A few weeks ago, a Jordanian journalist shared on Facebook a caricature that was interpreted by many as offensive to Islam. Five days ago, the journalist was shot dead in the middle of the day in a public place.
In January 2015, 12 people were murdered at the Charlie Hebdo offices after the satirical weekly newspaper published a caricature mocking the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. On Sunday, another caricature about Islam brought about the assassination of a Christian journalist in Jordan. Nahed Hattar was shot at close range in the middle of the day apparently because he shared a caricature deemed offensive to Islam on his Facebook page.
A few weeks ago, Hattar was arrested after he uploaded the caricature. Many interpreted the caricature as offensive to Islam but Hattar claimed that he shared the caricature because he believed it mocked ISIS. Last week, he was released from police custody. However, it appears that not everyone was convinced that Hattar was only mocking the murderous terrorist organization.
The caricature featured a Muslim man in heaven while he is in bed with two women surrounded by wine and food. The Muslim man is portrayed as asking God for more wine and cashews. Hattar was known as an outspoken critic of Islamic movements and was also considered a prominent supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Middle East’s two great geopolitical adversaries entered into a war of words ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which starts this weekend. Their rivalry, shaped by sectarian Sunni-Shia divisions, can be seen in numerous bloody proxy conflicts across the region. But it also flares up in heated rhetorical broadsides.
The latest round began with comments from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in full bluster condemned the Saudis for prohibiting Iranian pilgrims from joining the hajj after talks about security and logistics collapsed. Last year’s pilgrimage was marred by the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims caught in a stampede with more than 2,000 killed, according to one unofficial tally, although the Saudis say the death toll is lower.
Khamenei ventured that the slain devotees, including many Iranian nationals, lost their lives either because of Saudi complicity or incompetence. (He errs toward the former.)
“Saudi rulers … who have blocked the proud and faithful Iranian pilgrims’ path to the Beloved’s House, are disgraced and misguided people who think their survival on the throne of oppression is dependent on defending the arrogant powers of the world, on alliances with Zionism and the U.S.,” Khamenei said in a statement posted on his official website Monday.
“The world of Islam, including Muslim governments and peoples, must familiarize themselves with the Saudi rulers and correctly understand their blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic nature,” the statement went on, asserting that the kingdom’s rulers were unfit to be the custodians of Islam’s holiest sites: “Because of these rulers’ oppressive behavior towards God’s guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj.”
A day later, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, fired back, dismissing Khamenei’s criticism as a feature of supposed Iranian hatred toward Sunnis. Iran’s theocratic regime sees itself as the vanguard of Shia Islam, similar to how the Saudis, practitioners of a particular orthodox Wahabist brand of the faith, style themselves as the leaders of the Sunni world.
The grand mufti pointed to the pre-Islamic history of what’s now Iran, where the bulk of population were once monotheistic Zoroastrians, and suggested that this ancient legacy still shadowed the present.
“We must understand they are not Muslims, for they are the descendants of Majuws” — a term for Zoroastrians — “and their enmity toward Muslims, especially the Sunnis, is very old,” he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to Al Sheikh’s remarks with a tweet, linking Saudi Wahabism to the fundamentalist terrorism of the moment.
But the Saudis themselves cast the Iranians as international pariahs, bent on fomenting armed struggle and terrorist plots around the world. Zarif’s Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, said in a speech last week that the regime in Tehran “is behind some of the operations threatening national security of the region.”
He added: “We wish from Iran, a great nation with great history and great people, to be able to change its policies which it built in 1979 so it can be a new member in the international community, weaving new policies with it.”
A recent trove of documents linked to the Islamic State reveals an increasingly pronounced phenomenon: Many of the young recruits to the extremist organization don’t know much about Islam.
In a report published this week, the Associated Press analyzed the entry form documents of some 4,030 foreign recruits who entered Syria to join the outfit between 2013 and 2014. Some 70 percent of the recruits were listed by their handlers as having only “basic” knowledge of Islamic law; only 5 percent were considered “advanced” students of Islam; just five recruits were found to have memorized the Koran.
The materials were obtained by a Syrian opposition website and shared with the AP. The news agency suggests that the Islamic State “preys on this religious ignorance” of its foreign recruits, “allowing extremists to impose a brand of Islam constructed to suit its goal of maximum territorial expansion and carnage as soon as recruits come under its sway.”
This reading is consistent with further investigations into the religiosity — or lack thereof — of many of the lone-wolf assailants who declared fealty to the Islamic State and carried out attacks in the past year in various cities in Europe. As an analysis put out by a Brussels-based think tank framed it, the current generation of jihadists is more likely to be “Islamized radicals” than “radical Islamists.” These are loners, misfits and socially maladjusted youths who are vulnerable to the puritanical promises of the Islamic State, and able to embrace its nihilistic agenda.
Over the past year, the Islamic State’s foreign recruitment has been on a downward trend, thanks to the group’s significant battlefield losses as well as tighter Turkish border controls.
The findings also raise questions about the importance of the brand of Islam preached and believed by the Islamic State’s jihadists. A great deal of ink has been expended on the nature of the group’s ideology, the fervor of its adherents and the messianic delusions of its fighters.
“Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do,” Graeme Wood wrote in a widely-read cover story in the Atlantic. “But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it.”
The evidence surrounding the Islamic State’s foreign recruits, though, increasingly shows that parsing religious dogma won’t help getting to grips with the security threat. Take this one anecdote from the AP’s story:
Among the documents were forms for nine of 10 young men from the eastern French city of Strasbourg, all recruited by a man named Mourad Fares. One of them, Karim Mohammad-Aggad, described barhopping in Germany with Fares. He told investigators that ISIS recruiters used “smooth talk” to persuade him.
He’d traveled with his younger brother and friends to Syria in late 2013. Two died in Syria, and within a few months, seven returned to France and were arrested. Mohammad-Aggad’s brother, 23-year-old Foued, returned to Paris and was one of the three men who stormed the Bataclan in a night of attacks Nov. 13 that killed 130 people.
“My religious beliefs had nothing to do with my departure,” Karim Mohammad-Aggad told the court, before being sentenced to nine years in prison. “Islam was used to trap me like a wolf,” he said.
The 31-year-old attacker who mowed down dozens in the French city of Nice last month had a similar profile — he smoked and drank, even in the holy month of Ramadan and, in the words of French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, “radicalized his views very quickly.”
The flimsy, confused ideology of Islamic State recruits and their proxies who remain in or return to the West makes it particularly difficult to track or ward off radicalization.
“We are now facing individuals,” said Cazeneuve, “who are responding positively to the messages issued by the Islamic State without having had any special training and without having access to weapons that allow them to commit mass murder.”