The Origins of the PMUs

The head of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Ameri, revealed a known secret a few days ago: the formation of the Popular Mobilization Units (aka al-hashd al-sha’abi, or sometimes ‘the Shia militias’) began several months ahead of Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s momentous fatwa on June 13, 2014 following the fall of Mosul. Ameri ‘corrected’ the record during a meeting between senior PMU leaders and Maliki on June 28. Here is what Ameri said:

Why is this important?

It’s important for two reasons:

-The weaknesses of the Iraqi Army were known to the Iraqi leadership months ahead of the debacle at Mosul. No tangible steps were taken to structurally address such concerns. The decision taken at the time was to build out new auxiliary forces, hence the PMUs. We have the minutes of the April 7, 2014 National Alliance (Shia bloc) meeting during which Maliki reveals all this (see below). I received the minutes of the meeting a few days afterwards. I proceeded to look into what it revealed at the time. The anecdotal evidence that I could gather then was that the idea was first proposed and acted upon by General Qasim Suleimani.

-The weaknesses of the Iraqi Army were known to the Obama administration. By April 2014, there were already + 40 US military officers embedded at various ISF command centers as ‘liaisons’ attached to the US Embassy in Baghdad. When President Obama announced his intention to send more US advisors to Iraq in August 2014, he carefully couched his words so as to suggest that the effort was a continuation of an existing program that was already underway. To my knowledge, I haven’t seen a press report that explored the experiences of that program prior to Mosul, and whether those officers on the ground anticipated the impending collapse.

Four more things:

-By mid-April, Qasim Suleimani’s efforts to create a new auxiliary force was already entering the ‘branding’ phase. Initially, the proto-PMUs were supposed to be called saraya al-difa’a al-sha’abi (‘Popular Defense Brigades’). This was supposed to be their logo (…familiar to that of Lebanese Hezbollah’s):

saraya aldifaa

-There may be some evidence that the US government had an early relationship with at least one PMU that was close to Suleimani, an organization that was cultivated and propped-up by his adjunct Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. That PMU is Jund al-Imam. See below for notes on this organization and the possible coordination it had with US forces. The Wall Street Journal once described it (during the Tikrit operation) as “US-backed”.

-In the April 7, 2014 meeting, Maliki claims that the Americans “lied” about their armament commitments. I have seen a letter addressed to Maliki, dated April 15, 2014, from the overseer of the US weapons delivery program to Iraq. It seems to be a direct response to Maliki’s claim. It began with “We have provided you with all that you have asked for.” Again, the significance of this letter is in the clarity that was available to the US administration as to the actual conditions on the ground at the time. Very little has been written about the discussions that were occurring in DC about the situation in Iraq then. President Obama had made the jayvee analogy to David Remnick a few months earlier. It is unclear whether he amended his impression based on the escalating situation in Iraq and what US advisors on the ground were reporting back to Washington. Drone strikes were being conducted from airbases in Jordan. Clearly, there was far more direct engagement and its consequent ability to judge the potential for a wider conflict than what the administration had suggested up to this date.

-The sequence of events with Ameri praising Maliki and giving him credit for the formation of the PMUs, while Suleimani is photographed having iftar at Maliki’s home two days later, are not occurring in a vacuum. This is coming at a time when Maliki’s chances for a political comeback, in whatever form, look far better today than they did three months ago.


Translated highlights from the April 7, 2014 minutes. The meeting was primarily concerned with the actions taken by ISIS in Fallouja, such as flooding the surrounding countryside. Maliki says:

“There is a real and clear security danger that threatens the country and I have told you more than a year ago that the situation is dangerous.”

“There is a Sunni Arab-Turkish axis and a sectarian alignment against us in the Shia-Iranian axis.”

“Syria is the barrier; if it breaks then the water will [flood] us.”

“I have spoken to the Iranians and the Lebanese about this matter and they are better than us since they are strategic and they went down to the field in Syria publically and if it hadn’t been for their position, and ours, then there would not have been a Syria today.”

“Unfortunately we neglected Bahrain and were distracted by partial details among ourselves when we ought to have formed a regional Shia council to face the aggression being [waged] against us by others.”

“I have spoken to the Americans in all candor and told them to stop this Sunni Arab-Turkish axis or else there will be an Iranian-Shia axis confronting it but regrettably they couldn’t.”

“Our army cannot be counted on since it is a combination of Sunnis and Shias and Kurds. Some Sunnis are unconvinced, while some Shias are there for the salary, and it is an army that has not waged such battles before and its armaments are basic compared to that of [ISIS]…”

“We have sought these days to rely on ‘Sons of Iraq’ groups [composed] of the mujaheddin and we have formed 20 groups in the environs of Baghdad so far and we are continuing to do so in Hilla and Balad and Dujail by forming such groups because they are better than the army and can fight guerrilla wars and we shall form also in Karbala.”

Arabic text of minutes:

الرسالة خاصة :
اجتماع التحالف 7 /4 /2014
بحضور جميع قوى التحالف الوطني
الموضوع / الاوضاع الامنية
تحدث رئيس الوزراء في بدية الاجتماع واشار لما يلي :
1- هناك خطر امني حقيقي وواضح يهدد البلد وقد ابلغتكم قبل اكثر من سنه ان القضية خطيرة .
2- هناك محور سني عربي تركي واصطفاف طائفي واضح ضدنا نحن المحور الشيعي الايراني
3- سوريا هي الحاجز اذا انكسر سوف يصل الماء الينا .
4- تحدثت مع الايرانيين واللبنانيين حول الامر وهم افضل منا باعتبارهم استراتيجيين نزلوا الى الميدان في سوريا بشكل علني ولولا موقفهم وموقفنا لما كان هناك سوريا اليوم
4- للاسف تركنا البحرين وانشغلنا بتفاصيل جزئية فيما بيننا وكان من المفترض ان نشكل مجلس شيعي اقليمي لمواجهة العدوان علينا من قبل الاخرين
5- تحدثت مع الامريكان بكل صراحة وقلت اوقفوا هذا المحور السني العربي التركي والا سوف يكون قباله المحور الشيعي الايراني ولكنهم للاسف لم يستطيعوا
6-اراد السنه في الانبار ان يوسعوا من حركتهم بذريعة الاعتصامات وتفاعل معهم البعض ولكننا منعناهم من ان يصلوا الى بغداد وفرقناهم في الانبار وحصل الذي حصل ونحن اليوم نواجه داعش بكل امكاناتها وتسليحها المتطور .
ومجددا اليوم احذر واقول ان القضية لم تنتهي والمعركة طويلة وسوف تطول اكثر
7- نعمل على تحصين بغداد وديالى ولكن اقول ان الوضع مقلق لان اطراف بغداد عادت حواضن للارهاببين منها ينطلقون
8- الامريكان لم يفوا بوعودهم بخصوص التسليح والروس كذلك عتاد الدبابات الذي اشتريناه من امريكا تبين مداه 600 متر فقط وكان المفروض ان يكون اكثر من 10 كم
9- جيشنا لا يمكن الاعتماد عليه كونه خليط من السنه والشيعة والاكراد قسم السنه غير مقتنع وقسم من الشيعة جاي من اجل الراتب وهو جيش لم يخوض هكذا معارك من قبل وتسليحه بسيط مقارنة بتسليح داعش وحتى الطيران الذي لدينا امكاناته بسيطة ولا يستطيع ان يضرب الا من ارتفاع 1000 متر لعدم توفر الاجهزة وداعش لديهم صواريخ ضد الطائرات
10- توجهنا في هذه الايام للاعتماد على مجاميع ابناء العراق من المجاهدين وشكلنا 20 مجموعة في اطراف بغداد الى الان ونحن مستمرون في الحلة وبلد والدجيل بتشكيل مثل هذه المجاميع لانها افضل من الجيش تجيد حرب العصابات وسوف نشكل ايضا في كربلاء .
11- تقارير الضباط لا يمكن الاعتماد عليها لانهم يكذبون وليس لدينا خزين من الضباط هذا واقعنا الذي نتعامل معه .
12- قيام داعش مؤخرا بقطع مياه الفرات

من خلال سدة الفلوجة امامنا عدة خيارات اما ان ندخل للفلوجة وهذا فيه تداعيات كبيرة او نفتح سد حديثة مما سيؤدي الى غرق الفلوجة واجبار الارهابيين على فتح السدة او نقوم بضرب السدة بصواريخ وقد جربنا ضربها باربع صواريخ ولكنها لم تؤثر فيها ونحن نفكر بضرب السدة الترابية في الفلوجة ولكن ليس لدينا السلاح المناسب لذلك .
13- قمة النجاح الذي حققناه في الانبار والفلوجة اننا اوقفنا التداعي في الجيش .
المناقشات :
حصل بعض الاستفسارات والاسئلة عن اوضاع مناطق بغداد وحماية الجسور ومخازن العتاد واقتراحات بشراء سلاح من دول اخرى وتحدث امير الكناني عن ضرورة الحسم في العمليات لان الاطالة سوف تستنزف الدولة وامكاناتها
وتحدث ابوجهاد في قضية سدة الفلوجة واكد على خيار ضرب السدة الترابية اولا واطلاق تحذيرات من اننا مضطرون لذلك لالقاء الحجة واستنفاذ العذر من دون اللجوء الان للخيارين الاخرين وان القضية ليست فوتيه لان الفرات فيه مياه كافية الان
السيد الجعفري اكد ان رئيس الوزراء ابلغه سابقا ان العمليات امدها متوسط وتحتاج الى اسابيع ولكن الظاهر ان الامر تطور بحيث يحتاج الى مدة طويلة كما يقول رئيس الوزراء
دكتور خضير اكد على حماية الجسور ومخازن الاعتدة
علق رئيس الوزراء على عملية الحسم قائلا ليس لدينا قدرة على الحسم لنقص السلاح واوضاع الجيش ولا نريد خسران السنة الذين معنا كما ان استخدام القوى المفرطة غير صحيح ولو كنا نستطيع على الحسم لما انتظرنا .
انتهى الاجتماع بالتعامل بالخيار الذي اكد عليه ممثل المجلس الاعلى والتاكيد على ضرورة حماية العاصمة بغداد وباصدار بيان اكد على دعم القوى الامنية في حربها ضد الارهاب وادانه العمل الجبان للارهابيين بقطع المياه والتاكيد على اللحمة الوطنية .



-Headed by Ahmad Jasim Sabir al-Asadi (AKA Abu Ja’afar al-Asadi, b. 1971, Australian citizen). Official spokesman of the PMUs.

-Org first established by Mehdi Abdul-Mehdi al-Khalisi (AKA Abu Zainab al-Khalisi) in Iran in the early 1980s.

-Al-Khalisi was one of the founding members of Badr Corps; he is credited by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis with the idea of the creation of Badr. Al-Muhandis headed Badr in the mid-1980s until shortly before 2003. The US military arrested al-Khalisi in 2003 and released him in 2005. He died shortly afterwards; his lieutenants claim that the Americans injected him with cancer. They also assert that cadres of Jund al-Imam were targeted for assassination by the Americans.

-Al-Asadi becomes general secretary of Jund al-Imam in 2009.

-In May 2015, al-Asadi was in the United States, ostensibly attending an event to raise money for the PMUs in Michigan organized by the US-Iraqi Youth Institute. I believe he was also in Washington for talks. No evidence.

-Jund al-Imam was tasked and bankrolled by Maliki to mobilize a militia in early 2014, ahead of Mosul and Sistani’s fatwa. Al-Asadi had asserted that in a TV interview that was aired a year ago.

-Al-Asadi was a candidate for parliament on Maliki’s slate in 2010 and 2014. When Abadi was picked as PM, he took over the latter’s parliamentary seat. Abadi insisted that al-Asadi become spokesman of the PMUs.

-Jund al-Imam claims that they have thousands of fighters that constitute the 6th and 15th brigades of the PMUs. They take credit for destroying Saddam’s tomb in Auja, Tikrit, as well as securing the Speicher Air Base, which they have renamed Abu Zainab al-Khalisi Air Base. One credible source claims that they are responsible for burning down Albu Ajeel village to the east of Tikrit.

-There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Jund al-Imam receives special attention and support from Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

-At the time of the Tikrit operation, the WSJ described Jund al-Imam as “US-backed”. See here and here.

-A member of Jund al-Imam (Kadhim al-Battat) attended the INC’s NYC meeting in Oct 1999, and then testified before the US Congress. Another, Kareem Mahoud al-Muhammadawi (‘Abu Hatem’), was a member of the Governing Council under Bremer. I don’t know what is the nature of al-Battat’s and al-Muhammadawi’s relationship to the organization now.

The following link from my Arabic blog has some pictures of al-Asadi in the US, as well as pictures taken alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Managing the Fire Pit

Towards a new American approach to the Middle East after the Obama years

An open letter to my fellow interpreters of the Middle East in America, but also an essay in honor of three personal mentors: Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami and Ahmad Chalabi

The rise of the Islamic State deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come. –Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘The Obama Doctrine’, The Atlantic, April 2016

“Yeah, I admit very much to that reality,” [Rhodes] says. “There’s a numbing element to Syria in particular. But I will tell you this,” he continues. “I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we’re there—nearly a decade in Iraq.” Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism. –David Samuels, ‘The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru’, The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016

Even after the extremists are defeated in Iraq and Syria, the problem will persist. “We’ll be in a perpetual state of suppression for a long time,” [Clapper] warned. –David Ignatius, ‘‘The U.S. can’t fix it’: James Clapper on America’s role in the Middle East’, The Washington Post, May 10, 2016

I wonder how many stopped reading after seeing the names Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi above? I wonder, too, how many will continue reading out of sheer antipathy towards the trio, to mine this essay for new ‘evidence’ of a misguided and discredited legacy? And that, right there, is a troubling symptom of the long-standing Manichean conversation in America about what to do in the Middle East.

For those who have been part of the conversation long enough, one’s opinion of the three generally defines where one stands in the conversation. The pitch of the debate rose prior to the 2003 Iraq War and petered off beyond it as Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi were deemed mistaken by the consensus view. Each had respectively played the role of the interpreter, the true believer and the activist to varying degrees. It also got ugly and ad hominem, with agenda inferred, and malice suggested, from all sides unto all sides. They became lightning rods; their supporters also pushed back with similar tactics. I contributed to the acrimony, and I did my share of inferring and suggesting. I am not sure that what I now feel is remorse. Heated intellectual debates, ones that may go on to shape the destiny of millions, understandably unleash a sense of urgency and self-righteousness. But we are now at a point in the conversation where the tone must change or else the debate becomes largely irrelevant.

lewis ajami chalabi photo

Clockwise: Bernard Lewis (Getty), Fouad Ajami (Hoover Institution), Ahmad Chalabi (Getty)

This essay is not an apologia. This essay does not seek to rehabilitate the reputations of the three men. I do not seek controversy. I do not seek to goad the ‘other side’. This is not about settling scores or tallying the score, even though a journey through the near past may sound like it. This is a call for a ceasefire between all sides, for a parley at the sidelines, in the Middle East debate. The essay is, too, a pilgrimage through the stations of the debate that I had personally experienced. I have been around the block a number of times to know by now that catharsis by heartfelt candor marks an optimist’s folly. It may even be presumptuous to suggest a ceasefire, given my modest station in the hierarchy of the debate. Nevertheless, I deem this proposed parley and revision necessary given how much the terrain, both in Washington and in the Middle East, has changed. And since I don’t see others making the case, here goes.

I cite these three men for one reason, and that is because America’s new line of thinking about the Middle East is premised on ‘lessons learnt’ from its experiences with Iraq. President Obama boasts that he has learned them well. I think we need to revisit these lessons before drawing absolutist conclusions. Because the conclusions that Obama arrived at, that Iraq and some other parts of the region are irredeemable, and that America must diminish its role there, diminishes us all—all of us who have been part of this debate.

Why did we enjoin the debate in the first place? Because many of us care, for a variety reasons and motivations. Because many of us hope that America can wield its power and influence better, over there. That should be the lowest common denominator undergirding our cease-fire.

It doesn’t matter how we got into the debate, whether we were born into it, or called to it. All of us, whether we be traditionalists or iconoclasts, ‘martyrs’ or excommunicates, the ascendant or the defeated—we’re all stuck. Obama can presume to disentangle America from the region, but those who, for whatever reason, have staked our names to the American project in the Middle East cannot. Obama et al also expressed contempt for us, disdain for our internecine wrangling. To them, we were wrong on the fundamentals: that is, the Middle East can be fixed; that America can do much of the fixing; and that it is worth a superpower’s time and effort. We were outdated and defunct, pedantically arguing whether it should remain ‘fixed’, or get fixed, when the routes and means of trade had changed, the world changing with it. Five centuries ago, technology expanded the horizons of maritime commerce, and the Middle East suddenly seemed smaller to all those who had coveted it. The Suez Canal, and the fuel needed for ships, redeemed the value of the region for a while, but nowadays high-def digital technology, beaming out of Seoul and Bangalore, has left the region we care about a mere blur on the spectrum of human exuberance. Those who were always against the American project in the Middle East, who fought it, must be feeling very smug.

Obama’s conclusion is analytically clever. Consequently, we need to determine, as honestly as we can, whether it is strategically wise. It could very well be so. This is an unprecedented challenge for our craft, and all our various visions. We must reflect on our methods of interpretation, question our closely held beliefs, adapt, and synthesize new answers as to why the region should matter more than other places, why it requires more of America’s bandwidth, and what would constitute verifiable and deliverable benchmarks of success—if those benchmarks and answers are actually out there and realizable.

To do so, we must divorce ourselves from the natural habits of sentimentality and self-preservation, hard as it may be. If our once-exalted guild has been eclipsed by the forces of technology, opportunity and hope, then we must own up to it. If we are indeed the Middle East contingent of the ‘The Blob’ as Ben Rhodes labelled the wider foreign policy crowd, then maybe we deserve to putrefy into a pool of tepid irrelevance. Irrelevance won’t come overnight, but the inelegant descent into it has begun. Reporters, commodities analysts, spies, congressional aides and defense contractors will keep calling, but less so the West Wing. The conversation will turn static and generic, normalizing and justifying dysfunction and disorder, transfixed with the notion that that place over there and its people are ‘exceptionally’ ill-omened and troubled, and that we have to make our peace with a Middle East perpetually at strife. Ideas about how the region could possibly rejoin a happier human story will likely be met with polite and patronizing nods. There will be little interest in follow-up. Yet some of us will chafe at that. This won’t be enough. Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi did not resign themselves to ‘how things are’; they cared too much. They argued that there is more to see and do there during a preceding era of resignation, and they bore the polemical scars for it.

The danger is that in our twilight we would become even more sectarian, brandishing mutually assured takfir, and hence more redundant, much like those two remaining Jews in Kabul that some reporter found in 2001, the caretakers of two empty synagogues, who wouldn’t talk to each other. As such, dismissing the Lewis-Ajami-Chalabi triumvirate as birds of a feather, as carrier pigeons of neo-conservatism, is too restrictive of a pigeonhole, and it is ultimately unfair. So too is castigating their intellectual opponents as cold-hearted, predatory Realists. The Manichean clash of ‘isms’ in Washington needs to be tempered with nuance and a dose of sympathy. Our descent into irrelevance should engender mutual empathy. We can begin by revisiting the polarizing legacy of these three men.

Obama seems to believe that it will take the passing of a generation to burn through their furies and mythologies. He believes that the rest of the world can watch the bonfire from a safe distance, and still prosper. Much of that distancing is irreversible. With the current nature of the debate, a new administration, whatever its ideological inclinations, may find it very difficult to argue for walking back towards the inferno. A lot can happen from here on out until the next summer that justifies the distancing before the incoming administration is up and running with new plans.

When we argue, somewhat shrilly, that the inferno will follow the rest of the world to whatever safe distance it deems itself to be—whether it be the sparks of terrorism or a humanitarian crisis that would waft towards them, or a billow of smoke that suffocates trade, and blinds reason and liberalism—then we are implicitly confirming Obama’s despairing thesis about what lies ahead. We need to come up with another pitch. A new pitch for new wares. We have to sell hope, if there’s hope for the taking.

Those men that I count as my former mentors had high hopes for a new Middle Eastern generation, the same generation that the Obama administration seems to have given up on. Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi had hopes for them too, and so does Qasim Suleimani. The choices those 20-somethings make over the next decade or so will shape the region for generations to come. Is there hope that one of their choices will break them out from the cycle of despair and degeneration? Does America have a role in shaping such a choice?

What’s in a generation?

So what were the last five years in the Middle East all about? Was it a mere commotion, the likes of which we have seen many times before, or was it the opening act of an upheaval? Are the tens of millions of 20-somethings we are talking about living through revolutionary times that extend into the near future, or have they already transitioned into a post-revolutionary era? The Arab Spring (and that of Beirut’s and Iran’s, earlier, and Turkey’s Gezi Park later), the sectarian bloodletting, the dramatic return of the caliphate—was that the extent of it? Has the fury exhausted itself? Is revolution a spent force? If it has, then that’s good news. It means that the next American administration can leverage many tools—cultural, economic, educational, diplomatic, etc.—short of military intervention, to smooth out the hangover of ‘The Great Sobering’ that the current crop of 20-somethings are going through. Things can largely go back to where they were, and Obama’s steady approach, from afar, would be thoroughly vindicated, earlier than even he himself had predicted, and a sense of calm and realistic purpose will descend upon this generation. A “cold peace” as Obama put it, in the wake of a cold shower of lowered expectations. Maybe an independent Kurdistan is in the offing that can finally stand itself up after the forces that had long denied the Kurds their independence have been exhausted and depleted? And that may be it.

Or maybe there is more to come. Maybe the commotion of the last five years resembles the 1905 Revolution in Russia, and upheaval is just around the corner?  A lot is riding on this commotion-upheaval determination, and it is not just Washington that needs to plan contingencies for either scenario: determined actors in Tehran, Ankara, Riyadh, Damascus, Moscow, Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and even in Raqqa and Mosul, have a lot riding on it too.

Should we even be talking about a ‘Middle Eastern generation’? There is no such monolith. After all, how much do young Turks, Israelis, and Saudis have in common, for example? For that matter, there is wide disparity, and varying stages of prosperity and angst even within the states of Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Each locale throughout the region has its own set of conflict triggers and communal glue. Take the Beirut Spring (2005) that drove out the Syrian Army, for example. It had all the elements to spark a region-wide wave of protest and hope. Yet it didn’t. The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979) sent governments in Iraq and the Persian Gulf scrambling in fear of a spillover. However, the 2009 protests in Tehran did not inspire the same across the region. There are many good arguments to be made that would compel us to not think of the Middle East as a ‘whole’ but rather a sum of many parts. However, we must be mindful of the cross currents that seem to motivate many young people across their respective locales. How important was Tunisia in the popular mind of young Aleppines? I wouldn’t think very much. But an act of self-immolation by a Tunisian street vendor moved something across wide expanses, sparking protest across Northern Syria and elsewhere. The ensuing war in Syria also drew thousands of Tunisians to the fight. Thousands of Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese and even Afghans faced off against them. Saudi policemen patrol the streets of Manama, while Saudi fighter pilots bomb Sana’a and Saudi suicide bombers prowl for targets at Iraqi markets. In 2009, at Davos, a Turkish Prime Minister could excite many youths, back in his country (as well as among Muslim Brotherhood affiliates across the region), by exchanging heated words with the President of Israel over the situation in Gaza.

Maybe we should be talking about three broad categories of generations in the Middle East. One of which is anchored in its locale, and in its local issues. Another, transnational, willing to pick up and leave to fight for non-local causes in distant lands. The third is a generation that lives astride the fault lines of standing and emerging conflicts; their locale is the epicenter of a transnational reckoning with history and geography.

I worry mostly about that transnational generation. I worry about their shifting numbers. I worry about their unabated zeal, or their spiraling dejection. They are whom we speak of when we talk about a ‘Middle Eastern generation’ that co-inspires or co-conspires across borders. Their trajectory may ride upon a ‘big idea’ that brings real constitutional reform and good governance back to their locales, or their trajectory can head towards a messy, physical reconstitution of the region in the service of other ‘big ideas’ like the caliphate, or Vilayet el-Faqih, or Greater Kurdistan, or whatever comes over the horizon. Together with the youths who were born into conflict zones, they could provide the critical mass that takes much of the region to chaos and uncertainty. Again, there are determined actors on the scene who may want to see that happen, they are actively and cleverly pursuing such goals.

Obama seems to believe the trend is running in favor of this revolutionary generation. If he’s mistaken, then he would be effectively turning his back on the other two categories of generations. If he’s right, then he has arrived at the same conclusion drawn by the extremists, but whereas he is hands-off, they are hands-on.

The numbers of Islamic State jihadists in Sinai today is puny compared to the numbers of young Egyptian men and women who had congregated in Tahrir Square five years ago, or even the ones who showed up in Rabi’a Square a couple of years later. Yet there is an inverse equation here. When the public spaces where the ‘locally-minded’ revolutionary generations had gathered begin to contract, then the spaces that the ‘transnational’ revolutionaries claim for their cause may expand. We can reclaim those territories through warfare, but the distempered zeal of revolution will break out elsewhere.

It all boils down to who gets to read the vectors that drive this new generation best. I would agree with Obama. My gut tells me that there’s more revolution to come, for the fundamentals and the issues facing this ‘Middle Eastern generation’ have not changed. Only their choices have, and not for the better.

The dynamics of how members of this generation understands what is happening around them, and therefore choices at hand, do not bode well. Large sections of the populations that make up the Middle East are ill-equipped with the tools of critical thinking that are necessary to sift through and digest the cacophony of information and events that they are being exposed to. They are not unique in this respect, but there are long-existing and new factors that contribute to the disproportionality of the problem when compared to other population groupings around the world. Unprepared by educational systems that rely on memorization and that do not encourage critical thought, and pressurized by an onslaught of media (satellite and internet), the news consumer of the Middle East is experiencing a crisis of cognition; rendering him or her vulnerable to the clear-cut, redemptive narratives emerging from the caliphate and from Iran’s retro-revolutionaries. After successive ideological failures, and the failure of the Arab Spring to live up to its promise in the public imagination, these societies have become unmoored. The comfort and hope engendered by the succinct narratives and the clarity of purpose advanced by the jihadists and the likes of General Qasim Suleimani—in the face of what are being propagated as existential challenges—will draw larger and larger numbers of recruits to their causes . These numbers are expected to further expand the overlapping spheres of chaos and disorder in the region, while the forces of the status quo, the regimes of the Middle East, are unable to construct an effective counter-narrative, or alternate, convincing choices. As such, the conditions for a ‘Great Sobering’ are not yet there.

Many elements contributed to the despair and disillusionment of these populations: the bankrupted ideology of pan-Arabism, the failure of the popular uprisings, and the relapse of democratic reform. Other elements have made them angry, such as the perception that the ruling elites are corrupted and are working in collusion with the West and Israel, and that the West is at war with Islam, while undermining it through conspiracy. Wealth disparities have made them desperate. Within the span of a mere decade and a half, they have witnessed the attacks of September 11, 2001, American troops toppling Saddam’s statue, Shia and Iranian ascendance, Kurdish resurgence, choreographed beheadings, and several conflagrations with Israel.  They have seen footage of more regimes being overthrown, ancient cities such Baghdad and Aleppo turning into war zones, minorities taken into slavery, moderate Islamists turning to autocracy or being ejected from power through military coups, and Turkey reasserting itself. At this moment, they have to wrap their minds around the return of the caliphate, the return of Russia, and the spectacle of the Saudis bombing Yemen to pieces. Such is the scope of sensory overload that the Middle Eastern news consumer must grapple with. So when a radical idea emerges to explain to this consumer why all these things are happening in simple and easy terms, and proposes a revolutionary remedy that he or she has already been primed for, given his or her familiarity with a certain version of history, then we are facing a potential recruit for extremism.

One particular ‘type’ of would-be recruit is especially worrying: young, talented, probably well-educated Middle Eastern men and women who may be inclined to participate in a grand state venture, such as the caliphate, or an expansion of Vilayet-el-Faqih. These are the would-be leaders of their generation and the next; if they choose revolution then revolution will make a comeback, time and time again. Should they be drawn to revolution, then such angry young men with Master’s degrees would constitute the middle management of revolutionary ventures, and would be a reasonably resilient source—a pipeline of talent—for replenishing the ranks of the top leadership should it be depleted by targeting. As such, this talented individual wants to be part of creating a new order—a grand, and in some respects, imperial vision for the future—rather than merely and nihilistically tearing down the old order as had been the hallmark of earlier generations of jihadists such as Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, for example. A new venture needs an infrastructure of talent, a scaffolding to prop-it up. In any institution or corporate body, talent is always the limiting factor. The question is how vulnerable is this talent when we have bands of ideological poachers hunting about for them?

When the propagandists of the Islamic State heralded the ‘Return of the Gold Dinar’ in a slick tutorial video last August, they were not merely providing a pretense at statehood by minting their own currency; they were suggesting the possibility of a global economic revolution. They claimed that the economic might of America stands on the perceived strength of the dollar, prodded as it is by the connivance of Muslim petrodollar states in selling the region’s most valuable commodity, oil, through that currency. The Islamic State was going to boldly shake the foundations of the dollar by shifting trade into gold and silver coins. For it to work, they must tear down the Persian Gulf regimes that are currently allied with the United States. Not only were they going to bring on a new era to the Middle East, but their revolution will change the world. Not many of their rank and file would get the intricacies of this audacious plan, yet the kind of talent they seek to recruit may. After all, what globally-aware angry young man or woman wouldn’t want to be part of a grand plan that remakes the world?

Whither Mariam and Rami?

Let us imagine and fictionalize two models that may represent the ‘talent’ of this generation: the moderate advocate, and the would-be jihadist. One represents our best hope for pushing back against the darker revolutionary ideas sweeping the region. The other may become a midlevel manager in the jihadist enterprise.

The Moderate Advocate: Mariam is in her mid-twenties. She lives in Kuwait, working in an insurance company as a statistician. She is single. Her parents were leftists in the 1970s who were employed by the state’s oil industry. She is an observant Muslim, but she is disgusted by what the jihadists are doing. She is an internet ‘star’ among young Kuwaitis. Her Facebook posts garner 150-300 likes, usually. Her musings are retweeted dozens of times on Twitter. She writes about local Kuwaiti issues: corruption, elections, and the rights of women, unemployment, and so on. Once in a while she will express her revulsion at a particular terrorist attempt, such as the jihadist attack on Kuwaiti Shia worshippers. She found an opportunity here to question the lack of accountability when it comes to anti-Shia narratives that predominate in the media and in the curricula. She will also question why some private Kuwaiti citizens are donating funds to extremist groups fighting in Syria. Mariam would like to write more about jihadist extremism, and to delve deeper into foundations of the extremist narrative. She wants to ask, ‘is this really what Islam is about?’ But she is impeded in doing so. She has no training in Islamic theology, historiography or jurisprudence. The jihadists may shrug at her disgust, and counter that they are merely following what the first generation of Muslims did 1,400 years ago. The jihadists may argue their attack on the Shia house of worship is warranted because it follows a particular historical precedent that the early Muslims had set. Mariam cannot deny that the text being referenced by the jihadists exists, and she cannot reject it lest she be deemed a heretic by conservative elements of society. She usually tunes-out the government’s messaging, even that emanating from clerics in the employ of the state, who are trotted out to counter extremism; she doesn’t trust them because she can’t trust the wider system. She senses that the pace of positive change in Kuwait is too slow for some of her audience. The system is rigged, the change cosmetic. By counseling a slower pace, by pointing out that ‘change’ coming too quickly may singe her country as it did in countries nearby, some commenters may accuse her of being an enabler of the corruption that she criticizes. She may feel helpless, for she cannot provide a meta-narrative as succinct and as compelling, even as revolutionary, as that of the extremists. Mariam does not have a ‘big idea’ to preach to her flock. She may opt for exile in London, or Dubai.

The Would-Be Jihadist: Rami is in his late twenties. He is a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent, from a respected family. He currently resides in Beirut. Growing up in Amman, Rami attended an elite school. He was a bright student, but he kept to himself. However, he exhibited leadership qualities among the youth of his neighborhood, where he was viewed by his peers as tough and chivalrous. Rami studied IT in the United Kingdom. His English is impeccable. He also speaks some French. While living and working in Lebanon, he began turning to religion, experimenting with different strands of Sufi mysticism. But it also made him more of a recluse. For the past decade and a half, Rami has had to absorb immense changes and events happening around him in the Middle East. He already bears the ancestral anger at having been dispossessed by the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is angry at the corrupt regimes and oligarchies that control states and economies. His own IT business may have suffered because he was unwilling to pay out a bribe to a local official towards securing a contract. Rami was heartened by the Beirut Spring, but was then disillusioned by the factional politics that followed. Similarly, his hopes were raised by the Arab Spring, before they were dashed by the messy consequences.

A new, younger cleric had begun delivering sermons at Rami’s local mosque. The cleric is a Salafist, and a jihadist sympathizer, if not an active recruiter, but Rami doesn’t know for sure. Rami keeps his distance because he doesn’t want to get scrutinized by the watchful eyes of the security services, but once in a while he overhears the discussions taking place in a corner of the mosque, and is intrigued by the arguments made by the sheikh, and how he correlates historical incidents from early Islam with contemporary events. The sheikh has noticed Rami listening in, and asked one of his acolytes about him. The Sheikh is told that Rami is a harmless and disciplined Muslim, who is unlikely to be an informant for the security services. He is also told that Rami commands respect in the neighborhood with his quiet and imposing demeanor, and that he is an IT whiz. The sheikh thinks to himself that the jihad would need IT specialists, and that Rami’s age, temperament, and background would make him an ideal candidate for a mid-level position in the Islamic State. Who knows, one day Rami may be promoted within the ranks and become one of the state’s leaders. The Sheikh begins to amplify his messaging, saying that if Muslims wanted to regain their dignity on the world stage, and redeem their greatness, they must fight for it, and they must follow the example of the early Muslims in how they built their state, one that brought great empires crashing before it.

The sheikh is implying that the jihadists are building such a state in nearby Iraq and Syria, and that their newly established ‘caliphate’ is not simply a tool for angrily lashing out at the world, but is in fact the beginning of a new world empire. Those who join it now are getting in on the ground floor of a grand imperial project. To seal the deal with Rami, the sheikh begins citing the story of a heroic early convert to Islam, who was a chivalrous recluse too, but went on to become one of the faith’s greatest generals. He may even link this historical figure to a decision taken by the early Muslim conquerors that the jihadists cite today to justify one of their recent acts, which may have been condemned by the mainstream media. Rami had heard about this Muslim hero before, in school or in a TV miniseries about Islam. He hadn’t known that this hero had been responsible for the same act that the jihadists are citing. Rami is further intrigued; he is getting closer and closer to a snap decision to talk to the sheikh about going to Syria and joining the fight.

What can we do for Mariam? How can we intervene with Rami? If Rami decides not to join the jihad simply because its cost to him is prohibitive, that it may land him in jail or have him killed in a drone strike, then he will still be around when a better opportunity for jihad presents itself. If Mariam is not empowered by a ‘big idea’ then her appeal will diminish as more of her digital flock turn inwardly to despair and disillusionment. She herself may despair, and decide that it is all for naught. What it also means is that more of those young men and women that she could have influenced would turn into another crop of Ramis.

The urgency to understand these extremist narratives, why they are flourishing in the current cognitive atmosphere, and where they are likely to go and take root, are especially compelling now, since their endgame visions may lead to threatening and disrupting critical energy and maritime routes that serve the global economy. Given the current atmospherics, these disruptions may not be as far off as many observers of the region would have us believe. The very nature of these redemptive, revolutionary ideas is fast burning, and fast acting. The inferno may catch us by surprise. Thus, one needs to look at why these ideas are attractive to so many people, and why the extremist narrative aligns with how these people think. Long-term observers and interpreters of the region are failing to imagine the damage that ideas can engender in desperate and traumatized societies. It is the difference between understanding the chain of events as a mere commotion, the likes of which have often been seen in the Middle East over the last few decades as many of these observers are saying, or as an upheaval that may even redraw borders and topple long-standing political orders.

Bernard Lewis, the master trend spotter

It is not easy to spot new trends, much less so to be able to extrapolate their future trajectories. From 2005 to 2010, I wrote a series of papers and monographs about what is now retroactively called by many scholars as ‘the Zarqawi exception’. They dwelt on the revolutionary changes that Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi had introduced to jihadism as he launched his audacious and bold undertaking to confront the United States and Shi’ism in Iraq. I began with a look at how Zarqawi understood the world around him, and how he interpreted the shocking event of bringing down the Saddam Hussein regime; I came to the conclusion that Zarqawi was a new phenomenon that we had not seen in the previous generation of jihadists, most notably, the founders of Al-Qaeda. Consequently, I tackled the genesis of Zarqawi’s line of thinking among his ideological forerunners (the 1979 Mecca uprising), and how his unique and original approach led him towards exploiting anti-Shi’ism as a fast burning fuel to further jihadist expansion. Then I mapped out how this way of thinking would be geared towards preparations for announcing a caliphate and, beyond Zarqawi’s demise, how his ideological heirs would eventually take the fight to Syria. The ‘Zarqawi exception’, and the trends he unleashed, was dismissed by the majority of Middle Eastern watchers at the time, and the nascent subfield of jihadist studies had a difficulty in absorbing it. Ten years on, as the Zarqawists have come back from the near death of their vision to occupy a large swath of territory straddling both Iraq and Syria, these ideas are now part of the scholarly mainstream in the West and in the Middle East.

In doing so, I was inspired by the example of Bernard Lewis. Lewis even graciously took the time to edit my paper on the proto-caliphate. He turned to me at one point and asked, “Are you absolutely sure that this is what it is?” I was. I imagine he was trying to spare me the pain of coming out too early ahead of the consensus view, risking my reputation and career on a hunch. Vindication may never come, and even if it did, it may not feel like it. But I felt compelled to put the message out, for maybe someone out there would take heed. I was following in Lewis’ footsteps, for he saw the Islamist challenge way ahead of the consensus view, back in the late 1970s.

Lewis turned 100 on May 31. It was an occasion to celebrate his life’s work, and influence. His disciples, former students for the most part, wrote much to vindicate the man who had inspired them. Their general tone was one of defiance against those who questioned Lewis over the years. Yet I was somewhat saddened. Why would Bernard Lewis need vindication? Why was the tone of the conversation about him still so biting and acrimonious? Lewis is a scholar’s scholar. The languages he had mastered, the laborious groundbreaking research that he had undertaken, the erudition he had accumulated, the gorgeous words he used to communicate what he had learned, all this was surely testament to what should be his status as a scholarly giant.

Lewis’ detractors skip all that, or make a perfunctory note of it, for in their eyes he committed the sin of leveraging his knowledge towards a revolutionary shift in policy. He left the confines of academia and took his warnings of what was coming to the larger public. His pre-existing academic stature afforded an outlet for his predictions in leading publications. He even proselytized the powerful to do something about it. What I can’t understand about this reaction is that if one cares enough about a place to study it, despite the difficulties inherent in that field, then how is one supposed to mitigate how he feels about how it may turn out, especially if it seems that it is heading towards calamity? Lewis turned alarmist because the situation in the Middle East was alarming. He wasn’t serving some hidden, Zionist agenda as some of his critics insinuated by highlighting his Jewish ‘outsider’ roots. He was an unapologetic Zionist, but one can be one and still author fair, objective scholarship about the rest of the Middle East, as Lewis’ career demonstrates. Alternatively, some even suggested that his being originally British (he came to the US in 1974) connoted a yearning for imperial hegemony, hoping that his adopted country would take on that role as the British receded from the Middle East in the seventies.  Inferring some nefarious motivation in Lewis was ultimately useless, for it turned out that he was right, and he was right because he was uniquely situated to pick up on the signals. I wonder how many young scholars drew different lessons from Lewis’ story, that it was not wise to come out so early ahead of the consensus, that a hunch is no cause for vocal, Quixotic alarmism, however erudite, however premised on good research.

Their silence, or silencing, impoverishes our conversation. It is hard to spot new trends as it is, let’s not make it harder by snickering at a minority, dissenting view. In fact, we need to be asking ourselves: how can we replicate the next generation of scholars in the mold of Lewis? I once asked Lewis why he thought he became so good at spotting trends. He replied that his experiences as a military intelligence officer stationed in the Middle East during World War II, bolstered by the rigorous, classical academic training that preceded it, constituted his own formative experiences. War puts erudition to the test. Information has to be prioritized and adapted. The study of indigenous basket-weaving techniques in a village near Hamah might be interesting, but how does it serve the war effort? War can visit this village and eradicate it. Scholars may feel squeamish about their craft being weaponized, but they should be mindful that an inferno in the Middle East may forever destroy all the things they found so fascinating about the region to begin with. Lewis was both a historian and an analyst, and he felt compelled to warn of what was coming. He knew that the failure to pre-empt it would mash up the cultural idiosyncrasies of the Middle East into an orthodox, generic pulp.

The difficulty of spotting trends has been compounded by the role of the internet’s echo chambers in amplifying extremism and calls for revolution. The sheer amount of information out there is staggering and understandably overwhelming for Middle East watchers, who are accustomed to research processes involving official communiques, intelligence and newspaper clippings, and sociological and anthropological studies. Man-on-the-street ‘color’, formerly the purview of journalists (back when there was an extensive network of foreign bureaus) and expatriates, rounded out that picture for the watchers. However, they have not been trained to follow the chatter on internet chat rooms, for example. One of Zarqawi’s earliest enabling factors was his ability to use the internet as a tool to propagate his message without having to rely on state media—an advantage not available to earlier generations of terrorists or jihadists. As such, understanding how extremism uses social media, and how it is used by the extremists to form public opinion, is of vital importance. A subset of Middle Eastern studies has emerged, calling itself jihadist studies, to address these shortfalls of traditional research.

The study of jihadism has improved significantly over the last two years, as Zarqawi’s heirs found their second wind in Syria’s civil war, which enabled them to re-expand into Iraq with incredible success. However, it still seems that Western observers are reactive in their analysis, and are falling short of the predictive component. It could be that their ability to warn of what is coming is impeded by the wider atmospherics of the conversation about the Middle East, one that does not look kindly upon alarmist contrarianism. We can extrapolate what jihadist objectives may be by understanding how they think. This may also allow us to steal a march on any new narratives and visions they may seek to deploy, as the terrain of the battlefield changes. Understanding the steps, martial and ideological, that they seek to take is critical towards understanding their end goal, for the actions of the jihadists follow the narratives they have constructed for themselves and for their audiences.

The nascent field of jihadism, though, is experiencing growing pains. The field is overwhelmed because it is attempting to define its scope in the midst of an unprecedented inundation in data arising from what the jihadists say, write and do. The young scholars of jihadism are doing a stellar job in translating, tabulating and explaining the granularity of the jihadist message and its actions. This is a sea change from the period of 2004 until 2011 when Western policy and academic circles seemed disinterested in understanding the nature of the jihad, its origins and its goals. It is not an easy task. It is not helped by the media pressure placed on those young scholars to give snap judgments on attention-grabbing and surprising events. The inherent risk is that instead of studying the news cycle, they would be forced to follow it. They also risk getting lost in too much granularity, relishing erudition at the expense of the grander, big-picture predictions. At times, they seem infected by the tone of the general conversation, turning sectarian and breaking into self-congratulatory cliques. Trolling and the general ‘snarkiness’ pervading the internet, where this discipline was born, don’t help either. Jihadist studies provides one of our best hopes in understanding what comes next. We should do what we can to protect it from the pitfalls of the past.

Fouad Ajami, the great orator

This week marks the second anniversary of Ajami’s passing, leaving a wide gap in our debate. The late Ajami was an orator’s orator. Ajami rendered erudition into poetry. His soaring prose, crafted in English, an adopted language for this native Arabic speaker, could make sense of that region to any American audience. Had he been a mere pretentious poseur, he would have found that the lamentations of cynicism and despair would lend themselves even more poetical. Yet he chose the difficult medium of speaking and writing about hope in the Middle East. Those among the literati, who were in a rush to write-off places like Iraq as wastelands forever lost, were offended by his optimism. It got venal, and ugly.

George Packer, an Iraq War recanter, insinuated in the New Yorker (August 2008) that Ajami was merely a tribal poet. Ajami was born a Shia, and his motivations must be Shia triumphalism rather that his own intellectual journey, Packer suggested.

With Ajami, something else is at work. Of Lebanese Shiite origin, he has a deep knowledge of Middle Eastern politics…This isn’t a case of the normal heartlessness of abstract thought. The [Wall Street] Journal piece, along with his recent work in The New Republic, make it clear that Ajami has taken sides in Iraq, and that his pleasure comes from his sense that his side is winning…But Ajami is already declaring victory, because it turns out that he has a different idea altogether: Shiite Arab power.

Ajami was happy that then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had trounced his fellow Shia Sadrists during the spring 2008 battles in Basra and Baghdad. Ajami, among many, believed that Maliki had turned a corner away from blind Shia sectarianism towards building upon an Iraqi national identity and a state for all Iraqis. In doing so, Maliki seems to be breaking away from the Iranian embrace. Ajami was all for it. This hardly seems like closing ranks along myopic tribal lines.

In fact, several months earlier, Ajami had written favorably to the Editor about one of my columns that argued that we would be in for a new Iranian strategy, one that would play up sectarianism to match that of the jihadists, launching itself in Ajami’s former hometown of Beirut (he had arrived in the United States in 1963). Ajami was worried by this new trend, and he wanted to draw attention to it:

Nibras Kazimi’s column, “Iran’s Shifting Strategy” (New York Sun, May 12, 2008), is one of the most insightful readings of the Middle Eastern landscape to appear anywhere in a very long time. Its analysis is as subtle and shrewd as the ways of the region. The linkage he makes between Iraq’s success and Lebanon’s troubles is nothing short of brilliant. The Sun, and Nibras Kazimi, are to be commended for cutting through so much of what has been said about these matters of late. An essay that should be required reading by all those who want to understand, let alone comment on, the contest between order and mayhem in Arab and Islamic lands.

Had Ajami been a mere Shia triumphalist then he would have wished to sweep such embarrassing inter-Shia machinations—the topic of my column—under the rug. If he were a mere Shia triumphalist then he would not have become one of the leading and most eloquent advocates for helping the Syrian people (Sunni Arabs for the most part) to overthrow the Asad regime (pseudo-Shia Alawite, for the most part) when the Arab Spring came calling in the Levant. Actual Shia triumphalists rallied to Asad’s side, unanimously branding the likes of Ajami traitors to their kind. One of them, it turned out, was Maliki, who had disappointed Ajami, and others, when in later years he carried the banner of Shia triumphalism further than anyone could have predicted in 2008.

Ajami, dying of cancer, would still rouse himself to go on the air, to tell the world that the horror of sectarianism, as practiced by Bashar al-Asad in tandem with the jihadists, was going to set the Middle East on fire. Despite his best efforts, few took notice of the trend that Ajami was trying to alert them to. It still remains under-scrutinized by trend-watchers, even though it has had immense impact across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. I subsequently called it ‘Shia chauvinism’. We need to ask ourselves whether dismissing Ajami has led to a wider dismissal of what he was trying to draw attention to, and what the long-term consequences of that disregard are.

Shias have responded to the jihadist ideological challenge by crafting a counter-narrative of their own that is no less revolutionary. In April 2012, I wrote an essay, in Arabic, titled ‘Modern Shia Chauvinism: Origins, Features, Goals’. It was my assessment then that Maliki’s popularity in his second term stemmed from what was at first an ad-hoc, and then a systematic, campaign to reorient Shia political identity. I addressed the historical precedents, the modern triggers, the symbolism, and the implications such a reorientation would have on policy and Iraq’s trajectory. This political vehicle is still viable as a propellant for ambitious politicians—with or without Maliki—and it will continue to influence Iraqi politics. Shortly before the 2014 elections, one hardline Maliki supporter demanded, on TV, the empirical equivalency of seven Sunni lives for every seven Shia lives. The electoral commission did not exclude her from running; she went on to win over 90,000 votes in Babil Province. The political end-game of the chauvinists is a Shia driven partition of Iraq. Since Maliki’s second term in office, this phenomenon has increased in scope, and in the clarity of its messaging and stated goals, pushing Shias towards extremism across the Middle East. The trend may have begun in an ad-hoc manner, but since its inception it has been developed and formalized as a new political creed by the likes of Iranian general Qassim Suleimani. It is no longer limited to Iraq, and has expanded into Syria and Lebanon, and may even find traction in places such as Yemen and the Shia communities of the Persian Gulf, notably in the oil rich territory of eastern Saudi Arabia.

Another troubling trend, which is essentially a spiritual corollary to Shia chauvinism, is the return of messianic, ritualistic extremism as a threat to the mainstream of Shi’ism. The moderating scholars of Najaf, such as Sistani, represent the mainstream and they have been consistently counseling their followers against Shia chauvinism. But they have been surprised by how much their authority has eroded; they now understand the mechanisms by which the extremists are achieving that.

The realization of the threatening nature of this new trend and its portents only began emerging through hushed references from Najaf over the last year. Messianic extremism has deep historical antecedents in Shi’ism, and for the last five centuries, what later became known as traditional Shi’ism with its current leadership in Najaf, has been striving to eradicate it, achieving mixed results. However, the contemporary prevailing notion that Shi’ism is under attack from Sunni Islam, has generated a popular desire for salvation and redemption through excessive ritualism, and a revisiting of messianic ‘visions’ and accounts about the End of Days. This desire has interpreted current events in Iraq and Syria in the popular mind according to a timeline that leads to the emergence of the Occulted Imam, the Mahdi. It has been seized upon by forces anathema to Najaf, who find within it a convenient way to undermine traditionalism, and to promote Shia chauvinism as a political vehicle. These forces run the gamut from the supporters of Khomeini’s Vilayet el-Faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent) to mystical orders of Shi’ism that had experienced persecution and abuse at the hands of orthodoxy. It may also be a vehicle by which retro-revolutionaries such as General Suleimani would cleanse and reinvigorate a revolution that they feel has lost its vitality. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was an early forerunner of this trend, before it really took hold as it is doing now.

This extremist Shia reaction to jihadism, through Shia chauvinism and the undermining of traditional religious authority, is actually feeding into the jihadist narrative. It empowers it, and, as the jihadists go a step further in their anti-Shia campaign, they in turn empower Shia chauvinism. Maliki’s harsh policies towards Sunnis, and Assad’s response to the Syrian uprising, breathed life back into the jihadist cause. The expansion of ISIS, and then the caliphate, allowed Qasim Suleimani to expand the scope of his hardline strategy. These actions and events have generated new and competing narratives that address root causes of the conflict—from the perspective of each protagonist camp—and propose maximalist solutions. Both are colored by eschatology and the promise of divine empowerment and redemption. Much of these narratives and visions are playing out furiously and cyclically on social media, reflected, for example, in the large numbers of Iraqi Shias who cast their votes for Maliki, or the thousands of European-born Muslims flocking to the caliphate, while moderate and reasonable voices stagger behind, hobbled by the atmospherics of cognitive confusion.

That is what I think is happening. My lament is that Ajami could have said it way better, provided that people would have listened to him. His loss, too, impoverishes our conversation. People like George Packer stopped listening because they deemed that Ajami was wrong on Iraq. Not only that, but they suspect that he could have misled them intentionally. After all, wasn’t he a pal of Chalabi’s, that other Shia ‘triumphalist’?

Ahmed Chalabi, the dangerous instigator

Policy circles in Washington had to revisit the lessons of Iraq back in November due to the passing of the man who they hold responsible for poking the status quo in the eye: Ahmad Chalabi. The at times mean-spirited, at times gauche, tone of the conversation about him, even after death, has not matured, and the flawed misunderstanding of what he had unleashed was left to stand for the most part. The prospect of Chalabi’s vindication, within this storm of vilification, is distant.

Writing in the Washington Post a few days after Chalabi’s death, veteran columnist David Ignatius had this to say:

Among the remarkable facts about Ahmed Chalabi was that after turning Iraq and the United States upside down and unleashing all the gods and devils of war, he died of natural causes in Baghdad this week.

Few people have changed the course of the past few decades more, through the force of personality, than did Chalabi. Historians will argue the causes and consequences of the Iraq war, but my own guess is that if it hadn’t been for Chalabi, Saddam Hussein or one of his odious sons or henchmen would be ruling Iraq today.

Philosophers have debated for centuries what truly drives history. Is it great men and women and their world-historical ideas, as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel contended? Or is there a deeper force embedded in technology and economics (the “means of production,” as Karl Marx had it) that determines the story? Does God, however named, have a plan?

Chalabi’s life led Ignatius to believe that it was individuals who made the difference, “There was nothing inevitable about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the catastrophic consequences that have flowed from the decision. Like most big things in life, this happened at the margins.”

Chalabi may have worked in the margins, but the cause and effect of the Iraq War happened right at the center of the stage when the status quo of the Middle East buckled on September 11, 2001.

The myth that the Iraq War was Chalabi’s doing had a long run-up. Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post also wrote: “Few figures have been more loved and loathed in Washington than Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi expatriate who charmed American politicians and built the case for the war in Iraq.” Two negative-leaning English-language biographies were authored about him while he was still alive, with grand titles such as The Man Who Led America to War, and Arrows of the Night: Ahmad Chalabi’s Long Journey to Victory in Iraq. [Side note: Rhode’s boast about engineering an echo chamber for the Iran deal may sound familiar since Chalabi was accused of creating that model fifteen years ahead of him. Of course, it is much easier to pull off if one carries the title of ‘Deputy National Security Adviser’.]

I have fond memories of Chalabi as a one-time boss and mentor. Others who interacted with him do not. One leading Washington policy analyst wrote about his experience as a young Central Intelligence Agency officer meeting Chalabi for the first time; he felt he needed to take a shower afterwards. A former ambassador, now at a DC think tank, recalls what his colleagues at the State Department had to say about Chalabi, even before the Iraq War, that the Iraqi opposition leader “was as bad if not worse than Saddam.” BuzzFeed would carry a headline ‘Ahmad Chalabi, The Man Who Gave Us ISIS’ to announce his death. That’s a bit of a stretch, but it demonstrates the tone of the conversation about him. I know of several people in DC who wanted to eulogize him but did not do so because they felt intimidated by the atmospherics.

But it wasn’t Chalabi “who gave us ISIS” and he wasn’t even the man responsible for lighting the spark of the Iraq War, or at least that is how he and those around him understood it at the time. It was Muhammad Atta, the lead conspirator of 911. Prior to that terrible Tuesday, I had started to lose hope that anything would ever change for the Iraq.

After the Iraq Liberation Act was passed in 1998, which mandated regime change into US law, a reluctant Clinton administration successfully drew the Iraqi opposition into a mundane bureaucratic battle in the execution of the law. It was a battle of redundant training and office supply receipts. The battle extended into the first year of the Bush administration too. This is my first-hand experience: Chalabi introduced me at one point to a sympathizer at the Pentagon, and told him that I had recently completed a month-long course in ‘Newspaper Editing’ at the military facility in Ft. Meade, MD. The Pentagon official asked me what I thought about it, and I replied, “It’s didn’t bring us any closer to overthrowing Saddam.” George W. Bush was in power, regime change was on the Republican Party’s election platform, but nothing had changed. Institutional bias towards maintaining the status quo was still winning.

Throughout 1999-2001, I would ask Chalabi: “What is all this for? Why are here in Washington fighting the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department when we should be fighting Saddam?”

He would answer: “We are railroad engineers. We are laying the tracks for a new American policy in the Middle East. America travels on another route right now, but that will change. The status quo is unsustainable. Something will give. We have to be ready for that.”

This is how I imagine what happened subsequently: On September 11, 2001, Mohammad Atta flipped a switch. America’s engine diverted to the track that Chalabi had laid down. Saddam, being Saddam, obstinately tied himself down to the rails further down the track, challenging America to come at him. Hundreds of people, with varying motivations, stood alongside the tracks and tried to signal to that engine to pull the brakes. Had anyone else other than George W. Bush been driving that engine, it is probable that the train would have come to a screeching halt. I even think that a Cheney would have stopped short. But not only did Bush not pull on the brakes, he pulled the train whistle just as he ran over Saddam.

I went to bed on September 10 thinking that Chalabi was to be on American Airlines flight 77 the following morning, the one that hit the Pentagon. When I saw the flight number on the ticker scroll on TV, my heart sank. I spent half an hour trying to get to anyone. Cell phone networks were overloaded, and calls weren’t going through. Chalabi eventually answered, he was sitting in Santa Monica, following the news. He had made the last flight out to Los Angeles the night before after I had bid him goodbye, telling him “there’s no way you’ll catch your flight, but there is flight so and so tomorrow morning that you should book.”

Chalabi was right. The status quo did eventually buckle. On the following September 19, 2001, he was back at the Pentagon, showing the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee his new railway map. He took an MIT-trained nuclear scientist with him, who had defected from Saddam’s nuclear program. The implication was clear: America could no longer live with a status quo in which a rogue actor with possible access to WMD technology may find common cause with an enemy such as Al-Qaeda. It is undeniable in my mind that Chalabi was a Hegelian agent of change, a radical ion, as Ignatius had argued. But he was only successful because change was coming, as he predicted. His radicalism catalyzed a chemical reaction that was already percolating. The status quo was falling apart.

Chalabi’s vision for what should come next was not Shia triumphalism. He had articulated his expectations and plans for an Arab and Islamic renaissance. He was no dummy or wide-eyed optimist. If anything, he was a brilliant strategist and conversationalist, who would draw from history, art, music, and even recipe books to make his case that the promise for such a revival was there, hidden among the minutiae and granularity of a Middle East boiling over, but it would take a whole new approach to thinking about the region—by fostering democratic institutions—to unleash it. That is why the likes of Lewis and Ajami were drawn to him. Chalabi did not understand the triumph of the Shias to come about by subjugating Sunnis; their prize, after a long history of agony, would be first class citizenship under vibrant, dynamic democracies. He hoped that the Iranians would turn out to be the pragmatists he thought them to be and would actually help the process along. Chalabi’s failure to bring it about should not be confused with his intent, retroactively discerning malice by judging the ensuing results. Nor should his authorship of these ideas stigmatize them. Hoping for too much shouldn’t be a cause for vilification.

Many of the lessons learnt from Iraq have been lost in recriminations about Chalabi’s legacy. The fog had worked to the advantage of the status quo, masking its inability to answer for 911. The fog also blurred the opportunity when the status quo argument was undermined once again by the Arab Spring. Similarly, the West’s understanding of the challenge posed by the jihadist Islamic State has been clouded. If anything, the ‘folly’ of hoping for too much should be on par with the folly of expecting, or foreseeing, too little.

Would things have turned out differently had the Obama administration embraced the Arab Spring early on, instead of prevaricating? Let’s not be too hard on President Obama. The democracy agenda had already withered under President Bush’s second administration. The prospect of the Iraq ‘quagmire’ had defanged it. I attended a conference for global dissidents in 2007 that was convened in Prague by Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky. President Bush was the keynote speaker. He said all the right thing but his audience was ill at ease, for they could sense that his words no longer carried a punch. By alphabetic order, my seat was next to that of Russian dissident Gary Kasparov. I asked him, moments before Mr. Bush took the podium, whether he expected the president to address the belligerent threat made against the West by Putin just days ahead of the conference. Mr. Kasparov responded, “If not now, then when?” In the event, Mr. Bush made an oblique comment about the slide backwards in the anti-democratic direction that the world has been witnessing in Russia. Mr. Kasparov’s first reaction as the audience rose to give Bush its last applause: “I’m appalled. He said nothing.”

At the Prague conference, many dissidents would come up to me, as a former Iraqi dissident, and ask, sheepishly and sympathetically, about how things are going in Iraq — more in the way of holding my hand than serious inquiry. “It’s very unfortunate how things went,” they were saying, by demeanor.

Writing off Iraq as irredeemable has turned into a decade-long tradition by now. But if there is room to consider the argument that the malaise of the Middle East led to the Iraq War and not the other way around, as Chalabi’s successful bid for policy realignment showed, then isn’t it time to revisit the ‘irredeemableness’ of Iraq as sacred dogma in the conversation? What if something was missed as many rushed to a conclusion about that country? If Obama and Rhodes can premise their distancing from the region on lessons learned from Iraq, then their conclusions should be scrutinized since the implications do not concern Iraq solely, but the wider troubles of the Middle East too. Can rational, sober lessons be drawn while the gusts of acrimony and venality still drive the conversation as evidenced by what was said and written at the time of Chalabi’s death just a few months ago?

Why would a troubled nation like Iraq matter?

Because in the dichotomy of order and disorder, Mesopotamia has always mattered. That dichotomy seems especially relevant in today’s Fertile Crescent. The inhabitants of the land that was to become Iraq thought very hard about why disorder breaks out, and how order can be restored. Their conversations enriched human thought for millennia. A more recent conversation that they have been having holds much promise too.

The story of civilization there begins as an engineering problem. The topography and climate of Mesopotamia conspire to make large-scale agriculture a difficult prospect. The Euphrates and the Tigris rivers do not flood with the regularity of the Nile. Tilling the land, and staving off the salination of the soil, requires the digging of canals; large public works beyond the capacity of a stand-alone village. A state had to come into being, to plan and execute such infrastructure. There had to be buy-in from disparate clans and bloodlines into a supra-project, one that needed a bureaucracy (writing) and engineering (mathematics). The first cities of the world came to be in the service of agriculture. Bigger cities comprised of scribes, scientists, and rulers developed bigger appetites, cascading into larger and larger projects. Civilization needed order. It needed a stable status quo. It all began in Iraq.

But there was a geographical problem. Order was emerging while those who did not wish to buy-in into it found refuge not far from it. They were ‘free spirits’ who chafed at the thought of rulers giving them orders. These self-segregating groups could turn to the marshes, deserts and mountains of Mesopotamia, much as similar groups did in Southeast Asia per the pioneering theory set forth by James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed (2009). Whenever they sensed that the order was buckling, they swooped in for bounty and mayhem. A cyclic saga of order and disorder began.

Thinkers who had to grapple with the precarious state of order and disorder would gather in the date groves around the towns away from the prying eyes of the rulers, to ponder the question of “What does it all mean?” They came up with many parables and explanations that still resonate throughout the souls and minds of mankind, ranging from the fatalistic tale of godly capriciousness and human resignation that is Gilgamesh’s (which sounds a lot like that of Realism), to the stark and unambiguous tenets of Manicheism (see the Star Wars franchise). Abraham left those date groves looking for answers further afield in the Near East, whereas his descendants, forcibly returned to Babylon, developed the Jewish yearning for redemption. The Battle of Karbala lent Shi’ism a faith of protest against unjust authority. The wisdom and sciences of Greece were rediscovered and retransmitted to the modern era through ‘Abbasid Baghdad. The land served to incubate ruminations on Gnosticism, alchemy was tinkered with, and the febrile urgency of Islamic thought and mysticism was unleashed. Thinkers grappled with the idea of original sin, not far from where they imagined Eden to lie, at the confluence of the two great rivers. They found the allegory of chaos in Noah’s flood, and set its events in their land.

Mesopotamia had tried to answer many of the big questions on behalf of mankind, a process that ended, in the popular imagination, when the Mongol horde arrived out of the east in the thirteenth century, sacking Baghdad and burning its libraries. Interestingly, the invasion coincided with (or resulted in) the disruption of the intricate canal systems. They have not recovered since. Saddam, Zarqawi and others likened the Iraq War to a second Mongol invasion. If historians are still arguing as to why Baghdad fell in the thirteenth century, is there really any hope for clarity in the understanding the dynamics of twenty-first century Iraq?

aleppo minaret

A minaret in Aleppo

My own lessons learned in Iraq informed me that Syria was next.

It is no accident that it all broke down in Iraq and Syria. If Iraq is the incubator of revolutionary ideas and systems of government then Syria is the drawer where all the leftover screws and bolts are kept after assembling and disassembling regional empires. The topography of the Levant is littered with the bits of shrapnel left in the wake of revolutionary outbursts. The Alawite creed was born in the date groves of southern Iraq, it survives nestled up in the mountains of the Syrian coast. One lost cause after another populated one discreet valley from the next; the Druze, the Ismailis, bits and pieces of Christianity. A crowded landscape of determined survivalists overwhelms the observer with color and variety. This sort of diversity would look so charming and life affirming should we forget how it came to be.

There is another way to look at the Iraq-Syria problem.

We can draw two conceptual lines across the Middle East, two parallel axes. The first axis begins in the Balkans and ends in Baluchistan, running through Anatolia, Kurdistan and Persia, and drawing the Caucasus into its orbit. People forget that the Caucasus are part of the Middle Eastern story; Georgian slave-soldiers ruled Iraq for seventy years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Circassians, their ancestors displaced by Russia, are overrepresented in the security bodies of Turkey and Jordan. Armenians look west and yearn for glories and countless generations lost; the bleached bones of their kin strewn in the Syrian desert. I would maintain that Russia is in Syria today because Russia is back in the Crimea—the rulers of Moscow have long coveted this axis too. Within this axis, Anatolia and the Persian plateau had sustained ambitious dynasties playing at empire, pushing out along the course of the axis and on either side of it. They have also sustained markets eager to trade in all directions.

Another similar war-trade axis runs from North Africa and Egypt-Sudan through Arabia and far across the sea into the Indian subcontinent. Once in a while, a fevered idea grips a point along this axis, and it takes its revolution far and wide, as Islam did, as well as the many schismatics that faith had spawned. Sometimes weird cross-pollinations occurred between the two axes, as when a Balkan dynasty assumed control of Egypt and went a long way towards creating a modern national state there. This dynasty was twice tasked with snuffing out the Wahhabi rebellion in faraway Nejd. Later rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia duked it out in Yemen in the 1960s.

Sandwiched in between these two lines is Iraq and Syria, and there’s the rub. Not only are these two places fully capable of tearing themselves apart by inimitable habit and historical trajectory, they are also contest zones for the two aforementioned axes. When the two centrifugal sets of forces—from within and from beyond—gather, an epic mess is to be expected. That, to a large extent, is what happened. Iraq needed to come up with new ideas to reconstitute itself after the 2003 war. There was internal pushback. But the two axes around it also had their designs. Added into this potent brew, or emerging from within it, new revolutionary ideas—democracy, jihadism, Shia chauvinism—bubbled through. Syria was splattered, and almost inevitably followed suit.

In light of this pattern, is it not strange that Obama, even though he considers himself to be cognizant of all that history, would counsel the two axes to simply “share” that space?

I travelled around Syria during 2006-2008 to beat two inevitable deadlines. One was that I was sure that I would get barred from entry into the country at some point, and another had to do with what I expected was coming. I was busily proselytizing the idea that ‘a storm is coming’ to whoever would listen—security dons, dissidents, journalists, bookshop keepers, what have you. I would also argue that Syria needed to democratize fast for it to survive the storm. In a place like Bashar al-Asad’s Syria, that sort of talk was bound to get me in trouble. Trouble caught up with me as I crossed the border from Kilis in August 2008—the same border point preferred by subsequent waves of jihadists—only to find a ‘detain’ warrant waiting for me when the passport officer entered my name into the database. An auspicious set of circumstances, and some bluffing, got me released after a number of hours. However happy I was to be free, I was also saddened by the fact that my larger project, to soak up as much granularity from Syria before the storm scatters it away, had come to an end. I can visualize many of the locales mentioned in the annals of the Syrian civil war because I had been fortunate enough to see those places. To watch the Druze of Qalb Lozeh heading to communal prayers for the dead, or to light a candle in the Sednaya shrine, or to sip tea with Shia converts in a village near Aleppo—that was an itinerary that I can no longer repeat, even if my name is removed from the regime’s watch-lists, or the regime itself is removed. Much of this tapestry has been destroyed, parts of it for good.

Forehead to windowpane, I would look on with prying awe as the Aleppo-Latakia train slowly ambled through a valley refracted in mist. Why do those clutches of villages not have any mosques? Why do the houses look different? Why do the faces I glimpse here and there look different? What’s up with their costumes? I would tell myself, “There’s a secret here, and I want to come back to tease it out.” I marked the location of the valley on a map with that apprehension that travelers know too well: “What if I never have the time or the means to come back?” One would hope that another travelogue would have covered it well. One would hope to pass on the tip to a colleague who can go there and check it out. But the bushfire of identity wars had radiated through this particular valley a few years back, probably burning through its seemingly unique identity. I now wonder what’s left of the secret.

This was the Middle East that I cared for. This was the Middle East that fascinated me as a historian. I knew it was in danger. I felt compelled to sound the alarm. Ajami would have me fill in for him to teach his Masters class at the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. On a couple of occasions I would speak to the students there about the darkness that was about to descend upon Syria. Ajami encouraged me to author a monograph about it, which was consequently published as Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy by the Hoover Institution (2010). In later years it was described as “incredibly prescient” after the horrors of the Syrian civil war came to be. Again, there is no value in vindication. What drew me to the story, what made me care, was going up in flames. I would like to imagine that many of those who were unconvinced by my argument back when it seemed far-fetched would likewise be pained by what followed. Let us commiserate together, to move beyond the acrimony, towards a new American approach to the Middle East.

Whither ‘The Blob’?

I must admit that I felt a bit of schadenfreude when I read what Obama et al had to say about the foreign policy community, the legion of experts, academics, spies, diplomats, business interests, lobbyists, and journalists, who interpret the rest of the world to America’s leaders and its general public. Specifically, someone at the White House described think tanks with a Middle East focus as “Arab occupied territory” within the center of Washington, in reference to the “free riders” such as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries that fund them. These places housed much of the priestly class that had led the inquisition into the ‘crimes’ of Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi, whose ‘sin’ it was to get Iraq wrong. They deemed themselves the overseers of accreditation; only they could exercise the prerogative of deeming so and so credible, or discredited. Their black list of excommunicates, following the Iraq War, was meticulous and long. [Another side note: it can be argued that the spigot of Persian Gulf monies flowing to such think tanks, as part of a comprehensive approach to influence DC, really got going after Chalabi demonstrated how effective such an approach is in commanding the attention of U.S. policy-makers.]

But if we’re tallying up the hits and misses, then many of the doyens of the foreign policy establishment got much wrong too: the failure to anticipate the Iranian Revolution; the failure to foresee what Khomeini would do with that revolution; the failure to ascertain the challenge posed by resurgent Islamism; the failure to arrive at a workable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the failure to anticipate Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait; the failure to reckon with the consequences of leaving him in power beyond it; the failure to anticipate the Arab Spring; the failure to anticipate the far reach of jihadism into Syria and beyond—and those are just the biggies. But who’s counting, right?

For this class, Obama was supposed to be the high priest presiding over an establishment that finally gets it right. What with his international upbringing, his keen attunement to the Islamic heritage, his supremely analytical mind, the establishment would finally get a president who didn’t need to climb a steep learning curve. Little did they expect that he would use the shorthand term of ‘The Blob’ to dismiss them.  He deemed them dangerously incestuous, intellectually lethargic, compromised, and short on new ideas. Obama judged them discredited. Obama had other plans: retrenchment, disengagement, disentanglement. He may not call it that, but that is what it seems to be to many in Washington and in the Middle East. The Middle East simply didn’t warrant Obama’s, or America’s, attention, or at least to the extent that the establishment wished it would. He had emancipated himself from the “Washington playbook”—the manuscript itself may have gone up in flames.

His signature legacy for the region was the Iran deal. It didn’t help much when he essentially described this deal as America’s parting gift to the region’s warring factions; that it was a dose of reality that would compel them to live with Iran’s primacy, and to “share” the turf. Notwithstanding what we think about the mechanics of the deal, I think many of us can agree that its timing was off, adversely confirming the optics of America shedding its long-standing alliances with the Saudis and Israelis, for example. Even more problematic is the timing of the president’s “premature unburdening”—as one friend described it—to The Atlantic as to his motivations for doing what he did.

In light of the Obama years and the doctrine exercised throughout them, my schadenfreude is a pyrrhic one. All our clans lose. All our banners are besmirched. It will be difficult to shed ‘The Blob’ appellation; blood has been drawn from our cheeks, the prestige and esteem of the priestly class has been questioned. We have tripped, and our exalted scepter had rolled off into a gutter. We lie, face down in a murky puddle, and should we look up, there would be many “more grinning faces than helping hands.” We can pretend it never happened, but the crowds outside the temple will long remember what transpired over the last eight years. We have all been diminished, all of us from all sides of our ecumenical convocation. What’s the value in any of us being right if we can’t be influential, if we can’t do much to help the region we care about?

As interpreters, or the class of dragomans as Lewis framed it, we know interpretation goes both ways, for we also have to explain Washington to interlocutors, friends and acquaintances in the Middle East. And it is so hard to explain America’s disinterest to them. Many would infer conspiracy—that all-powerful America is up to something. Probably more of the “creative chaos” theory that they had heard about. Or is it revenge for September 11, 2001 by purposely setting the region on fire? To think that America is washing its hands of their destinies is too scary a thought even for those who bristled at its heavy-handed interventions of the past. They know that an absent America is just as dark of a prospect as a present America making a mess of things. The anti-American forces, those who put sentiment to action, and have been pushing for an American withdrawal for decades, are doing a victory lap. America had mitigated and stunted their revolutionary prospects—socialist, Islamist, nationalistic, now jihadist. They justified their means, and their legitimacy, by decrying America’s reliance on a retrograde and morally indefensible status quo. America could not even be trusted when it began speaking about democracy and liberalism as its new motive for reshaping the region. Nowadays, America showed its hand by cutting and leaving, lacking the stamina and belief in itself that the forces hostile to it had long underscored. We stand there in the middle, unable to advise, flailing at explaining. Not only do we have to be mindful of reorienting America’s interests and consequently its general interest, we are saddled too with responsibility of articulating a hopeful vision for what America will do for the many millions awaiting its yearned-for benevolence and wisdom. They want to believe in it despite its lackluster track record, or what they had been told. After all, what’s the alternative?

Dragomans were not content with merely interpreting words and cultures; they set out to shape international relations. I contend that our craft is heavy on analysis, short on strategy. Analysis is reactive, its scope is to interpret and manage uncertainty, while strategy seeks to pre-empt uncertainty. Washington’s policy knife-fights have engendered an atmosphere of extreme caution for those understandably seeking career advancement. After all, what’s the point of being right if one can’t pay off a mortgage? I would cite a book called The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture (2010) by the pseudonymous Ishmael Jones to demonstrate the contours of the current atmosphere and what it does to policy making and implementing those policies. Attempts at institutional reform have been made, but the real problem lies within how the debate has been managed. There is too much prevaricating, too much of the ‘on the one hand, then on the other hand’ hedge. There is too much dramatic eye rolling and raspy gasping when presented with ‘dangerous’ knowledge and alarming projections, for boldness blots a resume. Which is odd to my mind since the paradigm of American diplomacy at the country’s founding—when the Founding Fathers such as Franklin, Adams and Jefferson served as ambassadors during the revolutionary war—serves as an exceedingly bold example of hoping for too much, and going ‘big’. The establishment (‘The Blob’) must regenerate itself by leaving more room for those who can leverage analysis into strategy, and do so boldly and confidently, as Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi did. The impulse to vilify new and original thinking of the ‘risky’ variety should be tempered and discouraged.

Conflagration, slow burn, or dying embers?

If we look really hard for a silver lining, then one incoming presidential candidate may understand the power of prestige, given his commercial branding ventures, and may want to project US power again in the region to ward-off upstarts and competitors. I’ve heard from several otherwise thoughtful men and women in the Middle East say that they prefer candidate Trump because “he seems crazy enough to scare off the bad actors in the neighborhood.” Trump may even make the case that a portion of America’s wealth is premised on how that prestige overpowers competitors in world markets, and losing that share may adversely affect the future prospects of an American lower middle class that he claims to worry about. The other candidate brings deep knowledge of the situation and a chip on her shoulder: she may want to reenact the policy battles she had lost to the president she served under, especially the ones that stepped back from taking a more activist role in places like Syria. Clinton and her staffers may keep the Iran deal in place after taking ownership for it, but rather than a parting gift it would be stepping stone of hers (see the CNAS recommendations that may inform for what a ‘Clinton Doctrine’ may shape up to be). Candidate Clinton may even see herself as a card-carrying member of ‘The Blob’, given that Rhodes included her in that category, and would consequently seek to redress the contempt levelled at her own, to rehabilitate her legacy and theirs.

Yet I can’t but sense that much of the ground that America has ceded by its studied ‘departure’ will not be reclaimed easily. It may take a ‘crazy’ flexing of moxie to recalibrate perceptions, the appetite for which isn’t there, neither within the establishment nor among the general public.

Perceptions may solidify over the next year or so, and get acted upon. Would the Turks and Saudis, for example, wait around long enough for that silver lining to manifest itself while their people watch Kurdistan taking shape or Iran walking off with the spoils of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon? Unlikely. And why should they? Where’s the payoff in patience? They feel that they had been patient while waiting for Obama to do something, only to be surprised when he boldly and confidently confided to The Atlantic that he never had the intention to.

And if the Kurds part ways from Iraq, by tabling a referendum on independence to be held this year, then why would Shia chauvinists want to stay in the remaining parts of Iraq with Sunnis in their midst? They—probably with Maliki at their helm as he plots a political comeback—would argue for a further partition of the country, leaving the Sunnis to their own devices.

Obama’s intent solidified in conjunction with his solidifying views on Iraq. Which is sad really, since by looking away from Iraq, he missed out on spotting a number of opportunities. For whatever disappointments and trepidations that Iraq may prompt when the subject is raised, Iraq is the only place in the Middle East that can still claim to have a robust conversation. Oil is not Iraq’s key point of relevance; its political process is.

Did Obama draw the correct lessons from Iraq and apply them while still having to manage Iraq during the past eight years, however reluctantly? The results suggest that he did not. One of Obama’s policies seems to have been one of expressing steadfast support for Maliki, even when the latter began adopting Shia chauvinism as his narrative and guiding policy during his second term. The political process in Iraq reacted and tried to address the polarization that Maliki had introduced into the Iraqi conversation. It was partly for this reason that a number of politicians began maneuvering to unseat the prime minister through parliamentary and constitutional procedures in the summer of 2012. The Iranians would have none of it, but so too the Americans. An opportunity had presented itself, but what clinched the outcome in Maliki’s favor was the perception that the Americans also did not want to see him changed. So not only was a trend misinterpreted—Shia chauvinism, which led consequently to the resurgence of Sunni jihadism—but the opportunity to stem it before it could lead to disaster was not acted upon.

What were Obama’s take aways from his experience with Maliki? Again, the evidence suggests that the president and his staff did not factor in the importance of politics throughout their evolving plan to do something about the Islamic State. Belatedly, they signed on to the consensus that Maliki should not enjoy a third term in office after having lost a third of the country on his watch. Yet what followed did not build upon that realization. The one thing that the Americans had to get right was not to conflate the defeat of the jihadists with the defeat of the Sunnis in the public mind. To do so, there was plenty of politicking to do. There were many opportunities to make it seem less so of a Shia triumphalist and revanchist campaign. Or a Kurdish hegemonic one for that matter. It is my view that many of those opportunities were missed. What we are left with is the current toxic sectarian and ethnic narratives swarming around an otherwise successful military campaign to take Fallouja in Iraq and Manbij in Syria, for example. Much of this toxicity could have been mitigated and contained through politics and media, even if it were cosmetic in essence. But they weren’t. So one needs to ask, what will the long-term consequences be?

It is not as if the Obama administration did not have the time, bandwidth or influence necessary to plan and execute better. A major Middle Eastern city, Mosul, had fallen in the hands of an enemy, whose malevolence and the need to address it should have been an easy sell to Western societies. I appreciate the reasons that prevented the administration from taking a more activist approach—sending tens of thousands of troops to war—and its preference for incrementalism, a policy that was actually put into effect before Mosul fell (imbedding ‘advisors’, providing drone strikes, while accelerating the delivery of armaments to the Iraqi military, all began months before Mosul). But once a decision for a cautious and measured approach was taken, then the long term consequences of leaving the enemy in control of said major metropolis for two years should have been considered, and provisioned for. Providing a convincing and compelling political answer to ‘What would life after the Islamic State look like?’ should have been a priority as important as making it clear that living with the Islamic State would bear prohibitive costs to the populations living under them. That answer still eludes us. It eludes largely because the possibilities of a political life in Baghdad were not thoroughly explored. The Obama administration may throw its hands up in resignation to suggest that America has very little leverage remaining in the country. But it is simply not true. I know it not to be true because every Iraqi politician I speak to asks me, with bated breath, “What do the Americans think?” I’m expected to give an answer being a dragoman between the two worlds. What should I say? That “America thinks that the importance you assign to its opinion is misplaced”? America can still do a lot with the prevailing perceptions of its power. It has chosen not to for the most part, at least when it comes to shaping Iraqi politics, or harnessing its fluidity.

And what should the Saudis do when the proto-jihadists in their midst watch Aljazeera and Al-Arabiya spin the Fallouja operations as yet further examples of Sunni or Arab impotence? Wouldn’t a Saudi version of Rami assign some of that blame and impotence to his own rulers? Do we think that the Saudi royals can live with that? What are the long-term consequences of that perception solidifying?

Or why, for that matter, would Arabs in northern Syria ‘normalize’ the prospect of being liberated by ethnic Kurds, even if that liberation bore the fig leaf of Arab participation? There’s a 1000-page tome, written in Arabic and published in 2013, by Syrian historian Muhammad Jamal al-Barot under the cumbersome title of A Contemporary History of the Syrian Jazeerah: Challenges of Urban Transition for Nomadic Communities that can help us answer that question. Those Arabs are unlikely to normalize Kurdish hegemony, for there is preceding three hundred year saga of warlords, clans and ideologies asserting themselves in that space, a saga recalled and amplified with every dispute over local water rights, or a lamb gone missing. Using Kurds to take Manbij is militarily convenient, but with the politics going unaddressed, politics that can only thrive when space for a conversation is available, then the victory won’t hold, or turn ‘normal’ for quite a while. The indefensible alternative of keeping Manbij under the Islamic State was not the only other option; there was time and leverage to manufacture options ahead of it. The lessons of al-Barot’s book went unlearned too.

The Baghdad Playbook

One of the earliest narratives that solidified about Iraq concerned de-Ba’athification, mainly that it was a mistake, a mistake approaching the magnitude of ‘original sin’. That it was employed as sectarian revenge against Sunnis and in effect precipitated the insurgency and made it inevitable. Contesting this narrative would be tantamount to tinkering with an established dogma of the Iraq debate in Washington. Interestingly, I was fortunate to be part of an Iraqi debate about it that unfolded on Facebook. See, some leading Ba’athists had formed the impression that de-Ba’athification was my idea. It wasn’t, but given my hardline on Ba’athists, one that I expressed publicly and widely on all sorts of media platforms, and my role in establishing the Higher National Commission for De-Ba’athfication, as well as my association with Chalabi at the time, then one can understand why that impression may have come to be.

It all began when Dhafir al-Ani, a vocal Arab Sunni politician (now spokesman of the main Sunni bloc in parliament), who is perceived to be an apologist for Ba’athism, responded to a Facebook post that I had written on the ninth anniversary of the Iraq War falling on April 9, 2012. I, naturally, still celebrated Iraq’s ‘liberation’, and I wrote thanking the Americans for bringing it about. Ani was indignant, asking: “would a family whose daughter was raped by American soldiers be thankful too?” He then challenged me to a debate, and I agreed to it, conditioned as it is on him debating me as an academic (which he was, previously at the Political Science faculty of Baghdad University) and not a point-scoring politician. What followed was a debate which lasted for eight days; with hundreds of posts and comments exchanged between the two of us on my Facebook wall, and many other participants chiming in. Early on, we settled on a title for our talk: ‘A Dialogue Whose Time Has Not Lapsed: The New Iraq; Original Sin, or the Hour of Creation?’ Naturally, too, Ani began with citing the ‘fact’ that de-Ba’athification was purposely designed to punish Sunnis. I’ll spare you my retort, not that I thought it convinced him otherwise, but what was exciting at that moment was the fact that we could still have a conversation about it at all. An anti-Ba’athist and a pseudo-Ba’athist (or crypto-, or neo-, opinions about Ani vary) were discussing de-Ba’athification in a candid, open, non-vindictive manner, within a decade of the event. We didn’t stop there, we went back in time to the Saddam years, and then visited the sectarian bloodletting of 2004-8, and then brought things back to the reign of then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. We discovered, much to our mutual amazement, that there was room for both of us to reject Shia chauvinism.

Ani and I met in person a couple of months later. We had figured out that a family that we were both friends with was having a wake for one of their dead in the Mansour district of Baghdad. We agreed to meet there, pay our respects, and then head to the nearby book show at the Baghdad Fairground. We walked around, talking and browsing. I got him a gift: the autobiography of Hashemi Rafsanjani, translated into Arabic. This was one little way I could tell him that his read of Iranian politics should be more nuanced. A mutual friend, making the rounds with us, spotted Muqtada al-Sadr’s nephew, thought to be his uncle’s political heir apparent, and decided to introduce both me and Ani to him. Accompanying the nephew was an important Sadrist strategist, who immediately volunteered, once the niceties had been exchanged, “It seems we now have a ceasefire with you, Nibras.” He was alluding to another societal and political sector, the Sadrists, some of whom deemed me a fiery opponent. Most recently to this chance encounter, the acrimony between us concerned my stance on wanting US troops to stay, even suggesting that Iraq should join NATO in some capacity, while singling out the Sadrists, committed as they were to rejecting any American presence, as dangerously misguided. I don’t know whether this fellow had followed my debate with Ani, or had read some other of my writings, but at that moment, there was common ground between us on an anti-Maliki platform. A ceasefire was indeed in effect. But that’s the magic of politics and the possibilities and opportunities that present themselves when there’s room for a conversation.

For Kanan Makiya, original sin came to pass when, a few days after the Americans liberated Najaf, the followers of Sadr murdered Majid al-Khoei. The sin pervaded Iraqi politics as Shia politicians decided not to hold one of their own, Sadr, accountable for a crime committed against another of their own. Makiya made his case very recently in the form of a novel, The Rope. The case is both correct and compelling. Yet what is amazing is not that Makiya wrote this book, but that its Arabic language version is selling briskly in al-Mutannabi, Baghdad’s ‘street of books’. Dozens of favorable reviews have been written about it in Iraqi newspapers and on Facebook. A conversation about Makiya’s premise has folded in within the larger conversation about Iraq’s recent past and prospects.  The very paradigm of a ‘street of books’, where religious polemics jostle alongside the Arabic translations of Richard Dawkins, is in itself a marvel, especially given the traumas collectively experienced by the multitudes of young and old, men and women, who throng the street on Fridays. Conversations abound at the margins, in cafés and impromptu gatherings.

One conversation thread came up with the idea, or rather the brand, of madaniyya. An indigenous term that connotes civicism and cosmopolitanism. One whose definition is still being hashed out in the Iraqi conversation. It is used by Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s crew during Friday sermons, as well as by the Iraqi version of Mariam. Arguably, it ignited last summer’s protests, or at least framed their demands. Even Sadr has latched onto those protest in recent months, aligning himself to some degree with its more vocal ‘liberal secular’ proponents, one of whom is second in command, so to speak, in the Iraqi Communist Party. Mesopotamia is still coming up with some good ideas, applicable not only to Iraq but maybe even to Northern Syria, maybe further beyond. It is happening because the Iraqi conversation about Iraq is ongoing and dynamic. Encoded within the Iraqi constitution, passed in 2005, is one of the best formulas that can address that country’s issues and the Middle East at large: federalism. It is unique in that regard, a conceptual leap forwards. The question is, is Washington missing out on a phenomenon such as madaniyya and the promise of functional federalism because its own Iraq conversation has grown rigid and stagnant? Does that imply its inability to learn new lessons from Iraq that may help Iraq, and points north, south, east and west across the Middle East?

In the same vein, are enough people in Washington taking the Beirut Madinati movement seriously? Or are the ‘lessons learned from Lebanon’, arrived at in the 1980s, too dogmatically entrenched to be questioned and reconsidered?  There too, a Lebanese conversation is beginning to find its space. A conversation that began over garbage collection. What chance would such a conversation have in that most superficially cosmopolitan, yet deeply tribal of a society, the pessimists may argue? We are eventually going to find out. Yet the very least we can do, all of us, is keep it in mind. Dismissing the phenomenon, this early on, seems to be unfair, and hasty.

[Here’s a thought: I’m sure that the Iraqi madaniyya movement, as well as that of Beirut Madinati, would greatly appreciate a cascade of leaks concerning the bank accounts and wire transfers of Iraqi and Lebanese politicians. It is the dollar that is being fleeced and dyed in the back alleys of Middle Eastern finance, not the gold dinar of the Islamic State. Having the legal tender of the United States mishandled in such a manner should prompt America to take action. I’m sure the US Treasury has a fair idea of where to look for that kind of information, and the wherewithal to get it.]

Managing the Fire Pit

My assertion that Iraq is the only place where a real, no-holds-barred conversation is still occurring may be a tall order for some to accept. I welcome arguments that may contest it. But I look around the region, whether towards Iran, or Turkey, or Egypt, or the Persian Gulf, and I see very little of it. The many Springs that came and went in Beirut, Tehran, Cairo, and Istanbul were about trying to start a conversation. But in the current static landscape, it may seem that the conversation hangs in mid-sentence, on mute. A decade after its own Spring, only Beirut seems to be bucking the trend, again.  Israel is a democracy, but surely a democracy without a conversation about the fires surrounding it cannot be thought of as normal. In fact, the Obama Doctrine as it relates to the Middle East seems eerily copied from that of Netanyahu’s: stand back, let it burn out, pivot to India and China, and prosper in the meantime.

civil war 11

N. Kazimi, Civil War 1, 2014, 36” x 48”

If the best that can be hoped is a new Middle Eastern generation led by young lieutenants, princes and religious adepts who can keep Rami in prison, or somehow keep him distracted by the flashy wares on display in an entrepôt along the lines of Dubai, then that seems to be an unreasonable gamble. This line of thinking is betting on a slow-burn within the fire pit, eventually petering out into embers and ash. We should all truly wish that Prince Muhammad bin Salman knows what he is doing with his radical plans to overhaul Saudi Arabia. Let’s hope that radical change ushered in by that young prince there does not whet the appetite of the radicals within his peer group. They, such as Rami, may have other ideas as to what constitutes radical change. And it is no surprise that jihadist extremists, as well as Shia chauvinists, have big plans for Saudi Arabia: it is there where they can make their ventures ‘permanent’, for there are many prizes for the taking in the Arabian Peninsula should their revolutions conflagrate beyond the confines of the fire pit. The decisions that a young Saudi Rami may take over the next decade there shall set the course of history in the region we care so much about. The problem is, we don’t know too much about him. There’s a fantastic book out there with the nifty title Joyriding in Riyadh (2014). It takes an anthropological approach to the study of urban alienation among Saudi youth. I can’t believe that the author, Pascal Menoret, got funding for his research and its write-up, for it is a decisively personal account, at points verging on stream of consciousness. I applaud the thesis supervisors and publishers of Cambridge University Press who let this through the academic cordons; it is bold, it is risky, and it is supremely illuminating. I can’t speak for Lewis, Ajami or Chalabi, but I think they may have enjoyed it. What it tells us though, is that we should be very worried about Bin Salman’s prospects, however deftly his plan his executed.

Having to click through a snazzy and well-designed website explaining what the Saudi 2030 Vision is supposed to be, drawn up as it was by slick international consultants and thorough economists, seems to be a far easier prospect that having to sift through the raucous, rambunctious noise of Iraq’s madaniyya, or trying to follow the digressions of Lebanese intellectuals. I don’t begrudge Bin Salman getting much choreographed face-time with the movers and shakers of ‘The Blob’; actually I would say better him than some other vestiges of the Middle Eastern status quo. What I do lament is that there is very little sounding out being given to Mariam, whether she is of the Kuwaiti, Lebanese, Iraqi or Iranian variety. There is no infrastructure that reliably tracks her trajectory, or judges its viability.

This is what I worry about: I worry that some young Sunnis around the region, fed as they have been on sectarian and revolutionary narratives, may sense remorse, a few years down the line, when they see that the caliphate has been defeated while they stood back, idle and helpless. Some young Shias and Kurds may understand the victory to be their own, one that they must keep safe by beating down on Sunnis. Numbers wise, this sentiment may end up representing the minority view on either side. The question becomes, how big of a minority will it be, and can it gather the critical mass to do something about it, especially if they fan out into ideological spaces not filled by alternatives? Small, determined groups of people holding the minority view have successfully altered the course of history many times in the past. If there isn’t a big idea to hold them over, to give meaning to the victory, something that speaks to their better angels, then a wider turn towards radicalization among this Middle Eastern generation may ensue. Those cross currents of meta-narratives may carry them over towards revolution, time and time again. Left without an idea to anchor them, an idea such as madaniyya or whatever they may want to call it, they will lift up, with larger numbers, more caliphal ventures, more revanchist schemes.

[I also worry about the sustainability of a “perpetual state of suppression” as Clapper put it. I think he is suggesting that air superiority—satellite imagery, drones, F-16s, etc.—will continue to be the most handy tool in America’s as it puts a lid on the security challenges presented by the jihadists. But as technology ‘democratizes’ and spreads, how can we be assured that a talented young Rami wouldn’t figure out a way to counter it over the next decade or so? The technology is there; the Russians have it, for example. We should not assume that this situation of technological disparity will remain static.]

My last column for the now-deceased New York Sun ended with this paragraph:

Going back to Afghanistan is an abhorred historical regression, and certainly the pride of the Zarqawists, the most radical and once most successful of the jihadists, will not allow them to hide away in some cave in Waziristan after they had attempted a project as historically grand as the new caliphate in Baghdad. They will come back bigger, deadlier and far more audacious, as is their style, the next time around. Mr. Obama and his European hosts need to update what they think they know about the enemy before the enemy catches its breath.

I wrote that in the summer of 2008, as candidate Obama was touring Europe during an election season that would later win him the presidency. Back then, I was sure that the jihadist insurgency in Iraq was dying out. I was also sure that it would make a comeback if ‘victory’ was mishandled. I credit my past apprenticeship under the guidance of my mentors with the ability to spot this trend. I confess that I felt a numbness, a hollowness when the comeback happened, when I saw so much of the mysteries and idiosyncrasies of Mosul—ancient Assyrian temples, Sufi shrines, the manuscripts of early Christianity hidden away in cliff-hanging monasteries, Yezidis performing their rituals—adventures that I had never had the chance to explore, erased. How frivolous was I to care about such things, when basic human decency was being systematically assaulted?

Yet I refuse to wallow in despair. I refuse to care less.

Again, should we warn time and time again that the region may conflate into a wider inferno, then all we do is to implicitly confirm the talking points that the Middle East is hopeless, that America should give that fire a wide berth. Our self-immolating counter-recriminations will devolve into irrelevance, confirming our ‘Blob’-ness.

There must be another way. Those of us who know the Middle East, who care about it and its people, know that there’s hope for the region, and by extension hope and redemption for ourselves too. We may have met many Ramis, but we are also finding many Mariams out there.

For their sake, and for ours, let us extend the ceasefire. There will much room for snarky repartees later, should that element of the debate be missed. But we may find them witty then, rather than biting and venomous. Another crypto-Ba’athist Iraqi politician, Saleh al-Mutlag, finds much joy in addressing me as ‘comrade’, in the Ba’athist sense—needling my sensibilities—but whereas many years ago I would have been offended, nowadays I can needle him back by using comrade in the Communist sense. All it took to make that transition was a conversation.

If the two of us can have such conversations, then why is it so difficult to imagine a sober reflection over the legacies of Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi in Washington without breaking ranks into angry tribes? It just seems doctrinaire and pedantic. Let our hyper-sensitivity towards that legacy, as detractors and supporters, jolt us into realizing how sour the conversation has turned. Let what Obama told The Atlantic, and what Rhodes added to it in the New York Times Magazine, with Clapper chiming in to Ignatius, alert us as what that sourness has wrought.

Beyond that, we can begin asking the sorts of questions, and finding the lowest common denominator, as to how to enable Mariam to become a leader of her generation, and what America could reasonably do for her, given its distancing, given its unwillingness to do much. The very least we can do is to talk about her.


Download a PDF copy of the essay here.

Weaponizing History

Religious extremists in the Middle East, both Sunni and Shia, wield historical precedence to inform and legitimize their actions and strategies. It is one of the most powerful tools in their polemical arsenal, one that can successfully mobilize young men to action and, when necessary, explain away their temporary setbacks. This propaganda works because it stands on a firm, pre-existing foundation of how history is remembered by those they seek to recruit. Yet Islamic history provides an opportunity for pushback against extremism. Surprisingly, even with an abundance of tools at our disposal, the extremist version of history goes largely unchallenged.

A decade ago, I was zipping around the mountains of the Syrian coast pretending to look at castles. Castles big and small, some well preserved, others crumbling, once Crusader, then Assassin, at other times Arab. Castles that have changed many hands over the course of time, and some of which have found new strategic value in the current Syrian civil war. But what I was really doing was stealing a visit here and there to the Alawite shrines that dot the high ground across the mountain range. I was motivated by sheer curiosity. There was a five hundred year gap in the story of the Alawites, a secretive and schismatic Shia sect, who went on to capture absolute power in the 1970s. Five hundred years that somehow went missing from the historical record. The saints and holy men who led their communities during those five centuries are still venerated at those idyllic shrines, lit with candles, incense and prayers—where strangers to the sect, such as myself, are suspect and unwelcome. I just wanted to map out who was buried where and when, hoping to gain some insight into that historical gap. At one point, while driving through a pine forest up to the castle of Abu Qubeis, I spotted a bush laden with caper berries by the side of the road. An opportunity for pickling, I thought. I hadn’t noticed the old man across the sparsely-travelled road, sitting among the trees by a mountain stream. He was the proprietor of an outdoor coffee shop, blessed with gorgeous views and shade, albeit with no customers (at the time) and a few chairs strewn about. He beckoned me over, curious as to what this stranger was doing on that quiet afternoon. A conversation that began with pickling techniques veered somewhat rapidly into how much that old man hated Sunnis.

Having conversations about history, politics, sectarian identity and, really anything, to do with current events can lead to many security complications for a curious wanderer in Asad-ruled Syria. I was hesitant but the old fellow wanted to get a lot off his chest. I also felt somewhat safe since he seemed to believe that President Hafez al-Asad, who had died seven years prior to our encounter, was still alive and well. This old man would be an unlikely informant for the secret police, I thought. His most memorable line was “those who hated your grandfather are unlikely to be kind to you. I am an Alawite and I spit on anyone who has the slightest problem with that.” His gripe with the Sunnis extended from what he had seen during their uprising in the early 1980s, when “they killed the flower of the Alawite community” to hundreds of years back when they hounded his ancestors out of the cities and plains of Syria into their mountain redoubts. He also drew a line from the past into the future: “If they come at us again, President Hafez will smash them again. And in the worst case scenario, if we lose the rest of Syria, then we will fight them on this mountain, and go our separate ways, as we did before.” This was said to me in the summer of 2007. The stirrings of the Syrian civil war were still five years away. The old man was short on short-term memory, but history gave him the long view into the past, and into the future. A view that was at once cautionary about what to expect, and instructive as to what should be done.

The use of history in constructing the narratives of identity, of common origins, of a shared experience, and of a soon-to-be fulfilled purpose is not new or unique. Sects, religions, ethnicities, tribes, political ideologies, and other corporate bodies borrow heavily from history to frame their trajectories, to propagate, and to undergird their authenticity. In this sense, history confers legitimacy and infers destiny. There are many examples to cite from the twentieth century as various ideologies and regimes in the Middle East constructed new identities for themselves. Arab nationalism borrowed from the might and vitality of the Arab conquests of the region in the 7th century to highlight the redeeming possibilities of an Arab awakening after a centuries long slumber at the margins of empire. The Turks remembered their own distinct story, departing from Central Asia and swarming over vast territories and leaving newfound empires in their wake, even breaking into Europe and reigning supreme over large tracts of that continent. The Shah of Iran resurrected the pomp and splendor of ancient Persia to lend regality and majesty to his reign. In the same vein, what is Zionism if not an archival land deed, remembered, dusted-off, and yearned for as one laments what was lost? In Iraq, Saddam Hussein not only rode the heady visions of Arab glory but specifically called the Iran-Iraq War the ‘Second Qadisiyya’ in reference to the first battle of its name where the Arabs delivered a mortal blow to the Sassanid Persians and evicted them from the land of Mesopotamia (636 AD). Saddam went back further into the annals of that land to refashion himself as a latter-day avatar of King Nebuchadnezzar’s, he of Biblical fame, ruling from the land of Babylon and projecting expansionist designs, while breaking the spirit of the Jews in the process. Much like Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam rebuilt the ruined city of Babylon—committing archeological and cultural desecration by doing so—and inserted his name into the brickwork, laid thousands of years ago, by Jewish captives taken into slavery.

History not only enables those who cite it to define themselves, but to define their enemies as well. They can connect the dots between historical episodes to extrapolate conspiracy: the ‘enemy’ has always been the enemy because that is who he is. That was how that old Alawite man understood the enmity of Sunnis. Saddam was demonstrating that the Arab-Persian rivalry was as old as time, and that the Jews, empowered as they are in the modern era by the rebirth of Israel, have always been a nuisance; one that previous (and present) kings of Mesopotamia were destined to deal with.

Yet the extremists of the Middle East today, both Sunni and Shia, are employing history differently, in a way that is not only reactive and descriptive, but rather prescriptive. They use it in a way that is both specific and strategic to instruct policy. That history is “readily intelligible to both educated and uneducated Muslims,” as Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian who boasts the distinction of being the first to articulate the challenge of radical Islamism for the West, put it in his book The Crisis of Islam (2003). “It offers a set of themes, slogans, and symbols that are profoundly familiar and therefore effective in mobilizing support and in formulating both a critique of what is wrong and a program for putting it right,” he adds. Remembering the past is not a tool of mere inspiration or for marking enemies when utilized by the extremists, the past is their blueprint for resetting history back to a time they could take pride in.

is mosul horses parade

Islamic State fighters parade in Mosul

It is analytically useful to understand the Islamic State as it understands itself. As far as they are concerned, their story did not begin with the proclamation of the resurrected caliphate in September June 2014, nor its predecessor the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Theirs is a ten-year venture that began during October 2006, when they put the world on notice with their announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq. The jihadists, back then, understood the implications, and the hazards of what they were about to do. They knew that it would focus the hostility not only of their apparent enemies, such as the United States and the Shia, but also that of their ideological cousins, the other jihadist groups orbiting the Salafist constellation. The jihadists of the nascent Islamic State anticipated the refrain of rejection and hesitation: this is too bold, too grand, too soon. Their ideological cousins would immediately recognize that this is indeed the caliphate, attempted. An attempt fraught with ideological peril and uncertainty, even though it is the end-goal of many Salafists. It would sow dissent and acrimony at a time when all groups should be singularly focused on the goal of waging jihad against the West and the internal enemies lurking within Islamic lands. But the ‘trailblazers’ of the new caliphate had ready and—as far as they are concerned—convincing answers, for they were standing firmly on historical precedent, harking back to the time of early Islam. As such, they were not trailblazers at all, but were simply rediscovering a trail first embarked upon by Muhammed, the prophet, the actual trailblazer of the faith.

The Islamic State published a book in January 2007 titled ‘Informing the People About the Birth of the State of Islam.’ They sought to preempt the debate about timing and method. Their polemical coup de grâce was to cite the state-building venture of Muhammad at Medina. Muhammed did not wait around for the conditions to turn optimal in Mecca. His calling compelled him to strike out boldly, against incredible odds. He left his native city and found refuge among the Medinan ‘youths’ who had pledged themselves to his prophecy. His was a precarious venture, at once tenuous, and due for a number of setbacks. Muhammad did not reign supreme as he began to wield authority and manage the day-to-day affairs of his flock. He had to contend with a mixed city that boasted, for example, confident, armed and well-positioned Jewish tribes, that were not about to part with their faith for his. He had to wage war against his Meccan detractors, or consequently suffer their counter-attacks. Yet even in the bleakest of times, the jihadists remind us, Muhammad foresaw that what he was setting out to build in Medina would subjugate the mighty and nearby empires of Byzantium and Persia. These visions did not strike the true believers around him as loony, even during the darkest of times, so why would the detractors of the Islamic State in the twenty first century counsel against going too big, too soon? The territory they believed to be controlling in 2006 in Iraq was magnitudes larger than Muhammed’s tiny toehold. Conditions then did not deter him, they why should they do so nowadays? In fact, they argued, there were many similarities between what he faced and what was happening in Iraq. If only the jihadists would follow his example, and enact his steps by going back to the basics, then the jihad would recapture the path back towards redemption and righting what went wrong.

The motif of going back to the basics has a rich tradition in Islamic dogma, and thus the method and argumentation of the modern jihadists would not strike their ideological cousins, or the audience at large, as contrived. The medieval Syrian jurist, Ibn Taymiyya, writing at a time of Muslim decline following the Mongol invasions and the sacking of Baghdad, also argued for revisiting the early days of Islam to recapture the vitality of the faith. He inspired many later movements, most notably, in the eighteenth century, the Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula, who put his theories into practice to much martial success over successive attempts spanning three centuries. The vast majority of today’s Salafists draw inspiration from Ibn Taymiyya and the creeds he launched. The very meaning of the Arabic word ‘salaf’ connotes that community of early Islam, when it was pure, pristine and powerful, or so they believe. It also helps that Wahhabism eventually became the credo of modern, deep-pocketed Saudi Arabia. ‘Going back to the basics’ is a well-funded and widely propagated idea. The jihadists of the Islamic State were merely stretching it further.

And further they did. Resurrecting a caliphate implies the necessity of picking a caliph, which is no easy thing. Theoretically, at least, he (and of course he would have to be a ‘he’) would be both the spiritual and temporal leader of the world’s billion or so Sunni Muslims. That alone would seem daunting. It does not help that historical precedence on this topic is itself problematic. The Salafists, and many more Sunnis, believe that only the first four successors to Muhammad, the caliphs, can be counted as ‘righteously guided’. Yet history tells us that the process of picking those four turned out to be politically acrimonious. Three of the four met their demise through murder or assassination. The fluidity and messiness of the politics over the course of those three crucial decades many centuries ago later solidified into sectarian antipathy, giving us modern-day Shi’ism and Sunnism. That, however, did not deter medieval theorists or modern jihadists from formulating a mechanism to pick a caliph based on the four test cases that followed Muhammad’s death. The historical record is elastic by its very nature, and polemicists can stretch it out to fit current circumstances, rendering history books into recipe books. Not all the ingredients may be available, but the recipe can still be followed, albeit with some tweaking and minor substitutions, to arrive at a formula that works. Such was the formula the Islamic State leveraged as it announced its proto-caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the predecessor to ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ten years ago. Problem solved. Any questions? Kindly refer to early Islamic history, the jihadists would say.

They would say that because it works as a winning argument with their target audience: the Sunni populations of the Middle East that are to be incorporated into their caliphate in the first phase of its rebirth. By citing historical precedent to legitimize their actions, the jihadists enjoy standing on firm foundations. For the remembered and popularized past, such as Muhammad’s story in Medina, is present and mentally available for most of this audience, received as it were through curricula, the Friday sermon, and mass media.

The founding father of the particular strain of jihadism that gave us the Islamic State did not have to try very hard to stoke the fires of sectarianism in Iraq, for example. When the world watched Iraqis cheering on American soldiers pulling down Saddam’s statue off its pedestal in downtown Baghdad, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi saw opportunity. He would frame his war as a fight against the Shias, who were now acting as the enablers of the Americans, a foreign non-Muslim army that had just occupied a gloried Sunni and caliphal capital, one that was specifically established to manage the sprawling Islamic empire. Zarqawi would employ sectarianism as the fast burning fuel necessary for mobilizing support for an even more ambitious enterprise, resurrecting the Islamic State. He was aided in doing so by a hate-speech campaign against the Shia that had primed his target audience to receive what he was about to advocate: the “total annihilation” of the Shia. Sectarian hate speech has been around for centuries, but it was mass propagated two decades prior to the Iraq War on the occasion of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini in 1979. Those threatened by Khomeini’s revolutionary appeal, such as Saddam Hussein or the Saudis, felt compelled at the time to inoculate their populations against faith-inspired revolution by suggesting that Shi’ism itself was a grand conspiracy against Islam. Lots of money was marshalled by Iran’s enemies to saturate the airwaves, fill out library shelves, and lend wide currency to Shia perfidy. The result was that in many parts of the Sunni Arab Middle East, one would find many nodding heads, in 2003, when reminded that Shi’ism was ‘invented’ by a devious Jew-turned-Muslim called Ibn Saba in the early days following Muhammad’s death. European anti-Semitism (once re-propagated during the heyday of Arab Nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s) fused with the Islamic historical record to brand the Shias as the ‘internal Jews’. In the late nineties, one could find a book—an Arabic language forgery based thematically on an earlier Russian forgery—with the curious title of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Qum’, on display in Amman and Cairo, purporting to be the secret plans of the Shia to take-over the region, a plan hatched in the religious seminaries of the Iranian city of Qum.

Consequently, Zarqawi could turn to Islamic history and find a poster boy for Shia treachery that would neatly fit the scenes of 2003. Actually, he would riff off a data point that Saddam had highlighted in his first letter following his ouster: For, prior to the last time Baghdad was dramatically sacked by a great power, the Mongols, in 1258, the day-to-day affairs of the once mighty Sunni Abbasid empire had been left in the hands of a Shia, the Grand Vizier Ibn al-Alqami. That was quite progressive of the Abbasids to put a minority candidate in charge, but that is not what Saddam and Zarqawi would like remembered from that episode. Their case was that Ibn al-Alqami conspired to weaken the defenses of the empire and to hand over Baghdad on a silver platter to the heathen enemy, much like the Shia of Iraq were doing nowadays, whom Zarqawi termed “the grandchildren of Ibn al-Alqami.” It is a neat and succinct narrative that organically grows out of a pre-existing anti-Shia narrative. Zarqawi leveraged the drama of history to explain the present, and it enabled him to suggest a solution, a final solution. There can be no moving forwards towards resurrecting the Islamic State until the Shia are dealt with, once and for all. Cue: civil war.

Yet pedantically citing historical instances as a propaganda tool is not enough. For it to truly resonate it must be dramatized. The drama of current events must match the drama of history. The actors of today must mimic and project the greatness of those individuals they cite from the early Islamic community. One literary minded jihadist authored a play depicting a late night conversation between the last Abbasid caliph and Ibn al-Alqami before the Mongol invasion. The ‘ghost of history’ lurks about, cast as the third protagonist on the scene. The drama seems to suggest that if only a jihadist of Zarqawi’s cut had been present, then he could have warned the caliph of what was coming, and could have exposed Ibn al-Alqami’s plot. The jihadists dramatically recall the parts of history they would like remembered, while simultaneously erasing, to much fanfare, the parts they would like forgotten. Maybe that explains their fixation with leveling the monuments of ancient Assyria and Palmyra, and capturing it all on YouTube. The glories and very presence of pre-Islamic civilizations crowds out their absolutist messaging, and even in this they can cite precedence: Did Muhammad not personally destroy the pagan idols of Mecca upon his victory? There can be only one version of history, theirs.

The jihadist proto-caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, relished playing the role of caliph. He had a flair for spectacle, showcasing his craft over the course of many audio speeches. In March 2007 Abu Omar went ahead and announced that he is annulling the ‘Pact of Omar’—a purported document codifying the discriminatory rules against Christians enacted by its namesake, the second caliph of Islam, one of the ‘Righteously Guided’ ones, in the 7th century. Consider the audacity that a wannabe caliph in the twenty first century can determine that a 1,400 year-old pact no longer applies, since the modern-day Christians have broken the rules, and that it time for the Christians to renegotiate the pact with him, the legal guardian of the Islamic faith. When brandishing such confidence and gall, when claiming to be on par with a ‘proper’ caliph from lore, can a layperson listening to the speech be truly faulted for being swayed by such a display of certitude?

In projecting historical drama, the jihadists know their audience. Actually, it is not that difficult to figure out what they are working with, and how they are purposely manipulating it. I know it by my own example: when I leaf through stodgy, scholarly books on early Islam, I catch myself visualizing what I am reading as scenes from a particular movie, The Message (1976). My mental image of what the buildings looked like, the colors, how people dressed, the background noises, and even the haircuts that early Muslims sported derive from it. Growing up in the Middle East, I must have seen this movie some twenty times, for the simple fact that it would reliably get aired at every Islamic occasion dotting the calendar, whether it be Eid, or Ramadhan, or Muhammad’s birthday. It was an epic and compelling production: a Syrian director, Libyan money, two separate versions in Arabic and in English, with the later starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas. The score was exhilarating—its composer Maurice Jarre was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Star Wars that year. The grand tales of early Islam that we had to read in schoolbooks came vividly alive on the screen. Eyes would widen as the warrior hero Hamza, Muhammad’s uncle, stole every scene. The movie had a big impact across Muslim lands and beyond: it was cited as one of the grievances behind the first act of Islamic terror in Washington DC, when a Nation of Islam off-shoot occupied three buildings in the capital in 1977, leaving two dead. They deemed the movie sacrilegious and were incensed that it was due to premiere on U.S. soil. Salafists were never enthusiastic about it, sensing that it portrayed early Islam in a manner that was sympathetic to the Shia version of history. They also have other issues to nitpick; one Salafist told me years ago that depicting the early Muslims as the movie did in all white garb is illogical since they would not have self-identified by their dress color, for example. Chillingly, the Syrian director was killed in November 2005 from injuries sustained after a suicide bomber, dispatched by Zarqawi’s organization, had detonated his explosive vest in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman.

anthony quinn the message

Anthony Quinn as Hamza, The Message

The movie, although controversial, was eminently influential in how dramatized history reached great numbers of Muslims in countries such as Iraq and Syria. The jihadists don’t seem to have any qualms of using that imagery to their advantage, despite the nitpicking of their ideological cousins. In fact, they seem to borrow heavily from it. Take the flag of the Islamic State, for example. It is so omnipresent now that even the 2016 Eurovision Contest had to make it officially clear that it is banned along with such as flags as those of the Basques Country and Northern Cyprus. The jihadists claim that this is the banner of Muhammad, under which the conquering armies of Islam brought the high and mighty empires of their day to their knees. It certainly looks authentic, with its archaic font and old-timey seal. It looks as if it would be something that the art department of The Message would have come up with as background ‘color’. Consider the jihadist victory parade into Mosul. Their convoys of trucks and tanks were preceded by a number of warriors on horseback. Their dress, and their manner of riding, evokes scenes from the aforementioned movie, as Muhammad returned to Mecca, a conqueror. Or let us take that sole televised speech of the current caliph, Abu Bakr, on the occasion of proclamation of the caliphate. There is something about the way he slowly ascends the pulpit in the main mosque of Mosul, how he turns to face the worshippers, how he speaks, what he is wearing (save for the watch), his stern yet contemplative mannerisms—it all seems very familiar. It seem so because modern media in the Middle East, whether through movies or television series, have depicted early Islam as such. Clearly, the jihadists have latched on to a pre-existing stage-set to amplify their messaging.

is swordsman

A still image from the Islamic State’s video, The Return of the Gold Dinar (August 2015)

In another speech by that first, audacious caliph, delivered on the occasion of President Barack Obama being elected president in November 2008, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi addresses “the new rulers of the White House” by using the same words and tone that Muhammad had used in letters allegedly dispatched by the prophet to the emperors of Byzantium and Persia. Again, the jihadists seem to be purposely evoking memorable scenes from The Message when these letters were read out at the imperial courts of the Middle East that a new religion, Islam, has emerged in Arabia. The movie ends by portraying Islam’s resounding victory over paganism at the moment when Muhammad brings down the statuesque idols within the Kaaba. The jihadists knew exactly what they were doing as they filmed themselves smashing and hacking away at the statues of prior civilizations down the corridors of the Museum of Mosul.

In recent years, some Shias have developed an extremist credo of their own, one that also borrows from history to enact present policy, chiefly that of revenge and secession as statecraft. This credo is driving events towards conflagration across the region in tandem with the jihadist agenda. It is important to understand the cyclical nature of extremism today in the Middle East: one cannot focus solely on the challenge posed by the policies and propaganda of the jihadists of the Islamic State, for Sunni and Shia extremists feed into each other. It is a toxic loop, which perpetually rationalizes why they need to go to extremes. The Shias may blame Zarqawi for “starting it” but had it not been for Shia heavy handedness against the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, then Zarqawi’s heirs may not have found an opportunity to stage a comeback.

Shi’ism, at heart, is a movement of restitution. Throughout the ages the Shias have justified their cause by citing what they perceive to be Sunni persecution of Muhammed’s dynasty, one whose claim to power was usurped, principally by the first three caliphs. They can cite one incident after another, stretching back 1,400 years, of how the prophet’s family had been wronged. The seminal event occurred in Karbala, on the day of Ashura, in 680 AD. Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, was massacred along with most of his family. The battle is re-enacted every year among Shia communities, in all its gore and drama, so much so that those portraying the bad guys may get assaulted and chased down through the streets by incensed mobs. History is ever-present, or as one Shia thinker coined it, “Every land is Karbala, every day is Ashura.” The fabric of time collapses and folds unto itself as the past is intensely remembered while the future draws nearer with the eschatological expectation of the savior, the Mahdi, descended as he is from Hussein’s loin, who shall right all wrongs. But should his arrival be delayed, Shi’ism can rapidly mobilize for the purpose of revanchism, striking back at the wrong-doers. We are witnessing such as an outbreak now, one that some Shia strategists in Tehran would like to see reshaping the Middle East. I have termed it ‘Shia chauvinism’ whose endgame would be to partition off Shia majority cantons around the Middle East, because Shias cannot go on living with Sunnis in unitary countries. There was too much bad blood, too much history, between the two sects.

The phenomenon of Shia chauvinism did not crystalize in my mind until I saw a photograph on the internet in 2012. The picture depicted a religious procession of Shia Iraqis, either in Iraq or somewhere in Iran, brandishing a banner. The banner had the visage of then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under the caption: “Support the Mukhtar of our age.” The Mukhtar being referred to is a historical character who led a revanchist campaign against those who had participated in the Karbala massacre. He defeated some in battle, executed others, and arranged for the assassination of more. As avengers go, al-Mukhtar was a superstar in populist Shia lore, and the banner was suggesting that Maliki is his rightful successor as the Shia avenger against the Sunnis in our day. But just in case some had missed the connotation, the banner also depicted the Iranian actor who had portrayed the character of al-Mukhtar in a big production TV series first released in 2010 over the course of forty episodes. The Farsi language series was epic and very well made, dubbed eventually in Arabic, Urdu and other languages and shown across the Shia world. Someone was purposely reminding Shias of this historical precedent, and Maliki’s supporters, carrying that banner, were drawing a link between their man and a historical hero.


Banner proclaiming Maliki as the ‘Mukhtar of our age’

When I first saw that picture I thought that they had gone too far. That this picture would surely damn Maliki’s new line in mainstream Shia public opinion, one that could not possibly advocate wide revenge or strong-arm tactics against Sunnis. I was wrong. A large segment of Iraqi Shias thirsted for revenge following the excesses of Zarqawi and his heirs, even after the Sunni insurgency was soundly defeated in 2008-9. They wanted Sunnis humiliated. A year afterwards, Maliki’s political machine was commissioning songs that play up the ‘Mukhtar of our age’ appellation. The slogan was successfully put to use in the 2014 election cycle, the outcome of which gave Maliki a plurality of the vote. But it also gave us the ISIS comeback in Falluja in January 2014 (before the vote), and the fall of Mosul (after the vote). Shia chauvinism had also mobilized Shias from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and even Afghanistan to rally behind the pseudo-Shia Alawite regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria to face off against the Syrian Sunnis challenging him. Sectarianism breathed new life in the jihadist cause there, riding a desire for Sunni restitution and revenge in Damascus. Seen through the prism of history, it all made sense to the target audiences: war was inevitable; the enemies of the past were standing in the way of the future.

By enveloping themselves in the cloak of history, the extremists from both sides can radiate an aura of certainty. This certitude will make it very difficult to convince them of the need for reconciliation, both with the past and with the present. It also means that it will be very difficult to convince them that they are losing, or have lost. By citing precedent and conspiracy, they can explain away setbacks. They can tell themselves that they got the recipe wrong somewhere, and all they need to do it to go back to the basics to try and try again until it gets going. The stench of past glories, the musky manuscripts that speak of ancestral feats, the decay of once-glorious cities, excite their senses. It is excessively hard to let go of the legacy of greatness. Its loss gnaws at them. It haunts them. They will keep trying. As far as the jihadists are concerned, they were left for dead in 2009. They were thought to be a spent force, its remnants living out a precarious existence in the deserts of Iraq. Then they came back. They made no excuses for the doctrinal overreach of declaring the Islamic State in 2006 that had turned so many other jihadist and Salafist groups against them. They felt they were right all along, and that their temporary setbacks mirrored ones that Muhammad had experienced himself. Not only did they make no excuses, but this time around they called a spade a spade: “Yes, world, this is the caliphate resurrected” they proclaimed. Their righteousness and certainty was foretold by precedence. History is their refuge, their sanctuary. They stand on firm ground. And if that terrain goes unchallenged, they will keep coming back. But it is not all doom and gloom: It just so happens that challenging them on the received facts of history is easier than what many may imagine.

Back in January, some three hundred moderate Muslim scholars gathered in Morocco to reaffirm the ‘Charter of Medina’. They did so to counter the excesses of the Islamic State against minorities such as the Christians and Yezidis who had the misfortune of falling under the new caliphate. The Charter of Medina was a constitution enacted by Muhammad to manage relations with non-Muslims like those Jewish tribes that lived in close proximity to his flock. The moderates called their reaffirmation ‘The Marrakesh Declaration’ after the city in which they met. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington who attended the meeting said, somewhat grandly, “This declaration can change the whole face of Islam.” He walked it back a bit to add, “Not change it, but bring it back to where it was.”

But there is a problem with “where it was” for that was the springboard, the solid ground, used by the extremists to leap forwards into their ambitious doctrinal ventures. Not only that, but the moderates must contend with the extremists on a terrain that is advantageous to the latter. The moderates must argue that history should be interpreted in a new way, to reflect the spirit of the times then and now. Meanwhile, the extremists don’t need to prevaricate or qualify: their read-out of the text is literal. They do as it says. Why would the moderates need to second-guess the prophet or the early caliphs? Why not simply follow the historical precedent to the letter? After all, it worked back then, and going back to the basics might work again. They can refer to the same Charter of Medina to say that Muhammad’s venture eventually outgrew it, finding excuses to deport some Jewish tribes from the town, and to annihilate others. The jihadists earn points for being succinct and straightforward. After all, they have had centuries to figure out all the polemical angles and history is their impregnable bastion. The simplest literal read of history is a winning argument too.

What if there is a way by which we do not have to take the Charter of Medina at face value? There is no original, extant copy of the Charter of Medina under a glass display case in a well-guarded museum somewhere. We cannot even be sure if it was a written document at Muhammad’s time, or whether it was a verbal agreement as was the custom then. What we think we know about the Charter was jotted down, ink on parchment, 150 to 200 years after the event. That is the period when comprehensive chronicles of early Islam were written down, relying for the most part on oral transmission. One of those chroniclers, laboring six generations after the first community of Muslims had passed, may have seen an earlier, written charter somewhere, but again, we cannot know for sure. Our hearts should go out to that chronicler: difficult as it is to recall what one did last Tuesday, it is surely a heavy burden to recall the events on a Tuesday two hundred years ago. But that is precisely why the history of early Islam is enveloped in the fog of doubt. One need not worry though, because for the last two hundred years, Western scholars (whose discipline was dubbed ‘Orientalism’) took on the task of studying how that history was chronicled. They worked laboriously, with difficult languages, to figure out all the analytical angles. They have engaged in furious debates and disagreements, as scholars do, and they have made their respective cases in thousands of books, papers and symposia. Their work continues, with fascinating and insightful research coming out in print in recent years. At points, they were enjoined by Middle Eastern scholars who used those same methodologies that had been developed in the academies of the West—historiography, critical literary analysis, philology, archeology, exegesis, codicology, etc.—to delve into the fog. But such native efforts were sporadic, hesitant and ultimately minimalist compared to the corpus of work being done by German, Italian, British, Dutch, French, Russian, American, and the odd Czech and Hungarian Orientalists—and for good reason. The academies of the Middle East, as well as the general public discourse on history, were generally not amenable to raising doubt. Some of the most risqué works, written in Arabic, had to be published posthumously. Some authors were forced into exile or imprisonment. Some other authors were killed. Their counterparts in the West, on the other hand, could work freely, for the most part.

In his book Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1991), University of California, Santa Barbara professor R. Stephen Humphreys presents a case study in which he marshals the arguments made by various Orientalists over the course of a century regarding the Charter of Medina. Some took it to be authentic, making a rational case for why they would think so. Others argued that it could not have been a unitary document or agreement, suggesting that it was amalgamated into one from a variety of separate agreements. Still others dwelt on the wording, and some of the terms used, and they could not reconcile this document to what they would deem to be plausible wording and terminology during seventh century Central Arabia. After a century’s worth of study, what scholars are left with is intellectual angst: “We will never know for certain.” That is the expected lament of historians that have to deal with events that far back without any extant or contemporary evidence; they have to resign themselves to living with doubt. Now, consider the angst of the historian versus the certitude of the Islamic extremist when revisiting history. Surely that fog of doubt should have a place in the conversation when history is used so deliberately and, at times, horrifically to justify extremism.

Consider another document, that of the aforementioned ‘Pact of Omar’ that the proto-caliph of the Islamic State had so dramatically annulled in 2007. Yet again there is no extant copy of this pact, and all that we know about it was written many decades after it was allegedly drawn up. However, in this case, most scholars have come around to the view that it is not authentic, and that it could not have been a seventh century document that can be attributed to the original Omar. Not only that, but we have a short book written in Arabic by an Egyptian historian, published in the mid-nineties in Cairo, who conclusively determines that the pact is a forgery. The historian revisited the studies that the Orientalists had conducted into the authenticity of the pact, and expanded upon their efforts by employing indigenous Muslim methodologies of exegesis that qualify the reliability of oral reports about early Islam by studying the chain of transmission. Muslim theologians, polemists, and chroniclers had uncovered thousands of falsified reports over the span of centuries by employing these methods. By bringing both Western and Muslim disciplines together, the Egyptian historian stood on solid ground when crying foul. Shouldn’t his book have been part of the conversation about the historicity of the pact when Abu Omar so confidently annulled it? Abu Omar may have looked foolish then, or in the very least he would undermine his own certitude when having to explain why he believed the ‘original’ pact to be authentic; the ground he stood on would not seem as firm.

We can also demonstrate that the flag of the Islamic State is also a forgery. They don’t have an original version that we can verify through carbon dating. Theirs is an imagined banner that they have attributed to Muhammad’s armies. Even the seal of the prophet at the center of the flag, which they seem to have derived from a letter of his bearing it, is likely to be a forgery, since the letter itself is widely believed to be a forgery.

The fog of doubt permeates much of the historical record. If properly harnessed, it can cast a shadow on much of the extremist narrative. The character of Ibn Saba, the Jew who invented Shi’ism, may well have been a fabrication. A strong case has been made suggesting that medieval polemists concocted him out of thin air and inserted him into the historical record. We can demonstrate this because some Orientalists conducted serious and in-depth academic forensics about him and about the fabricators. What about the letters that Muhammad had sent to the emperors of the Middle East that Abu Omar had mimicked in wording and in tone?  Those letters too are not extant, and it is perplexing that we have no contemporary reports by non-Muslims at those imperial courts that remarked upon the fact that a new religion had announced itself so dramatically. The character of al-Mukhtar that Maliki’s followers had championed is a problematic figure for Shi’ism, should we actually revisit what Shia sources say about the topic. The sole male survivor from the battle of Karbala, Hussein’s son who would become the fourth Imam of Shi’ism, did not express much gratitude for what the avenger had wrought on Hussein’s murderers. He considered al-Mukhtar to be a liar and braggart, pushing his own agenda for power.  Again, shouldn’t these impressions of al-Mukhtar have been part of the conversation when Shia chauvinists resurrected his legacy and rehabilitated his image as part of a strategy to redraw the lines in the region?

A war rages in the Middle East. A physical war premised on a war of ideas and revolution. Ambitious actors are adeptly launching large-scale plans for statecraft, ones that are imperial in scope. They understand the value of propaganda in war. They have leveraged the historical record as a centripetal force that mobilizes youths across the region, and as precedent for how to build out their ventures and grandiose visions. They exude supreme certainty in that they are walking in the right path back to redemption and greatness, once lost but now within reach—or so they believe, truly believe. They are aided in doing so because their target audiences have been primed to receive this propaganda, one that pushes all the right buttons. Yet whereas extremist Sunnis and Shias have successfully weaponized history, those of us—Middle Easterners of all denominations, as well as many other nations around the globe—who feel threatened by their ambitions can resort to weaponizing historiography. The history of Islam is long overdue for a public conversation among Muslims as to what role it should play in their present and future. Regular people in Muslim lands should have access to the various opinions, even those emanating from Western scholars, about their own history, even though it may raise doubts concerning the authenticity of the historical narrative. A faith grappling with the challenges of modernity must be willing to live with a healthy dose of doubt. But that is a medium to long-term process that needed to start yesterday. We need to deploy doubt in a systematic and relentless manner right now to jam up the polemical weaponry of the extremists. Doubt, angst and cognitive noise should rain down like arrows into the bastions of ideological certainty upon which the extremists stand defiant.

Orientalism carries a stigma among left-leaning Western academies, where it is widely believed to have served Western imperialism. Orientalism is rejected by like-minded leftists in the Middle East for the same reasons. Columbia University’s Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, the late author of the supremely influential book Orientalism (1978)—which almost single handedly managed to turn its title word into an academic pejorative—boasts the distinction of being the sole intellectual luminary from around the world to have two portraits, not one, hanging on the walls of the Writers’ Café in old Basra, where crusty old Marxists gather for tea and conversation.  Conservative and religiously-minded Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the field of Orientalism is part of a Western effort to undermine their faith. One can find 200 Arabic books on the internet available for full download that attack the Orientalists. Many are parked on websites amply funded by conservative Arab regimes. Yet even so, the scholarly methodology of applying critical analysis to the historical record is ‘agenda neutral’, and it is desperately needed in light of the extremist use of this record. Two hundred years’ worth of scholastic legacy is parked on bookshelves in Western libraries. Little of it is available online. Much less of it has been translated into the languages spoken in the Middle East. If the internet is supposed to be the great equalizer of content, then why is there such a disparity when it comes to a sober and systematic conversation about early Islam? Why is this the case at a time when many young Muslims are watching what extremism has wrought and asking themselves “is this really our religion”? The extremist affirmation that it is indeed “our history, refer to page X, paragraph Y in such and such book” goes unchallenged. Many of those young Muslims have not been trained to take on the task of revisiting the historical record themselves. There is no funding from the local powers-that-be for it. However, they need not start from scratch. Parts of the Orientalist methodology and its output can be made available for them, online and in their languages, and should. Whichever way the subsequent conversation goes is left to them. But a conversation needs to begin somewhere, and on solid scholastic ground. Should it be somewhat controversial may actually be helpful. That controversy could provide the drama that matches the theatrics of the extremists.

I wish I could back to that mountainside café, but this time armed with a particular book. The cantankerous proprietor may still be around, or he may have succumbed to old age, leaving his grandson in charge—probably a scion of his grandfather’s rage. I would wonder whether this young man had seen much fighting in the civil war, raging downhill in the valley, or had heard many war stories from brothers and cousins dragooned into that existential fight. I would wonder how many young Iraqi, Iranian, Lebanese, and Afghan Shias had enjoyed a respite from the fighting while sipping coffee under the shade, rifles at their feet, across the road from that caper berry bush that had drawn me to this spot in the first place. They had ostensibly come to Syria over the last five years to protect Shia shrines from being desecrated at the hands of extremist Sunnis, to keep the bones of their saints safe from exhumation. That is what the young men had been told. What they were really doing there was to prop up Asad’s regime, for that is what extremist Shia strategists in far-away Tehran had ordained. I would arrive with a book called The Shrines of ‘Alids in Medieval Syria by Stephanie Mulder (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). Ideally, someone would have gotten the copyright to translate it into Arabic, so I would be carrying a version of it in that language. The book is mostly concerned with architecture, but there is a valuable subtext in there: most of the Shia shrines studied in the book were erected and subsidized by powerful Sunni patrons back in medieval times. Those Sunnis venerated the shrines as much as modern Shias do, even though some modern Sunni extremists are keen on blowing them up. I would conveniently forget the book there, leaving it on one of the chairs. The old man, his grandson, or even those transient fighters from the Shia internationale may rifle through its pages, driven by sheer curiosity, for this is a book written by a Westerner about their beloved shrines. One or two of them may pick up on the subtext to infer that not all Sunnis are so bad, after all. Or maybe that is too much to hope for after all they had been told, and after all that they had seen. Yet with the din of battle thudding in the background, it seems it would be worth a try.

This essay is drawn from remarks delivered by the author at the Westminster Institute in McLean, Va., on June 1, 2016.


Download a PDF copy of the essay here.

Remarks on how jihadists weaponize history

A lecture I gave on June 1st at the Westminster Institute in McLean, Va., on how religious extremists in the Middle East, both Sunni and Shia, have succeeded in weaponizing memory. They wield historical precedence to inform and legitimize their actions and strategies. I also discuss what can be done to undermine their legitimacy by de-weaponizing precedence.

It’s long, but there’s a bit in there where the audio doesn’t match the video and you can watch me gesticulating furiously and funnily.

Iraq: What was that all about?

Gridlock. Standstill. Impasse. Paralysis. Standoff. These sorts of words may describe Iraqi politics today. But it didn’t have to be so. After a tumultuous three months of high political drama in Baghdad, we can look back and conclude that the crisis was unnecessary, frivolous, and its hoped-for resolution, if Prime Minister Haidar Abadi has his way, will not lead to fundamental reform. And Iraq needs reform. This need has taken on an existential aspect for the survival of the state. Yet three months were wasted that would have been put to better use if the contours of this reform had been fleshed out. The principal culprit for this waste of time and energy has been the instigator of the crisis: Abadi. Unfortunately, what little space availed itself for a political resolution was choked off by the Obama administration’s insistence on keeping Abadi in place.

A brief review. Abadi surprised everyone—including U.S. officials, it seems—by giving a late night speech (February 9) during which he laid out his demand for a ‘fundamental’ cabinet reshuffle, upending Iraqi politics by his desire to replace his current ministers with “technocrats and academics”. He then flew off to Germany on the following day. The cadres of the political class were left scratching their heads: Why did he do that? The majority of his ministers were moderately capable, especially the ones handling the security and economic portfolios, and they worked well with him. Who are these technocrats? Who is going to pick them? Why would Abadi think that they would be better at running the ministries than the ministers already at hand? He also decided to pull this stunt without consulting the heads of the political factions in the country, a country that functions through parliamentary procedure and consensus—not to mention a country that is at war and in serious financial trouble. Again, why did he do that?

Abadi countered that he has a new reform package, and he wanted to implement it without being encumbered by politics. But exactly whom in the cabinet was impeding his ‘reforms’? And what were these reforms anyways? A review of Abadi’s reform package reveals that portions of it were excerpted or borrowed from other reform recommendations available on the internet, some suggested for countries such as Sudan and Algeria. It was boilerplate, vanilla, and generally uninspiring. The kind of drab, box-ticking talking points that a United Nations bureaucrat may author. The package did not address the existential problem that Iraq faces: current oil revenues only pay off, on a good day, 50-60 percent of the public sector payroll bill. This basic equation is not expected to change any time soon, given that very few traders expect oil prices to rise significantly in the next year or so. The only kind of relevant and immediate reform that Iraq needs would have to address this gap between revenue and overhead. But that would be deeply unpopular, as it would be anywhere in the world. It would require leadership, political capital, and a national narrative of ‘We’re all in this together’ to push it through. Abadi has proven unwilling or unable to take the lead. In lieu of actual hard choices, Abadi can nimbly leap forwards, to distract and defer. He thought he had a good thing going with the magic word ‘technocrats’, but that would only solve Iraq’s actual problems if these technocrats managed to lay golden eggs. Abadi’s ability to buy time while pursuing such theatrics had worked well for him previously, but there is not much one can do if one leaps into quicksand.


Abadi during the tumultuous parliamentary session of March 31st.

The sandman cometh. One of the key questions that the Iraqi political class attempted to answer throughout this crisis was “Does Abadi have a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr?” My own conclusion is “No”. At first, right before making his big announcement, Abadi thought he had Sadr onboard. But he did not realize what an ‘alliance’ with Sadr entailed. By asking Sadr to support Abadi’s bid to upend Iraqi politics, the door was left open for Sadr to regain relevance, and relevance is Sadr’s primary motivator. Especially if it means that he can eclipse the “traitors”, those who began as Sadrists but then seceded from his authority. Based on knowledge of conversations between Sadr and his closest circle in 2004, a case can be made that Sadr chose the path towards armed escalation with the United States in order to remain relevant after swaths of his followers began peeling off. More recently, Sadr has watched as Sadrist renegades, principally Asa’ib Ahlul-Haq, attained high popular regard and stature within the Popular Mobilization Forces. Sadr had to find a new way of eclipsing them.

Consequently, if Sadr did not have a firm alliance with Abadi—one that coordinated actions in tandem—then the next question that may arise is “Does Sadr have a deal with someone else?” The answer is again, “No”. What this crisis revealed to me is that no one—not Hassan Nasrallah, not Qasem Suleimani, not Ammar al-Hakim, not Sadr’s nephew, not his chief aides (M. Ya’coubi, W. Zamili, W. Kreimawi, S. Obeidi), not the politburo of the Sadrist movement—has any unique insight into Sadr’s thinking, or the means to influence it. His mind is quicksand, as Abadi soon discovered. That said, there are two sets of ‘brakes’ that Sadr acknowledges and responds to: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Iranian Leader Ali Khamen’i. They can make him stop, but they cannot steer him. And even when these brakes are applied, the skid marks that Sadr leaves in his wake are enough of a reminder that we are dealing with a person who lurches haphazardly to and fro, and his movements might as well be described as policy by divination. Recently, ‘relevance’ for Sadr meant hoping onto the bandwagon of the madaniyya demonstrations that had been gathering since last summer, in an effort to rebrand himself as “The Shepherd [or Overseer] of Reform”.

Sadr, and everyone else, was extremely lucky to have performed all those dramatic stunts without violence breaking out. Slapping around a couple of members of parliament, and rampaging through its halls, does not count as violence by Iraqi standards. Hence, in retrospect, it was all very entertaining to watch. However, having his followers scale the walls of the Green Zone to take a dip in its fountains was Sadr’s ‘nuclear option’. Anything beyond that may tempt his luck and draw blood. Sadr do not seem to have the stomach for that; he also understands that neither Sistani nor Khamen’i would tolerate it. Besides, Sadr has already achieved his goal of becoming relevant. Yet what is the harvest he touts after doing all of this? We are back to Abadi’s meager and ultimately inconsequential ‘reform’ of bringing in the technocrats. So much build-up and noise for so humdrum of a culmination. That is one half of the answer to “How did we arrive at ‘Gridlock. Standstill. Impasse. Paralysis. Standoff’?”

Enabling dysfunction. For the last three months, the political class was keen to tease out the opinions of what they (mistakenly) regard to be the triumvirate of ultimate authority: ‘Najaf’ (the grand ayatollahs, but specifically Sistani), the ‘neighbors’ (the Iranians), and the ‘friends’ (the Americans). It seems that both Najaf and Tehran gave plenty of room for Iraqi politics to breathe and find its footing. While it is always foolhardy to give a definitive account of what was said by either two, because it is always happens to be their intent to keep their channels opaque and their messaging secretive, yet Najaf and Tehran seem to have indicated that if the situation requires it, then they are fine with replacing Abadi. Najaf went even further to suggest that should the National Alliance (the Shi’a bloc in parliament) prove too unwieldy of a political vehicle, then it can be abandoned, and individual Shi’a parties can seek alliances with individual Sunni and Kurdish parties and slates. This was a breath of fresh air into the dank halls of identity politics. Suddenly, the political class was given free rein to creatively reconstitute itself. For that to happen, a complete reshuffling of the deck—one that includes the PM’s position, the presidency, and the speakership of the parliament—must necessarily happen. The political process should have been allowed to take its course.

ahmad falah abadi biden

Caricature by Iraqi artist Ahmed Falah

Unfortunately, there was pushback from Washington. Whether this pushback can be judged by its opponents as shortsighted and cynical, or ‘realistic’ as its proponents would have it, remains to be seen. The Obama administration, after remaining more or less agnostic for two months, came out strongly for Abadi. As far as the Americans were concerned, Abadi was the man they could work with, and replacing him with would incur their displeasure, so much so that they would allow the anti-Islamic State military effort to taper off. Maybe Washington’s sympathy for Abadi is a function of projection: the Obama administration knows too the frustration of working with an intransigent political establishment. But Iraq’s is a parliamentary system, and whoever plays by those rules must develop the habit of working within the system. Abadi chose to reject the rules. Adding insult to injury, he delivered his list of technocrats to parliament on March 31 in a ‘sealed envelope’, so much so that the new cabinet he proposes is now referred to by that moniker. But while the members of parliament, as well as the political bosses of the country waited for the Speaker to break the seal and announce those names, young advisors working in Abadi’s office were leaking the names on social media. It was a powerful message of contempt by the Prime Minister for the political class. However, in choosing to alienate them, he seems to have forgotten that it was this same political class that picked him for the post back in September 2014. Nowadays, Abadi seemingly operates under the illusion that he can remain in place by presidential veto—the U.S. President’s, that is.

One American detractor of the U.S. administration’s policy told me that they are “running out the clock, hoping that Iraq will be someone else’s problem.” I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt, so that we can discuss their actions rather than their motivations. After all, if last week’s policy prescriptions don’t pan out, we should all try to figure out the road ahead rather than wallow in recrimination. Abadi’s proponents in Washington make three reasonable arguments: the focus should be on combating IS and retaking Mosul; Iraq can’t afford to change its leadership in the midst of its negotiations with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; and, there is little chance that the political class would agree on a replacement in a timely manner.

Let’s tackle these points in more depth:

The war against IS: The battlefield successes that were earned by Iraqi security forces had very little to do with Abadi’s charisma or leadership. His visage is not what compels the Iraqi soldier to fight. In fact, on the day that the Sadrists ransacked parliament, Iraqi forces managed to retake the town of Bashir near Kirkuk. The fight went on despite the political wrangling in Baghdad. While Abadi has been helpful in fostering avenues of military cooperation with the United States, he does so because he needs it, and it would be quite a stretch to imagine that his replacement would tend to refuse it. Abadi has said the right things when it comes to the excesses and abuses of the PMFs against Sunnis, but it wasn’t his authority that limited their damage, rather it came about through the efforts of the PMF leadership to ‘contain’ such abuses. There are complex considerations running through the minds of the PMF leadership as to why they did that, one of which has to do with what Iran’s endgame is in Iraq that is yet to be defined (see the last paragraph in this post). Furthermore, the United States must begin to consider that the manner by which the enemy fights may change as it closes onto Mosul, and the prospect that the previous modus operandi of the jihadists may shift from one that harries and distracts, towards one that is more tenacious in holding ground. Rushing a military campaign for Mosul based on what we had seen previously from the enemy needlessly gives a tactical advantage to the jihadists. The other component of the fight against IS, which sadly remains unaddressed, is what vision can Abadi articulate for what life is going to be like for the people of Mosul and Fallouja after the caliphate? If Abadi lacks the skillset and standing to push through a modest political measure such as a government reshuffle, then what can he realistically deliver on by way of a comprehensive settlement with Iraq’s Sunnis? Should the people of Mosul be left to contemplate either one of two fates, that of a ‘good enough’ post-IS Tikrit on the one hand, or the desolation of Ramadi on the other? There must be more on offer in parallel to the military effort, and one would be hard pressed to spot what value Abadi brings to that endeavor.

The World Bank/IMF loans: The Iraqis went to the World Bank and the IMF after trying every other avenue for securing loans and selling bonds. They did so on the advice of the financial institutions that rejected them. The Iraqis were told by these institutions to use the excuse of IMF conditionality to push through painful reforms back at home, such as cutting public sector payrolls, before showing up again and asking for a loan. However, should it turn out that the Obama administration is pressuring the IMF to water down its conditions, then how would these loans help Iraq in the medium to long term? That would essentially mean that Iraq would borrow from the IMF in order to pay public sector salaries. This is hardly a recipe for fundamental reform. The Obama administration may even harangue other states at the G7 summit later this month in Japan to pony up some more cash for Iraq. More cash so that employees at state factories that don’t make anything, or bureaucrats dosing off at their desks, can still get their paychecks for the next seven to ten months. Because that’s how long those loans would last when measured against some of the more rosier scenarios. So if even the IMF won’t compel Abadi to do the hard stuff of reform, then the infusion of cash serves no purpose other than keeping his premiership on life support for a little while longer—cash that will dissipate quickly leaving Iraq with no other recourse for reasonable, timely and meaningful loans in 2017. Washington may want to cut Abadi some slack, and argue that he cannot be held responsible for the spending excesses of his predecessor. Except that he should be: Abadi presided over parliament’s finance committee all through former PM Maliki’s second term. Abadi did not even take his predecessor to task over the ‘missing’ budget of 2014. As such, is Abadi the best candidate at hand to rescue the country from its financial morass?

Picking Abadi’s replacement: It says much about Abadi’s skills as a politician that the political chaos that he instigated and could not control gave Maliki an opening for a comeback of sorts. However, Maliki, unlike Sadr, cannot be content with relevance; Maliki wants dominance. He doesn’t have to be PM again (and he is clever enough to know that that is a long shot, except if there is a Kurdish referendum on independence, but we’ll leave that for another time), but he would like everyone to know that he still wields the influence to pick the next top executive. In parallel to Sadr theatrics, Maliki mounted his own show under the dome of parliament, one that involved some of his acolytes hurling water bottles and tissue boxes at Abadi. Thankfully, it did not amount to much, but it did illustrate what mischief Maliki was capable of fomenting. Let us not forget that Maliki has something that Abadi doesn’t: the killer instinct—once Maliki makes up his mind for something, he will go for it, and he will bite down hard. After all, he likes to remind everyone that his brand is ‘Mr. Authority’, and there are still hundreds (maybe even thousands) of troops in the Green Zone that may answer his call. He also has a lot of money, the same money that Abadi should have expended efforts on demonstrating that it was ill gotten, if nothing but to protect his flank from Maliki’s machinations. But Abadi couldn’t even pull that off. [Abadi’s reluctance to go after him could be an indication that Maliki has something on him. Abadi is not above allegations over his own financial probity, as indicated in this 2004 report to the US Inspector General that surfaced on Wikileaks, pp. 27-33; that cell phone deal was the first big contract undertaken in post-2003 Iraq]. We still won’t know how far of a comeback Maliki can make, but we can be certain that his odds are better while Abadi remains PM.

But for now, Abadi’s replacement won’t be of Maliki’s choosing. Should the political process be allowed to breathe, then consensus can be arrived on rather quickly by the lead actors, with buy-in from Najaf and Tehran. In fact, names have been discussed throughout this whole period since the crisis began. Even Sadr may come around, seeing that he would like to exit the corner he finds himself in after using up his nuclear option. This may sound like science fiction to some, but the prospect of picking a Sunni prime minister was discussed by serious people as a way for the political class to demonstrate (to the demonstrators) that a dramatic break from the old way of doing things is being considered. Increasingly, the political class realizes that they will need to pick a new cast of characters to lead the country, a cast that comes in with enough of a cache of goodwill to sell the Iraqi people on the hard choices as they face the fiscal abyss. Ideally, Abadi, as well as Speaker Saleem al-Juburi and President Fuad Ma’asoum, would selflessly resign their posts, to save face as the political class comes to a consensus on their replacements. Needless to say, it becomes harder to convince them of doing that if Washington insists on a static course.

Peeking into Tehran’s policy-factories. There are many more things to discuss, but I want to keep this post relatively short and readable. However, I would like to highlight one last thing: watching Tehran from the vantage point of Baghdad as it stumbles to provide answers for what comes next is a fascinating experience. Here is my subjective assessment of Iran’s position and future options based on what I heard: The Iranians are astounded that the Americans don’t really care about competing for the Middle East anymore. They are in the midst of a fundamental policy realignment, one that is more tailored to Obama’s disinterest in the region—elements of which they believe to be irreversible under future presidencies—rather than the deal they struck with him. The Iranians would have had a field day with the political drama in Baghdad had they thought, as they did in the past, that any of that really matters for Washington. Yet they have lost their sparring partner, and they find themselves in a very different strategic landscape, one that they have yet to wrap their minds around. That is why they could not say much more that parroting what Sistani was saying throughout the crisis; they didn’t know what they wanted from a post-American Middle East, and they suddenly realized that they were saddled with an irksome Iraq. So much so that Iranians only piped up when Sadrist crowds began chanting anti-Iranian and anti-Suleimani slogans, and even then, all the Iranians had the energy for by way of projecting force was to deploy some of their more-pliable PMFs around the Green Zone, and revving up a few impromptu car parades, horns blaring, waving the Iranian flag in Basra. Iranian angst over what lies ahead may all add up to a decoupling of their Syria and Iraq strategies: Syria because they are in too deep, and Iraq because it is too much of a headache.


The Middle East On Notice: the American ‘Syndicate’ Is No More

The timing of Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in The Atlantic (‘The Obama Doctrine’) could not be more consequential. It comes at a time when a ‘war party’ within the House of Saud must decide whether to pull the trigger on a military adventure in Syria. President Obama’s suggestion that the Saudis should “share” the Middle East with Iran as part of a regional “cold peace”—another way of saying ‘stalemate’—seemingly confirms their worst suspicion: they, as well as all the other actors, must now face a post-American Middle East. Rather than bet on the irrationality of war, as Obama does, those actors are likely to leverage the very rational opportunities of expanded violence. As such, analysts and historians may retroactively judge Obama’s words as the starting whistle for a number of hot wars that those actors felt compelled in pursuing ahead of achieving the stalemate envisioned by Washington.

Obama’s line of thinking, as well as the various arguments against it, were thoughtfully laid out in Goldberg’s piece. I shall not delve into that. However, I would like to address some of the aftershocks that may arise in the region because of it. Though I disagree with much of what Obama said, I understand how he arrived at it. I just wished he hadn’t said it on the record.

The Atlantic Obama.PNG

The ‘Syndicate’ paradigm. The article makes two pop culture references to organized crime: a scene from The Godfather III and the Joker character from Batman: The Dark Knight. I found those references useful in framing America’s conundrum in the Middle East. If the region had indeed turned into a Hobbesian ‘free for all’, and America is unwilling to play the role of the world’s police officer (or police commissioner, for that matter), then America could have starred in the alternative role of capo di tutti capi, boss of bosses. It would be an acknowledgement by her that if order cannot be maintained by international law, then a legally-grey ‘code of conduct’ would have ensured a semblance of order.

The Middle East used to be a strategic street corner in the old neighborhood where America first got her chops on the international scene—or so Obama suggests. But America has moved on to bigger and better things (technological innovation, energy independence, pivot to Asia, etc.). However, America could have held on to that prestigious street corner to drive home a point to any would-be street ‘toughs’ or upstarts: should those upstarts allow things to get out of hand, or should the revenue streams get imperiled, or should they try to make a point about their own ‘toughness’ by making a play for that corner, then the old boss will demonstrate a willingness to fight for that corner. That willingness to stand one’s ground, or moxie, makes the old boss relevant; eventually the upstarts must come around and kiss the ring. Yet Obama, the Chicagoan, believes that holding on to that street corner is too premised on ego, and unnecessarily expensive. Besides, the old neighborhood has gone to hell. Who cares, right? Some new criminal syndicate would eventually arise to deal with the headache. The fallacy of this line of thinking is that arriving at equilibrium involves a mere ‘sit-down’ between rational actors who predominately care about the bottom-line, and somehow they will find their way to an equitable cold peace that all could profit from. It brushes aside the rational agency of a drive-by or a barbershop ‘whack’ in arriving at a better bargaining position. Suddenly, the old neighborhood is in the news, politicians are fuming, and the rest of the town presumes that the old boss is not as agile as she used to be. Movies and TV series about organized crime tell us that such presumptions do not end well for bosses.

The Saudis. The Saudis are mentioned a lot in the piece, and not in a positive light. Imagine what trepidation was going on in Riyadh as Saudi decision makers clicked on the link to an article titled ‘The Obama Doctrine’. They wanted, nay, they needed to know what that doctrine was as much as the rest of us did. And they need to know it right now. The Saudis have waited for five years for Obama to do something about an increasingly volatile security situation in the Middle East. Obama, for his part, took his own sweet ‘academic time’ in formulating a thesis that explains his hesitation over doing more. The value and importance of the Goldberg piece is that now we know where Obama stands, and why. Actually, the why, although thoughtfully expressed, is of no use to the House of Saud at this point. Their takeaway is that they should wait no longer: this U.S. president has made up his mind. They should not expect action from him. Cue egg-on-face for all those Saudi moderates who counselled against the adventurist inclinations of the ‘war party’ within the royal family. The moderates had argued that Saudi Arabia should not act alone, and that whatever it does on the battlefield must be coordinated with its American ally. How much credibility do those moderates stand on after the publication of this piece? The ‘war party’ is ready to go to the mattresses. They envision an anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria that leaves piles of bodies on the streets. This is how they will demonstrate moxie to those other upstarts, the Iranians and the Russians, who had gotten a head start in the race for the control of the street corner that the U.S. had seemingly ceded.

[Of course, all this stuff is far more nuanced than what I am asserting here, but it helps to distill motivations and capacity in such a manner so that we can figure out what may happen next. For more on the ‘why’ and probably the ‘how’ of Saudi Arabia’s imminent (at least to me) campaign in Syria, kindly refer to my recent paper: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic Alliance’. There’s another point to make here: several Iraqi Sunni leaders, when defending their stance of continuing to wait for America to do something big in the region, say something along the lines of “We are waiting for the next American administration.” The Saudis, on the other hand, have sophisticated feelers for Washington DC currents, and they must be looking at the primary election season in the U.S. and thinking to themselves: “We shouldn’t expect much.”]

The Saudis are not going to share the Middle East with the Iranians if their consolation prizes are reduced to Bahrain and Yemen. They can’t allow the Iranians to walk away with Iraq and Syria. And if they can’t get one or both back, then they will probably opt to get parts of them back. Of course, it is a fallacy to assume that Saudi Arabia has a legitimate claim to the leadership of Arab Sunnis, but it hasn’t stopped the House of Saud from talking itself into believing it. Such beliefs can have significant ramifications, especially when coupled with adventurism and action. Worse, still, is inaction. If the Saudis don’t act, Iran will be the least of their worries. (I would even say that an important faction in Tehran may want things to turn out in such a way so that Saudi Arabia saves face given the latter’s recent sabre rattling, because such an accommodation would prevent the region from spiraling into a turf war.) Which leads us to the second fallacy that lies at the heart of Obama’s grand recommendations: that there are only two actors at play here, Saudi Arabia and Iran. No. Another far more dangerous upstart is on the scene.

The Islamic State. One can only imagine what is going in the mind of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as his aides translate the outlines of The Atlantic article to him. I think his thoughts would go along these lines: “If America is out of the competition, and it’s only us versus the Saudis and the Iranians, then our enterprise has a fighting chance. After all, who has our variety of moxie?” The strategists of the Islamic State may believe that they have already taken on all that Iran can deploy against them in Iraq and Syria, and yet their nascent state still stands. They may also believe that Saudi Arabia does not have the stomach for a bruising turf war. Osama Bin Laden used to think that America was “a paper-tiger.” Maybe he was right, the jihadists would argue, but it took a couple of wars over fifteen years for America herself to realize it. Whether those jihadists are analyzing the evolving dynamic around them correctly or not shall have little bearing on the delusions that drive them to make a play for the street corner. History is replete with imperial enterprises that were dismissed at their onset as delusions by naysayers.

Turkey. And President Erdogan, what is he thinking? “That street corner used to be ours!” He may also be concerned that Kurds reading The Atlantic in Erbil or Qamishli or even Diyarbakir would assume that this is their opportunity to go big and bold.

Europe. Those “pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats” of Scandinavia, for whom Obama expresses admiration in the piece, may be rubbing their temples and saying, repeatedly, “this is not good.” The Middle East is only a boat journey, a trek, and a train ride away from them. A turf war occurring “over there” is within their geostrategic earshot. Terrorism brings it even nearer.

China. Obama counsels that the U.S. should pay more attention to China. But the Middle East matters a lot to China, because energy sources and maritime trade routes to Europe and other markets matter. Flattering as Obama’s attention may be, the Chinese must be wondering, “Who’s watching the till?”

Israel. What would Netanyahu have to say about The Atlantic piece? We have a fair idea what it could be given Goldberg’s previous reporting on the Israeli prime minister’s thoughts vis-à-vis Obama’s resolve. So, not good.

And, then. The act of divining an Obama Doctrine, in as much as it is one, by parsing together statements made here, and actions taken there, as was previously undertaken by actors active in the Middle East, had introduced a measure of hesitation that mitigated against adventurism on their part. Some of those actors (Assad, Putin, Netanyahu, and the Iranians) had tried to poke at the doctrine from time to time to see what happens, but that occurred in fits and starts, again because no one could know for sure what the consequences of going too far would entail. But It is quite another thing altogether to read it expressed so clearly in the president’s own words. Obama’s previous mode of ambiguity had contributed to holding the parties at bay, which in turn gave the Middle East a measure of relative ‘peace’. His newly expressed clarity may shake it.

Consequently, for some observers and actors in the region, the ‘Obama Doctrine’ piece potentially marks the ‘wooden-staff-had-given-away-from-under-King-Solomon’ moment of America’s role there.




Paper: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic Alliance’: Major Challenge for Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, or Potential Opportunity?

Link: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic Alliance’: Major Challenge for Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, or Potential Opportunity?

To be published in a forthcoming issue of the Hudson Institute’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Suggested soundtrack while reading: Saudi Singer Challenges Russia: You Are No Match for Saudi Arabia, Putin Has Brought Trouble upon You

What is happening in Iraq?

PM Abadi has locked himself into a political bind, and it is unlikely that he would find a way out of it other than having to resign his post. The United States government had put too much of a bet on Abadi as its only necessary partner in Iraq, and may find it does not have enough leverage over various political actors towards the goal of keeping Abadi at the helm. Those actors, who feel sidelined and spurned by American engagement with Abadi, may sense that the Obama administration needs to demonstrate, to the American public, that it is doing something against the jihadists in Iraq, rather than risk suggesting American disengagement from the country if the Iraqi politicos do not play along with its political preferences.

Abadi’s cabinet reshuffle. Abadi declared that he seeks a “fundamental government reshuffle” and a cabinet of “technocrats” rather than politicians. Allegedly, his vision entails replacing all the ministers except for two, with the Minister of Planning staying in place, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi (the current oil minister) heading foreign affairs. Abadi believes that a reshuffle would buy him time and goodwill in the minds of an increasingly disillusioned Iraqi public, as expressed on social media, and that he can deflect criticism away from him towards the political process and its main actors. He also believes that his Da’awa Party flank is secure since if he goes, then Da’awa will not be able to suggest a replacement for him from its own ranks, and the PM slot will go to another Shi’a political bloc. Abadi also thought that he had neutralized Sadr by coordinating the announcement of the reshuffle with him. He cited Sadr’s support to convince panicked Da’awa cadres that his ‘leap ahead’ would not jeopardize the party’s hold on the PM slot.

But there are two problems with his justifications for this reshuffle. Administratively, the ministers holding the portfolios that are most relevant to Iraq’s immediate challenges—finance, security, and regional balances—are able administrators who enjoy a measure of political clout. I can think of only three weak links who should be changed in the following institutions: Finance, Central Bank, Planning, Oil, Electricity, Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. One would be hard pressed to think of a better replacement for Hoshyar Zebari as Finance Minister or Adel Abdul-Mahdi for Oil, for example. If Abadi cannot work with this current team as it is, then that is probably an administrative failing on his part.

Politically, Abadi has been unable to forge a meaningful alliance between his SOL faction with Hakim and Sadr, even though Najaf wanted to see that happen. The manner by which Abadi had managed his relationship with Hakim, in particular, seems to reflect a political failing on the former’s part. The resignation of Hakim’s ministers from the cabinet is allegedly imminent. If Abadi’s chief political complaint, as relayed to the Americans, is the danger that Maliki poses to his authority, then the current rupture with Hakim should have been unnecessary. It is highly likely that Hakim will begin an aggressive move now towards forming a Shia-Sunni-Kurd political majority in parliament to replace Abadi, and to rework the political arrangement arrived at when the government was formed.

Those two failings, administrative and political, are best encapsulated in how Abadi mismanaged his coordination with Sadr ahead of the announcement.

Mr. Sadr goes to Baghdad. Sadr had other ideas for how to make use of Abadi’s overture to him. Sadr, being Sadr, went maximalist with a list of near-impossible demands. He initially embraced Abadi’s call, and then went ahead and publically laid out a formula for how the candidates for the new cabinet portfolios should be picked. He named individuals to various committees that would be tasked with vetting and picking candidates, essentially denying Abadi his prerogative as chief executive. Not only that, but the mechanism is likely to be rejected by the rest of the political establishment. But it wouldn’t be up to them to vocally say ‘no’—Abadi has to do it.

One can suggest that Sadr is just being erratic and impractical. But there seems to be more method to what he is doing. Sadr may have deliberately constructed a political trap for Abadi, and it seems that latter has now figured out that he is trapped. Sadr must also be mindful that with Sistani seemingly bowing out of the pro-reform debate, then the field is open to Khamen’i. That is essentially the ‘gentlemanly’ agreement arrived at two years ago between Sistani and Khamen’i; if the former takes the lead in shaping the Iraqi polity, then the latter will acquiesce. If not, then Khamen’i gets to have a go. Sadr knows about this agreement, as do many others. He may have determined that Khamen’i would lean towards other ‘Sadrist’ factions (such as AAH) who have demonstrated more loyalty to Iran. So Sadr had to act.

Sadr built-in a timeline for his proposal: 45 days. He also coupled his reform agenda with a plan to re-invigorate the pro-reform Friday demonstrations that had been ongoing for six months. Sadr intends to headline this Friday’s demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir square by promising to lead his flock in prayer.

Sadr also made Abadi lose face by forcing the latter’s hand over where to meet today: Sadr got his way, and Abadi had to leave the Green Zone and travel to the Kadhimiya shrine for a sit down with the visiting cleric. The optics of a PM having to bend over backwards to the leader of a political movement who is suggesting to strip him of executive prerogatives, and who is simultaneously planning to lead what is essentially an anti-government rally, is not a good one for Abadi. Furthermore, Sadr seems to have tailored his list of names for the ‘minister picking’ committees specifically to win over the liberal and secular demonstrators of Tahrir Sq., who had previously been willing to give Abadi the benefit of the doubt. In doing so, he is playing on one of Abadi’s weaknesses: his perceived sensitivity—one may say over-sensitivity—to what there liberal secularists are writing about him on social media.

It could very well be that after 45 days elapse Sadr will declare that he had given Abadi a chance, and that it is high time to change him. By then, Sadr may find that Hakim had cobbled together the necessary votes for a Shia-Sunni-Kurd parliamentary plurality that seeks to evict the Da’awa Party from power, and he may well join them.

Kurds. The PUK may be farther along towards figuring out how to share power between its internal nodes that most observers can see. But that power sharing is premised on three outcomes: striking a deal with the KDP to oust Goran, separating party leadership from KRG leadership positions, and replacing Fouad Masoum as president of Iraq. The PUK may go along with the replacement of Abadi-Masoum-Juburi in part because they need that position vacated for a member of the PUK’s triumvirate.

The KDP have their own, amply reported reasons for changing Abadi. The KDP leadership can buy time among an increasingly agitated populace, one that is agitated by financial stress, by suggesting that choosing a new person in charge in Baghdad may alleviate some of the KRG’s financial woes. Barzani may even offer the incoming PM the prospect of delaying the proposed referendum on Kurdish independence as a gesture of goodwill to Baghdad (…and to Ankara, and to Tehran, and to Washington), and turning a new leaf with the central government.

Sunnis. The ‘national’ leaders of the Sunnis feel wounded. They believe that both Abadi and the Americans have concluded that their collective political shelf-life has expired after the Islamic State took over most of Arab Sunni territories. They are also watching with unease as Abadi, and the Americans as well, put more stress on working with ‘local’ Sunni leaders such as the governors of Anbar and Salahuddin, as well as the Sunni waqf, the religious endowment. They are incensed that, in many of these cases, these local Sunni leaders were the ones Maliki had propped up as part of a systematic policy to undermine the national leaders.

Regardless of whether their feelings are warranted or not, their current situation has created an atmosphere of camaraderie and a sense of a shared political fate. They have been quietly re-forging the Sunni bloc in parliament under the leadership of Usama al-Nujeifi, and they are doing so at Juburi’s expense. The national leaders may have concluded that the Abadi-American bet on the local leaders will fall apart, given that very local considerations, such as the scale of the devastation to places like Ramadi and the Beiji refinery, and the inability to curtail abuses from the PMFs, will continue to erode the local legitimacy of ‘Maliki’s Sunnis’. Juburi’s inability to do much about PMF abuses in Diyala has wounded him, plus, he saw an opportunity in the way the other nationals were being dismissed, and he tried to take advantage of it. This did not go unnoticed by them. It is likely that if Abadi and Masoum are changed, he too would have to go.

What comes next?

Abadi would have been better served by using the time at hand to come up with immediate and fundamental solutions to Iraq’s financial crises. Estimates vary, with the government officially declaring that “all is still fine”, but the financial shortfalls between cash-at-hand and expenditures may begin showing next month, according to a well-placed source.

One can reasonably argue that the last thing Iraq needs now is to replace its Prime Minister and invite further political uncertainty. This blog had argued much the same case back in October. But it is the PM himself who opened up this door. And in doing so, he may have revealed that it is indeed time to address his administrative and political shortcomings. Gambling on a dramatic government reshuffle, without laying down the necessary political groundwork and buy-in from the major players, at this delicate and problematic time for the country, speaks to the PM’s political instincts.

With Maliki, it took the Obama administration a long while to mentally dissociate from the former Iraqi PM. This time around, political maneuverings by actors such as Hakim and Sadr may be happening too quickly for Washington’s taste, and even though it has thousands of troops and far more reaching engagement with the country, America’s leverage on Iraqi politics had been weakened. One thing to remember is that the current challenge to Abadi is not coming from actors or groups beholden to Iran. The reasons for the ‘leverage problem’ in this particular case are not wholly of Tehran’s making.

Link: Previous ‘What is happening in Iraq?’