Two weeks ago I attended the Friday sermon at Niamey’s Grand Mosque in the Republic of Niger. The imam reminded the congregation that “these are troubling times: there is killing everywhere, and certainly, these are signs of the end of time.” He summoned a prophetic saying that, ‘at the end of time neither the killer nor the victim would know the reason of the killing.’ As I left the Mosque, the imam’s words resonated for me: killing without reason is a sign of a fundamental breakdown of order, of a lack of purpose in human conduct. Isn’t time itself a calculation of the orderly occurrence of thought, a countdown of successions and expectations, from the past, to the present and future? If so, then the end of time is the end of the orderly processing of thought, the end of rational or ethical thinking in human conduct.
Look at the news highlights of the past week: a suicide car bombing killed 21 in Baghdad; gunmen killed 21 security forces on Egypt's western border; in Gombe, Nigeria, Boko Haram militants killed 32 villagers in different towns; in Libya, 38 were killed as the Libyan Army and Islamists clashed in Benghazi; in the Chaambi mountains of Tunisia, gunmen killed at least 14 Tunisian soldiers. The list goes on, to say nothing of what is occurring in Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, among other places.
Was the imam referring to atrocities committed in the name of Islam? His talk about reasons for dying is very relevant in the current discourse of militant Islam. There is a right reason and a wrong reason to die. The right reason is associated with victory, while the wrong reason is associated with peril and defeat.. According to a Muslim saying, the Prophet was victorious because he was right. In the classical West African novel L'Aventure ambiguë, the Fulani Muslim clansmen have to finally surrender to the French colonial forces and send their beloved son to the French school. He is advised to find out “how one can conquer without being in the right.” As Muslims, they have been raised to believe that in order for one to be victorious, one has to be right. However, the French have proven to be the exception; they are wrong but victorious: they have persecuted, enslaved and colonized his ancestors. So, he wants his grandson to go to France and discover the secret behind this phenomenon.
This notion permeates the imagination of militant Islam. Bin Laden is viewed as having been victorious because he was also a righteous mujahid. That is how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS (currently called the Islamic State), depicts his legacy. By way of contrast, Ayman Zawahiri’s al Qaeda is not. That is the problem of Zawahiri’s leadership: he needs to prove himself, rather than living off of the accomplishments of Abu Abdallah (Bin Laden’s nom de guerre). At least this is how al Baghdadi replied to Zawahiri when he was ordered to leave Syria and focus on Iraq. Al-Baghdadi notes that the fruits of Jihad are now in Sham, (Greater Syria), “the land of hijrah (migration), jihad and Knighthood.” There is nothing going on for Al Qaeda in Khurasan (Afghanistan and Pakistan) but hiding from American drones. Al-Baghdadi’s ISIS is the news in the market of jihad: he is perceived as being victorious because he is right, as he has enjoyed swift military victories across the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq). Moreover, his declaration of the establishment of the khilafah in the heartland of Islam is a deliberate attempt to hearken back to the golden age of Muslim glory—the era of the righteous caliphs. This is “the righteous path, and the sign is self-evident;” this was the chant of ISIS militants as they conquered across Raqqa, Syria.
These new militants also believe in jihad for victory, rather than it being only for shahadah (martyrdom). One of the major legacies of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideologue Sayyid Qutb was the idealization of Shahadah as an end in itself. That type of thinking appears to have been best suited to the days before the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief period in power in Egypt. Jihad is no longer viewed as a means to itself, but rather a means to victory. The new leaders, - Al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Muhammad al Zahawi (the leader of Ansaar al-Sharia in Libya), Ramadan A. Shalah, (the military leader of Islamic Jihad in Ghaza,) and Abubakar Shekau (the leader of Boko Haram in Nigeria) are not interested chiefly in shahadah. They want tangible evidence of victory: bondage, ransoms of war, estates and Khilaafah—for them, these are the hallmarks of real power. According to the Yemeni singer Abu Hajir al-HaDrami through jihad, al-Baghdadi is ‘re-wiring the Muslim land.”
A fading order seems to be also at work. There is a systematic violation of the rules of war, in which participation used to be the exclusive province of professional soldiers. Today, killings are mostly directed toward civilians by civilians. In the old international order, the exercise of war was the province of the sovereign state. War used to be conducted by army troops, against army troops; civilians had no business in armed conflict. This is Vattel’s Law of Nations, the foundation of modern international order. Vattel told us that the “sovereign is the real author of war.” Moreover, wars are only carried on in ‘his name, and by his order, the troops, officers, soldiers, and, in general.’ But in today’s world, who are the primary participants in these conflicts? Is this not the demise of that order?
Let’s consider one of Vattel’s major canons: civilians have no role in the conduct of war; in exchange they are spared from the atrocity of war. Nowadays, armies only fight civilians, who fight both armies and other civilians. When was the last time army troops fight army troops? The U.S.’s last war with a standing army was in 1991, the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein! In subsequent military engagements, the ‘enemies’ have been the tribal militants of Saddam Hussein in the Second Gulf War, vigilante groups of Serbians in the Yugoslavian conflict; Qadaffi’s loyalists in the Libyan Civil War! Isn’t it true that the most recent U.S. wars have involved only non-state actors perceived as being a part of ‘Militant Islam’? While these non-state actors are also known as terrorists, terrorists are also civilians, and while they may be ‘combatant civilians’ or jihadi civilians, jihadi civilians don’t fit in the legal framework of the international order.
Current global conflicts serve as evidence of the end of Vattel’s order. Look at the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel-Palestine: the primary victims are not soldiers, but civilians, as more than 80 percent of the victims have been civilians. Even Ban Ki Moon, the highest public authority in the world of global diplomacy, got lost in his attempt to address the un-orderly conduct of the warring factions in the Palestinian-Israeli case, at one point mumbling, “this is wrong. Why are you continuing to kill people? There are many other ways to resolve this issue without killing each other. I am angry about what this, they are doing.”
How did we arrive at this point in time, in which no one respects the international order any more? No one really knows for sure. But we have learned from social scientists that rules are often broken when they are not enforced; order disappears in direct proportion to the extent that the benefit of breaking it surpasses the cost of obeying it. It is true that the vehicles for enforcement relative to the tenets of the international order—the United Nations Security Council, the UN Charter, and the Nuremberg principles, among others – have systematically overstepped its limits, emasculating national sovereignties and undermining human sanctity. Each of the following examples is proof of a major breach of the international law: Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, death by drone, the classification of enemy combatant, and the “Unknown Known” doctrine.
I agree with the imam: this is the end of time, scary times, and troubling times. Many factors have contributed in its making. But I still blame the U.S. for abandoning the moral high ground when confronted by militant Islam. It has failed to lead by example, by its moral ideals. A Wolof proverb states, “if the father is a drummer, then no child should be scorned for dancing.” In this instance, the U.S. has led by policy and actions, and the rest of the world has followed its example.