Nigeria, Iraq, Gaza—The Threat is the Same

As long as the Western world refuses to join the ideological dots between strains of Islamism, the jihadis will never be defeated

Features Islam
Michelle's hashtag: Celebrity support warmed the heart but more than 200 Nigerian girls remain in captivity or have been sold as slaves

Over-analysing and under-analysing — are these not the two sins of thought which we are all meant to avoid? Believing a sniffle is a presage of imminent death. Not bothering about a pain in the chest. Thinking all the problems of the world are easy to solve. Deciding that most things are too difficult to solve. Over-thinking and under-thinking are the Scylla and Charybdis between which we all navigate. But there is one challenge at this moment in particular which the world would do well to understand a bit better and over-think a bit less. Our future depends on it. 
During the last few months the world has seen several varieties of the same evil stretch out, assert themselves and proliferate. Last April 276 schoolgirls were abducted in north-eastern Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The translation of their name is usually given as “Western Education is Forbidden” but “Non-Muslim Teaching is Forbidden” is a more accurate rendering. The world ignored this atrocity until the human interest angle of the story spurred people to virtual action.

But no political leaders were keen to explain why the group had taken the girls. Few media outlets explained the simple but crucial detail that the terrorist group was made up of Islamic fundamentalists and that their captives were Christians. Fewer still mentioned that the formal Arabic name of Boko Haram is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. Or that, as one of the group’s leaders, Abubakar Shekau, explained for anyone who would listen, “This work that we are doing is not our work, it is Allah’s work, we are doing Allah’s work.” 

A Twitter campaign was started. Numerous well-meaning celebrities including Michelle Obama and David Cameron posed with the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Months later and, with the exception of a few dozen who had managed to escape, the girls remained either in captivity or had been sold into slavery. And so the world’s attention moved on, touched but unenlightened.

Then in July the now biennial war between Israel and Hamas arrived for its latest round. The world once again looked with horror at an exchange whose pattern seems unresolvable. The status quo (Hamas and other jihadist groups firing rockets into Israel) was interrupted by Israel retaliating. As in previous rounds, limited operational success was achieved by Israel until the international community insisted on a return to the status quo ante — that is for Israel to stop firing and permit Hamas to resume firing rockets unmolested. Once again the world focused on what the Israeli response was, but missed the opportunity to consider what Hamas are, why they exist or why they keep trying to fire missiles into Israel.

Of course there was some talk about the border disagreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There was talk of Hamas at one extreme and Israeli settlers on the other. Any consumer of the Western media could easily have come away from the latest round believing that there were still Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip, that Israel had not in fact unilaterally withdrawn every citizen from Gaza almost ten years ago and that Hamas was firing rockets into “disputed” territory, rather than into territory which has been indisputably Israeli since 1948.

Through all of this it was very easy to find out that Hamas was a welfare organisation, very easy to find out it is designated in the West as a terrorist organisation but surprisingly difficult to find out that Hamas is an Islamic terrorist organisation dedicated, from its founding charter right up to its actions in the present day, to the most fundamentalist Islamic principles including the eradication not just of Israel but of all Jews worldwide. Not a small detail.

Limited to a border dispute? By no means. Article 7 of the Hamas charter, titled “The universality of Hamas” reads: “By virtue of the distribution of Muslims, who pursue the cause of the Hamas, all over the globe, and strive for its victory, for the reinforcement of its positions and for the encouragement of its jihad, the Movement is a universal one.” The same section concludes with the famous saying of Muhammad about the end times quoted in the most authoritative collection of Muhammad’s sayings (or hadith). “The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree.”

In the first days of this latest war Israeli forces discovered the many tunnels built into Israel by Hamas with diverted international funds. These tunnels were, it transpired, to be used to carry out surprise attacks on Israeli families during the next Jewish holy day festival. Is it perhaps possible that this effort and others like it to annihilate the Jewish state are part of an ideological project with a defined and ideological end-goal?

The world barely had time to wonder because in August its attention was suddenly once again drawn to the progress of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Having rampaged through Syria, and taken several major Iraqi cities earlier this year, in August the now self-aggrandisingly, self-re-branded “Islamic State” was threatening not just any Shia Muslims in its path, nor only the Christians whom the group has been beheading in Syria and Iraq since its creation. In August ISIS became a sudden and immediate threat to the previously little-known sect known as the Yazidis, a part of that fascinating blend of cultures and faiths that Iraq has been crucible to (a sort of Jurassic Park of first-century religions) and which now lies in ruins. Reports came from the Yazidi villages of ISIS rampaging into their neighbourhood and saying, “Become Muslims by noon today or we kill all of you.” Many were killed, many fled into the mountains where they would rather risk death by starvation than forcible conversion and then death (the fate of some Christians whom ISIS forced to convert at gunpoint and then murdered anyway).

No reporters were able to make it behind the ISIS lines, except a solitary film-maker called Medyan Dairieh. As the Yazidis were stranded up the mountains hoping for international help he wrote of the areas already controlled by ISIS: “This is not some disorganised bloodthirsty terrorist group or makeshift army. They are very organised. Islamic State fighters ruthlessly beheaded Assad’s soldiers and spies on the front line. The IS men gave me a horrific video of decapitated soldiers’ bodies, which were left lying on the pavement in the centre of Raqqa. Some of the dismembered heads were placed on spikes. They had prisons where they jailed people who had been caught drinking alcohol, and other small offences. I filmed young children telling me that they want to join the Islamic State and kill infidels.”

Each of these three cases shocked the world out of its stupor for a short period. Boko Haram, Hamas and ISIS. The Christians, the Jews and the Yazidis. The underlying facts of each story were, in turn, avoided. But it is the unwillingness to tie these stories together, join the dots or work out the overall picture that is most startling.

The truth is that as well as living through a dramatic upsurge in Islamic radicalism around the globe, we are living through a period of strenuous refusal to acknowledge the problem. When there is nothing much to face up to then ignorance is indeed bliss. But when the world is seeing such continual eruptions of the same phenomena and persisting in not noticing, then we know we have a problem.

Anybody who focuses on this area will have noticed in recent months, even more, perhaps, than in recent years, that there is a concerted and active desire to avoid the joining up of these dots. Whenever I venture to mention that Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon or ISIS in Syria and Iraq are at root ideologically identical the same blizzard of denial comes out. “Don’t I even know,” they ask, “that Hezbollah are fighting ISIS in Syria?” Am I so stupid as to think that two armies which are actually engaged on different sides of a battlefield could share the same objectives?

It doesn’t require anyone to think back very far in history to think of movements that had the same ideology but intensely fought each other. If you pick over the carcass of international Communism what stands out most clearly at this remove, apart from the utter awfulness of the whole wretched enterprise? Surely it is the fact of how hard it is today to work out why some of these sects ever disagreed or split with each other in the first place, from the splits involving Lenin and Trotsky right up to the internecine battles in the intellectual salons of North London after the death of the whole project. Reading up on these splits now you have to have the eyes of a hawk and the patience of a saint to work out who split off from whom and why. Historians and connoisseurs of a kind of masochism will doubtless rake over these sordid ashes for generations to come. But they would be missing something if they failed to notice that although this movement had many differences, it also had clear and defined common aspirations. From Leninism to (Gerry) Healeyism there are plenty of interesting byways. But it will be as a bloc that the Communist nightmare will be remembered — for what they all aspired to do, and tried to do, not for the differences between its factions.

And who today does these semantics with fascism? For sure there are fascinating fall-outs, disagreements and nuances in the attitudes of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler. But who at the time, let alone looking back at fascism’s grotesque heyday, would spend too long focusing on the differences between this or that fascist? Certainly it is a subject of interesting academic study, but even the differences are only interesting if you know what unites them to begin with.

This uniting — this ideological dot-joining — has today become the thing almost nobody wishes to do. Academics, when they do dare to tread into this area, can become expert in one particular manifestation of the Islamist ideology. But if they add another to it, let alone treat the ideology as a whole, they become pariahs in the academy and rejected by their peers. Journalists and commentators seem to be allowed to cover one eruption of this horror — they might become an expert on the outrages of Boko Haram, for instance, but they almost fear this same expertise being transplanted and used to understand another manifestation of the same ideology.

And there is a problem here, because increasingly I get the sense that the public can join up the dots and see the similarities. As the British public were reading about the kidnapping of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria they were also reading the revelations of the Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham — an attempt to teach a culturally isolating and theologically fundamentalist version of Islam in schools in one of Britain’s largest cities and further afield. “Non-Muslim teaching is forbidden” turned out not just to be the name of a group in Nigeria. It was the ideological base of some authorities in state-funded secondary schools in Birmingham. Nobody in Parliament wanted to say this. Almost nobody in the media wanted to say it. But when over the breakfast table the great British public could read what Boko Haram thought of education in Nigeria and what certain Muslim leaders in Birmingham thought of non-Muslims, women, Christians and the like, the similarities seemed far more striking than the differences.

And therein lies the challenge that will face us all in the years ahead. The years of avoiding joining the dots may yet lead to a period of joining them up too glibly or too fast, drawing a picture which is too wide or too shallow. Fail to notice the similarities between the fundamentalists in Birmingham, Mosul and Gaza today and you may yet find a movement unwilling to notice any differences between any types of Muslims tomorrow. Increasingly this becomes a fear of the future. A willingness to over-think the differences between the Islamists in our day is the best possible catalyst for people to under-think the problems of the future.