Ramzy Baroud: Reverting to the Ummah: Who is the ‘Angry Muslim’ and Why

– Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People’s History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing

Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant,

an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom

Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

June 25, 2014 “ICH” –

“Brother, brother,” a young man called on me as I hurriedly left a lecture hall in some community

center in Durban, South Africa. This happened at the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, when

all efforts at stopping the ferocious US-western military drives against these two countries terribly


The young man was dressed in traditional Afghani Pashtun attire, and accompanied by a friend of

his. With palpable nervousness, he asked a question that seemed completely extraneous to my

lecture on the use of people history to understand protracted historical phenomena using Palestine

as a model.

“Brother, do you believe that there is hope for the Muslim Ummah?” He inquired about the future of a

nation in which he believed we both indisputably belonged to, and anxiously awaited as if my answer

carried any weight at all, and would put his evident worries at ease.

Perhaps more startling than his question is that I was not surprised in the least. His is a

intergenerational question that Muslim youth have been asking even before the decline and final

collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the last standing Caliphate, by the end of the First World War.

Despite major historical tumults, the Caliphate had remained in consistent existence since the

Rashidun Caliphs (the ‘rightly guided’ Caliphs) starting with Abu Bakr in 632 CE, following the death

of Prophet Mohammed.

The young man’s questions summoned so much history and a multitude of meanings. Few western

historians and ‘experts’ (especially those who attempted to understand Islam for the sake of applying

their knowledge for political and military purposes) can possibly fathom the emotional weight of that


“Ummah” in the young man’s question doesn’t exactly mean ‘nation’ in the relatively modern

nationalistic sense. Muslims are not a race, but come of all races; they don’t share a skin color, or

a life style per se, or a common language even if Arabic is the original language of the Holy Koran.

Ummah is a ‘nation’ that is predicated on a set of ageless moral values, originated in the Koran,

epitomized through the teachings and legacy (Sunnah) of Prophet Mohammed, and guided by Ijtihad

“diligence” – explained as the independent reasoning – of Muslim scholars (ulama) based on the

Koran and Sunnah.

Naturally, the breakdown of Caliphate created a crisis with too many dimensions. There was the

geographic breakdown of the Muslim Ummah, which despite the cultural and linguistic uniqueness

of the various groups of that ‘nation’, the Ummah always possessed overriding value-based political

and societal frameworks. Based on that old, but constantly revived legacy (thus ‘Ijtihad’), Muslims

possessed their own equivalence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva

Conventions, civil codes and much more starting nearly 14 centuries ago.

What was more consequential than the geographic breakdown of the Ummah was the collapse of

the very fabric of society, the disintegration of the laws that governed every individual or collective

relationship, every commercial transaction, rules regarding the environment, charity, the law of

war, and so on. Another dissolution also took place: that of the authentic and organic moral values

which allowed the Ummah to persist as many empires failed, and flourish while others decayed. The

organic, self-propelled system was replaced by alternatives that have all deteriorated to the very last


And that is where the roots of the ‘angry Muslim’ began.

The Ummah continues to live as an ideal which transcends time and place. It persists despite

the fact that the last century had taken an incredible toll on all Muslim nations, without exception.

Even the success of many nations to gain their independence from the very colonial powers that

brought the Caliphate down didn’t in any way tackle the original crisis of the once predominant, all-
encompassing Muslim Ummah. Colonized Muslim societies eventually adopted the rules and laws of

its former colonizers, and continued to vacillate within their sphere of influence.

Post-independence Muslim nations were a hideous mix of tribalism and cronyism, with a self-
serving interpretation of Islam and western laws and civil codes that were all tailored so very

carefully to ensure the survival of an utterly corrupt status quo; where local rulers ensure supremacy

over defeated, disoriented collectives, and western powers sustain their interests of by all means


Expectedly, such a status quo couldn’t possibly be sustained. A strong and cohesive civil society

had no chance of survival under oppressive regimes, and with the lack of education or opportunity,

or both, generations of Muslims endured in utter despair.

As an escape from their immediate woes, many Muslims sought inspiration elsewhere. They saw in

Palestine a rally cry, for the ongoing resistance to foreign occupation there was a symbolic indication

of a collective pulse. The wide support that Hezbollah (a Shia group) received among Sunni Muslims

for its resistance to Israel was an indication that sectarian divides dwarfed when compared to the

need for the Muslim Ummah to regroup around principles such as justice, thus reclaiming even if an

iota of its past glory.

But it was the US-led western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that drew the battle lines like never

before. When Baghdad fell in April 2003, and as American soldiers so conceitedly drowned the once

capital of the Abbasid Caliphate with their flags, many Muslims felt that their Ummah had reached

the lowest depths of humiliation. And while Iraqi men and women were being tortured, raped and

filmed dead or naked by smirking US soldiers in Baghdad’s prisons, a whole new nation of angry

Muslim youth was on the rise.

Western wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not the exclusive harbinger of Muslim youth anger,

humiliation and the current violence underway in Syria, Iraq, and other Muslim countries. The wars

were the catalyst. Picture a group of ‘foreign jihadists’ as they are called, sharing a meal between

battles somewhere near northern Iraq and imagine what they possibly have in common: an Iraq

tortured in Bucca, a Lebanese who fought the Israelis in south Lebanon, a Syrian whose family

had been killed in Aleppo, and so on. But it is not only a Middle Eastern question. The alienation

and constant targeting of French and British Muslim immigrants, their mosques, their cultures,

languages, their very identity, when coupled with the plight of Muslims everywhere could too have its

own violent manifestation as well.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is worried about the threat to the national security of his

country as a result of the ongoing strife in Iraq, instigated by territorial gains of the Islamic State of

Iraq and Levant (ISIL). He doesn’t seem to understand or care to understand his country’s role in the


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