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The Three Functions of UBL’s “Greater Pledge” to Mullah Omar (2001-2006-2014): Attract Jihadi Volunteers, Legitimize the Taliban as Guardians of the Caliphate and Denounce IS-leader al-Baghdadi
By Anne Stenersen and Philipp Holtmann
In the summer of 2014, al-Qaida leadership dug out an old, almost forgotten recording, in which its late leader Usama bin Laden confirms his pledge of obedience to the Taliban. The republication is supposed to nullify the investiture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph of the Islamic State in June 2014, indicating that he broke his pledge to the Taliban via his alleged subordination under al-Qaida. This narrative, which is supposed to strengthen the position of the Taliban has appeared in several al-Qaida publications and writings since the rise of the rival organization the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. Yet, the pledge was initially given by a representative of Usama bin Laden to Mullah Omar in 1999 and had yet a different purpose: It was supposed to quell internal power struggles among the jihadi groups in Afghanistan, rather than being a real determinant of the Arab-Taliban relationship. In addition, the initial function of the pledge may have been an attempt to dissolve al-Qaida erstwhile from central authority and responsibility for the jihadi movement. Even more importantly, it should prevent other foreign jihadi groups in Afghanistan from assuming this leadership responsibility. By 2001, Usama bin Laden himself confirmed the pledge to Mullah Omar, additionally using the pledge in Arabic propaganda to legitimize the status of the Taliban regime as a “true Islamic State” with the goal to lure more jihadi volunteers from the Gulf to Afghanistan. When the “Islamic State of Iraq” in 2006 began to strive for global jihadi authority, al-Qaida used the pledge to claim that the Taliban were the legitimate guardians of the caliphate.
Pledges of investiture and of obedience are the most important mechanisms to create Islamic governance, on which all other Islamic state-structures and institutions hinge. Pledges, first and foremost, regulate the delegation of power, authority and leadership through elections, investiture and alliance-building. In older Islamic political theory, “bay’at” can be sworn to local commanders (umara‘) and political leaders (a’immah) of governorates (wilayat) of the Islamic caliphate. But these are “smaller pledges,” because local commanders in turn have to subordinate under the central command of the caliph, as much as affiliates are bound through their pledges to local rulers to the greater authority of the caliph. Thus, the more authoritative pledge is the “greater bay’ah” to the caliph, which establishes the nexus of centralized politico-religious-military leadership (al-khilafa, al-imamah al-‘uzmah, amir al-mu’minin), which is the ideal of Islamic governance. The pledge-giving ritual by al-Qaida and other jihadi groups, some of which aspire global dominance, is strongly influenced by this differentiation between “greater” and “smaller” pledges.
The last official Islamic caliphate was abolished by the Turks in 1924, followed by a period of rapid modernization, modern state building and change of governance and election mechanisms in the Arab world. In the absence of a caliphate, authority in jihadi groups was mostly delegated through smaller pledges. From the 1960s until the 1980s, many jihadi groups did not reckon that they had the capacities or the legitimacy to install their leader as caliph, and therefore refrained from using “the greater pledge.” Instead many groups established local “emirates” by giving “smaller pledges” to their leaders. During the 1990s, a number of jihadi and fundamentalist groups announced the establishment of short lived caliphates.1 In the early 2000s, al-Qaida approached the concept of the “greater pledge” very carefully. The organization invested the Taliban leader Mullah Omar with this pledge, yet, did not grant him the full authority of a caliph, instead putting forward the argument that he was merely a guardian of the caliphate. This argument gained traction when the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006 uttered its aspiration to reestablish the caliphate and sideline al-Qaida. The most recent example of the jihadi debate around “greater” and “smaller” pledges is al-Qaida’s attempt in 2014 to present the Taliban commander Mullah Omar as the bearer of the “greater pledge,” and thus delegitimize the IS-caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Bin Laden’s pledge to Mullah Omar in 2001
The story of bin Laden’s pledge to Mullah Omar in 2001 has never been fully told. The reason being lack of access to primary sources confirming the nature and extent of the pledge. The dominant narrative so far has been that of Mustafa Hamid (aka Abu Walid al-Masri), an Egyptian Islamist who was an active member of the Arab militant environment in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Hamid claimed that he was the first Arab militant in Afghanistan to pledge allegiance to Mullah Omar in 1998. He then tried to persuade bin Laden to do the same. Bin Laden was hesitant, but in the end, he agreed to letting Mustafa Hamid give Mullah Omar the pledge on bin Laden’s behalf. It seems, however, that al-Masri himself had not pledged allegiance to Bin Laden and was not a formal member of al-Qaida. He could not really act as a legitimate deputy. This “pledge by proxy” was later interpreted as symptomatic of the weak relationship between the Taliban and bin Laden, where the pledge was nothing but a “façade of allegiance.”2
Given the rather turbulent relationship between bin Laden and Mullah Omar in the late 1990s – with bin Laden repeatedly ignoring, and at times outright violating, Mullah Omar’s instructions – this interpretation makes sense. However, there is more to the story about bin Laden’s pledge. Other primary sources now show that al-Qaida actively made use of the pledge for propaganda purposes as early as 2001. In April 2001, bin Laden publically announced his pledge to Mullah Omar in a videotaped speech that was broadcast on a Deobandi conference in Pakistan and subsequently on al-Jazeera.3 In June 2001, bin Laden again spoke about his pledge to Mullah Omar, confirming it was a “greater pledge” (bay’a ‘uzma) and not just a temporary one, to a group of followers in Afghanistan.4 It is the videotape of the latter event that was re-published by al-Qaida in 2014.
Overall, these primary sources are in line with Mustafa Hamid’s account. They confirm that bin Laden had given Mullah Omar some kind of pledge by the autumn of 2000.5 Quite possibly, it was a “pledge by proxy” as there are no other eyewitness accounts of a pledge-giving ceremony involving the two leaders. Given the course of events in Afghanistan it is obvious that bin Laden’s pledge was never meant to signify any real subordination to Mullah Omar. However, the new sources suggest that the pledge was more than a symbolic gesture to please the Taliban leader. Al-Qaida actively used the pledge for communicative purposes, mainly towards Arabs in Afghanistan, but also towards the wider world. This sheds new light on the role of al-Qaida in Afghanistan as well as its strategic priorities at the time.
Bin Laden’s first pledge to Mullah Omar must be seen in its proper context. As confirmed by Mustafa Hamid and others, in 1999 al-Qaida was part of a competitive environment of Arab and non-Arab jihadi groups in Afghanistan.6 There were nationalist groups, like the Egyptian al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, that were mainly interested in staging revolution in their home country and that used Afghanistan as temporary refuge only. And there were “ummah-oriented” groups who did not believe in nationally focused agendas, instead advocating unity among all Muslims. While their strategic priorities diverged, they were generally interested in cooperating with the Taliban regime and saw Afghanistan as the starting point for a regional or global Islamic revolution.
Al-Qaida belonged to the “ummah-oriented” cluster of actors but had to compete for the Taliban’s favours with independent Arabs such as Abu Mus’ab al Suri, and non-Arab groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, led by Tahir Yuldashev. Al-Qaida had access to far more resources than the independent Arab actors, but could hardly compete with the manpower and military discipline of IMU’s forces.
Bin Laden’s pledge to Mullah Omar in 1999 should be seen as an expression of this internal competition. Al-Qaida was working hard to gain influence within the Taliban and to become the leading actor among the foreign fighting groups. When important rivals such as Tahir Yuldashev pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar in late 1998, bin Laden probably had no choice but to follow suit.7 Bin Laden’s main rival, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar in early 2000.8 Al-Suri had been an ardent supporter of Mullah Omar since 1998, so it is surprising that he had not already pledged allegiance to the Taliban leader.9 But the timing of al-Suri’s pledge only seems to reinforce the impression that the pledge itself was not an important determinant of the Arab-Taliban relationship.
While bin Laden may have sought to hush up the pledge to Mullah Omar initially, by spring 2001 this was no longer the case. In April 2001, bin Laden confirmed in a videotaped statement his pledge to Mullah Omar. The statement was broadcast at a conference organized by Jamiat-e-Ulama Islami (JUI) at the Darul Uloom Haqqania Madrasa on 8-11 April 2001. This is the first known instance of bin Laden publically declaring his allegiance to Mullah Omar. The event even made international headlines, including a story on al-Jazeera broadcast on 10 April 2001.10 The inclusion of bin Laden’s speech at the conference is hardly surprising. Bin Laden had long-standing ties to Deobandi scholars including JUI leader Fazl ur-Rahman, who was also an ardent supporter of the Taliban regime. The purpose of the message was probably for bin Laden to futher ingratiate himself with the most powerful religious scholars in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Another purpose of bin Laden’s public announcement in April 2001 was to legitimize and strengthen the Taliban regime, which in turn would strengthen al-Qaida’s own organization. This interpretation supports the notion that the 9/11 attacks were a strategic miscalculation, not a deliberate act to lure the Americans into a protracted guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Most of al-Qaida’s resources at this time were spent on building a sophisticated training camp infrastructure in Afghanistan. Bin Laden probably envisioned that al-Qaida and the Taliban would be able to withstand an American invasion and defend their bases on Afghan soil. Therefore, it was in al-Qaida’s interest to strengthen the Taliban as much as possible in the lead-up to 9/11.
Al-Qaida did not have many financial resources of their own at the time. But they had access to an international donor network, they had influence in the Arab community in Afghanistan, and they had military manpower. All these assets were utilized to strengthen the Taliban during 2000-2001. Al-Qaida propaganda during this time routinely praised Mullah Omar and the Taliban regime. Bin Laden’s public endorsements of Mullah Omar to JUI in Pakistan fit nicely into this effort, as JUI was one of Taliban’s most important financial backers in Pakistan. Other efforts exerted by al-Qaida in this regard was to propagate the idea that all foreign fighters should be organized under one single commander in order to fight more effectively on the Northern Front. Finally, al-Qaida carried out an operation of strategic significance for the Taliban when they assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud on 9 September 2001.
Al-Qaida’s contributions to the Taliban were ultimately aimed at strengthening their own organization. Al-Qaida was involved in an ambitious political project at the time, which went far beyond the 9/11 attacks. Taliban-run Afghanistan played an important role in this project. Al-Qaida was bent on developing Afghanistan as a base for their “global jihad” and to achieve this, they had to attract recruits from the Arab world. Here lies the key to understanding why bin Laden announced, and defended, his greater pledge (bay’ah ‘uzma) to Mullah Omar internally among the Arabs in Afghanistan in mid-2001.
The videotape that was re-published by al-Sahab in 2014 is recorded on or around 19 June 2001.11 The tape shows bin Laden giving a speech to a group of his followers, probably in one of al-Qaida’s training camps in Afghanistan. The speech is followed by a Q&A session and it is in this session that the issue of the pledge is brought up. Answering a question from the audience, bin Laden states that his pledge to Mullah Omar is indeed a greater pledge (bay’a ‘uzma) not a temporary one. Explaining why he gave the pledge, he quotes a Prophetic tradition saying that “the one who dies without a pledge in his throat (i.e. has not uttered a pledge), dies an ignorant death.” He then defends the right of Mullah Omar to assume the title Emir al-Mu’minin even if he is not from the tribe of Qureysh (the Muslim Prophet Muhammed’s tribe).
Bin Laden’s words are meant to answer a common theological objection to Mullah Omar’s status. Prospective al-Qaida recruits, especially from bin Laden’s homeland Saudi Arabia, were reluctant to accept Mullah Omar’s status because they believe that only members of the Quraysh tribe can be elected as the Amir al-Mu’minin (“the commander of the faithful,” a title of the caliph). This was no trivial point for al-Qaida, which from 2000 was working actively to bring recruits from the Peninsula to its training camps in Afghanistan. Gulf Arabs often believed in a literal interpretation of Islamic texts and legitimizing the Taliban from a theological point of view was therefore essential. As there was no active “jihad” in the region, as had been the case in 1980s Afghanistan, al-Qaida instead framed going to Afghanistan as “hijrah” (migration) – alluding to Prophet Muhammed’s hijrah from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. In jihadi interpretations of Islamic law, hijrah is an important stage to prepare for jihad, and in this sense, there exists even a “bay’ah to perform hijrah.” In this context it was essential to prop up Taliban-led Afghanistan as a true Islamic state and Mullah Omar as its legitimate ruler.
Pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar served another function as well. It dissolved al-Qaida from the central authority and responsibility for the jihadi movement. By investing Mullah Omar with this responsibility al-Qaida could continue pursuing its jihad-centric agenda without getting caught up in the domestic politics of the Islamic State. This was essentially not an option, as the Taliban regarded al-Qaida as guests in Afghanistan and would never accept a foreign party trying to assume power. By investing Mullah Omar with the authority of the highest military commander (amir al-Mu’minin), bin Laden may also have managed to sideline those independent Arabs who competed with al-Qaida for leadership of the Arabs in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida’s second and third uses of the pledge from 2006 until 2014
The fatal loss of importance and attraction, which al-Qaida suffered after the establishment of IS-caliphate in 2014, must have convinced the central leadership to instrumentalize the “greater pledge” for yet another time. al-Qaida now tries to counter IS’ global ambitions by highlighting another function of the pledge, which has been part of the inner-jihadi discussions since 2006, the year, in which the rival organization “Islamic State of Iraq” was established. The main use of the republication of the older bay’ah by al-Qaida is now to drain legitimacy from IS.
With “the greater pledge” to the Taliban, al-Qaida allegedly designated them as “guardians” of the caliphate – something between a global caliphate and a local emirate or governorate (wilaya)5 – and called upon all Muslims and AQ-affiliates to subordinate to the Taliban’s overarching authority.6 The organisation claims that own members who are bound to al-Qaida by a “smaller pledge” (limited emirship) are also bound to the overarching authority of the Taliban through al-Qaida’s “greater pledge.”
IS is not a rightful caliphate, claims al-Qaida, without entering this discussion too aggressively, or deeply. Simply the republication of the speech by Bin Laden is supposed to initiate this line of thought among jihadi audiences who are in doubt about the situation, regarding the present leadership of jihad. Furthermore, al-Qaida claims through the republication of bin Ladin’s speech that al-Baghdadi is a traitor. The context indicates that it is forbidden to pledge obedience to al-Baghdadi, since he was never allowed to break his “greater pledge” to the Taliban, which he indirectly gave through his pledge to bin Ladin. But this claim stands on wobbly feet. ISI leaders and later-on the leaders of IS, never gave a bay’ah to bin Ladin, since “in effect, the group and its subsequent incarnations have not technically been subordinate to al-Qaida in eight years. In practice, of course, the situation was a bit more complicated since the groups continued to share resources and work together. And bitter grievances related to the issue of bay’ah were not fully aired until after al-Qaida disaffiliated itself with ISIS in early February 2014.”12
Al-Qaida’s attempt to present the Taliban as “watchdogs of the caliphate,” by the way, illustrates a rather lukewarm, opportunistic and unconvincing leadership concept. This interpretation is highly constructed, since the concept of a longterm guardianship of the caliphate does not exist in Islamic law. Either, the leader of a group exercises limited control over a limited number of Muslims in a defined territory (an emirate), or a leader exercises complete control over all Muslims (the caliphate). Since the classical caliphate also developed from a small territorial nucleus, to extend and control of actual territorial control is not as important as the wish to re-establish a central Muslim leadership, counter-claims IS. The group and its leader claim that a) the surrounding world is in a new state of un-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyya), similar to the situation, in which the Muslim Prophet Muhammad and the first Muslim community found themselves b) it is an Islamic legal duty to gather all Muslims under a unified command and c) it is consequential that the group has the right to execute this task and install an appropriate leader as caliph to fill the vacant seat (either by investiture through elections or by usurpation and investiture after the fact).
Al-Qaida also has a legitimacy problem, since the organization never really went straight forward and claimed central leadership or proclaimed a caliphate, but used to maneuver in the shadows of its stronger patron and at the same time allowed its affiliates to remain largely autonomous. Thus, Usama bin Laden was in favor of the jihadi developments in Iraq, until it became clear from 2010 on that al-Qaida’s former Iraqi franchise was developing into an ever more independent structure. Bin Laden allegedly once stated that avoiding the pledge of obedience to one of the emirs of al-Qaida in Iraq was a shariatic crime, because it hindered the “establishment of the greater Muslim group under a single Imam.”13 This sounds very contradictory, but it was in line with al-Qaida’s ambigous policy regarding its own authority, affiliates and patrons.
This ambigous policy is maybe best illustrated by al-Qaida’s reaction to the growing popularity and strength of the Islamic State in Iraq after 2006, which is directly connected to the jihadi discussion of the roles and functions of pledges. Already shortly after the Islamic State of Iraq (the precursor of IS) was established and its first leader, Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi (k.2010), was proclaimed, al-Qaida realized that a strong counter-power was growing out of the former Iraqi branch. In order to delimit the authority and appeal of ISI, which by then already was a latently rival organization, al-Qaida supporters elaborated on the function of the greater bay’ah to Mullah Omar and tried to justify the parallel existence of two “commanders of the faithful”: “Yes, it is true that he [Mullah Omar] is not a caliph. But on the piece of land, which he governs, he has taken over the provisions of the caliphate, expressed in the conditions and the way he was designated, as well as the fullfilment of other representative, [caliph] status-like rules.”14
But ISI went much further at the same time. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, practically left the mother-organization and pledged bay’ah to Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. Al-Muhahjir said: “Today we announce… the beginning of a new and important era, laying the first brick to commence the Islamic caliphate and return glory to the religion…we place under your direct command and control twelve thousand fighters, the army of al-Qaidah, all of whom have pledge to die for Allah’s cause.”15 Al-Muhajir not only pledged obedience to a new leader and integrated al-Qaida fighters into a new entity in order to create a single, unified leadership under al-Baghdadi and finally a caliphate, but also stressed the transcendental root-pledge of jihad, which can be found in the Quran, over any obligation to al-Qaida central.16 In 2014, IS republished this speech, which touches the present conflict around the “greater pledge,” in order to explain its own goals and bolster its legitimacy.
The second thrust of attack by al-Qaida is against the investiture of al-Baghdadi. al-Qaida claims that the procedure was unsound. To support its claim that the Taliban are legitimate watchdogs of the caliphate, al-Qaida mentions the condition of “taghallub,” namely “taking power by force and investing the leader after the fact,” which is one of three possible ways to invest a caliph. The other two are election by the “people of resolution and contract,” or election of a successor by the preceding caliph who determines the heir-successor (wali al-‘ahd). Some medieval Muslim jurists were at pains to justify the latter in order to legitimize hereditary succession within the Abbasid dynasty. Al-Qaida says that it was rightful to give a “greater pledge” to the emir of the Taliban, for he was the only one to reign in civil strife, secure order in Afghanistan and create an Islamic territorial haven that may help to reestablish the Islamic caliphate. IS could have used the same argument for Iraq, but refrained from it. IS instead claimed that standard electoral procedure was followed, because a representative expert commission of elders and jihadi organizational leaders elected al-Baghdadi and gave him the special pledge of investiture (bay’at al-in’iqad), which was followed by public pledges (bay’at ‘ammah) of confirmation.17
In reality, the mechanism, which brought al-Baghdadi to power, seems to be located somewhere between election (ikhtiyar) and usurpation of a void caliphate (taghallub), enforcing bay’at (pl.) through coercion by the wielder of force (qahru sahibihi-l-shawka), which according to some Islamic law schools can take place without confirmation by the Muslim community (jama’ah) and by forcing the electoral commission to confirm the investiture after the fact. The medieval Shafi’i scholar Ibn Jama’ah (1241-1333 A.D.) even de jure recognizes usurpation of the office of the caliph, either by overpowering a ruling imam or by overtaking the vacant office. There is no need for a contract between the imam and the community.18 Yet, this classical condition does not allow to enforce public and popular bay’at, which IS does among local populations in Syria and in Iraq, claiming in its propaganda that these pledges are voluntary. In contrast, the classical condition refers to forcing the erudite Muslim electoral elite (ahl al-hall wa-l-‘aqd) to give the bay’ah of investiture after the fact, if this is for the better of the Muslim unity and community.
The initial reason for bin Laden’s pledge to Mullah Omar was probably internal competition for power among the Arabs in Afghanistan. When bin Laden’s rivals started pledging allegiance to the Taliban leader in late 1998, bin Laden had no choice but to follow suit. Then, in the spring of 2001, bin Laden started to publically announce, and defend his pledge to the Taliban leader. This served a number of purposes.
First, it was in al-Qaida’s interest to strengthen the Taliban regime as much as possible before the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden’s public statements praising Mullah Omar was part of this effort. They were designed to solicit donations and other types of support from Deobandi networks in Pakistan and from the Middle East.
Second, bin Laden’s pledge was meant to strengthen al-Qaida’s “hijrah-project” in Afghanistan by investing Mullah Omar with the authority of an Amir. Theological justifications for Mullah Omar’s status were especially important in al-Qaida’s recruitment drive on the Arabian Peninsula.
Third, the pledge dissolved al-Qaida from the responsibilities associated with formal leadership of the jihadi movement. This meant that al-Qaida could continue working in the shadows and through other jihadi oprganizations like it had done since it was first formed in 1988. By investing Mullah Omar with the title of Amir al-Mu’minin, bin Laden may also have hoped to prevent al-Qaida’s rivals in Afghanistan from hijacking the title as leader of global jihad. As we have seen, this happened later with al-Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic State, but only outside Afghanistan.
Moreover, IS propaganda focuses on portraying the election of al-Baghdadi with the “greater pledge” as legitimate Islamic electoral process. IS bolsters this argument by issuing video, text and picture material of popular confirmations of the election of al-Baghdadi by Muslim communities, who give public pledges of loyal obedience. Social-media propaganda by grassroots activists, tribal alliances and IS’ own output popularizes and elevates the concept of the “greater pledge” to its leader al-Baghdadi. Even though facts are being grossly distorted in the propaganda of IS, the argument seems to hold among many followers that the election of al-Baghdadi was rightful. Pledges to IS take not only place in Iraqi and Syrian mosques, but new affiliates follow the call of IS to pledge, form franchises all over the world and upload video-material of the ceremonies on the Internet.
This leads to new patterns of affiliation and franchising, which are very different from those of al-Qaida. With his bay’ah to Mullah Omar, Bin Laden has tried to modify the concept of the “greater pledge.” Yet, there is an inherent problem in the argumentation of al-Qaida that “he [Mullah Omar] is not a caliph. But on the piece of land, which he governs, he has taken over the provisions of the caliphate.” The organization neither grants the Taliban the full authority of the caliphate, nor does it specify how the emirate of the Taliban can be changed into a caliphate. This ambigous leadership approach affects the whole chain of command under al-Qaida as well. Al-Qaida alliances until hitherto are more autonomous and independent organizations than loyally obedient subordinates. This may be one of the reasons, why the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida developed, unhindered by the central organization, into IS.
In contrast, IS builds its allliances on the claim that the caliphate is the full and unrestricted authority. Alliances are supposed to regard themselves as subordinate governorates (wilayat) of the caliphate, no matter where they are established.19 This does not have to mean that IS has real control over territorial extensions of its governmental nucleus in Syria and Iraq. But IS’ leadership approach is clearly geared towards absolute subordination and psychological control, relying on information-age adaptations of self-reliable management-by-objectives and intrinsic motivations, which drive members to fulfill the central organization’s goals and extend its area of influence and governance.
But given these insights on how IS tries to build authority with the concept of the caliphate, it still remains to ask how effective the leadership approach of IS will be. This question is especially relevant in the light of IS’ territorial setbacks and limitations in the Syrian and Iraqi wars, such as the planned US-Iraqi counteroffensive in Mosul. Will IS be able to retain its appeal among dispersed followers, who try to build territorial and ideological extensions, if it meets organized resistance in Syria and in Iraq and fails to extend its campaign over the Turkish, Jordanian and Saudi-Arabian borders?
Dr Philos Anne Stenersen is a research fellow with FFI’s Terrorism Research Group.
Dr. Philipp Holtmann is a research analyst, who has lived and worked in several countries of the Middle East. He conducts in-depth research on Muslim media and Islamic governance.