by Zainab Cheema (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 6, Ramadan, 1432)
The story of the second relief Flotilla to Gaza is a tale of how to marshal all the king’s horses and all the king’s men in order to muffle a humanitarian enterprise. After Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish members of the first Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 2010, Turkish-Israeli relations chilled to sub-zero, while Israel’s already-brittle reputation developed minute fracture lines.
The story of the second relief Flotilla to Gaza is a tale of how to marshal all the king’s horses and all the king’s men in order to muffle a humanitarian enterprise. After Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish members of the first Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 2010, Turkish-Israeli relations chilled to sub-zero, while Israel’s already-brittle reputation developed minute fracture lines. The second time around, Israel operated through the militaries, espionage corps and governments of the international order. Of the ten vessels that attempted to sail from ports in Greece and other countries, only one left the harbor — the French vessel Dignité al-Karama, which was finally intercepted in July 2011 by four Israeli military ships armed to the teeth.
High-profile participants in the second Flotilla for Gaza clearly indicate that global support for Gaza is accelerating, even with the steady refusal of mainstream news corporations to report on Palestinian suffering. The flotillers included African American novelist Alice Walker, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, former CIA official and current dissenter Ray McGovern, al-Jazeera reporter Ayyache Derradj, MP of the European Parliament Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, French trade union leader Annick Coupe, and others. Four women activists were Nobel Peace Prize winners: Rigoberta Menchú from Guatemala, Mairhead Maguire of Northern Ireland, American Jody Williams, and Shirin Ebadi of Iran.
Alice Walker has been particularly vocal about her participation in the flotilla. She has written about her saving the children of Gaza that are being victimized by the ruthless blockade, and also to pay tribute to the Jewish activists who laid their lives on the line to participate in civil rights demonstrations and Freedom Rides. “I see children, all children, as humanity’s most precious resource, because it will be to them that the care of the planet will always be left,” she expressed in her Guardian opinion piece. “As adults . . .We must do everything in our power to cease the behavior that makes children everywhere feel afraid.”
The international coalition of activists organizing the peace armada widely published their intentions through press releases and letters to their heads of state. While some ships carried humanitarian supplies for Gaza’s beleaguered civilians, most simply bore letters of support and the symbolic capital of global sympathy. Benjamin Netanyahu and his rightwing associates lost no time in recycling stale old narratives of Israel under attack by aggressive enemies, in this case violent supporters of terror hell-bent on carrying arms to Hamas.
In one such fabulous instance of storytelling, Israeli military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitz declared there were “radical elements” among the activists participating in the sea convoy, including some carrying “dangerous incendiary chemicals.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the activists “hardcore terrorists.” There was even a fake video blogger, later revealed to be an intern in Netanyahu’s office, who attempted to cast doubt on the character and intentions of the flotilla activists.
The United States, which Netanyahu once characterized as “a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction,” made its support to Israel clear. Senator Mark Kirk declared that the US should “make available all necessary special operations and naval support to the Israeli Navy to effectively disable flotilla vessels before they can pose a threat to Israeli coastal security or put Israeli lives at risk.” As demonstrated on numerous occasions, the Israeli power class indicated a stronger grasp of reality than the US Congress. Several unnamed members of Israel’s security cabinet published a letter in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claiming that the military’s hate campaign amounted to nothing more than “media spin” and “public relations hysteria.”
While Israel usually makes no bones about vaunting its military might, this time it proceeded more cautiously — the machinery behind the international stage has subtly moved to block the activists from freely expressing their conscience. A number of ships were sabotaged while they were docked in Greece and Turkey. The Irish ship MV Saoirse and the Juliano (named for the Israeli Arab actor and director Juliano Meir-Khamis, shot to death in Jenin in April 2011) were damaged in order to prevent them from leaving their ports. “This was the type of sabotage that endangered human life,” declared Fintan Lane, the national coordinator of Irish Ship to Gaza organization. Israeli divers, with the tacit cooperation of the Greek and Turkish governments, cut a piece of the propeller shaft, which would have ripped the bottom of the boats and caused them to sink once out in open waters.
Other ships were refused permission by authorities or immobilized by punitive state action. The captain of the US ship, The Audacity of Hope — the name is of course, an ironic riff on the title of President Obama’s best-selling book — was arrested by the Greek authorities. Eight American activists with the flotilla protested by undertaking a hunger fast outside the US embassy in Greece on July 4th, only to be arrested in turn.
The Canadian ship Tahrir and others were prevented from leaving after the Greek authorities demanded new papers, which the crew was not able to provide on short notice. Al-Karama was apprehended by Greek ships while refueling in Cretan waters, but evaded them until it was finally cornered by Israeli forces. Only Malaysia’s The Spirit of Rachel Corrie met with partial success — it was allowed to unload its supplies in Egypt, while Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf assured the flotillers that the goods would reach Gaza.
The sabotage brought to bear against the flotilla activists, acting on conviction and conscience, outlines the predicament of a Greece bankrupt in more ways than the financial. Israel’s cooling relations with Turkey spurred the Zionist nation to turn to Greece, transferring its trade, energy and military connections to Turkey’s historic rival. Despite mouthing criticism of the Mavi Marmara massacre, Greek premier George Papandreou embarked on a state visit to Israel one short month after the death of the Turkish activists. Greece and Israel have conducted six military training exercises this year, and Netanyahu is discussing plans to build a gas pipeline with Greece that will harvest the bonanza of the Leviathan gas field found off the coast of the Shaam region.
Israel has been effusive in praising Greece after its help in stymieing the Flotilla. “I want to thank you for following the instructions of the United Nations secretary-general and stopping the Gaza flotilla,” Israeli President Shimon Peres self-righteously declared to the Greek President Karolos Papoulias in Jerusalem. “Israel always has its hand stretched out in peace.”
Their appreciation has not been limited to rhetoric. Less than a week after Greek cooperation, the Greek economic bailout long-shrugged off by French and German bankers who complained about shelling out funds for an “incompetent” and “lazy” government, was speedily approved. Protests from a Greek public enraged over austerity measures and photographs of Athens burning accomplished nothing. However, Greece’s greasy handshake with Netanyahu moved the hearts of the bankers within five short days. This is how Greece, which once launched a thousand ships for the sake of Helen of Troy, reaped the rewards of stopping ten ships in an armada of peace.
The Turkish role in stopping the armada is far more hazy — and also, far more dismaying. Early in the mobilization process for the Freedom Flotilla, Turkey barred the Mavi Marmara from participating. Under the Erdogan-led Turkish Freedom and Justice party, Istanbul had formulated a policy of building Middle East-oriented political alliances that Western observers had nervously dubbed as neo-Ottomanization. However, following the crisis point in relations between Turkey and Israel after Israel’s brutal attack on the Mavi Marmara, pressure from the West seems to have penetrated the inner sanctums of Turkish executive authority — Erdogan and his cabinet are back to reaffirming their links with NATO.
For its part, Israel seems to have realized that it is suicidal to cultivate antagonism with all of its Muslim neighbors. The tactic that Netanyahu seems to be pursuing these days is to reach out to the Turks as “the good Muslims,” while splitting the latter’s solidarity with the “bad Muslims” — aka, Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah. In June, Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon conducted secret talks in Geneva with Feridun Sinirlioglu, undersecretary at the Turkish Foreign Ministry. In a press conference before Turkish reporters, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon unctuously declared, “Now we need to let go of this mutual blame game as to why trust [between Israel and Turkey] was lost.” Israel has recently persuaded the United Nations to delay its report on the Mavi Marmara massacre, hoping to repair relations with Turkey under the radar and thus soften the document that will eventually be released to the public.
Erdogan has significantly back-peddled on his stand against Zionism — his willingness to talk tough to the Israelis had previously made him the most popular man in the Muslim East. He seems to have abandoned the cause of Gaza, and now demands an apology for the loss of Turkish life as the price of normalizing relations with Israel. “As soon as the path to peace opens again I’m sure that relations between Turkey and Israel will return at the same good level,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told French news service AFP in a joint press conference with French counterpart Bernard Kouchner. There is even talk of using Turkey to bring Hamas in line with a “peace deal” that will establish Israel’s legal hegemony over the West Bank and Gaza. “[We will] kiss the hands of each and every Turk if Ankara convinces Hamas to sign onto peace,” Ayalon said, as reported by Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.
The question of Turkish motivations is yet unclear, but the lead they have taken in spearheading NATO plans of colonizing Syria and Libya is a significant blot on their record. There can be no doubt that Bashar Al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi are distateful dictators, but the alternatives are significantly more gruesome — the US-armed rebels that make up Libya’s National Transitional Council would blithely rubber stamp NATO plans to split Libya into three colonies administered respectively by France, Italy and the United States. Erdogan has stooped to relaying the Pentagon’s demands to Qaddafi to quit power and leave, offering to help him find a safe berth in whichever country he desires. “Depending on the reply we will get from him, we will take up the issue with our (NATO) allies, but unfortunately we have received no reply so far,” said Erdogan. In an ironic twist, Turkey now finds itself moving on the path taken by Greece.
It appears that the AKP party now faces an existential crisis of some sort. Taking a stand against Pentagon Inc. (leaving aside the “NATO” euphemism for the moment) means losing lucrative markets in the US and Europe and short-term economic loss for Turkey. While remaining with NATO is certainly opening up a fast track to the regional power Turkey has long desired, they are losing their momentum as a new kind of power in the Muslim East. Erdogan’s Justice and Development party is forced to make a decision between “justice” and the economic gains that have translated into wide political support at home. To make the wrong choice is to lose the platform of leadership on issues that the global Muslim Ummah cares about — and eventual political irrelevance.
So, where do the chips stack up? While the 2011 Flotilla appears to have suffered a defeat, in reality it marks a watershed moment in the worldwide protest movement against Israel. Gaza is sparking a collision between the global infrastructure of power, with its corporate banks, media outfits, and governments, and the masses of people on the ground who are attempting to find ways to break through their collective invisibility. Gaza’s muffled strangulation has become a metaphor for various formations of corrupt power ignoring the human base on which they rest.
As political philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed, power rests in the collective movement of a public. States and corporations who want to believe that their people are docile drones to their dictates, are now forced to react to the creativity and determination of a global public that finds itself united in its human sympathy for Gaza. While Erdogan, Davut-oglu and other members of the AKP have made rhetorical invocations toward the leadership afforded by the platform of universal justice, they now have to make a choice. What will they choose, the call of history or the short-term dividends of regional power?
The Sirah from a hitherto neglected dimension: the letters and treaties of the Prophet (pbuh)
Zainab Cheema reviews Zafar Bangash’s latest book entitled Power Manifestations of the Sirah: Examining the Letters and Treaties of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and published by Crescent International for the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (384 pages; soft cover, $30.00).
Focusing on the Sirah through the lens of the treaties and letters sent by the Prophet (pbuh) alights at the miraculous paradox at the heart of the Qura’nic message. The Qur’an itself calls attention to how the power and grandeur of the Divine Writ was revealed to an unlettered prophet. In reading the writings of the Prophet (pbuh) as a statesman, it also becomes clear that the word is intertwined with every facet of Islam’s temporal expression on earth. Zafar Bangash’s new book, Power Manifestations of the Sirah: Examining the Letters and Treaties of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), focuses on the political documents around which the first wave of the Islamic movement was launched 1,400 years ago.
Most books on the Sirah take an overly chronological approach, focusing on the minutiae of events in the Prophet’s (pbuh) life and emphasizing acts of personal piety. Other works by writers such as Muhammad Hamidullah have specifically tackled the Prophet’s (pbuh) letters and treaties, but are descriptive rather than analytical. Bangash’s accomplishment is to produce an account of founding political documents charting the establishment of the city state of Madinah and Islam’s expansion as a world power, while using them to illuminate how the Prophet (pbuh) practiced politics as grounded in the Qur’an. The book operates on the canvas of ideas — it compellingly charts the shift from a chaotic political system influenced by tribal loyalties, elitism, and class interests to one grounded on deliverance of care and universal justice to the diverse constituents of an Islamic state.
Power Manifestations is organized according to the sequence of key documents executed by the Prophet (pbuh) as he gravitated from his role as the leader of a small community of Muslims in Makkah, to the head of state administering Madinah and eventually, the Arabian Peninsula. The chapters focus on the Pacts of ‘Aqabah, the Covenant of Madinah, the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, the Farewell Khutbah at Arafat, in addition to his correspondence with other world leaders like Asham, the Negus of Abyssinia; Chosroe Pervez, the Emperor of Persia; Heraclius, the Emperor of Byzantium; and Muqawqis, the Administrator of Egypt. Copies of these documents are reproduced in tables within the chapters, while the analysis reproduces the conversations, controversies, and statecraft mobilized around these encounters.
The author has also paid attention to the Qur’anic ayat quoted, forwarded or revealed around these encounters, implicitly providing an answer to Muslims who somehow believe that the Qur’an stands apart from the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunnah. Every letter to a head of state marshals a Qur’anic ayah. Reflexively, the book shows that revelation came upon charged moments of the Muslims’ political life, such as the Treaty of Hudaibiyah (the pact of non-aggression with the Quraysh), which many of the Companions believed to be a setback before Allah (swt) reassured them that it was indeed a strategic victory. The Prophet’s (pbuh) character as man and leader, and the experiences of his constituency is the frame on which the warp and woof of the divine Word has been woven.
The Covenant of Madinah marks a definitive shift in the power distribution of the Arabian Peninsula. Power Manifestations looks at how the Prophet (pbuh) exercised the forward-thinking qualities of a statesman even under the severe stress of Makkan persecution. His choice of Mus‘ab ibn ‘Umayr (ra) to develop social contacts in various cities, including Yathrib, in order to provide a base for the Islamic movement, reflected a brilliant strategic move. We are given a close look at the culture of leadership fostered by the Prophet (pbuh) in his community through the rhetorical skills, insightfulness, and God-consciousness of men like Mus‘ab and Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib (who was instrumental in building the Prophet’s (pbuh) diplomatic and spiritual ties with the Negus). It was Mus‘ab that laid the groundwork for the Prophet’s (pbuh) success in Yathrib (later renamed Madinah), a city exhausted by tribal blood feuds and Yahudi economic exploitation.
There is no question that the Covenant is a landmark document in human history. For the first time, an inclusive government based “on the notion of a ‘social contract’ between the state and its citizens” (p. 99) was inaugurated in the quiet hamlet of Yathrib. Power Manifestations describes how the Prophet (pbuh) materialized the Qur’an’s rhetorical invocation of al-ladhina amanu (those committed to Allah’s (swt) power presence) by a process of ittihad (social integration) that fused the various interests of diverse groups of people into a singular community oriented toward social justice.
The Covenant is a text that should be mandatory reading for anyone doubtful about whether Muslims have exercised justice with power. Bangash compares how it meticulously lists the rights and responsibilities of all groups and constituencies that were to makeup the social fabric of the Prophet’s (pbuh) city, in contrast to the US constitution which offered equality and citizenship to men of European background but denied social existence to Africans, women and Native Americans. However, the nature of Islamic politics and “…indeed the cause of Allah on earth is to represent those who have been oppressed and degraded by the corrupt exercise of power and weave threads of justice into the social tapestry of natural human relationships” (p.95). A remarkable facet of the Covenant that has been noted by many scholars is that the majority of the Prophet’s (pbuh) constituents were non-Muslim when agreement was ratified.
The Prophet’s (pbuh) correspondence with the Negus provides a valuable archive of a diplomatic relationship that first validated the Muslims’ presence as a world power, and also of the ties of friendship that grew between the Abyssinian head of state and the last Messenger (pbuh). The Negus even sent his son Ariha to Madinah, where the Prophet’s (pbuh) cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra) hosted him. The book discusses the extant letters exchanged by the Prophet (pbuh) and the Negus. Bangash includes copies of the letters within the chapters theya are analyzed in, which is far more helpful than collecting them in the backwaters of an index.
While the Prophet (pbuh) and the Negus never met, the Prophet’s (pbuh) letters and his companions provided a doorway of communication with the Divine Message through which Asham eventually converted into Islam. In one of Asham’s final letters, he writes to the Prophet (pbuh): “We have understood well what you have stated in your letter to me. Your cousin [Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib] and his companions are very close to us. I bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allah and I have pledged my allegiance to Allah at the hands of your cousin and I have entered into Islam” (p.229). On his death, the Prophet (pbuh) offered Janazah prayers in absentia, signifying that the ruler was in fact a member of the Muslim Ummah.
Power Manifestations calls our attention to the confident leadership exuded by the Prophet (pbuh), notwithstanding the personal and social setbacks he was suffering in delivering the message. While Muslim scholarship of the Sirah is deeply sympathetic to the suffering of the Muslims, engaging with the political dimension of his letters makes it clear that personal hardship did not cloud his confidence, political intelligence, or the driven initiative in presenting Islam as a message on the global scale. By initiating the process of creating an archivable record of official communication, practiced by presidents today, the “…Prophet (pbuh) clearly visualized his role both as a prophet as well as a leader of a distinct community at the time” (p.59).
We also see that the celebrated “breakthroughs” in Islamic history were not just the miraculous movements of divine providence. They were also an outcome of the real world strategies practiced by the Messenger (pbuh); he was conscious of himself as world leader and acted as such, even before Madinah was able to wrest Makkah’s role as Arabia’s power center. For instance, there were strategic reasons behind sending the contingent of Muslims, apart from alleviating them from the oppression they suffered in Makkah. Bangash raises the point that many of the émigrés were in fact, children of aristocrats who were far less likely to suffer persecution than the Muslims from lower classes or slaves. Even from Makkah, the Prophet (pbuh) was in effect sending diplomatic missions to a ruler in order to invite him to Islam, while weakening the Muslims’ national and tribal allegiances. Ja‘far (ra) with his famed eloquence became a medium for translating the prophetic message in Abyssinia, and a point of contact for the exchange of letters.
Bangash characterizes Hudaybiyah as the first “international treaty” signed by the Prophet (pbuh). The book elaborates on how the Treaty, characterized by Allah (swt) as a definitive victory, became the watershed moment in the Muslims’ move toward political ascendance over Arabia and the world at large. Even as it became evident that the Jewish tribes would work to undermine Madinah’s government at every opportunity, the Prophet (pbuh) required a treaty of non-aggression with the Quraysh that would allow him to deal with internal and peripheral threats to the city-state, while also normalizing relations with the rest of the Peninsula. “The treaty was a master stroke in statesmanship, neutralizing one enemy by binding it to a pact of non-aggression while forcing lesser enemies to deal with Muslim military power individually” (p.207).
The Prophet’s (pbuh) epistolary contact with Byzantium and Persia is also extensively treated in a later chapter. Bangash’s analysis of the force and assurance with which the Prophet (pbuh) addressed the two superpowers of the day makes for an arresting read, while also providing an instructive lesson for Muslims who believe that non-Muslims must be sufficiently accommodated before they can be persuaded to tolerate Islam within their midst. The emperor Heraclius possessed knowledge of the final messenger from the Bible and after hearing an account of his character from Makkan traders (including Abu Sufyan), attempted to convince his priests to accept the Qur’anic message. However, he was thwarted by their ethnic and religious chauvinism, even while he was convinced that this refusal would (eventually) cost him his kingdom.
“Obviously, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) did not regard himself to be one who is lacking in power,” writes Bangash. “With Allah’s (swt) support, with the Qur’anic revelation causing seismic shifts in the restructuring of human behavior, and with the finest generation now coming into its own as the state instrument of da‘wah, how was it possible for the Islamic precedent [that had] Muhammad (pbuh) at its vanguard, to be vanquished?” (p.247). Bangash also provides information about how the letters circulated among various kings and dignitaries through the centuries, and where some of them are currently preserved.
Power Manifestations is a break from Islamic scholarship focusing on narration of events and personal acts of devotion. In today’s complex, fast-paced world, Muslims face a vacuum of knowledge in how to manage their progression to the forefront of world affairs. The book illustrates that this vacuum stems not from a deficiency in the prophetic example, but from a deficiency in our efforts in gaining comprehensive knowledge of it. Islam’s astonishing spread in the first 30 years stems from the creation of a unique body politic devoted to the Divine Word, while also embracing human diversity and human needs on earth. And while many Muslims have deep love for the Prophet (pbuh), the book makes clear that without understanding every facet of his character — including that of a statesman — that love must remain a shadow of the attribute demanded by his great personality.
Many readers will appreciate the fact that Power Manifestations is not hermetically sealed within a historical canvas of time past, but also blends in contemporary issues of leadership, organization, and socialization relevant to a contemporary Islamic movement. And in order to understand politics done right, one cannot really escape reference to the enormous archive of politics done wrong under the European nation-state system. Power Manifestations also refers to contemporary political issues of war and violence faced by the world today. While the book manages to get the balance right for the most part, perhaps there is too much reference to contemporary events in the final chapter addressed to the Prophet’s (pbuh) farewell khutbah. This makes the chapter too news-oriented and deflects attention away from the central theme of the argument.
In examining the way in which the Prophet (pbuh) practiced power and communication, the book provides a scholarly nexus for the Qur’an, Sunnah and Sirah in addressing some of the most pressing issues that face us today. In examining the Prophet (pbuh) as a leader, we understand the true dimension of his meaning when he characterized the Qur’an as the miracle he was endowed with, in contrast to ‘Isa (a) and the other prophets sent to Banu Israel. The might of the written word, which characterized the grandeur of Islamic civilization, rests on the Prophet’s (pbuh) understanding of the Qur’an as the vehicle for mobilizing human intelligence’s connection with divine presence. Power Manifestations will likely prove to be one of the enduring classics of Islamic studies, not least for definitively proving that Islam was spread by the pen rather than by the sword.