The Jihadists are Coming!
by Rob Ferguson
A few months ago my neighbor, an affable teacher from Los Angeles, introduced me to a young man who was staying with him for a few days.
“This is Jihad,” said my neighbor with a twinkle in his eye.
“Jihad?” I asked with disbelief. “Your name is really Jihad?”
“Yes,” he answered, but then quickly explained he usually went by another name. He was a very friendly Kurd and apparently not very religious. He seemed as likely a Jihadist as me. But of course Jihad is just a name with an ancient religious meaning.
Jihad translates from the Arabic as “struggle” and appears in 23 verses in the Quran, referring to struggle against those who do not believe in Allah. Jihad is an important religious duty for many Muslims who interpret it as the inner struggle to fulfill their religious duties. But it’s more widely interpreted, certainly in the West, as an armed struggle against the enemies of Islam.
A few days ago a “Sunni Jihadist terrorist faction” called ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an offshoot of Al Qaeda so radicalized that it seems they were too much even for Al Qaeda, easily took control of the city of Mosul, 80 km down the highway from where I live in Erbil. This came as a shock to everyone, apparently even the country’s recently re-elected Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, who has become the poster-boy for failed democracy in Iraq.
Nothing scares me more than religious fanatics. I can generally deal with racism, prejudice and reactionary political views, which are almost always rooted in naivety, ignorance, delusion and stupidity – more often than not you can easily mock people who espouse such views. But people “fired with religion” as the Middle Ages history text I teach describes various Muslim (Abbasids and Almohads) and Christian (the Crusaders) groups that conquered, massacred and terrorized in the name of God are very different kettle of fish.
That’s because religious beliefs are not based on reason or rational thought, but rather on the emotions of love, fear, and extroversion. Belonging to a collective religious group can stir the emotions in strange and inexplicable ways and lead to a whole range of fervent behaviors. Religious stories, which provide the basis for most of the beliefs, are culled from history, myth and mysticism. Mohammed went to the mountains and the Angel Gabriel shared with him the revelations that became the Quran. In the Bible Moses went up Mount Sinai where God presented him with the Ten Commandments. These stories are fantastical, powerful and colorful, and children are often indoctrinated into believing them without question.
It was the Greeks who first opened the doors to rational thought. Herodotus, referred to as “the Father of History,” was the first to collect his information systematically and critically – he insisted on at least two verifiable sources before putting them into his narratives, the most famous which was called Historia. In this way he separated fact from fiction, truth from myth, and he provided the methodology that journalists today use to verify their stories. Then along came Socrates who developed a form of inquiry and discussion based on asking and answering questions that stimulated critical thinking. The Socratic Method basically says this: don’t believe everything people tell you. Open your mind to other possibilities and new ideas.
I love teaching the ancient Greek philosophers to my students. I grew up in Canada where critical thinking, healthy skepticism and discussion are part of the curriculum. But here in the Middle East, certainly in Kurdistan, my students have been educated on hard facts and taught their opinions don’t matter. Of course I encourage the opposite – the Socratic Method! – and awaking their thoughts and ideas is for me one of the biggest rewards of teaching.
But my students are used to being told what they have to know, and what to believe. And belief, somebody famous once said, is when someone else does the thinking. When you open minds, religious beliefs are suddenly open to question. This is dangerous, even blasphemous, in the Middle East where religion is not only a major part of the culture but also a key component of the often crazy politics, which ironically “democracy” seems to be only making worse. Oh George Bush, if you’d only studied history and geography, and maybe political science, you’d had realized what a can of worms you were opening.
Which brings me back to the Jihadists now overrunning Iraq in a blitzkrieg. Who are theses guys, how did they get so fanatical and what are planning to do? Well, you can’t be rational about answering or predicting any of this. They are “fired with religion,” so anything goes. But expect the absolute worst.
I have to admit I’m anxious and unnerved. When I first heard ISIS had taken Mosul, my first reaction was to get out. We just finished a semester at the university – we are in the middle of final exams – and my contract expires at the end of July. But my passport is with the customs office here as my residency recently expired and is in the process of being renewed. This has already taken two weeks and last time the process took almost two months – so it seems I’m trapped here.
If the Jihadists arrive in Erbil, I’ll have no choice but to convert to their cause, embrace sharia law, join in the stoning a few cheating women, figure out which direction Mecca is and give up my wicked infidel ways. Or, I’ll just be dragged out to a soccer stadium and shot in the head. (Okay, I admit, I watched all the episodes of Homeland).
My university has been less than alarmed with the situation, which comes as no surprise. I went to the HR officer and asked her if there was an exit strategy.
“Take a taxi to the border,” she said flippantly. She meant the Turkish border, which is four hours away and no doubt swarming with residents of Mosul trying to get out.
“But I don’t have my passport,” I protested.
She shrugged. “Oh, you’ll probably get it back tomorrow,” she said, smiling brightly.
Tomorrow came and I didn’t get my passport. Oh, why don’t I just relax and watch the World Cup games?
Rob Ferguson has worked in communications and as a trainer in his native Canada, Vanuatu, Mongolia, Central Asia, the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Colombia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has also worked as a freelance journalist, editor and instructor of English, creative writing and journalism. He is the author of *Dancing with the Vodka Terrorists: Misadventures in the 'Stans*, available from here. He currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. This blog originated here. Contact Rob Ferguson at: FaceBook: Robert W Ferguson. Instagram & Twitter: robertissimmo
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