Thursday, December 20, 2018

Sayyid Qutb: The Ultimate Incel

The “Baby it’s Cold Outside” Jihadi—in his own words.
by Michael Isenberg.

Many of you have seen the article making the rounds of cyberspace last week which added yet another twist to the “Baby it’s Cold Outside” controversy. According to the article, written by Adam Pasick, the classic holiday tune has not only “come under scrutiny in the #MeToo era for its light-hearted portrayal of sexual coercion—though a close reading suggests the song could just as easily be a sly homage to female empowerment.” It also “played a small but crucial role in the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism:”

Back in 1950, the Egyptian author and religious theorist Sayyid Qutb spent two years as an exchange student at a teacher’s college in Greeley, Colorado.

He was infuriated by many things about American life—people spent too much time taking care of their lawns, and it was impossible to get a decent haircut—but especially by a church dance where a pastor played Frank Loesser’s Grammy-winning song on a gramophone:

“The dance hall convulsed to the tunes on the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs,” Qutb wrote later. “Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion...”

When Qutb returned to Egypt, he was a changed man, determined to reject the West and embrace a purified version of Islam.

(A more detailed account of Qutb’s years in Greeley may be found in David von Drehle’s 2006 article, “A Lesson in Hate.”)

When I read Qutb’s complaints about America, he did not sound like a culture warrior to me. He sounded like a man who can’t get a date. His obsession with “seductive legs,” not to mention waists, lips, and chests, is a dead giveaway. What motivation other than sex would get the male of the species so spun up over a bad haircut? Granted, the Hitler mustache that he sported during those years, when the wounds of losing loved ones during World War II were still fresh, probably didn't help him any. I concede that this is pure speculation on my part, but it seems to me that Sayyid Qutb was the ultimate incel—involuntary celibate. Women didn’t want to go out with him, so to protect his ego, he blew his personal problems up to literally cosmic proportions, and invented the modern theory of jihad. In his own mind he was, in the words of the Psalm, the stone which the builders rejected, but which, with God’s help, would become the chief cornerstone.

Anyway, Qutb’s entanglement in the “Baby it’s Cold Outside” controversy gives us an excellent opportunity to shine the disinfectant of sunlight on his writings, in particular his signature work, 1964’s Milestones, and glean from it some insight into the modern jihadi movement.

The title of the book refers to the milestones that Islam must follow in order to become “the leader of mankind.” Now that East and West have failed because of their decadence, according to Qutb, “the turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived.”

World leadership is the final milestone. The first is to reconstruct the original seventh century Muslim community of Muhammad and his Companions. They were the best generation because Islam for them was an all-encompassing way of life—not just one part of it, nor an academic discipline. And they were completely governed by the Quran, free of the influence of foreigners like the Greeks and the Jews. In this utopia, homosexuality and other sexual immorality will be prohibited. Women will be free to tend to their “basic responsibility of bringing up children,” relieved of the burden of choosing a career. Indeed, men will also be relieved of that burden since “the society automatically recognizes his capabilities” and will assign a job to him. Science will be permitted, as long as it stays in its proper bounds and doesn’t cross the line into metaphysics. Examples of science crossing that line, which presumably will be off limits going forward, include evolution and psychology.

Only after the Muslim heart has been prepared by the creation of such a totalitarian nightmare will it be ready for the next milestone: jihad [struggle] against the unbeliever. The chapter on jihad is the longest in the book, and certainly the most relevant for understanding modern Islamic fundamentalism, since it bears directly on a debate about its nature that we in the West have been conducting since September 11.

Our left-of-center friends tell us that Islam is a religion of peace. It has no desire to force itself on the West. Indeed to do so would violate the Quran, which says, “There is no compulsion in religion (2:256).” And although the Quran does talk about jihad, conventional warfare is the “Lesser Jihad.” The “Greater Jihad” is to war internally against one’s own individual weaknesses. The only reason Muslims have warred against the West, according to the Left, is to defend themselves from the West’s attacks on them (colonialism, overthrow of Mossadegh, Gulf Wars, etc.). As for their attacks on Israel, please be assured that they are merely anti-Zionist, not anti-Jew.

On every one of these points Qutb either disagrees in no uncertain terms, or he understands the terms in some way that is very different from the way those of us in the West do. For example, “The peace which Islam desires” according to Qutb, “[is] that the obedience of all people be for God alone.”

Compulsion, to Qutb, isn’t what we in the West understand it to be either. According to him, it is important for the individual to choose Islam freely—but Qutb has some peculiar notions about what constitutes compulsion and freedom. Living under any government that is not Islamic is, in his view, compulsion. “The real servitude is following laws devised by someone, and this is that servitude which in Islam is reserved for God alone.” Such laws are obstacles to free choice. Muslims have “no recourse but to remove them by force.” “Islam does not force people to accept its belief, but it wants to provide a free environment…in which they will have the choice of beliefs.” “It is the right of Islam to release mankind from servitude to human beings so that they may serve God alone…all men are free under Him.” That's really messed up. According to Qutb's logic, if you live under laws crafted by legislators that you elected, you’re in servitude. But if a Muslim army invades your country and imposes shari’ah on it, you’re free.

Qutb does believe in the so-called “greater” jihad, but only as preparation for the “lesser:” “Before a Muslim steps into the battlefield, he has already fought a great battle within himself against Satan.”

To war against the unbeliever is commanded by the Quran. Qutb cites verse 9:29, for example:

Fight those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, nor follow the Religion of Truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax [jizyah] in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection [Maulana Muhammad Ali translation].

In case there’s any doubt from the text that the Quran is not talking about defensive war, but rather an unprovoked war of expansion, Qutb spells it out:

It may happen that the enemies of Islam may consider it expedient not to take any action against Islam, if Islam leaves them alone in their geographic boundaries to continue the lordship of some men over others and does not extend its message of universal freedom within its domain. But Islam cannot agree to this unless they submit to its authority by paying Jizyah, which will be a guarantee that they have opened their doors for the preaching of Islam and will not put any obstacle in its way through the power of the state…Islam takes the initiative.

Qutb ridicules those Muslims who believe that defense is the ultimate objective of jihad: they’re dupes of “shrewd orientalists.”

Among the unbelievers who must be forced into a state of subjection, Qutb singles out one group in particular to be reviled. He warns of the

tricks played by world Jewry, whose purpose is to eliminate all limitations, especially the limitations imposed by faith and religion, so that the Jews may penetrate into the body politic of the whole world and then may be free to perpetuate their evil designs. At the top of the list of these activities is usury, the aim of which is that all the wealth of mankind end up in the hands of Jewish financial institutions.

Try to argue that that’s not anti-Jew, just anti-Zionist.

The apologists for Islamic fundamentalism will no doubt argue at this point that Qutb was just one guy—we can’t judge a whole movement based on his insane opinions.

Yes, we can.

Qutb was not a fringe figure. It’s difficult to overestimate the extent of his influence, thanks to his role in the Muslim Brotherhood. As I wrote previously the Brotherhood lies at the center of the web of individuals and organizations, what Andrew McCarthy called the “Siamese connectedness,” that comprise the infrastructure of modern Sunni extremism. Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of al-Qaeda, was a Brotherhood alumnus, as were al-Qaeda Number Two Ayman al-Zawahiri and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Hamas is the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch.

If the Brotherhood lies at the center of extremism, Qutb lay at the center of the Brotherhood. He joined after his return to Egypt, and soon became one of its leaders. He was its chief propagandist and editor-in-chief of its weekly publication, Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin. His influence even extended to Osama bin Laden, who, though not a Brotherhood member himself, studied under Qutb’s brother.

In the edifice of modern jihadism, Qutb, sadly, became a cornerstone after all. But I doubt that God had much to do with it.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo credit(s): CNN

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Joyous Assemblies

Did Muslims drink wine in the Middle Ages?
Part II—Caliph Harun ar-Rashid and Ja’far the Barmakid.
by Michael Isenberg.

As I said in Part I of this article, readers of my medieval murder mystery, The Thread of Reason, often tell me how surprised they are by how much wine the Muslim characters in the book drink. “Isn’t alcohol forbidden in Islam?” they ask.

It most definitely is, and in the first installment I provided some of the relevant citations in the Quran and the Hadith. But I also explained that the prohibition was often disobeyed during the Middle Ages. Wine shops and drinking parties were frequent settings in the literature of the time such as the Maqamat of Qasim Hariri of Basra or The Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes the stories featured pious characters who expressed their disapproval. Other times the drinking parties were portrayed as just a normal part of life, deserving of no special comment. Even the highest official in Islam, the caliph, got into the act. In one of the stories in the Nights, Caliph Harun ar-Rashid (d. 809 AD), whose reign is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Islamic history and achievement, attended a raucous party, accompanied by his vizier Ja’far of the House of Barmak, and his “Sworder of Vengeance” Masrur the Eunuch. And although neither Harun nor Ja’far imbibed, the caliph seemed to have no issue with those around them doing so.

Harun ar-Rashid and the Poet, by Eloise-Caroline Huitel (1827-1896). This Western depiction takes some artistic liberties. The real Harun would never allow the women of his household to appear in the presence of unrelated men.

The Thousand and One Nights and the other literature of the time are important historical documents. They reflect the attitudes of their authors and they give details about daily life which are often lacking in more staid sources. But the bottom line is that they’re works of fiction, often markedly different from real life. For example, unlike their fictional counterparts, in real life Harun ar-Rashid and Ja’far the Barmakid drank plenty. Their escapades beautifully illustrate the spirit of the times.

Where alcohol wasn’t involved, Harun and Ja’far were pillars of orthodoxy. Harun was well-known for his pre-dawn prayers in the chapel of his palace. The chronicles place him leading the obsequies at the funerals of his father and brother. In The Thread of Reason I wrote about how Harun's vast charitable enterprises—his giving extended into the millions of gold dinars—were inspired by a nightmare about the Day of Judgment.

One theory as to why he moved his capital from Baghdad to Raqqa in Syria was that it was convenient to the Byzantine frontier, the better to wage jihad on the unbelievers. In our own century, ISIS also picked Raqqa as their capital, in order to garb themselves in reflected piety from Harun ar-Rashid. Harun made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, nine times in his life. Indeed he had the distinction of being the only caliph in history to personally lead both the hajj and the jihad in the same year (797). Indeed, he was so proud of these roles, he had a qalasuwa—a cap around which a turban is wrapped—made for himself, inscribed with the words Ghazi wa Hajj: warrior and pilgrim.

As for Ja’far, his reputation for mastery of the shari’ah was so great that the historian ibn Khallikan said, no doubt with some exaggeration, that he once, under Harun ar-Rashid’s supervision, issued a thousand legal opinions in a single night, and “not one of these decisions deviated in the least from what was warranted by the law.”

Harun and Ja’far were inseparable; so close that Harun had a robe made with two collars that they could wear together. Despite their reputation for orthodoxy, however, it seems there’s barely a story involving either of them that doesn’t involve some sort of drinking.

In The Thread of Reason, I describe the spectacular palaces that the caliphs built in Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris River. The initial settlement in Baghdad was on the west bank, and in his book Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate, Guy LeStrange explains how the move across the river got started. It turns out it was thanks to Ja’far's drinking parties:

Yakut gives us the history of these palaces, and in the first place relates how Ja'far the Barmecide, being much given to wine-bibbing in the company of poets and singers, was frequently reproved by his father Yahya—at that time Wazir of Harun-ar-Rashid—for the scandal that he was creating. Ja'far professed inability to alter his ways, but in order to shun the observation of strict Moslems who abhorred wine and singing, he agreed to build himself a palace apart, for the celebration of his joyous assemblies, on the unoccupied lands to the south of the Mukharrim Quarter. Ja'far was at this time still the favourite boon companion of Harun-ar-Rashid, who showed much interest in the building, which was indeed so remarkable for its magnificence, that when all was completed an astute friend advised Ja'far to tell Harun that this palace was in reality built as a present for [Harun’s son] Mamun, and thus to avoid the well-known jealousy of the Caliph.

Ja’far was indispensable at the caliph’s own drinking parties—as was the caliph’s sister Abbasa. Alas, it was prohibited for Abbasa to be in the same room as Ja’far—a man to whom she was not related. Harun ar-Rashid solved that problem by means of marriage between the two, but he made it clear that it was to be a marriage in name only, never to be consummated.

In 803, Harun turned on the Barmakids. He ordered Masrur, his “Sworder of Vengeance,” who I mentioned previously for his role in The Thousand and One Nights, to execute the unfortunate Ja’far. Ja’far’s father Yahya and his brother Fadl were imprisoned for the rest of their lives. The reason for Harun’s betrayal of his once closest friend is one of the great mysteries of Islamic history. Even at the time, theories abounded. The most common is that Harun, who had become caliph at a very young age (probably twenty-one), and who therefore had to rely heavily on Yahya’s guidance, was chomping at the bit to get out from under Yahya’s shadow (shades of the relationship between the sultan Malik-shah and his vizier Nizam al-Mulk three centuries later). But there’s another theory: Harun lost it upon discovering that the sham marriage between Ja’far and Abbasa was not, in fact, a sham.

In any case, Ja’far’s reaction when Masrur came for his head gives us yet another bit of insight into Harun ar-Rashid’s habits. Ja’far was certain that when the order was issued, the caliph had to have been drunk.

Next installment: The hardliners strike back.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A Juice that Frees thy Heart from a Hundred Pains

Did Muslims drink wine in the Middle Ages?
by Michael Isenberg.

Readers of my novel The Thread of Reason, set in the world of medieval Islam, often tell me how surprised they are to find widespread wine drinking in the book. “Isn’t wine prohibited in Islam?” they ask me.

It certainly is. The Quran bans it in numerous places, for example Chapter 5, Verse 90: “O ye who believe! verily, wine, and [games of chance], and statues, and divining arrows are only an abomination of Satan's work; avoid them then that haply ye may prosper [1].”

The Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad and his Companions, which together with the Quran form the basis of Muslim law, is even more strict. It tells us that the penalty for drinking was set by Muhammad and his successor, the caliph Abu Bakr, to forty lashes. But Abu Bakr’s successor, the caliph Omar, raised it to eighty [2]. And it wasn’t merely drinking that was forbidden: also buying it, selling it, transporting it, serving it, and sitting at a table where it is served [3].

Despite these prohibitions, wine was widely enjoyed in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. We know this from numerous sources. In this post, I’ll share what some of the literature of the time had to say. The poems and stories handed down to us through the centuries may be fictional, but they reflect the attitudes of the writers, and in my opinion they're far better sources for details about daily life than a formal history, which, in the words of Jean Henri Fabre, "records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat." So I'll cover the literature here and, in the next installment, get into more traditional types of historical evidence.

Wine was a favorite topic of poets, especially those in the Sufi tradition such as Rumi and Hafiz. Omar Khayyam, the astronomer and author of The Rubaiyat (and the hero of The Thread of Reason), was obsessed with wine. The oldest collection of his poems we have is the Ouseley Manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, transcribed in 1460. Out of the 158 verses that appear there, 90 of them, by my count, or 57%, are about wine, including the one from which I took the title of this post:

Every draught that the Cup-bearer scatters upon the earth
quenches the fire of anguish in some afflicted eye.
Praise be to God! thou realizest that wine
is a juice that frees thy heart from a hundred pains [4].

There is some debate as to whether the wine that is so highly praised in Muslim poetry is supposed to be taken literally, or whether it is a symbol for something more spiritual—wisdom, or mystic communion with Allah, for example. The debate is especially controversial in Omar Khayyam’s case; I’ll discuss that in detail in a future post.

While the symbolism of poetry can be hard to interpret, there is no room for interpretation concerning the wine that pours so freely in the prose stories of the time. It symbolizes wine. For instance, liberal imbibing appears in the Maqamat, by Qasim Hariri of Basra. Hariri will be familiar to readers of The Thread of Reason as the spy sent to “take care of” Omar Khayyam during his travels. One story in the Maqamat, for example, concerns a party of travelers who wish to journey from Damascus to Anah, in western Iraq. They are reluctant to set out, however, because they do not have a guard to travel with them and protect them from bandits as they cross the Syrian desert. The problem is solved when a holy man presents himself and promises to keep them safe by means of magic incantations. This unlikely expedient works like, well, like magic, and the party arrives in Anah without incident. They pay the holy man generously, and he scampers off, leaving them wondering where he went:

And we ceased not to seek him in every assembly, and to ask news of him from each that might mislead or guide.—Until it was said, "Since he entered 'Anah he has not quitted the tavern."—Then the foulness of this report set me on to test it, and to walk in a path to which I belonged not.— So I went by night to the wine-hall in disguised habit; and there was the old man in a gay-coloured dress amid casks and wine vats;—And about him were cupbearers surpassing in beauty, and lights that glittered, and the myrtle and the jasmine, and the pipe and the lute.—And at one time he bade broach the wine casks, and at another he called the lutes to give utterance; and now he inhaled the perfumes, and now he courted the gazelles [5].

The "holy man" was in fact a con man. And there’s no doubt from the context wine means wine. Certainly the thirteenth century artist who drew this illustration of the scene for an illuminated manuscript thought so. The guy in the lower right stomping the grapes clinches it.

The characters in the Maqamat were practically teetotalers compared to those in the most famous collection of stories from the medieval Muslim world, The Thousand and One Nights. I ran a search on the Richard Burton translation and found 783 instances of the word wine (okay, that includes the footnotes, but I think I made my point). While the narrator of the The Maqamat considered the consumption of alcohol to be “foulness,” the drinking parties in the Nights are presented very matter-of-factly, as if they were a perfectly normal part of life. You’d be surprised at who would show up:

Now the warmth of wine having mounted to their heads they called for musical instruments; and the portress brought them a tambourine of Mosul, and a lute of Irak, and a Persian harp; and each mendicant took one and tuned it; this the tambourine and those the lute and the harp, and struck up a merry tune while the ladies sang so lustily that there was a great noise. And whilst they were carrying on, behold, some one knocked at the gate, and the portress went to see what was the matter there. Now the cause of that knocking, O King (quoth Shahrazad) was this, the Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, had gone forth from the palace, as was his wont now and then, to solace himself in the city that night, and to see and hear what new thing was stirring; he was in merchant’s gear [i.e. traveling in disguise], and he was attended by Ja’afar [the Barmakid], his Wazir [prime minister], and by Masrur his Sworder of Vengeance. As they walked about the city, their way led them towards the house of the three ladies; where they heard the loud noise of musical instruments and singing and merriment; so quoth the Caliph to Ja’afar, “I long to enter this house and hear those songs and see who sing them.” Quoth Ja’afar, “O Prince of the Faithful; these folk are surely drunken with wine, and I fear some mischief betide us if we get amongst them.” “There is no help but that I go in there,” replied the Caliph.

Harun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest caliph of all time. And although he didn’t drink on this occasion—he excused himself on the grounds of “vows of pilgrimage”—he sure didn’t mind that everyone around him partook, especially considering that he was the leader of the Muslim world, responsible for the enforcement of shari’ah. As for Ja’afar, he’s presented as somewhat more strict, attempting to keep himself and the caliph away from a place where wine was being served. But the Thousand and One Nights is a work of fiction. Harun al-Rashid and Ja’afar ibn Barmak’s real-life carousing was considerably more wild. I’ll tell you about that in the next installment.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on
[1] Palmer Translation. [2] Sahih Muslim, trans. Abd al-Hamid Siddiqui (2009), book 17, Hadith numbers 4226–31. [3] Tirmidhi 43:3031 [4] Ouseley MS #140, Verse 81, Heron Allen translation. [5] Maqamat, #12, Thomas Chenery translation.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The US-Saudi-Iran Triangle

by Michael Isenberg.

In my previous post, I argued that practically everybody in Washington has the wrong approach to responding to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The media demands a knee-jerk reaction, divorced from any overall strategy, just because Khashoggi was one of their own.

As for President Trump, he does have an overall strategy. At least as far as his public statements and actions are concerned, that strategy is to shamelessly suck up to the Saudis, one of the most repressive regimes on the face of the planet, and a leader in both funding terrorism and spreading the jihadist philosophy that underlies it (I concede the possibility that President Trump may take a harder line with the Saudis in private).

So if both the media and President Trump are pursuing the wrong approach, what is the right one?

Any US reaction needs to be part of a larger, coherent strategy toward the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It needs to be a strategy we adhere to consistently, not just when the latest victim of Saudi repression happens to be a media darling. It also needs to be a strategy which supports the interests of the United States. And our primary interest in that part of the world is to defend ourselves against Islamic terror.

For guidance we can look to the lessons of the Cold War in general, and in particular, two policies of the Nixon Administration which were extremely effective in making the Soviet Union less aggressive: linkage and triangular diplomacy.

Mr. Nixon explained the first policy in his 1980 book, The Real War:

It was during the transition period between my election in 1968 and my first inauguration in 1969 that Henry Kissinger and I developed what is now widely called the concept of linkage. We determined that those things the Soviets wanted—the good public relations that summits provided, economic cooperation, and strategic arms limitations agreements—would not be gained by them without a quid pro quo. At that time the principal quid pro quos we wanted were some assistance in getting a settlement in Vietnam, restraint by them in the Middle East, and a resolution of the recurring problems in Berlin…We “linked” our goals to theirs, and though it took two years for the Kremlin to accept this policy in the SALT I negotiations, it finally did [pp. 267-8].

As for triangular diplomacy, the triangle was Soviet Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States of America. The idea was that, going forward, the US would engage both Russia and China diplomatically, rather than engaging Russia and isolating China, as it had been doing for decades. The strategy leveraged the Russian-Chinese split that existed at that time. Historically, the two peoples had looked down on each other as barbarians. The communist takeover of China in 1949 brought a temporary thaw to the relationship, but the rivalry soon reasserted itself. In Nixon’s words, “As competition between the two communist giants developed, it was increasingly directed toward leadership of the communist world, with each accusing the other of deviation from ‘true’ communist orthodoxy [The Real War p. 135].” By the early months of the Nixon Administration, the “competition” had degenerated into an all-out border war.

“Promoting Sino-Soviet rivalry cannot, in and of itself, be a U.S. policy,” Nixon wrote. “But the rivalry is there, and it provides an opportunity, an environment, in which to design a policy [The Real War, pp. 302-3].”

Ken Hughes, of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, described how Nixon put that design into practice: “He would play China against the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union against China, and both against North Vietnam [Richard Nixon: Foreign Affairs].”

For example, as we learn from his 1978 autobiography, RN:The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Nixon told the Soviets, “The only beneficiaries of US-Soviet disagreement over Vietnam is China [p. 406]. Then he told the Chinese, “The only gainer in having the war continue is the Soviet Union. [p. 568].” He really was “Tricky Dick.”

There are many similarities between the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Saudi Arabia during the War on Islamic Terror that make the latter a perfect candidate for Nixonian policies.

Like the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia wants—in fact needs—things from the United States: arms deals, investment funds to make its economy less dependent on oil revenue, and summits to give their leaders stature and legitimacy in the eyes of their own people and the world. A perfect opportunity for the US to insist on linkage to things the United States wants: intelligence on jihadist groups, an end to Saudi funding of them, and most important, an end to spreading the Wahhabi doctrine of political Islam around the world. A perfect opportunity for linkage, and a far better policy for the US than first bowing to Iran under the Obama Administration and then toeing the line for Saudi Arabia under Trump.

Also like the Soviet Union, the Saudis have a rival for the leadership of its respective world. Shiite Iran has locked horns with Sunni Saudi Arabia over which nation best represents the “true” Islam. This rivalry colors every aspect of Iranian/Saudi activity, from constant Iranian sniping at any mishaps during the annual pilgrimage or haj (Saudi Arabia’s role as Custodian of the Two Holy Sanctuaries is a source of great prestige in the Muslim world), to vicious proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.

There is one complication in any hardline US policy toward Saudi Arabia: Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. If Saudi Arabia fears losing the United States as an ally, it may turn to them. Indeed, some Middle Eastern countries, the United Arab Emirates, for example, are already doing this. Their leaders may be thugs, but they’re not stupid. They saw how the Obama Administration threw Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak under the bus during 2011’s Arab Spring. They also saw how steadfast an ally Putin has been to Syria’s Bashar Assad during the civil war in that country. Any US Middle East policy must be accompanied by a complementary Russia policy. While a comprehensive Russia strategy is beyond the scope of a blog about Islam, the annals of the Nixon administration contain many examples of how to keep the Russians from meddling the Middle East. We can also learn some lessons from Turkish president Recep Erdogan, who recently succeeded at halting the Russian/Syrian advance on Idlib.

This week offers a perfect opportunity to take linkage and triangular diplomacy on their maiden voyage: negotiations between the parties in the Yemen civil war began today in Stockholm. I would love to see Trump tell the Saudis, “The only beneficiaries of US-Saudi disagreement over Yemen is Iran,” and then turn around and tell Iran, “The only gainer in having the war continue is Saudi Arabia.” If that could hasten a settlement, the Yemeni people would be free of the starvation and disease that the war has inflicted on them, and the world would be free of a breeding ground for jihadists, who flourish wherever instability reigns.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo credit(s):, A Cartoon History of US Foreign Policy

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

We don’t need a knee-jerk reaction to the Khashoggi murder

We need a new policy toward Saudi Arabia.
by Michael Isenberg.

Trump is under attack. (What else is new?)

This time the issue is his admittedly weak response to the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government. The CIA believes Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”) "probably ordered" the hit, albeit the case against him, as far as the public has been told, is circumstantial: he had close ties to some of the conspirators. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress there is no "direct evidence" against MBS. When asked at an October 11 bill signing how the case would affect his dealings with Saudi Arabia, he replied that making money off the Saudis comes first. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country on—I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others, for this country.”

A month and a half has passed since then and the issue hasn’t gone away. The critics have only grown louder, with particular emphasis on holding MBS personally accountable somehow. In an editorial last week, The Washington Post shredded the president’s response as a “craven abdication,” and called for private organizations to suspend their dealings with the Saudi regime and for Congress to attach “a provision to a must-pass budget bill ending military aid to Saudi Arabia until the Yemen war ends and all authors of the Khashoggi murder are identified and sanctioned.” House Speaker Ryan said, “Realpolitik is very important. But Realpolitik works if you do so from a position of moral clarity and with respect to holding people accountable,” leaving me wondering whether he knows what "realpolitik" means. The Senate has gotten into the act as well. A procedural vote on Wednesday, with bipartisan support from senators as diverse as Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), advanced a resolution which would cut off US support for the Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war. A terrible idea—there is a long history of legislative branch grandstanding disrupting delicate behind the scenes negotiations by the executive branch—but it shows the depth of dissatisfaction with Trump's position.

Some of my Trump supporter friends have attempted to justify that position by pointing out that Khashoggi wasn’t the angel that the media has made him out to be. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and was friendly with Osama bin Laden in the 80’s (So was the US!). More recently, in a column titled "The US is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab World is suffering for it," he argued for more political power for Islamists: “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it.” While all these accusations against Khashoggi are true, I don’t think any of them diminish the seriousness or the brutality of the murder. Yes, Khashoggi has expressed some very wrong opinions, but surely that's not a capital offense or an extenuating circumstance that should factor into the US response.

My Trumpista friends are on more solid ground when they point out that Khashoggi’s murder is just one of many atrocities routinely committed by the Saudis. In the words of the 2016 documentary Saudi Arabia Uncovered, Saudi Arabia “is a state which beheads and even crucifies its citizens. Where those who question its authority are lashed and locked up for years. A state where woman lack many basic rights.” Recent cases have included the imprisonment and whipping of blogger Raif Badawi and the 2016 execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric whose sole crime was criticizing the government. And while progress in the form of drivers licenses for women has been greeted with much fanfare, the dirty secret is that many of the women activists who made that possible now rot in Saudi jail cells. The only reason the Khashoggi case has gotten more attention than these others is that Khashoggi is a member of the Western liberal media, thanks to his association with The Washington Post. Again, I don't think this excuses the Saudis in any way. But it does underscore the importance of treating the Khashoggi murder in the context of our overall relationship with Saudi Arabia, and not in isolation.

It would be foolish to engage in a knee jerk response merely because the victim is a Western journalist. Any US reaction needs to be part of a larger, coherent strategy toward the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It needs to be a strategy we adhere to consistently, not just when the latest victim of Saudi repression happens to be a media darling. It also needs to be a strategy which supports the interests of the United States. And our primary interest in that part of the world is defeating Islamic terror.

We've seen Donald Trump repeatedly stand up to foreign dictatorships, and rightly so. But the House of Saud hasn't been among them. Both in the Khashoggi case, and in many other instances, the Trump Administration's strategy in the Middle East has been to unquestioningly embrace the House of Saud. The rationale for this is not merely the jobs cited above. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an Oct 18 statement to reporters,

I think it's important for us all to remember, too, we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They continue to be an important counterterrorism partner. They have custody of the two holy sites. They're an important strategic alliance of the United States. We need to be mindful of that as well.

This “important strategic alliance” with our “important counterterrorism partner” is problematic. Cozying up to dictators is a double-edged sword under the best of circumstances. There are advantages in terms of intelligence, resources, military bases, and so on, but at the cost of creating resentment against the United States that induces recruits to join our enemies. The (possibly exaggerated) CIA role in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, and the US’s subsequent support for the Shah is still a sticking point between us and the Iranians—forty years after the Shah’s downfall. Arguably, we had the excuse that we were in the midst of the Cold War and we did what we had to do in the context of the larger struggle against the Soviet Union. We should never apologize for that. But we should recognize that it came with consequences.

There was some logic to allying with the Shah’s Iran in 1953 against a higher priority enemy. But there is no logic to allying with MBS’s Saudi Arabia in 2018: Saudi Arabia is the higher priority enemy. As I wrote in my review of Saudi Arabia Uncovered,

The Saudi regime is not content merely to subject its own citizens to the terrors of Islamism. It exports them. The ties between Saudi-funded Islamic charities and terror groups are well-known and reviewed in the documentary (which also notes there is no evidence that senior Saudi officials were complicit in them). However, thoughtful observers consider that the kingdom’s embrace of the Wahhabi form of Islam—the country has spent $70 billion promoting it worldwide—is even more insidious than direct support of terror. In the words of former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, “The ideology of ISIS is not much different from the ideology that Wahhabi Salafi Islam in Saudi Arabia adheres to. Unless the Saudis deal with this issue, we are going to constantly fight yesterday’s war and even if we defeat ISIS, there’ll be another terrorist organization, perhaps with a different name, as long as they have this ideology that emanates from Saudi Arabia.”

Or as Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy put it,

For over 50 years the Saudis have also financed and helped spread the establishment of Muslim Brotherhood legacy thinkers and groups in the West. The Wahhabis and the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] share both a hate of Western liberal democracies and a dream of wanting to establish Islamic states and the caliphate. Their essential difference lies in that Wahhabis are simply corporate, top-down, “elitist” Islamists, while the Brotherhood are grassroots, populist Islamists. Both their interpretations of Islam are supremacist and theocratic.

I don't mean to single out President Trump here. President Obama’s policy of unquestionably embracing Iran—another exporter of jihad—was just as bad, for the same reasons.

Another argument I tend to hear, especially from libertarians, is that the US should not take any action at all with regard to Khashoggi. He was not a US citizen, his murder took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which is technically Saudi sovereign territory. It's an internal matter in which the US has no vested interest.

There is some merit to this, but I part company with my libertarian friends when they frame it as part of an overall policy of disengagement from the Middle East. My disagreement with them stems from a fundamentally different view of the cause of Islamic terror. They see it as a reaction to past injustices that the Western powers committed against the Muslim world, such as the previously mentioned overthrow of Mossadegh. And while I agree that these injustices feature prominently in jihadist recruitment propaganda, the real origin of Islamic terror is not to be found in anything the West has done, but rather in Islam itself. The terrorists will come for us regardless of our level of engagement in the Middle East, and we need to be proactive in addressing that problem. Princeton historian Bernard Lewis called it the "Clash of Civilizations," which I discussed in more detail in "Fighting for God," one of the tributes to Professor Lewis that I posted in the wake of his passing earlier this year.

So if neither disengagement, nor a knee jerk response to the atrocity of the week, nor Obama's stint as Iran's bitch, nor Trump’s strategy of hopping to the tune of the "beautiful" Saudi sword dance is the right policy in the War on Islamic Terror, then what is? There are many lessons from the Cold War we can draw on to formulate one. I’ll address that in my next installment.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on