In the wrong place at the wrong time

Right man in the wrong place at

A snapshot of a world spinning out of control

This piece could not have come about were it not for work undertaken in preparation of several Muslim Faculty of Advanced Study modules, most particularly ‘The Politics of Power’, ‘The History of the Khalifas’, ‘The Madhhabs of Islam’ and ‘Technique and Science’.

Unit 1: Caliphate

While the world sits enthralled and appalled by the frankly dreadful spectacle of the murder of a singularly unfortunate photo-journalist, few are they who have a long enough sense of history to see the deep causation of events. Our political class recoil at mention of the term ‘caliphate’ vacuously unaware that it was through the dismantling of the last Caliphate that the Middle East began its descent into the maelstrom it is in today resulting in the appearance of what is clearly a khawārij phenomenon.

In Christopher Catherwood’s study of just one aspect, Winston’s Folly, he shows how Iraq, which had been a geographic region divided politically into wilayat jurisdictions centred around Mosul for the Kurds, Baghdad for the Sunnis and Basra for the Shi’a, was assembled by Churchill quite arbitrarily into a nation that never had much chance of coherence unless under a strong dictator, as all well informed people at the time knew. The Iraqis have, of course, had almost a century of such dictators until the ‘coalition of the willing’ removed the last one and left them to implode, which implosion surprised no one except for those who have never read a book on history.

Even in the short-term of the recent decades, how one could bomb a nation, then subject it to an embargo that would kill the “acceptable” number of 500,000 children, to quote Madeleine Albright’s blood-chilling choice of expression, and then go on to bomb them in a display of shock and awe for a crime they had nothing to do with, and for the possession of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, furthermore dismantling their army and last remaining governance, having destroyed plumbing, sewage systems, public utilities, schools and hospitals that were the envy of their neighbours, and hand their economy over to US corporations and their government over to the vengeful Shi’a population, how could one do all of that and not expect something unpleasant to happen? How could we expect young men to have lived through and witnessed such insanity and expect their so-called ‘Islamic State’ not to be nuts?

Unit 2: Gaza

Someone is considered to have a long memory and some sophistication when he can refer to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and Anglo-French skulduggery as explanation for the appalling Gaza situation and for the intolerable injustice that Palestinians are subjected to as their quotidian reality even before the Israelis turned to butchering them mercilessly in full view of the international community with nary a protest from that quarter, except for a few honourable exceptions.

That this situation, and the mayhem in the rest of the Arab world, stem from a prior act of treachery seems to have escaped everyone; the Arabs, in their desire for a racially pure ‘Arab’ caliphate, betrayed their Osmanlı sultans and broke their oath of allegiance. That they were in their turn betrayed is quite fitting, but that is no consolation for the generations alive today who are paying the price oblivious to the origin of their suffering.

Unit 3: World War I

A turning point in that, and for the whole world, was the terror unleashed in the First World War, in which it became clear to all that history had changed from being man against man to become man against machine. The machines won. There is a deeper theme to be grasped here, and that is the nature of technology and just why it is so inimical to man in spite of man imagining that he has invented it for his own benefit. So now the machinery, in addition to its undoubted destructive power, has been set to survey and monitor us in ways that Stalin and Hitler could never even have imagined.

Among the casualties of WWI were the anciens régimes, whose demise was to trigger a further descent into chaos for Europe and another World War, then the emergence of the US as the new hegemonic power of the age both militarily and economically, a power whose Al Capone-style wielding of the baseball bat has done so much to destabilise great swathes of the earth. But, returning to our theme:  also the caliphate of Islam was quite deliberately if not conspiratorially dismantled, and the line between planning and conspiracy is sometimes a fine one.

Surveying the human scene after the First World War, three of our greatest men of letters were to arrive at almost identical conclusions.

In 1921, Lawrence wrote:

“And each branch has its own growing tip. In every race, the growing tip is the living idea, which must never cease to change and develop. Once the living idea, the forward-reaching consciousness of any race dies upon the tree of mankind, withers, goes dry, the vast branch of that race dies upon the tree of mankind, withers, goes dry rotten, and at length falls and disappears.…
“So the War came, and blew away forever our leading tip, our growing tip. Now we are directionless.” (D. H. Lawrence, Movements in European History, p.309-10)

And being directionless, Europe and the West wandered aimlessly into the Second World War in which around 60 million died, and after that wandered into our dysfunctional surveillance state of fantasy-money, based on exponentially growing debt and credit.

In 1919, Yeats wrote some of the most famous lines in 20th century poetry:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Another of the great poets of modern times, T. S. Eliot, recognised in 1922 in the years after the First World War, that the modern age is a wasteland and he wrote his most famous poem under that title. 

But the really great and perceptive thinker had been Nietzsche who wrote: 

“Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt – The wasteland grows: woe to him who conceals wastelands within.”

Nietzsche wrote this at the height of European civilisation in the 1880’s. Only a very perceptive man indeed sees defeat at the very moment of victory. But Nietzsche saw the thing that is the most serious: the wasteland within, which we know as nihilism, whose  true nature he alone was able to see and articulate. 

Now, here we are in the rapidly advancing twenty-first century, with a populace who are now becoming more aware of these very issues, because of the anniversary of the commencement of the First World War, but who otherwise might not see the significance of these now distant memories.

For the caliphate was not the only casualty of that great debacle we call the First World War.

Unit 4: The State and Terror

Clearly the genesis of the terror of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria lies in the prior terror rained on Iraq by the states of the ‘free world’, just as the terror of Boko Haram finds its origins in the prior terrorisation of ordinary people by the Nigerian state:

“…the original members of Boko Haram were followers of Muhammad Yusuf, an eccentric but conservative and peaceful imam who preached adherence to the Quran. Amongst the rural poor in the north he managed to build a disciplined following that provided free food, education and hope. The nickname ‘Boko Haram’ arose after he established a mosque and school ‘as an alternative to the government schools he regarded as both alien to Muslims and tools of the elite.’
“…the then governor of one of Nigeria’s most mismanaged and corrupt states… set out to destroy the movement killing hundreds of members along with bystanders. ‘In one episode, security forces killed 19 motorcyclists for not wearing helmets.’ As with most crackdowns, people revered Yusuf all the more. His simple call for social justice in the context of faith attracted new followers including some that had been in touch with Muslim militants abroad. By 2009, when the group had decided to arm themselves in response to state oppression, the governor brought in extra security forces who killed around 1,000 people and rounded up even more holding them without trial. Yusuf was shot dead while in custody and the survivors fled to neighbouring countries. Following this, it was in late 2010 that a strangely different Boko Haram arose. Rather than being the original religious protest movement calling for social justice it was now a full-blown insurgency with all the trappings of jihadist rhetoric.” (“Boko Haram: Muslim Responses and Informed Views” )

We would expect it to be the case that prior to insurgent terrorists we would find the fingerprints of the state, because the very idea of terrorism arises in modern history in the Terror of the French Revolution (1789-99) imposed on French people by the revolutionary state. In that event, the modern world was born. 

Unit 5: Wahhabi terrorism

But, prior to the French Revolution another source of modern terror was born: the wahhabism of Muhammad ibn ‘Abdalwahhab (1703-92). Just as with the revolutionaries’ reduction of others to non-human status, wahhabism’s defining characteristic is to impute disbelief to Muslims thus rendering their blood licit and their wives, children and property ripe for spoliation. The movement enters the modern era with the progenitor of the modern Saudi state, Abdalaziz ibn Saud (1876–1953), who was, regrettably, a most able and daring man, who tamed the ferocious nihilism of his Bedouin wahhabis and cynically used them as shock troops in the establishment of his kingdom. In that he was aided by Winston Churchill, who was hedging his bets with the traitor Sharif Hussein, the Osmanlı governor of the Hijaz. When it came to choosing between his British paymasters and his ‘Ikhwan’, Ibn Saud chose the former, accepted more weaponry from them and met his erstwhile supporters in the Battle of Sabilla in March 1929, slaughtering them. Ever since then, the self-indulgent and sybaritic descendants of Ibn Saud have ruled over the petro-dollar monarchy, wrongly thought of as ‘orthodox’ Muslims by many, and have suffered outbursts of recidivist wahhabism, such as arguably the 9/11 events that are a pivot of the age we now endure.

This Islamic heresy not only consigns most Muslims to the bin of apostasy, but regards non-Muslims as ripe for slaughter, without a thought of inviting them to Islam, as was the custom of the Prophet, peace be upon him, whose overriding characteristic was not hatred of  those without the true benefits of Islam, but concern and compassion for them.

And this Islamic heresy has come home to roost in the form of the putative 'Islamic state' and threatens even its homeland, 'Saudi' Arabia.

Unit 6: Journalism

The democratic theory underpinning the role of journalism is that a free press is needed to keep the citizenry informed so that they can make the right decisions. But, a recent study shows that the citizenry of the US now carry no weight in government policy and are entirely outweighed by commercial interests1. So the role of journalism is now defunct. Moreover, anecdotally we can see clearly that the media now entirely represent political and commercial interests and make almost no pretence to informing the citizenry. In spite of all special pleading, this is widely recognised in the case of the BBC, FoxNews, CNN and most mainstream media outlets.

But one thing that is most striking with the group who have murdered this unfortunate photo-journalist, is the high degree to which they have become masters of media, including trumpeting their own murders and massacres. For example, they have produced a highly graphic brochure in addition to bombarding Youtube with the records of their exploits. In a world of twisted propaganda masquerading as news they are sending our signals back to us in a grotesque form, mimicking our outpouring of distorted signals. They are not alone; el Shabaab of Somalia also produced a very slick video offering that justifies the infamous Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby in 2013.

Rather than news, we are now offered competing propaganda from all sides. And in the process, the world slides ever further into a wasteland that is globally dangerous rather than merely mediocre as in Eliot’s vision. Perhaps the world will end with a bang rather than a whimper after all.

Unit 7: Caliphate reprise

Faced with the barbarities of the ‘extremist’ group whose activities have spurred us into print, ‘moderate’ Muslims are prone to appeal to the record of the historical caliphate as a tolerant civilisation with great art and science, but, although true, these were simply bi-products of something much more profound. At the core of the caliphate were the twin pillars of worship of the Divine and service and generosity to human beings. The former was encapsulated in the prayer of the Muslims, and in the wide range of extra acts of worship and in particular in the devotion of the Sufi orders to the remembrance of God. Indeed, this centrality of worship extends to the subject religions that agreed to live under its governance. The service and generosity were embodied in the zakāh, the cultivation of the spirit of giving and charity, and the charitable endowments (awqaf) that in Osmanlı Istanbul and Anatolia amounted to as much as 60% of all property, sustaining hospitals for men, women, children, Muslims, Christians, Jews and endowments that cared for domestic and wild animals. Moreover, the core of Osmanlı society was the futuwwa chivalric bodies that inculcated in young men the virtues of Divine worship, service and generosity to others, comradeship, and the acquisition of the useful crafts and trades that sustained their civilisation and produced meaningful livelihoods in the world.

Thus, this aberrant group that lays claim to the caliphate is legally disqualified by its heretical imputation of kufr to other Muslims, rendering them people of bid‘a-innovation in the very core of Islam, and is existentially disqualified by its barbarism and failure to lead to a way that would produce civilisation in any recognised form.

Unit 8: Young Men

Easy as it is to condemn this behaviour there is an element that calls for another approach: our young men, and this issue has been brought forcibly home by the recognisably British accent amongst the journalist’s murderers. 

Regrettably, we have a culture that has completely failed the human being, that has been utterly unable to prepare people for anything other than competing in a cut-throat commercial world that subsists on exporting its violence and its disoriented young people, men and women, to other lands with the useful adjunct of employing them to steal foreigners’ resources at the same time.

Youth is the time when the questions of the ultimate meaning and purpose of life are most keenly felt and so what surprise is it that young men, and increasingly women too, up-stakes and set off to take part in combat for what they perceive to be noble causes in other parts of the world? When was it ever different? Many have drawn parallels with the Spanish Civil War and men like George Orwell who, with the acceptance and even approval of their society, went to fight for what they thought were honourable causes.

The utterly irresponsible behaviour of our political class in demonising these young people is despicable. If anything, they should be provided counselling on their return for the horrific things they have certainly seen and have perhaps done. That they may never even be able to consider returning to the West because they will be considered hardened terrorists and thrown in jail without due process is only calculated to set them more determinedly on their chosen path and steer them towards reacting against this oppression with equal enthusiasm, a path which bodes ill for the world at large.

Unit 9: Sharī‘ah, Jihad and Caliphate

It is vital for the wellbeing of the planet that three terms be admitted back into contemporary discourse, without the current need that many Muslims feel to tiptoe apologetically around them: sharī‘ah, jihad and caliphate. 

Sharī‘ah comprises the divinely revealed parameters of a Muslim society and is considerably more than the highly sensationalised capital and corporal punishments that may not be enforced by anyone except for a duly constituted Muslim polity, which today arguably does not exist anywhere.

Rather, sharī‘ah comprises such matters as the prohibition of murder, theft, embezzlement, extortion, illegal appropriation of property and a large number of other matters that should cause no controversy. It also regulates marriage contracts and divorce, and commercial matters. Its over-riding rationale is justice for all, men, women, children, Muslims and non-Muslims. That not everyone agrees on every single aspect of sharī‘ah should be no surprise, for who agrees on all the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Certainly not the US and UK governments.

Jihad is an important term because, since military jihad is not relevant without a duly constituted polity able and competent to declare it, its most relevant meaning is the struggle to bring about, not a polity, but a community given to Divine worship and to all the charitable activities of Islam. Without admission of the term back into popular discourse, our young men will be prey to the first demagogue calling them to go and struggle in military jihad when they could usefully be employed in a wider and more meaningful struggle to bring about a just and compassionate society.

Caliphate denotes, not merely a political order, but the condition of being a ‘successor’ to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. When that is established in an autonomous body of people, then it gives rise to a polity. But, lacking that, it denotes the condition of succeeding the Prophet, peace be upon him, in his observance of law, his absolute devotion to worship of the Divine, his overwhelming generosity towards and concern for the poor, needy, widows and orphans, and in all his widely recorded noble and generous qualities of character. What possible objection could there be to that?


1 “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, Martin Gilens Princeton University, Benjamin I. Page, Northwestern University.

Abdassamad Clarke, Dean