The Levant News – BY THOMAS STACKPOLE FOR FOREIGN POLICY – The war against the Islamic State, and the brand of extremist violence it exemplifies, won’t be won or lost on the battlefield. Defeating the group, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Thursday, will instead first require debunking the ideological propaganda the group spews to justify its killing.
Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hussein lamented the brutal murder of his Jordanian countryman, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive by the Islamic State in a video made public earlier this week. “Just bombing them or choking off their finances has clearly not worked, for these groups have only proliferated and grown in strength,” he said. That meant the fight against the group required “the addition of a different sort of battle-line one waged principally by Muslim leaders and Muslim countries and based on ideas — on a reassertion of traditional Islam in the everyday narrative of Muslims.”
That won’t be easy. Even though the pilot’s burning sparked revulsion and fury across the world, the group still has its defenders. The radical British cleric Anjem Choudary defended the Islamic State’s method of killing the pilot in an interview on NewsmaxTV, claiming it was justified because of the women and children killed by bombing campaigns. “In defensive jihad,” he said, “whatever the Muslims can do within the realms of the acceptable behavior, they are doing. And part of that is terrorizing the enemy.” And an Islamic State admirer on Twitter reportedly wrote, “To any pilot participating in the crusader coalition against the holy warriors — know that your plane might fall in the next mission. Sleep well!”
Hussein, who became the first Arab and Muslim to lead the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights when he assumed the role in September, has long been critical of the military-first approach that the United States and governments and international bodies have favored in combatting the Islamic States.
Instead, he’s been pushing for a war of ideas against the group, something that he believes has already started. Last September, in a letter translated into 10 languages, more than 120 Muslim scholars “discredited the cruel, harsh, ideology promoted by the leader of the Takfiris [Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy] in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This is a hopeful beginning and deserves support,” he said during his address Thursday at the Holocaust museum, a powerful setting for a speech by a Muslim condemning atrocities ostensibly carried out in the name of his own religion.
It’s not a new argument for Hussein, but in the wake of this week’s gruesome killing he’s been gaining an array of new allies who have lashed out at the Islamic State’s claim that burning the Jordanian pilot was within the bounds of sharia law.
“Burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law regardless of its causes,” tweeted Saudi cleric Salman al-Odah, according to Reuters. “It is rejected whether it falls on an individual or a group or a people. Only God tortures by fire.” Sheikh Hussein bin Shu’ayb, head of the religious affairs department in southern Yemen, told the news service, “The Prophet, peace be upon him, advised against burning people with fire.” The Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s Al-Azhar university, Ahmed al-Tayeb, expressed disgust with the act and said its perpetrators deserved to be “killed, crucified or to have their limbs amputated.”
Hussein is a realist who knows that the fight against the Islamic state — and whatever will come along to replace it — is going to be longer than any bombing campaign.
“Years of tyranny, inequalities, fear, and bad governance are what contribute to the expansion of extremist ideas and violence,” he said in his speech on Thursday. “Few of these crises have erupted without warning.” And quashing extremism before it grows into the next terrorist threat means discrediting the ideas that are used to justify violence before they can take hold.
To that end, Hussein’s best ally in purging extremist ideologies like that espoused by the Islamic State, might be the Islamic State itself.