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Jihad and the Good Islam through a Neoconservative Lens

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