The current leader of the Islamic State (IS), Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), was appointed as al-amir al-mu’mineen (the commander of the faithful or prince of the believers) on 16 May 2010, after his predecessor, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), was killed on 18 April 2010 in the company of his deputy and “war minister”, Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir). The official statement appointing al-Badri is reproduced below. Continue reading
Book Review: The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967) by Bernard Lewis
The fourth Caliph, Ali, was assassinated during a civil war that his supporters, Shi’atu Ali (Followers of Ali), lost to the Umayyads, who thereafter moved the capital to Damascus. The Shi’a maintained that the Caliphate should have been kept in the Prophet’s family; over time this faction evolved into a sect unto themselves, which largely functioned as an official opposition, maintaining its claim to the Caliphate, but doing little about it. Several ghulat (extremist) Shi’a movements emerged that did challenge the Caliphate. One of them was the Ismailis. Calling themselves the Fatimids, the Ismailis managed to set up a rival Caliphate in Cairo from the mid-tenth century until the early twelfth century that covered most of North Africa and western Syria. A radical splinter of the Ismailis, the Nizaris, broke with the Fatimids in the late eleventh century and for the next century-and-a-half waged a campaign of terror against the Sunni order from bases in Persia and then Syria. In the late thirteenth century the Nizaris were overwhelmed by the Mongols in Persia and by the Egyptian Mameluke dynasty which halted the Mongol invasion in Syria. The Syrian-based branch of the Nizaris became known as the Assassins, and attained legendary status in the West after they murdered several Crusader officials in the Levant. Attention has often turned back to the Assassins in the West when terrorist groups from the Middle East are in the news, but in the contemporary case of the Islamic State (ISIS) the lessons the Nizaris can provide are limited. Continue reading
The Nizari Ismailis did not invent assassination, of course; only lent it their name. The Ismailis were “part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginnings of Islam … of popular and emotional cults in sharp contrast with the learned and legal religion of the established order.” Still, the Nizaris did rely on the Holy Law. The ideal of Islamic governance might be authoritarian, but it is not arbitrary; if a ruler crosses the shari’a it becomes a duty to resist. This element became gradually more marginal as the religion formed into a State and Empire, but it was there and many other sects had called on it in their opposition to the prevailing regimes. The Nizaris were the first to call up this tradition of righteous rebellion and combine it with an effective opposition organization.
In their use of conspiracy, assassination, and even the ceremonial nature of the murders and the weapon-cult, the Assassins were hardly unique. But they might well be the first terrorists: those who, at an overwhelming disadvantage in conventional terms, used unconventional means in a planned, long-term campaign of targeted violence as a political weapon with the intention of overturning the established order. Continue reading
The Nizaris’ Turn to Sunnism
In Persia, a new power was rising in the east: Tekish, the Shah of Khorazm. In 1194, the Caliph, al-Nasir, was hard-pressed by the Seljuk Sultan of Isfahan, Tughrul II, and appealed to Khorazmshah Tekish for help, providing the excuse for the Khorazmshah to extend into western Iran. Tughrul II was soon killed, taking the Seljuk Empire with him.
The Seljuks had been the major power in Islam for 150 years, and while their rule had ended, the pattern of rule they brought—Turkish colonization, Turkish annexation of local ruling systems, and a stern orthodoxy—remained and was expanded. The Khorazmshah himself was a product of this: the office was descended from a Turkish slave soldier sent to Khorazm as a governor by the Seljuk Great Sultan Malik-Shah. Continue reading
This is the complete review. It has previously been posted in three parts: Part 1 on the question of whether the 1915-17 massacres constitute genocide; Part 2 on the post-war trials and the Nationalist Movement; and Part 3 gives some conclusions on what went wrong in the Allied efforts to prosecute the war criminals and the implications for the present time, with Turkey’s ongoing denial of the genocide and the exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
A Question of Genocide
The controversy over the 1915-17 massacres of Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire is whether these acts constitute genocide. Those who say they don’t are not the equivalent of Holocaust-deniers in that while some minimize the figures of the slain, they do not deny that the massacres happened; what they deny is that the massacres reach the legal definition of genocide. Their case is based on three interlinked arguments:
- Unlike the Nazi Holocaust when a defenceless population was murdered only for its identity, the Armenians were engaged in a massive armed revolt, and this is why the Ottoman government decided to deport them.
- The intent of the Ottomans was not massacre but the removal of the Armenians, who had sided with one foreign invading power (Russia) and who were showing signs of collaborating with another (Britain), from the militarily sensitive areas as Turkey suffered a two-front invasion in early 1915.
- While terrible massacres, plus starvation and the cold, took maybe a million lives during the deportations, when the Armenians reached their destinations in Syria and Iraq, which were also part of the Ottoman Empire, they were well-treated and allowed to rebuild their lives, which would not have been the case had the Ottomans intended their destruction.
Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility presents evidence to undermine every one of these arguments. Continue reading
The First Phase of the Trials
On October 30, 1918, the Ottoman Empire signed its final treaty of defeat. The Ottomans’ long decline began in 1683, and by the 1830s the Empire was referred to as the “sick man of Europe”. The armistice was a near-total surrender, allowing the occupation of any area the Allies deemed necessary for their security. Unfortunately, it was neither the end of the war nor the end of the massacres against the Armenians.
The Allies—Britain, France, and Russia—issued a declaration on May 24, 1915, saying:
In light of the crimes against humanity and civilisation committed by Turkey, the allied powers warn the Sublime Porte that members of the Ottoman government involved in the mass murder will be held personally responsible for these crimes.
Not coincidentally, within days of this an official deportation law was passed through the Ottoman Parliament and would thereafter be issued by the Interior Ministry as legal cover for the CUP’s actions. This was a first introduction of the concept of crimes against humanity, and of individual responsibility that extended to senior Generals and Heads of State. The Russians fell to the Communists and for reasons of realpolitik the French and Italians soon dropped their demands for punishing the Turkish war criminals, but the British were relentless. Continue reading