Our Own Mongols

(photo CNN)

In 1258, under the leadership of Hulagu Khan, Mongol forces invaded Baghdad, massacred its inhabitants, burned its prestigious library (the House of Wisdom), and used the books to literally form a bridge across the Tigris River. It is difficult not to draw parallels between this tragic moment of history in 1258 and the current, contemporary events taking place in Mali, Libya, and Tunisia. Although the modern shrines are not as sophisticated or unique as the medieval Baghdad and the culprits are not a foreign army as the Mongolians, the savagery and impact are eerily similar.

What is striking about these modern-day Mongols is how they are insiders, often natives of the countries they ravage. The new warriors proclaim to be devout Muslims and puritans who want to cleanse what they perceive to be as signs of impurity and evil from society. Yet such proclamations beg the question: How does a group of young men embark on a mission to destroy their country’s heritage? A culmination of factors have slowly emerged in the contemporary Middle East, leading to the prevalence of this phenomenon of savagery—from the Taliban in Afghanistan to the radical Salafis in post-Arab-Spring countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

First, semi-secular dictators have used fake secularism to ensure the survival of their regimes; they invented a toxic mix of oppression, torture, and deliberate (yet subtle) policy of promoting decadent lifestyle and corruption—a mix that readily facilitated the security of a long half-life for their regime. Yet such a recipe also yielded a deep-seated hatred for Western values and the way of life that has been perceived by the public as part and parcel of the web of tyranny. The lack of understanding of what secularism means is part of the tragedy of the Middle East. Even prominent Islamists easily confuse the concepts of secularism, liberalism, and non-Islamism. The jungle of blurred adjectives reflects a foggy, uneasy perception of the “other” that has ultimately paved the way for literalism as a safe approach for the salvation of te society. It does not take much for the anti-Western stance to evolve into an opposition of other Islamic groups that are perceived to be deviating from the “correct path.”  Sadly, the mostly peaceful Sufi Muslims and their mausoleums were the first to pay the price.

The second factor is a weak state, either weakened by the Jihadists themselves, as in Afghanistan and Mali, or exploited by such factions due to a lack of security. Once law and order disintegrate, it does not take much for a gang of men to commit their crimes and disappear, knowing full well that they can get away with these acts. The problem is compounded by the lenient approach of Islamist regimes to their fellow “moderate” Islamists—previous comrades who fought together will not easily turn against each other. The apparent soft reaction from Libyan authorities is just one example; the alleged perpetuators of this act were part of the anti- Gaddafi militia, who fought together during the Libyan uprising (among others).

Finally, such hard-core Islamists are armed by fatwas from self-proclaimed preachers with a very one-directional interpretation of Islam. Make no mistake—these fatwas are as old as Islam itself, but they flourish especially during times of instability. Once crisis begins to loom, the lords of fear start to dominate the religious scene, advocating the static thinking that is imprisoned within the 7th century Islamic way of life. Anything perceived as different is automatically forbidden. To these dictators, banning is safer than allowing, an approach that appeals to the vulnerable and distressed. It has been interesting to watch a group of young Libyans on one of the satellite channels, justifying the destruction of Sufi shrines. When asked, “Why the rush?” One replied, “What if we died tomorrow—how can we justify inaction in front of God?!”

For the dogmatic puritans, Mosques should not be built over tombs, and those shrines advocate heresy as some pray asking for help and support from the buried Imam. According to this logic, many mosques should be destroyed, from the al-Husain Mosque in Egypt to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (where Prophet Yahia − John the Baptist is buried). What about the Prophet Mosque in Medina? Is it exempt from such a rule?

In the post-Arab-Spring Middle East, there is an ongoing contest between two forces: those who want a new, dynamic, progressive, free society and those who want to drag the society back to the Dark Ages. The key factor that may decide the fate of the contemporary Middle East is the policies of the so-called moderate Islamist parties. Once in power, they have the responsibility to enforce the rule of law and fight extremism from within. The “soft spot” for fellow Islamists should not be a barrier that prevents their accountability under the law. Ruling Islamic (or semi-Islamic) parties also have to fight rogue imams who easily issue fatwas against nearly everything; they also have a duty to restore a dynamic approach to faith and life under a more articulate, clearer vision of the purpose of Islamic laws—the same dynamic approach that once made Baghdad the capital of knowledge in the medieval era.

The modern Mongols are a test that political Islam must face if it wants to stand a chance of succeeding as a viable alternative to the Western contemporary model. The destruction of ancient Baghdad had formally ended the Arab-Islamic Golden Age; it took the Mongols 400 turbulent years until one of their late emperors, Shah Jahan, built the beautiful Taj Mahal in India ( the first Mughal emperor could trace his blood line back to Chinggis Khan). Let’s hope the post-Arab-Spring countries do not take that long to rehabilitate their wild, dogmatic youth.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
This entry was posted in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Tunisia and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Our Own Mongols

  1. Lalit Ambardar says:

    It is not a mere squabble,it is an inevitable war between those bent at resurrecting medieval obscurantism & intolerance & the much needed resistance against it & Nervana as usual argues so aptly against the growing menace worldwide.
    They came first for the ‘kafirs’- the aboriginal Kashmiri Hindus in Kashmir ,now anti India Kashmir Jihad has symbols of synchretic spiritual tradition (revered Sufi shrines ) on the hit list……sad……….


  2. Jon Goodfellow says:

    Lest the “modern Mongols” give the originals too bad a reputation, recall the originals tended to be Hanafist in their religious governance. They were actually pretty tolerant in governance and matters of religion when unchallenged. They were quite brutal when opposed – ie., Battle of Kose Dag and sack of Kayseri. The modern ones only learned half the lessons of the original Mongols.


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