Review: Over the Tightrope

PS: the book is free to download on kindle on Monday and Tuesday 11-23 and 11-24

Asif Ismaeel’s debut novel mixes dystopian science fiction, sufism, politics, humor and Salafist Islam to create a stunning and unexpected joy-ride through post-apocalyptic (or is it pre-apocalypse?) Pakistan in 2050. Of course it is now called Al-Bakistan, since the blessed Arabic language does not have the letter P, and it is ruled by a Khalifa who established law and order after the proletariat rose in revolt and decapitated the ruling elite in a paroxysm of rioting and holy war a few years earlier.

When our hero flies back after 12 years to see his father, the Latvian air hostess asks if he wants to sign a Shia contract for sex during the flight or will he be flying Sunni, no paperwork needed? Naturally he replies “lets fly Sunni”. From the beard-length check at the airport to watching a murderous game of cricket between the karbala cats and the wahab squad, everything is familiar but surreal; as his driver says “not the original Western style game meant for sissies..”.

Gangs of enforcers (Commaqadis, from Commando and Qadi) patrol the streets with portable hand choppers, cats attack dogs (who are almost extinct in the Islamic state, as expected) and the hospital has a sign saying “death will come at the appointed hour”. Moved by mysterious forces (and perhaps by mind-altering substances) our hero goes to meet Pir Pul Siraat, bicycles over hell on a thin wire stretching to infinity, meets the fallen angel Fukraeel and visits paradise. As his mission unfolds he finally reaches Islamabad and attends a most unusual Friday prayer at the Faisal mosque that ends with the world’s most life-saving application of phototherapy and the redemptive power of the Quran. The book never flags and the ending, while somewhat expected, is not without its Sufic twist.

Readers familiar with Pakistan and Islam will get many of the inside jokes (from Bihishti Tea Corner in paradise to the Intiqaal lounge and the arrival of the Ababeels), but any intelligent reader can expect to laugh out loud at the most unexpected places. This is not serious literature and “complex characters and plot development” are not what it sets out to present. But what it does promise (and deliver) is a smart satire of literalist Islam and the vision of a dystopian future that is not as far from reality as we may wish. A worthy debut!


If I survive
this life without
dying, I’ll be surprised.

“…Without saying a word, he opened his glove
box and took out a round, palm-sized object.
It was a clasped knife.
He pressed its one end and
an evil looking blade sprung out. I could tell it was razor sharp and
the thing must have been as long as my forearm. I jerked back in my seat,
eyes bugging wide open.
Wali turned toward me and grabbed a hold of
my collar. His eyes bulged; two
angry pools of black fire. Without a word he pressed the sharp cold steel against
my sweating throat.
I tried hard not to swallow.
“Wali, what’s wrong?” I sputtered. “What’s
happened to you? Take it easy buddy, relax,”
I pleaded. The whole thing was way too freaky and
had happened so fast I barely had time to register the shock.
“You have uttered the name of You Know Who without the saluta- tions; and, and—this is a
terrible crime that’s punishable by death,” he groaned, pressing the blade
harder against my throat.
“Wali, come back to your senses man!” I barked.
“What’s wrong? Come on; let’s get going, look, the light’s
green. Let’s go, please. We can
talk about this over a cup of tea in the Fortress
Stadium. I can explain.” I hoped
to have sounded
convincing and unfazed
by his sudden outburst but, inside,
I was tasting my first
dose of real fear since
I landed.
Sweat poured from my forehead as I recalled
my father’s words: ‘You’ll be safe with Wali. He’s the only one I trust who can deliver you safely to my house.’” I also recalled
his warning me not to speak with Wali about religion
under any circumstances.
“I’ve beheaded four idiots like you,” he bellowed. “I did
it   right 
here where you sit on your stupid butt; and you will be
my fifth,” he said. The traffic
light had turned
red again.
“Aren’t you done then? I mean, four’s a
pretty decent number. Come on, Wali, be cool buddy,” I said, hoping this
nightmare would end soon. “My father’s not going to like it if you kill me.”
“Mufti Sahib says, if I can personally behead
seven kafirs in total, my place will be assured
in the highest Heaven,” he said, his eyes glazed and his face flushed with
exultation. He wasn’t the same Wali who’d picked me a few minutes ago at the
airport. He started looking crazier by the minute.
“It’s been getting
more and more difficult to encounter enemies
of faith like you,” he continued, not even looking
at me in the eyes. “As far as your father is concerned, he’d be
glad to see you killed after what you’ve done. He wouldn’t even attend your funeral.”
“Wali—please! Have mercy. I’ll do anything
you say. Remember that old hag?” I said, suddenly recalling
something that might break his concentration.
“That old woman who used to throw trash on You Know Who’s
head every time
he’d pass by her house.”
Without a word Wali withdrew
the knife from my neck and laid it
in his lap though he continued to hold his face close to mine and looked into my eyes. The terrifying fury
that seconds before distorted his face had melted like ice.
“So you know the story?” he asked, his voice
normal and composed. “Then you damn well know that the story
of the hag cost me the
seventh Heaven!” he roared with
renewed fury.
“Fifth, Wali, fifth,”
I corrected him.
“You gotta get to fifth before getting to the seventh.”

Why do Muslims Blow Stuff Up?

Indian secular commentator Harbir Singh Nain has a nice piece in the Nation (a Lahore newspaper that has shifted from jingoistic Islamism to hosting the most “free-thinking” blog posts of any major Pakistani paper; there is probably a story in there somewhere). The entire piece is here, but a few excerpts give you the flavor:

Again I hear talk everywhere that Islamist terrorism is a reaction to Western imperialism.  It’s supposedly got nothing to do with radical Islamists.  I have to wonder if why Korea and Vietnam didn’t start pumping terrorists into the world as an aftermath of the horrendous wars there, why oil producers in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa didn’t start pumping terrorists into the world in reaction to western meddling there.

The cause is Saudi Arabia, which has used its oil revenues to drive fundamentalist radicalization of Muslim societies all over the world, infesting them with mosques and seminaries that disseminate Saudi scripted fundamentalist, hateful perspectives. Every major Muslim terrorist organization in the world is connected to a web in the center of which sits Saudi Arabia..

The West is not without fault. But it is dishonest to assert that the Islamist terrorism is merely a backlash to Western foreign policy.  The other party at the table is radical, oil fed fundamentalist Islamism.

In the West, after every instance of slaughter by a crazed Islamist, liberals run to call for tolerance towards ordinary Muslims innocent of the crime. It is the West that welcomes immigrants from Muslim countries and guarantees their freedom to practice their faith and to live their lives without persecution. It is the West that makes peace with its former enemies at the first opportunity. See the relations of Germany, Japan, Italy, Vietnam, and South Korea with the US. The West welcomes immigrants en mass from enemies, both former (Russians flooded into the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union) and present (so many Iranian students in the US). It is the West that takes in Muslim refugees escaping from slaughter by Muslims as has been seen by the flow of Syrians into Europe.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have not opened their own borders to the faithful fleeing the slaughter.  There is no call in the Middle East for understanding and tolerance towards the West and non-Muslims. There is no voice allowed to call for moderation of Islamist hatemongering, to curtail the raging hatred that constantly spews out against the West…

These are actually fairly common sentiments among liberal Muslims and Hindus (and presumably, many others). I don’t have time for a full post, but a few comments came to mind:

South Americans, as colonial settler nations with a history of conquering Native Americans and owning more slaves than the United States, are not exactly in line for the honor of being oppressed subjects of the West. (though good branding and anti-Yankee propaganda has pretty much cleared their elites of their colonial/slave-owning past, especially amongst distant observers).

Korea was not colonized by the US. South Korea was saved from Stalinist North Korean invasion by the US and its allies. They are not exactly grateful (more anti-American than the Vietnamese, for complicated reasons) but still they are hardly expected to be in the “lets bomb America now” section.

Vietnamese holds pride of place in Desi Leftist minds as victims of America (with some justification), but the Vietnamese themselves include (and always included) significant pro-American factions, and since the Americans left, their priorities are very different from the kind of unrelenting anti-Americanism that Desis sometimes feel they should have… Details complicated, I know.

But here is the point I really wanted to make:
I heard (more than 10 years ago) from an Islamist historian (PhD U Chicago) that the correct way of looking at lack of Hindu or African Pagan blowback is to regard them as weaker civilizations, unable/unwilling to contend for world-beater status (Hindutvadis are trying, with limited success, to alter this perception btw). His point was that Islamists sending terrorists and throwing bombs maybe wrong (in his opinion, it was wrong) because it may be tactically harmful to their cause or it may be morally unsound (he was not in favor of indiscriminate slaughter), but on the general point of fighting against the West, he thought the crucial difference is that the Islamic world represents real civiliazational competition; challengers who think they can and SHOULD fight in the big leagues…while Hindus and Africans are just waiting to be converted to more successful ideologies and are “not even invited to the party”.
In short, that Muslims are different, but not in the way you think: they are not different in being more bloodthirsty (he believed, as a historian, that ALL great powers and dominant civilizations have been blood thirsty) but in thinking of themselves as a potential world power, not just “subalterns”. 

I think he was wrong (i.e. the world is not best described by the kind of clash of civilizations he subscribed to, and the Muslim world is in no position to challenge as some sort of outsider civilization, distinct from what Naipaul famously dubbed “our universal civilization”).

But one should not think that sophisticated Islamists themselves have no such ambition.

Finally, the oil-kingdom and wahabiism are indeed proximate causes of the Jihadi upsurge, but they succeeded not just because they paid people (the US has paid billions for “counter-jihadist” propaganda, with little noticeable impact) but because their ideology could be presented as the logical culmination of classical Islamic themes. Which is why educated (therefore more susceptible to “logic” and rational argument) believing Muslims in Pakistan so frequently gravitate to Maudoodi-like figures, even if their own families were Barelvi/Sufi/grave-worshipping/Indian-inflected “moderate Muslims” just one generation ago.

I hope to write more later to expand on this point.

Paris, Islam, ISIS and Sykes-Picot. Random Thoughts

The latest Islamist-terrorist atrocity hit the news on Friday with a Mumbai-style attack on the city of Paris. The same group (ISIS) has recently bombed Ankara, a Russian aircraft and a civilian neighborhood in Beirut. But as expected, the strike in Paris got the most attention (not inappropriately so, in my opinion). It was a typically brutal operation. Ordinary civilians going about their pleasure in one of the world’s great cities were targeted in Restaurants, outside a football stadium (when the suicide bombers could not get in), on the streets and, most cruelly, while watching a death-metal concert. Most of the casualties occurred in the concert hall, where the terrorists managed to get into a location with a large number of innocents gathered in a confined space. They shot and killed calmly and ruthlessly and without any hint of pity or common humanity. When the police burst in, the killers blew up their suicide belts to shower those around them with ball bearings in one last atrocity before they departed to what they no doubt expect will be a land of milk and honey, suitably supplied with virgins so fair and delicate that their bone marrow will be visible. It takes all kinds.

Several interactions on twitter (@omarali50) revealed a few common themes and I thought I would expand on some of those brief comments and get some feedback. It’s one way to learn.

1. Is ISIS Islamic? 
Short Answer: Yes
For a “secular observer”, this is a no-brainer. The secular (and even more so, religious) outsider obviously does not believe in any particular version of Islam as the one true faith, etc etc. To them, Islam is (or should be) whatever any Muslim claims as his religion (this obviously means that for any such observer there is no one Islam, there are many Islams). To such an observer (if he or she is well-informed), Islam is a religion that started in Arabia, took up very notable strands from Rome (aka Byzantium), Persia, Judaism, etc and evolved into many different schools and sects. An exceptionally well-informed observer could indeed comment that ISIS does not replicate the dominant Sunni theology of the Ummayads or the Abbasids and has more in common with the relatively small Kharijite tradition, but even so, it would be the height of “Whitesplaining” for, say, professor Juan Cole to step in and deign to tell Syrian and Iraqi Muslims in ISIS that they are doing it wrong and their Islam is not “real Islam”. The appropriate answer (and this is exactly the answer many different Jihadist groups have given) is “WE know what Islam is and you dont have to come down from Michigan to tell us what our religion should look like”.  To sum up: well-informed outsiders can indeed note that ISIS is more like this, less like that; not representative of ALL Muslims (who is?), not representative of all Muslim states, not typical of all Islamist movements, etc. But for Bush or Blair to announce that ISIS is not really Islamic carries no weight. Islamic is what Islamists think is Islamic. THEY disagree among themselves, giving rise to many different Islams, Some represent bigger groups and larger sects, some are small cults, but all are Islamic.

For the believing Muslim, the answer depends on what sect/group/tendency they believe in. If their sect/tendency regards extremely vicious and extremely literalist Islamists as unislamic, more power to them. But some of them do indeed regard ISIS as Islamic (as is obvious from the thousands of Muslims (including neo-converts) who have flocked to the banner of ISIS in recent years. Others regard them as mostly Islamic, but occasionally doing things that a good Muslim would not do. This group is not trivial in numbers. Finally, countless others hold no firm opinion, but waiver between admiration of some acts and total opposition to others. Humans have complicated loyalties and psychologies. Would it surprise anyone (or at least, anyone not educated in the current Western postmodern left-liberal “tradition”) that a Palestinian or a Turk or a Pakistani may hold internally contradictory views on ISIS; sometimes admiring their deep faith and readiness to fight for Islam, even against overwhelming odds, other times cursing them for their cruelties, and last but not least, at other times worrying about what ISIS’ actions may do to his or her job prospects, visa status or college prospects. We are all human.

My own view: ALL of Islamic history is characterized by a struggle between three political-theolgoical camps that all appeared fairly early in the rise of the Arab empire and the Islamic religion (the two, empire and religion were obviously intertwined and interdependent):

1. Sunnis. Those who thought the rising Arab empire was best led
by the consensus of the elite, with a tendency to rally around whoever had
managed to fight his way to the top, provided he paid lip service to religion,
patronized the rising ulama class and (most important) kept his eyes on the
ball as far as managing and growing the empire was concerned. While Sunni
clerics developed what seems to be a theory of politics (who is a just ruler?
who has the right to rule? what do the people owe their ruler? etc.) on closer
inspection it turns out to be pretty much divorced from actual politics. Rulers
and their courts had more in common with past Roman, Persian and Central Asian
traditions than anything specifically Islamic. Rulers usually grabbed power by
force, then tried to pass it on to their children rather than some ideal
“just ruler”. Dynasties rose and fell with little concern for
theological rules. No “Muslim church” acquired a tenth of the
influence of the Roman Catholic church. This tradition is not ISIS-like in
detail, but it also paid lip service to ideals that ISIS can and does fling in
the face of “court clerics” who happily go along with whoever happens
to be the ruler (from King Hassan to Hussain to Salman..and even Sisi). Sunni
tradition is not ISIS, but it trains and teaches children using ideals that
ISIS may aspire to more strongly than the Sunni rulers themselves. This
hypocrisy-crisis is a recurrent feature of modern Islamicate politics. And it
is the reason why “moderate Muslims” (aka mainstream Sunnis) regularly fall
prey to “Wahabism”. They are not falling prey to a new religion, they are
falling prey to a more distilled and internally consistent version of what they
have been taught is indeed their own religion. Classical Sunni ideals overlap
with modern Jihadist ideology, their true-believers tend to find Wahabism

2. Shias. Those
who felt there was something special about the family of the prophet and in
particular, the family of Ali and developed theologies that included varying
combinations of the charismatic Imamate and its heritage of revolt against
Sunni authority. Since Shias are a majority in only a few places, (most
important, Iran) and their history includes long periods of conflict with
mainstream Sunni rule, they are more or less immune to the appeal of Sunni
revivalists, whether they are the milder Maudoodi types or the harsher ISIS
types. They have set up their own theocracy in Iran (much more effectively so than
any Sunni revivalist has managed to do) but they are not ISIS. For the purposes of this post (i.e. for outsiders who
dont have to live in Iran), they are “objectively liberal”.

3. Khwarij. The Khwarij insisted that neither the elite, nor the
family of the prophet had a special right to rule. Only the most pious, the
most thoroughly “Islamic” person could do that. Muslims who committed
major sins or failed to meet their standard of Islamic fervor were as much the
enemy as any infidel. Even more so in fact. The Khwarij were always small in
number and they were repeatedly defeated by both Shia and Sunni rulers, but
their tendency has never completely gone away. Something within Islamic
tradition keeps them alive. Mainstream Sunnis frequently pay only lip service
to Jihad and the harshest punishments of shariah law (particularly in modern
times), but these ideals are present in
their theology
. This theology that was rarely an impediment to statecraft
and its priorities in the actual golden age of Islamic imperium, but it still
paid lip service to those ideals. In fact, the more divorced it was from actual
politics, the more it could fly off into discussions about the ideal ruler,the
ideal law and the ideal Jihad, all un-encumbered by any contact with reality.
But ideals can effect some people.
True believers arise, and in times of anarchy and state collapse, they may be
the lowest common denominator, providing a framework around which the asabiya
of Islam can cohere and in which the community can see hope for a return to a
commonly-imagined (though mostly imaginary) golden age.

Groups like the Wahabis, Lashkar e Tayaba,
the Taliban and ISIS are simply combining the waters of 1 and 3, usually with
more 3 than 1. But they are NOT relying on some new ideology invented out of
whole cloth by Wahab or some other evil Saudi. They are (in their own mind and in the mind of many idealistic Muslims)
simply purifying actually existing Sunnism (with its tendency to compromise
with realities). 

In fact, even reformers who have some mainstream cred can drink quite a bit from #3 in this age of Western domination (perhaps to be replaced soon with mixed Chinese AND Western domination, but still with no Islamic empire in sight); see Maudoodi, Syed Qutb and others. Not as far from ISIS as you may wish.

Just as an aside: What about Sufism?

In many cases they can simply be described as
mainstream Sunnis with mystical or humanistic instincts; trying to get the most
good out of religion while leaving out most of the imperialist and legalistic
baggage.  In some cases, they may be more
akin to a secret society (like the Freemasons), influencing much from behind
the scenes, but by definition,  not really
easy to disentangle myth (and self-promotion) from shadowy reality.  In other cases, they may think of themselves
as  the perennial philosophy, operating
within Islam as it operates in all true religions. And in some cases, they are
hardline Sunni Jihadists with a “master and novice” framework added to it,
rallying the troops for holy war and conversion of the infidels. Take your
pick. But in any case, Sufism is not really a sect with one reasonably well-defined theology.

This post is not really qualified to go too deeply into what religion (any religion) may mean (and may do) to those struck by epiphanies on the road to Damascus. That whole issue is alluded to here by the always erudite Tanner Greer. Hopefully, he will have more to say in a longer post soon.

2. Does Islamist Terrorism have anything to do with Islam?
In light of the above, one answer would be: of course not. There IS no one thing called Islam. There are many Islams. And most of them are not terrorist. Case closed.
But, again in the light of the above, one may also say that mainstream Sunni Islam is remarkably uniform in its theology and its ideals. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis. Within Sunni Islam, there are four recognized schools of law. In principle, the vast majority of Sunnis honor and respect these schools and their doctors. The vast majority has no idea what is IN those schools or in the writings of their doctors, but they honor them and idealize them. It is very common for educated Muslims to own a book or two of fiqh and hadith. Rarely read, but always honored. A small minority of highly westernized postmodern Muslims believe that those medieval books and their authors are no longer valid for us and Islam (like modern Christianity) is more or less “spiritual” and can (or should) be whatever a believer sincerely thinks it is. Even these postmodern Muslims frequently believe that the Quran is the inerrant, literal word of God, but given that most classical Islamic theology is not lifted straight out of the Quran, they feel they can safely reject aspects of classical theology that are no longer fashionable. That they have usually not read the Quran makes this kind of cherry-picking even easier. But as numerous public opinion polls have repeatedly shown, most Sunni Muslims do not share this postmodern view of their religion. Whatever they may do in practice (and they frequently do exactly what adherents of all other religions are doing in similar econcomic and political circumstances; the much-mentioned “Muslims who just want to have a sandwich and send their kids to good schools”), they do believe that Islam is more than just an identity token. They believe it is “a complete code of life” and if enforced in its true letter and spirit, it holds the possibility of reversing all our communal ills. And what is that letter, if not that spirit? it is the books of Shariah written by medieval Sunni theologians. Books that were composed in the midst of a warlike expanding empire by confident intellectuals of a dominant creed. Books that idealize holy war (not “inner struggle”, Karen Armstrong notwithstanding) and a society where Muslims rule and non-Muslims know their (inferior) place in society. Books that idealize pious rulers and the enforcement of shariah law (stonings and amputations included). Books that idealize martyrdom and war against the infidels. Books that prime some of them to fall for preachers who preach purity and a true Islamic state.  Only some of them. But that is enough. A convert from France felt strongly enough about this to sacrifice his own life in a suicide mission that aimed to kill random innocent Frenchmen. Well, not innocent in his eyes any longer.

So yes, classical Sunni Islam tends to prime some people for joining Jihadist organizations (whether ISIS or LET or Islamic Jihad or any other of an alphabet soup of Jihadi groups) and committing atrocities with a good conscience. See the ten young men who went to Mumbai on the first “Mumbai-style attack”; what motivated them to go on that suicide mission? Nothing to do with Islam? I think is hard to say that with a straight face..
Unless you happen to be in the postmodern Western liberal elite, in which case you may suffer from what Tanner Greer callsthe limits of liberal education in the 21st century, far better at teaching platitudes than exploring the depths of the human condition; and the inability of secular elites to understand religion and the religious masses who earnestly believe in them…

3. George Bush/Western colonialism/imperialism is responsible for this attack. 
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Yes, But.
It is true that the rise of Western power and the defeat of the Ottomans in the first world war created the modern middle east. And it is a staple Western left-liberal talking point (picked up and used by Islamists and by other imperial powers like Russia as needed) that British and French imperialists created the modern Middle East via the Sykes-Picot agreement and messed it up, leading to all or most current problems. This is obviously not true in any strong sense. Britain and France did not look at some blank piece of paper and convert it into the modern Middle East. They grabbed and missed opportunities galore (as did the Turks, who chose the losing side in world war one when they may not have had to do any such thing), worked around existing populations and structures (many of them Imperial Ottoman in origin), argued and tried to double-cross each other before and after Sykes-Picot, were resisted by new forces, adjusted to the results of world wars and local wars, and so short, history happened; not just two people meeting and making up what they wanted and determining all that has happened since then. But let us leave details for another day. Let us use Sykes-Picot as short hand for the modern post World War II Middle Eastern system of nation-states that arose after the brief British and French colonial interlude, primarily (but not always) under the control of local elites groomed or put in place by those two powers.

These elites ruled what were formally (if not very deeply), “Westphalian” nation-states on the “European model”. What that means and why that is so bad (or such an improvement) over past models is another debate we can leave for another day. But the modern Middle East came into being. The states that were created were like most postcolonial states, a mixture of past divisions and new creations, some of them more arbitrary and artificial than others (Pakistani nationalists, take a bow).
Israel was the obvious outlier. With a more Westernized/modern population and with a direct (and at least temporarily, mostly sympathetic) connection to the Western world, it was an order of magnitude more capable (in terms of knowledge, organization, sophistication, ability to fight) than it’s unfortunate neighbors and it’s own aboriginal inhabitants. Even though the physical infrastructure of the state (and the weapons it was able to acquire) were not (at least initially) much superior to those of its enemies, the software was so much better that they were able to whip larger opponents with some regularity. Even so, an order of magnitude is still only an order of magnitude. It may have reached or exceeded the limits of it’s superiority by now. Or it may not. In a battle, it does not matter who is absolutely good at fighting, just who is relatively better. In purely military terms, the Israeli advantage may yet grow; and if present trends accelerate and the Sunni-Shia-Wahabi-Whatever shit totally hits the fan, they may well annex some more territory. History can be cruel. Vae Victis and all that. But moving on..
What about the Arab states of the region?

A. Iraq has splintered after the American invasion and is unlikely to see peace in the immediate future. Some sort of three way division seemed possible, but with ISIS taking over the role of “Sunni resistance”, enough Sunnis may prefer cohabitation with Shias, so maybe the split is not totally final. On the other hand, with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states still interested in fighting Shia-Iranian domination, anti-Shia forces may still get enough weapons and money to keep fighting for a very long time. The safest bet is “more of the same”. But whatever happens, in the near future it will not be able to contend for regional hegemon, that much is given.

2. Syria has totally crashed and burned. Neither the Assad regime nor its various opponents(including irreconcilable Sunni-Jihadists) are in a position to win completely anytime soon. Continuing violence seems to be the near and medium-term future.

3. Yemen is in flames and has now been invaded by a multi-national coalition led by Saudi Arabia (ostensibly in support of the last “elected” government of the state). Conquering North Yemen has never been an easy prospect and great powers from Rome to the Ottomans have tried and failed to impose their authority over the whole country. The British took control of Aden (all they really wanted) and managed the surrounding tribes with bribes and punitive policing, but never controlled the whole country. The Egyptian adventure in the 1960s ended up being “Egypt’s Vietnam”, so the chances that the Saudis will prevail completely are pretty much nil. Stil, in the near-term it is likely that the people of Yemen will pay the heaviest price, not the people or the elites of Saudi Arabia. Yemen is broken and no policy, no matter how sensible (a faint possibility in any case) will put it together again in the foreseeable future.

For some White or Desi (as in Indian-ish) Leftists, this is time to say “I told you so”. Some of them have reacted to these implosions with barely disguised glee, celebrating the collapse of the borders and states they had always decried as a colonial imposition, and throwing in formula appeals for a “revolutionary” or “pro-people” program to build a new future, blah blah blah. We can ignore this lot. Other Leftists (especially those with family and friends in the region, who do not have the luxury of simply enjoying being “right” about Sykes-Picot) are more confused. They know there is no leftist hegemon or potential hegemon in view that has a reasonable chance of building a new peace out of this chaos, and they have too much local knowledge to blithely generate fantasy stories about the heroic Syrian regime, or the Yemeni rebels for that matter. Between Asad and Sisi and ISIS, who is one to root for? Many of them will likely end up rooting for the existing “Sykes-Picot” states and forget the dream of erasing those hated borders?  But still, that order was neo-colonial and will not return to status quo ante even if many people wish it were so. As the colonial and neo-colonial order fades, what will replace it (in the region as a whole)? With little local knowledge it is not for me to attempt a detailed prediction, but even with limited knowledge, we can say this much: as in any region, the power that imposes order will have to possess sufficient solidarity and ideological clarity to be able to ensure the loyalty of their own core and to compel the loyalty of a critical mass of those they incorporate into their system of rule. What ideal and what asabiya will provide that glue and that motivation in the middle east?

Sunni Islam is one obvious contender (Arab nationalism was another, but seems to have lost out. Marxism was never a serious contender, smaller ethnic nationalisms will save some). Western intervention has destroyed some states, but not provided an alternative (and really cannot provide an alternative). The result, in Syria and Libya and Sunni Iraq is chaos. In that chaos, ISIS has risen to power in parts of Syria and Iraq. And it has been attacked by many powers. Among them, France and Hezbollah and Russia. And all three have been hit by atrocities against soft targets in response.

Even if one does not believe conspiracy theories about the CIA and Mossad creating or helping ISIS (I don’t), one can easily say that ham-handed/short-sighted Western intervention in Iraq and Syria created the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise. They also created or supported many of the grievances (real and imagined) that local Muslims find humiliating and unjust (again, whether the anger is all justified or not, it hardly matters, this is how it feels to many people). So yes, Bush and imperialism do share the blame. But not necessarily in the total and exculpatory way the postmodern Left imagines.

The alternative to a bad situation is sometimes worse. Shit happens. There is no universal framework of liberal democracy (or socialism, or whatever you regard as ideal) and human rights that exists a priori in all places, only waiting for the overlay of imperialism or neoliberalism to be removed to allow universal peace and tranquillity to break out. Everything is hard work. Institutions take time. Ideologies matter. Humans are humans everywhere, but they do not live in the same history and the same circumstances. Within the limits of what can be done with human biology, much can vary. And sometimes, things fall apart.

Even when they don’t fall apart, one can easily see that not everyone is happy in liberal democracies. In fact, some of their best intellectuals are the most unhappy, and are willing to entertain almost any movement that threatens to overthrow this sorry scheme of things entire…Some of us may fear what will follow if the revolution actually happens, but all of us can agree that the revolutionary dream has support. In the Middle East, this dream may take some Islamicate forms. No surprise.

4. What next? 
More of the same. (i.e., I am out of time. But more later I am sure 🙂 )

Do read Tanner Greer’s post about the limitations of the Western liberal worldview when it comes to Islam, or any religion for that matter.
Excerpt: The truth is that most faiths, though of course not all, possess a concept something like what the Christian Church Fathers called metanoia — usually translated as “repentance” but more properly the transformation of the soul. It is visible in the tales of Paul, Raskolnikov, and Malcolm X. It is not “people get[ting] out of [religions] what they bring into them.” Quite the opposite: it is people getting out of religion what they never had before. Max Fisher of Vox does not misunderstand this because he lacks a grasp of faith: he misunderstands this because he does not grasp the nature of man. He possesses a graduate degree in international security issues from the Johns Hopkins University, writes for a major publication, is a go-to for White House narrative promulgation, and he lacks this most basic element of the liberal education.

This is not to condemn him as any sort of unusual creature. He is not the exception. He is the rule. Our elites are well credentialed: but the danger they pose to us lies in the dismaying truth that they are not wise. Worse, they are not even smart.

Also See this from Razib Khan for another angle.
The power of the Islamic State derives in part from the fact that it inverts the moral order of the world. Some of its soldiers are clear psychopaths, as the most violent and brutal of international jihadis have been drawn to the Islamic State (as opposed to Al Qaeda, which is more pragmatic!). But a substantial number believe in its utopian vision of an Islamic society constructed upon narrow lines. A positive vision of a few evil goals, rather than a grand quantity of small evil pleasures. The Islamic State ushers in an evil new order, it does not unleash unbridled chaos. Though its self-conception that it is resurrecting the first decades of Islam is self-delusion in my opinion, it is still a vision which can entice some in the Islamic international.

I do not think that the Islamic State is here to stay. I believe it will be gone within the next five years, torn apart by its own contradictions and its rebellion against normal human conventions, traditions, and instincts. But that does not mean it is not going to cause misery for many on its way down. The irony is that the iconoclastic Islamic State may as well be worshiping the idols conjured in the most fervid of Christian evangelical apocalyptic literature, because they shall tear the land end to end and leave it in a thousand pieces, a material sacrifice to their god. They live under the illusion that they are building utopia, but they are coming to destroy an imperfect world and leave hell in its wake.

* The modern Salafis are just the latest in a particular extreme of Sunni belief, which goes back to individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah.

And Shadi Hamid’s excellent post from 2014: The roots of the Islamic State’s appeal.  

Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics. This isn’t necessarily bad or good. It just is. Comparing it with other religions helps illuminate what makes it so. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP may be Hindu nationalists, but the ideological distance between them and the secular Congress Party isn’t as great as it may seem. In part, this is because traditional Hindu kingship—with its fiercely inegalitarian vision of a caste-based social order—is simply less relevant to modern, mass politics and largely incompatible with democratic decision-making. As Cook writes in his new book Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Muslims, on the other hand, not only have a law but also one that is taken seriously by large majorities throughout the Middle East.

..If ISIS and what will surely be a growing number of imitators are to be defeated, then statehood—and, more importantly, states that are inclusive and accountable to their own people—are essential. The state-centric order in the Arab world, for all its artificiality and arbitrariness, is preferable to ungoverned chaos and permanently contested borders. But for the Westphalian system to survive in the region, Islam, or even Islamism, may be needed to legitimate it. To drive even the more pragmatic, participatory variants of Islamism out of the state system would be to doom weak, failing states and strong, brittle ones alike to a long, destructive cycle of civil conflict and political violence.

Last but not the least, from Ali Minai, unreal Islam. 
Which brings us back to the issue of “real Islam”. As someone in love with the cultural traditions of Islam and as a diligent student of its history, I agree that the acts of the jihadis do not represent the vast majority of Muslims today or in history. Humans are a violent species and Muslims have contributed their share, but it is completely asinine to think that Muslims have been, historically, any more violent than other groups. However, it is equally absurd to deny that the ideology underlying jihadism draws upon mainstream Islamic beliefs and is, therefore, undeniably a form of “real Islam” – albeit of a very extreme form. It is more accurate to say that this extremism is “not the only Islam”, and, by historical standards, it is a version very different from what the vast majority of Muslims have practiced. That’s why groups espousing such puritanical and rigid attitudes were traditionally called “khawarij” – the alienated ones. At the same time, Muslims should acknowledge that they have not constructed the logical and theoretical framework within which extremism can be rejected formally. If anything, the opposite has happened in the last century, with increasingly literalist attitudes gaining strength for political reasons. And that is the core problem: A literal reading of even moderate Muslim beliefs can, and does, lead to behaviors incompatible with modern society. Like Christians, Jews, Hindus and others, Muslims have to turn towards a less literal, more inspirational and humanistic reading of their sacred traditions, drawing from them principles that can stand the test of time rather than literal, ahistorical prescriptions. This does not require the invention of a “new Islam”, or the imposition of an “official Islam” by states. Nor does it require a rewriting of Muslim sacred texts any more than the Enlightenment needed a rewriting of the Old Testament – Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding. What is needed is a change of attitude, of how people relate to the texts and traditions. Strong strands of humanism, compassion, diversity of ideas and acceptance of differences already exist within the Islamic tradition – among Sufis, among poets, and even among scholars. The trick is to rediscover, re-emphasize and reinterpret them for our times. And even as we wring our hands in despair, brave individuals within Muslim societies are trying to ignite just such a change at great risk to their lives. The least we can do is to add our voices to theirs.

Oh, and Razib Khan on the poverty of multicultural discourse: Excerpts
The problem with the bleeding over of academic “discourse” into the public forum is that it obfuscates real discussion, and often has had a chilling effect upon attempts at moral or ethical clarity. Unlike the individual above I am skeptical of moral or ethical truth in a deep ontological sense. But I have opinions on the proper order of things on a more human scale of existence. You don’t have to reject the wrongness of a thing if you reject the idea that that thing is wrong is some deep Platonic sense. I can, in some cases will, make the argument for why some form of the Western liberal democratic order is superior to most other forms of arranging human affairs, despite being a skeptic of what I perceive to be its egalitarian excesses. I can, and in some cases will, make the argument for why legal sexual equality is also the preferred state of human affairs. But to have this discussion I have to be forthright about my norms and presuppositions, and not apologize for them. They are what they are, and the views of those who disagree are what they are.

An academic discourse tends to totally muddy a clear and crisp discussion. The reality is that most Egyptians have barbaric attitudes on a whole host of questions (e.g., ~80 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty for apostasy from Islam). It was not surprising at all that the majority of the Egyptian electorate supported parties with reactionary cultural political planks; because the classification of these views as “reactionary” only makes sense if you use as your point of reference the Westernized social and economic elite. The majority of Egyptians have never been part of this world, and for them upward mobility has been accompanied by a greater self-consciousness of their Islamic identity.

This reality is not comforting to many, and so there has been an evasion of this. If we accept, for example, the hegemonic superiority of sexual equality, should we not impose the right arrangement upon those who oppress women? This is a serious question, but the fear of engaging in “dangerous” analysis in the “discourse” allows us to sidestep this question. Rather, by minimizing the concrete realities of cultural difference and the depths of their origin, Egyptians are easily transformed into Czechs in 1989 with browner skins and a Muslim affiliation. This is a totally false equivalence. As Eastern Europeans go the Czech population is atypical in its secularism and historical commitment to liberal democracy (one could argue the weakness of the Catholic church goes as far back as the Hussite rebellion and the later suppression of Protestantism by the Habsburgs). While other post-World War I polities switched toward authoritarianism in the inter-war period, the Czechs retained a liberal democratic orientation until the Nazi German invasion. After the collapse of Communism they reverted back to this state. Notably, extreme nationalist parties with anti-democratic tendencies have come to the fore in most post-Communist states, but not so in the Czech Republic.

The irony here is that an academic position which espouses the deep incommensurability of different societies and cultures in terms of their values, rendering inter-cultural analysis or critique suspect, has resulted in the domain of practical discussion a tendency to recast inter-cultural differences of deep import into deviations or artificialities imposed from the outside. In this particular case that artificiality is the Egyptian military, but in most cases it is Western colonialism, which has an almost demonic power to reshape and disfigure postcolonial societies, which lack all internal agency or direction. This is simply not the true state of affairs. The paradoxical fact is that there is commensurability across very different cultures. You can understand, analyze, and critique other societies, if imperfectly. For example, I can understand, and even agree with, some of the criticisms of Western society by Salafist radicals for its materialism and excessive focus on proximate hedonism. The Salafists are not aliens, but rather one comprehensible expression of human cultural types. But that does not deny that I find their vision of human flourishing abhorrent. I understand it, therefore I reject it.

And my own comment on the multiculti question: 

“One angle (not the most important one, but I think its there) could be that while many casual adherents and self-satisfied groupthink nurtured “thinkers” are just mindlessly repeating the party line there ARE a number of people who are seriously committed to what they imagine is a worldwide organized movement to overthrow the existing system (including the system in which they work and draw a salary or get grants). i.e. they may know that a lot of their bullshit is bullshit, but its useful bullshit in a higher cause. It undermines the dominant civilization and its armies and bankers (or so they think..I think the actual contribution of Tariq Ali or even the far more scholarly Vijay Prashad to bringing down Western civ is negligible compared to the contribution of wall street bankers). but there IS a hardcore of calculation and conscious propaganda mixed into the postcolonial bullshit…

Is the Islamic State Islamic? by Charles Cameron

[ by Charles Cameron , original at zenpundit— both answers are true in different contexts — IMO a significant point that previous discussion has tended to overlook ]

Were (are) the Khawarij Muslim? That’s the question I keep thinking of when discussion of whether IS (or AQ) is Islamic comes up. From a Muslim perspective, they were heretics. Joas Wagemakers identified the central distinctive opinion of the Khawarij thus:

The first of these is the Khawarij’s belief that revolt against Muslim rulers was allowed if they were deemed insufficiently pious. When ‘Ali accepted arbitration with Mu‘awiya, the people later known as Khawarij reportedly shouted ‘judgement is God’s alone’ (la hukm illa li-llah). In the context of that event, this referred to their belief that only God had the authority to arbitrate, not human beings, and that ‘Ali should not have accepted Mu‘awiya’s offer. The slogan later came to represent their broader view that all judgements and rulings should be left to God, thus applying Qur’anic rulings so strictly that they expelled Muslims guilty of major sins from their community and fought them. Because they believed sinful Muslims to be unbelievers (kuffar, singular: kafir), they directly applied passages from the Qur’an pertaining to jihad against non-Muslims to those of their co-religionists who were less than perfectly pious.

From the perspective of what I’m going to call “ongoing Islam” they were heretics — the very name Khawarij indicates those who have gone out, ie left the religion of Islam — and yet their heresy was that of “fundamentalizing” Islam, being, if you like, excessively Islamic.

Consider: according to a hadith reported in Abu Dawud:

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “There will be dissension and division in my nation and a people will come with beautiful words but evil deeds. They recite the Quran but it will not pass beyond their throats. They will leave the religion as an arrow leaves its target and they will not return until the arrow returns to its notch. They are the worst of the creation. Blessed are those who fight them and are killed by them. They call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it. Whoever fights them is better to Allah than them.”

As a student of religions might say, their use of the Qur’an marks them as clearly Islamic, and as a Muslim theologian might say, they have clearly departed the religion, in truth “they have nothing to do with it.”

Many contemporary Muslims would say of IS, its leader and members, that they “call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it” — and they have every right to say that. Those, however, who wish to understand what drives IS do well to understand the theology and eschatology involved, as well as the psychology of the passions they invoke — and also the Islamic context in which IS may well be viewed as having by the very nature of their excesses left the religion..


This post is copied wholesale from a fascinating conversation among friends (Mark Safranski, J Scott Shipman, Michael J. Lotus, Dan Tdaxp, Joshua Treviño, Lynn Rees and others) in response to Tanner Greer’s post Vox Will Never Understand Islam… Or Any Religion, Really, which is itself a response to a Vox piece by Max Fisher, The perfect response to people who blame Islam for ISIS.

Please share this post if you find it helpful.

My own (i.e. Omar’s) off-the-cuff comment on this post:

About the hadith, it does make one think that someone made it up AFTER the Khwarij had already appeared on the scene. A lot of Hadiths make good sense if they were invented after events had given rise to their need, but seem suspiciously overly-prescient if one imagines them as actually dating from the days of the nascent state of Medinah 🙂
ALL of Islamic history can be seen as the struggle between three camps that all appeared fairly early in the rise of the Arabs:
1. Sunnis. Those who thought the rising empire was best led by the consensus of the elite, with a tendency to rally around whoever had managed to fight his way to the top, provided he paid lip service to religion, partronized the rising ulama class and (most important) kept his eyes on the ball as far as managing and growing the empire was concerned. Details to follow.
2. Shias. Those who felt there was something special about the family of the prophet and in particular, the family of Ali and developed theologies that included varying combinations of the charismatic Imamate and its heritage of revolt against Sunni authority.
3 Khwarij. True believers who took it all so literally it hurts.
Everything since then can fit into one of these streams, with wahabism and ISIS etc combining the waters of 1 and 3, usually with more 3 than 1.

What about Sufism?
Mostly just Sunnis with nice instincts?
With some of them being sensitive people trying to get the most good out of religion while leaving out most of the imperial and legalistic baggage.
And sometimes a secret society, influencing much behind the scenes, but by definition, not really easy to disentangle myth (and self-promotion) from shadowy reality.
Not really a sect or a theology.
Something like that.
Of course, this post does not touch upon the whole issue of what religion may mean (and may do) to true believers and those struck by epiphanies on the road to Damascus. That whole issue is alluded to here by the always erudite Tanner Greer. Hopefully, more to come in a longer post soon.

See this from Razib Khan for another angle.
The power of the Islamic State derives in part from the fact that it inverts the moral order of the world. Some of its soldiers are clear psychopaths, as the most violent and brutal of international jihadis have been drawn to the Islamic State (as opposed to Al Qaeda, which is more pragmatic!). But a substantial number believe in its utopian vision of an Islamic society constructed upon narrow lines. A positive vision of a few evil goals, rather than a grand quantity of small evil pleasures. The Islamic State ushers in an evil new order, it does not unleash unbridled chaos. Though its self-conception that it is resurrecting the first decades of Islam is self-delusion in my opinion, it is still a vision which can entice some in the Islamic international.

I do not think that the Islamic State is here to stay. I believe it will be gone within the next five years, torn apart by its own contradictions and its rebellion against normal human conventions, traditions, and instincts. But that does not mean it is not going to cause misery for many on its way down. The irony is that the iconoclastic Islamic State may as well be worshiping the idols conjured in the most fervid of Christian evangelical apocalyptic literature, because they shall tear the land end to end and leave it in a thousand pieces, a material sacrifice to their god. They live under the illusion that they are building utopia, but they are coming to destroy an imperfect world and leave hell in its wake.

* The modern Salafis are just the latest in a particular extreme of Sunni belief, which goes back to individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah.

And of course, Shadi Hamid’s excellent post from 2014: The roots of the Islamic State’s appeal.  

Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics. This isn’t necessarily bad or good. It just is. Comparing it with other religions helps illuminate what makes it so. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP may be Hindu nationalists, but the ideological distance between them and the secular Congress Party isn’t as great as it may seem. In part, this is because traditional Hindu kingship—with its fiercely inegalitarian vision of a caste-based social order—is simply less relevant to modern, mass politics and largely incompatible with democratic decision-making. As Cook writes in his new book Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Muslims, on the other hand, not only have a law but also one that is taken seriously by large majorities throughout the Middle East.

..If ISIS and what will surely be a growing number of imitators are to be defeated, then statehood—and, more importantly, states that are inclusive and accountable to their own people—are essential. The state-centric order in the Arab world, for all its artificiality and arbitrariness, is preferable to ungoverned chaos and permanently contested borders. But for the Westphalian system to survive in the region, Islam, or even Islamism, may be needed to legitimate it. To drive even the more pragmatic, participatory variants of Islamism out of the state system would be to doom weak, failing states and strong, brittle ones alike to a long, destructive cycle of civil conflict and political violence.

Hamid Hussain: Remembering Colonel Shuja Khanzada

Colonel ® Shuja Khanzada (28 August 1943 – 16 August 2015)
Hamid Hussain


Shuja Khanzada as a young cavalry officer.

On August 16, 2015, Punjab Home Minister Colonel ® Shuja Khanzada was killed in a suicide attack in his hometown of Shadi Khan in Attock.  He belonged to a military family and several family members served in British Indian army and junior civil service.  His grandfather Subedar Major and Honorary Captain Ajaib Khan had served in British Indian army.  Ajaib Khan was Subedar Major of 76th Punjabis (later 3rd Battalion of Ist Punjab Regiment and now 3rd Punjab Regiment of Pakistan army).  He was with his battalion during First World War in Mesopotemia and won Indian Order of Merit (IOM) in an action.  On May 15, 1915, Ajab stormed a fort in Khafajiyah with six other soldiers.  In this action, his orderly Sepoy Burhan Ali was killed in action and awarded posthumous IOM.  Ajaib retired after a long service and was awarded OBE and OBI.

Ajaib’s one brother served in Indian Medical Service while three other brothers served in civil service in Hong Kong.  Hashim Khan spent his whole career in post office department, Sardar Khan was chief clerk of harbor office and Khawas Khan was clerk at Supreme Court.  Shuja’s uncle Captain ® Taj Muhammad Khanzada was one of the most decorated officer of Indian army.

Taj Muhammad Khanzada was Shuja’s uncle.  In 1926, Taj joined Royal Indian Military College at Dehra Dun. After completion of his education, he was selected for Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun.  He was among one of the early batches of Indian officers trained at Dehra Dun.   After completion of training, he was commissioned with army number of IC-53.  He joined 5th Battalion Duke of Connaught’s Own 11th Sikh Regiment (now 5 Sikh Regiment of Indian army).  His battalion mates included Harbakhash Singh (later Lieutenant General), Khanolkar, Ajaib Singh, Ranjit Rai (later Lieutenant Colonel), Allahdad Khan, Hamid Hussain (later Brigadier), Muzaffar Khan, Nausherwan Khan, Hassan and Khushalpal Singh.  Taj won Military Cross (MC) in 1939 in Waziristan and DSO and Bar in 1941 in Burma theatre.  During Japanese captivity, he joined Indian National Army (INA) and put in charge of special service group.  However, his role in INA is not clear. After Japanese defeat and surrender, members of INA now came under British captivity.  INA members were designated Black, White and Grey.  Taj was labeled white and was kept in cantonment in Delhi.  Later, he was removed from the army when he was holding the rank of Captain. When India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947, both armies decided not to re-instate former INA officers.  In 1947-48 Kashmir war, several former INA officers fought in Kashmir.  In addition to Taj, Muhammad Zaman Kiani, Burhanuddin and Habibur Rahman fought on different fronts.  Taj fought in Poonch sector with the temporary rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Shuja had his early education in Khyber-Puhktunkhwa (KPK).  He joined Pakistan army in 1967 and commissioned in 13th Lancers.  13th Duke of Connaught’s Own Lancers is an old cavalry regiment of British Indian army inherited by Pakistan.  Shuja was with his parent regiment in 1971 Indo-Pakistan war.  13th Lancers was part of 8th Armored Brigade commanded by Brigadier Mohammad Ahmad.  Other two regiments of the brigade included 27th Cavalry and 31st Cavalry. 13th Lancers participated in battle of Barapind/Jarpal in western theatre where it fought against a fine Indian cavalry regiment 17th Poona Horse.  Shuja was MTO (Mechanical & Technical Officer) of the regiment and his tireless efforts helped to recover and repair many damaged tanks.  Shuja lost five fellow officers in this battle and the list included Captain Ejaz Alam Khan, Lieutenant Pervez Aslam, Lieutenant Zafar Ali Akbar, Second Lieutenant Qaiser Nazir Qureshi and Second Lieutenant Khalid Masud Yaqub.  All officers belonged to military families with long association with the army.  Shuja commanded his parent regiment from 1983-85.

After command of his regiment, he went to Inter Service Intelligence (ISI).  He was appointed head of Quetta detachment of ISI.  It was here that Shuja got involved in a tussle way above his pay grade. As head of Quetta detachment of ISI, his main task was counterintelligence.  In late 1980s, ISI got embroiled on several fronts and different tasks got mixed up.  Counterintelligence department was used for political re-engineering in Pakistan and it also got mixed up with Afghan affairs.  The result was internal turf battles within ISI.  Old Afghan hands of ISI operating from the Afghan Cell who were handling Afghan clients on the ground for over a decade resented interference from new kids who were not part of Afghan Cell.  Pakistan was managing a wide variety of Afghan clients.  British intelligence got limited support of ISI as well as CIA to try to use Royalist commanders and traditional tribal dynamics to force a change in southern Afghanistan.  Syed Ahmad Gilani’s National Islamic Front of Afghanistan was the main Royalist group among seven parties operating from Pakistan (they were not much effective on battle ground but were suave diplomats wearing expensive silk suits and brand name watches and eyeglasses.  This earned them the nick name of ‘Gucci Muj”).  Syed’s nephew Ismail Gilani opened up channels with 2nd Corps Commander General Nurul-Haq-Ulumi (a scion of Barakazi tribe).  The plan envisaged that Gilani’s commander in Spin Boldak Asmat Muslim (member of the local influential Achackzai tribe) would capture border town of Spin Boldak and head towards Kandahar where local garrison would defect.  Once major Southern town was secured then at some point former King Zahir Shah would land as titular head and march towards Kabul and on the way, major garrisons would defect.  This was a highly ambitious plan based on unrealistic expectations, ignoring tribal and clan conflicts and severely underestimating the staying power of Afghan government.  DGISI and head of Afghan Cell gave cautious and limited blessing to the plan but Afghan handlers on ground were not in agreement.  They thought that it was a plan of British intelligence to highjack the whole Afghan project.  The result was that some of the dealings with Royalists commanders were assigned now to counterintelligence division.  It was in this context that Shuja came into the picture, however, his influence was very limited.  ISI Afghan Cell handlers on ground for Southern Afghanistan didn’t agree with the project and launched a series of ambushes of Afghan columns which finally resulted in removal of General Ulumi (they think that their efforts were instrumental in removal of Ulumi but in my view internal Afghan dynamics and rivalries had more to do with the removal). In addition, they also supported the Achakzai’s rival Noorzoi tribe’s militia to gain control in border region of Spin Boldak. Afghan players were masters of byzantine intrigues and played one against the other to extract maximum benefits.

Shuja served as Defence Attache in Pakistan embassy in Washington from 1992 to 1994. He developed  problems with Pakistani ambassador Maleeha Lodhi.  It was a classic example of dysfunctional institutional relationships inside the country exported even to diplomatic posts. On Maleeha’s recommendation, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto recalled him back on a twenty hour notice and he was later sacked from the army.  It was understandable that he was very bitter about it.  However, he accused Maleeha and Benazir Bhutto of working to roll back Pakistan’s nuclear program and freezing of Kashmir issue and cited this as reason for his recall.  When back in Pakistan, he contacted then Chief of General Staff (CGS) Lieutenant General Jahangir Karamat, Director General Inter Services Intelligence (DGISI) Lieutenant General Javed Ashraf Qazi and Director General Military Intelligence (DGMI) then Major General Ali Quli Khan to vent his anger at un-ceremonial exit.  He blamed army brass for not standing up to the civilian government and protecting him.

In addition to military service, politics was the second career adopted by the Khanzada family.  Subedar Major and Honorary Captain Ajaib Khan was appointed member of Legislative Council of the Governor General of India in 1916.  Contrary to popular perception in Pakistan, Muslims were patronized by British in different fields to help them advance.  Seven other candidates were considered for the position which Ajaib finally filled at Viceroy’s Council and out of seven, six were Muslims (three Punjabi Muslims, three Pathans and one Deccani Muslim) while the sole non-Muslim was a Gurkha.  Ajaib participated in debates on Indianisation of the officer corps of Indian army and at one time questioned by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.   Later, Ajaib was appointed first British representative to Mecca and received a decoration from the King of Hejaz.  He also served with British Military Mission in Meshad in Persia.  Later, Ajaib also served as the nominated member of Punjab Legislative Council from 1924-26.  Taj Muhammad Khanzada followed in his father’s footsteps and also had a long political career.  He first became member of West Pakistan provincial assembly in 1962 and was active in politics for over three decades until late 1990s. Shuja followed in the footsteps of his ancestors and joined politics. After brief affiliations with two political parties, he joined Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif. He was advisor to Punjab chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif especially on law and order.  

Some allege that he was responsible for disbandment of the intelligence efforts to tackle terrorism.  This needs some elaboration to clarify a complex situation.  A Special Intelligence Agency (SIA) was created in Punjab to gather intelligence about terrorists.  Around two to three hundred former Military Intelligence (MI), Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Special Service Group (SSG) soldiers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) were recruited on contract basis.  SIA was headed by a Colonel (a cavalry officer who had also served with SSG and ISI).  No intelligence agency (with intelligence gathering authorization) can be instituted at provincial level. Secondly, Criminal investigation Agency (CIA) and Special branch in Punjab police have legal authority to collect crime related intelligence. Establishment of SIA was certainly a way to short circuit the system and hence the idea was opposed by police and civil service.  They saw this measure as encroachment of military in its area of operations. SIA finally became an orphan.  Members were first sent to CIA Headquarters where they lingered even without a salary and finally dismissed as they were recruited on contract basis. SIA was finally disbanded under federal pressure in 2010-11.

In 2014, Shuja was appointed Home Minister of Punjab province.  In this capacity, he was responsible for the law and order. His military and intelligence background helped him to work smoothly with military authorities now charged with cleaning the mess. Counter Terrorism department of police was strengthened and National Action Plan (NAP) was expanded to tame sectarian demons.  Leader of a rabid anti-Shia group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Malik Muhammad Ishaq was arrested and on July 29, 2015, counter terrorism department of police announced that he was killed in an encounter along with his two sons when his comrades tried to free him from police. Two weeks later,  Lashkar-e-Jhangvi struck and claimed responsibility for killing Shuja in a suicide attack as revenge of their leader’s death.

Shuja was a very handsome man and when he died few days short of his 72nd birthday, he was still full of vigor and energy.  A courageous man gave his life for the greater good.  Rest in peace.

         Colonel ® Shuja Khanzada

Hamid Hussain

Hamid Hussain Reviews Cloughley’s Book about the Pakistan Army

A History of the Pakistan Army: Wars and Insurrections by Brian Cloughley

Dear All,

Some questions came my way about Brian Cloughley’s good book about Pakistan army. I put them in an unconventional book review. Regards, Hamid.

Book Review by Hamid Hussain

A History of Pakistan Army: Wars and Insurrections by Brian Cloughley, Fourth Edition. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 588

Brian Cloughley’s A History of Pakistan Army is the fourth edition of a book, which was originally written in 1999. Fourth edition adds many new chapters especially tenures of General Pervez Mussharraf and General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Author is one of few foreigners with long association with some senior Pakistani officers going back to early 1980s. This gives the author an advantage to draw on his personal associations.

Book is a comprehensive review of history of Pakistan army starting from 1947 when country gained independence. It documents journey of Pakistan army over six decades.

On page 29 author commenting about Ayub’s actions after becoming C-in-C states that “He examined the Military Secretary’s records of every senior officer and, if in doubt about someone’s competence, he sacked them”. This needs clarification and understanding of the context. The issue was not much about competence but about reliability. In March 1951, only about two months after General Muhammad Ayub Khan took over command of Pakistan army, a conspiracy was unearthed by the local police where a group of army officers were planning to overthrow the civilian government. The leader was then Chief of General Staff (CGS) Major General Muhammad Akbar Khan. Many officers involved in the conspiracy were left leaning and avowed leftist and famous poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz was also involved peripherally. After the arrest of main culprits, Ayub used this opportunity to ease out all officers with leftist leanings. For Ayub, the issue was reliability of officers and proper orientation rather than competence. Many officers promoted by Ayub to senior ranks will never pass a competency test in any decent army.

Author complements Ayub for ‘considerable activity in all sorts of spheres’ and that constitution committee finished its work in just over a year. A little background will help readers understand the machinations behind these maneuvers to keep dominance of western wing. There were seven members of constitution committee; four from West Pakistan and three from East Pakistan. Even Ayub’s own handpicked cabinet members from East Pakistan; Muhammad Ibraheem, Abul Qasim Khan and Habib ur Rahman demanded greater autonomy during discussions on Constitution and warned of grave dangers of a highly centralized government. Several 4:3 votes during these deliberations clearly indicated a genuine different thought process and different perspective among ministers from the two wings. Ayub was clever enough to keep three Bengali members on board as he needed to show that Bengalis were at the table but in fact handicapped by being minority in the committee. After the promulgation of the constitution, he dropped all three Bengali ministers from the cabinet which clearly shows his motives.

On page 78 in remarks about Major General A. O. Mitha, author points to “withdrawal of a well earned decoration’ of the officer and suggests that Bhutto was responsible for the withdrawal. It is quite clear that then C-in-C Lieutenant General Gul Hassan recommended to the President for withdrawal of the award and even Mitha blames Gul Hassan and not Bhutto. As far as award of Hilal-e-Jurat is concerned, there are two aspects of the issue. One is whether Mitha deserved the decoration and second is the technical aspect whether proper procedure was followed. Mitha was close friend of then President and C-in-C General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan and was serving as Quarter Master General (QMG) in 1971. Yahya sent him to East Pakistan just prior to ‘Operation Searchlight’ in March 1971. Mitha arrived on March 24 and appointed Deputy Corps Commander to Lieutenant General Tikka Khan and put in charge of the operation. This was done verbally and no official notification was issued. Mitha travelled all over East Pakistan and gave direct orders to fighting formations for operations against Bengali rebels. Mitha was in East Pakistan from March 24 to April 11, 1971 when Pakistani forces disarmed Bengali troops and fought with rebellious soldiers. After pacification, he visited East Pakistan again about two months later. Chief of Staff (COS) General Abdul Hamid initiated the citation for the award of Hilal-e-Jurat to Mitha for his role in crucial operations in March 1971 and General Yahya Khan approved it. It is strange that Mitha was upset about the withdrawal of the award as he thought that he deserved it for his crucial role in the operations. However, in his memoirs he mentions that he was retired unjustly and gives the argument that as QMG his responsibility was only to supply what was in stock and had nothing else to do with either the planning or execution of war. In his view others were responsible for the debacle.

Now the tricky issue of whether Mitha deserved the award. His role was essentially advisory and although he was not in direct command of troops, in fact he travelled all over East Pakistan and gave direct orders as well as supervised operations including infantry, artillery and Special Services Group (SSG) troops. In view of general confusion all along the chain of command, lack of clear direction from top brass and management crisis at mid-levels, Mitha’s actions were important to take the initiative back and restore the writ of the state. Looking from this angle, in my view, he probably deserved the decoration. On pure technical and administrative grounds, Mitha was not in direct command of troops and his role was essentially advisory. In addition, citation was not initiated by his direct superior Lieutenant General Tikka Khan but COS. Mitha and then CGS Lieutenant General Gul Hassan didn’t like each other and when later became C-in-C, he recommended to President to withdraw the award on technical grounds. Bhutto who was busy putting generals in the dock was happy to approve it.

On page 88, author while describing some actions of 1965 war states that “Major Aziz Bhatti thoroughly deserved the award of Nishan-i-Haider (the highest gallantry award)”. There is no question that many soldiers including Bhatti fought bravely to defend their country and deserve all praise. However, highest gallantry award is usually awarded for actions beyond the call of duty and bravery in face of enemy action. Major Raja Aziz Bhatti was company commander of Alpha Company of 17th Punjab Regiment. On September 10, Bhatti was in a three story house in Barki village along with an artillery observer Captain Mahmood Anwar Shaikh of 24th Medium Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sial to coordinate artillery fire to stop Indian advance. He survived the action of September 10 when Barki village was captured by Indian troops. On September 11, Indian troops advanced towards the east bank of Ichhogil canal. Shaikh was replaced by a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) Subedar Sher Dil but he was not effective therefore Bhatti took over the important task of directing artillery fire on advancing Indian troops. Bhatti was supporting the Pakistani counter attack led by Major Habib Khan of 12th Punjab Regiment (Habib along with seven of his comrades was killed in this action). Indian artillery (7th Artillery Brigade as well as 5th and 66th Field Regiment and 82nd Light Regiment) was also very active in the theatre. Bhatti was killed by an artillery shell while manning own side. His commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) Ibrahim Qureshi had to re-write his citation three times to qualify for the highest award. Some officers are candid about the deficiencies in the system of gallantry awards in off the record conversations. Only one officer Major General ® Tajammal Hussain Malik went on record and mentioned in his memoirs that after investigations by a committee set up by General Head Quarter (GHQ) it was determined that sixty to seventy percent of gallantry awards in 1965 war were bogus. In Indian and Pakistani armies controversies about gallantry awards caused significant resentment among soldiers. In Indian army, a fine cavalry officer who gallantly fought in 1965 war was a bitter man his whole life because he was not awarded a gallantry award. He claimed that if he had won the gallantry award, he would have been an army chief. He retired at Brigadier rank and later in life took his own life.

On page 294, author points to disagreement between Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo and General Zia ul Haq about promotion of two officers; Pir Dad Khan and Shamim Alam Khan referring to both of them as ‘admirable officers’. I’m sure they are wonderful chaps but promotion is based on professional competence. Major General Pir Dad Khan was commander of Force Command Northern Area (FCNA) in April 1984 when Indians occupied Siachin glacier. FCNA comes under the command of Rawalpindi based X Corps and Lieutenant General Jahandad Khan was Corps Commander from March 1980 to March 1984. I knew late General Jahan Dad Khan for several years and discussed this subject with him. I used to joke with him that he should thank Indians for taking Siachin excursion just two weeks after his handing over the charge. Pakistan was well aware of possible Indian move and this was discussed at the highest level. Pir Dad thought that due to extremely difficult terrain Indian move was not very likely. General Zia ul Haq was of the view that even if troops were involved in the area due to difficult terrain only a brigade sized force on Indian side and about battalion sized Pakistani force will be involved. Everyone missed the tough logistical question. Jahan Dad claimed that he envisaged this and informed the high command that army’s helicopter force will be needed. In addition, he advised that Military Intelligence should keep its ears and eyes open in the area and monitor Indian troop movement to give warning in time to Pakistani forces.

Pakistan’s plan was to move troops to strategic points in late April or May. Pir Dad was probably correct in his assessment about the terrain but he was proven wrong by Indians and area was lost under his command. It is not only Mr. Junejo who thought that officer didn’t deserve to be promoted but majority of Pakistani officers hold the same view. General Zia ul Haq rewarded him by promotion to Lieutenant General rank and appointed him Corps Commander.

On page 301, author while describing Benazir Bhutto’s relations with army writes that ‘on 24 May Benazir Bhutto dismissed the Director General Inter Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul’. This is not correct. Benazir complained to Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Mirza Aslam Beg about Hamid Gul and asked him to take action against him. It was not due to any differences over policy but due to the fact that Gul was directly involved in cobbling together the opposition parties against Benazir in elections and involved in intrigues against her government (Mr. Gul has admitted to this fact after his retirement). Gul was not doing it on his own initiative but carrying army high command’s decision, therefore it was no surprise that instead of taking disciplinary action, Gul was given the prestigious assignment of command of Multan based II Corps. Late Major General Naseerullah Khan Babar was a close confidant of Benazir and he was the point man as far as army was concerned. I knew General Babar for long period of time and had several very long sessions with him and he shared many intrigues of that time period with me.

On page 344 when describing General Pervez Mussharraf’s appointment as COAS, author states that he ‘brought in or moved some of his own team’ and in this regard gives the example of appointment of Lieutenant General Muhammad Akram as QMG and then concludes that ‘the chain was not controversial’. This conclusion is flawed on several grounds and a brief description will clarify the point. Immediately after the announcement of his appointment, Mussharraf settled down in Armour Mess (General Jahangir Karamat was still in Army House) and Lieutenant General Khwaja Ziauddin then serving as Adjutant General (AG) joined him. Mussharraf embarked on major changes and brought the new team of his own confidants to key positions of command of Rawalpindi, Multan, Lahore and Karachi Corps and CGS, Military Secretary (MS) and Director General Military Intelligence (DGMI) posts.

Akram was Corps Commander of Lahore-based IV Corps and has been at that post for a little over a year. When Musshrraf was Corps Commander of Mangla based I Corps, he used to come to Lahore for relaxation. Every Corps has its own intelligence and it keeps an eye on happenings in its jurisdiction. Akram gently pointed to Mussharraf to be careful as he was in the run for the position of COAS and Mussharraf was offended by this. Musshhrraf’s first action as COAS was to remove Akram from the command and posted him as QMG (QMG and Chief of Logistics Staff positions are usually used by COAS to park a senior officer on the side for a while if he can’t be removed immediately). Rawalpindi based X Corps Commander Lieutenant General Salim Haider was moved to Mangla as Mussharraf had an earlier tiff with him on a petty protocol issue. Salim was replaced at Rawalpindi by Mussharraf’s old buddy Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmad (then serving as Commandant of National Defence College). Lieutenant General Muzzaffar Usmani was brought from Bahawalpur Corps to important Karachi Corps. Lieutenant General Muhammad Yusuf Khan was brought as Multan Corps Commander while Lieutenant General Khalid Maqbool was brought as Lahore Corps Commander. In addition, Major General Ihsan ul Haq was appointed DGMI.

All these newly appointed officers were trusted allies of Mussharraf and the trajectory of their future career clearly points to this fact. Mahmud and Ihsan served as DGISI and later Ihsan was given fourth star and appointed Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC). Yusuf later served as CGS and then promoted to four star rank and appointed Vice Chief of Army of Staff (VCOAS). Khalid was later appointed Governor of Punjab in 2001 and became the longest serving governor of the province until 2008 when Mussharraf saw his own sunset. More important is the fact that when in October 1999 Ziauddin was appointed COAS, one of the first orders of Ziauddin which never took effect due to coup was to bring Salim Haider back as Rawalpindi Corps Commander and appoint Akram as CGS.

There are some errors in the book which can be corrected in next edition. On page 26 author describes the assessment of Nicholas Barrington of British High Commission and British Military Attaché written in 1966 about Ayub Khan. Author has mixed Ayub’s profile with another officer. The description of ‘an aristocrat from Patudi family and highly intelligent and rather an intellectual and he is also Anglicised’ by Barrington and ‘rather shy nature and one cannot see him inspiring his officers by the force of his personality though he might inspire admiration for his integrity and intellect’ and reference to polo by British Military Attaché is description of Lieutenant General Sahabzada Yaqub Khan and not Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Ayub was from humble rural background and his father was Risaldar Mir Dad Khan of Hodson Horse. Terms like Anglicised and intellectual do not apply to Ayub and it was Ayub’s powerful personality rather than his intellect which inspired others. Ayub could ride but was not a polo player and in early 1950s during Peshawar vale hunt was thrown off his horse. British High Commissioner Sir Gilbert Laithwaite had described Ayub’s profile but about a decade earlier in 1958 in these words, “He was according to our records, a failure as a Commanding Officer (Lieutenant- Colonel) on active service and had to be relieved”. This should also clarify author’s description of Ayub on page 48 “gallant in combat”. On page 77 when mentioning Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, author states that Yaqub was awarded Military Cross for gallantry in North Africa. This is incorrect and Yaqub didn’t earn any gallantry award in Second World War. He spent most of the war as prisoner of war first as involuntary guest of Italians and later Germans. He used this time to learn Italian and German languages. Yahya was in the same theatre during that time period and successfully escaped from captivity. He is alleged to have made the remark that Yaqub declined to join them in escape stating that he was learning the Italian and German languages.

The chapter on operations in FATA gives only one point of view as author relied heavily on diaries provided by then Corps Commander of Peshawar Lieutenant General Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai. Orakzai was Corps Commander of Peshawar based XI Corps from October 2001 to March 2004. Author edited Orakzai’s diaries for later publication and reliance on one single source narrowed the scope of analysis of a very complex situation. Personal friendship can also limit one’s ability to critically analyze and I suspect that this happened in this case. Some of Orakzai’s observations narrated by author are so incredulous that it is hard to believe that the man put in charge of the most important Corps held such views. On page 390 it is mentioned about South Waziristan that ‘No foreign fighters have been seen by independent witnesses’. Based on my own work on operations in FATA and interviews with different sources (operational as well as intelligence), I found almost consensus that tenure of Orakzai was to put it mildly paved the way of the future disaster. Mussharraf relied on Orakzai for advice about FATA thinking that being a member of a tribe was an advantage. This concept is flawed on several levels. Most educated tribesmen whose families left native lands grew up in cities and gradually lost contact with their ancestral lands. If someone has no interest then he may know few family stories about his own clan or tribe but this does not make him an authority on a different tribe. On another level, he can be less effective as other tribes will not see him as representative of the government but simply member of a tribe which could be rival for local resources (this happened when a Pakistani officer who happened to be member of Wazir tribe was a senior ISI operative in the region. He was an officer of Pakistan army representing government but to a Mahsud he was simply another Wazir and no matter how impartial he would be seen as member of the rival tribe).

According to some intelligence officers who operated in the region in that time period, Orakzai as well as then Inspector general Frontier Corp (IGFC) Major General Taj Muhammad Khattak were in complete denial and oblivious to the rapidly shifting ground right under their feet. ISI provided them details of movement of foreign fighters in FATA but their response was that there are no foreign fighters in our area of command and blaming them for generating false reports. Militants were gaining strength by the day and eliminating traditional tribal elders while other elders ran away to the safety of the cities. Orakzai like everybody and his cousin was talking about development of FATA and advocating making roads and spending money ignoring the basic fact that militants were rapidly expanding their authority, sidelining and eliminating traditional tribal leaders with government authority evaporating by the days and weeks not in years. In this context talking about building roads without first establishing the authority of the government meant that he was actually improving the logistics of militant infrastructure. This is proven by the facts that emerged later when army cleared some areas. Militants had established an elaborate underground infrastructure with extensive training facilities, industrial sized car and motorcycle bomb factories and tons of explosives neatly stacked in warehouses was found. This massive infrastructure was not put in place by ghosts but over several years right under the nose of XI Corps. In addition, in their great plans, senior brass was totally oblivious to the deep suspicion of the local population as locals were not blind and aware of double dealing of the army. Mussharraf brought Orakzai for briefing at the White House presenting him as an authority on tribal affairs. Americans had their own sources of information from inside Pakistan and were not much impressed. In 2004, when he handed over the command to his successor, militants were in full control of South Waziristan and Pakistan had lost large swaths of tribal territory. To be fair to Orakzai, he was carrying out the policy agreed by the senior brass. Now, General Mussharraf has admitted that at that time Pakistan allowed Afghan Taliban to park in Pakistani territory.

There are few things which are not important for ordinary reader but from a military history point of view need clarification. In the notes on page 49 author describing allotment of cavalry regiments in 1947 states that “The Guides Cavalry bound logically for Pakistan”. Guides Cavalry had two non-Muslim (Dogra & Sikh) and one Muslim (Pathan) squadron and initially it was allotted to India. On the other hand Scind Horse with two Muslim (Muslim Rajput & Pathan) and one non-Muslim (Sikh) squadron was allotted to Pakistan. Every regiment is proud of its regimental center but Guides center at Mardan was not an ordinary center but a shrine where legends of Raj served and stories told and re-told. It was unimaginable to think about Guides without Mardan. British officers convinced senior authorities and decision was reversed where Guides Cavalry was allotted to Pakistan and Scind Horse to India. This complicated the already confusing break up of regiments and battalions.

Author has expanded his earlier work by adding new chapters. Book is a good read for anyone interested in Pakistan army. It takes reader on a journey that spans sixty year history of Pakistan army.

Hamid Hussain
June 27, 2015

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