What did we do wrong? Looking inwards to explain ISIS’ rise

It’s time to ask “what went wrong?” Those looking for a foreign conspiracy are evading the truth

Jamal Khashoggi
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It’s said that after Genghis Khan invaded Samarkand, he took to its great mosque’s podium and addressed Muslims saying: “I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent me as your punishment.” The same story is said about his grandson Hulagu except the latter made the statement in Baghdad after he invaded it.

Whether the story is true or not, its popularity among Muslim narrators expresses the illogical situation and the shock they’ve been through as they are a people of religion and politics witnessing a barbaric invasion of people with no religion - of people shedding their blood, burning their cities and imposing a whole different set of rules. These narrators thus found no other reason for this except that it is “our sins we are being punished for.” It’s a comfortable analysis but I wish they would have added “our political mistakes.”

It’s time to look inside us. Those looking for a foreign conspiracy are evading the truth and failing to see our own mistakes

Jamal Kashoggi

Maybe it’s time to say this and correct the mistake of our predecessors. There are angry youths with a skewed mentality and understanding of life and sharia and they are cancelling a heritage of centuries and the supposed gains of a modernization that hasn’t been completed. They turned into rebels, emirs and a caliph invading a vast area of our land. They are also hijacking our children’s minds and cancelling borders. They reject all rules and legislations, throwing our way a two or three A4 pages on their vision of politics, governance, life, society and economy. As for you who happen to be among the citizens of the self-declared “commander of the faithful,” or Caliph, you have no other choice. You cannot discuss anything. They don’t care if you stand out among your people and if you are an educated man, or a lecturer, or a tribe leader, or a religious leader, or an active politician or even a judge. It won’t help you that you are leader of a fighting brigade that participated in the “conquering quest.” You must all listen and obey the commander of the faithful and pledge the oath of allegiance to him. He will not call for a constituent assembly to unite everyone and agree on the upcoming regime, the constitution, rights and duties, representation of the people and separation of power. There’s no need to go on. When their policies are questioned, Abu Obedia al-Jazrawi yells, saying: “Shut up. Our reference is the book and the Sunnah and that’s it” And he then throws a booklet of 40 pages and a script of the most recent speech of the commander of the faithful to us and yells saying: “All you want is here.”

A worrying reality

Genghis Khan’s speech on the podium and Jazrawi’s statements are worrying for a Saudi intellectual sipping coffee after iftar in Riyadh or for a Moroccan doctor in Rabat. However it’s the stark reality for my friend from Mosul whom I spoke with this week. He’s a governmental official in a department and does not want me to identify him further. He says their situation is secure and he summarized the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria saying: “They are good people as long you don’t disagree with them.” But he hasn’t yet comprehended the idea that he takes orders from a young man who hasn’t finished his education. After our brief conversation, his statement “How did this happen? What happened that made us relapse to this extent?” stuck in my mind.

After the September 11, 2001 twin attacks, famous orientalist Bernard Louis wrote his important book “What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.” He tried to answer the question of what led Muslims to this state of backwardness after they were pioneers in civilization, science and achievements. He then looked into the reasons for the failure of the Ottoman state. He looked into its failure to finalize several modernity projects though it launched them - it recognized modernity but did not fully adhere to it. Perhaps the most important result of his research is his belief that Muslims became more occupied with playing the victim of outside interference rather than looking at how they had hurt themselves.

But since we don’t like Bernard Louis, we don’t read his books much. We don’t admit that there’s some sort of huge mistake inside us. We failed to notice that our Arab world has worn out from the inside. We only noticed it wore out after it collapsed. There were states and regimes that appeared strong and frightening. They had money, oil, arms, leaders, security, media, intellectuals and religious scholars and confirmed we are achieving one victory after another and one achievement after another. There was Iraq of Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Assads, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Qaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. All these countries lived long years, wearing themselves out from the inside. They lived under the intimidation of intelligence and security apparatuses and the media’s lies. They didn’t live under the rule of politicians. Economic experts were the last people leaders listened to. Development plans were devised but no one read them, let alone implement them. Education deteriorated and so did the society and its values. No one cared so collapse was inevitable. There’s no foreign conspiracy but mistakes of 60 years - mistakes that began when the first ignorant thoughtless military figure led the first coup. Or it’s perhaps the mistakes of 100 years ever since colonization established a distorted Arab world. What matters is that they are accumulated mistakes and collapse was inevitable.

What went wrong?

It’s time to ask “what went wrong?” It’s time to look inside us. Those looking for a foreign conspiracy are evading the truth and failing to see our own mistakes. Is it tyranny enveloped in the deceptive word “stability?” Or is it the theory of Bahraini intellectual Mohammad Jaber al-Ansari - the theory of “concern over loot” - as in the Arab leader and those around him view the country as a loot? It’s like he who slays his own goose (his country) to get all the gold. Or is it the social classification which we refuse to acknowledge but live every day in most of our Arab societies? We see it in the ruler’s view towards “the other people.” We see it in the view of those around the ruler, whether they are wealthy men, intellectuals or religious clerics. We even see it in the middle class which views those lower than it as a mere mob who don’t deserve democracy or the freedom of choice and opinion because it is not good at making choices and must be educated and have its awareness improved first? Is it the inactivity of religion and the imposition of a school of jurisprudence that the ruler favored because it helps him be heard and obeyed though it’s incapable of meeting modernity at a time when all forms of materialistic, and not intellectual, modernity are imposed upon us? This materialistic modernization has intersected with this inactivity and exploded as the al-Qaeda and ISIS phenomenon we see today. Look at Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi politicians as a model of this. They failed to realize that their country is collapsing and they argued during the first parliamentarian session so they postponed it for a week. Maliki resumed fighting with the country’s Shiites. Maliki and Iraq’s politicians are a mere model for all of us. No one wants to admit that something went wrong. Meanwhile, the only thing dynamically moving forward is chaos and time.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 5, 2014.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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