Thursday, August 25, 2016

ISIS, the world’s newest deviant Islamic sect

Jehad Awartini/Newsweek
AFTER a spate of terror attacks in the US, France, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Bangladesh, Turkey and Belgium being attributed to ISIS – wrongly or rightly – the question has to be asked: just who exactly is ISIS?

With the Muslim name being dragged into the mud every single time an Arab-looking, or Islamically attired person fits a stereotype, it is high time we confronted the hard truths about ISIS. Representing less than 0.002% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, ISIS has become a face of Islam.

What should be an insignificant numerical minority is, in the minds of many, a discomfiting majority. But as journalist John Pilger points out, only by dealing with state terror can we begin to understand the terror of smaller groups. But – given the plight of our Fox-friendly media nowadays – we know most people are not going to do that.

However, in trying to contextualise matters we are not exonerating ISIS, which claims to be creating a new Muslim order fighting an unjust global hegemony – a post-Ottoman hegemony that has caused humiliation, occupation and oppression in Muslim lands.  

Indeed, the sentiment of resistance may resonate, but its methodology certainly doesn’t. For as the Qur’an says in Surat ul-Fussilat: repel evil with something better, not something worse.

Or, to put it another way. Shaikh ‘Umar Mukhtar, Libya’s celebrated anti-colonial jihadist, was horrified when his mujahidin asked him if they could execute their Italian POWs. “What!” exclaimed a peeved Mukhtar, “do we stoop to their level? Must their law become our law?”

Before we proceed further, we have to contextualise ISIS. And whilst its policies are rightly considered repugnant by most of humanity, UN reports reveal that ISIS has killed some 20, 000 civilians as opposed to the 200, 000 Iraqis who died right after the US invasion. 

Again, we are not arguing moral equivalence – and social misery and displacement can have no measure – but Nigeria’s Boko Haram (an ally of ISIS) also killed more people last year.  

So, how was ISIS born? Its nascence can be attributed to several factors in a complex environment. Firstly, the US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, witlessly fired Iraq’s security and civil services in a drastic de-Baathification process after 2003. It rendered 250,000 people jobless. 

Secondly, ISIS was influenced by Al-Qaeda and fostered in US detention camps.

Thirdly, the ensuing chaos in Iraq attracted Al-Qaeda. This saw the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a tattooed former Jordanian convict, whose ignorance of Islam was matched by his brutal, psychopathic beheadings and bombings.

Zarqawi famously refused to pledge allegiance to Bin Laden, which became the first omen of an Al-Qaeda breakaway. However, Zarqawi was killed by a US drone in 2006, and Al Qaeda in Iraq was pushed back for a while by Iraqi and US forces.

The fourth factor of the birth of ISIS was the disastrous leadership of Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014). As head of the Shi’ah dominated Islamic Dawa Party, he marginalised the formerly powerful Sunnis, which soon festered into a sectarian crisis.

It is important to note that this sectarianism – previously foreign to Iraq – was not initially caused by faith, but ignited more by political factors in 2013 when Maliki’s men fired on Sunnis protesting bread and butter issues.

ISIS declared its Caliphate in 2014, much to the shock of the uninformed world. Its founder was Hajji Bakr, a former colonel in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Republican guard, who harnessed the leadership energies of a so-called religious student and a former Al-Qaeda member, Ibrahim ‘Awad al-Badri (soon to become Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).

The presence of professional soldiers in ISIS ranks explains its rapid sweep across Iraq and Syria, as well as its skilful plundering of state resources. However, ISIS chose for itself an “Islamic” model. Based on the extreme edges of Saudi Arabian Salafi-Wahhabism, and misinterpretations of the mediaeval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, it is by this value that it has to be measured.

Indeed, ISIS claims Shari’ah-centric governance. However, a review of the goals of Shari’ah betrays this notion. In Shari’ah, or Sacred Law, there are five governing principles accepted by the majority of scholars. They are: the preservation of life, the protection of religion, the safeguarding of progeny, the inviolability of wealth and property and the sanctity of the intellect.

There is no space to venture deeper into the above, but in previous articles we have shown how ISIS has flagrantly transgressed all these important Shari’ maqasid, including its takfiri notion that those who disagree with it become unbelievers who can be killed, and its gruesome suicide bombings (

Furthermore, ISIS has transgressed the codes of conflict enumerated by the Prophet Muhammad and his Four Righteous Caliphs, some of them being  that a Muslim army cannot harm non-combatants, that it must treat its prisoners well, that it must respect priests and rabbis and that it cannot destroy any places of worship.

Given its violations of Shari’ah, and disregard for the rules of engagement, ISIS has wandered from Sunni codes. Besides, Sunni, Shi’ah and Salafi clerics have all condemned ISIS on all the above principles.

In fact, one could argue that whilst ISIS may claim to be “Islamic”, its behaviour has been distinctly anti-Muslim in character. But whilst being anti-Muslim, ISIS cannot be regarded as “infidel” because it does believe in a God – albeit an angry and vengeful one unfamiliar to conventional Islamic theology. But, and this is a critical point, we cannot say that ISIS is unequivocally “non-Muslim” because of that.

So it begs the crucial question: is ISIS, despite its egregious claims of being Sunni, a new Islamic sect? The Webster dictionary defines a sect as “a group that is a smaller part of a larger group, whose beliefs differ from the larger one”. ISIS certainly fits that category.

Google proclaims that a sect is “a group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group”. ISIS would fit that definition too.

The well-known cult de-programmer, Steven Hassan, provides further pointers. According to him, cult leaders use loaded language, manipulate fear, discourage critical thinking and actively prescribe a “them” and “us” doctrine. Such movements, he says, use deception in recruitment and utilise a top-down leadership style. Again, ISIS fits the bill.

Perhaps, in conclusion, would it be fitting to say that the cultist ISIS is a brand-new – if not deviant – Islamic sect? That ISIS is a sect no less in the fashion of previous sects refuted by Islam, sects such as the Qadiriyyah, the Mu’tazilites, the Jabariyyah, the Khawarij and the Murj’iah? And then, the big question, what do we call ISIS from now on as Islam moves to take back its centre?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The ANC after the municipal elections, treating the cancer

The hopes of 1994 © Photo Shafiq Morton
I HAVE covered every single election since democracy, from the euphoric highs, the hope and the bonhomie of 1994 to the disillusionment, the uncertainty and the simmering rage of 2016.

Without doubt, in this month’s municipal elections South African voters have shown their feelings, whether by engaging with the ballot box, or choosing to stay away. Indeed, the public has indicated that the honeymoon is over. No longer will it tolerate those who don’t deliver.

In the post-Mandela era, South Africans – who are certainly not unmindful of historical imbalances – are becoming less and less seduced by the sentimentality of struggle politics, and more and more concerned about bread and butter issues.

Protest by ANC members about candidate lists was the first sign that the 2016 local government elections would be contested vigorously – even from within the ranks of the governing party – where dissatisfaction with non-performing councillors had come to a head.

Because of our constitutional framework, our politics plays itself out in two spheres. The first is the outer, or multi-party one, which exists at a municipal, provincial and national democratic stratum. It is meant to be a level playing field, but it does have a systemic drawback. As there is a proportional system, those voters outside any party have little say in who will be their representatives.

Over 22 years it has created a distance from power, and is an aspect of our system that might need review.

The second sphere of our politics is the inner one, where one party currently overwhelms the political landscape, its inner workings affecting the outside, greater population. The tri-partite alliance of the SACP, COSATU and the ANC is the dominant space from within which power emanates. 

However, all of this does not mean – as President Jacob Zuma once suggested in parliament – that because one party has a large majority it has more rights than the minority. Zuma’s other sentiment  – that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes – could haunt him if ANC support dips below 50% in the 2019, or 2025 national elections, as some commentators have predicted.

Coalition politics – very much in the municipal frame right now – could well determine his successor. It is largely hypothetical, but the EFF and DA could possibly be wrangling with the ANC executive over who should be our next president.

The ANC was definitely hurt in this year’s local government elections by national questions being conflated with municipal ones. These questions reflected not only a growing unease over the ANC's executive competency, but frustrations about economic growth, unemployment, corruption, state capture and service delivery.

Then in KwaZulu Natal there were 14 politically-related killings, all believed to be within the ANC fold.  In the Western Cape there was much hurrah, but no leader. In Vuwani, Limpopo – where a municipal demarcation dispute led to wide scale unrest and boycotts – less than 4% of registered voters went to the polls.

It is obvious that the ANC has had to pay for Zuma – from the Guptas and Nkandla to Nene-gate. It also has had to bear the criticism of those elders still inside the ANC, but outside the Zuma circle. When party heavyweights such as Kgalema Mothlante, Mavuso Msimang and Frank Chikane weigh in about the ANC, then South Africans should listen.

It was Msimang who suggested in the Mail and Guardian that the ANC was “broken”. It was Mothlante who said that when fear reigns within you end up with a “dead organisation”.  And Chikane, a former Mbeki aide, wrote a letter to Luthuli House predicting dire consequences if nothing was done about the malaise of the corruptibility of power within the ANC, which he described as a “cancer”.  

The ruling party faces a Rubicon on this. Can the cancer be cured? Zuma cannot be blamed for everything, but it is he who via Nkandla has dragged political debate to the level of parliamentary hooliganism and who will be associated with the nepotism, the parastatal looting and the self-enrichment that has so blighted Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

A pertinent question on every South African’s lips is the ANC’s persistence of cadre deployment at all costs. Incompetent hacks get appointed to key positions, and the party not only undermines itself, but the whole country. Patriarchal hierarchies only nurture mediocrity; they undermine independent thought, innovation and excellence.

As I write this personal review, it almost seems as if the ANC is so out of touch with the epoch that it has become an anachronism, a political relic in its own time. One thing we observed at this year’s elections was the absence of youth at the polls. Young South Africans simply don’t relate to pot-bellied elders in green-and-yellow tracksuits doing staged walkabouts on the SABC, which they don’t watch anyway.

In a cyber-age where South Africans use 66 million cell phones (22 million being smartphones), where 15 million are on WhatsApp and over 1 billion SMSs are sent every month, the ANC still gives the impression that knocking on people’s doors will win elections.

Indeed, if the ANC is to rescue itself from itself – and to uplift the country it currently rules – some hard work lies ahead, as it is going to have to break new ground, create new standards, banish old habits, become tech savvy and take serious note of the youth bulge in our population.

Of course, this is a challenge that all political parties will have to face. The nuts and bolts of constitutionalism, the commitment of participatory democracy, and how our political system works – right down to how to cast a vote – needs to be taught at our schools.

Undoubtedly, the next few years are going to be challenging – and not only for the ANC. As analyst Ebrahim Fakier has said, we are entering an era of uncertainty. As for the ruling party – to borrow from data analyst Andile Ngcaba – chemotherapy will be the only way to solve the cancer today, band aids will simply not be enough to save the ANC from disaster in 2019.