMITTED

This is clear from Medinan verses such as the following:

“Permission has been given to those who were fought (to fight back), because they have been oppressed … those who were unjustly expelled from their homes, only for saying: ‘Our Lord is God’.” (Pilgrimage 22:39-40)

“Fight, in the way of God, those who fight you, and transgress not: truly, God does not love transgressors.” (The Heifer 2:190)

 

  1. MILITARY JIHAD MAY ONLY BE DECLARED BY A LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY

An example of such an authority was the Prophet Muhammad, undisputed leader of the city-state of Medina – see the Medina Charter, an agreement between the Prophet and the non-Muslim, largely Jewish, tribes of Medina, for clauses relating to mutual defence of Medina against external aggression.

Several Qur’anic verses that speak of fighting and concluding peace are addressed in the singular to the Prophet, e.g. Women 4:84 and Spoils of War 8:61. This is because only he, as the legitimate ruler of the city-state of Medina, had the authority to declare a state of war or peace.

Throughout the centuries of Islamic jurisprudence on warfare ethics, the jurists have agreed that only a legitimate authority can declare a state of war or military jihad. In modern times, this means that only legitimate states have the authority to declare a state of war or military jihad: vigilante or non-state actors such as terrorist groups have no Islamic authority whatsoever to issue a call to arms in the name of jihad. This is why we stated in the Muslim Reform Movement Declaration that “we reject violent jihad.” [i.e. by non-state actors]

 

  1. EVEN THE MOST APPARENTLY-BELLIGERENT VERSES ABOUT JIHAD ARE IN SELF-DEFENCE

For example, the eighth and ninth surahs or chapters of the Qur’an, al-Anfal (Spoils of War) and al-Tawbah (Repentance):

In Surah al-Anfal, the command to “Prepare against them your strength to the utmost …” is followed by the exhortation to accept overtures of peace from the enemy: “If they incline towards peace, then also incline towards it, and trust in God.” (Spoils of War 8:60-61)

Thus, the preparation of utmost strength is largely a deterrent, to encourage any enemies to sue for peace.

In Surah al-Tawbah, the command to “Fight them: God will punish them at your hands …” was preceded by the cause: “They violated their oaths and … attacked you first.” (Repentance, 9:12-15)

Thus, as in The Heifer 2:190 and Pilgrimage 22:39, fighting was ordered in self-defence. Note that in the Medinan era, the pagan, polytheistic Meccan armies attacked the Muslims in Medina several times, aiming to wipe the latter out, e.g. at the Battles of Uhud and the Trench. Thus, the Prophet and the Muslims in Medina were utterly justified in waging military jihad to protect themselves. The numerous Qur’anic verses dealing with military jihad against the Meccan polytheists must be understood in this context.

Finally, the verse of jizya (Repentance 9:29) was revealed when the Byzantines and their allies under Emperor Heraclius threatened the northern regions of Islamic Arabia from Syria, resulting in the Tabuk expedition that ended without any fighting.[1]

The jizya protection- and poll-tax, the name itself deriving from Persian [according to a narration by Imam al-Qurtubi under 9:29], was always a political tax, not religious. This is evident in the fact that some Islamic jurists later advised Muslims under the Reconquista in Andalusia to pay jizya to their Christian conquerors. Furthermore, the Ottoman Caliph abolished the jizya and the associated category of dhimma in the mid-19th century CE, with the agreement of his most senior Islamic scholars, recognising that it was no longer relevant to the modern world of the time.[2]

Thus, although early Muslim armies did take part in expansionist campaigns, at least partly motivated by the war strategem that ‘Offence is the best form of defence’, Muslim authorities, both political and religious, have recognised for at least two centuries that this kind of military jihad has no place in the modern world that is governed by treaties, peace agreements and international collaboration.

 

  1. MILITARY JIHAD WAS ALSO LEGISLATED TO PROTECT & PROMOTE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

This is clear from the following Qur’anic verse:

“Permission has been given to those who were fought (to fight back), because they have been oppressed … those who were unjustly expelled from their homes, only for saying: ‘Our Lord is God’.

And were God not to check some people by means of others, then monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, where God’s name is mentioned often, would surely be demolished.” (Pilgrimage 22:39-40)

Thus, military Jihad was also legislated to protect the religious freedom of Muslims, Jews and Christians, according to the explicit text of the Qur’an. Muhammad bin Qasim, the 8th-century CE Muslim commander who first brought Islam to India, extended this religious protection to Zoroastrian and Hindu temples.[3]

Note that this religious protection also originally extended to the idolatrous polytheists of Mecca and Medina – the latter were included in the Medina Charter, and both were covered by the Qur’anic dictum, “To you, your religion: to me, my religion.” (The Concealers of Truth, 109:6) It was only when the Meccan polytheists refused to be peaceful and violently persecuted the Muslims, attempting genocide, that they were fought. Even then, the Hudaybiya peace treaty was concluded with them later.

 

  1. MILITARY JIHAD WAS ALWAYS CONDITIONED BY STRONG ETHICAL RESTRICTIONS

Numerous hadiths speak of the obligation of avoiding the killing of women, children, old people, peasants, monks and others in war – in the 7th-century CE, these were advanced, civilised teachings. Further hadiths forbid the chopping down of trees, burning of orchards or poisoning wells or other water supplies as part of war tactics. These teachings may be seen as Islamic forerunners of modern warfare ethics, such as the Geneva Conventions, that are also Islamic in spirit and must be seen as binding upon Muslims worldwide.

The 12th-13th century CE Andalusian philosopher and jurist, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), in his short ‘Book of Jihad’, part of his Bidayat al-Mujtahid (available in English as ‘The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer‘), discusses ten issues related to the philosophy and ethics of war or military jihad. Thus, Islam has a long tradition of warfare ethics.

 

  1. TO REITERATE, JIHAD IS A STRUGGLE FOR GOOD AGAINST EVIL

This may take many forms: jihad bil-mal is charitable spending; jihad bil-lisan is speaking truth or goodness against evil and injustice. Thus, all forms of social, intellectual and political struggle with noble aims are a type of jihad, in traditional Islamic terminology.  An example of this is the hadith or Prophet’s teaching, “The best jihad is to speak a word of truth before a tyrant ruler.”

However, this teaching does not privilege so-called ‘Islamic political parties’ or islamist groups that wrongly claim to monopolise interpretations of Islam in the social and political realms.

Jihad is a universal struggle for good against evil. The verse, “Struggle in God, as the struggle (jihad) deserves …” (Pilgrimage 22:78) also includes the teachings, “… This is the path of your father Abraham … Establish prayer, give charity and hold to God: He is your Protector  …”

 

  1. THE OUTER JIHAD IS ALWAYS UNDERPINNED BY INNER JIHAD

Inner jihad or jihad al-nafs (struggle against the self’s base desires) has always been understood as a prerequisite for taking part in the outer jihad, or struggle for goodness and truth in the world.

This is reflected in the Qur’anic promise of heaven to whoever fears standing before God and “forbids their self from base desires” (The Snatchers 79:40-41). Furthermore, a hadith states, “The true mujahid (holy warrior) is the one who struggles against their own self for the sake of God.”

Ibrahim bin Abi Ablah, an early ascetic of Islam, once remarked after a military expedition, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad,” i.e. from the lesser, military jihad to the greater jihad of lifelong struggle against evil. This teaching was also attributed to the Prophet himself and widely favoured by the Sufis, who were keen to preserve the spiritual dimensions of Islam during the early centuries of astonishing Islamic military conquests and worldly success. [Although many Hadith scholars did not accept this as a saying of the Prophet, they accepted its meaning, since it came from someone regarded as a holy main or saint (wali). Such scholars include Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani.]

 

  1. JIHAD TODAY

As shown above, Islamic teachings about jihad are essentially spiritual and non-violent. All charitable efforts or struggles by Muslims today for goodness, truth and justice against evil and injustice may be termed jihad. For example, the Prophet termed “struggling to help widows and orphans” and “struggling to serve elderly parents” as types of jihad. [Sound hadiths of Bukhari & Muslim, etc.]

Armed or military jihad is the strict preserve of legitimate authority such as modern nation-states engaging in ethical warfare: this is why the Muslim Reform Movement firmly rejects ‘violent jihad’ carried out by non-state actors or vigilante groups such as terrorist organisations.

What we really need is a jihad for universal human rights, dignity, equality, peace and justice, tempered by the mercy and compassion that are the essential spirit of Islam and the Qur’an.

 

Imam Dr Usama Hasan (briefly an armed mujahid alongside the anti-communist mujahideen in Afghanistan, 1990-1)

London, UK, 1st August 2017

Modified & republished: 10th November 2019 / 12th Rabi’ al-Awwal 1441

 

NOTES:

 

[1] Ibn Sa’d said, “It reached the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, that the Romans [Byzantines] had gathered large multitudes in Syria, and that Heraclius had prepared provision for his men for a year. He had brought with him the tribes of Lakhm, Judham, ‘Amilah and Ghassan. They had sent an advance party to al-Balqa’.” – cf. Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma’ad, Al-Matba’ah al-Misriyyah wa Maktabatuha, n.d., vol. 3, p. 2

[2] cf. Usama Hasan, From Dhimmitude to Democracy, Quilliam, 2015

[3] Al-Baladhuri, as quoted by Ihsanoglu. cf. Usama Hasan, From Dhimmitude to Democracy, Quilliam, 2015, p. 26

 

REFLECTIONS FROM KUNAR 1990 AND HELMAND 2010 – THE TRAGEDY OF AFGHANISTAN’S WARS

November 10, 2017

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

REFLECTIONS FROM KUNAR 1990 & HELMAND 2010

– THE TRAGEDY OF AFGHANISTAN’S WARS

Introduction

I am publishing this partly because I am tired of telling the same story about Kunar to dozens of journalists and academic researchers, partly because I am fed up of questions about my one-minute video message in support of British troops (2010), and partly because I hope that people may benefit and learn from the story.

I began writing this on the last day of Ramadan 1433/2012, and completed the bulk of it shortly after Eid.  The recent death of two British soldiers in Nad Ali in Helmand (Matthew Smith http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19228325 and Robert Chesterman http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19227317 ) brought back vivid memories of our FCO-sponsored four-man delegation’s “Projecting British Muslims” trip to Helmand during Ramadan in August 2010, a visit that included ISAF’s Forward Operating Base at Nad Ali.  As I finalise it, I’m reading about the 2,000th US soldier to die in Afghanistan since 2001.

*Update: I am finalising and publishing this on 10th November 2017 – it has been sitting in my draft folder for five years.*

 

Memories from the Jihad in Kunar, 1990-1

This was my second 10-day visit to Afghanistan: the first had been in December-January 1990-1991, during my second-year Cambridge University holidays, as part of a three-man fact-finding mission of senior JIMAS (www.jimas.org ) figures to Kunar.  The other two people were up to a decade older than me: Abu Muntasir and Abu Aaliyah.  I was fortunate to have the strongest Arabic at the time, and served as interpreter for much of the trip, although of course other mujahideen helped also.

We drove to Afghanistan from Islamabad via Peshawar and Bajaur, and spent a week at a training camp near Asadabad, Kunar, for Arab fighters run by Jama’ah al-Da’wah ila l-Qur’an wa l-Sunnah (JDSQ, “Group of Calling to the Qur’an and Sunnah”), the major Salafi organisation that controlled large parts of Kunar province as well as of neighbouring Nuristan.  There were separate training camps for Arab, Afghan and Pakistani fighters – we chose the Arab one, for access to more Arabic-speaking scholars.  The camp rules stated that disagreements would be solved in a last resort by referring to the fatwas of Sheikhs Ibn Baz and Albani. On our introduction to the camp, I introduced myself with my first name, upon which I was immediately corrected by a Kuwaiti mujahid: “In Jihad, we only use aliases.” Specifically, he meant aliases of the kunya type that take the form of “Abu X” meaning “Father of X.”  My colleagues were fathers and already had kunyas, so I used, for the first time, my middle name that my grandfather had given me when he named me upon birth: Abu Dharr, after an austere, ascetic Companion of the Prophet.  The emir of the training camp was a tall, well-built, muscular, fair-skinned, charismatic and learned Palestinian fighter called Abu Asim.  In appearance and character, he reminded me of Abdur-Raheem Green, then also a senior JIMAS figure.  I shed many tears upon hearing about Abu Asim’s reported death in a training accident some years later, when a weapon exploded accidentally.

Upon joining the training camp, we had to fill in a registration form, giving personal details and skills that might be useful for the jihad. The three of us all put down our computer/IT skills, and I also mentioned my mathematics and physics knowledge. A quarter of a century later, ISIS, who had turned defensive, liberating jihad into bloodthirsty terrorism, had similar registration forms, with one striking addition: asking registrants whether they wanted to be regular fighters, suicide-bombers or suicidal attackers (inghimasi).

This was Abu Muntasir’s second trip to the same region: he had trained and fought at the front line in 1989 or early 1990 also, with a close companion known as Brother Mushtaq.  JIMAS’ contacts with the Afghan mujahideen had come about via salafi scholars in Holland and meetings in London that had involved Dawood Burbank (d. during Hajj 2011, may Allah have mercy on his soul) and Brother Mushtaq.  Abu Muntasir later fought in Kashmir and even in Burma with Rohingya militia in the early 1990s.

Note that JIMAS (Jamiat Ihyaa’ Minhaaj al-Sunnah: The Society for the Revival of the Way of the Messenger) had earlier been called HISAM (Harakatu Islahish Shabab al-Muslim: The Movement to Reform the Muslim Youth) but had recently had a name-change after an offshoot insisted on retaining the name HISAM.  During this episode, one of the suggestions for the name of JIMAS was in fact JDQS – this was directly copied from the Afghan group.  The current Pakistani salafi/Ahl-e-Hadith jihadi group Jama’at-ud-Da’wah, linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, may also have based its name on the Afghan one.

We also met and interviewed Sheikh Jameel-ur-Rahman, an Afghan salafi/Ahle-e-Hadith muhaddith-mujahid (scholar of Hadith and warrior), founder and emir of JDQS.  Sheikh Jameel was an elderly, learned man with a long beard, dyed with henna.  He was accompanied by elders who constituted his shura and by a group of younger, heavily-armed men who served as his bodyguards.  Abu Muntasir conducted the interview in English: Sheikh Jameel replied in Arabic.  One of the questions was whether or not the Jihad in Afghanistan was fard ‘ayn or fard kifaya, i.e. an individual or collective obligation: his reply was the former.  The interview was recorded and it was many months before Dawood Burbank translated it into English for the benefit of other JIMAS members.  Abu Muntasir may still have this material in his possession.

The Arab mujahidin credit Sheikh Jameel with having begun the “Jihad against the communists” in 1973, way before the Soviet invasion.  Sheikh Jameel gave a talk after dawn prayers on one occasion whilst we were at the training camp, during which the camp generator failed, leaving the prayer tent in darkness.  At the end of that talk, he took questions.  One of the questions was about whether or not there was any dhikr to be recited during the prostration of gratitude (sajdah al-shukr) – this was related to the story of The Prophet’s disciples Ka’b bin Malik, Murara bin Rabi’ah and Hilal bin Umayyah and their missing a military expedition followed by their subsequent ostracism and eventual repentance recounted in the long hadith of Bukhari and Muslim in reference to Qur’an 9:118 (Surah al-Tawbah or Chapter: Repentance).  In this heart-rending story that had been recounted by one of the younger scholar-warriors at the camp after dawn prayers the day before, Ka’b performs such a prostration of gratitude.  Sheikh Jameel replied that no specific dhikr had been narrated about this prostration, and therefore any dhikr would suffice, but a young Saudi mujahid argued vehemently with him that there was no dhikr in this prostration for the same reason.  Salafism in a nutshell!

Sheikh Jameel had announced an “Islamic emirate” (imarat-e-Islami) in Kunar. One day at the training camp, one of the commanders gave us the “good news” of the full establishment of Sharia in the emirate: predictably, this involved the hudud, with which islamists are obsessed: a thief’s hand had been amputated as corporal punishment for his crime.

We were holy warriors: ascetic monks and soldiers, simultaneously. With regular congregational prayer, scriptural study, physical exercise and weapons training. Being halfway up a valley, there wasn’t much food: on one day, the camp had run out of food and all we had for 24 hours was a glass of milk and an orange. Soldiers know all about the rationing of supplies. At the firing range, Abu Muntasir embarrassed our instructor by being the only one to hit the target during a sniping contest. (This reminds me of a story about Caliph Omar: he came across some people practising archery and found that they weren’t very good at hitting their target. When he enquired as to why this was the case, they replied in ungrammatical Arabic that they were learners. “Your Arabic is even worse than your archery,” the Caliph quipped!)

Around 1993/94 we heard the awful news that Sheikh Jameel had been assassinated by an Arab fighter – many salafis blamed this on forces loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Hizb-e-Islami), who was backed by the Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan and the Arab Muslim Brotherhood.  Hekmatyar denied these accusations, but the incident was one of the many causes of tension between salafis and the Brotherhood, a tension that continues all over the world until today.  A few years later at Imperial College London, I asked the Riyadh-based Syrian salafi Sheikh Adnan Arour, who had taken part in Saudi-sponsored mediation amongst the warring mujahidin groups after the fall of Kabul in 1992, about Hekmatyar’s denial of being behind Sheikh Jameel’s assassination.  He replied, “Who killed him then, Ibn Baz and Albani??!”

With hindsight, it was probably for the best that the Kunar emirate had fizzled out with the death of Sheikh Jameel, otherwise the obsession with hudud might have led to a situation similar to ISIS.

Around 2004, I briefly met one of Sheikh Jameel’s sons who was studying at the Islamic University of Madinah during my only visit there, facilitated by Yasir Qadhi.

Back to Kunar: we spent a day and night at the front line, taking part in the Jihad against forces loyal to President Najibullah.  The Soviets had of course withdrawn in early 1990, but most mujahideen groups fought on, firstly against Najib’s communists, and then against each other during the vicious civil war of 1992-6.  The latter war helped me realise the emptiness of the Islamist dream that the mujahideen were going to establish the ideal “Islamic state” after taking Kabul in 1992.

The Saudis subsidised half the cost of mujahidin’s flights to Pakistan, but kept a record of all names. There was, of course, close co-operation amongst the US, Saudis and Pakistanis during the anti-USSR Jihad.  We met a couple of Libyans at the front line who had burnt their passports, since returning mujahideen were not too welcome in Gaddafi’s police-state.

The training camp’s courtyard had a disused Soviet tank in the centre and was covered in snow: many of the Arabs, religious scholars and committed warriors, had never seen snow before and thoroughly enjoyed their first snowball fights whilst we, the British trio, looked on bemused.  The Arabs were from various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Egypt and Palestine.  There was also a trio of Indonesian or Filipino fighters who kept to themselves since they didn’t know Arabic.  At the camp, we received basic weapons training: Kalashnikov/M16 and also studied scripture after regular, congregational prayers.  In between the prayer rows would be lines of AK-47s belonging to the warrior-worshippers. At the front line, we exchanged artillery fire with invisible communist forces, as several mountain ridges separated us.  Our guns were 76mm cannon.  One enemy shell, fired from several miles away, landed a hundred feet from us but we were quite safe: this taught me about the fragility of life, but not to be afraid of the ever-present danger of death.  A disturbing scene throughout Kunar was the sight of large cemeteries in place of villages.

At the front line, I had hoped to use my expert Further Mathematics A-level knowledge of precise mathematical calculations of projectile motion to help with the accuracy of our shelling. (18 months earlier, I had been the only one to score 100% in our Lower Sixth Form mathematics examination at the City of London School for Boys, where I held the John Carpenter Scholarship, 1987-9, and been awarded the Mathematics Prize in the Upper Sixth Form, although a couple of Jewish friends were better mathematicians than me.) But we were only there for a day, and there were no PCs or calculators. The mujahideen’s method to ensure shelling accuracy was simple: it was piety – we were encouraged to mention and remember God in dhikr every time we fired a shell!

There were many funny incidents during our stay: a sense of humour helps in tough situations.  The Kuwaiti who stopped the jeep to pick up snow for the first time: “This is not like the snow in our freezer!” (Snow and ice are synonyms in Arabic: thalj.)  The young Saudi who had studied English “whilst he wasn’t religious” in Cambridge some years ago and knew the Pakistani-run Nasreen Dar store there, famous amongst Fitzwilliam and Churchill College students for selling cheap, out-of-date biscuits.  This was a surreal moment for me: I had travelled thousands of miles from Cambridge to meet an Arab mujahid in the mountains of Afghanistan and talk about a shop back home.  (Partly due to our salafist influence in Cambridge, Nasreen Dar eventually stopped selling alcohol. And it finally closed recently.)  Abu Muntasir nicknaming the Indonesian or Filipino mujahid, “Brother One-Bullet” since he could only afford one bullet for his M16 gun (these bullets were much more scarce and therefore expensive, compared to AK-47 bullets). Abu Muntasir saying to Abul Qa’qa’ (named after a Companion of the Prophet), “They’re calling you,” when a flock of crows crowed loudly: caw! caw! The 007-style “pen gun,” disguised as a heavy ink pen that housed a bullet instead of an ink cartridge, with the pen clip as the trigger, and used for close-range assassinations.  The Arabs called it the “ben gun” since there is no “p” in Arabic, and this made me think of my primary-school days spent reading Treasure Island.  At the front line, I described the “man in the moon” that I could see in the full moon through binoculars.  Our Arab guide there, unfamiliar with the nuances of the English language, rebuked me gently although unfairly with the teaching of the Prophet (pbuh), “Tell the truth, even if you are joking.”

My parents, siblings and extended family, plus the JIMAS group in the UK, were very supportive of our jihad trip and very proud of us. My grandfather, Sheikh Abdul Ghaffar Hasan, a very senior salafi scholar of India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, quoted to me the hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him, upon my return, “There are two eyes that will not be touched by the Fire: an eye that watches guard at night in the path of God [esp. holy war], and an eye that weeps from the awe of God.” My grandfather added, “I hope that you will qualify on both counts.” It was a quarter of a century later, prompted by a journalist’s question, that I asked my dear mother how she felt whilst I was away for a fortnight – I had remembered her tears upon both my departure and return. She told me that there were some days when she couldn’t eat, out of worry. The FATE video showing a family of a jihadi fighter at a dinner table gives some idea of how she must have felt.

JIMAS and other UK groups later sent dozens of fighters to Afghanistan and hundreds to Bosnia (1992-5).  One young man from Southall spent months in Afghanistan and described fishing in the river by use of hand-grenades: the explosion would blast the fish onto the banks.  One Londoner I know, currently a primary schoolteacher, spent a year or so in Afghanistan in the mid-90s, having gone there with the intention of a “sacred migration to the Islamic state” (hijrah), but became disillusioned when he heard talk of plans to attack western countries: some of the mujahideen were of course building Al-Qaeda.

So, fast-forward 20 years to 2010, almost a decade after 9/11 and the whole idea of Jihad had become utterly confused, including in the UK after the 7/7 attacks.  British involvement in the war in Afghanistan was deeply unpopular amongst UK Muslims, so when the FCO offered me a trip to the country to project British Muslims, I jumped at the chance, deciding that I would also treat it as a fact-finding mission again as to what was going on there.

 

Ex-Taliban Mullahs at the UK Embassy in Kabul, August 2010

We flew from London to Kabul via Dubai, after having undergone two days of “Hostile Environment Training” in Shropshire provided by ex-army people.  The training included practice in wearing the body armour (with ceramic plates) and helmet that we would need everywhere in Afghanistan, a simulated roadside bomb attack on the armoured jeeps in which we would travel and advice on what to do if we got kidnapped (co-operate with your kidnappers, don’t try anything silly, and hope to get rescued).  Whenever I wore the body armour, I thought of the Qur’anic story of Prophet Sulayman, or King Solomon, manufacturing iron armour under divine inspiration for protection in war: modern body armour, with its light but strong material that is ever-improving due to science and technology, is the latest manifestation of the Solomonic Sunnah.

At the heavily-fortified UK embassy in Kabul, we had iftar with a couple of ex-Taliban, including Mullah Ishaq Nizami, who had once served as a junior communications minister for Mullah Omar.  Nizami spoke of the need for human rights and corruption-free institution-building in Muslim-majority countries, something much stronger in western ones. He was also working with other, higher-profile ex-Taliban, including Mullah Mutawakkil and Mullah Zaeef (author of My Life With The Taliban, http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/my-life-with-the-taliban/), in negotiations between Karzai’s government and Taliban leaders.  The iftar was hosted by Ambassador Sir William Patey and his staff.

 

Lashkar Gah ISAF Base, Helmand

The next day we flew to Lashkar Gah (“Lash”) via the formidable Kandahar Air Base.  At Lash we met the Commander of Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Felton.  (He had the England v Pakistan cricket test match from Lord’s on TV in the background via satellite: Sky Sports, but switched it off when we entered. This was the test match when Mohammed Amir bowled “those no-balls.”) I led the delegation in that meeting and my first question to him was about civilian casualties: his reply was that the Taliban were now killing more civilians than ISAF were, and that the new strategy under US General Petraeus was to minimise civilian casualties.

The head of the civilian mission here was Arthur Snell, formerly head of UK Prevent and now (2012) our High Commissioner in Barbados.  At the Lash command centre, one poster showed a big gun with the caption: “One size fits all: Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Haqqanis and HIGs” – the latter referring to Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, i.e. the fighters still loyal to our old friend-or-foe Hekmatyar.  (Hekmatyar finally laid down his arms in 2017, after almost 40 years of fighting.) Another striking recruitment poster read, “Who is fighting in place of your son?”

One striking feature at Lash was the presence of a handful of young, female soldiers. I saw a couple of male soldiers pumping iron whilst staring lustfully at a young female who was jogging in her shorts, and looking quite scared. I felt an air of fear and tension, as these young, British men and women had been transplanted into the midst of a war against a ferocious enemy: they were thousands of miles from home, and millions of miles away from any understanding of the surrounding Afghan Muslim culture. I asked the base chaplain about sexual ethics in the camp. His reply was that the soldiers were advised “not to have sex” but that if a female soldier became pregnant, she could return home immediately.

We also met the local mullahs at Lash’s rebuilt Central Mosque, including the Chief Mullah. A few years ago, a suicide-bomber had destroyed the mosque and killed the previous Chief Mullah: his shrine was next door.  There was a long queue of local men waiting to apply for the Hajj programme.  All of the mullahs were anti-Taliban; most were vehemently anti-Pakistan also, blaming the country for supporting insurgents.  The day before we eventually left Helmand, the Chief Mullah was arrested on charges of corruption relating to the embezzlement of Hajj application fees.


Nad Ali and the death of a young, British soldier

We also spent a few days in Nad Ali, where facilities were much more primitive compared to the relative luxuries of Lash (nicknamed “Lash Vegas” by soldiers).  We flew there and back by helicopter (RAF Merlin and Chinook, respectively): my first rides in a chopper.

We again met local mullahs in the main Nad Ali mosque.  There was almost a riot outside because two ISAF soldiers, both Muslim (one British male, one American female), had entered the mosque: a mob became very angry at the fact that foreign soldiers and a woman had “desecrated” their place of worship: they found it very difficult to comprehend that NATO soldiers could be Muslim.  Some of the mullahs accompanied us back to the base to show the public that NATO were not anti-Islam.

A Scottish army major here told me that many of the young Taliban recruits were clearly very devoted and brave fighters who believed in their Jihad, attacking NATO posts in their flip-flops, armed only with AK-47s: they stood no earthly chance against NATO’s superior firepower.

During our stay in Nad Ali, Lance Corporal Jordan Bancroft (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-11068103 ) was killed.  All private communications by troops were disabled whilst the MoD officially informed the family, rather than them receiving the news via friends.  Back at Lash, almost everyone turned out for a moving memorial service.  Bancroft’s commanding officer read a tribute to him and the chaplain read from Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer.  The service happened to occur at the time of the late afternoon Muslim prayer, so throughout the ceremony, the Islamic call to prayer rang out from the speakers of local mosques.  The total effect was something like:

The Lord is my shepherd

God is Greatest! God is Greatest!

I shall not be in want

He makes me lie down in green pastures

I bear witness that there is no god but God

He leads me beside quiet waters

He restores my soul.

I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God

He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Come to life-giving prayer!

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil

Come to life-giving success!

For you are with me; your rod and staff they comfort me.

God is Greatest! God is Greatest!

There is no god but God.

God is Greatest! God is Greatest!

Our Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name

I bear witness that there is no god but God

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven

I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses

Come to life-giving prayer!

As we forgive those who trespass against us

And lead us not into temptation

Come to life-giving success!

But deliver us from evil

God is Greatest! God is Greatest!

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory

For ever and ever, amen!

There is no god but God!

 

A friend commented that many of Bancroft’s comrades would have been offended by the Islamic prayers, that they associated with the Taliban, throughout his memorial service, but this was a poignant moment for me: here we had thousands of western soldiers and Jihadist insurgents fighting each other, with no understanding at all of their shared, Abrahamic, religious heritage that is utterly devoted to the Glory of God.  As a Muslim believer in the divine origin of the Torah, Psalms, Gospel and Qur’an, the futility of the war was summed up for me in this scriptural and liturgical encounter: when will the Children of Abraham ever stop killing each other, I wondered?


Visit to a British-run training camp for Afghan police recruits

 We visited a British-run camp training Afghan police to take over security roles.  Helmand has a very high illiteracy rate, and the literacy levels of these police officers after training was that of 5-year-old children.  As may be expected, “unlettered” nations like this rely heavily on oral tradition and word-of-mouth means of communication and education.

 

Visit to the British-built Lashkar Gah Prison, and the would-be suicide-bomber aged 16

We also visited a relatively state-of-the-art British-built prison, where a significant minority of the inmates were Taliban or Pakistani and there was a separate wing for women, who were probably in the safest place for them.  Here we met 18-year-old Umar, a madrasa graduate from Pakistan who had served two years of his sentence ever since being intercepted before he could carry out a suicide-bombing attack.  “I came for Jihad,” he told me, “… The people who sent me are not good.  I won’t return to them when I’m released.”  I also asked him whether or not he got to exchange letters with his parents in Pakistan.  (Twenty years earlier, I had met a Pakistani fighter at the front line of the Jihad whose family home happened to be near my parents’ one in Karachi.  He had given me a letter and message to convey to his family, since he hadn’t seen them for years: my mother had accompanied me when I did so, feeling the pain of another woman whose son was at war in a far-off land.)  But Umar’s reply was a sign of the times: “I speak to them via mobile phone, two or three times a week.”

Another tragic story at the prison was that of the child imprisoned, mainly for his own safety, after he shot dead his own father in a fit of rage after the latter had shot dead the family’s pet goat in a fit of anger.  The authorities said that there was no drug problem in the prison, but we noticed a discarded hypodermic needle lying in the yard.  They also told us that they had procured TVs for the prisoners, and that all of the Taliban had gratefully accepted these, despite Mullah Omar’s fatwa banning television.

 

Other visits in Lashkar Gah

We met officials dealing with the problem of poppy-farming and opium-production: most of the world’s heroin supply originates in Helmand.  We were shown official UN figures to this effect, which also recorded the remarkable anomaly of near-zero poppy production in summer 2001 after Mullah Omar’s decree prohibiting it: 9/11 followed soon afterwards and narcotics production resumed.  Instability and war are clearly in the interests of the drug-traffickers, and the drugs trade is of course a massive source of income for warlords and insurgents.

We met a senior local judge whose work was supported by British officials: a traditional version of Hanafi Sharia law was applied, but the penal code consisted of fines, imprisonment or the death penalty by hanging: there were no floggings, amputations or stonings to death.  The judge maintained that Sharia embodied justice in all matters.

We had iftar at the official residence of the Governor of Helmand, a humble and educated man who served us personally.  Governor Mangal has come to the UK several times on FCO-sponsored trips.  He was himself not from Helmand but from one of the other 33 provinces: bringing outsiders to govern provinces is a common practice in Afghanistan due to the tribal rivalries everywhere.  I discussed with him the importance of education for the future of Afghanistan, having noticed the fledgling Helmand University in Lash, occupying two floors of a multi-storey building and reminding me of universities similarly-housed in simple surroundings in Pakistan.

We also had suhur (the pre-dawn meal in preparation for fasting) with the local head of the Afghan National Army, after which I remember seeing the familiar and reassuring sight of the Pleiades, Taurus, Orion and Sirius rising in the eastern sky.  In the middle of war-torn Helmand, it was nice to be reminded that we were actually still on the same planet as our comfortable homes in the UK.

Our scheduled 3-day stay in Helmand was extended to a week due to a large sandstorm that grounded all flights – a common occurrence, during which insurgent attacks are more dangerous since air cover is not available.  Back in the UK, families and civil servants were desperately worried about an official delegation being stranded in a war-zone, but we took the opportunity to benefit as much as possible from the experience.  I even did a half-hour interview by phone for Edinburgh’s Radio Ramadan, discussing lunar visibility, Islamic dates and prayer-times etc.

  

Reflection: three decades of brutal war in Afghanistan

During this trip, talking to many experienced people helped me build up a picture of the tragic story of Afghanistan over the past century, a story of which I had been entirely oblivious when joining the Jihad as a well-intentioned but naïve undergraduate in 1990. Here is a rough timeline:

1919-1973: A monarchy rules Afghanistan.  (In the mid-90s, I saw the copy of the Qur’an used in the early 20th-century initiation ceremony of the King of Afghanistan into Freemasonry on public display at the United Grand Lodge near Holborn – and no, I am not a freemason!)  By the end of this phase of history, the royals are living in obscene luxury whilst most of the people are in abject poverty.  Hence, it is no surprise when …

1973: A coup overthrows King Zahir Shah.  Many of the various political factions and warlords are in touch with the neighbouring Communist superpower USSR, vying for influence and funding.

1979: The USSR invades to support the Marxist-Communist coup of 1978.  Warlords and tribal leaders announce a Jihad against the “atheist, communist enemy.”  The Jihad is backed heavily by the Pakistani, Saudi and US governments.  Thousands of Jihad fighters (mujahideen) flock to Afghanistan from all over the Muslim-majority world.  The Soviets commit many massacres: between 600,000 and 2 million Afghans, mainly civilians, die in the war.

1989: The Soviets withdraw, defeated by a combination of mujahideen operations and US-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that erase Soviet mastery of Afghan airspace; the Jihad continues against Afghan communist forces.

1992: Kabul falls to the mujahideen.

1992-6: A vicious civil war ensues, as the various Afghan mujahideen warlords fight for power: Hekmatyar (backed by Pakistan’s Jamat-e-Islami), Massoud, Mujaddedi, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Dostum, etc.  The Saudis attempt to broker peace, with limited success.  The warlords commit many massacres, notably including the regular, heavy shelling of Kabul by Hekmatyar’s forces, said to be far worse than any Soviet bombardment.

1996-2001: The Taliban emerge and rapidly take over most of the country, disarming the warlords.  Civil war continues as the Northern Alliance fights the Taliban.  Both sides commit atrocities.  Massacres of Afghan Shias almost lead to war between the Taliban and Iran. (Religious sectarianism is a serious problem in Afghanistan, as in many countries: in the Lash prayer-room, I found a polemical Shia text deeply offensive to Sunnis; no doubt, reverse cases are in abundance too.)

2001-12: The US-led invasion force removes the Taliban from power after 9/11 and  continues fighting Al-Qaeda.  NATO and the Taliban (the latter allied with Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and remnants of Hekmatyar’s fighters) commit many atrocities in over a decade of fighting.

 

Conclusion: hope from Helmand?

Back in the UK, I was asked by a video-wall company to record a short message of support for British troops in Afghanistan who were obviously missing their families back home.  I obliged, wording it carefully with the hope that we could help end the war, leave the Afghans with the peace and freedom to rebuild their devastated country, and bring our troops home as soon as possible.  With UK combat troops set to withdraw by 2014, that hope is closer to fruition.  And with it being an open secret that NATO is negotiating with the Taliban and GIROA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan), the talks being hosted in Qatar, the seeds of peace and mediation efforts that we saw in 2010 seem to have also borne some fruit.

But what next for the Afghans?  I had asked many people this question whilst in the country, and of course everyone was very uncertain.  One thing they generally agreed upon was that the country was caught between brutal, religious extremists and corrupt, secular politicians, with most people simply wishing to get on with their lives in peace: sadly, a familiar story in Muslim-majority nations.

Wherever we had driven in Helmand, children had mostly waved at our prominent, armoured jeeps but a few boys would always hurl pebbles at the convoys.  During one of our excursions in Lash, I had watched a very old woman slowly cross a busy road. (She reminded me of my Indian-Pakistani grandmothers and great-grandmothers).  It struck me that this woman had probably been in Helmand all her life, and would have lived through most of the history described above, including three decades of near-constant war.  What’s more, there were probably millions of men and women like her in Afghanistan: all touched by war and death, yet determined to achieve the best for themselves and their families.  The old woman’s enduring, wrinkled face was a tribute to humanity’s courage, faith and perseverance in the midst of constant tragedy: a message of hope from Helmand.

© Usama Hasan

London, UK

30th September 2012 (minor edits & publication: 10th November 2017)

Bin Ladin: From Hero to Villain

May 22, 2011

Bismillah.

BIN LADIN: FROM HERO TO VILLAIN?

Usama bin Muhammad bin ‘Awad bin Ladin (1957-2011) was originally a hero of the Afghan Jihad against the decade-long Soviet occupation, leading Arab and other fighters in numerous, successful operations. He was a colleague and deputy of the Palestinian Jihad leader Abdullah Azzam.  Once upon a time, the US was indebted to him for helping to inflict a major defeat on their superpower rival, as he was to them for their support of that Jihad.  But the plain truth is that his “Jihad” later evolved into international terrorism and consistently violated basic Islamic and human ethics.

Whether it’s the barbarity of the modern warfare waged by nation-states or international terrorism, it is all inhuman.  Let’s not forget that the twentieth century was the bloodiest in history, with governments all over the world guilty of collectively killing millions of people using increasingly-destructive weapons technology.  To illustrate the irony, when President Clinton reacted to Ibn Ladin’s assassination by referring to a long series of murderous attacks, he could have easily been talking about the ongoing US drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed hundreds of civilians.

Those interested in Ibn Ladin the man may wish to refer especially to two detailed interviews that he gave to ABC News and Al-Jazeera before 9/11.  In the ABC news interview, he condemned unprovoked terrorism but justified terrorism “against tyrants and oppressors in retaliation for their killing of innocent people.”  He also referred to the influential “younger” Saudi clerics, then in prison, as his mentors: the two leading ones, Salman al-‘Awdah and Safar al-Hawali, distanced themselves from him after 9/11 and criticised Al-Qaidah’s tactics.

To Al-Jazeera, Ibn Ladin spoke of his father’s civil engineering work and mentioned that his father was sometimes able to offer prayers in the three holiest mosques in a single day, i.e. in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, since his father’s company, the Saudi Bin Ladin Group (not to be confused with an Al-Qaidah cell) had the maintenance and renovation contracts at all three sites.  He also said, in a clear recruitment appeal, that the optimum age for Jihad fighters was from adulthood to about 35, but appeared to dodge the question as to whether or not he was involved in the 1989 assassination of Abdullah Azzam, in which other suspects include the KGB, KHAD, Hekmatyar, Zawahiri and Mossad.

Since his death, the praise for Ibn Ladin from some Islamists around the world may be largely based on those early days, since tens of thousands took part in that anti-Communist Jihad. (I did so briefly, Dec 1990 – Jan 1991 during Cambridge University’s undergraduate winter holidays, along with two other senior colleagues from the UK.) Unfortunately, his supporters seem to have forgotten, or ignored, what came next.

The Afghan mujahideen were largely religious and/or nationalist, and bitterly-divided, as the vicious civil war amongst them illustrated, 1992-6 after the fall of Kabul, until the Taliban disarmed the warlords and took power, heralding merely the latest in a long line of brutally violent phases that the Afghan people have endured over the last 30-40 years.

The Arab fighters tended to be pan-Islamist, and many were not able to return to their countries of origin, mainly ruled by Western-backed dictators and tyrants. The Islamists’ anti-Westernism was compounded by western support for Israel in its numerous conflicts with the Arabs. Their influence has been huge.  (Many Muslims today, even Western ones, still speak of “Islam and the West” instead of “Islam in the West.”)

After the fall of Kabul, many Arab mujahideen fought in Bosnia and later Chechnya.  A widespread idea in mujahideen circles was that these wars in Europe confirmed the teaching attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), that “Jihad will continue until the Day of Resurrection” – Bosnia erupted soon after the fall of Kabul, and Chechnya followed closely.  Unfortunately, the Jihadists seemed unable to conceptualise non-violent, peaceful Jihads or struggles, e.g. those against colonial occupation, racism, apartheid, gender- or caste-discrimination, social injustice and poverty, that many peoples around the world have waged over the last century or so.

Once the Soviets, Serbs and Russians were no longer the leading targets in this “Jihad against all non-believers,” it was the turn of the western nations, led by the US.  Ibn Ladin issued a nonsensical Fatwa at the end of the 1990’s, as he launched Al-Qaidah or the International Islamic Front Against the Alliance of Crusaders and Zionists, or whatever he called it.  The fatwa said that all western taxpayers, and especially Americans, were legitimate targets due to western support for Israel, and thus sought to justify international terrorism.  The core part of the fatwa was read out on live, national UK television (BBC Newsnight) by a hate-preaching, extremist cleric who has since been banned from Britain.

Then came a string of atrocities against the US and people of many other nations: the embassy bombings in East Africa, and 9/11.  There is now clearly-overwhelming evidence that Al-Qaidah carried out the 9/11 attacks, although there remain a number of unanswered questions, including whether or not some people outside Al-Qaidah knew of the plots and could have done more to foil them.

The 9/11 attacks were, regrettably, celebrated across parts of the Muslim world and Latin America, exposing the level of anti-US sentiment.  Arab media reported a spike in baby boys being named “Usama” and there was a surge in Al-Qaidah’s popularity that dissipated over the years as the organisation murdered more and more innocent people, most of them Muslims, in many countries.  A notable exception to the initial celebration was in Iran, where there was no love for the fanatically anti-Shi’ite Al-Qaidah and Taliban.  Protestors in Tehran chanted, “Condolences to America,” instead of the usual chant of “Death to America” that has become regular since the 1979 revolution.

Many people wonder how someone likened to Hitler in some parts of the world could have been so popular elsewhere.  They forget that a certain US President is similarly hated in parts of the Muslim world:  the award-winning journalist Robert Fisk is a witness to that, having been beaten up and left for dead in December 2001 by an Afghan mob that mistook him for President Bush Jnr.  Similarly, others wonder how the Israelis once voted in General Ariel Sharon as their leader, despite an official Israeli inquiry finding him to be complicit in the 1982 massacre of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

The unfortunate western policy over the last few decades of supporting tyrants and dictators, whether military figures or absolute monarchs, as well as corrupt secular politicians, across the Arab and Muslim world, was partly to blame for Bin Ladin’s popularity there, as was the failure of those societies themselves to democratise. Of course the masses would choose a charismatic military hero, an eloquent warrior-poet, an ascetic from a billionaire family who renounced luxurious living and talked tough against Israel and America, backing his words with action, over utterly-corrupt kings, presidents and other dictators.  (Similarly, supporters of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Mullah Omar point to their simple and ascetic lifestyles.  The Muslim world seems to have too many leaders who are either ungodly and corrupt or are religious fanatics.)  God bless the brave youth who have inspired the Arab spring, offering the hope of an escape from the madness on all sides over the last few generations, and forced western powers to admit the failure of their previous strategies.  The leaders of the Arab spring have engaged successfully in a peaceful Jihad, for the Prophet, peace be upon him, is said to have taught that “the best Jihad is to speak a word of truth to a tyrant ruler.”

Celebrating the misfortune of others, especially an enemy, is an unfortunately-common, but negative, human trait.  In Arabic, it is known as shamatat al-a’da’.  In the Qur’an, Prophet Aaron (Harun) begs Prophet Moses (Musa), peace be upon them, not to expose him to the rejoicing of enemies by criticising him publicly and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, would pray for God’s protection from being the object of this vice.

But unfortunately, some Muslims celebrated 9/11 as a military victory, just as British tabloids had celebrated the bombing of Libya in 1986, some Israelis the Gaza offensive of 2008-9, and some New Yorkers the assassination of Bin Ladin earlier this month.

Such celebrations may also be attributable to a sense of justice and/or revenge, of course.  One of those celebrating in Times Square had lost his wife on 9/11 and declared to the cameras that he knew for sure that his wife would watch from heaven whilst God would throw Bin Ladin’s soul into the depths of hell.  This was a totally understandable reaction from the still-grieving widower, whilst some Jews and Christians, amongst many believers, were surely asking that difficult question, “Can God forgive Hitler or Bin Ladin?”  Later today, the congregation of a church in Florida will be praying for Bin Ladin’s forgiveness.

Meanwhile, the latter’s former sister-in-law, Carmen bin Ladin, told CNN that Saudi society would be grieving the death of their brother, whom they regarded as a good Muslim, since he upheld the five pillars of Islam.  A problem in Muslim society is that too often, a “good Muslim” man or woman is limited to someone who observes the five pillars and dresses in a certain way, whereas the five pillars are supposed to be the springboard that launch people into oceans of loving spirituality, humanity and generosity rather than reducing them to hate-filled fanaticism.  A “good Muslim” is one who, inspired by the love and worship of God, helps to transform society for the better, standing up for the dispossessed and downtrodden against their oppressors.  Muslim societies need internal Jihads against racism, inequality and religious fanaticism, amongst other things.

One or two Muslim theologians, whose attitudes can only be described as mediaevalist, have quickly pronounced that Ibn Ladin is in heaven, since for them, “any Muslim, no matter what his deeds, is better than any non-Muslim.”  This is reminiscent of the rhetoric of the extremist Jews who glorified Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994 as they worshipped at dawn at the Hebron mosque and Cave of the Patriarchs.  For example, one extremist rabbi declared that “a million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.”  Other extremists praised Goldstein for “living the Torah,” just as plenty of Muslim fanatics claim to be “following the Shariah.”  A wider irony is that Islamism and Zionism are mirror images of each other, united only in mutual hatred, since they both represent over-politicisations of their faiths.

The simple answer is that heaven and hell (or the Garden and the Fire, in Qur’anic language) manifest people’s nearness to God in this life: those in the Garden are near God and vice-versa, and those in the Fire are distant from God, and vice-versa.  Those insisting that Ibn Ladin is in the Garden should at least reflect on the possibility that many, if not all, of the innocent victims of terrorism are closer to God.

We face a stark choice today: in many ways, one that is as old as humanity itself.  We can either continue in cycles of violence and vengeance, or we can choose to break those cycles and embrace hope, forgiveness and peace.  Al-Qaidah are partly motivated by revenge for Muslim suffering over many years.  According to their stupid, clichéd and almost-meaningless slogan, “Americans will not taste security until the Palestinians do.” After 9/11, the US was partly motivated by revenge: “Who cares if we over-react!” as one TV pundit put it.  Ten years later, there are thousands of Al-Qaeda, Taliban, US and ISAF soldiers, plus Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi civilians dead as part of the “war on terror.”  Furthermore, terrorists have left hundreds dead from Bali to London, Morocco to Jordan, Madrid to Mumbai.  How much more “revenge” do people want?

Zamakhshari, a classical commentator on the Qur’an, pointed out an oft-forgotten, basic aspect of Islam: the word itself means, as well as submission, “to enter into peace (after war)” – to put it another way, it means peace-making and renouncing war in favour of peace.  A true Muslim is thus a committed peace-maker and, as Prophet Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, is reported to have taught, “Blessed are the peace-makers.”

Fourteen centuries ago, Islam put an end to the vicious blood-feuds amongst the warring tribes of Arabia, cycles of violence that continued for generations.  Today, the South Africans, Northern Irish and the Rwandans, amongst others have chosen national reconciliation over continuing similar blood-feuds.  We need to encourage and help the Afghans, Pakistanis and Kashmiris to do the same.

President Obama’s efforts for a new chapter in US-Muslim relations must be welcomed, and we can all play a part in building bridges amongst people locked in conflict.  Crucially, the Israelis and Palestinians must be encouraged to end their mutual distrust and hatred.  The work of Ali Abu Awwad and Robi Damelin, showcased in the film, Encounter Point, must especially be commended.  Jews and Muslims living together peacefully in democratic western countries can help set an example to their fellow-believers in the Holy Land, traumatised by the decades of conflict, many of whom are not even aware that they worship the same God, revere the same Prophets, and share many aspects of language and religious practice.  Efforts towards Palestinian unity and democratisation must be welcomed, although militant religious extremism, both Muslim and Jewish, must be marginalised and exposed for what it is: a perversion of faith and an immense obstacle to Middle-Eastern and world peace.  Muslim and Jewish leaders and religious authorities around the world must especially make it a priority to help their colleagues in Palestine and Israel make the right choices on the path to peace and justice for all.  Influential religious authorities in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria must be given the independence and freedom to criticise their governments constructively and thus reclaim their role as reflecting the spiritual will of the people, rather than being forced and intimidated into always toeing the official line.

One of Ibn Ladin’s gravest mistakes, regrettably, was to pervert the nobility of Jihad, including his own earlier sacrifices, and to recast it in purely violent forms with the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians.  It is time for Muslims to reclaim the wider and deeper aspects of Jihad, for as Ibrahim bin Abi ‘Ablah, an ascetic Successor to the Companions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, observed on his way back from a military expedition, “We have returned from a lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad: the struggle against the vices of our own souls.”  Let us put the last ten years behind us, and move on.

© Usama Hasan

London, UK

22nd May, 2011