Al-Baghdadi’s Thirteenth Speech: New Fixation on Christianity
This is a funny one: in a speech released a couple of days ago, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi assumes the role of Muhammad, while assigning Barack Obama the role of Heraclius, the emperor of Byzantium from 610-641 AD.
I’m so excited; I don’t even know where to start.
Here’s a quick tour through the Muslim version of history (…which means that it did not necessarily happen according to the narrative, and there is a possibility that it never did occur at all): around 628 AD (that is, before his takeover of Mecca) Muhammad allegedly sent letter-carrying emissaries to the potentates of the three empires surrounding Arabia—the kings of the Persian, Abyssinian and Byzantine empires, as well as one to the governor of Egypt—calling upon them to enter into the fold of Islam.
As kids, we were told that two of the three kings responded positively, the Persian fellow being the odd one out (…he may even have belittled the emissary, or something like that). Heraclius, the Byzantine, was intrigued by Muhammad’s letter and wanted to know more; he sought out Meccan merchants, who were passing through the Levant doing business, and asked them “What’s this Muhammad fellow all about?” According to tradition, Heraclius was so enamored by what he heard that he considered turning Muslim himself, but held back for fear that such an act would cost him the White House, errr, the throne of Byzantium. Sorry, I’m getting all mixed up.
The format of the letter is easily recognizable for those with an Arab or Muslim upbringing. Especially lines like, “From Muhammad, the slave of Allah and His messenger, to Heraclius, the great one of the Romans” and “Peace upon those who are rightly guided [by Islam].”
The gist of Muhammad’s letter (…his matter-of-fact wording, actually) is “turn Muslim, and you’ll be safe.”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
-The audio was released on November 7 by the Al-Furqan Institute for Media Production and runs for 22 minutes. It is titled ‘A Letter to the Rulers of the White House.’
-This would mark Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’s thirteenth audio speech, and the fourteenth time we’ve heard from him. Al-Baghdadi has never appeared in a video recording. His twelfth speech was released on September 24, 2008 marking the second anniversary of the Islamic State of Iraq that he heads. It is the same voice we have heard all throughout.
-Although he does not specify Barack Obama by name, the conciliatory tone of the message (especially in the last part of it) suggests that it is directed towards Obama rather than John McCain, meaning it was recorded after the election results were announced (…or maybe two separate speeches were prepared for either eventuality). Al-Baghdadi seems to believe that the new occupant of the White House would be amenable towards withdrawing from Iraq, and from the Middle East as a whole. I’m quite sure that had McCain won, al-Baghdadi would not have drawn such conclusions about America’s next president.
-By taking on the role of Muhammad and the prophet’s correspondence with the potentates of the world, al-Baghdadi further cements the jihadist notion that he and his supporters are merely emulating Muhammad’s policies at Medina when building their own state and future empire. This running motif further suggests that al-Baghdadi sees himself as the caliph-elect (or successor to the prophet), and the Islamic State of Iraq as the resurrected state of the caliphate.
-The bulk of the speech is concerned with Christianity and its flaws. To my mind, this is the first time that the jihadists in Iraq have pegged their struggle as one directed against a flawed version of Christianity, a version that they seek to ‘reform’.
TRANSLATION, ANALYSIS, OPINION:
Even before we get into the speech proper, the selection of Koranic verses that precede the speech are interesting in and of themselves. Such choices are never random, and they serve to emphasize the basic message of the speech. In this case, these would be verses 135-137 of the Al-Baqara sura:
They say: "Become Jews or Christians if ye would be guided (To salvation)." Say thou: "Nay! (I would rather) the Religion of Abraham the True, and he joined not gods with Allah."Basically, Christianity and Judaism have gone astray, and Islam is here to fix things and get them back to what God always meant them to be.
Say ye: "We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam)."
So if they believe as ye believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism; but Allah will suffice thee as against them, and He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.
(Yusuf Ali's translation, from here)
As always, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi is introduced as the ‘Commander of the Faithful’, one of the titles that are usually exclusive to a caliph.
Al-Baghdadi begins by following the format of Muhammad’s letter to Heraclius, but with updated modifications:
From Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the commander of the Islamic State of Iraq, to the new rulers of the White House, and the entirety of their allies among the heads of the Christian countries, peace upon those who are righteously guided [by Islam]…More of the Muslims versus Byzantines theme here. By the way, it took Islam eight centuries to finally snuff out Byzantium, or whatever remained of its bygone glory in the Constantinople that the Ottomans captured in 1453.
I call you to [come into] Allah, the one, who has no partner, turn [Muslim] and you will be safe in this world and in the hereafter, and in our call to you, we do not forbid you from [entering upon] the just religion, [on the contrary] we are ordering you to [follow it] and we are assisting you [to do this], for the religion of all the prophets and the messengers is one religion…
But you have inherited a perverted religion that contains flaws that are multitudes more than what it contains of [correctness]; it was rendered corrupt by [Emperor] Constantine [of Byzantium] and his aides and his oppressive [heirs], looking for fake accolades in a transient world…
Al-Baghdadi explains his motive by saying:
We have sought to call upon you because you are the closest of the nations to us.This here is one of the essential points made by Bernard Lewis in his numerous and brilliant essays and books: the historical antagonisms and repulsions between Islam and Christianity stem from their similarities, and the scope of their ambition and competition, rather than from their differences.
Al-Baghdadi adds, “it is one of the joys of the ummah of Islam that it began with Muhammad [PBUH] and shall end with Jesus, the son of Mary…but you and your allies among the Jews—who besmirched the honor of pure one, Mary the Virgin, and accused her [of relations] with Joseph the carpenter, and claimed to kill the Messiah—are waiting for the false one, while we are waiting for he who will kill the false one; you await the Messiah of Falseness, while we await the Messiah of Guidance…and you will [eventually] believe in the [true Jesus] because he will annul the poll tax [levied on Christians] and he shall [offer you] either Islam or the sword.”
It is tempting to think that al-Baghdadi is pocking fun at Obama’s messianic appeal at this juncture of the speech, essentially depicting him as the False Messiah, but I just don’t think that he is that sophisticated.
Al-Baghdadi warns his pen pals that they should not allow their present power to mislead them into the realm of hubris for it is only a matter of time until the jihadists “will seize your footholds”—hadn’t Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the earth?
Al-Baghdadi believes that the divine winds have already turned against Christendom, and that Hurricane Katrina, and other such instances, were evidence of that.
Your civilization is made of cardboard, for if the electricity is cut off or the computer networks malfunction, you return to the age before iron and metalworking…Al-Baghdadi then takes heart in watching the civilization of Christendom, which allows usury—contrary to what the prophets, including Jesus, had preached—suffer through the current credit meltdown, and claims that “fifty trillion dollars were lost in a few days during the mortgage crisis.” I don’t know where al-Baghdadi is getting his numbers from.
According to al-Baghdadi, Christendom’s war against the “land of Islam” was the main reason behind “the collapse of the economic giant” and that this collapse began with the 911 attacks, and continued on the battlefront of Iraq. Christendom’s tens of thousands of soldiers were defeated by a few hundred jihadists in the two battles of Fallouja, and these same jihadists managed to snatch victory, in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq, from the jaws and claws of the enemy.
And now, after making the case why a weakened and insecure Christendom should adopt Islam, al-Baghdadi tries Plan-B, which is much more conciliatory in tone:
If you refuse [to enter into] Islam, and to worship Allah without any partners, then we [would like] to remind you of what you were in the past, and especially America, whose principle was neutrality until [that changed] with World War II, and under [this neutrality America] experienced security, safety and progress in all fields, but when this nation began to forgo its neutrality and interfering in the affairs of others it began to lose everything, and for what? For the sake of a gang of arms and oil merchants who enslaved a whole nation and led them to crushing wars and turned them into the fuel of boundless greed.I can’t tell exactly who al-Baghdadi is channeling here, Buchanan or Chomsky? The isolationist, anti-imperialist crowd in the U.S. just found itself a new poster child.
Today, on behalf of my brothers in Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia and Chechnya, I offer you what is best for you and for us:These terms being offered to Obama are a lot better than the ones offered by al-Baghdadi to President Bush back in December 2006, when the conditions were that America has to pull all its troops out but must leave its heavy arms behind as loot for the jihadists.
-To return to your previous state of neutrality, and to withdraw your forces and return to your lands, and you should not interfere in the affairs of our lands either directly or indirectly, and [if you do so then] we will not prohibit commerce with you whether that be oil or something else provided it is fair and even priced, not [sold] cheaply or at a loss.
It is interesting that al-Baghdadi preemtively spoke on behalf of Bin Laden & Co. What could this mean?
-Do not support the agents for the ummah of Islam has hated them and hated you [as a result], and let the ummah be ruled by its [Islamic] scholars for that is most beneficial to them and to you.This is a dig at the dictatorial regimes that the U.S. is allied with in the Middle East.
And since al-Baghdadi doesn’t think that any of this will fly either then he suggests that, at a minimum, Obama can let prisoners from “Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba”—meaning Guantanamo—go. It seems that al-Baghdadi has already heard that Obama is going to shut down the detention facility at Gitmo, so he’s positioning himself to take credit for coaxing Obama into doing that.
Then al-Baghdadi does one of his mini-rants accusing the West of being the real terrorists, and asks, “Where are you from the kind and compassionate teachings of your religion…[Didn’t] Jesus (PBUH) say: “Turn your left cheek to he who hits you on your right cheek, and give your shirt to he who takes your coat”?
You have violated your religion and oppressed others, so you are deserving of [whatever dark fate] befalls you...Clearly, al-Baghdadi thinks that Obama will give him a fair hearing. After all, aren’t the Americans and the British thinking out loud about negotiating with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar? And isn’t Obama open to talking with Ahmadinejad? “So why wouldn’t they talk and reach an accommodation with me?” seems to be al-Baghdadi’s line of reasoning.
The purpose of this letter is to call upon you to what is best by [employing] what is best, so it is not meant to threaten you or to make you hear what every tyrant should hear…
We end our talk with you with what we started with, to call upon you [to enter into] monotheism and Islam, and it is thus that the prophet of mercy and heroism Muhammad (PBUH) sent to the great one of your creed at his time, Heraclius, who took his letter [to heart] and was kind to the [prophet’s] emissary and thought about what he had to say, and did not hasten in response, but he feared for his rule, even though he knew that the [prophet’s] call was true.
So do not be any less prudent than [Heraclius], if you are no better than him in [your] response…
WHAT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER
-One more time, with gusto: the Islamic State of Iraq was the most ambitious undertaking ever adopted by world-wide jihadists; bigger than the Afghan jihad, bigger than the Taliban, bigger than 911. This was to be the much-heralded Imperial Caliphate.
-The critical question that analysts and jihadists should be asking now is: Why is al-Baghdadi being conciliatory now? Is it a reflection of his own weakness, or is he spotting a new weakness in America’s resolve? Has al-Baghdadi interpreted Obama’s election as an apology by the American people for the Bush era, and their willingness to make amends with their former enemies? Al-Baghdadi has recognized in the past that the Islamic State of Iraq is going through rough times, but his tone was one of defiance. I believe that what changed here is that he sees an opportunity and a lifeline in the person of Obama; a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq can only make al-Baghdadi’s odds at survival better. And it doesn’t stop there: the U.S. may be open to holding direct talks that may confer legitimacy on him and on his jihadist state, or so he thinks.
-However, all this stuff about Christianity could signal a new theological front opening up, one that reformulates the jihad against the West less as an anti-imperialist struggle, and more as an ongoing battle between ‘Islamdom’ and Christendom. Al-Baghdadi doesn’t use his habitual inflammatory rhetoric of “worshippers of the cross” and “Crusaders” to describe the Americans in this speech, which on the surface of it looks and sounds like a mellowing out. But what’s going to happen when his expectations of Obama are not met? Does he turn his disconcerting familiarity with Christianity into something else all together; a mission to covert Christians to the true faith? And where does that leave the Christians of the Middle East? Will they be turned into legitimate targets for the neo-jihadists, just as al-Zarqawi did with the Shias?
-Talisman Gate: Al-Baghdadi's Third Speech: here he annuls the historic protections awarded by the second caliph to Christians living under Islamic rule.