News reports out of Syria are airing graphic footage of extensive interior damage to the historic Khalid Ibn Al-Walid Mosque in Homs. Syrian government troops, backed by Hizballah fighters, captured the mosque from Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces on July 27, 2013 in heavy fighting that has engulfed the northern Homs neighborhood of Khaldiyeh.
Although the mosque holds little strategic value to the Sunni rebels, it holds great symbolic status as the centuries-old mausoleum of Khalid Ibn Al-Walid, revered by Muslims as a companion of Muhammad, as well as commander of the Islamic military forces that conquered Syria after the defeat of the Christian Byzantine forces at the 636 CE Battle of Yarmouk. Syrian television footage showed the dome of the mausoleum had been knocked out in the recent fighting, causing heavy fire damage to the interior, with debris strewn across the floor. Clearly, the mosque assault by Syrian forces loyal to the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, with back-up support from Shi'ite Hizballah, was intended to incite intra-Islamic sectarian rage from the Sunni rebels.
The Khalid Ibn Al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria, as photographed in 2008. (Source: Noura Raslan)
The extent to which that objective will now be met remains to be seen, but is reminiscent of the February 22, 2006 bombing of the great golden-domed Shi'ite Askaria Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, by al-Qa'eda elements, under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That carefully-calculated outrage is credited with igniting a savage multi-year civil war in Iraq, which, tragically, appears to be breaking out anew: July 2013 attacks on mosques and worshippers have killed at least 700.
Unfortunately, Iraq and Syria are but the current-day iterations of a 1,300-year-old blood feud over who has the greater legitimacy to rule over the Islamic ummah [Nation of Islam]: Shi'ites or Sunnis. After the 632 CE death of Islam's traditional founder, the companions and bloodline descendents of Muhammad disagreed—vehemently—over whom should be granted the allegiance of his followers, with all the power the position of Caliph entailed. Then, as now, there was never any question about invoking the consent of the governed, or acknowledging the status or natural worth of the individual, to contribute to the political functioning of the Islamic state. As described so starkly by the Greek-American political scientist P.J. Vatikiotis, and cited here by Andrew Bostom, the essentially authoritarian, autocratic ethos of Islam "may be lasting, even permanent," and shackles its adherents to an endless "No Exit" cycle of coup, counter-coup, revolution and oppression. Shi'ite and Sunni are doomed to internecine combat over the centuries because both Islamic sects are bound to an ideology based on dominance, not good faith mutual concessions or participatory collaboration. The name of this power-obsessed ideology is Islam. As a belief system, it is deeply bound up with the compellingly spiritual dimensions of Islam and cannot be separated from them, but nevertheless, as ideology, prioritizes the political dimensions.
The Islamic forces shredding each other in Syria are fighting at one of the top levels of what Philip Carl Salzman called "balanced opposition" in his compelling 2007 book, "Culture and Conflict in the Middle East." That level is intra-Islamic: between the Shi'ite-backed Assad regime, whose ability to cling to power even this long is directly due to the massive support from Shi'ite Iran and its Shi'ite terror proxy, Hizballah; and the Sunni rebel militia forces that count Sunni Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, plus Turkey and the U.S., in their corner.
Virtually all sides in Syria (excepting only the Kurds and the outnumbered pro-democracy forces within the FSA) see things from a "zero-sum-game" theological perspective: whichever side wins is expected to unleash holy genocide on every other group not aligned with it. Ethnic Christians in Syria are already the victims of what Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, has called "ethno-religious cleansing."
Deeply rooted in pre-Islamic tribal social structures, some of the most primitive of all human drives—to conquer and dominate by force—were brilliantly sacralized in Islamic doctrine. With assassination, banditry, genocide, hatred-of-other, polygamy, rape, pillage, and slavery all divinely sanctioned in scriptures believed to be revealed by Allah himself, the world is not likely to see an end to Islam's "bloody borders" or "bloody innards" any time soon. In the traditional Arab and Muslim system, there is just too much at stake for those who win, as well as those who lose. There is no such thing as a "win-win" concept in Islam.
Events in Egypt -- where so far things have not deteriorated to the levels of carnage now seen in Iraq or Syria -- have not reached their conclusion, perhaps not even their mid-point. Islamic-style authoritarianism is the dominant characteristic of governance shared by both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, theocrats and non-theocrats: one or the other must be dominant. They cannot share power. There will be no coalition government or government of national unity. One side or the other must come out on top after the bloodletting is done (which could be a long time indeed). Neither will there be anything approaching genuine liberal democratic civil society in Egypt for possibly an even longer time. The foundational building blocks of civil society—individual liberty, freedom of belief and speech, genuine universal equality before the law, citizens' participation in their own governance that goes beyond a mere ballot box exercise—are simply not there and cannot develop there as long as so many in Egypt remain in thrall to Islamic law (shariah), to which such concepts are anathema. Indeed, as Vijay Kumar wrote in his 2010 essay entitled, "The Muslim Mosque: A State Within a State," "[c]entral to the Koran's political mandates is prohibition of religious freedom and religious tolerance, along with denouncements of religions such as Christianity and Judaism."
Unfortunately for Egypt's Copts, other minorities, and the genuinely pro-democracy liberals, the trend in Egypt as well as the rest of North Africa for well over the last 1300 years has been unswervingly in the direction of the forces leading the Arab Islamic conquest. The colonialist, nationalist period of experimentation with Western styles of political systems (whether communism, fascism, or democracy) slipped right back to the status quo ante in the post-Nasser era, in which the default position is autocracy punctuated by outbreaks of rebellion and revolution.
Even given the recent, serious setback dealt the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the likelihood that the Brotherhood will stay down, become quiescent, or abandon its jihadist roots and objectives, is virtually non-existent. This is, at least in part, because it is not so much Islam or even shariah law that have been discredited, but rather the Muslim Brotherhood, the Morsi administration, and their ability to govern according to the Brotherhood slogan, "Islam is the solution."
Turning back to the mosque as a center of military -- as well as political and religious -- activity in intra-Islamic fitna [upheaval], as in the case of the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria, it is worth concluding with some consideration of the role the mosque, or masjid in Arabic, traditionally has played in these periodic convulsions within the Islamic world. According to Sam Solomon, a former Islamic jurist who was born a Muslim and trained in shariah for fifteen years before converting to Christianity, "Islam is not simply a religion. Islam is a socio-political system. It is a socio-political, socio-religious, socio-economic, socio-educational, socio-judicial, legislatic, militaristic system cloaked in, garbed in religious terminology."
The masjid (its Arabic root means to prostrate, as in worship) is the place where shariah, believed to be the immutable law of Allah, is upheld and implemented. As such, it is the central structure in an Islamic society: it is a gathering place, place of worship, and a place for teaching Islamic doctrine—but also a base of operations, military operations, the command and control hub for the commanders of the Islamic armies to plan their next offensives in the incessant wars of conquest. They declared jihad [war in the cause of Islam] from the mosques. Official delegations from the tribes met at Islam's early mosques; pledges of loyalty were given and accepted, alliances formed, and treaties proposed and signed. In this way, affairs of state were conducted in such mosques, underlining the intrinsically political nature of Islam from its earliest inception.
As Solomon points out in his 2007 monograph, "The Mosque Exposed," because all Muslims are obligated to emulate Muhammad, modern mosques must model themselves on the first mosque the Muslim community established in Medina (after the 622 CE hijra [journey] from Mecca). Inasmuch as that original mosque was above all a political center, and only secondarily became the place for Muslim prayers, so to this day mosques serve multiple purposes: as places of worship, certainly, but also as centers of jihad, public policy, and shariah justice. As Yousef al-Qaradawi, the senior jurist of the Muslim Brotherhood, elaborated in a 2006 fatwa [answer to a question about religion],
"In the life of the prophet there was no distinction between what the people call sacred and secular, or religion and politics: he had no place other than the mosque for politics and other related issues. That established a precedent for his religion. The mosque at the time of the prophet was his propagation center and the headquarters of the state… From ancient times the mosque has had a role in urging jihad for the sake of Allah…"
Al-Qaradawi's words echo those of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who, speaking in 1997, quoted the words of a 1912 poem, "The Soldier's Prayer," written by a Turkish poet: "The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army."
Obviously, the Syrian forces attacking the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs understood its role as the rebels' base of operations as well as the symbolic value it held for them because of the mausoleum inside. For the pro-Morsi Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque in the Nasr City suburb of Cairo is the protest rally point. Both of these civil conflicts are, at their base, about the inseparability of mosque and state in Islam, and the burning zeal of those believers who have no tolerance for Arab and Muslim regimes they see as allowing the two to function apart. As Muhammad Badi accused in his 2010 declaration of jihad against unfaithful Arab and Muslim regimes, "…they are disregarding Allah's commandment to wage jihad for His sake with [their] money and [their] lives, so that Allah's word will reign supreme…"
Syed Abul A'ala Maududi, another key theoretician of Islam, left no room for doubt about the nakedly political objectives of Islam:
"Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and program of Islam regardless of the country or the nation which rules it. The purpose of Islam is to set up a State on the basis of its own ideology and program."
The Islamic mosque is the bricks and mortar institutionalization of those objectives.