Faith at War: Reports from the Islamic World
Council on Foreign Relations
New York, New York
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Council on Foreign Relations co-hosted a luncheon roundtable on “Faith at War: Reports from the Islamic World” on May 4, 2005, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
With over one billion adherents, the Islamic world spans six continents, encompassing a wide variety of languages, traditions, cultures and peoples. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Islam has come under increased scrutiny, with a particular focus on the Middle East. Less has been reported about the religious fault lines that exist in other parts of the Islamic world. In light of the recent release of his book “Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu,” Wall Street Journal correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov joined freelance journalist Eliza Griswold to provide their first-hand perspectives on the relationship between Islam and conflict – both inside and outside the Middle East, including case studies on Iraq, Mali, southern Thailand and Bangladesh.
Yaroslav Trofimov, Staff Correspondent, Middle East, Africa and Central Asia Bureaus, The Wall Street Journal
Eliza Griswold, Freelance Journalist and Contributing Editor, The Paris Review
Rachel Bronson, Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
The discussion was part of a joint project on religion and U.S. foreign policy undertaken by the Pew Forum and the Council that is designed to help policymakers and analysts better understand religion’s role in world affairs and the possible policy implications. Although the roundtable was off-the-record, the speakers agreed to make their remarks available online.
Remarks by Yaroslav Trofimov
Thank you very much for coming here; thank you for hosting me. The book that I have written, “Faith at War,” really starts from Sept. 11th, 2001, which was a watershed not just for Western societies, but also for Muslim societies. While we often tend to focus on what happened to us — how our civil liberties may have been infringed and the suffering that the tragedy has caused — the transformation that these events have brought on Muslim societies is much larger in scale.
To begin, I just want to step back a little bit. In the historical narrative across the Muslim world, one often looks back at 85 years ago, a time when the entire Muslim world was colonized and more or less governed by the West. The narrative picks up from there, and everything that has happened since then has been seen as part of a larger liberation struggle that eventually led to the independence of these societies.
The events of the last three years are seen by a great many people in the Muslim world as a stunning reversal of the emancipation that occurred with decolonization, as countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have, again, functionally come under Western rule. Even looking beyond these two countries, in the Balkans one sees that already before Sept. 11th Kosovo and Bosnia were effectively being governed as Western protectorates, sponsored by the U.N. and NATO. In many other Muslim countries that have not been invaded militarily, the combined military and political pressures of the West have led to changes of policies, as in the case of Libya and the surrendering of its chemical weapons, or have prompted many other political and military reforms.
This book starts out in Saudi Arabia, the former home of Osama bin Laden and the country that positions itself at the core of the Muslim world as the defender of the Islamic faith. Obviously, many of us in the West look at Saudi Arabia as our prime supplier of oil, quite an interesting perception, indeed.
One of the most enlightening conversations I had in Saudi Arabia was with one local academic, who put forward a statistic that is often quoted in public debate. He said, “Look back. In the 1970s, a barrel of oil cost 20-something dollars, and the cars we were buying from America cost $1,000. Well, now, oil is not $25 a barrel; it’s $50 a barrel, and the cars that we buy from America cost $20,000. We are being robbed.”
And this feeling (an economist may disagree with this of course, but perceptions are just as important as reality) and this perception that day-to-day poverty in countries such as Saudi Arabia is caused by Western political pressure, by Western attempts to control their countries, are very real. It is this perception that has been fueling radicalism.
Of course, the Saudi government, which has not been very competent and obviously not very open to public demands, has been using Islam as a shield against criticism. We all know that Saudi society and the Saudi political system are probably the most closed in the Muslim world. Practice of any other religion is forbidden.
One of the narratives in the book, for example, deals with the bizarre industry of the export of dead bodies in Saudi Arabia. Even though there are millions of non-Muslims, mostly Christians and Hindus, who work there, by law practicing their faith is illegal, as is the burying of non-Muslims within the kingdom. And the only non-Muslim cemetery that does exist in Saudi Arabia is a little plot in Jeddah, which predates the Saudi nation. Consequently, this huge industry of shipping cadavers has emerged within the country so as not to defile the holy soil of the kingdom.
The ruling monarchy, when faced with any criticism, uses Islam as an excuse. I spoke to many princes during my travels there, and some would say, “Well, yes, this is all true and we don’t manage the country well maybe, but we are the most Islamic country. We are the only ones and Islam is the only way of life here, and that is enough for us to have our legitimacy.”
From Saudi Arabia, the narrative turns to a country that lies on the opposite end of this continuum, Tunisia, probably the most secular country in the Muslim world as far as the government is concerned. The Tunisian government, which is arguably just as repressive as the Saudi government, has been very shrewd in using the language of democracy, human rights and moderation to mask the nature of the regime. What they have been doing is inventing a whole new brand of Islam, Islam lite, if you will.
For example, I went to see the minister of Islamic affairs, who told me that veils were not really important in Islam. In fact, in the academy that trains Muslim clerics, women are actually forbidden to wear veils. Now, of course because the government is so repressive, the only popular alternative to the regime is Islamism. It is important to note that Tunisian Islamists were involved in the 2004 bombings in Madrid.
I had a very useful conversation with a secular human rights activist there, Sihem Bensedrine. She told me that she really didn’t like Islamists because, as a woman, they have the potential to take away her freedom. However, the only manner to get her message across is to do so through the Islamist satellite TV station, Zeitouna because there is just no other outlet.
In my estimation these two countries illustrate the two biggest problems that exist across the political continuum and the challenges that the West faces in trying to bring democracy to the Muslim world.
From these two examples the book then turns to Iraq. And I would like to read an excerpt from the Iraq chapter that explains just how resentful many Iraqis are to U.S. policy there. It’s a short excerpt about my stay in the city of Tikrit, which is the hometown of Saddam Hussein. I spent almost two weeks there with Bob Silverman, a State Department diplomat who, at the time, was serving as the local governor of the Coalition Provisional Authority in the city.
“Silverman, a career State Department diplomat, spoke perfect Arabic and was well-informed about the countries in the Middle East. He had even once translated an Egyptian writer’s book about visiting Israel into English, and in the process, weakened his eyesight to the point of having to wear bifocals.
“I appreciated the difference between Silverman and most other occupation officials I have met. Those always upbeat and often ignorant bureaucrats frequently borrowed from the staffs of Republican members of Congress, never let the facts stand in the way of political spin, during three-month assignments in Iraq, seldom ventured outside Baghdad’s green zone. Their Arabic vocabulary rarely extended beyond ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’
“Silverman offered me a tiny room of my own in his part of the palace and took me around the province. After a few days I was impressed by how he smoothed-talked local tribal leaders, exchanging pleasantries at endless rice, lamb and tea sessions. It crossed my mind that, with competent people like him, the occupation effort wasn’t doomed after all; Iraq would still be transformed for the better. Prominent Tikritis, too, seemed ready to work with ‘Mr. Bob.’
“Then we dropped into Baiji, a major industrial center and a flashpoint of anti-American attacks. Silverman had brought several former Iraqi generals into the provisional administration, including Thamer Sultan, a man from Saddam’s tribe who commanded wide respect in Baiji. The meeting with Baiji’s tribal leaders was meant to stop the insurgency in the town, and Silverman planned to woo local support by announcing a large influx of funding for infrastructure projects. Sultan’s role, he told me before the trip, would be ‘to read locals the riot act.’
“Scanning Baiji’s rooftops for snipers, Silverman drove me in his bullet-scarred SUV, with a Nepalese Gurkha bodyguard riding in the back and a spare Kalashnikov, just in case, hemmed in at the gearshift. We stopped at an oil company club. There, more than 100 local elders, dressed in traditional robes and checkered headscarves, packed the hall. The local American military commander was absent because the sheiks refused to be in the same room with soldiers. Soon it was Silverman, not the sheiks, receiving the riot act. One man stood up, wiping off tears, and recounted how the military had raided his house and killed his brother and two children. Another man, Adel Turki Majid, a sheep trader, complained that soldiers had ransacked his home and confiscated $8,000 in cash and his daughter’s gold jewelry, dowry for a wedding already planned. The soldiers, he said, claimed that this was money for terrorism. Because the cash and the jewelry were never returned, the wedding had to be called off.
“‘When you came here, you destroyed factories and homes and burned cars with people inside them. What do you expect us to say — thank you, America?’ shrieked Sheikh Rafeh Hamed Majid.
“As the crowd became bigger and more hostile, Silverman tried to keep tensions at bay. ‘I know we have made some mistakes, but we know that your people have made mistakes, too,’ he told the sheikhs with a disarming smile as he tried to steer the discussion toward reconstruction. He listed the new projects that the U.S. was going to finance.
“Talk of money was met with defiant pride. Ramadhan Toaman al Qaissi, another tribal chief, stood up to reply. ‘Even if you turn this country into heaven, we wouldn’t want it from you,’ he said in a crisp, cool voice. ‘Just go away and leave us alone. We have had enough of you and can’t stand it no more.’ Suddenly the hall erupted in applause that lasted minutes. Silverman’s face was locked in an uncomfortable smile.
“With things getting out of hand, we had to beat a retreat. Embarrassed, Sultan tried to explain what had just happened. ‘Our people have seen Americans in Hollywood movies and were impressed by how educated and polite the Americans are on-screen,’ he told Silverman once we reached relative safety. ‘But now these people have seen your soldiers in real life. And they are very surprised that the Americans have turned out to be so rough and so rude.’”
Obviously, if you compare Afghanistan to Iraq — and there are many chapters in the book that deal with both of these countries — Afghanistan is a much safer place, even though just today, as one saw on the news, there were a bunch of people killed. The Afghan government seems to have much more legitimacy than the Iraqi government.
I think one of the biggest reasons why Afghanistan can be called a relative success is because of the way that the U.S. has played it. From the very beginning there was an Afghan government — even though it didn’t have a lot of authority in the beginning. And, again, the most powerful American in Afghanistan was born in Afghanistan. So the Afghans could look at Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and say, well, he is one of our own and whatever he does, it’s not a humiliation; they could take pride in what the U.S. was doing there.
By contrast, if you look at Iraq, there was no government; there was the Coalition Provisional Authority for a year, and Ambassador Paul Bremer was not a native Iraqi. And because of this, even the good things that the U.S. has done there are seen by many as signs of unwanted intrusion and unwanted occupation that does not necessarily change the hearts and minds the way they should.
The book then progresses to other parts of the contemporary Muslim world — to Bosnia and to Western Africa. In Bosnia, I was surprised by how much the events in Iraq had reverberated into the local minds, considering that Bosnia is often cited as an example of one country where the U.S. has intervened militarily on the side of the Muslims against Christian Serbs.
One encouraging example in all of these travels — and that is another chapter in the book — is in a very unexpected corner of the Muslim world. It’s in a country named Mali. I saw reports by Freedom House, which lists all of the countries in the world and ranks their civil freedoms and political liberties, and out of some 50 Muslim countries listed there, only two were ranked as fully fair. They were, surprisingly, Mali and Senegal — not even countries like Turkey made the cut.
When I went to Mali, I tried to find out whether the democracy that exists there, and has been there for almost 10 years now, means that they have found a way to reconcile Islam with a Western political system, or if it’s just because Mali is not Islamic enough. I think the correct answer lies more in the latter than in the former. Before I finish, I would like to read another short excerpt from my book.
“One of the most influential men of Islam in Mali was called Ousmane Madani Haidara. Believed to be a holy man with a reputation of miracles, Haidara draws million-strong crowds and fills stadiums with his sermons, drawing adepts from all over West Africa. His organization carries the threatening name of Ansar ed-Din, or Protectors of Faith. To my ear, it sounded all too similar to Ansar al-Islam, or Protectors of Islam, the deadly al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Iraq. I didn’t expect to like Haidara.
“Haidara, who claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed, was barefoot and shrouded in a purple robe occupying an expansive curved sofa in the middle of sheer chaos. My antennae went up as I saw, under Haidara’s sofa, a stack of campaign posters for the upcoming elections. ‘Was the cleric endorsing a particular candidate?’ I asked. ‘Ah, all of these politicians, they all come here asking for a blessing. I bless them of course, but in my role I can’t support one against the other,’ he answered dismissively. ‘I myself don’t know much about politics, but Islam and politics are two very distinct things. We, in religion, we need to be clean. And it’s not so easy to find a politician who isn’t corrupted.’
“This was a sweeping indictment, but I appreciated his belief in the separation between religion and state — not something I heard often from Islamic scholars. I asked Haidara where his own money came from. Ansar ed-Din, he replied, collected about $2 in CFA francs, a currency used in French-speaking West Africa, every month from its members. The sect’s membership was now over one million in Mali alone, and at least as much in the neighboring countries. As representatives from the Ivory Coast in Burkina Faso joined our discussion, I made a quick mental calculation: Haidara was collecting almost $50 million a year. If his figures were true, he was the county’s biggest enterprise.
“Haidara’s outfit focused on preaching Islam and good morals at its stadium sermons, while taking care not to undermine the old African rituals, still ingrained in Mali’s way of life. Despite its militant name, Ansar ed-Din, unlike Islamists in charge of Northern Nigerian states, didn’t endorse the imposition of Shariah law. ‘The Shariah cuts off hands of thieves. But if you preach the right way, the thief will not steal,’ the cleric laughed.”
Remarks by Eliza Griswold
Hello. I wrote things down so I could keep on track over here. OK, I think what is interesting in this question of faith at war is why, beyond the rage at the West, does this conflict exist? Are we looking at faith at war? Or, rather, are we looking at politics in the name of faith at war?
As a journalist, I would argue that what I have seen at the edges of the Islamic world is politics legitimizing itself in the name of faith. To take this a bit further, I would like to look at three different religious fault lines where I have had the chance to closely observe this issue of politics and faith. First in Waziristan, the most irascible and rebellious of the seven tribal areas along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan; second in Bangladesh, where an Islamist coalition government is redefining what had largely been a secular democracy of 141 million people; and third in Southern Thailand, where a 100-year-old insurgency is suddenly being fought in the name of Islam.
The relationship between faith and politics among the Wazirs is familiar to us, at least in the abstract. Their land is the cradle of the Taliban. Waziristan, which north to south is about the size of Connecticut, lies directly across the border from Tora Bora. The Wazirs are ethnic Pashtuns who formed the backbone of the mujahedeen fighting against the Russians in the 1980s with the help of the U.S. and the Saudis. Waziristan stills serves as a major supply route for anyone wanting to run guns, drugs and people over the Pakistani border into Afghanistan, or, in the case of ex-Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, back out as well.
It is and has always been incredibly poor. Water is especially scarce. During the war against the Russians, the influx of U.S. dollars and the presence of NGOs, especially those giving out boots, were more than welcome by the Wazirs. But then the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, and the U.S., too, left the tribal belt. Gone were the NGO-run schools, the training camps, the free boots. The only foreign presence was that of Saudi Arabia, which supported the clerics, teaching an austere form of Deobandi Islam in the 64,000 madrassas that mushroomed throughout the northwest frontier province.
These madrassas still control access to water, as they are the only ones in many places who can afford to dig wells. A boy will be sent there from his family to study so that the rest of the family can eat. The Talibs, which simply means students, control daily life.
Of course, tribal codes still function, as do the “jirgas” we know so much about — the turbaned tribesman sitting around — but they are far less powerful than these mostly unseen Talibs who in reality operate as a well-armed militia. For example, if women dance at a wedding or someone has a television, a group of Talibs come to the village and demand to be paid. Enforcing the law becomes a way to make money and to gain political power through fear.
After two decades of this pattern, there is still little distinction between the tribesman and the Islamists, even if the Wazirs choose not to fight. One night in the southern town of Wana, I was staying in the home of a former mujahid who had fought with his father and his brother against the Russians during the ’80s. Now, he drives a taxi in Dubai, but he would often return home because Wana was under siege by the Pakistani army. The perception was that the United States was calling the shots. In fact, most people had seen armed Americans in sunglasses and civilian dress nearby. One local tribesman I spoke to had built the American compound.
We had just eaten a tremendous feast of chicken and rice and were lying around listening to the radio. One of the men with us had lost his entire family of 12 several days earlier when they were fired on by a helicopter gunship that mistook them for fleeing militants. The women were in another compound entirely. I have traveled with Wazir women before and it’s a lot more difficult. There is little food as you eat whatever the men leave over and you never stop working. But these men in particular treated me like an honorary — a veiled man. As we listened to the BBC, they made nothing of my presence or the fact that they were risking their lives to have me there. Waziristan was still a major exit route for Taliban fighters leaving Afghanistan.
In a moment of silence, I asked my taxi driver host if he had seen the Taliban fighters fleeing through Waziristan after the fall of Tora Bora in 2002. It took him a moment to understand the question. Then he sat forward and very gently said, “I am Taliban; we all are here.”
In one particular area of Waziristan called Showal, which is a 25-square-kilometer that spans the border, all vehicles, including bicycles, were verboten because they were considered against Islam until several years ago. Religious teachers forbid people from learning to read so that they could protect their financial interests by remaining the sole interpreter of the Koran and all law. Again, it makes sense; imposing a ban on vehicles means that no one can travel outside your area to learn anything else.
This is the terrain in Showal where there is much talk about the presence of bin Laden, and it’s easy to understand why given the closely set mountains and the high degree of familial ties there. It’s surreal; it’s a land of pine trees and monkeys. It is likely bin Laden has abandoned his Arab bodyguards and is traveling there with Wazir woodsmen. This is the only area of Waziristan with trees, which makes surveillance much more difficult, and now there are newly set power lines and a road freshly cut into the mountainside for the first time ever by the Pakistani Army, which buzzed the Wazirs with helicopters several years ago and told them if they didn’t allow the Pakistani Army to come through, the United States would attack them.
In the fall of 2002, the first religiously conservative government ever in the northwest frontier province was elected to power. There were lots of motivating factors: rage at the U.S. certainly, the grip of Deobandi Islam on the tribesmen’s understanding as well, but perhaps most importantly, the longstanding political alliance between Pakistan’s military governments and the mullahs, who have used each other to gain political power since the late-1970s. This alliance, commonly called the military-mullah alliance, keeps the fundamentalist government in place along the Afghan border.
In Bangladesh, which was East Pakistan until 34 years ago, this alliance is currently threatening the country’s stability, a fact we rarely hear about, in part because the Bangladeshis so effectively ban journalists from visiting the country. Here too, faith provides a screen, a legitimacy to seize political power and resources. Religious leaders who now hold government posts play upon popular rage for political power. The vast majority of Bangladesh’s 141 million people are devout and moderate Muslims, but the militant presence is growing with a tacit approval of the government.
One of the five signatories of bin Laden’s fatwa against the West was from Bangladesh, and the spike of militancy in the north and in jihadi training camps along the Burmese border is an open secret. I was lucky enough to get my visa in Nepal from a very friendly consulate, but the virtual media blackout in Bangladesh is very effective.
Bangladesh has only been independent since 1971 after a war against Pakistan, which led to the death of 3 million people in nine months, the equivalent of three Rwandan genocides back-to-back. After 1975 when the father of democracy Ziaur Rahman was assassinated, a string of military dictators found it politically expedient to align themselves with religious parties similar to Pakistan. The current prime minister, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, the military leader who first aligned himself with religious groups and with the opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who is the daughter of the murdered founder of the nation.
Sheikh Hasina has been attacked on several occasions and was nearly killed earlier this year in a large-scale grenade attack. Since 2001, a four-party alliance including two staunchly Islamist parties, one being Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami and the other, the more overtly radical IOJ, have argued that Bangladesh is already an Islamic state. The most radical member of this four-party alliance, the IOJ, has well-established links to Harkatul Jihad, one of the most violent terrorist groups associated with al Qaeda.
In one of those strange moments that happens when you’re a reporter, during a meeting with the head of the Islamic Oikya Jote or I.O.J., a man named Mufti Amini was perfectly charming. He frequently issues fatwas that result in violent attacks on the secular press, among others, and he has clear links with the Afghan Taliban regime. He asked if he could photograph us together and send the pictures to local papers in order to show people how powerful he had gotten. He wanted to show the public that the Western press now comes to him.
Basically, in Bangladesh, radical religion has also become an excuse for mob violence, most specifically with the intention to drive wealthy Hindus over the border to India and to seize their land. One of the most disturbing abuses is the targeted use of rape against religious minorities. Recently, in Northern Bangladesh, I met a woman farmer who was gang raped while coming back from the fields by three young men who work for B.N.P., which is the main political party.
She recognized one of her attackers during the rape and said to him, “Rafiko Islam, I’m going to tell your uncle what you have done.” As a result, the young man took a sickle and gouged out her eyes leaving her for dead in the field. She survived. Despite repeated threats against her family, she is testifying against her attackers in court. She says she is at least the fifth woman in her community of several hundred to be raped in a direct attempt to drive her family off of their ancestral land.
To the north, a thug named Bangla Bhai, who claimed that he had fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, instilled a regime last year forcing women to wear self-styled burqas and announcing over local mosque loudspeakers that villagers had to come watch Afghan-style as his men tortured 500 people, many of whom were conveniently political enemies of the local government. Again, this is clearly not about religion, but a tacit understanding between the local government and these political thugs, like Bangla Bhai, who reign by instilling fear.
Several months ago, after the piece in The New York Times Magazine ran, Bangla Bhai was arrested. However, the ongoing presence of training camps on the Burmese border, the use of the country’s deepwater port for smuggling weapons and fighters, and the attacks on secular society recently against Christine Wallich, the country director of the World Bank who left Bangladesh under death threats several months ago, make Bangladesh one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the increasing power of militant Islam under an umbrella of political legitimacy.
In contrast, I just want to briefly mention what is afoot in Southern Thailand in the Malay Peninsula, where the Buddhist and Muslim worlds bump up against each other. There, what had been a political insurgency, which for a hundred years was being fought in the name of Malay Muslim identity, now is taking on the mantle of jihad. The violence has escalated exponentially. In the past year, more than 600 people have died.
Last April, a hundred men carrying knives and marked with holy water launched a coordinated attack against police stations. Among the bodies found in a mosque was a jihadi document in rhetorical language reminiscent of the late Sayyid Qutb after his imprisonment and torture, which advocated killing Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The document is entirely different than anything known to the region.
Unfortunately, the Thai government has exacerbated this situation. Last October during a demonstration, the army separated out about 1,000 young men from the crowd because they had beards. They loaded them into army trucks, stacked them six deep on their stomachs and tied their hands behind their backs with their own t-shirts. In those trucks, 78 young men were smothered to death — an incident that has polarized the community and led to the beheading of a Buddhist official. A note was left on his head saying this was an act of revenge for the death of innocent Muslims at Tak Bai, which is where the demonstration took place.
What happens next in Southern Thailand is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that religion is providing a fuel to a separatist conflict, which arguably would have petered out without it. Curiously enough, this line between Buddhism and Islam in Southern Thailand falls right along the 10th parallel — 10 degrees north of the equator, which serves as a kind of religious fault line around the world. In some places, this seems arbitrary; in others it is not.
As a journalist, this is what I’ll be looking at next, and I look forward to people’s thoughts on it. Most sharply in Sub-Saharan Africa and Indonesia, this line divides the Christian and Muslim world. These days, to some degree, you can take your finger and trace a latitudinal line almost anywhere along the globe and hit a flashpoint, where in the name of one religion or another, people are fighting.
Yet, across Sub-Saharan African, this line stands in especially sharp relief, in part, due to geography. It’s about as far as Arab traders reached by 700 A.D., thanks to the Sahara Desert. For centuries, this line has been largely inconsequential, buffered by animism, but today, due to the contentious presence of mostly evangelical Christians on the other side of that line, some theologians think we’re looking at the future of conflict in Africa.
In Africa, for example, since 1900, the number of Christians has grown from approximately 9 million to 330 million. In Northern Nigeria, in particular, according to the Nigerian government, this Christian-Muslim conflict has cost 50,000 lives in a three-year period, yet we know nothing about that here. I don’t think we’re simply looking at competition between world views — East versus West, Islam versus Christianity. Again, I think we’re looking at resources in the name of faith, or, rather, politics in the name of faith. These are issues, I would argue, that belong to a larger faith-based great game we’re just beginning to understand. Thank you.