Sunday, October 22, 2006

What is happening in Sudan is usually described as a humanitarian disaster. But the campaign of genocide against black Africans by Arab militias should be seen as part of the larger struggle in the Middle East.

The U.N. Security Council has approved a more robust peacekeeping force to replace the outgunned African Union. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, however, has rejected U.N. intervention, claiming his troops would fight against any deployment. This has led to calls for NATO, which is now in charge of Afghan operations, to fight its way into Darfur.

Sudan has long been a bloody frontier between Islam and Black Africa, haunted for centuries by Arab slave traders. The British Empire signed a convention with Egypt in 1877 to outlaw slavery in Sudan. After the British took control of Egypt in 1883, progress was made freeing slaves there, but London decided to withdraw from Sudan. The British governor of the Sudan, Sir Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who opposed withdrawal, was killed in 1885 when an Islamic messiah claiming to be the “Mahdi” captured Khartoum. Slave traders who had gone into hiding flocked to the Mahdi’s standard, eager to see the British withdraw.

According to both Sunni and Shi’ite traditions, the Mahdi will arise shortly before the day of judgement and transform the world into a perfect Islamic society. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have described the Mahdi’s appearance: “The black banners will come out of the east, and they will slaughter you in a way that no nation has ever done before.”

The Sudanese Mahdi died of natural causes, but was succeeded by his lieutenant, the Khalifa. Popular agitation in England to avenge Gordon led to Gen. Horatio Kitchener’s famous victory at Omdurman in 1898. Kitchener’s imperial army of 26,000 (only a third of them British, the rest Egyptian and Sudanese) defeated some 50,000 Dervish. The Khalifa fled the battlefield, but was hunted down and killed. Prisoners were paraded in chains, and the Mahdi’s tomb demolished, to demonstrate in no uncertain terms who was the stronger power in the region.

Today, Shi’ite Muslim radicals such as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraq militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr predict the Mahdi’s return is imminent. Al-Sadr has even named his militia “The Mahdi Army.” The Shi’ites believe the Mahdi is the 12th Imam, who has been hiding for 1,100 years.

Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad called for “the emergence of a perfect human being who is heir to all prophets and pious men. He will lead the world to justice and absolute peace.” He repeated this call in his 2006 U.N. address, ending it with the plea “make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad believes his task is to hasten the Mahdi’s coming. As mayor of Tehran, he worked to prepare the city for this climactic event.

Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis has noted: “There is a radical difference between the Islamic Republic of Iran and other governments with nuclear weapons. This difference is expressed in what can only be described as the apocalyptic worldview of Iran’s present rulers.” The Mahdi is coming back to cleanse the world with fire and sword, a process that will be started by his followers before his actual appearance. It is hard to deter people who believe they are on a divine mission.

Iraq is a battlefield in this struggle. The sixth Shia Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, is reported to have said: “Before the appearance of the one who will rise… the people will be reprimanded for their acts of disobedience by a fire that will appear in the sky. … It will swallow up Baghdad, and will swallow up Kufa [where al-Sadiq is buried]. … Death will occur amid their people and a fear will come over the people of Iraq, from which they shall have no rest.” This is a fair description of the campaign of death squads and terror waged by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose loyalty is to the Tehran theocracy.

U.S.-led forces have bloodied the Mahdi Army on several occasions, but in another example of strategic malaise, have not been given the green light to eliminate this threat. On Oct. 20, the Mahdi Army seized control of Amarah, a provincial capital from which the British withdrew in August. And Mr. Ahmadinejad continues to defy the West over his nuclear ambitions, claiming he has not been swayed by U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

It is difficult in the midst of 21st century materialism for Americans to accept that foreign leaders would act on the basis of such irrational beliefs. Yet, history is filled with such episodes. Fortunately, history is also filled with examples of fanatics defeated by those not intimidated by their violent delusions.

When Kitchener crushed the Mahdists in the Sudan, most of his soldiers were Muslims who were not taken in by the radical creed. That same kind of coalition must be forged in the coming months to again demonstrate who holds the real power in the region.

William Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

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