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Heroic stoicism, in the time of the plague

The heroic stoicism of al-Kasasbeh may have caused a rhetorical flourish from the White House but it will not change Obama’s cautious war on ISIS

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The lone man stood motionless, with his arms hanging at his side, gazing through the bars of his cage into the incoming inferno. The hitherto ordinary Jordanian young man was about to become, in his fiery end, a potent symbol of a dignified fighting humanity.

A phalanx of armed men, cowering behind their masks, stood staring with empty eyes. For once, for an eternity of a few moments, a caged man was stronger than his tormentors. First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh did not plead for mercy, he did not cry, he did not beg. His last act before he was totally engulfed by the flames was to cover his face and his eyes. The lone man has become the face of heroic stoicism. One would hope that it will be written in the future, that during the time of the bubonic plague of religious and political fanaticism, nihilism and absolute violence that swept the Arab world, the heroic stoicism of Moaz al-Kasasbeh was a defining moment in an epic struggle for life, dignity and freedom, even if Moaz did not intend his life to be such.

Rage, fury and rhetorical flourishes

The reaction to the killing of the Jordanian pilot ranged from fury and calls for military retribution, to calls from religious authorities for revenge in kind. There were those in the Arab media who exploited the video in crass appeals for ratings and for political reasons.

Those millions in the West who marched in the streets and proudly displayed signs of Je suis Charlie following the killing of 12 people at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month where nowhere to be found, even though the killers in both cases were cut from the same cult cloth.

The heroic stoicism of al-Kasasbeh may have caused a rhetorical flourish from the White House but it will not change President Obama’s limited and cautious war on ISIS, and will not dislodge him from the comfortable territory of “strategic patience” or force him to abandon his belief that “we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear,” as he said in his covering letter to Congress, regarding his National Security Strategy for the last two years of his tenure. In other words; we will continue our half-baked strategy in Iraq, and no strategy in Syria.

A rare shared sense of outrage seized a region many thought was totally numb to new violence. For the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) beheadings have become the “old normal” and the time has come for a new low of human depravity. The video of the burning of al-Kasasbeh was also a declaration of war against Jordan, to intimidate its government and people and force it out of the coalition, as well as a message to all the would-be assassins in the world to join the cult from hell and to revel in the thrill to kill.

Those (mostly in the West) who assert that ISIS has blundered this time and miscalculated the reaction, assume the so-called Caliph and his henchmen look at the world the way they do. Those (mostly in the Arab/Muslim world) who say correctly that Islam prohibits the burning of people refuse to believe that Islamic history has many cases of well-known Muslim leaders sanctioning burning as a form of torture.

Sacred texts and macabre acts

The killers of ISIS justified their macabre execution with sacred texts and a areligious edict to justify their barbarism. Political and religious leaders, from the Sunni and Shiite branches categorically denounced the killing and some called for blood. The Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, head Al Azhar University, one of Sunni Islam’s most recognized institutions, was so enraged that he said that the ISIS murderers, deserve the Quranic punishment; to be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off.”

The reaction of the head of Al Azhar, the supposedly “moderate” revered religious institution, raised eyebrows and consternation among moderate Muslims who could not understand why such a religious authority would – even when using sacred texts – incorporate essentially the same language of physically maiming peoples that extremists use. It is as if Al Azhar wants to exact the same punishment from ISIS that ISIS meted out to Moaz al-Kasasbeh.

This position by Al Azhar reinforced the view that moderate Muslims in the Arab world are intellectually homeless. That is they lack the institutional structures – religious, educational and political – they need to challenge the ideological underpinnings of extremist Islamists.

The lack of independent, open-minded religious institutions in the Arab world is one of the reasons explaining the dearth of serious attempts at a new Islamic hermeneutics. Extremist Islamists, long before ISIS, would always try to rely on certain controversial passages in the sacred texts that should be judged in the context of the times they were accepted. Unless serious attempts at deconstructing these passages and putting them in their historical contexts are made, the religious texts will always be susceptible to dangerous interpretations. As Adonis, the Arab’s greatest poet in modern times said “even a great religious text would lose its greatness when it is interpreted by a small mind.” There is much more to religions than their sacred texts, beginning with the lived experience of the community of believers, in history, and how and who is doing the interpretation of the sacred texts.

The lack of independent, open-minded religious institutions in the Arab world is one of the reasons explaining the dearth of serious attempts at a new Islamic hermeneutics.

Hisham Melhem

… And the crass exploitation

The immolation of al-Kasasbeh was crudely exploited by those who use sectarianism as a tool of political mobilization and who don’t hesitate for a moment to commit crimes that outpace the crimes of ISIS.

The Syrian regime, responsible for the most outrageous crimes committed by any regime in the 21st Century, including gassing the Syrian people, was quick to condemn the killing of the pilot. Iran, the country that uses sectarianism to mobilize the Shiite Arabs and keep them reliant on it condemned the execution as “un-Islamic and inhumane.” The Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s auxiliary force in Lebanon and Syria, said the killing is the “most gruesome” of many atrocities committed by ISIS. Some Arab television stations, including those in Egypt, did broadcast the most painful moments of the video. One such “anchor” feigned a hysterical reaction, urging the people to watch the video, and to know the real enemy. The display of exaggerated rage and the incessant shouting cheapened the legacy of al-Kasasbeh even before it had a chance to develop.

Strategic patience

A few days after the horrors of the al-Kasasbeh video, President Obama issued his second National Security Strategy (NSS), where he highlighted economic recovery and the imperative of leading the world through partnerships and alliances. National security advisor Susan Rice, who was tasked to explain and sell the Strategy, told a foreign policy audience at the Brookings Institutions that the threats facing the United States today “may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War.”

She urged the politicos of Washington to have “a sense of perspective” saying “we cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism in a nearly instantaneous news cycle.” The NSS downplayed the historic challenge from the Middle East represented by the steady unraveling of the regional state system with long-term catastrophic consequences. And while it maintained and even increased the amount of rhetorical flourishes against Russia because of its aggressive policies in Ukraine it is still reluctant to provide the Ukraine with defensive arms so that the Russians will not get very upset. President Obama counseled “strategic patience.”

The NSS and Rice’s speech displayed their studied ambiguity toward Syria’s ongoing tragedy. There is the pro forma talk about equipping and training the moderate Syrian opposition, “but obviously, that opposition is weakened and under strain. And, so the process of working with our coalition partners to build that capacity will be longer and more challenging even than it is in Iraq,” Rice said. And after stating that the opposition should “provide a counterweight to the terrorists and the brutality of the Assad regime” the NSS quickly asserts that the “lasting solution remains political, an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens.” There is no more any talk about the need for Assad to step down, now that Washington’s priority in Syria and Iraq is to check the advances of ISIS. Almost four years after the Syrian uprising, one still does not see a sense of urgency when it comes to arming and training the Syrian opposition.

The war with ISIS and President Obama’s goal of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran are changing the region in fundamental ways. The U.S. is willing now to co-exist and even collaborate with Iran in Iraq.

Hisham Melhem

Iran – the enemy of my enemy is …

The execution of al-Kasasbeh came in the wake of press reports and testimonies showing the heightened degree of actual U.S.-Iranian “de-confliction” or indirect cooperation in Iraq against ISIS. American arms are now in the hands of the infamous Shiite Badr brigade allegedly notorious for its sectarianism and violence against civilians (and against American soldiers during the occupation of Iraq).

The war with ISIS and President Obama’s goal of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran are changing the region in fundamental ways. The U.S. is willing now to co-exist and even collaborate with Iran in Iraq. Iran is so entrenched in Iraq now that it is impossible to elect a prime minister without the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei. In Syria, the United States would like to see Iran leaning on its ally Assad to be more amenable to a political process that will not include his departure. The United States will not contemplate hitting Assad’s forces because it fears Iranian retaliation in Iraq. The United States resisted for weeks moving its search and rescue teams supporting the air campaign waged by the international coalition against ISIS, from Kuwait close to the theater of operations in northern Iraq, for fear that President Obama will be accused of putting more “American boots on the ground” in Iraq. For months, I have been writing that Iran is the most influential country in four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. Unlike the Sunni powers in the region, Iran has Shiite Arabs or offshoots of Shiism in the region willing to fight with Iranians or on their behalf.

In Syria, the United States would like to see Iran leaning on its ally Assad to be more amenable to a political process that will not include his departure.

Hisham Melhem

Preventing these mostly Arab countries from becoming Iranian satraps is fundamental to avoiding an open-ended Sunni-Shiite conflict with devastating regional consequences. The memory of many men and women who fought the good fight in Syria and Iraq, as well as the memory of Moaz al-Kasasbeh whose heroic stoicism gave impetus to this article demand no less.

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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