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When History Tags Along: Key Events That Shape Today’s Islamic Militancy


Two decades ago I literally stumbled upon the only archeological discovery I have ever made. I was in southern Iraq, visiting the ruins of Ur, one of the earliest Sumerian cities and mythical birthplace of the Patriarch Abraham. Not far from the ancient ziggurat, I found, by chance, a mud-brick, identical to the ones that were used to build the ziggurat. I picked it up and, to my utter surprise, I saw that it was inscribed with cuneiforms. The brick was thousands of years old. I asked one of the Iraqi minders that were accompanying our group whether I can take it home. Obviously, the man told me to put it back where I found it. Ever since then, I have imagined that, maybe, I had brushed up against a piece of the Epic of Gilgamesh – Uruk, the fabled king’s city is not that far from Ur. Most likely, it was a list of some sort or just scribbling by some bored clerk supervising the construction workers.

About seven years later I was working on a story about the looting of the Iraqi National Museum after the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003. While interviewing the director of the museum, George Donny, one of those scholars that are so passionate about their work that listening to them leads to a sort of trance state, I told him about my discovery in Ur and asked him how it was possible to have such artifacts lying around. He answered that Iraq has a huge number of archeological sites – about 10.000 – and that even in peacetime it would be impossible to excavate them all. So, during the raining season, some artifacts may be revealed while others get buried back. To this day, I find this idea fascinating: history being brought back to life, before our eyes, by something as random as rain in the desert, and then being hidden again by another rain, or maybe a sandstorm. Nonetheless, whether it is hidden or in plain view, history – sometimes manifesting itself as a brick that might be inscribed with a missing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh – is always there.

Living history

Not long after my meeting with George Donny I learned that history can find other ways as well to enter unexpectedly into one’s life. I learned this from an anecdote I was told by Rana, a good friend and one of the best producers covering the war in Iraq in its early years; many journalists were safely taken by her in and out of the most dangerous places in the country. Rana was an Ayyubi – and her family name meant that she was a descendent of Salah ad-Din, known to Europeans as Saladin, conqueror of Jerusalem and a medieval example of chivalrous conduct. Before establishing his own dynasty, Saladin was a general of the Egypt-based Fatimid dynasty, which he overthrew. Eight centuries later, during the bloody Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, Rana’s uncle, an Ayyubi as well, was captured by the Iranians. Someone tipped them off about his family name, so his capturers asked him whether he knew who his ancestor was and what he had done – namely that Saladin, a Sunni general, had overthrown a Shia dynasty. The man answered that he was quite aware of Saladin’s story and that he was proud of his ancestor. Because of that answer he would spend years in a prisoners’ camp, being released only 15 years after the end of the Iraq – Iran war.

I had no way of fact checking Rana’s story; what I know for sure is that she believed it, and that alone tells a lot about the Middle East. There, history is very much alive, and even if sometimes it feels like it is forgotten, it lies patiently under the surface for a chance reveal.

I remembered these two stories when I was asked to contribute a piece about Middle East for “The Market for Ideas”. I was thinking about the current state of affairs in the region: several civil wars, a Saudi-Iranian conflict fought through proxies in places like Syria and Yemen, the jihadists from the Islamic State and Al Qaida, with their respective allies and affiliates, raging across the region, the Russian and American campaigns, the Kurds getting bolder as they move towards de facto independence, Turkey moving in to contain the Kurds, a possible war in the waiting between Israel and Hezbollah, the shifting alliances, and so on and so forth. How did they get there? When did it actually start – or, rather, when were the seeds planted? I realized that there is a lengthy sequence of events, some in our day and age, some going back in time centuries. Just like the brick in Ur or Saladin’s story, many of these events just pop up unexpectedly in the propaganda, reasoning or actions of this and that group.

I decided to make a list of such events. Obviously, no such list could ever be exhaustive, nor could it be universally agreed upon. I have skipped many crucial events. Take, for instance, the battles of Yarmuk and al-Qādisiyyah, which opened the way for the early Muslim armies to the West and to the East, severely weakened the Byzantine Empire and crushed the Sassanid one. Or the battle of Hattin, that dealt a decisive blow to the Crusader states. Or the political alliances that led to the rise of Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula. Closer to our times – the Sykes-Picot agreement that partitioned the Middle East disregarding the mosaic of ethnicities and religious groups, which is widely designated as one of the main causes of today’s upheavals. The partition of the mandate of Palestine that triggered the Arab – Israeli conflicts that still play a huge role in the collective mindset of the region. The Arab Spring. The list could go on and on. I decided to focus, instead, on some of the events that are connected to today’s Islamic militancy – both Sunni and Shia – because, as we have seen since at least the turn of the century, non-state actors pose a much bigger threat than the somewhat more predictable and easier to coerce state actors. Take Hezbollah, Al Qaida, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, etc.

1. Hussein’s martyrdom

Ten years after my discovery in Ur, I was a journalist embedded with the Romanian battalion that was camped just a few kilometers from the ziggurat, when news broke about the bombing of the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra, almost 500 km North of where I was. Although there were no casualties, I immediately knew that this was big news: Al-Askari is one of the holiest places for Shia Muslims as the 10th and the 11th imams are buried there. Moreover, it is adjacent to the place where the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi – a Messianic figure for the Twelver Shia Muslims, who would return for the final battle between Good and Evil – entered his occultation. The bombing of Al-Askari was immediately blamed on Al Qaida in Iraq, a group from which the current Islamic State evolved, whose founder and leader at the time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had been trying to trigger a civil war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites. Al-Zarqawi had ordered numerous suicidal attacks against Shiite civilians, but, up to that point, Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization had generally shown restraint. Not this time. The Al-Askari bombing triggered a wave of revenge attacks against the Sunnis and it soon ignited the 2006 – 2007 Iraqi Civil War.

The Shia reverence for the Imams goes all the way back to the early days of Islam and the disputes surrounding the appropriate successor to the Prophet Muhammad at the helm of the nascent Muslim empire. Following the death of Muhammad, some in the community argued that his successor – or caliph, the one that replaces the Prophet in leading the prayer – should be his cousin Ali, husband of his favorite daughter, Fatimah, and one of the earliest, most pious and bravest Muslims. Ali would eventually become, 24 years after Muhammad’s death, the fourth and last of the so-called Rashidun, rightly-guided caliphs. His five year reign was marked by the first Muslim civil war, the schism of the Kharijites and the rebellion of Muawiyah, who would later become the first of the Umayyad caliphs. Ali was killed by a Kharijite in 661. His death deepened the rift between an important part of the community, who would come to be known as the Sunni, and his supporters, “Shiatu’ Ali”, followers of Ali, who now believed that the Caliphate should be passed to his and Fatimah’s descendants, the so-called Ahl al-Bayt, People (or family) of the House [of the Prophet]. The defining moment of the conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis would come some two decades after Ali’s death, when his and Fatima’s son, Hussein, was killed in battle, together with his party, by troops loyal to the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid I. Hussein’s martyrdom is still commemorated to this day during Ashura, one of the most important dates of the Shia religious calendar, made famous throughout the world by the images of self-flagellation with chains and swords. Even without the Ashura, most Shiites have a subtler, daily, way of remembering Hussein’s death: it is customary to use, during the five daily prayers, a piece of clay, called turbah, which symbolizes the purity of the Earth. Many – if not most – of these pieces of clay come from Karbala, where the third Imam was killed.

Shiites hold in huge reverence Ahl al-Bayt in general and the 12 Imams in particular. I mentioned above how the desecration of Al-Askari shrine lead to the Iraqi civil war; years later, Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan joined the war in Syria in order to defend the shrine of Sayydah Zaynab, Hussein’s sister. The Shiite sense of historical persecution is connected to the fate of the Imams – all, with the exception of the Hidden One, Al-Mahdi, were murdered – and Sunnis were blamed for all of those deaths, except Ali’s. There is still more when it comes to Hussein, an undertone that plays right into the hand of some of today’s Shiite Islamist militias: a desire to revenge him and a willingness to sacrifice – that is, to follow Hussein on the path of martyrdom.

This becomes even more obvious when we look at another symbol: the flag. Shiites use differently colored flags, which are raised above shrines and mosques, carried at public events and so on. The green flags are associated to Ahl al-Bayt and especially Ali; the black flags are carried by Al-Mahdi’s followers. Hussein’s flag is red – a constant reminder of the blood that was spilled and needs to be revenged. Some of the Shiites even believe that there is a prophecy saying that when the Mahdi will return his armies will exact revenge on the descendants of those that killed Hussein, that is, the Sunnis.

Hussein’s pictures adorn the offices, checkpoints and even the fighting vehicles of the Shiite militias; it is the closest thing to a Christian icon that I’ve seen in Islam. Hussein’s name is used as a rallying and battle cry by the Shiite militias. Some of these militias were involved in what amounts to war crimes against Sunni civilians in Iraq; others were behind terror attacks – including suicidal ones – starting with the ‘80s; finally, Shiite militias are now fighting in Syria, on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Of course, one should never forget Israel – regarded as the true enemy by groups such as Hezbollah.

2. The Mongol Invasions

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s rise to fame as a terror master-mind was fast and bloody. A virtual unknown before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, by the time of his death, in 2006, Zarqawi had a 25 million dollars bounty on his head, as high as Osama bin Laden’s. His group was responsible for countless suicide attacks that mostly targeted civilians, for triggering the 2006 – 2007 Iraqi sectarian conflict, for popularizing the terror tactic of beheading foreign hostages and videotaping the horrific executions. After Zarqawi’s death, his group went through several changes and it eventually morphed into today’s Islamic State. As a token of Zarqawi’s legacy, the motto of the Islamic State’s English propaganda magazine is a quote from the group’s late leader: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify... until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". This serves as a reference to the apocalyptic credo of the Islamic State, whose followers believe that the time of the final battle between the believers and non-believers and the coming of the Mahdi – though not the same Mahdi as the hidden Imam of the Shiites – is near.

Zarqawi’s terror attacks were considered excessive even by the Al Qaida’s leadership. The terror network’s second in command at the time, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sent Zarqawi a letter, in 2005, warning him that, because of the indiscriminate killings, he risked losing the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Muslims.

Zarqawi rebutted al-Zawahiri’s criticism in an audio-recording in which he even tried to justify killing fellow Muslims, which is strictly forbidden by the Quran. By fellow Muslims he understood Sunni Muslims: the Shiites were considered apostates, and so were the political leaders of the Muslim countries and even the religious scholars that supported them. The title of Zarqawi’s recording is relevant: “And the grandchildren of Ibn al-Alqami have returned”. Ibn al-Alqami was a Shiite vizier at the court of the last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta’sim Billah, and Sunni sources claim that his betrayal led to the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.

The fall of Baghdad was a hugely traumatic event for the Muslim world. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, the famous Library of Baghdad was burned, and with it thousands of books and documents were lost forever. Baghdad was, for centuries, one of the most important cultural and political centers of the Muslim world; its sacking spelled the end of what is known as the Islamic Golden Age, a period of great achievements that spanned some five centuries.

1258 may also be interpreted as the end of the Caliphate, the state in which, theoretically, all Muslims should live under the authority of the caliph. It is true that, by the 13th century, the Muslim empire established and enlarged by the Rashidun caliphs, the Umayyads and the early Abbasids had long been fractured, but the caliph in Baghdad still had some religious and political authority and, more importantly, he had legitimacy. Following al-Musta’sim’s death, some surviving Abbasids would become puppet-caliphs, with a strictly ceremonial role, at the court of the Mamluk sultans. Then, after Egypt fell under Ottoman rule and the last Abbasid died, the title of caliph would be assumed by the Ottoman sultans until its abolition by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924; however, none of those caliphs ever had the legitimacy of the ones from the Golden Age.

The sack of Baghdad was the high mark of the Ilkhanid Mongols’ drive westward, straight into the Middle-Eastern hearth of the Muslim world. The Mongols reached the very gates of Egypt before being pushed back by the Mamluks in 1260 – and it can be argued that, if it hadn’t been for the Mongol power struggle in the era, that forced Baghdad’s conqueror, Hulagu, to relocate most of his troops to the East, the outcome might have been different. Subsequent attempts, over the next 50 years, to expand the Ilkhanid Khanate into the Levant failed, but the Muslim world was on the defensive. That perilous climate shaped the thinking of possibly the most important ideologue of jihad, Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, a follower of the conservative Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence. Ibn Taymiyyah’s importance cannot be overstated: during his lifetime he helped rally the Mamluk lands against the Ilkhanid armies, and later on he would be a major influence for Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, founder of the Salafist movement that bears his name, and the modern ideologues of Islamism and jihad – Sayyid Qutb and Abd al-Salam Faraj. Osama bin-Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi held Ibn Taymiyyah in high regard and used his writings to try to justify their acts, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians on 9-11 and the wave of suicide attacks in Iraq.

Ibn Taymiyyah argued that jihad is a religious obligation and the only source of legitimacy for a ruler; moreover, those rulers that would not govern according to the Islamic law, Sharia, could be considered apostates, kufr (also spelled khaffir), and the same reasoning applies for Muslims that neglect their religious duty. The jihadists’ rebellion against secular governments in the Muslim countries, their efforts to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia and their use of tafkir – proclaiming their Muslim opponents apostates – can all be traced back to Ibn Taymiyyah.

3. The Safavids’ Rise to Power

One of the terms used as a pejorative for Shiites by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers was “Safavides”. It referred to the Azeri dynasty that ruled Persia from the 16th to the 18th century and was responsible for the country’s conversion from Sunni to Shia Islam; its reign was marked by near-constant warfare with the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Before the Safavids, the Iranian plateau was part of the Sunni world, with its population being converted to Islam after the collapse of the Sassanid Empire that followed the battle of al-Qadisiyyah in 636 AD. However, the region was never truly assimilated, and it left its own mark on the Caliphate: the Abbasids launched their bid to overthrow the Umayyads from the Iranian plateau, and their state was deeply influenced by the Persian culture.

The powers of the Iranian plateau had always been tilting West, towards Mesopotamia and beyond, and that fatally made them clash with whoever was there: Persians vs. Greeks, Parthians vs. Romans, Sassanids vs. Byzantines; the local populations of Mesopotamia and its vicinity were always part of the mix, as the region changed hands and it regularly launched its own bid to be a regional power. From this perspective, Iran’s modern-day efforts to build a sphere of influence all the way to the Mediterranean – supporting the Lebanese Hezbollah, aligning itself with a Syrian regime that, although secular, is dominated by the Shiite Alawite sect, influencing the Iraqi government through Shiite religious parties and militias – are nothing new. The novelty brought by the Safavids to this age-old Middle Eastern “great game” was a religious undertone that drew upon an already established schism within Islam. The conflict was no longer just Mesopotamian/Arab/Anatolian/Turk etc. vs. Persian – it was also Sunni vs. Shiite, with the latter having now a state of their own where they represented the majority of the population – a feat they had been unable to achieve in other Shiite-dominated states such as the Fatimid Caliphate.

4. The foundation of Israel

One of the first decisions taken by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini upon his return to Iran, in 1979, was to sever ties with Israel. In November that year, Iranian revolutionaries breached the United States Embassy in Teheran, taking dozens of diplomats hostage, generating a crisis which months later would prompt American president Jimmy Carter to sever Washington’s ties with Iran. The Islamic Republic had pinned down its enemies. To use Khomeini’s words, Great Satan and Little Satan (in the latter’s case, it must be said that during the early years it was all rhetoric). For instance, in the context of the war between Iran and Iraq, Teheran didn’t hesitate buying American weapons from Israel, as part of the famous Iran-Contra affair). For Iran, it was more than hot air: its associated militias attacked American objectives in Lebanon in the 80s and in Iraq in the 2000s. Teheran also funded and armed anti-Israeli terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Iran’s overt hostility towards the United States – and by extension, the West in general – and Israel is also shared by Sunni extremists. It’s no accident that jihadis (from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic state) use the term “crusader army” whenever they refer to Western forces. Christians were the first adversaries Muslims encountered throughout their expansion campaigns. First they collided with the Byzantine Empire, then they took on crusader armies. Before fighting the Byzantines and crusaders, Muhammad himself had declared war on the Jewish tribes of the Arab Peninsula. It’s important to note that, during the early centuries of Islam, when these two enemies – Christians and Jews – starting to take shape in the collective mindset, holy war– the jihad – also emerged as a doctrine. This doesn’t mean, however, that the two faiths have been at war ever since. On the contrary, since both Jews and Christians are part of the so-called “people of the Book”, being mentioned in the Qur'an, their communities were tolerated – in exchange for certain taxes – in various Muslim states. Some of these communities have endured to this day: I’m referring particularly to Christian communities, since the Jews in the Muslim world embarked on a massive exodus, oftentimes coerced, after the foundation of the State of Israel. Their communities either completely disappeared from their native countries, or their numbers were sensibly reduced.

In 1917, under the Balfour declaration – which is in fact a very brief letter of less than 130 words – the British Governor acknowledged Zionist aspirations for the foundation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The document was rejected by Muslim and Christian communities in Palestine, at the time accounting for 90% of the population, as well as by Arab leaders who had stood up against the Ottoman Empire, now allies of the British. Zionism started being perceived as a threat and mistrust in Western powers spiked (and later exploded with the rise of the anti-colonial pan-Arab movement).

Anti-Zionist and anti-colonialist discourse was also emulated by Islamists, who sought to revitalize the Muslim world through the Islamization of political systems. Egyptian Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1947 called on his adepts to prepare for jihad in an attempt to prevent the division of Palestine (which the UN voted for in November that year). The same Al-Banna proclaimed Zionism as the enemy, accusing the West of betraying the Arab world and supporting Israel. In this respect, a similar accusation helped shore up hostility against the United States, which was initially well-received in the Middle East, as America’s image wasn’t affected by a colonial past. Washington’s close ties with Israel, as well as its cordial relations with certain Muslim governments, gave rise to anti-Americanism, which they continue to fuel.

Hassan al-Banna’s ideology also impacted more radical philosophers and organizations that succeeded him. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood is quoted in the Hamas Book – “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it”, while the co-founder of that terrorist organization, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, was equally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose member he was in his youth. Al-Banna mad a strong impression also on Sayyid Qutb, another Egyptian, considered to be the first prominent theorist of jihadist extremism, a staunch anti-Semite and anti-American.

One generation after Sayyid Qutb, a Palestinian in the West Bank, Abdullah Azzam, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth, would militate for the globalization of jihad. Abdullah Azzam had been Osama bin Laden’s mentor, and together they founded what would later become Al-Qaeda. Azzam also helped rally Arabas from all over the world to fight in the war in Afghanistan, and his next target, once the war was done, would have been Palestine and Israel.

Since Abdullah Azzam was assassinated in 1989, the person who got to decide what the next target would be was Osama bin Laden, who was already being groomed by Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who in turned had been indoctrinated into the makings of radical Islam by Sayyid Qutb. Osama himself had ties with the Qutb family through Sayyid’s brother, Muhammad, whom he’d met in Saudi Arabia where the latter was preaching his brother’s ideology. Bin Laden had picked the United States for his next target, while Israel also remained one his great fixations.

The Islamic State, though far more violent and radical than Al-Qaeda, avoided a conflict with Israel when it controlled territories in Syria close to its borders. The choice was most likely strategic, as jihadis must have been aware they stood zero chances against the Israeli army. Their Shiite opponents and the Palestinians were quick to take advantage of their choice. In Iraq, a comedy show tells the story of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, who hatches from an egg made by the devil together with (you’ve guessed it!) a Jewish woman. Israel, therefore, remains a target. In Palestine, another satirical video that went viral depicts jihadis and Israelis getting on well at a security checkpoint on the road.

The Palestinian cause seems to have worn down Arab leaders. The conflict has been raging for too long, and some believe doing business with Israel is far more lucrative. Even Saudi Arabia shook hands with Israel to unite against Iran. However, Palestinians continue to cause a stir in international organizations and give rise to visible initiatives such as the BDS movement promoting boycotts of Israeli products. People are losing confidence in their leaders, whom they suspect of secretly dealing with Israel, and are therefore turning up regularly for all-out strikes, while young people and teenagers are enthusiastically taking part in protests near wall and fence lines on the Israeli border, which usually end up with rubber tires being set on fire, stone-throwing, tear-gasing and rubber bullets flying by. Sometimes, Israeli security forces use military-grade munition against people they call terrorists. People die, and the dead are used as a further argument in favor of the Palestinian cause to persuade a young man that the United States, his own government and the Shiites (or the Sunnis, depending on the case), are enemies of Islam and his own.

5. The failure of Socialist revolutionaries

Flags are some of the most powerful symbols of nations. They accompany their representatives, whether we’re talking about dignitaries on official visits or athletes taking part in international competitions. They are raised on days of special significance or flown at half-staff to mark national mourning. They are fluttered by crowds attending political rallies or celebrating the victory of their football teams. We’ve all seen monuments or photos in history books of a few military sticking the flag into the heart of enemy territory to mark a victory, as well as other images on the news of angry crowds in the East setting fire and trampling under their feet the flags of Israel and the United States. Beyond the symbols flags represent as a whole, each of their colors, drawings and inscriptions has a certain meaning. Together, they convey a message behind which there is usually a story.

Many such stories can be told about the flag of Iraq. The colors, which have remained the same since the country was founded in 1921, were first used by the Arab tribes rising up to against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War: black, white, green and red. They are all referenced in a Medieval Arab war poem: “White are our deeds, black are our battles, green are our fields, red are our swords”, and they are all linked to Muhammad and his Hashemite successors and the great caliphates of the Golden Age of Islam. Although the colors have been preserved over the ages, the Iraqi flag underwent several changes. Its current form – three horizontal red, white and black stripes, with a green inscription in the middle – was inspired by the Arab liberation flag, associated with a series of revolutions and coups which, starting with the 1950s, helped instate secular regimes of socialist orientation that promoted pan-Arab nationalism. Iraq’s flag is also linked to stories about Saddam Hussein: his final victory, but also the defeat of a movement whose exponent he was, at least for a while.

Saddam’s victory consists in keeping the flag. After the fall of the Iraqi dictator, authorities in Baghdad proposed the flag be discarded, as it was a symbol of the old regime, and actually suggested the introduction of an alternate flag. The proposal was harshly antagonized, as the new flag bore too close a resemblance with the flag of Israel. There was one more reason why replacing the flag seemed like a bad idea for many people, and was even considered a sin: Saddam had ordered the inscription of the takbīr, one of the fundamental and iconic expressions of Islam – “Allahu Akbar”, “God is greater” or “God is the greatest”. It’s an expression I’ve heard desperate people shouting while looking for their relatives in the wake of a suicide attack, or during various celebrations, to express their joy. The Islamic call to prayer, psalmodized five times a day from the top of minarets, beings with the takbīr. In large cities with several mosques, the prayer produces a cascading effect, as muezzins don’t begin reciting the prayer all at once. The takbīr also has a darker connotation: it’s a Muslim battlecry, which jihadis have also adopted, as seen in the countless recordings published by organizations like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. In many cases, “Allahu akbar” are probably the last words uttered by suicide bombers.

Saddam ordered the takbīr be inscribed on the flag in 1991, when the huge US-led coalition army was on the verge of launching a military operation to liberate Kuwait, which Iraqi troops had occupied the previous year. It was an attempt to draw more followers and allies to his cause by posing as a pious Muslim. Moreover, the script of the takbīr was said to be Saddam’s own handwriting. A few years later, Saddam allegedly donated blood for the writing of a calligraphic copy of the Qur’an in blood, which most Muslims regarded as an act of doubtful piety. Even so, the new rulers of Iraq didn’t dare destroy the Blood Qur’an, and merely kept it away from prying eyes. They also replaced Saddam’s handwriting on the flag by having the script modified.

These acts and others like them, such as the ban on alcohol consumption in public spaces in the 90s, were part of Saddam’s plan of using religion to boost his legitimacy, as the approval he had enjoyed during the revolution was starting to wane.

Public endorsement of revolutionary leaders was commonplace in numerous regimes in the Middle East, starting with the Free Officers Movement in Egypt, which came to power in 1952. The army was the driving force of “revolutionary” regimes, which were powerful enough to impose societal reforms and whose officers were progressive enough to endorse them. The systems they overthrew were in part post-colonial, with powerful tribal components, and in other cases had significant agrarian classes, which makes one think that the revolutionaries’ tenets – anti-colonialism, Arab nationalism, socialism – where somewhat logical, especially if we take into account the broader geopolitical climate of the time. There was also a fourth ideological component of revolutionary regimes – they were secular, which from the very start set them at odds with religious political regimes which, in turn, wanted to change societies, by making them Islamic. The leaders of Egypt – Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat, Mubarak – were periodically at war with the Muslim Brotherhood or with more radical groups the latter had inspired. Hafez al-Assad responded with an Islamic uprising in Hama in 1982, slaughtering 20,000 people. Saddam Huseim persecuted the Muslim Brothers and the Sunnis and didn’t hesitate taking out Shia religious leaders and massacring their partisans or anyone suspected of being connected with Shia religious parties.

In their early years, revolutionary regimes, which also enjoyed the Soviet Union’s support, managed to report remarkable progress. Their societies advanced. They developed their infrastructure, education systems, medical systems and industry and recorded economic growth and a rise in living standards. Then, the regimes grew increasingly rigid. Interested in clinging to power, they became more and more authoritarian, conservative and ravenous. Their armies lost credibility following the repeated defeats in wars with Israel. Economic systems of socialist influence began to show their limitations. Public indoctrination started being received as propaganda. Population growth added more social pressure, while more and more young people were deprived of a chance for a better life.

What followed isn’t hard to imagine. The young generation, which had grown oblivious to the regime’s empty words, turned to imams in mosques. Imams were often accompanied by pious men who advocated a just society, governed according to God’s laws – this was the Islamic way. And of course, then there were those who believed jihad was the way to achieve that kind of society, and that acts of aggression (of governments allied with the West, the United States and Israel) should be answered with violence and terror.

Since these regimes started losing their revolutionary momentum, they started shifting towards the traditional source of legitimacy in the Muslim world: Islam, which exerts an even greater fascination in Arab countries where it is rooted deep in their identity and history, synonymous with the pinnacle of classical Arab civilization and culture. Haffez Al-Assad had pictures taken of him meeting leaders and funded the building of mosques. Egyptian authorities paid heed to religious conservatives and hunted down heavy metal fans or members of the LGBT community. To add further weight to the defeat of secularism, Saddam Hussein had the takbīr inscribed on the flag.

Eastern dictators’ proneness for religion didn’t boost their legitimacy, although it did provide them with increased mobility and the opportunity of winning over adepts of their Islamic enemies. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, they staged revolutions or won elections. In certain cases, the Islamists’ victories in elections didn’t sit well with the army, which eventually drove them away, in turn leading to violent reactions of radical groups – the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s, the insurrection in Sinai after Mohamed Morsi’s downfall, etc. In the civil wars in Syria and Libya, Islamic and jihadist organizations appeared to be better organized and held more sway over rebel forces.

Saddam’s death was not without a touch of irony. Although he had asked for a firing squad, he was hanged like a criminal, on the first day of the most important celebration in the Muslim calendar. He was handed the death sentence at the end of a trial which found him guilty of killing over 140 Shiites accused of having been involved in the attempt on Saddam’s life, organized in 1982 by the Dawa Islamic Party, which at the time of Saddam’s execution was part of the governing coalition in Baghdad and helped instate Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In the minutes before his execution, Saddam was taunted by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the son and son-in-law of Shiites who’d been killed under Saddam’s orders. Rumor had it that one of the executioners, a stout man wearing a balaclava, was Muqtada himself. The last words uttered by Iraq’s most vicious tyrant were the Shahada, the Islamic creed: “[I bear witness that] there is no god but Allah and I testify that Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah”.

6. The Gulf War

Saddam Hussein was executed nearly four years after losing power, in the wake of the invasion of the US-led international coalition force. To justify the invasion, which sparked widespread street protests, including in other countries that were traditional allies of Washington, the coalition claimed Iraq had a secret WMD cache and was working with Al-Qaeda. Both accusations eventually turned out to be baseless. Still, an indirect and involuntary link with Al-Qaeda did exist, more precisely due to Osama bin Laden’s decision to call a global jihad against the United States.

In 1990, the Al-Qaeda network was already fully-fledged. It had freed itself of all previous commitments and was now looking for a new opponent. The network’s previous business involved helping Afghan mujahideens fight off Soviet invaders, whose efforts were also supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia, who were in turn secretly bankrolling Pakistani secret intelligence. The Pakistanis redirected the funds to mujahideen groups of their choice – which were generally radical. It was not just governments funding the Afghan fighters. There were other, independent movements, the most prominent of which being the one led by Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden. It was called Maktab al-Khidamat, also known as the Afghan Services Bureau. Apart from securing funds for the mujahideens, it sought to recruit young Arab combatants who wanted to fight in the war, who would later be referred to as Afghan Arabs. Apart from handling such “administrative” issues, the Bureau also created its own ideology. Abdullah Azzam was obsessed with the idea of jihad, which it considered to be a Muslim’s greatest obligation, second only to his Imam. Azzam thought any able Muslim had a sacred duty to fight in the jihad – with the exception of the crippled, old men, women and children – and that the holy war should continue until all Muslim territories being attacked or occupied are free. Afghanistan was just the first on the list of countries that also included Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia, the Philippines and others, as well as certain territories that had once been under Muslim rule, such as Andalusia. Occupation power was a term used to refer not just to non-Muslim countries, but also to governments of Muslim states seen as agents of foreign forces because they had dealings with these forces or because their political systems were non-Islamic.

Al-Qaeda was built on the remnants of Maktab al-Khidamat and rooted itself in Abdullah Azzam’s ideology. Azzam never got to see another jihad after Afghanistan: he was killed less than a year after the Soviets pulled back, in a car bomb explosion in Peshawar, Pakistan. No one knows who ordered his assassination, but the main suspects were Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The one who (most likely inadvertently) provided Al-Qaeda with its next target was Saddam Hussein. A few months following the killing of Abdullah Azzam, the Iraqi army captured Kuwait and by now posed a threat to Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden had no sympathy for Saddam. On the contrary, their ideologies clashed. The Al-Qaeda leader actually offered to dispatch a few Arab Afghan fighters in the war against Saddam’s forces, but Riyadh turned him down. Yet Saddam was no longer the issue as American forces started arriving in Saudi Arabia, preparing to launch the operation to liberate Kuwait. For bin Laden, this was simply unacceptable.

Osama bin Laden’s hostility towards the Americans had already reached a boiling point: he had demanded a boycott of the Americans as reprisal for their support of Israel. The arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia and their being stationed there after the war was far more serious, because it represented a religious crime: the Hejaz region of the Saudi kingdom is home to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, and the area is haram, forbidden to all non-Muslims. Muhammad himself had forbidden the observance of any other religion, and the first caliph, Omar, had driven off Christians and Jews from Hejaz. Bin Laden believed the entire territory of Saudi Arabia was haram. A confrontation with the United States was by now unavoidable. In 1993, Al-Qaeda combatants attacked US forces in Somalia. In 1995, Afghan Arabs inspired by Bin Laden took on American troops deployed to Saudi Arabia. In 1996, Bin Laden called the first global jihad against the United States. The main cause of the holy war was the United States’ presence in the Arab Peninsula. But it was not the only one: much like Abdullah Azzam, Bin Laden mentioned in his written document Palestine and other countries and regions where he claimed Muslims were being attacked: Iraq, Tajikistan, Kashmir, Somalia, Bosnia Herzegovina, etc. The Muslims’ enemies were “crusaders” and “Zionists”. Further calls to arms followed in 1998. People were urged to join jihads and a carry out a fatwa which said killing Americans and their civilian and military allies was a sacred duty in order to liberate the three holy mosques of Muslim Sunnis – the ones in Saudi Arabia and in Al Aqsa, in Jerusalem. Many answered the call, and then came the attacks on American embassies in Africa and preparations for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an outcome of post-9/11 American policy. There were, of course, other reasons, but it was mostly business left unsolved in 1991. President George W. Bush had declared Iraq one of the three countries in “the axis of evil”, alongside Iran and North Korea. It’s no wonder, therefore, that Iran feared it might be next in line. To keep the Americans busy, but also in an effort to expand its influence enough to prevent Iraq from ever becoming a threat, Teheran funded and trained Shiite militias to attack the Americans and the Sunnis, which were subsequently involved in the war in Syria and the war against the Islamic State. This was not the only outcome of the 2003 invasion. Iraq’s territory, much like Palestine, shares a history of Islamic expansion. The attack on and occupation of Iraq generated a wave of jihads, called from mosques by clerics from all over the Muslim world. One of the people who answered the call was a Jordanian follower of Osama bin Laden, who hadn’t fought in the war in Afghanistan and who went by the war name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The seeds of the Islamic State had been planted.


Two of the cradles of civilization, Egypt and Mesopotamia, are in the Middle East. From Sumerians and Egyptians onwards, the region witnessed countless civilizations built by a plethora of conquerors: the Persian Archaemenid dynasty, Alexander the Great’s Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, Arabs engaged in holy wars and Turks fighting for their caliphates, these are all but a few examples. Paradoxically, the region appears to be one of the newest in the world: things are still unsettled. There’s no clear vision of the future. Local populations don’t know which identity / identities to assume, and this explains the almost uninterrupted string of wars, uprisings, coups, inter-ethnic and inter-confessional conflicts, regime and even political system changes. History is still unfolding. It is virtually being written under our very eyes. Suffice it to take a step back and look at the broader picture right now: we have a few civil wars with undecided outcomes, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran through various proxies in the region, the campaigns of the United States and the Russian Federation, the Kurdish mobilization in Iraq and Syria towards a de facto independence (de jure for the time being will have to wait), Turkey’s efforts to prevent that from happening and also to prove its relevance for the region, the prospect of a new war pitting Israel against Hezbollah, the actions of Muslim extremists who don’t contend with attacking targets in their immediate vicinity but try to press on the global jihad, social tensions and calls to reform in most of these countries, and alliances between regional players that fluctuate depending on shifting interests.

The region’s history doesn’t write itself. It is by and large the collective work of a myriad of actors – both inside and outside the region – who leave their mark on everything that’s happening. Moreover, its contemporary history continues to be written by the dead, whose words and actions defined its past.

Fragment from "Piano Man in the House of War. Notes from Iraq and Afghanistan" (Bucharest: Corint Books, 2021).

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