The Jihajjis

For centuries Muslims have been making pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj is an extremely important part of a Muslim’s religious life and it leads to a growth in societal status when one returns. Upon return, those who have successfully made the pilgrimage are accorded the title of Hajji, which denotes an enhanced respect for the person in question. This practice of according enhanced respect to pilgrims has existed for centuries and continues to do so.

However, there today appears to be another method to acquire respect based upon a different type of pilgrimage, that of jihad. While less formalized than the Hajj system of societal ascendancy (no new titles are necessarily bestowed) those leaving for jihad very often do find a newfound respect from their home societies upon return from warfighting. Jihad is very clearly an important element of Islamic tradition, including both its internal and external variants. Internal jihad refers to the attempt to continually improve oneself and external typically refers to efforts to defend or expand (depending on your interpretation of the relevant religious texts) the ummah, or community of believers.

In the 1980s Afghanistan offered prime jihadi real estate. Not only was there an opportunity for jihad, there was also significant funding and state support. Saudi Arabia in particular was known to encourage its militants to go to Afghanistan to fight, partly out of religious duty, but also out of a desire to export religious militants who were worrying the political establishment (especially after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca). Fighting was “openly celebrated and did not require concealment…many activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity.” On return many jihadis found a newfound respect from their compatriots.

As a side note one could make an argument that jihad is significantly more respected when the jihad takes place in a foreign land. Local efforts and attacks often have very different effects – as returning Saudi (and other) militants found when they attempted to bring the fight back home.

The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for jihad. Syria, Libya, and maybe Egypt provide opportunities for jihad. There is a lot of material coming out discussing states’ worries that returning jihadis will come back and attempt to pursue jihad in their own countries, but there is another, more subtle, effect as respected jihadis return from their ‘pilgrimages.’ Most of these ‘Jihajjis’ aren’t going to turn towards militancy in their home countries, but they may, as a result of their enhanced societal prestige, be able to influence public opinion and public policy in unexpected ways.

That effect may be much harder to gauge than that of more militant, violent actors, but it could push societies into a mindset more open to fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and duties.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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Direct Democracy, Militia Style

Democracy is a tough project. Even in well-established democratic countries the process can get extremely messy at times and some even claim that here in the United States our democracy is failing. Now, the accusation that American democracy is failing might be hyperbolic, but try to imagine constructing a democratic system in a country without any history of democratic rule, a lack of institutional viability, and no control over what happens within its own borders. Enter Libya.

Qathafi claimed, in his Green Book, to have found “the final solution to the problem of the instrument of governing.” Of course, the Brother Leader never really precisely laid out what the organizational apparatuses of the Jamahiriya were supposed to be. Oh sure, you can find charts aplenty that show the interrelations between his proposed Popular Congresses, but the operational aspects? Regardless of ‘theory,’ Qathafi left a state that wasn’t a state. What was meant to be an attempt to reach the ‘ideal’ of direct democracy effectively remained a totalitarian state under the thumb of the Brother Leader and his family. There was almost no institutionalization to speak of and rule of law was a pipe dream. What existed was a bizarre combination of both strong and weak state.

Flash forward to today and one sees that creating a democracy from such a shambles is indeed messy. Perhaps messy is too light a term. What we are seeing now is a shambles. The country is effectively split between various militias and localized groups that maintain control of their region/ city/ neighborhood/ street. At this point even the government’s nominal ability to influence the country has been significantly damaged.

Let us look at only Tripoli, for the sake of brevity. This week has seen militias storm government offices, including the parliament, and dictating legislation. From April 28 until May 5, militias held the government under siege until parliament passed a political isolation law that would exclude former Qathafi-era government workers (of any rank) from holding office in the new Libya. This law could potentially even include the Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, who had defected from the Qathafi regime in the 1980s. The vote was only democratic in the sense that it was passed by elected representatives. Now a precedent has been set. Bring enough guns to the table and the Libyan government will be forced to acquiesce.

Unsurprisingly, the militias responsible have no made further demands upon parliament, including explicitly requiring the Prime Minister to resign, freezing the state’s budget, and taking charge of the foreign ministry. The government is powerless to do anything about this, although rival militias claiming to support the government are now offering to dislodge those besieging the government. Zeidan himself is trying to play the man in middle saying, “We don’t have militias in Libya, we have revolutionaries.” In this case, truly a distinction without a difference.

Democracy simply cannot function without an effective security sector. Without the proper level of coercive authority the state becomes simply another player in a complex version of the Middle Ages as groups struggle to assert territorial and governmental dominance.  While Libyans explicitly refused any sort of external peacekeeping force post-revolution it is hard at this point to see how an effective transition can be made without one. The state simply cannot support itself and without any sort of security cushion it is hard to believe that militia-style direct democracy won’t become the wave of the future. Of course, getting anyone to sign up for such a task would be no easy feat. And defining what end such a theoretical force would be may prove even more difficult.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.