Action This Day!

by Saul Kelly
How J. B. Kelly, that great scholar of the Middle East, might have parsed Caliph Ibrahim.

‘The noodles seem to have had a lucid interval.” So said Kaiser Wilhelm II of the British government’s decision in 1902 to conclude a mutual-defense pact with Japan to protect their interests in the Far East from an aggressive, expansionist Russia. Over a century later, there are signs that the current British and U.S. governments, of David Cameron and Barack Obama, are beginning to wake up to the “clear and present danger” posed by a militant Islam, in its latest guise of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL), to the Middle East and the West. We have yet to see whether these leaders of the Western world will turn their fine words into “action this day,” Winston Churchill’s watchword to his government during the Second World War. For the West faces a threat to its existence that is at least as great as the ones it faced in 1939–1945 and during the Cold War. In order to deal with this threat, and come up with a war-winning policy and strategy, Western governments must first understand the nature of that threat. This requires a clear-sighted appreciation of the nature of the Middle East — the core of the Islamic world — and its historical relationship with the West.

Western leaders, and their advisers, would do well to lift their eyes from the heat and dust of the moment and read the seminal works of that small band of intrepid, preeminent scholars of a previous generation who stripped away the sentimental illusions that underlay Western policy toward the Middle East. Bernard Lewis and Elie Kedourie need no introduction, for their writings on the region are well known to an American readership. It is only now, however, that the collected works of the third of that triumvirate, their much-valued friend and colleague J. B. Kelly, are available to a new generation. (I have been collecting his essays and reviews into three volumes, of which the first two, Fighting the Retreat from Arabia and the Gulf: The Collected Essays and Reviews of J. B. Kelly, Vol. 1, and The Oil Cringe of the West: The Collected Essays and Reviews of J. B. Kelly, Vol. 2, have already been published by the New English Review Press; a third volume, Islam through the Looking Glass, will be published next year.)

What is striking about my late father’s writings is his highlighting of eternal themes about the nature of Islam, Arabs and Persians, Arabia and the Gulf, and Western folly in the region, which resonate to this day. He was scathing in his criticism of the willful deceptions practiced by Western governments, and by their apologists in academe and the media, upon their own peoples with regard to the motives that lay behind the actions of Middle Eastern governments, especially in the Gulf, with regard to the supply of oil: “Having suffered for generations from a powerful sense of grievance at the manifest political and economic superiority of the West, the Arabs and the Iranians now believe that in their control of the greater part of the world’s proven reserve of crude oil they possess the means of bringing the West to heel and of reasserting the primacy of Islam.”

A constant refrain in his writing is the deep-rooted hostility to the West on the part of the Muslims of the Middle East, which stemmed from “the Muslim interpretation of God’s will and the destiny He had ordained for humanity at large. . . . According to Islamic law, between the dar al-Islam (the House of Islam, where Muslims lived) and the dar al-Harb (the House of War, in which the rest of mankind lived) there could exist only a state of unremitting warfare, which would not cease until all mankind had embraced Islam and submitted to the will of God, as revealed to the last and greatest of His prophets, Muhammad.” A generation later, we can see the dire consequences of Western illusion, appeasement, and witless encouragement of a resurgent Islam (both Sunni and Shia) in the Middle East, fueled, financed, and armed by the rival Gulf states.

If my father were writing this article, I am sure he would seek to take the measure of the new “Commander of the Faithful” (Amir al-Mu’minin), Caliph Ibrahim, and his Islamic State; assess the threat he poses to the West; and discuss what the latter should do to defend itself. He would start with the clue provided by Caliph Ibrahim’s original name, Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarri, which shows that he comes from the flashpoint town of Samarra, where one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam is situated. Caliph Ibrahim seeks to take it by storm, knowing the terrible effect that the final destruction of the Askariyya shrine would have upon Shia Muslims and Iran (it was partly destroyed by bombs in 2006–07, although the tombs of the tenth and eleventh imams survived; it was this attack that led to the explosion of sectarian tension in Iraq).

But it is Caliph Ibrahim’s nom de guerre, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Al-Husseini Al-Qureshi, that shows his true intent, by trying to claim direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad and his father-in-law, the first caliph, or successor, Abu Bakr al-Siddique (“the Truthful”). Abu Bakr was a nickname, meaning “father of the foal of the camel” (apparently the original Abu Bakr had a fondness for camel foals and goats). During the short rule of the first caliph (a.d. 632–634), he presided over the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and launched successful campaigns against the Sassanid (neo-Persian) and Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empires, which under his successor brought the Levant (comprising modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel) under Muslim rule. Later caliphs went on to expand this empire throughout the known (Mediterranean) world, even sacking Rome in 846. One can understand now, from his own blood-curdling statements, that the new caliph intends to emulate the achievements of his illustrious namesake and his successors and to create an Islamic state, or caliphate, stretching across our known world. It shows the true intent of his parting remark to his American guards when he was released from Camp Bucca, Iraq, in 2009: “I’ll see you guys in New York.”

What then should Western leaders do to prevent another 9/11? They should first cast aside their deadly illusion that the Islamic State is somehow an aberrant Islamist terrorist group whose gruesome activities are as abhorrent to many Muslims as they are to Westerners. This latest Islamic revivalist movement has taken shape, and carried out its Koranic punishments, because of the very support that Sunni and Shia governments and peoples have given to the warring sectarian groups in Iraq and Syria. Now that this Frankenstein’s monster of their own creation poses a threat to the very integrity of their own states in the Gulf and Turkey, they expect the West to step in and save them, as we have done before. One can understand the reluctance of Western leaders and their peoples to do this, given that Western intervention seems to make the situation worse rather than better. In fact, what happens is that as soon as Western forces leave the scene, the local actors revert to type. We must accept the fact that since the misnamed “Arab Spring” of 2011, which should be called “the Jihadi Spring,” the tottering old order of despotic Arab nationalist dynasties in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya has collapsed. Only Assad is hanging on by his eyelids. What is emerging, piece by piece, is a new Middle East along Islamist lines, whether Sunni or Shia. We must expect that the resulting sectarian tension will lead to even greater violence and instability in the region than we have seen in our lifetimes.

The West must protect itself against any direct threats to its own security, especially in the form of terrorist attacks on its own peoples at home. This will require an even greater counter-terrorism effort than before, especially against those homegrown jihadis who seek to take the sword to the kafirs (unbelievers) in their own countries. It beggars belief that Western governments have disarmed themselves, thus failing in their first duty, to protect their citizens, by giving primacy to the human rights of terrorists rather than to those of their innocent victims. Defensive measures, however, do not win wars. The West needs to target individuals, groups, and even governments in the Middle East that pose a threat to its security. Our enemies need to be kept off balance. We must seek and keep the initiative. This is not just a question of air strikes and special operations, though these may be needed. Above all, it is a question of making it clear to all and sundry, Sunni or Shia, that we are not to be trifled with, and certainly not threatened. The full panoply of the West’s remaining power, whether diplomatic, political, or economic, should be deployed to deal with any serious threats to our security emerging out of the Middle East. The preemptive cringe and spirit of defeatism that has held sway in Western capitals for too long should be abandoned. If it is not, and the challenge is not properly confronted and dealt with, then the future for the West is black — jihadi black. It is at such a moment of crisis for the West that we need to remember Churchill’s words “Action this day!” That way future generations will be able to look back and say of us, “This was their finest hour.”

— Saul Kelly is Reader in International History at King’s College, London. He is deputy editor of Middle Eastern Studies and has published a number of books and articles on the region.