Islamic State in the Mediterranean: an analysis of North-South mutual responsibilities

“The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader’s armies in Dabiq”

(Dabiq, Issue N. 2 – Islamic State Propaganda Magazine)

Since the Islamist group proclaimed itself as the “Islamic State” under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a wave of violence has been affecting the areas conquered by the IS army, threatening Muslims, especially Shia, as well as other minority groups such as Christians, Yazidis and Kurds. Everywhere they go, they subdue religious minorities, destroy temples and churches, and violate fundamental human rights.

IS is inflicting terrible mistreatments to populations which are killed and tortured. In addition, they steal women, selling them as slaves and committing rapes. But the scariest thing is the absence of our reactions (including in this “our” not only Western countries, but also the representatives of moderate Islam all over the world). As a matter of fact, on 11th December 2014 al-Azhar, the prestigious religious University of Cairo, issued a statement claiming that no believer can be declared an apostate, regardless of his sins. Hence, he implicitly refuses to accuse IS for its acts of violence.

It is true that al-Azhar has never officially declared a Muslim an apostate. But many single sheikhs have issued fatwas (i.e. Islam legal pronouncements that are characteristically not binding) against Muslim intellectuals just for their uncomfortable statements against the Islam al-Azhar is protecting. There are two previous cases worth to remember, the first one involving Farag Fouda and the other one Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.

In a fatwa of 1992, Farag Fouda was accused of apostasy just for his ideas about the necessity of separating religion and politics. The fatwa led to his assassination a year later. Even if not binding because the individual is free to choose whether to give them credit or not, fatwas of this kind frequently provide a sort of pseudo-legal justifications for the acts of violence perpetrated by extremist groups. The second example involves Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. He was accused of being an apostate in 1993 for his books dealing with Qur’anic hermeneutic. According to his point of view, the Qur’an must be considered a “text,” and historically contextualised in its structure and language, clearly influenced by the historical period that have produced them, thus re-opening the so-called bab al-ijtihad (“the Gates of Interpretation”). According to part of the Islamic establishment, this idea contradicts the basic principle of the divine creation of the text. He was forced to leave Egypt for Netherlands in 1995 to protect himself, his family and his ideas.

In the light of these two fatwas issued by al-Azhar scholars in the past, it becomes even more worrying the absence of accusations towards the Islamic State, especially after the recent events affecting, directly or indirectly, Mediterranean countries. First, a video released on 15th February 2015 shows the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians that were kidnapped in Sirte during two different attacks to the city and then killed on a beach nearby the town of Tripoli, next to the border with Egypt. The killers confirmed their affiliation to the Islamic State, thus making it clear that this terrorist organisation is not confined to Iraq and Syria, but it is spreading also in other parts of the world.

Libya is certainly the best country in the Maghreb where IS could penetrate due to its persistent instability: there are two governments fighting for the control of the country, one in Tobruk, which has received international recognition, and one in Tripoli, the General National Congress. Looking deeply into the political dynamics of the country, the situation in Libya is far more complicated than this: since Muhammar Gaddafi was ousted four years ago, following a military air intervention of the NATO coalition in 2011, many tribal groups are fighting for the control of the country and its oil resources. In addition, many Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, reunited under the umbrella of the Shoura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, partake in political issues, as well as IS that has entered the country gaining control of three different cities: Derna (Darnah), the base of operations, Sirte and an-Nawfahliya.

Secondly, on 18th March 2015 three gunmen attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis, taking many hostages and killing 25 people. They managed to hit the country that was the symbol of the Arab Spring, where the wave of protests started after Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself in the street protesting against the government of Ben Ali. They attacked the country where, according to many analysts, the revolution has had the best results, leading to the beginning of a democratic alternation to power. They attacked the country where, in the last presidential election held in November/December 2014, Beji Caid Essebsi, candidate of Nida Tounes party, won a fair competition with his rival and former president Marzouki.

Coincidence or not, the Bardo Museum was attacked exactly at the same time when the Tunisian Parliament was voting on an antiterrorist law. It is still unclear whether the attack was directed at the Parliament itself or just the museum since the two buildings are adjoining. What is central here is that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, proclaiming its presence also in Tunisia. How is this possible? How could it enter Tunisia as well, which, apparently, has a completely different situation from the Libya’s one?

In order to answer this question, it is useful to quote some words of the Islamic State propaganda magazine titled Dabiq – from the name of the city in Northern Syria where, according to a hadith, Romans and Muslims are predicted to be fighting before the end of time – published (not by chance) in English. In the foreword to the second issue, also quoted at the beginning of the present article, there is a list of the “duties” of Muslims all over the world. The first one is the hijra (i.e. the migration) to the territories of the Islamic State (just to be noted that the hijra is also one of the Pillars of Islam, and has to be performed, if possible, to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina). The second “duty” listed in the magazine is the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. As it is read in the magazine itself “second, if you cannot perform hijra for whatever extraordinary reason, then try in your location to organize bay’at (pledges of allegiance) to the Khalifah Ibrahim. Publicize them as much as possible.” It is clear that IS is looking for pledges of allegiance from other Islamist groups, like the one issued by Boko Haram in Nigeria, with the aim of spreading in all the territories of the dar al-Islam, Tunisia and Libya included.
Few observations must be made at this point of the discussion. First of all, the strategy of the Islamic State is all based on a massive and organised propaganda. Indeed, IS has founded both a magazine and a media centre (al-Hayat) that spread their messages using various types of media. What is worth noting here is the choice of the language used to convey their propaganda: English. This means that their aim at reaching as wide an audience as possible, not limited to the Arab and Muslim countries.

An article published on website on 19th March 2015 struck my attention: “Turchia, espulsi 1500 cittadini Ue che volevano unirsi all’Is”. Thus, a central phenomenon has to be taken into consideration when trying to analyse IS and its development: IS supporters are coming also from European cites, from the poor outskirts of London and Paris, from the ghetto of US megalopolis. IS propaganda, delivered in English, has appeal on Muslims born in Europe and the US, Muslims that have experienced the problems of integration they face in their daily lives in our cities. Muslims who do not feel Europe is their home.

Therefore, more doubts than certainties exist. First, there is the need to think about the reasons why Islamic authorities have not strongly accused IS so far and the inhuman acts they are perpetrating. Alessandro Bausani once wrote in one of his books that Islam is better to be described as an orthopraxis (i.e. a right way of behaving) rather than an orthodoxy (i.e., a right way of believing), shedding light on the strong link that exists between faith and politics (meaning the managing of people’s daily lives) in Islam. Until the Islamic world would not accept to open the bab al-ijtihad (“the Gates of Interpretation”) and give voice to thinkers of the kind of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Farag Fouda, it will risk leaving the path open to extremist organisations like IS to manage people’s daily life.

Second, Europe has to stop and think. Think about the innermost reasons why second or third generation Muslims are leaving from our countries to join IS ranks. Why has IS propaganda such a huge influence on these youths? Don’t you think there must be something wrong in our way of describing this religion, making European-born Muslims willing to commit to IS cause? Our integration model must be revisited. Every part has to take on its responsibilities for the current situation, both North and South of the Mediterranean.


Master’s degree in Languages and Cultures for International Communication and Cooperation (University of Milan)

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