For centuries after the prophet Muhammad trod the earth, the caliph had stood as a unifying principle in the Islamic world, conferring moral authority on the sultans and amirs who in turn gave the caliph temporal security. Despite political conflicts, rival claimants, and contested successions, the office, like the papacy, had weight for all Muslims, even the usurpers who conquered to the very gates of Baghdad only to “kiss the ground … and walk astride the caliph’s stirrup.”*
Seven hundred fifty-one years ago today, that last redoubt of that single Muslim community was extinguished when the last Abbasid caliph was put to death by the Mongols.
a weak and miserly creature, in whose improvident hands the Caliphate, even in quieter times, would have fared ill … we need not to travel beyond the imbecility of the Caliph and the demoralisation of his now shrunken kingdom, for the causes of impending ruin. … As characteristic of his meanness, we are told that he appropriated the state jewels of the Chief of Kerak, who with difficulty obtained their partial restitution by proclaiming the Caliph’s dishonesty before the assembled pilgrims at Mecca. (Sir William Muir)
Retrospection, of course, aids us in appreciating the “sunset” — certainly it did not occur to Musta’sim that the ascension in Egypt of Shajar al-Durr in 1250 that marks the dawn of Mamluk rule was the seed of a successor order. On the contrary, he sent this Islamic queen a contemptuous offer to provide a man for Egypt, since it could find none to seat on its throne.
He would have done better to man up against the Mongols, who had not failed to notice that Baghdad lacked the muscle to protect its accumulated wealth.
A gold dinar from the Al-Musta’sim period. Interestingly, albeit tangentially, Sir Thomas Arnold recorded that for decades after this date, some Islamic rulers “went on putting the name of the dead Musta’sim on [their] coins, because [they] could find no other [caliph], and the Muslim theory of the state had not succeeded in adjusting itself to the fact that there was no Khalifah or Imam in existence.”
Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan (or Hulegu, or Hülegü) reduced Baghdad in a matter of days and plundered the city.** Al-Musta’sim having combined an impolitic bluster towards the advancing horde with an utter failure to ready the city’s defenses, Hulagu Khan was most unimpressed with his prisoner.
On February 20th, in a village near to Baghdad, Al-Musta’sim was executed. Contemporary chroniclers are silent as to the method; Marco Polo reported that he had been immured with his treasures in an opulent tower to starve to death.
[Hulagu Khan] set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat!’ ‘It is not edible,’ said the Caliph. ‘Then why didst thou keep it,’ asked the King, ‘and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?’ ‘Such,’ replied the Caliph, ‘was God’s will.’ ‘What will befall thee,’ said the King, ‘is also God’s will.'”
It is more generally supposed that Al-Musta’sim was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death — the Mongols’ own method for putting princes to death without shedding royal blood.
However effected, the caliph’s demise ended the classical period of Islam. And yet, as Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum observes in his book on the period, that ending was itself a beginning for the flowering of high Islamic civilization that the days of the caliphate had prepared.
What terminates in 1258 is the major chain of political legitimacy to which reality had failed to conform for rather more than four centuries when the extent of the Muslim empire had ceased to be coterminous with the rule of Islam and the unity of tradition had become no more than a postulate.
None the less, the fall of Baghdad did more than bring home the precariousness of all human structures, even those erected on the true faith and devised to safeguard it. It demonstrated that the ‘Abode of Islam’ had become saturated with Islam, that the community no longer required a caliphate to give it a political and religious centre of gravity, that the vitality of Islam as an interpretation of man and the world, a way of life, and a style of thinking and feeling was now independent of any institutional support.
… the very irreparability of the calamity made the faithful realize that the abiding of their world, its beliefs and manifestations, had outgrown any particular political form and had indeed become too wide to be contained in history. In this realization the epigones undoubtedly rejoined the innermost intent of ancestors and founder.
On this date three years ago — or at least, so says the date in the camera’s viewfinder — a female spy was “tried” and “executed” in Iraq by al Qaeda affiliated terrorists for spying.
Warning: This is (by design) a graphic and chilling video. I have little information beyond the assertion of the video posters as to its veracity. Whether or not it may be relied upon factually or dated reliably, it’s a gut-twisting video of a woman being shot in the head.
On this date in 1980, a professor, a soldier, a bureaucrat and a businessman were hanged by Saddam Hussein in his campaign to cow Iraq’s Turkic ethnic minority.
The ethnic and religious quiltwork of Iraq is much more nuanced than Sunni vs. Shia — and this blog has noticed its deadly potential before.
This day’s hangings belong to an earlier era, of the Ba’athist secular pan-Arab aspiration that had Hussein quashing minority national aspirations. (Though the anti-minority stance was hardly unique to him.)
Nejdet Kochak, Abdullah Abdurrahman, Riza Demirji and Adil Sherif were ethnic Turkmen (or Turkomen), ethnically and linguistically distinct Moslem descendants of those far-flung peoples of the Eurasian steppes.
More to the point, they were relatively prominent voices for Turkoman civil rights in the face of harsh state suppression.
This being Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the problem had an easy solution. The four were made examples of, convicted of spying for their brother Turks in Turkey, and hanged — but not forgotten.
On this date in 1976, three Abu Nidal terrorists were hanged before the Hotel Semiramis in Damascus, barely 24 hours after they had entered it and taken 90 hostages in a bid to win release of Palestinian prisoners.
Palestinians Muhammad al-Barqawi and Mouatassem Jayyoushi and Iraqi Jabbar Darwish suffered Syria’s first public execution since an accused Israeli spy more than a decade before — and as the late Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad had pledged, justice was swift and ruthless.
The security of the citizen is sacred. We shall not be soft in this matter. We shall hit back very hard and we denounce this criminal action committed by the gang, which acted as if it was in Israel.
They were the surviving 75% of a quartet of gunmen who early the previous morning had seized the hotel, barricaded themselves on the fifth floor, and attempted to make their trade. Plainly, it didn’t quite work out; the attempt precipitated a battle with Syrian troops which saw the fourth terrorist killed, along with four of the hostages. The Supreme State Security Court condemned the captured men to death overnight; the sentence was carried out between 6:00 and 6:30 the next morning.
New York Times coverage of the raid and the execution is unfortunately behind the paper’s paid-login firewall, but a photo of the execution shows onlookers ringing a single wooden frame for what must have been a short-drop hanging. An unused fourth noose, possibly symbolically present for the killed fourth terrorist (or possibly not; there’s no explicit comment on it), hangs beside the dead men.
So why the grievance? That June — “Black June,” to the Palestinians — Syria had bailed on hard-line Palestinians and entered the Lebanese Civil War on the side of Phalangist Christians,* just as they were on the verge of being overrun. It was the second time in six years that a neighboring Arab power had turned its guns on Palestinians. (In 1970, Jordan had expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization in “Black September.” Lots of black in the Palestinian annals.)
And why the Iraqi, among the hanged?
Palestinian terrormeister Abu Nidal had hung out his shingle in Iraq, then under the control of a rising young dictator destined for the gallows himself, but who grasped the opportunist potential of backing the Palestinian cause while states like Jordan and Syria visibly sold it out. Television crews had a few words in edgewise with the doomed men the evening before their hanging, and they claimed to have trained for their abortive mission in Iraq.
Some people think I am some sort of a Rambo who loves strong emotions and seeing people die. I am miles away from that mentality. I am a convinced pacifist and for that reason I am curious to understand what make normal people brandish a gun.
Baldoni reported from Iraq for the Italian weekly Diario and kept a blog from the ground as well. On August 21, he was kidnapped after being caught in a firefight between Baghdad and Najaf.** Three days later, Al Jazeera aired his captors’ demand for Italian withdrawal within 48 hours; Baldoni was killed when that demand was ignored.
The day after Baldoni’s death, the black armband-clad Azzurri defeated the upstart Iraqi soccer team for the Olympic bronze medal.
The final legacies of Baldoni’s work well reflected his generous principles. The last entry on his blog Bloghdad (now defunct; here’s how it looked four years ago) was this picture:
And his (translated, obviously) “last testament” as released by a fellow journalist described a man who would not want this blog post to linger on mawkishly.
[At my funeral] I want people to smile — did you notice? Funerals always end up with someone smiling: it’s natural, it’s Life taking over Death. And let people smoke freely anything they like; I’d also be pleased if new love stories would come out, and I’d even consider some casual sex an offer to Life rather than an offense to Death.
At about eight or nine o’clock, with little or no ceremony, bring my coffin quietly to the crematorium, while the party and the music should last until late night.
About my ashes … throw them into the sea. Or do as you want, who fucking cares? Just nothing phony like in The Big Lebowski.
* Obviously, this is a case of a borderline execution, owing to the Islamic Army in Iraq’s non-state credentials — in a legal sense, Enzo Baldoni was murdered. But it was precisely the point of his killing to contest legitimate state authority, and according to a later interview with an alleged spokesman of the faction, there was even a juridical proceeding “convicting” Baldoni of espionage.
** According to Reporters Without Borders, a stupefying 142 journalists — Baldoni among them — were killed in Iraq from 2004 through 2007, nearly half the worldwide total of 299 reporters who died in their line of work during that span.
On this date in 1963, Iraq’s infant Ba’ath government executed at least 21 soldiers — all Shi’a — who had participated in a Communist coup attempt on July 3.
The Ba’ath were newly in the saddle after overthrowing Qasim earlier that year, and would be ousted again a few months hence before their definitive seizure of power several years later.
For the moment, they were a fledgling government trying to tilt away from the Soviet bloc and towards the west while navigating a minefield of domestic politics. If the coup really occurred as described, it was the fruit of an Iraqi Communist Party with daggers drawn for the regime after the Ba’athists had massacred their membership with CIA help in the course of offing Qasim. (The name is also transliterated Qassim or Kassem.) If it was bogus, it was probably an official cover story to keep massacring Shi’a Communists.
The affair, in either guise, amounted to a minor hazard in the jagged path of the Ba’ath — but of course, we come by that judgment with benefit of hindsight. Far more interesting to follow, courtesy of this site‘s library of historic cables, the perceived unfolding of the situation through the anxious American diplomatic pouch:
On or about this date one year ago, a 17-year-old Kurdish Yazidi (alternatively, Yezidi) girl was stoned to death by her own community for falling in love with a Muslim boy.
Details on exactly how Du’a Khalil Aswad came to her end are slightly unclear: whether or not she converted to Islam, for instance, and whether she was lured to her death or simply taken by force.
What is blood-chillingly plain is the end itself — a mob “honor killing,” carried out publicly by (at least in part) men of her family, and anachronistically filmed with cell phones and therefore soon to rocket around the Internet. The existence of this video is what makes this incident notable to the wider world.
Caution: This video contains graphic footage. We have issued this warning before in these pages, but what follows here is of a different character: this is a powerless child, communally beaten to death while she pleads for help, recorded from a couple meters’ distance by someone (one of many, one can see) who felt filming was the most pressing possible occupation of his time at this moment. It’s exceedingly violent, exceedingly personal and exceedingly recent. Even at that, this is only an excerpt of a half-hour ordeal.
The fact that this video is hosted by Spiked Humor and comes with the associated teaser link adds an unwanted layer of perversity, but YouTube has repeatedly censored it; it takes some digging (this clip turned up here; a longer one can be downloaded here) to find any extended clip.
So, to repeat: This video contains extraordinarily graphic footage.
This is, to be sure, borderline as an execution — although it is one community’s ritual slaying in judgment, which is an uncomfortably close definition. Whatever one calls it, it apparently prompted a retaliatory massacre of Yazidis by Sunni gunmen,* and some months later, the deadliest suicide bombing of the American occupation.
It has also prompted at least some agitation for addressing the continued existence of honor killings especially in northern Iraq. Arrests for carrying out this killing were reported last spring, but I have been unable to find any subsequent report indicating a trial, conviction, acquittal or release.
** Although the existence of that context for the latter massacre was immediately reported, the video itself didn’t reach a worldwide audience until some days afterwards.
Update: Honor killing activists remember Aswad on the anniversary of her death here.
Most particularly, saying “ana al-Haqq” — “I am God” — and poems directly identifying himself with divinity were thought by the state theologians to have mystical wisdom for initiates, but to be exceedingly dangerous sentiments to set loose among the hoi polloi, especially given popular devotion to the Abassid government that was less than ironclad.
In truth, al-Hallaj’s condemnation seems to have been rooted in contemporary imperial politics, his demise representing the (momentary) upper hand of the more autocratic elements against potentially more sympathetic parties.
He spent eleven years in a Baghdad jail, reportedly enduring torture with placidity. Accounts of his execution speak of him greeting a horrific death with joy.
Mansur al-Hallaj remains revered today among mystically inclined followers of many faiths and admired by many westerners, factors which do not quite resolve the dispute over his place within Islam. Ultimately, the rightness of his choices remains very much in the eye of the beholder.
On this date in 1963, putschists captured Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim,* subjected to him to a snap tribunal, and had him immediately shot.
Qasim‘s five-year run as Iraq’s Prime Minister marks that country’s transition from the British-installed Hashemite monarchy to the secular dictatorship that persisted until America’s 2002 2003 invasion.
It was the heyday of postcolonialism, of the Cold War, of pan-Arab strivings — a political topography of the Middle East that seems unrecognizably different from the distance of a half-century’s evolution.
And yet … not so alien after all. For superpower intervention and oil politics were already defining and demarcating the oil-rich nation’s choices.
Qasim had come to power in a coup of his own, a recognizable exemplar of the young Turks genre: in 1958, a cadre of energetic young officers virtually without resistance disposed of the unwelcome royal family and seized the helm of the state.
Contention among interest blocs within Iraq and without during the Qasim years, leading the coup’s author to this day’s fate, is too complex** for a full examination in this space. Of greatest moment was the nationalist officer’s alliance with the robust Iraqi Communist Party against the youthful Ba’ath party, a marriage of convenience not supported by all his cohorts.
Qasim himself was not a communist, but the arrangement of players that made this partnership expedient tended to drive Iraq out of the American orbit — out, for instance, of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact — and towards that of the Soviet Union.
Qasim partly nationalized the oil industry — that job would be completed by a successor — and hosted the meetings where OPEC was born. He threatened to annex Kuwait.
Washington looked askance at these developments, and it was well before 1963 that it took steps to abort them. Early in 1959, Qasim survived a coup attempt. Later that same year, a CIA asset botched an assassination attempt.
The 22-year-old would-be assassin escaped the country and laid up in American safehouses abroad, but young Saddam Hussein would have a part to play yet in his country’s future — and he would return to play it because on this date, the Agency got its man.
An excerpt from a U.S. State Department memorandum of a meeting with oil executives the week after Qasim’s fall. From one of several archival documents collected here. (Executed Today has also mirrored the site’s cable on Qasim’s execution page 1 | page 2).
The residents of the city’s Haifa Street will long remember the events of Sunday morning. As shop owners raised their shutters and stall holders set out their stock, three minibuses roared to a halt.
Gunmen jumped out and pulled blindfolded prisoners on to the street. Ropes were tied to lampposts and electricity poles. Those hostages who resisted were shot. Others who were still alive had nooses tied around their necks and were then suspended in mid air to choke to death.
All were left hanging, and the victims received little sympathy from those who witnessed the events.
“We watched as all these blindfolded men were hung up and some were shot in the head,” Imad Atwan, a supermarket worker said.
“Altogether there were 23 bodies. We are all Sunni people here so we supported the gunmen. Some of them are the guards of our neighbourhood.”
The discoveries were not limited to Haifa Street. People murdered in the same way had been found in Al Doura district and Amriya, in western Baghdad.
The interior ministry estimates that 200 Iraqis were taken hostage after Saddam was sentenced to death.