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Monthly Archives: September 2013

FLYING THE COUP: SYRIA’S TRIPLE-WHAMMY 1949


FLYING THE COUP: SYRIA’S TRIPLE-WHAMMY 1949


Ibrahim Moiz

Military coups have been a major and recurring theme in the developing world over the past century, and the Muslim world has been a case in point. With the breakdown of centralized empires and the rise of fledgling states riddled with corrupt politicians and overly assertive armies, the military coup has been, and remains, a regular feature of politics in the Muslim world since the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate. FLYING THE COUP takes stock of the long catalogue of coups in the modern Muslim world.

The foundation of Israel and the defeat of the Arab armies had a profound effect on the Arab world, as citizens and soldiers alike turned on their political leadership. Apart from the thousands of displaced Palestinians expelled from their homeland as Israeli founder David Ben-Gurion put forward a policy of eradicating a significant Arab population from the Jewish State, nowhere did the impact of the defeat hit faster and harder than in Syria. Having achieved independence from France just two years earlier, Syria’s next twenty years were characterized by a catalogue of dizzying coups that put paid to the prospects of a civilian-governed state right up till the present day.

Syria had an especial investment in the Arab-Israeli war—which came to be described as “Nakba”, disaster, by Syrian writer Constantine Zureiq in a famous review of the conflict. Historically, Palestine (as well as Jordan and Lebanon) had been districts of the province of Greater Syria, a province that the British were the latest to try and retrieve as recently as the 1930s. While all the Arab states that participated in the 1948 war had ties to the Palestinian cause as their fellow Arabs and, in most cases, fellow Muslims in a holy land sacred to three major faiths, neither Iraq nor Egypt had quite the same cultural and historical closeness that Syria did. The most famous of the irregular militias set up to fight the Zionists, the Arab Liberation Army, was mostly made up of and led by Syrians.

As early as Syria’s official entrance into the conflict, trouble began to brew over the unexpected inefficiency of the campaign. It should not have come as a surprise, in retrospect; the Syrian army was new, largely ill-equipped, and riddled with factions. As soon as it became clear that they would not steamroll the Israeli paramilitaries as had been hoped, the fur began to fly. Nobody quite knew what was going wrong, why it was going wrong, how it could be fixed, and—apparently most pressing—who was to blame.

Early in the war, therefore, experienced commander-in-chief Abdullah Atfah was dismissed for being overconfident in the army’s capability (he bragged, rather incongruously, that Syria had the best army in the region), but his successor, Husni Zaim, was in contrast far too half-hearted and seemed to spend more time cultivating his ties with senior officers than actually commanding the campaign. The defence ministers had an even worse time of it; Ahmed Sharabati, whose links with some Jewish Syrian businessmen were seen as a scandal conflict of interest, resigned on the eve of the war, and his successor, Jamil Mardam, was bombarded with the same accusations: they had, the rumours ran, purposely bought obsolete weaponry from France and pocketed the budget change.

Equally vicious was the sniping match between the civilian government and the army, which felt betrayed by inadequate leadership. Shishakli, for instance, who enhanced his reputation as a tough and hardy commander on the Galilee front, blamed president Shukri Quwwatli for having failed to send reinforcements to maintain the important town of Safad, which fell to the Israelis only shortly after he had captured it. Accusations against the government were echoed by Michel Aflaq, a popular socialist philosopher who had only recently founded the Baath Party, which would eventually achieve infamy in both Iraq and Syria. Aflaq, whose mixture of Arab patriotism and egalitarian socialism would have an enormous impact on regional politics over the next twenty years, brought crowds of protesters to the street. Already neck-deep in controversy, the harrowed government overreacted; interior minister Sabri Asali declared a state of emergency and sent what remained at home of the already strained army into the streets to crush the protests. Naturally, this only turned more people against the government and exacerbated the problem.

As the campaign descended into a definite failure and battered Syrian troops limped home, conspiracy theories began to verge on the bizarre: Muhammad Safa, an army officer, accused the leftist political wing, which included Aflaq’s Baath as well as communist and more moderate socialist parties, of having deliberately undermined the war, and pointed specifically to Akram Hawrani. A socialist who—along with the absent-minded, politically detached writer-cum-politician Abdul-Salam Ujaili—was the only member of Syria’s parliament who honoured his pledge to serve as a volunteer soldier in the war, Hawrani did indeed have a reputation as a serial schemer, and did capitalize on the fallout of the war, but considering the relatively lowly position he held during his short stint as a soldier, it seems highly unlikely that he would have somehow undermined the campaign in any meaningful way.

Ironically given its sinking credibility, the most likely accusation was that of the government, whose most fiery backlash came from Khaled Azm, the prime minister, and a popular young parliamentarian named Munir Ajlani. If there was at any stage a deliberate attempt to undermine the campaign against Israel, rather than just sheer incompetence, it seems likely only to have come from the army top brass. Husni Zaim—the portly, swaggering, cheerful commander-in-chief of the Syrian army—spent the bulk of his campaign in the field strengthening his relations with leading officers and turning them against the government, whom he blamed for the military failures. The campaign, though fiercely fought by most soldiers and officers both in the Syrian army and the militias, was distinguished by a markedly half-hearted and undistinguished command. Adil Arslan, an aristocrat who joined the campaign under Zaim and seems never quite sure what to make of the Syrian commander-in-chief, claimed that in the conflict’s final stages he learned from American ambassador James Kelley, to his astonishment, that Zaim had bent over backwards to accommodate a premature peace agreement, specifically enlisting an army officer named Fawzi Selu—another soldier who seems to have done anything but his actual job—to undertake the mission. And in the short run, nobody benefited more from the fallout of the defeat than did Zaim.

The coup when it came was swift and bloodless. Along with having secured the support of officers such as Adib Shishakli, Fawzi Selu, Sami Hinnawi, Abdel-Hamid Sarraj, and Anwar Bannoud Husni Zaim had also enlisted the support of the fledgling American intelligence agency, the CIA, who feared that President Shukri Quwwatli would tilt Syria towards an alliance with their new rival, the Soviet Union of Communist Russia. Two American agents, Miles Copeland and Stephen Meade, played a leading role. In convincing the Americans that Quwwatli was a threat to their interests, Zaim was among the earliest leaders to anticipate and try to manipulate the Cold War struggle between the United States of America and the Soviet Union to his own benefit.

Unlike several later coups, Zaim’s was not an especially violent one. Whatever his faults, this “pompous, monacled, and ignorant fool”—as Egypt’s critical historian Sami Aburish scaldingly described the dictator in The Last Arab, 2004—was not a vindictive character, and with the army’s most prominent officers on his side and an unpopular civilian leadership posing no major threat, he never went further than imprisonment. Shukri Quwwatli’s most loyal military lieutenant, Suhail Ashi, was not only released along with the deposed president after a brief stint in prison, but also appointed chief of police. Despite his relative leniency, however, Zaim had set a dangerous precedent. The fifteen years between 1945 and 1959 saw no less than forty-seven coups worldwide (Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords, 2008); Zaim’s was the first in the Arab world and for Syria in particular marked the first of no less than ten attempted coups before the Assad dynasty finally cemented an iron fist over the state in 1970. The first of those would snuff out Zaim’s short-lived regime.

Husni Zaim did not help his cause by alienating most of those who may have initially sympathized with him. Syria’s politics were dominated by either socialist or Islamist sympathies; Zaim fell into neither camp. Though the dictator was not against socialism per se, he had come to power by harnessing the staunchly anti-socialist sentiments of the United States of America, and had to at least partially toe the line. And to the Islamic bent that still dominated a sizeable wave of Syrian opinion, Zaim was positively and unapologetically offensive.

Zaim was one of a large number of strongmen in the post-colonial world who saw themselves in the role of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who had matched military brilliance in Turkey’s war of independence with a deeply secularist, Westernized programme. More than a few soldiers turned would-be reformists fancied themselves in Ataturk’s role as the commander who would frogmarch the country into a modern, Westernized revolution. But none of the wannabe Ataturks had his record and reputation as a warrior-cum-founder to fall back on, and met an immediate resistance.

Zaim’s predecessor, Shukri Quwwatli, had struggled to balance his programme of reform with Muslim sensibilities. Zaim by contrast positively swaggered into the arena; in an early instance of one of the Westernizing autocrat’s first stops, vocally encouraging women to remove their veils and cultivate liberal lifestyles that were certain to raise hackles among more conservative members of the Muslim community. When one of the most prominent Muslim conservatives, Abdul-Hameed Tabba, protested these changes, Zaim invited him to discuss the matter at a hotel, where he promptly called in dancing girls and swigged down whiskey, enjoying the scandalized reaction of the preacher to whom he had quite sensationally made his point.

Any support Zaim may have retained in the military evaporated when he turned over Antun Saadeh, a fiery and controversial socialist-cum-Arabist whose ambitions to annex Lebanon and Syria’s other neighbours to recreate “Greater Syria” found a highly receptive audience among the Syrian army and led to his execution in Lebanon after Zaim’s extradition. And in the public eye, Zaim—who had already offended Arabist sentiment by closing his borders with Iraq and Jordan, both of which he threatened to attack in opposition to the Hashemite monarchy—simultaneously went a step too far when in the summer of 1949, even while rattling sabres at fellow Arab states, he was seen to be making overt negotiations with Israel. The wound of “Nakba”, to which Zaim had made his own contribution, was fresh in Arab minds, and though a ceasefire had been agreed a peace overture, and thereby a recognition of the Israeli state’s legitimacy, was a move of political suicide. With other Arab leaders reluctant to support his stance and Israel’s politicians flushed with victory, the negotiations came to nought, except to effectively alienate the Syrian leader.

The leader of this second coup was Sami Hinnawi, Husni Zaim’s most trusted lieutenant and the army chief, and the cast was mainly the same: Adib Shishakli, quietly fuming over the extradition of Antun Saadeh, played a significant role, while Fawzi Selu and Anwar Bannoud—both regular accomplices in Syria’s early coups—also threw in their lot. So too did Suhail Ashi, the Quwwatli loyalist whom Zaim had rather unwisely appointed police head, and the president’s security commander Abdel-Hamid Sarraj.

The burly, grim-faced Hinnawi, like many army officers, seems to have become quickly disillusioned with Zaim’s leadership and planned to return power to a more mainstream politician. This second coup of 1949 was the bloodiest of the lot; Zaim, who was expecting a newborn child, and his prime minister Muhsin Barazi—a former aide of Shukri Quwwatli—were frogmarched into the Mezze Prison outside Damascus and shot in front of Barazi’s son. Just a week earlier, Hinnawi had brushed off Zaim’s suspicions, claiming that he could not plot against his “leader and friend”, while security head Abdel-Hamid Sarraj had been close to the dictator’s family. While Shishakli triumphantly presented the dictator’s corpse to Antun Saadeh’s widow, Zaim’s infant daughter and young widow were both briefly imprisoned. Whatever the dictator’s faults, and they were considerable, it was a wretched way to go.

Sami Hinnawi, a stolid and unambitious soldier more comfortable in the role of enforcer than ruler, quickly ceded power to Hashim Atasi, a veteran civilian whose political programme was more acceptable to the majority of Syria’s opinion. Atasi, a venerable white-bearded statesman with a reputation for integrity, in many ways represented a return to the pre-coup civilian leadership. In a nod to popular sentiment, Atasi retracted the negotiations with Israel—the ceasefire would remain but negotiations and recognition would not. But he also brought some of the less popular policies of his civilian predecessors.

Like Shukri Quwwatli, Hashim Atasi supported the idea of a merger with Iraq to create a northern Arab superstate that could share its resources. This viewpoint owed much to Atasi’s own origins in the northeastern trading town of Aleppo, which would benefit largely from such a deal. But the idea was controversial, especially among the increasingly relevant army, since Iraq was ruled by the Hashemite monarchy that, particularly among the rising left-wing tide, were portrayed as colonial collaborators with the British, French and Israelis. The Hashemite ruler of Jordan, Abdallah I, was seen as having betrayed his Arab brethren in deference to his own personal ambitions, while his younger brethren in Iraq were equally unpopular and had already called in British support to survive a populist revolt during World War II. Adib Shishakli, increasingly powerful in the army, acted fast to launch the third coup of a tumultuous and tone-setting year. Despite a promising start that had included a newly drafted constitution, the second coup’s regime was even shorter than its predecessor.

This coup was perhaps the least dramatic of the lot, and therefore its effects lingered longest. While Sami Hinnawi was quickly arrested and shipped off to Lebanon—where he would be murdered the next year in retaliation for his execution of Muhsin Barazi—the civilian premier Hashim Atasi was retained to give a semblance of normalcy, which only evaporated when he resigned the next year in protest. By then the army and in particular Shishakli had wrested firm control over Syria’s politics. While he rewarded his longtime lieutenants Anwar Bannoud and Fawzi Selu with the superficial spoils of the coup, Shishakli—whose soldierly straight face masked a deceptively calculating and ambitious political brain that would dominate Syrian politics over the next few years—secured his own survival by staying behind the scenes in what amounted to a second-in-command position. Bannoud replaced Hinnawi as army chief, while Shishakli insisted that Selu, the quintessential crony, hold at varying times the portfolios of prime minister, president and defence minister. This third coup left its marks longest on Syria, whose politics have never quite moved on from the tumultuous triple strike of 1949.

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Jihad and the Good Islam through a Neoconservative LensJ

Jihad and the Good Islam through a Neoconservative Lens

Robert Kaplan, Soldiers of God (1990, 2001).

Without tramping into the usual foray regarding 11 September 2001 aka The-Day-that-Changed-the-World-Forever-and-Ever, it’s no secret that the word Jihad has long held a deep-seated sinister connotation in the Western world. Since at least the late medieval conquests of the Ottoman Sultanate, the word has held connotations, quaveringly fanned by fearful preachers and Enlightenment secularists, of a dark, monolithic and malevolent Muslamic cloud looming on the borders of an equally mythical Western Civilization just waiting to dangle swords and Qurans in front of conquered peoples and throw women either into veils or harems. In recent years unhinged neoconservative extremists like David Horowitz have reached an improbable consensus with equally unhinged Muslim extremists such as Ayman Zawahiri, declaring that Islam is locked in a gigantic “Clash of Civilizations” with the West, replacing the Communism of Soviet Russia as Enemy Number One for the “Free World”. Fanned in the “Free World” with a thick library of half-truths, lies and misinterpretations by biased Western academics like Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes and Daniel Johnston, this fearful prophecy seemed to have fulfilled itself on That Day Wot Shook the World, as nineteen Muslim extremists butchered some three thousand Americans in New York. The deliberate distortion and misintepretation of jihad—a highly nuanced concept that no shortage of ignored mainstream Muslims have stressed refers not only to a very specified set of strictly disciplined military engagement in very limited contexts and more pressingly to a personal moral struggle against internal temptations and external injustice—has therefore been rammed even further down the collective consciousness of the “Free World” by the lunatics of both Muslim and anti-Muslim camps.

Despite that, there is one jihad that is, if not well-received, at least warily tolerated by the anti-Muslim camp in the Western world. This is the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, when the initiative, daring and faith of a motley, heavily outgunned crew of mostly irregular fighters ejected that Other Existential Enemy of the West, the Soviet Union, from Afghanistan, with some useful but enormously overhyped support from Pakistani, Saudi and American intelligence. Since it helped unravel the Great Red Menace, this jihad had, till and to a much lesser extent after 9/11, been relatively free of the cliches of dread and menace associated with others of its kind.

Nowhere is this better encapsulated than in neoconservative journalist Robert Kaplan’s strangely bipolar 1990 work—republished after 9/11 with an extra chapter that appears to foretell That Dark Morning based on the author’s experiences—“Soldiers of God”. From a neoconservative who spouts erroneous cliches and thickhead generalizations on the Muslim world even as he admires the tenacity of the Afghan Mujahedine, it is a commendably thoughtful but tellingly bipolar account.

On one hand, it is clear that Kaplan, a longtime correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, has a presumptuous misconception of and disdain for the Muslim world and few compunctions about it. Indeed his adventures with the mujahedine, with whose courage he is justifiably impressed, are meant to be a vehicle through which he can realize that not all Muslims are bad, backward, change-resistant individuals—only those outside Afghanistan (and from those, too, only the ones who fight America’s enemies). He explains, in an unusually insightful and almost, in the book, uniquely open-minded sentence: “It was only in Afghanistan that I was able—at least I think I was—to see Islam objectively for the first time.” This moments after a bizarre attempt at self-reflection where he admits a cynicism towards Islam that “might be viewed by others as merely the prejudices and self-justifications of an American Jew who spoke Hebrew and had lived for several years in Israel.” It might, but that would be wrong: Kaplan’s prejudices are personal, not reflective of his particular demographic. There are plenty of American Jews, Hebrew speakers and Israeli residents who are capable of looking past prejudiced and historically inaccurate, never mind offensive, caricatures of the Muslim world. Kaplan, though he appears to try, since he obviously found the Muslim Afghan Mujahedine a far more likeable, sympathetic and decent lot than his blinkered view of Islam and Muslims would have imagined, isn’t one of them.

“Women,” he declares blithely in the age-old litany of misguided bigots, “are oppressed in all Moslem societies”; visitors “in Iran and elsewhere in the Moslem world”, this being written in the Khomenei days, are accustomed to seeing eyes that are, no joke, “bottomless black wells of hatred and cunning”. Some, indeed most, of these declarations are so unapologetically twisted that at times it reads like a parody. No doubt among the alarming thousands in America who read Bernard Lewis’ alarmist, simplified distortions of history instead of America’s vast but sadly drowned-out assortment of genuinely knowledgeable scholars of Islamic history, he views everything in the modern Islamic world as an unchanging, anachronistic reaction to the modernity and enlightenment of the West. Even as he reminds us that Rudyard Kipling’s “imperialism is often misunderstood by modern readers”, he regurgitates the language and stereotypes of imperialism. He sees the Quran—regardless of one’s belief in it, a stunningly beautiful and powerful work of poetic yet judicious language—as typifying “the sterile authoritarianism of the East, where all public debate is drowned out”—a laughably ridiculous assertment.

Nonetheless, as he is keen to remind us, Kaplan’s stereotypes and preconceptions were challenged by his Mujahedine comrades-in-arms who practice the same faith at which he stabs through the rest of the book. Moments after implying that their culture, being Islamic and allegedly male-dominated, is “emotionally underdeveloped as well as intellectually sterile”, he explains that “Islam in Afghanistan manifested a certainty and unintimidating dynamism that did not exist in Iran, Pakistan, or any of the Arab countries”. He puts this down to Bernard Lewis’ fundamental thesis: “the shrill, medieval, bloodcurdling” cries of Allahu Akbar that he heard in Iran  possessed “fury”, as “Islam’s perverse reaction to the political challenges of the twentieth century…the pressures of nationhood…the West’s military, economic, and cultural penetration of the Middle East; and to the creation of a Western-style Jewish state in its midst”. In contrast, he explains, the Muslims he meets in Afghanistan, not coincidentally the only ones he got to know well and spend time with, are decent not because his exposure to them challenged his preconceptions but because “Afghanistan had never been industrialized, let alone colonized or penetrated much by outsiders…the Afghans had never been seduced by the West and so had no reason now to violently reject it.” (Never mind that Afghanistan, in the early twentieth century, was indeed “seduced” by Western industrialization in particular, which led to a violent civil war between Westernized modernists and rural conservatives in the 1929. Never mind, too, that the daring Afghan jihad was an Islamic-based response to the brutal intrusion of Communist ideology.)

I don’t share much else with Kaplan, but I do share his admiration for the Afghans, their general attitudes and cultures, and in particular the remarkable resilience and tenacity that has seen them repel invader after invader, which is why I picked up Soldiers of God to read a history of their most resounding achievement in a rich legacy of struggle. There are bits of genuinely useful information interspersed here and there, and not all of Kaplan’s analyses are totally senseless, and when discussing personalities that he has met and known, he does not sink into the same tired, overly simplified jargon that defines much of contemporary discussions on Islam in general and the Mujahedine specifically.

Part of this may be that Kaplan travelled with the genial, wily and extremely decent Mujahid commander Abdul-Haq Arsala, a conservative and pious member of the conservative and pious Hizb-e-Islami Khalis group who—in contrast to most presumptions about conservative and pious Muslims—was clever, cheerful and, most tellingly of all, genuinely respectful of women (shock!gasp!)—the sort of combination inherent in most Muslims, as in most people, but which never ceases to shock presumptuous observers (most recently during the 2011-12 Muslim Brotherhood campaign in Egypt, where allegedly well-informed journalists were shocked that Islamists could talk to women). Of course, Abdul-Haq’s likeability can’t be because he’s Muslim, oh no–since he did not exhude the sort of hateful fanaticism that Kaplan had expected, “he could have been a Jewish actor hired to play the role of a Third World guerilla leader”. This likeability is an exception, not the norm, among Muslims. It is not difficult to imagine a World War Era German speaking in similar tones about a Jew he was surprised to find himself liking.

Many alleged fundamentalists, being humans, share these traits—now that the bulk of the Afghanistan war hype is behind, reports are filtering through even of a disconcertingly large number of more moderate Taliban commanders, such as the sharp-humoured Jalil Akhtar and the cautious Abdul-Ghani Baradar as well as the now-apolitical diplomats Abdul-Wakil Muttawakil and Abdul-Salam Zaeef, who were not only willing to extradite over Osama bin Laden (for whom, in the 2001 reprint, Kaplan saves a short last-chapter cameo) but even to relax some of the Taliban’s notoriously rigid social codes long before 9/11. The only way to challenge these stereotypes, of course, is to engage in dialogue and try to challenge preconceptions, as Kaplan found out here. The humanizing factor he retrieves from his experience is a rare one among observers of the Islamic world, even if he doesn’t extend it to the remainder of the Muslim world. And for all his failings, Kaplan does find time to chastise fellow reporters and analysts: it’s OK to interact on a human level with Islamic fighters, as long—since he continues to snipe again and again at non-Afghan Muslims all over the world, particularly but by no means exclusively Iranians—as they’re fighting the Reds. This mixture of neoconservative disdain for Muslims in general coupled with grudging admiration for individual Muslims, is the sort of thinking that must have dominated the halls of America’s thinktanks in the Reagan and Bush regimes. As their tenures showed, it is not entirely blinkered, but blinkered enough to be dangerous.

Kaplan is equally surprised that Abdul-Haq’s political leader, Yunis Khalis—who split the Hizb-e-Islami party from the more extreme Gulbadin Hekmatyar, one of those rare Muslims who does embody many Western preconceptions of hostility, extremism and hatred that are then projected as being a feature of Islam rather than an individual—is an easygoing, good-natured individual who let a comrade play with his newly red-hennaed beard and who patiently answered questions about Islam. In yet another example of his profoundly limited knowledge of the Islamic world, Kaplan—comparing the likeable Khalis to the infamously curmudgeonly Khomenei—asks, “This was an ayatollah?” (get this, guys)—to which the shortest answer is no, since there is no such thing as an ayatollah in the Sunni branch of Islam that Khalis follows, one of the fundamental differences between the structures of Sunni and Shia Islam. Again, not only are stereotypes tainted, they are actually factually wrong.

Kaplan’s interactions with Abdul-Haq’s band strip away many of the author’s own biases, though he continues to insist that this is because Afghans are nice and other Muslims aren’t. Indeed Kaplan appears to have developed a genuine fondness for Abdul-Haq, even though–as he rightly remarks–the majority of foreign coverage focused the entire ten-year conflict (replete with dozens of similarly canny, courageous commanders) on the charismatic personage of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a member of the Tajik-dominated party of Burhanuddin Rabbani and an especially brilliant fighter who has nonetheless been eulogized to ridiculous extents following his assassination by Al-Qaeda on 9 September 2001. As other accounts have indicated, the on-field relations between commanders of different groups were in fact fairly cordial–Abdul-Haq stresses in one part that he is genuinely pleased for Massoud’s successful expulsion of the Soviets from the Panjsher Valley, and harbours no enmity towards the Tajik commander–though the struggle among the political leadership for a share of the resources led to them being portrayed relentlessly as mutually suspicious rivals.

Though he takes care to jot this down, Kaplan himself does take a stab at reinforcing the stereotypes, ethnic this time, that tend to appear in this part of the narrative, and not only the ethnicities of Afghans: “In the Pathan mind, Punjabis acted like women…physically weak, shifty, and tempestuous”. Despite such gross generalizations, there is room for occasionally witty observations: Zia-ul-Haq, the Punjabi Pakistani dictator who enthusiastically organized support for the jihad and prepared camps for thousands of Afghan refugees to flee the Soviet occupation, was to the Afghan Pathans “an honorary Pathan”. The unfortunately common stereotype prevalent among Muslims, particularly in the subcontinent, of Hindus as being dishonourable and selfish, is also mentioned here, though the reason, as usual, is bizarrely misinterpreted as a disdain for shifty, therefore feminine, therefore inferior Hindus–in short, Muslims and particularly Pathan Muslims dislike Hindus because Muslims dislike women. (The real reason for the unjustifiable discrimination towards Hindus among regional Muslims has more to do with scorn over the polytheism of Hinduism–often course incompatible with monotheistic Islam, though by no means an excuse to harbour scornful generalizations about its practitioners or cheap remarks about the faith–as well as allegedly different interpretation of hygiene and even a subtle racism towards the dark-skinned natives of India). This sort of thickheaded misinterpretation even when making valid observations considerably detracts from Kaplan’s book.

Overall, the book is a mildly revealing read on The Soldiers of God, but it reveals more about the author himself. Even as he attacks fellow journalists and analysts for lazy or skewed reports of the Afghanistan jihad, Kaplan himself resorts to even lazier, more skewed analyses not only of the region. The result is a book that could’ve been an interesting, insightful account of the Afghanistan anti-Soviet jihad, and ends up being more an insight in Kaplan’s neoconservative struggle to balance a dislike of Islam with an even greater dislike of Communism.

Book review by Ibrahim Moiz