Life in the Gray Zone


Khalil Bendib /

In the 13th century, the Italian town of Lucera was a Muslim island in a sea of Christendom. Here Frederick II, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, established his own shadow cabinet of scholars and advisors from among the Arabs that he invited to live in this walled city near the eastern coast of Italy.

It was a bold, unconventional move during a precarious time in Christian-Muslim relations. The Fifth Crusade had failed to retake Jerusalem. In Iberia, however, Christians had nearly taken back all of al-Andalus from the Muslims by mid-century. And in Sicily, Christians were persecuting the Muslims who remained from what had once been a thriving emirate before Norman mercenaries destroyed it in 1071.

Lucera was thus both refuge and reservation. Writes religion scholar Karen Armstrong in Holy War:

Yet though Frederick certainly enjoyed Lucera and his Arab friends there, this was a policy not of toleration but of exploitation. Lucera was certainly a city where Islam was tolerated and protected: Frederick would not allow papal missionaries there to harass the Muslims. But Lucera was also a refugee camp and a reservation. The Muslims had to live there and had no choice but to be loyal to Frederick because he was their only protector.

Lucera, in other words, was the very definition of a gray zone. It was an enclave of Muslims in Europe who were more or less prospering. It had official support from the authorities in the person of Frederick II. But many Christians considered the city an outpost of the enemy.

A gray zone, according to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), is a place where Muslims have rejected an “us-versus-them” world of belief and unbelief that puts the caliphate in the right and the “crusader coalition” in the wrong. From the perspective of ISIS, the Muslims who live in predominantly Christian realms have to make a choice: They can drop everything, travel to Raqqa, and take up arms on behalf of ISIS. Or they can stay in the enemy camp. ISIS intends its bombings to make it more and more difficult for Muslims to choose the second option, because they’ll find their stay in “crusader countries” increasingly inhospitable.

A year ago, before the coordinated attacks in Paris, an article called “The Extinction of the Gray Zone” appeared in the English-language newsletter of ISIS. It lays out the stark choice available to Muslims in Europe:

Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of “Islam” before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.

ISIS, in other words, views all forms of Islam that don’t correspond to its own peculiar Salafist interpretation as not only apostasy, but as way stations on the road toward the ultimate abandonment of the religion.

The nationalist backlash against Muslims in Europe — represented by Pegida in Germany, the National Front in France, or the UK Independence Party in England — has a similarly suspicious view of Islam in Europe. These Islamophobes view European Muslims not in transition toward Christianity and democracy, but on their way to becoming sleeper cells for the Islamic State.

For both ISIS and the Islamophobes, the gray zone represents an intolerable state of ambiguity, engagement, and political debate where people freely adopt multiple identities. To be simultaneously Muslim, French, European, a doctor, a woman, a parent, a voter: This is anathema to the extremist. They care about one identity only: Are you on our side or not?

As much as anyone could in the 13th century, Frederick II was a man of the gray zone. He was, to be sure, a leader of the “crusader coalition.” But he also spoke Arabic. He consulted closely with the scholars of Lucera. He even included Muslims in his armies. Perhaps most importantly, he managed to retake Jerusalem not by force of arms, but by successfully negotiating a treaty of peaceful coexistence with Meledin (Sultan Al-Kamil) that turned over several lands to Christian control. The deal on Jerusalem preserved access to religious sites for both Christians and Muslims.

For his efforts to work with Muslims, among other subversive activities, Frederick II was deemed the “anti-Christ” by Pope Gregory IX and excommunicated four times. Then, as today, collaboration with Muslims was a tricky business. As for Lucera, French armies under King Charles of Anjou wiped out the Muslim enclave in 1301, killing the Muslim inhabitants and turning the mosque into a church. Christian Europe wouldn’t see another such gray zone for many centuries.

In Gaza

From the perspective of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of the U.S. political establishment, Gaza’s not a gray zone. It’s a green zone — that is, an area controlled by Hamas, and therefore a hotbed of radical Islam.

Although Hamas came to power through the ballot box in 2006 — solidifying its control by ousting its rival Fatah in 2007 — it’s endured political isolation courtesy of the international community and an economic blockade courtesy of Israel (and Egypt). The green flags of Hamas have become a symbol, for the countries that would prefer that the Palestinian party didn’t exist, of violence, intolerance, and non-compromise.

It might come as a shock, then, to discover that the Islamic State views Hamas very differently. ISIS disparages Hamas as too pacific, tolerant, and willing to compromise. It’s called for Palestinians to overthrow Hamas because it prioritizes secular goals (national liberation) over religious ones (expanding the caliphate). A video posted on June 30, 2015 featured three ISIS fighters lecturing the authorities in Gaza: “The point of jihad is not to liberate land, but to fight for and implement the law of God.”

Hamas, in other words, doesn’t rally around the black flag of ISIS. Its green flag isn’t a symbol of uncompromising extremism. Rather, Hamas is firmly in the gray zone.

As Sarah Helm writes in a fascinating article in The New York Review of Books, Hamas reacted immediately to the video by cracking down on ISIS, arresting supporters, picking up bearded guys at checkpoints, and shutting down suspicious social media sites. ISIS responded by bombing Hamas and initiating attacks against Israel.

Here’s the kicker: The less likely a two-state solution becomes — thanks to Netanyahu and his right-wing minions In Israel — the more attractive the caliphate grows. This logic applies all the more to Palestinians who’ve returned to Gaza after fighting in Syria. “Some of the returnees openly switched allegiance to the ISIS caliphate,” Helm writes, “calculating that viewed from the rubble of postwar Gaza, the prospect of a caliphate might seem more realistic than a Palestinian state.”

For Israelis who don’t want a two-state solution, Hamas was a godsend. Look, they could say, it’s clearly impossible to work with such a ruthless and uncompromising partner. Hamas was a deal-killer — for a deal that Israeli extremists considered deeply flawed.

When confronted with the possibility of the Islamic State ousting Hamas in Gaza, a realist would immediately open up negotiations with the latter in order to prevent the former from seizing power. But Netanyahu and company aren’t realists.

If ISIS took over in Gaza, it would set back Palestinian aspirations for yet another generation — and that would be music to Bibi’s ears. He could then launch military operations in Gaza against ISIS, and a grateful international community would applaud. Such Machiavellian calculations prompted Israel several decades ago to secretly support Islamists in Gaza — who would eventually create Hamas — in an effort to counterbalance Yasser Arafat and his secular Fatah movement.

As in the Middle Ages, extremists on both sides are cooperating to eliminate the gray zone.

Countering Violent Extremism

Counter-terrorism is out; “countering violent extremism” is in.

CVE has become the strategy of choice inside the Beltway. The White House convened a three-day summit on the topic in February last year. The Department of Homeland Security has adopted a new CVE approach, thanks to authorizing legislation from Congress. There was even a global youth summit devoted to CVE in September to coincide with the meeting of the UN General Assembly.

The idea behind CVE is to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place by nipping radicalization in the bud. But given the veritable explosion of violent extremism over the last year — with ISIS-linked attacks on virtually every continent — it would seem that CVE is no more effective than its predecessor. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the validity of the CVE techniques themselves.

Scholar Rami Khouri hones in on the fatal flaw of the approach:

These efforts, which typically emanate from U.S. or other Western political institutions, see political violence as only a reflection of extremist values or behavior that are anchored in Arab-Islamic societies. They refuse to see the causal influence of Western policies in this grim cycle of global violence. Violent extremism, it turns out, is the consequence of policies of Western and Middle Eastern states, and radical changes by both are required to stem the problem.

It turns out, then, that extremists on both sides are not the only ones responsible for extinguishing the gray zone. In addition to their ISIS targets, U.S. bombs destroy towns, political institutions, and civilians. In the midst of all this destruction, the only thing left to do is pick up a gun and fight — with us or against us.

CVE is failing for the same reason that Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 — on pushing the reset button on relations between Islam and the West — didn’t ultimately rescue the reputation of the United States in the Muslim world. Bombs, alas, speak louder than words.

And bombs, whether they come from above or below, are the enemy of the gray zone.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Final Slooshin

    “Vast majority of ‘moderate Muslims,'”? Do you have any statistics to back up that claim?

    • John Feffer

      The Islamic State has effectively declared war on all Muslims that haven’t pledged allegiance to the organization. Only a tiny percentage of Muslims have done so. The Islamic State opposes Hamas. It opposes Hezbollah. There is even bad blood between IS and al-Qaeda. So, the Islamic State has set itself against 99.9 percent of the Muslim world.

      • Final Slooshin

        You are using two terms as synonyms, but they are not synonyms.
        “The enemies of ISIS” is not synonymous with “moderate Muslims.” if you claim that all ISIS´enemies are moderate Muslims, you have to provide evidence for this claim. You cannot glibly assume that it is true.

        • John Feffer

          Actually I don’t use the term “moderate Muslims.” The phrase appears in the teaser, and that’s not something I write for my articles. I try to avoid the phrase.

    • Alexi

      Oh looky, Adolph Eichmann named hisself “Final Slooshin” and he’s trying to have a reasoned argument.

      • Final Slooshin

        I suppose that’s your way of saying that you don’t have any evidence either.

        • Alexi

          Do you have any evidence to support the existence of “moderate Nazis”?

          And do you have any evidence that your Avatar, Mr. Eichmann was a “moderate Nazi”? Or are you just a POS?

  • Alexi

    The claim that Hamas is interested in a two State solution is beyond the pale of even typical Propaganda. Just because ISIS thinks that Hamas is inadequately extremist doesn’t make them moderates, nor does it make them interested in peace, nor does it indicate they’re interested in a Two State Solution. This is specifically noted in every statement by Hamas.

    “From the River to the Sea” denotes SPECIFICALLY the wholesale DESTRUCTION and ELIMINATION and ERADICATION of the State of Israel.

    The very preamble of the Hamas Charter speaks of the glorious time when the earth itself, the rocks and trees will cry out to Muslims to come kill the Jews.

    Then we have a bogus: “Here’s the kicker: The less likely a two-state solution becomes – thanks to Netanyahu and his right-wing minions In Israel – the more attractive the caliphate grows.”

    Abbas refuses to negotiate. Abbas is in total violation of Res. 242 by going to the UN. Abbas is the paymaster to terrorists in Israeli jails, and the more violent the crime the more $$$ Abbas pays the.

    Hamas complains of sewage in their streets, but the reason it’s there is because they used their sewage pipes to make ROCKETS. They would literally rather live in raw sewage than to have their glory killing of Jews interrupted.

    Arafat was offered 98% of what he asked for. He rejected it. Abbas was offered even MORE, including Eastern Jerusalem and he rejected THAT.

    Your article is a vile bilious blood libel empathizing with murdering scum and blaming the victim.

    (If this makes it into print it’ll be a miracle)

    • John Feffer

      Hmmnn, I guess miracles happen, since your comment and its calm argumentation (“vile bilious blood libel”?) has appeared in print.

      I didn’t actually write about Hamas support for a two-state solution. But since you brought up the topic, you must surely know that the organization has made various statements calling for a two-state solution (for instance, in 2011 here: and in 2014 here:

      Hamas is far from a pacific organization. But I lay the blame for the drift away from a two-state solution squarely on Bibi’s shoulders.

      • Alexi

        Well, it appears small miracles do happen. Appreciated. And I stand by my comments.

        You appear to lay it “squarely on Bibi’s shoulders” despite any and all facts. You can do that. It just doesn’t make any sense. And in my humble opinion you are therefore laying all the death and misery on Bibi, the Democratically elected Prime Minister of the Jewish State and therefore the “bilious blood libel” is real.

        To continue…

        Haaretz link comes back as “page not found”. And Haaretz has a readership of approximately 6% of the Israeli population because it routinely lies. It is somehow referred to as though it were the Israeli version of the Gray Lady. It’s not. Not even close.

        The NYT link states that Mashaal explicitly defined…

        “He defined that as “a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements or settlers, not an inch of land swaps and respecting the right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel itself.”

        Well, that’s what we in reality based entertainment refer to as the Demographic Eradication of Israel as a Jewish State. So, NO, there isn’t actually a Two State anything. There’s a Palestinian State #1 and a Palestinian State #2.

        And “declined to swear off violence or agree that a Palestinian state would produce an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

        That is not a mere technicality. Knifing pregnant women and mothers in front of their children and blowing up buses filled with people on their way to work are what Hamas celebrates as “resistance” and you think Bibi should somehow accept this current norm as a future norm? Would you?

        Would you grant someone a State as long as they swore they would still murder your family regardless? That’s as much nonsense as it is nonsensical.

        Remember that both the Fatah (Palestine Liberation Organization – NOT the PalestinIAN Liberation Organization) and Hamas, have stated clearly that there will be NO “settlements” nor “Settlers” on a single inch of Palestinian land.

        Which is simply another way of saying that JEWS are VERBOTEN.

        Israel has Arab/Muslim neighborhoods. A full 20% of it’s citizenry ARE in fact Arab/Muslim. And you and I can accept that it’s a good thing, and that it would be bigoted or racist to preclude Arabs or Muslims from living in Israel.

        Yet, there seems to be no problem with “Palestine” being formally JUDENREIN.

        How does that work? How does responding to that by deeming it unacceptable somehow the path AWAY from peace, or a two State solution? You are blaming Bibi in effect, for failing to surrender the one and only Jewish act of National Sovereignty and Self Determination on EARTH and claiming he’s the one in the way. It’s cognitive dissonance on your part.

        And I fail to see how you miss this. Is this simply the soft bigotry of low expectations on the part of the West towards all Arab/Muslims? Or is it something worse?

        Bibi BTW is far from perfect. But his election and the shift to the right in Israeli politics is the result of “Palestinian” terror, Jew Hatred, incitement, and rejectionism.

        The Palestinians bolster the Right in Israel the same way that Hamas got Israel to build the security wall they complain so bitterly about. But NOBODY ever seems to call them on it.

        • John Feffer

          My preference, for the record, would be one state, not two states. But that’s neither here nor there. The Hamas position is just that — a position. You go into negotiations with what you want and you come out with what is feasible. Israel takes similarly hardline positions. The real question is whether Netanyahu and Hamas will come to the table to talk. And that’s hard to imagine at this point.

          I don’t put all the death and misery on Bibi’s shoulders — only the failure to negotiate a two-state solution. Responsibility for death and misery must be shared. As for why the right has won in Israel, that’s a complicated question. And certainly the actions of Hamas have played a role. But frankly, the Israeli left failed to provide a coherent alternative. In some sense, they only offered Bibi lite.

          • Alexi

            Your “preference” of “One State” would deny Jews the right to Self Determination, the right to Sovereignty, and flies in the face of International Laws and treaties. It’s realistic outcome is a race war to be publicly mislabeled a civil war. The only result is violence at 1000X the rate we’ve got now. I have said precisely the same thing to those on the Israeli Far Right that champion the annexing of Judea and Samaria minus a treaty.

            Though their geographic aims are somewhat larger, ISIS is also demanding a One State solution.

            The endgame is identical for those under it’s auspices as it would be under Hamas. Death or Conversion. The Ayatollah’s export of their Revolution through the IRGC is no different. The Wahabbist position of Al Queda is still no different.

            Hamas has said clearly in the article you’ve cited that they do not recognize the State of Israel and therefore there ARE NO negotiations with Hamas. As to Hamas and it’s “negotiating position”; there is therefore… NONE.

            “We still vow to kill you and/or eradicate you from the land regardless and agreements signed in our name” is not a negotiating position. It’s a commitment to genocide.

            Finally, the reason that even the Centrists in Israeli politic have offered up a Bibi lite is that while people are trying to kill you security becomes your prime directive.

            Maslows hierarchy of laws apply to the living and not the dead. With regards to “Palestinian” aims Israel finds itself buried beneath Maslow’s pyramid.

            In the meantime Abbas still rejects negotiations, lauds violence and incitement, while you lay the blame at Israel’s feet. It’s an astonishing non-sequitur.

  • Alexi

    Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, Future News TV, June 15, 2010, Source:

    “We have liberated Gaza, but have we recognized Israel? Have we given up our lands occupied in 1948? We demand the liberation of the West Bank, and the establishment of a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital – but without recognizing [Israel]. This is the key – without recognizing the Israeli enemy on a single inch of land…

    “Our plan for this stage is to liberate any inch of Palestinian land, and to establish a state on it. Our ultimate plan is [to have] Palestine in its entirety. I say this loud and clear so that nobody will accuse me of employing political tactics. We will not recognize the Israeli enemy. ”

    It’s Bibi’s fault? Seriously?

  • Final Slooshin

    I don’t want to be a spoilsport, because the story of Lucera seems quite simpático. However, cooperation between Moslem states and Christian states was no exception. Quite the contrary, it was routine. At all times and all places where Moslems have interacted with Christians, there has been conflict and there has been cooperation. That includes cooperation between Christian states and Moslem states. This is true of Spain, of Hungary, of the Holy Land, of Anatolia during the Arab conquest, and many other places. This cooperation necessarily included countless situations in which a Christian state allied to a Moslem state fought against another Christian state or another Moslem state. Frankish mercenaries in the pay of the Sultan, Genoese galleys supplying Turkish armies beleaguering Byzantine ports, y0u name it. Not to mention France’s alliance with Turkey against Austria in the 16th century. Austria promptly sent emissaries to the Shah of Persia encouraging him to attack the Turks from the East.

    It only seems strange because the Christian-Moslem contrast has become so magnified by the events of the last few decades.

    • John Feffer

      In describing Lucera, I was writing about a very specific time, not Christian-Muslim relations in general throughout history. And at that point in the 13th century, the interactions were generally negative — in the Levant, in Sicily, and in al-Andalus. And that’s what makes Frederick II and Lucera both quite interesting examples. But to your larger point, yes, there has been quite a lot of cooperation, oft-overlooked, across the centuries among Christians, Muslims, and Jews…

  • Shafiq Islam

    Left out of the analysis is the role of the US’s friend, ally and best weapons customer, Saudi Arabia, in spreading radical Islam around the world with its network of mosques and madrasas. This began at US behest during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and continues.

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