theguardian: by Peter Frankopan —
After the prophet Muhammad’s death his Arab followers swept all before them to east and west – but then, theirs was a kind, tolerant and respectful faith
Fifteen centuries ago, Arab armies fanned out from the Middle East in search of conquest. For some who took part, the incentives were material – rich prizes were on offer from cities that paid tribute, surrendered or were sacked. For others, it was the spiritual rewards that appealed most: spreading the words that had been handed down to the prophet Muhammad, and which were later recorded in the Qur’an.
Some shifted between the two: “We are no longer seeking worldly gains,” one general told his enemies in the middle of the 7th century; instead they wanted to spread the word of God.
Most who look at the rise of Islam look at the confrontation between Muhammad’s followers, and their successes against the Christians in the Mediterranean – the fall of Egypt and the submission of Spain, the capture of Sicily and the advances into Asia Minor. That, however, is only half the story. While the spread of Islam to the west was significant, its spread eastwards was crucial.
In the decades after Muhammad’s death, Arab armies swarmed through what is now Iraq and Iran, taking control of the heart of the world in the process, the cauldron where civilisation itself began, before driving forwards to the frontier with China.
There was much to be gained – not to mention proof of divine authority – in capturing the heartlands of the Roman empire; but the early Islamic world grew because it looked in both directions. There were rich rewards available elsewhere. Isis has worked this out too.
As last week’s attacks in Jakarta show, Isis’s field of vision is not limited to Europe. Recruits have been flocking to Syria from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia in such numbers that the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit (Katibah Nusantara) has been formed. Leaders across south-east Asia have been warning for months about the threat posed by young men who have been trained by Isis and who either have returned home or will do so in coming months.
The export of terrorist methods is now a reality. Isis is keen to divide the world in two. The more carnage it causes, the more fear that is sown, the better.
In a sense, therefore, it does not matter if that means targeting cities in Europe, Asia, Africa or beyond. Indeed, the wider its reach appears to be, the greater the chances of gathering support, of sharpening antagonisms and of eliminating the “grey zone”, as the glossy in-house magazine Dabiq calls it. You are either with Isis or against it. There is to be no middle ground. The more killed – in Jakarta, in Istanbul, in Paris, anywhere – the more Isis stands to gain.
As with all revolutionary movements, lofty ambitions are coupled with a dose of realism about what is achievable. It may well be that Asia offers the best opportunities at a time when western intelligence agencies are expending ever-increasing resources on anti-terrorist activities to prevent attacks such as those that took place in Paris in November. It is a lesson the Bolsheviks learned after the industrialised countries of Europe were not delivered by revolution into the hands of the proletariat after 1917.
The Communists in the emergent Soviet Union needed to look east as well as west, urged Trotsky. “The path to India might well be much easier to travel in the current circumstances and what is more, quicker than the one leading to a soviet in Hungary,” he wrote in a memorandum circulated to his peers in 1919. “The route to Paris and London is through the cities of Afghanistan, the Punjab and Bengal.”
Isis seems more interested in making references to the crusades than to the Russian revolution (it said the attacks in Jakarta “targeted a gathering from the crusader alliance that fights the Islamic State”). Nevertheless, the focus on the east is striking.
Isis is busy canvassing, recruiting and extending its reach across the east. While some balked last year at the claim of the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, that Isis posed a “terrible threat” to central Asia, it is now a fact that significant inroads have been made by Isis across the region – epitomised by the defection last summer of the US-trained head of the Tajik police force, Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, who publicly declared his support for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
If there is hope in the current situation, it comes from the fact that the odds are heavily against Isis, as they were against the network of agents that Trotsky tried to set up across central Asia and northern India 100 years ago. Despite the flow of young men to Raqqa, there are limits to how many fanatics can be recruited by people whose regard for life is so scant.
And in that comes the great contrast with the successes achieved by the followers of Muhammad. Although it is true that the Muslim armies achieved some major military victories in the 7th century, a great part of the success in the building of an empire that soon ran from Spain to the Hindu Kush lay in the tolerance towards those of other faiths, by a softness of touch that came as a surprise to many.
People of the Book (Christians and Jews) had a special place reserved for them under the Islamic tradition – one that commanded respect and demanded safety. Early Muslim leaders built churches and showed respect for beliefs that did not mirror their own. That message has been lost by those willing to murder strangers and blow themselves up. There are better, and more enjoyable ways to reach paradise than through death and destruction.
Origional Post here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/18/isis-islam-conquests-prophet-muhammad-religion