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May 12, 2004

The Mongol Invasion of Iraq: Lessons Never Learned


by Amir Butler

Last week, CBS's Sixty Minutes II program showed footage of American soldiers creating "human pyramids" from detained Iraqis. However, it should be remembered that Iraqis, and indeed Muslims in general, are no strangers to "human pyramids." The last time that such pyramids were built in the region was in the 13th century when the hordes of Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, sacked Iraq. After massacring entire towns and villages, they would assemble huge pyramids of human skulls as a reminder and warning that the Mongols were passing through. One can presume that similar sentiments a need to send a "message" to would-be "insurgents" underpin American atrocities in the region today.

In one of Karl Marx's more lucid statements, he is reported to have said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." The American occupation of Iraq would be a farcical re-run of history were it not that the almost certain effects of that occupation will be catastrophic for both Iraqis and Americans.

The Mongol invasion began like the American invasion: with a disgruntled Shi'ite upstart aspiring to greatness. The Ahmad Chalabi of the 13th century was a character called Ibn al-'Alqami. Al-'Alqami was a minister in the court of the Caliph al-Musta'sim. Like Chalabi, al-'Alqami had desires of leadership of the land and, like Chalabi, he was not above soliciting the assistance of foreign powers to help even if that assistance would come at great cost to his people or his nation. America was not a superpower in al-Alqami's time so he turned his attentions to the Mongols.

Al-'Alqami wrote a number of letters to the leader of the Mongols, Hulagu Khan, inviting him to invade the land, promising' his support and offering "intelligence" on the Caliph's armies, their strengths and weaknesses, and the overall lay of the land. It would, he assured the Mongols, be a cakewalk and within a short space of time the Mongol Empire could be extended into the previously impervious core of the Muslim Caliphate. At the same time, Al-'Alqami used his position to influence the Caliph to reduce the size of the army thus ensuring that the Mongol invasion would be guaranteed little resistance.

Hulagu accepted al-'Alqami's generous invitation to attack, pillage, and massacre. As per Mongol custom, he first issued a written threat to the Caliph: "When I lead my army against Baghdad in anger, whether you hide in heaven or in earth, I will bring you down from the spinning spheres; I will toss you in the air like a lion. I will leave no one alive in your realm; I will burn your city, your land, your self. If you wish to spare yourself and your venerable family, give heed to my advice with the ear of intelligence. If you do not, you will see what God has willed. Demonstrating what many conservatives might lament as the overall cultural decline since the 13th century, America sends her message to Iraqi insurgents by blasting AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" at them:

"If you're into evil you're a friend of mine,
See my white light flashing as I split the night,
'cause if God's on the left, then I'm stickin' to the right,
I won't take no prisoners, won't spare no lives,
Nobody's puttin' up a fight,
I got my bell, I'm gonna take you to hell,
I'm gonna get you, Satan get you.
Hell's Bells, Satan's comin' to you.
Hell's Bells, he's ringing them now.
Hell's Bells, the temperature's high.
Hell's Bells, across the sky.
Hell's Bells, they're takin' you down.
Hell's Bells, they're draggin' you around.
Hell's Bells, gonna split the night.
Hell's Bells, there's no way to fight, yeah."

Indeed.

The Caliph wasn't going to be intimidated. He refused the Mongol offer to surrender and decided to defend his city against their onslaught. While the Muslim armies put up a good fight, the reduced size of the army (due to the machinations of al-'Alqami) meant that they were no match militarily for the Mongols. Hulagu's armies killed everyone they found the elderly, the infirm, the women, and the children. Nobody was spared their sword. Ibn Kathir, one of the scholars of Islamic History noted in his magnum opus, Bidaaya wa Nihaya, that the Mongols killed so many people that blood would be running down the street like rainwater. By some estimates, the number of dead exceeded 1 million.

After taking Baghdad the decision had to be made as to what would be done with the Caliph. The Mongols had a superstition which prevented them from spilling the blood of kings onto the earth. Al-'Alqami had no such qualms and suggested that rather than kill his leader with a sword, they should roll him and his family in carpet and then kick them to death. Al- Alqami volunteered for the task and proceeded to kick his former employer till he died. The Mongol Coalition of the Willing became strained at this brazen rejection of Mongol International Law. Berek Khan, a Mongol leader who had converted to Islam some years prior, pulled his men out of Baghdad in protest.

The death of the Caliph ushered in a new era of Mongol-imposed brutality on the majority Sunni population (back then, the Shi'a were still a minority in Iraq). However for all their cruelty, viciousness and relatively barbaric rules of engagement, the Mongols were pragmatic. They realized that men like al-'Alqami that would sell their people and nation to a foreign invader couldn't be trusted. If a man holds no loyalty to his own people, then how can he be trusted to hold loyalty to an invader and occupier? Al-'Alqami had hoped to be the Mongol's vicegerent in the region, but instead he became their slave. The sidelining of Chalabi would suggest that America has come to a similarly informed conclusion about the long-term usefulness of traitors, quislings and fifth columnists.

The Mongols understood what America is now learning: that the principle source of resistance to occupation of Muslim lands will always be religiously inspired. Therefore, any effort to dilute or subvert the practice of Islam in the lands under occupation was seen by the Mongols as a pre-requisite to maintaining the occupation. They therefore imposed a law over their subjects, which like the law being conjured up by the US-led occupation was essentially non-Islamic but couched into vague references and pseudo-Islamic terminology. The Mongols called their law al-Yasiq.

It is against this backdrop of occupation and foreign laws imposed on the population that one of the most influential and important figures in Islamic history would emerge. His name would be familiar to many people who follow the War on Terror, given that he is widely (though somewhat inaccurately) credited with having laid the ideological foundation for the so-called Wahabi movement. His name was Ibn Taymeeyah, or Sheikh-ul-Islam (The Scholar of Islam) as he has been affectionately known throughout the ages. When faced with the imposition of the Mongol's foreign systems of government and laws on the Muslim population, he rallied against the Mongols and those who had supported them, declaring that whoever implemented such laws was a disbeliever in Islam: "Whoever does this is an infidel who must be fought until he returns to the rule of Allah and His messenger. So no one other than He should rule neither minorly or majorly." This was the first time that a foreign system of belief had been forced on the heartland of the Muslim world, and Ibn Taymeeyah's lengthy fatwa provides the theological underpinning for Muslim resistance to man-made laws in every country in the Muslim world. He concluded by stating that defending the Muslim lands and expelling the occupying army is the second most important obligation of a Muslim after believing in Allah.

The reluctance of the Muslims to be satisfied with Mongol law presented a dilemma to their Mongol rulers. As long as the population was denied that right of self-determination, including determination of the laws by which they are governed, the Mongols could not subdue the population completely. At the same time, if the Muslims were ever granted this right then it would mean the instant end to Mongol hegemony in the region. Indeed, it was this desire to re-establish an Islamic state that drove every instance of Sunni resistance to Mongol rule from the moment they entered Baghdad. Today, it is this same desire that lies at the heart of the political instability in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, and most every country in the Arab world that has chosen secularism as its political path. The inescapable fact is that a Muslim cannot accept secularism without leaving his religion. As a complete way of life, Islam has no concept of "rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's." For this reason, the Bush Administration's attempt to force the round pegs of secular democracy into the square holes of Middle Eastern society is certain to fail and draw the same violent resistance as would the forcible imposition of shariah law on the United States.

By subduing Iraq, the Mongols also came to learn that the Islamic world isn't divided on the basis of nation-state or geographic region. The Prophet Muhammad described the Muslim world as a single unit and likened it to the human body in that if one part feels pain then all feels the pain. For this reason, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad and built human pyramids with the remains of the city's scholars and poets, it was as though that brutality had been meted out on the entire Muslim world. When Muslims in Jakarta, Sarajevo, Riyadh or Tunis see the scenes of American brutality in Iraq, it is as though it is being done to them. When they see photographs of Iraqi men being forced into simulated oral sex alongside grinning American servicemen and women, the rage they feel is as if that act was carried out on their own brother or their own father. Occupations cannot be maintained without subduing the population whether physically, economically or psychologically so the more that America continues its occupation, the more it will be forced to engage in brutality and the more that this brutality reaches the eyes of the Muslim world, the less secure that the world becomes for Americans and, indeed, Westerners in general. It doesn't matter how many times President Bush appears on Arab television offering mealy-mouthed apologies and assurances that the sexual humiliation meted out to the Iraqis, the brutality, and the sadism is not representative of America. The fact is that Arabs and Muslims like most people will judge President Bush and America not on what they say, but on what they do.

The turning point for the Mongol occupation came in September, 1260 when they had moved into Palestine. The Mamluks, a Muslim nation based in Egypt, had sent an army to confront them. Led by a general named Quduz, the army met the Mongols at a place called Ayn Jalut (Eye of Goliath) in Palestine. They would number 20,000 on each side, but the Mamluks would defeat the Mongols impressively, inflicting heavy losses on them and sending shockwaves throughout their empire. It was a turning point for the Muslims and broke the spell of Mongol invincibility. After the captured leader of the Mongol armies was brought to Quduz, he told him:

"Despicable man, you have shed so much blood wrongfully, ended the lives of champions and dignitaries with false assurances, and overthrown ancient dynasties with broken promises. Now you have finally fallen into a snare yourself."

The despicable men of the Bush Administration, so infatuated with their own messianic vision for the democratic revolution, so intoxicated with the hubris of empire, and so enslaved to the neo-Jacobin vision of "creative destruction" have fallen into the snare of thinking that they can do what no other society has been able to do: violently impose a foreign ideology on the Muslim world. The Administration seems to be clumsily treading a path well worn by the Mongols from the "human pyramids" to the modern-day Yasiq to the rise of religious fundamentalism in response to occupation excesses. It took two years between the fall of the Caliphate in Baghdad to the defeat of the Mongols in Ayn Jalut. America has yet to meet her Ayn Jalut, but as the Muslim world continues to seethe and violence in Iraq escalates, that day may be fast approaching.


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Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC).

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