Saturday, December 19, 2009

Outbreak of the rule of law in Pakistan?

So argues Juan Cole:

The US punditocracy has never understood that the central political narrative of Pakistan in the past 2 and a half years has been the restoration of the rule of law (in the form of the Supreme Court chief justice and then the rest of the SC) and the ending of the Musharraf military dictatorship in favor of a return of the major political parties.

That twin project was riddled with a contradiction, though, since the political parties capable of supplanting the military were themselves often corrupt, while Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was determined to clean house. So what has happened is that the contradictions have just come to the fore.

How flat-footed the US commentariat is in this regard was obvious in the reaction of CNN's Wolf Blitzer to Malik's detention. He asked Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani if it was the sign of a military coup. Haqqani was taken aback, and the Urdu press headlined the interchange.

No, Wolf, it is the opposite. It is an outbreak of the civil rule of law. It was a military dictator who had amnestied Malik. It is the Supreme Court calling him to account. The US media think the Pakistan Story is 'violent fundamentalism, military rule, and nuclear threat.' The reality-- that most of the Pakistani public wants a civil rule of law, is almost impossible for Westerners to grasp.

The hysteria in Washington about Pakistani political instability (read: civilian politicians elected to office and an independent judiciary instead of a military dictatorship) will be heightened by this development. And it does potentially weaken president Asaf Ali Zardari, against whom there are outstanding cases. But most judicial authorities hold that Zardari cannot be tried while in office, and there is no obvious way to unseat him, since his party is the largest in parliament.

The rule of law is more important for the structural integrity of Pakistani society and politics than the back door deals of the Musharrafs, Bushes, Rices and Cheneys. Pakistan has a parliamentary system. It will go to new elections in a couple of years. If the government falls before then, it will just have early elections and someone will form a government based on their electoral performance. It might be Nawaz Sharif and the Muslim League. So what? Sharif once agreed with Clinton to send in a Pakistani SWAT team against Bin Laden, and it was Musharraf who nixed that plan. And whereas Zardari has never shown an ability to run anything, Sharif is a steel magnate-- though his last term as PM was marked by an overly authoritarian style and a cozying up to Muslim fundamentalists substantially to his right.

And who knows, maybe some of the new non-corrupt PPP voices such as Aitzaz Ahsan will emerge if Zardari falters.


Then there is this development, also drawn to my attention by Juan Cole (originating in the International edition of the News, a Pakistani newspaper:
ISLAMABAD: Ulema and Mashaikh, belonging to different schools of thought, unanimously declared suicide attacks in the country un-Islamic and forbidden in Islam.

A large number of Ulema and Mashaikh, who attended the Ulema Mashaikh Conference arranged by the Ministry of Religious Affairs at the National Library here, denounced on Thursday the killing of innocent people in the name of religion. They spoke against suicide attacks in particular.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Ulema Mashaikh from across the country participated in the conference. The interior minister also briefed the Ulema and Mashaikh about the security situation and the measures taken by the government for curbing the menace of terrorism.

The Ulema said it is clearly stated in the Holy Quran that killing of innocent people is un-Islamic and it could not be justified in any way. They said the Shariah introduced by Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) is complete and adequate for us and we do not need anything more.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi said the conference was arranged with an aim to devise a strategy against terrorism.He said those who launched attacks upon mosques and educational institutions could never be called Muslims. He said Islam does not allow anyone to kill innocent people or attack mosques.

Those laying down their lives in the fight against terrorism are martyrs as they are fighting to save the motherland, he said.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

"Crazy stuff" in history


Apocalyptic belief, belief in a revelation of the end of time, usually a revelation that the end of time is just around the corner, probably qualifies for most people as "crazy stuff." Something suitable for more Terminator sequels, a graphic novel, or a heavy metal album. There is always a need for another heavy metal album about the end of the world.

But crazy or not, apocalyptic beliefs are pretty commonplace in real life, and have a stronger influence on politics and culture than most people who don't believe in the apocalypse would guess. Three countries whose politics is strongly affected by the apocalyptic beliefs of some influential people and a proportion of the general population are the United States, Israel, and Iran.

More than once in recent months I have read about the apocalyptic beliefs of the president of Iran. Shiism has always had an apocalyptic logic: roughly, they think that the leadership of the Muslim community was hijacked soon after the death of Prophet, that the true leaders have been in physical or spiritual exile ever since, and eventually that leadership will return to clean up the mess. But most Shiites don't wait with bated breath for the return of the Mahdi, just as most Christians don't think very much about the Book of Revelations (also known as the Apocalypse of St. John) when planning out their weekly activities. And a lot of Jews have given up on the return of the Messiah.

However, as support of the Islamic Revolution has been falling apart in Iran, the true believers in the revolution are turning more strongly to the belief that the end is near.

Here is what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has to say about the subject:

It's both crazy and dangerous.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad believes and acts on the expectation that the reappearance of the Hidden Imam is imminent, and that U.S. efforts in the Middle East are primarily focused on preventing his return. Shi'ite Muslims believe that their 12th imam, the Mahdi, born in 869, did not die but was hidden by God and will eventually reappear as the savior of humankind, ending tyranny and bringing justice to the world. One-tenth of the world's Muslims and 85 percent of Iranians are Shi'a.

In a recent speech in the central city of Isfahan, Ahmadinejad said: "With those [U.S. troops] who came to occupy Iraq, the appearance was that they came just to exploit the oil. In reality, though, they know that something will happen in this region -- a divine hand will come soon to root out the tyranny in the world."

"And they know," he added, "that Iran is paving the way for his coming and will serve him."

Belief in the apocalypse and messianism are nothing new in human history. There are both Jewish and Christian messianic traditions, according to which a king of Israel or messiah will appear to herald global peace. And Shi'ite Muslims, unlike the majority of their Sunni co-faithful, have always believed in the Mahdi.

But Ahmadinejad and his main supporter among the ultra-conservative Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, do not want to just peacefully hope and wait for the Mahdi. RFE/RL Radio Farda's analyst Majid Mohammadi says Ahmadinejad has introduced a completely new system in the Iranian politics: "a militarist and messianic Islamism."
There's more here.

The third and fourth paragraphs of the excerpt above reminds me very strongly of this version of Pope Urban's speech at Clermont. Surely not what was actually said, but this is what made sense to one informed and learned observer. This is what he thought the Pope should have said when he launched the First Crusade.
Interesting times, interesting times. Don't you just... love it? Well, maybe not.

Image: An impression of the return of the Mahdi to fight the Antichrist.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crusader motivation

In a famous eyewitness account of the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, the crusading chaplain Raymond of Aguilers described a bloodbath at the Temple Mount (drawing, as has often been pointed out, on the Book of Revelations):

It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses. These are small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to the knees and bridle reins.. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that in this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood.... Now that the city was taken, it was well worth all of our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the holy sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang a new song to the Lord! For their hearts offered prayers of praise to God, victorious and triumphant, which cannot be told in words. A new day, new joy, me and perpetual gladness, the consummation of our labor and devotion, drew forth from all new words and new songs. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity, the humiliation of paganism, and the renewal of our faith. "This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it," for on this day the Lord revealed himself to his people and blessed them.

This passage relates to two questions that often come up in studying history, but particularly the history of the Crusades (or for that matter, jihad).

The first might be the question of sincerity. Did so-and-so undertake this project, or conquer this country, or start this war because he sincerely believed in his stated ideals? I find this as a historical question somewhat uninteresting. Every observer has his or her views as to how human nature works in general and in particular cases, say for instance, how kings and emperors act. It is hard to convince people to change their mind on this issue. So arguments about sincerity don't go very far unless you clearly define what you are talking about -- and people generally don't.

Part of the problem is terminology, especially the use of the word "religion." Often when people talk about "religion" they are talking about a creed or set of beliefs that someone else really (or doesn't really) believes in. Or they may mean a set of rules that members of a given religion are supposed to follow. But both beliefs and rules are usually discussed in terms of formal definitions laid down by higher authorities in well-defined religious organizations. If you look in detail about what individuals say they believe or how they actually act, you may well find that these individual "believers" or "followers" not to have the same "religion" as the great authorities. If a theologian says that Christianity believes thus, or a scholar says that Islam demands thus, it is trivially easy to find Christians or Muslims who do not believe or do those things. In any big-name religion, the greatest and most respected authorities only speak for one stream of a very diverse tradition. And if ordinary people attached to that tradition claim to be obedient followers, the outside observer may often find that they don't realize how far they are from literal adherence to proclamations of their leaders; or do realize, and have good reasons of their own for their particular interpretation of what the religion means.

Which brings us to the second question, which might be put this way: "Were the Crusades really about religion? What does holy war have to do with the teachings of Jesus?" My answer to these questions is, yes they were about religion (if you just want a war that were plenty closer to hand in 11th- century Europe) -- but what was that religion like? What was its actual content? Christianity in most varieties is a lot more than the teachings of Jesus. Put aside for the moment the vast diversity of the Bible, which makes it possible to find justification for almost anything in it, especially if you use sophisticated symbolic interpretation. More important, I think, is that even Christians with little or no firsthand knowledge of the Bible have strong opinions about what Christianity is. When we are talking about the motivations of Crusaders it is probably more useful to think about the individuals who trekked across the Balkans and Anatolia and how they acted, rather than what Pope Urban II said at Clermont (important as that might be in other contexts). When we are talking about the religion that led men to Jerusalem and helped produce the slaughter there, Raymond of Aguilers’s version of Christianity is as important as that of any Pope, or of Augustine of Hippo, if not more so.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Things I learned teaching "Crusade and Jihad" this fall


Since September I have been teaching a special topics course on Crusade and Jihad. In my very first teaching jobs, courses on the Early and High Middle Ages at the University of Toronto, the Crusades certainly came up (in the early medieval course they were one of the very last topics); but that was a quarter-century ago. I did not rely on my past understandings of the Crusades this time around, but read a lot of new material, most of which has appeared since 1990 or even 2000. I am particularly grateful to Thomas Madden for putting together a collection called The Crusades: Essential Readings and Christopher Tyerman for his huge new narrative history, God's War.

Here are the new thoughts and perspectives that I gained concerning crusading as a result:

1. Back in the day, I had a very French and English view of the Crusades. Now I take the Germans a lot more seriously. Next, the Italians.

2. I was fascinated by the number of northern European fleets that took part in early Crusades, fleets that were organized across what we think of as national boundaries. It is particularly interesting because we know very little about the people who had the clout and connections to put together such fleets. The maritime world was apparently a different political sphere entirely.

3. The connection between crusading and Imperial ideology fascinates me. This perspective I owe to Christopher Tyerman, who carefully analyzed and described the involvement of King Conrad, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor Henry VI, and Emperor Frederick II. Not to mention the would-be Emperor Charles of Anjou.

4. Having not read a lot of German accounts the Crusades, Tyerman's book was the first to make me aware how odd it is that we (or at least I) take almost without thinking the side of Frederick II’s enemies when evaluating the significance of his crusade to Jerusalem.

5. Perhaps most valuable to me is that reading lots of primary and secondary accounts of wandering crusading armies renewed my awareness of warriors as constituting for some purposes a separate society, battening on the settled communities through which they traveled. This awareness will come in useful when I write my next book, Men at Arms.

As far as what I learned about jihad this fall: I learned, thanks to Carole Hillenbrand, David Cook, Patricia Crone and Capt. John "Garick” Chamberlin, among others, that there's a lot to learn and that systematic historical discussion is just getting underway.

Image: a French king and a German emperor fight a sultan.


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Monday, December 01, 2008

More on the Mumbai attacks

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has a very interesting article called Indian Muslims Refuse to Bury Militants (following a BBC story). I quote extensively:

The Muslim community in Mumbai says it doesn't want the gunmen who attacked Mumbai to be buried in the Muslim cemetery, on the grounds that they are not Muslims.

A spokesman for the Muslim council said, ""These terrorists are a black spot on our religion, we will very sternly protest the burial of these terrorists in our cemetery . . ."

Certainly the perpetrators are criminals from the point of view of Islamic law. The Qur'an forbids murder (qatl) and the classical jurisprudence on jihad forbids the killing of innocent noncombatants, sneak attacks, or the undertaking of military action without the authorization of duly constituted Muslim authorities.

Although removing an avowed Muslim from status as a Muslim, which is called 'takfir' or faith-denial, is frowned on by the mainstream Sunni tradition, it may be legitimate in this case, given the egregious departure from Sunni law, practice and belief in which the perpetrators engaged. It is an ironic twist, since the radical vigilantes are the ones who have been declaring normal people non-Muslims for the past few decades.
More here.

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