The Zarqawi effect

Bush's Mideast policies have turned a brutal terrorist into an icon of resistance -- and made violent fundamentalism more popular.

Published June 27, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Whatever the meaning of the killing of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by a U.S. airstrike earlier this month, it has not lessened Iraq's violent nightmare, or calmed tensions in the Middle East. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called him "the prince of martyrs" and vowed revenge on the U.S. Some reports suggest that the two U.S. soldiers captured at Yusufiyah were tortured and killed by Zarqawi's shadowy successor. The three weeks after his death have witnessed daily bombings with dozens of casualties throughout Iraq. And Zarqawi's demise has stirred up trouble throughout the region, as controversies on how to respond to it have erupted among secularists and fundamentalists, Sunnis and Shiites.

Outside Iraq, the most public dispute has raged in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jordan has refused to accept Zarqawi's body, which will likely be unceremoniously dumped in an unmarked grave in Iraq, lest it become a shrine. I was in Amman the week after Zarqawi's death, and Jordan was abuzz with reports of the deep involvement of that country's security forces in the operation against him. Indeed, Jordanian newspapers called the campaign "Operation Hotel Martyrs," seeing the airstrike on his safe house in Hibhib as payback for the deadly explosions at the Radisson, the Hyatt and the Days Inn in Amman last November. It has now been revealed that one of those who betrayed Zarqawi was a Jordanian in his own circle, likely a double agent recruited by Amman's formidable intelligence service.

On June 10, I attended the military parade that commemorated the early 20th century Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and found throngs of enthusiastic Jordanian nationalists cheering their military men as they passed by in tanks and armored vehicles. Children impudently clambered atop police SUVs to get a better look at the passing troops, and girls in head scarves and long embroidered black tunics shouted approval in their Bedouin-accented Arabic, all hard G's and glottal stops. King and nation clearly retain substantial popularity. But currents of dissatisfaction are moving beneath the surface, which could pose a serious challenge to the Jordanian government and America's geo-strategic plans for the region.

I was in the audience on June 12 when Prince Hassan, Jordan's former heir apparent, addressed more than 1,300 Middle East experts at the Cultural Center, condemning supporters of terrorism and urging Muslims to return to their moderate roots as a way of mediating conflicts. The urbane, mustachioed and balding royal denounced the appropriation of religious terminology by violent political movements. "Using religious names and definitions is not serving religious causes," he said. He warned that if Muslims do not moderate, "The future is either one of Balkanization, ethnic and sectarian strife, or surrendering to the extremists."

Jordan's King Abdullah II finds himself caught between the two horns of Bush administration policy in the region. On the one hand, Bush's push for a hasty and simplistic "democratization" process has led to a Hamas win in Palestine, an unprecedentedly strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian parliamentary elections, a Shiite fundamentalist takeover of Iraq, and the admission for the first time of the Lebanese Hezbollah to the government in Beirut. The secular-leaning Jordanian government is deathly afraid that Hamas will gain influence in Jordan itself, and has already accused the party of attempting to smuggle arms into the kingdom.

The other outcome of Bush administration policy has been the rise of Islamist terrorism in Sunni Arab Iraq, as formerly secular Iraqis have turned to religious fundamentalism as a way of combating what they see as U.S. occupation. Both a revived political Islam in the region and a rampaging faith-based terrorism next door in Iraq represent dire threats to Jordan's government.

Zarqawi, whose real name was Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayla, hailed from the Jordanian city of Zarqa, and his radicalism must be understood in a Jordanian context. Although an overwhelmingly conservative Sunni Muslim country, Jordan has not been predominantly an Islamist one. The majority ideology has tended to be some form of Arab nationalism rather than religious fundamentalism. Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war and their descendants, who form some 60 percent of Jordan's population, have historically tended to support the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. The Jordanians of indigenous East Bank or Bedouin background value tribe and king. In both cases, though, some have started turning to political Islam -- an ominous development for Jordan and for the United States, which values the Hashemite Kingdom as an oasis of moderation in the region.

Zarqawi formed part of a minority Islamist political tendency in Jordan, but his radicalism and violence put him on the fringes even of it. He was arrested in 1994 for joining a conspiracy to overthrow King Hussein. His organization, Monotheism and Holy War, is thought to be responsible for several terrorist attacks or foiled plots in Jordan. On Nov. 9, 2005, members of his group, rebranded al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, detonated powerful bombs at the three tourist hotels in Amman, killing 60 Jordanians.

The hotel bombings stirred widespread outrage in Jordan because they targeted Jordanians, whom Zarqawi and his group had branded infidels and apostates because they did not accept his fundamentalist vision. After his death, 67 percent of Jordanians rejected the notion that Zarqawi should be considered a martyr, and nearly 60 percent branded him a terrorist. Seventy percent said that even offering condolences on his death was unacceptable. But 15 percent saw him as either a martyr or an "ordinary citizen" -- and ominously, these were mainly young people.

The narrative of the Arab Revolt is the cornerstone of Jordanian political identity and offers a powerful challenge to the Muslim revivalist or "Salafi" vision of history. From 1916, the Sharif of Mecca and his sons, scions of the Prophet Muhammad and leading notables in the city of his birth, led a nationalist rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, whose sultans had recently begun styling themselves caliphs, or a sort of Sunni "pope." Sharif Hussein and his sons Faisal and Abdullah, who possessed their own religious charisma as Meccan leaders claiming descent from the Prophet, rejected that claim. They were perfectly happy to take help from the British Empire, which was fighting the Germans and Ottoman Turks in World War I and used the Arabs as a guerrilla force to attack the Ottoman rear. One of the British agents lending the Arabs aid, T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), presented himself as the hero of the story, but Arabs know who really led the Arab revolt.

The British and French then divided up the spoils in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The British rewarded Sharif Hussein's sons for their help in chasing the Ottomans out of the Arab world. They bestowed the Trans-Jordan, that part of the British Mandate to the east of the Jordan River, on Abdullah. They tried to install Faisal, who conquered Damascus, as king of Syria, but the French invaded to claim what they had been promised. The British then made Faisal king of Iraq, but his dynasty was overthrown in the popular revolution of 1958. Of the great protagonists of the Arab Revolt, only Abdullah still has a direct legacy, in the form of his descendant and namesake, Abdullah II, the king of Jordan.

The parade for the Arab Revolt, combined with a kind of Army Day, thus functions as a nationalist ritual, one that implicitly disputes the radical Islamist understanding of modern history. The Muslim radicals tend to see the Ottoman rulers as righteous caliphs, and lament the fragmentation of the Muslim world into nation-states that ensued from the breakup of the last major Muslim empire. (Osama bin Laden has made references to dates in some of his speeches that clearly lament the end of the Ottoman Empire.) The radicals see all Western influence as pernicious. But the heirs of the Arab Revolt have the opposite perspective. Their ancestors helped overthrow the caliph, and they made a strong alliance with the West to do so. The Jordanian monarchy has ever after navigated between Western power (increasingly actually American power) and local nationalisms and religious movements.

On Sunday, June 11, four members of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood visited Zarqa to express their condolences to the al-Khalayla clan on Zarqawi's death. The Jordanian regime immediately ordered them detained and is having them investigated. Human Rights Watch condemned the arrest as lacking any legal grounds, but their arrest was renewed on Sunday.

King Abdullah II rejected the criticism and called on HRW to apologize to the Jordanian people. He also said, "Zarqawi was a mass murderer, not only killing innocent people in Jordan, but also in Iraq and elsewhere. I cannot fathom how some people can make this man a hero." He insisted on a "zero-tolerance" policy toward "people who incite and support terrorism in any form." In reply, Muslim Brotherhood head Salem Falahat said, "This latest crisis is fabricated. Is this to find excuses and justifications to harm the [Muslim Brotherhood] movement and stir incitement against it ... because of its widening appeal?"

There is a real distinction between political Islam and Islamist terrorism. The problem is that Bush's rash policies have blurred the sharp edges that formerly distinguished the two. Many Sunni fundamentalists who before Bush's invasion would never have accepted Zarqawi's brutal tactics clearly have a soft spot in their hearts for him. They admire him as an anti-imperialist fighter, and his religious fundamentalism, while more extreme than their own, makes him seem a kindred spirit to many of them.

Hamas in Palestine expressed its condolences on his death, calling him a "brother" and a "martyr." The provincial legislature of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, dominated by the fundamentalist Jama'at-i Islami, held mourning prayers for Zarqawi after the federal parliament of Pakistan voted against doing any such thing. The NWFP abuts Afghanistan and the tribal areas where the Taliban and al-Qaida still have some strength.

The old Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a sworn enemy but once a close ally of the U.S. who received perhaps a billion dollars in aid from the Reagan administration in the 1980s, issued a statement calling on Iraqis to continue Zarqawi's fight. "Zarqawi is not dead but he is alive as his colleagues are struggling for independence," he affirmed. The leader of the Hizb-i Islami Party, which has targeted NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, continued, "Those who bow before the enemies or intruders are considered dead. Whereas the followers of Zarqawi are alive and struggling against the aggressive forces."

In contrast, the Shiite religious parties of the region rejoiced at Zarqawi's death. Iraqi Shiites in cities like Basra fired their guns in the air and danced in the streets at the news of Zarqawi's death. This was hardly surprising: Zarqawi had singled out innocent Shiites for gruesome bombings. He viewed Shiites as non-Muslims deserving of death, and worked to foment a sectarian civil war that would have the effect of driving the U.S. out of Iraq. Rejecting any power for Shiites, he attacked the Lebanese Hezbollah and called for it to be disarmed. On his death, a spokesman for the Hezbollah Party in Beirut condemned him, saying: "His criminal acts aimed at igniting civil wars and inciting sectarian fighting." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi remarked, "Zarqawi's death sparked joy among Iraqis, which shows he was hated by the Iraqi people. We are also happy about what happened." Zarqawi's papers revealed that he hoped to provoke a war between the United States and Iran.

The fault lines revealed by Zarqawi's death lie not just between the Sunni and the Shiite, but between the secular nationalists and the fundamentalists. The danger is that his successors will find ways of surmounting terrorism to become a genuine political force. The U.S. military occupation of a major Arab country is in danger of discrediting moderate governments such as that of Jordan, and of pushing ordinary Arabs into the arms of the fundamentalists. His carefully hidden body must not be exhumed for beatification. Will the Arab Revolt as a narrative of nationalism, Islamic charisma, and an alliance with the West, always be as popular in Jordan as it is now? That Zarqawi's biggest approval rating in Jordan comes from the young is not a good sign for the future. Were the Sunni Arabs of the region to turn in large numbers to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the stage would be set for a debilitating struggle with the Shiites of Lebanon and Iraq. The Palestinians of Jordan, the majority of the population, could turn to Hamas if they are forced into despair by Israeli oppression of their brethren on the West Bank. The Muslim Brotherhood is strong in Jordan and Syria, and it could be radicalized by the U.S. and Israeli occupations of Muslims. It could also eventually come to power.

Zarqawi must not be enabled to achieve in death what escaped him in life, the radicalization and polarization of the whole region.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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