ISIS Is The Child of Chaos, Not Religion

In the third week of May, ISIS took the city of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in two, big, high-profile victories. Though ISIS has constantly been in the news for years now, these two cities seem to return the sense of an unstoppable march of Islamist forces across the Middle East. As the beheadings began almost immediately in Ramadi, ISIS also bombed a mosque in Qatif, a Shia-majority city in Saudi Arabia during Friday prayers. Qatif, incidentally, is a place where Saudi armed forces and police have violated human rights with their usual impunity for years, detaining and even opening fire on protesters from the Shia community. From all of these reports, the sense given to readers is one of unstoppable momentum.

But as Ahmed Ali, in the NYT Opinion section on May 21 clarified, the situation is otherwise: “…the Islamic State is not on an unstoppable march. In Iraq, and to some extent Syria, it remains on the defensive. In April, the Islamic State’s defenses in large swaths of Salahuddin Province and the provincial capital, Tikrit, collapsed.”

So, ISIS has not had unstoppable momentum. After spending many months and many lives trying to take the Kurdish city of Kobani, Syria, they have been repeatedly repulsed since the beginning of 2015. Kurdish forces in Iraq have counterattacked them in Mosul and are keeping them under pressure there. And, although each time there is a battle in an Iraqi city, the Western media discuss the close proximity of that city to Baghdad, that does not mean that Baghdad is likely to fall to ISIS any time soon.

Syria, though, is another story. The stage in both countries is set not for ISIS victory, but for perpetual conflict.

Analyzing ISIS requires remembering some of the history and geography of Iraq and Syria, especially about the relationship between Kurds, Sunni, and Shia communities in the region. Both countries have always had large Kurdish populations, a language group that is divided by the national borders between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. There are debates within the Kurdish communities of each country about how to pursue autonomy and self-determination. In Iraq, this has entailed an autonomous Kurdish region currently ruled by Masoud Barzani. In Syria, it involves revolutionary experiments with local democracy and local self-defense – these are the forces that defended Kobani against ISIS. In Turkey, one of the most respected leaders, Abdullah Ocalan, is in prison, and not alone. The revolutionary Kurds in Syria have shown that they will not surrender easily to ISIS and that ISIS can be successfully fought. The Kurds in Iraq, after initial setbacks, are beginning to have some success as well.

Readers no doubt know that one of the many divisions within Islam is between Sunni and Shia, and that one of ISIS’s main obsessions is punishing those who don’t belong to its particular type of Sunni Islam (a type of Islam shared, non-coincidentally, with Saudi Arabia, the unshakeable Western ally, currently bombing civilians in Yemen with Western-supplied weaponry). In the areas where ISIS holds sway, Shia Muslims have suffered, as have Yazidis and others who don’t share ISIS’s beliefs. But the Shia are not defenceless either. There are well-armed, well-organized Shia militias in Baghdad (who have committed atrocities against Sunni civilians in the decade since the US invasion, just as Sunni armed groups have done against Shia civilians). The mainly Shia Lebanese group, Hizbollah, joined the Syrian government, entering Syria, to fight ISIS several years ago. These forces, too, have not been and will not be any kind of easy prey for ISIS.

Historically, the pattern has been that ISIS scores major victories when there is a local collapse of either the Iraqi or the Syrian regular army. The Iraqi army is a creation of the post-2003 US invasion. Such armies rarely perform well and always have serious morale problems. But the presence of these other (Shia and Kurdish) forces on the field limits what ISIS can do in Iraq.

The Syrian army was focused primarily on domestic repression for decades before the civil war started in that country in 2011, and has managed to kill mostly civilians in the civil war as well. If the Syrian army collapses like the Iraqi army has collapsed, the whole situation in the region will change a lot, and in unpredictable ways. The likely analogue is the Afghanistan of the 1990s, after the USSR left. The Afghan government held on against the mujahaddeen for three years (1989-1992) before collapsing. Then the mujahaddeen fell out amongst themselves and spent four years (1992-1996) destroying whatever had not been destroyed and dividing the country into regions ruled by warlords. The next five years (1996-2001) were spent with the warlords fighting one another and the Taliban. The Taliban, sponsored by Pakistan, controlled most of the Pashtun part of Afghanistan, and tried unsuccessfully to complete the conquest of the country. An alliance of warlords unsuccessfully tried to roll them back. Al Qaeda developed in this period, working alongside the Taliban between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then NATO invaded, put the warlords in charge, and stayed for 13 years. The Taliban are still there, and still backed by Pakistan.

The Syrian analogy goes like this: the Syrian army collapses, Hizbollah withdraws to Lebanon, ISIS holds a large part of Syria, other rebel groups hold other parts. A reconstituted regime holds on to part of the country with foreign support, and eventually, some multilateral Western force occupies Syria. In the chaos and the occupation are the seeds of the next ISIS, just like the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war provided the basis for this one, and the Afghan wars of the 1980s and civil wars of the 1990s provided the basis for al Qaeda.

But what explains the shocking, video-recorded horrors of ISIS? The right-wing New Atheists look for passages in scriptures that are used to justify the crimes; the criminals themselves claim to be acting in the name of religion. But people who genuinely want to understand would do better to look to other parts of the world where long-running conflicts have led to social collapse.

The war in Colombia, which is sometimes dated to have begun in 1948 and other times in 1964, has sometimes featured very grisly and demonstrative assassinations and massacres. The West African civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s also included ultra-violent behavior by various forces. In Central and East Africa, we have the famous Lord’s Resistance Army (remember #Kony2012?), as well as various Rwandan and Burundian forces operating in the Congo, alongside local militias and regular armies. Some of these forces have used rape and systematic mutilation as weapons. Dr. Denis Mukwege of the DR Congo has likened the use of rape in that war to a kind of weapon of mass destruction. Others have theorized along these lines – that irregular armies use atrocities to achieve the same psychological effect (inducing hopelessness and terror among those they wish to control) as Western armies can with their high-tech weaponry. This helps explain the amount of effort ISIS puts into hype.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many leftist guerrilla groups operated in different parts of the world. Some have held on, and a few have started up, but these are very rare in the world today. Some of these forces committed war crimes and crimes against civilians, but mostly they operated according to theories of guerrilla warfare (developed by Giap, Mao, Guevara, Castro and other communists) in which the relationship between fighters and the people was meant to be a close one, one of service, that precluded many of the tactics that are used by groups like ISIS.

Meanwhile the West, exporting weapons, running airstrikes, preparing troops for the next counterinsurgency effort, does not try to resolve conflicts, just manage them. The US started attacking Iraq in 1990 and is still doing bombing runs 25 years later. The US sponsored the mujahaddeen in Afghanistan in the 1970s and is still present 36 years later. Libya’s dictator was overthrown in 2011 and that country has been in managed conflict since. The list goes on and on, and will likely soon include Syria as a Western-managed conflict. Once a country is on the list, it can take decades to get off it again. In the chaos of these collapsed states, the next ISIS are being created.

First published at TeleSUR English:

Why leftists should read John Ralston Saul — critically

John Ralston Saul — author, president of the writers’ organization PEN International, and former vice-regal consort to former governor general Adrienne Clarkson — has had considerable influence in Canada and elsewhere. His unique style of writing can be recognized after just a few lines. He is hyper-educated, filling his work with references from the West in the 1600s to the present day, with the occasional leap back to the ancient Greeks or Romans. He takes a much broader historical sweep than almost any other writer who touches contemporary topics. [1]

Read any of his books, and you will come away with new stories: about a French resistance fighter during WWII named Jean Moulin, about a female contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi named Elizabeth of Hungary, about the 18th-century Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli. You can read about how ancient Greece’s civilization began to flower because of the cancellation of debts by Athenian statesman Solon, or how the current period of globalization looks from New Zealand and Malaysia.

In a series of books about Canada, he has resurrected the history of responsible government and the political leaders Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, arguing they showed the world that you could “talk your way out of the Empire,” a method that was adopted by dozens of other countries after Canada showed the way.

JRS brings fascinating characters to life, as well as tragic statistics. From one of his books I found out that in some years Alberta brought in more money from gambling revenues than from tar sands royalties, so low were the royalty rates and so high was the stealth tax set up through promotion of gambling among society’s elderly and vulnerable. Elsewhere he describes how Canada entered a health care crisis not because single-tier public health care is unaffordable but because of a decision in the 1990s to lower the number of doctors available to the population.

A central point he returns to in all his work about Canada is the need for Canadians, especially elites, to shed their inferiority complex relative to the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Canada is an interesting place, with a basis to build a better relationship between Indigenous people and those who have immigrated here than exists in most other places. The betrayal of that relationship, and the possibilities for repairing it, the responsibility for which lies on the non-Indigenous population, is the theme of his latest book, The Comeback.

In two major critical tomes, Voltaire’s Bastards and The Collapse of Globalism, JRS criticizes Western society for being out of equilibrium. Balanced humanism, he argues, requires the exercise of six human qualities: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason. Our society has held reason above all else, leading to pathologies in every part of life, from politics to economics, from war to the arms trade, from NGO activism to academia.

Part of why it’s so valuable for leftists to read JRS is that he starts from a different place and uses different referents, yet comes to many of the same conclusions. He advocates democracy, inclusion, the public good, and egalitarianism, but eschews what he calls ideology with a phrase he constantly invokes: “whether of the left or the right.” Thinking about these values and ideas and how they relate to leftist values of equality and solidarity, about how his stories relate to the ones we constantly return to, is a valuable part of the kind of dialogue and debate that JRS advocates.
Stories untold

While the absence of almost anything leftist means there is usually a lot in JRS’s work that leftists don’t know about, it also means that he paints an incomplete picture.

The remarkable story of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez includes the exercise of many of JRS’s six human qualities. Chavez worked as an instructor in a military school, attempted a coup against a corrupt neoliberal regime, took personal and public responsibility for it and went to jail, came out and explicitly rejected the armed path to power, and helped lead a movement that has, by any definition, advanced the public good in Venezuela and in Latin America. But JRS dismisses Chavez as a “nationalist populist.”

Cuba, with its extraordinary health care system and genuine south-south solidarity in countries such as Haiti, a place where thousands and thousands of Canadians travel to as tourists every year in defiance of the U.S. blockade, is never mentioned.

Haiti, whose elected government was overthrown in 2004 in one of the most disgraceful operations Canada (and the United States and France) has been involved in recently, is also never mentioned. Nowhere in JRS’s remarkable array of stories appears the astounding history of the indemnity extracted by France from Haiti for the crime of leading the first successful slave revolt and liberating itself. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led Haiti’s fight for freedom, does not get to be one of the characters JRS brings to light. Neither does Charlemagne Peralte or Bolivar. Too bad for us, because I bet JRS could have made connections that the rest of us missed.

The Zapatistas explicitly used “their word as their weapon,” and their uprising was one of the first and most original and powerful indigenous uprisings to repudiate globalization. The solidarity movement included thousands of Canadians, including many Indigenous people. Yet in his book The Collapse of Globalism, JRS dismisses the Zapatistas as having launched “an old fashioned bloody uprising in Chiapas.” Couldn’t we expect more respect for an uprising that was all about the power of words and the dignity of Indigenous people from the president of PEN, someone who is trying to argue to Canadians that Canada needs to change its relationship with First Nations?

Can a discussion of the collapse of globalism proceed in an informed way without any of these reference points? It evidently does. But there is a great deal lost in the process, and the result, one might say, is unbalanced.
A calculated monstrosity

The ethical imbalance shows up in JRS’s discussion of military issues, which runs through several of his books and was put together in his famous 2004 lecture at Canada’s military college, “A new era of irregular warfare?” Insurgency and counterinsurgency are the mainstream form of conflict in today’s world, he argues, because of the vast superiority of Western armies and the consequent inability of those who face Western armies to meet them head-on. Western armies continue to ignore this and prepare for WWIII, not thinking about how to deal with insurgencies, including addressing root causes and looking at political solutions. (These latter points are more implied than directly made by JRS).

And sure, it is certainly possible that the West’s bloody campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel’s wars against the Palestinians and Lebanese, proceeded without careful thought about insurgencies, without much thought at all about the political and human costs of Western actions in those countries.

But it might also be possible that Western counterinsurgents have thought about this a lot and act with indifference to civilian lives, in order to secure their interests in those parts of the world. Reading Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, or Breaking the Silence’s recent report about how the Israeli army fought in Gaza in August 2014, you don’t get a sense of people who haven’t thought about counterinsurgency.

You get the sense of people who have thought a lot about how to be aggressive against defenceless populations. You get a sense of people who have applied their minds and their vast resources to precisely that problem, with precisely the monstrous results that we see.

Of course, JRS barely ever touches Israel or Palestine, as to do so would be to drive himself straight out of the mainstream. (He did, in 2013, add his name to an open letter signed by Canadian writers opposed to Israeli evictions of South Hebron Palestinians and Negev Bedouin.) It’s too bad, because his writing on the subject would be interesting.

Applying his values and arguments to the Israel-Palestine conflict might have him arguing for a bi-national state, or an inclusive solution that treats everyone like human beings. He might find obscure stories in Jewish or Arab histories of hope, or examples from other parts of the world of a “positive nationalism” that could override the “negative nationalism” currently deployed to devastating effect against Palestinians.

None of this would help him against the organized pro-Israel forces that would go after him, forces that include most of the Canadian political class including its prime minister and challengers. But as the president of PEN, which advocates for freedom of expression, and as an author who has repeatedly talked about the importance of courage for writers, he could be expected to take a stand, at the very least, against Israel’s very detailed and constant war against Palestinian writers and culture.

JRS, or at least readers who rely on him, ignore Israel and Palestine at their peril. In The Comeback, JRS argues that the inevitability of history is on the side of Canada’s Indigenous people. They are making a demographic, civilizational, and political comeback, and non-Indigenous people can accept it gracefully or disgracefully, but they are going to have to accept it. (This position on the inevitability of history is one JRS made fun of in The Doubter’s Companion, specifically making fun of Marxists, lumping them in with neoconservatives).

But that isn’t true. Canada could treat Indigenous people as a military threat (read Douglas Bland’s novel Uprising for a fictionalized scenario along these lines) and try to contain them, denying their rights while stealing ever more of their land and resources. There was a time when Canada, Israel, and South Africa shared information and ideas of how to suppress indigenous populations. South Africa has exited the club, but it didn’t disband it — and Israel and Canada are closer today than they ever were.

Even if Canada’s approach to Indigenous people does not worsen, JRS’s ideas may be insufficient to make it better. Radical critics of The Comeback, Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak argued in the Literary Review of Canada that while “to a large extent” JRS “gets it,” his proposed remedies at the ballot box and in the courts have so far led mostly nowhere and will continue to lead nowhere for Indigenous peoples unless there is a “Canadian comeback” that allows society to move away from “the mythologies of liberal capitalism.” They contrasted JRS’s ideas with those of Indigenous scholars Glen Coulthard, Audra Simpson, and Leanne Simpson, whose recent books offer a deeper re-envisioning of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in this country. [2]

When JRS discusses the Rwandan genocide and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he does so in a fairly schematic way, taking the perspective of Canadian general Romeo Dallaire. He concludes that the West’s slowness to act was the problem. But Alan Kuperman, in his book The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention, argued that a small intervention could have saved lives, but not prevented the genocide. Meanwhile the West’s unconditional support for Rwanda’s ruler, Paul Kagame, since before the genocide was a contributing factor in what happened and the decisive factor in the mass deaths in the DR Congo from 1996 on.

Adding Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Rene Lemarchand, Mahmood Mamdani, and Fillip Reyntjens to his reading list would round it out enough for JRS to see that the problem was not speed, but an intervention into Rwanda’s civil war and then Rwanda’s proxy wars that was guaranteed to produce mass deaths but which, because it did no harm to Western interests, was, for the West, free of consequence.

JRS’s military analyses have two problems. First, as discussions of whether the counterinsurgency strategies and interventions work or don’t work, they ignore the illegitimacy, the criminal nature, of these interventions and their unavoidable devastation of civilian populations. Second, they lead to some pretty weird political places. Instead of a straightforward anti-war or anti-imperialist view, JRS’s readers might end up demanding of their elected officials improved counterinsurgency doctrine and practice.

Such demands would be to the benefit of no one, the public good least of all.
A fictional view of capitalism

Another imbalance in JRS’s writing is in his discussion of economic matters. Unlike most writers, he is able to discuss taxes with minimal rationality, without the kinds of crazy taboos that surround most discussion of taxes. I think that his persistence in discussing taxes this way over the decades (along with others such as Linda McQuaig) has played a role in the fact that politicians can finally start to make arguments about taxes in public.

JRS criticizes the West for letting the Third World debt continue, despite how simple it would be to write off. He criticizes the West for creating an arms industry for export, creating an economic incentive to feed violence all over the world. He criticizes narrow views of society, what he calls the “economic prism” approach, which see people as essentially self-interested.

In Canada, he criticizes the elite for stealing the wealth of indigenous lands and denying Indigenous people the benefits of that wealth. These failings he attributes mainly to a narrow form of reason and to what he calls managerialism. The economy is run by managers, he says, not by real owners or capitalists.

Capitalists, as opposed to managers, take risks, and with their own money. They expose themselves to the market and to competition. Managerialism has marginalized these real capitalists, JRS argues. But this view of capitalists is fictional, perhaps one of JRS’s “positive myths.”

When JRS quotes such “real owners,” he quotes people like Peter Munk, whose Barrick Gold is currently making fortunes despoiling indigenous territories in various parts of the world, and whose board has a revolving door for Canadian politicians. At one point JRS quotes Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who analyze the behaviour and strategies of real capitalists, who are, as theories from two centuries ago predicted, primarily interested in accumulating fortunes at society’s expense, not making useful products, creating wealth, or exposing themselves to competition.

Nitzan and Bichler also analyze what they call the weapondollar-petrodollar coalition, an economic bloc involving flows of weapons from the West, oil from the Persian Gulf, and dollars back and forth, which JRS also has written about in different ways since the 1990s. His criticism of countries including Burma has been stronger and more direct than anything directed at Saudi Arabia. A friend recently pointed out that JRS seems to avoid criticism of Saudi Arabia despite its competitiveness with ISIS for beheadings, its misogyny, its suppression of free expression, and its recent bombing of civilians in Yemen. [3]

This leads to one of JRS’s fundamental points about elites. They can be responsible or not, but in his view, they are always present. But this, too, puts apples in with oranges for comparison.

Leftists, especially anarchists, and indeed any real democrats, seek a society where the only elite is one of esteem, people who might be admired for the exercise of their talents for, well, the public good. Such an elite would be completely different from today’s 1%, with their net worths equal to small countries, pay scales hundreds of times those of the average worker, elaborate webs of deceit to avoid taxes, backhanded benevolence through charity (which JRS rightly criticizes), and ability to influence politics through corruption and patronage.

Calling both of these groups “elites” is confusing and narrows what we might imagine to be possible. JRS would surely not want to limit our ability to use our imagination, to imagine a better, more equal world?
The Supreme Court and Indigenous rights

JRS makes several rebukes against leftists, some of which are well taken. In his discussion of NGOs, he argues that by remaining outside of electoral and democratic contests, NGOs are implicitly arguing that they don’t believe in democratic legitimacy and don’t seek it. He makes an interesting comparison with pre-WWI union-based reformers, who had incredible influence but did not translate it into institutionalized power.

Chavistas in Venezuela, Lavalas in Haiti, Palestinians running for national elections and inside the Israeli Knesset, and the Zapatistas in Mexico have all struggled with this issue intellectually in life-or-death situations. What are the limits of staying outside? What happens when you try to get inside? What is the price of one or the other? Can you keep your integrity?

Another rebuke to the Canadian left and the activist community is the failure to realize the significance of decades of recent Supreme Court decisions that have the potential to change the relationship between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. If JRS is right, more of us should be thinking about how to use these judicial decisions as tools to expand indigenous sovereignty. His historical criticisms of 19th-century Canadian leftists Papineau and Mackenzie and their errors are also well worth considering.

An implicit critique comes from JRS’s basic philosophy. Because society is imbalanced, he argues, we have become obsessed with structure instead of content. By content, he means ideas. Most leftists, whether consciously or not, believe in some variation of Marx’s idea that ideas flow from one’s material situation and material interests, and they consequently look for structural problems and solutions.

JRS rejects this view. His books are full of structural critique and, in later books, policy suggestions. But he views bad structures as flowing from bad ideas, while most of us believe the reverse. The difference may not matter very much, since we have to battle with both ideas and structures all the time, but it is there.

JRS has much to offer leftists. The ability to see historical examples in today’s events, to revisit history for both inspirational and cautionary tales, and to weave them into “positive myths” could enrich our thinking. The idea of a balance of human qualities, of egalitarian societies that can bring out the best in all of their citizens — these are as much leftist ideals as anyone’s.

To the extent that his readers can find historical context, or common sense, or surprising facts or stories that help them to resist the mind-numbing propaganda we are all subjected to daily — whether about the latest terror threat or the need for poor people to suffer more to enrich those already wealthy — there is an opening for left values of equality and solidarity to take hold.

So, yes, leftists can learn a lot from JRS. But one of the effects of people like him is to make us look even crazier than we already do. If someone who is willing to criticize everything from the arms trade to the Third World debt to managerialism to our society’s irrational views on taxes, who criticizes the West for its failures in the former Yugoslavia and Burma and Nigeria, who argues for a transformation of Canada into a reciprocal relationship between indigenous and immigrants (and implicitly for an abolition of the settler category), if such a person still won’t criticize Israel, capitalism, Canada’s role in Haiti, or Rwanda’s role in the DR Congo, if such a person can’t see anything interesting in Venezuela, Chiapas, or Cuba, then those of us who do must really be crazy.

Too bad for us? Maybe. But maybe too bad for the elusive public good, too, if leftists and genuine public intellectuals like JRS can’t meet somewhere.

[First published at Ricochet:]


[1] Noam Chomsky is an exception. So was Eqbal Ahmad.

[2] King and Pasternak titled their article “Don’t Call It a Comeback,” and in his response JRS didn’t seem to catch the LL Cool J reference. It seems that his encyclopedic knowledge did not encompass Mama Said Knock You Out, an album that came out two years before Voltaire’s Bastards.

[3] There is some indirect criticism though. In a discussion about Ottawa (on pg. 248) in A Fair Country, JRS points out that “Two ugly embassies of dictatorships and one ugly condo… now stand side by side on Sussex Drive with Rideau Hall, 24 Sussex, the National Gallery, Foreign Affairs and the embassies of our closest democratic allies… One of the dictatorships is a particularly fine model of repression when it comes to free speech and women’s rights.” The Ottawa Citizen, reviewing the book, listed Sussex Drive embassies: France, South Africa, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The dictatorships on that list are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and the “fine model of repression” is almost certainly, by process of elimination, the Saudi Kingdom.

We are all Farkhunda

On March 19, a 27-year old woman named Farkhunda was leaving the Shah-e Doshamshira mosque, the shrine of the King of Two Swords, in Kabul. The shrine is a place where people all over Kabul, and indeed Afghanistan, go to make wishes, to ask the saint, who is said to have brought Islam to Afghanistan, for favour.

Farkhunda was a religious studies student and taught at the mosque. She was there as part of a religious ritual common in Kabul (though not necessarily common elsewhere the Islamic world) where the mullah would sell charms, sometimes including bits of text from the Quran written on paper and folded tightly. People could take the charms for good luck, protection, or making a wish. Some say that she was upset because the charms had not worked for her. She may have told others to stop buying the charms – a source of business for the mullah and for men who hung around outside the shrine (1).

An argument started with the mullah. The mullah, rather than taking this up as a matter of discussion, decided to incite a crowd of men outside the mosque by telling them that Farkhunda burned the Quran. The crowd formed a mob, who killed Farkhunda horribly over a period of minutes, in a scene captured on numerous cell phone video cameras and uploaded to the web. Police were on the scene – the shrine is a site of importance in Kabul – and did not intervene to save her.

Up to this point, the story is one of religious conservatism, misogyny, mob hatred, incitement, police inaction, and it might be explained away as an eternal problem of Islam, or of Afghanistan, or both.

But the popular reaction to Farkhunda’s murder does not fit into these frames. Instead, what occurred was a sustained mobilization exponentially larger and more powerful than the gang of misogynists who murdered her.

It was quickly explained by her family and widely understood after her murder that Farkhunda was religious and would never have burned the Quran. But, while many protesters chanted slogans about Farkhunda’s innocence, others were saying things like “so what if she burned the Quran?” And while there were those who tried to protect the mullah and the killers, the movement was using the cell phone videos and social media to track down each of the people in the mob who played a role in her death.

The Afghan authorities were forced to move. The police were suspended, many of the killers arrested. Islamic scholars publicly repudiated the attack. Those religious leaders and government leaders who defended Farkhunda’s murder if she had in fact burned a Quran found themselves facing the wrath of the movement as well, and quickly backed down (2).

A two-day long trial in May brought death sentences for four of the accused, eight were sentenced to 16 years in prison, and 18 were acquitted. 19 police officers are still on trial for neglect of duty (3). The Farkhunda movement was unsatisfied, as were her family, that some of those who desecrated Farkhunda’s body after her murder and others who stood by and did nothing were acquitted.

They are right to be disappointed and angry, but they also should not forget that their mobilization in Farkhunda’s name has brought about such justice as there has been. In the process, they have sent a message that Afghanistan has changed, and that the Afghan people won’t allow men to murder a woman in broad daylight without consequences. They forced a response from official Afghanistan, forced the justice system to arrest, try, and sentence the killers according to the law. They forced the system to censure (and possibly punish) the police for inaction. They forced the mullahs who defended murder to back off. These are remarkable achievements for a spontaneous organization in one of the most conservative societies in the world. For those outside Afghanistan who are willing to listen, the movement should challenge the view of Afghans as trapped in an eternally conservative, misogynist interpretation of Islam.

To reiterate this point: Farkhunda’s killers were Muslim. Farkhunda was a Muslim. The people fighting to bring Farkhunda’s killers to justice are Muslim, the judge that sentenced the killers is Muslim. The stereotyped view of Muslim societies propounded in the West cannot accommodate the idea that there are struggles within Muslim societies. But there are.

Afghanistan has not always been legendary for its conservatism. This whole incident would not have occurred at all in the Kabul of the 1960s or 1970s. The decades of war starting at the end of the 1970s brought Islamists into power whose narrow, violent interpretation of religion came from Saudi Arabia via Pakistan with US sponsorship. These Islamists, the mujahadeen, were followed in power by the Taliban (who had the same Pakistan and Saudi sponsors), and then, when the US and NATO took over in 2001, they brought the mujahadeen back. At that time, US commentators talked about the need to invade Afghanistan to save Afghan women from the Taliban. The invasion and occupation didn’t save Farkhunda. If women are saved in Afghanistan in the future, it will be by Afghans and led by women, like those who have mobilized in her name.

Originally published at TeleSUR English:—-20150513-0031.html


(1) Mughda Variyar, International Business Times, March 24, 2015. “Was Farkhunda Killed for Standing Up to Mullah? Lynching Shows Fate of Afghan Women Who Speak Out”.

(2) Sayed Jawad, Khaama Press, March 22, 2015. “Kabul cleric under fire for endorsing murder and burning of woman”.

(3) Sune Engel Rasmussen, UK Guardian, May 6, 2015. “Farkhunda murder: Afghan judge sentences four to death over mob killing”.