24 April 2020
The American reporter Steve Coll is one of the Anglosphere’s most careful and studious observers of Afghanistan, and his books – in particular Ghost Wars, a 2004 work about the link between the 1980s Afghanistan conflict and its blowback in the 2000s – some of the best-known on the topic. Not only has he reams of interviews with notable characters across different languages, but he also keeps up to date with academic literature on the subject.
I confess I am not a particular fan myself – I don’t generally like journalistic books on topics of war and peace, which tend to rely overly on interviews and thus the perspectives of the interviewed. Less a fan than myself, however, is an old hand from the Afghanistan conflict, whom I met in Pakistan on several occasions. He knows many of the people interviewed by Coll, including members of the 1980s insurgency, the current Taliban, the militia coalition that opposed them, and the Pakistani military, but his problem with Coll is not a political one. No, what he objected to when I met him was the rendition that Coll gave on a mystical dream that the Taliban emir Umar Mujahid is supposed to have had.
There are many rumours about Umar Mujahid seeing some saintly dream that propelled him to found the Taliban movement; such rumours often abound and were often seen in conflicts . What my interlocutor objected to was that Coll, probably unknowingly but quite blasphemously from an Islamic standpoint, presents Umar as having claimed to see a rendition of Allah. SubhanAllah (glorious and free is Allah above that), my interlocutor – again, familiar with many leading protagonists on different sides of the conflict – exclaimed; didn’t he know that no Muslim could say such a thing?
In Islam, we do not believe that Allah has human versions or partners on earth. This is one of the fundamental differences we have with Christianity, which does assign to the Creator such human partnership. Sunnis and their many schools, Shias and their many schools – it doesn’t matter. As Surah Ikhlas, perhaps the most fundamental chapter in the Quran, tells us unambiguously: Allah is One, and there is nothing comparable to Him. My interlocutor, as a pious Muslim somewhat unusual in his obsessive study of English literature on politics, was scandalized and actually claimed to have reached out in the mid-2000s to people in the know (apparently both retired members and opponents of the Taliban) to make sure: Umar had, it was true, been rumoured to have seen some saintly dream or other, but that was a completely different thing: the difference between that and what Coll had written was the difference between Islam and unbelief. Had Umar made such a claim, my interlocutor solemnly said, he would have been skinned by his own followers. Muslims didn’t hold such views; Sunni Muslims certainly didn’t; Daobandi Sunni Muslims absolutely didn’t; and obsessive-compulsively ultraconservative Daobandi Sunni Muslims would not countenance such a claim let alone found a political movement led by the claimant.
This conversation took place years ago, and I didn’t think too much about it till recently. As I said, I don’t particularly like Ghost Wars or the broader genre of journalistic accounts. My guess was, and remains, that Coll was either purposely misinformed or had accidentally mistranslated; I certainly do not impugn his integrity as a reporter. Recently, however, after some experience this conversation has reoccurred to me. It’s not that I expect non-Muslims to know about Muslim theology. But when covering issues in the Muslim world, which frequently involve ideological categorization into “moderates” and “radicals”, however, at least this level of basic knowledge should be a requirement. If somebody as studious and esteemed in the field as Steve Coll could make such a glaring error on so fundamental an issue, what is there to be said about the dozens of less qualified analysts and reporters who regularly pontificate on issues of Islam and politics?
Certain traditionalist students of Islam have tended to dismiss Western academia as offering nothing productive, and at worst orientalist distortions, to the Muslim student. As somebody involved at least tangentially in academia, I think they overstate the point. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that some level of theological literacy about Islam the faith is required in order to talk about Islam the sociopolitical phenomenon. If one is to talk, however dispassionately, about the latter, one needs to have at least a baseline knowledge on the latter.
Hostility and wilful ignorance
Part of the problem, of course, is that especially after 2001, a good deal of the material was muddied and purposely misled by a multimillion-dollar (at a conservative estimate) anti-Islamic industry that purposely misled people on the subject. And indeed the most glaring errors I see often occur in books by actors in the immediate aftermath of 2001.
On Afghanistan, for instance, several mostly anonymous or pseudonymous books were written by low-ranking “citizen warriors” who participated in the early stages of the War on Terror; their theological ignorance on the topic, which again would not be such a problem if they weren’t involved actively in the affairs of Muslim countries and societies, often stem from an antagonistic perspective of Islam that is only barely covered by references to Qaeda, Taliban, or terrorism. The rampant hostility toward Islam – not only the specific Muslims they were fighting – in places such as Guantanamo Bay is well-known and uncontestable. Often political opposition translated into opposition to, and at times wilful ignorance of, Islam.
Much of this flies under the radar but can be seen in relatively petty cases. For instance, the well-known pseudonymous commando officer who participated in the Battle of Torabora, Dalton Fury, claims in his memoir that the Afghan locals treated Usama bin-Ladin as though he were “almighty” and also as if he were the Prophet Muhammad SAW. This contains both theological illiteracy – Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad SAW was simply a servant of Allah – but also brings to the table the underlying political hostility, which was his suspicion and thus resentment of the locals he saw as sheltering bin-Ladin.
A more blatant case is that of an anonymous paramilitary officer who had fought in Afghanistan during 2002 later penned an obscure largely nonsensical memoir whose sensationalism could be gauged from its title – Hunting Al-Qaeda: A take-no-prisoners account of terror, adventure, and disillusionment – which claims, based off the authors’ own garbled memories of their experience in the early War on Terror, that they could have single-handedly won the said war had they not been backstabbed by pompous bureaucrats. The book is largely nonsensical, but like a considerable proportion of the genre it also makes little secret of its contempt for the locals and – to our purpose – jeeringly refers to a character as Allah (Subhan-Allah above such a claim), a statement that again betrays a criminal misunderstanding of even the most basic Islamic tenets. The war on terror, and particularly its earliest years, were conducted in a Muslim environment by people who had neither the slightest knowledge, sympathy, or inclination towards either knowledge or sympathy when it came to Muslims or Islam.
Such cases as the above are of course extreme, and I would hazard that they will one day fade and disappear the same way as medieval crusade propaganda about Muslims as devil-worshipping enemies of Christ have now faded. But they are symptomatic of a wider problem. At best, the majority of political commentary on Islam and Muslims is theologically illiterate; at worst, it is hostile. Nobody expects a non-Muslim to necessarily understand or like Islam, but the former is a necessary prerequisite for talking, often from very high vantage points and in positions of considerable authority, on topics that affect Muslims.
It should be noted that by the 2010s there was at least some attempt to improve upon this aspect, often by paying attention to Muslim interlocutors and advisors. The hostility and wariness may not quite have disappeared – James Jones, former praetorian commander and security advisor to no less cosmopolitan an American ruler as Barack Obama, solemnly pronounced the Afghan war as “a clash of civilizations…a clash of religions…a clash of concepts of how to live”, and the fact that individuals such as Tony Blair, Michael Flynn, James Mattis, David Frum, and others continue to hover in varying spheres of influence suggests that this will continue awhile. But if there must be hostility, at least let there be an attempt to understand the basic tenets. The British Empire, for all its villainy, also understood and tried to understand its opponents (even if only to undermine them), and produced high-calibre scholastic and diplomatic appraisals of what it regarded as subject populaces.
Islam as theology, Islam as sociopolitical phenomenon
Thankfully, academia remains a sphere where hostility is not so much an issue. But theological literacy on at least the basic tenets of Islam remains a major issue. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen very basic errors from perfectly well-meaning authors; one that springs straight to mind was a mistranslation of a paper Nidai-Haqq – meaning “Call of Truth”, but mistranslated instead to the rather blasphemous “Voice of God”. This mistranslation was by the same author – again a well-respected academic whose integrity there is no reason to question – who once mistranslated and rendered infinitely more radical an Islamist slogan that went “No half-measures in Islam”, to “No moderation in Islam”. Even the most practiced hands are often startingly poor when it comes to Islamic tenets, and this limits their ability to commentate, as they often do, on matters of ideology, moderation, and extremism.
This is especially problematic because, for better or worse, the Western approach to militancy and whatnot, with its categorizations and its ideas, has often been copied by Muslim states in their own internal affairs. One can argue – I certainly would – that such an imitation is unhealthy, but then given the fact that several Muslim states have faced violence and subversion of a very clearly extremist – I don’t just mean any old insurgency – sort, perhaps it is not surprising. The irony is that Western literature on ideology and whatnot, often as noted here functionally illiterate on Islamic theology, is internalized by states whose Muslim functionaries and academics do, or at least should, know about said theology themselves. The upshot is that not only is the academic response to Muslim groups in non-Muslim circles garbled, the same has become often true of Muslim academics and policymakers who should know better.
The fact is that, even if it is often instrumentalized and not always accurately represented, Islamic theology plays a fundamental and powerful ideological role in all but the most overtly secularist Muslim movements. In order to understand how Muslim movements, factions, and mobilizations work, an at least basic grasp of Islam is required. This is particularly the case when non-Muslims are attempting to categorize such groups into ideological camps; without a very basic understanding of the faith behind the ideology, such classifications lose their meaning.