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“Brother, brother,” a young man called on me as I hurriedly left a lecture hall in some community centre in Durban, South Africa. This happened at the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, when all efforts at stopping the ferocious US-Western military drives against these two countries failed terribly.
The young man was dressed in traditional Afghani Pashtun attire. With palpable nervousness, he asked a question that seemed completely extraneous to my lecture on the use of people’s history to understand protracted historical phenomena using Palestine as a model.
“Brother, do you believe that there is hope for the Muslim ummah?” he inquired about the future of a nation in which he believed we both indisputably belonged to, and anxiously awaited my answer, as if it would put his evident worries at ease.
Perhaps more startling than his question is that I was not surprised in the least. His is a intergenerational question that Muslim youth have been asking even before the decline and final collapse of the Ottoman empire, the last standing caliphate, at the end of the first world war.
Despite major historical tumults, the Caliphate had remained in consistent existence since the Rashidun caliphs (the “rightly guided” caliphs) starting with Abu Bakr in 632, following the death of Mohammed. The young man’s questions summoned so much history and a multitude of meanings.
“Ummah” in the young man’s question doesn’t exactly mean “nation” in the relatively modern nationalistic sense. Muslims are not a race, but come of all races. They don’t share a skin color, a lifestyle per se or a common language — even if Arabic is the original language of the Koran.
Ummah is a “nation” that is predicated on a set of ageless moral values originating in the Koran epitomised through the teachings and legacy (Sunnah) of Mohammed and guided by Ijtihad — “diligence” or “independent reasoning” of Muslim scholars (ulama) based on the Koran and Sunnah.
Naturally, the breakdown of the caliphate created a crisis with too many dimensions. There was the geographic breakdown of the Muslim ummah, which despite the cultural and linguistic uniqueness of the various groups of that “nation,” always possessed an overriding value-based political and societal unity.
What was more consequential than the territorial breakdown of the ummah was the collapse of the very fabric of society, the disintegration of the laws that governed every individual or collective relationship, every commercial transaction — rules regarding the environment, charity, the law of war and so on.
Another dissolution also took place — that of the authentic and organic moral values which allowed the Ummah to persist as many empires failed and flourish while others decayed. The organic, self-propelled system was replaced by alternatives that have all deteriorated to the very last one.
And that is where the roots of the “angry Muslim” began.
The ummah continues to live as an ideal which transcends time and place. It persists despite the fact that the last century had taken an incredible toll on all Muslim nations without exception.
Even the success of many nations in gaining their independence from the very colonial powers that brought the caliphate down didn’t in any way tackle the original crisis of the once predominant, all-encompassing Muslim ummah.
Colonised Muslim societies eventually adopted the rules and laws of their former colonisers and continued to vacillate within their sphere of influence.
Post-independence Muslim nations were a hideous mix of tribalism and cronyism, with a self-serving interpretation of Islam and western laws and civil codes that were all tailored very carefully to ensure the survival of a corrupt status quo, where local rulers ensure supremacy over defeated, disoriented collectives and Western powers sustain their interests by all means necessary.
Predictably, such a status quo couldn’t possibly be sustained. A strong and cohesive civil society had no chance of survival under oppressive regimes and with the lack of education or opportunity, generations of Muslims endured in growing despair.
As an escape from their immediate woes, many Muslims sought inspiration elsewhere. They saw in Palestine a rallying cry for the ongoing resistance to foreign occupation.
The wide support that Hezbollah (a Shi’ite group) received among Sunni Muslims for its resistance to Israel was an indication that sectarian divides were dwarfed when compared to the need for the Muslim ummah to regroup around principles such as justice, thus reclaiming even just an iota of its past glory.
But it was the US-led western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that drew the battle lines like never before.
When Baghdad fell in April 2003 and as US soldiers conceitedly drowned the once capital of the Abbasid caliphate with their flags, many Muslims felt that their ummah had reached the lowest depths of humiliation.
And while Iraqi men and women were being tortured, raped and filmed dead or naked by smirking US soldiers in Baghdad’s prisons, a whole new nation of angry Muslim youth was on the rise.
Western wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not the exclusive harbinger of Muslim youth’s anger, humiliation and the current violence underway in Syria, Iraq and other Muslim countries. The wars were the catalyst.
Picture a group of “foreign jihadists” as they are called sharing a meal between battles somewhere near northern Iraq and imagine what they possibly have in common — an Iraqi tortured in Bucca, a Lebanese who fought the Israelis in south Lebanon, a Syrian whose family had been killed in Aleppo and so on.
But it is not only a Middle Eastern question. The alienation and constant targeting of French and British Muslim immigrants, their mosques, their cultures, languages, their very identity, when coupled with the plight of Muslims everywhere could too have its own violent manifestation as well.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is worried about the threat to the national security of his country as a result of the ongoing strife in Iraq, instigated by territorial gains of the Islamic State.
US President Barack Obama continues to preach from the White House about violence and the moral responsibility of his country as if the destructive and leading role played by Washington in the Middle East is completely removed from the state of hopelessness and humiliation felt by a generation of Muslim youth.
It is as if war, foreign occupation and the systematic destruction of an entire civilization will come at no price, aside from fluctuating oil prices.
Who are these jihadists? Many continue to ask and persistently attempt to offer answers. Conspiracy theories thrive in timed of great mysteries.
However, the alienated “angry” Muslim youth is hardly a mystery but a fully comprehendible historical inevitability. For many of them, even if they insist otherwise, the ummah and caliphate is more like an incorporeal space than one of actual geographical boundaries.
It is an escape to history from poverty, alienation, oppression and foreign occupations. To understand that is to truly tackle the roots of violence.
Ramzy Baroud is the managing editor of Middle East Eye and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).
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