First and foremost, Islam does not corner the market on the use of violence to obtain their political goals. In this day and age Islam is, however, affiliated with over 60% of the world wide terrorist attacks, according to the United States National Counter Terrorism Center. What I continually find astonishing is the number of public commentators who understand absolutely nothing about Islam, except that it tends to be associated with publicized acts of terror. The sheer volume of misinformation is staggering. More importantly, that same ignorance is ultimately dangerous to our ability to understand and appropriately respond to the very real threat posed by Islamic Extremism. In this series we’ll take a look at some key events that have lead Islam and the rest of the world to this point, starting in part one with a simple overview of the key differences between the various sect’s of Islam.
In the broadest sense, Islam is split into two large sects called Sunni and Shi’a. The divergence of these two sects is based on a disagreement on the transition of power upon the death of Muhammad in 632 AD. Two individuals are at the center of the disagreement, Muhammad’s’ cousin and son in law who the Shi’a believe was designated by Muhammad to succeed him. The other is Abu Bakr, a confidant and friend and reportedly the first follower of Islam and Muhammad. He was nominated and confirmed as the first Caliph (Successor to Muhammad) by the Muslim community at large (Ummah). Yes, he is the name sake for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the ISIS terrorist organization and self proclaimed Caliph of all Muslims.
The historical succession resulted in the original Abu Bakr controlling most of the existing power structure, which established the tradition of the Muslim community selecting their leaders for the Sunni sect of Islam. While disgruntled, the two belief systems co-existed under one banner for about 50 years until about 680 AD after the battle of Karbala, from which point the Shi’a sect formally began to oppose the Sunni Caliph’s, after the death of one of Muhammad’s descendants in the battle. Over the next century they established their own territories and states primarily around modern day Iran, and by about 900 AD were physically and doctrinally district from the Sunni’s.
The Sunni tradition is followed by about 85% of Muslims, leaving the remaining Shi’a at almost 15%. There are a few smaller Muslim off-shoots of the religion, however, both the Sunni and Shi’a sects tend to reject them as apostates or non-believers. The Shi’a are the dominant power structure in Iran and Iran’s financial and material support are largely what maintains the relevance of this sect of the religion. Lebanon is another Shia dominated area which elected the terrorist group Hezbollah to run the country in 2012.Hezbollah is primarily funded and supported by Iran.
A significant portion of Iraq is Shia, who numerically out number the Sunni tribes in the country. The Shi’ites were oppressed under Saddam Hussein and were largely irrelevant until after the U. S. invasion when the interim government was created to be a “representative government” — meaning a representative of the mix of people living in the country. This largely transferred power in Iraq from the Sunni Tribes to the Shi’a leaving a large disenfranchised, and very angry power structure. There are small proportions of Shi’a in most Muslim countries, but save central Afghanistan, very few areas of concentration like we see in Southwestern Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.
Aside from the argument over sucession, the next key difference is the belief among Shia that their Imams (Shi’ia leaders of the descendants of Mohammad) are infallible, and are capable of interpreting the Quaran and other holy scriptures – which gives them ability to modify its meaning or explain its meaning in light of modern advances. In Sunni Islam, Muhammad revealed everything Muslims were ever to know and that’s it. No interpretations, no updates and no changes – period. In reality the number of Sunni’s that follow this hardline doctrinal approach is about the same as follow a hard line doctrinal approach to Catholicism or Christianity. Fortunately, these hardliners in the Muslim world have a name and can be identified from the broader Muslim community.
There is a frequently misidentified group of Muslims called Sufi’s. They are predominantly Sunni, but believe in the mystical pursuit of Islam as a “science”. It is not a separate sect of Islam, and there are a significant number of both Sunni and Shi’ite Sufi’s (or at least Sufism has driven a number of movements in Shiite Islam). It is most similar to a means of seeking enlightenment, rather then a separate sect of the religion. In recent years we have seen Sunni extremist organizations destroy Sufi mosques and artifacts and denounce them as apostates. In the western world, they are the social equivalent of scientologists for lack of a better comparison. They are not particularly relevant in the discussion of Islamic terrorism, save in the fact that many amateurs frequently confuse them or misidentify them as a separate sect of Islam.
Sunni Islam makes up the rest of the Muslim world. Additionally, followers of Sunni Islam are responsible for about 85% of all Islamic terrorism. It accounts for 56% of all global terrorism according to the 2011 NCTC report. Shi’a terrorism is a much smaller percentage, however, nearly all of is directed and funded by Iran, and executed by its proxies. It is typically well executed and targeted to achieve specific Iranian state goals. Sunni Islam is the basis for Al Qaeda (Pakistan & Transnational terrorist organization), ISIS (Syria, Iraq & Africa), Boko-Haram (Africa, [recently pledged allegiance of ISIS], Hamas (Palestine), Jemaah Islamiah (Southeast Asia), the Taliban (Afghanistan) and a long list of terrorist organizations, which have made the news in the past two decades.
Like Christianity and Judaism, there is significant variability in how Muslims interpret and follow the guidance of their religion. Some are zealots, and others are barely aware of what the Quran really says. Most of the Muslims I have encountered in the Middle East are no more concerned with religion then westerners, and far more concerned with the education of their children, the safety of their family and the economic conditions of their country of residence. Additionally, according to the 2012 Pew report on the global population of Muslims, nearly 25% identify themselves as simply Muslim, and not as Sunni or Shia.
The unfortunate facts are that Islam is associated with well over half of all global terrorism and nearly all of that violence is tied to a specific subculture of followers of Sunni Islam called Salafists. The Salafist movement is a push to return to a “purer” form of Islam and it has surfaced at a variety of times throughout the existence of the religion. This movement is also referred to as Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and today the differences between Salafism and Wahhabbism are largely indistinguishable, however, that was not always the case. Wahhabism is more accurately described as a subset of the broader Salafist movement, however they are the only ones with the financial backing and momentum to impact the religion on a large scale.
The Wahhabbi movement can be traced back to central Saudi Arabia in the 17th century when Muhammad ibn abd-al Wahhab started an ultra conservative movement to return to a “purer” form of Islamic practice. He brokered an arrangement with the ruling class (Muhammad bin Saud), under which he supported their political rule while they in return provided financial support for the spread of this ultra conservative form of Sunni Islam. This relationship has continued to this day with the house of Al-Saud making up the Saudi royal family. They have funded the creation of mosques globally. These Wahhabbi mosques export and sponsor Wahhabi teachings throughout the globe in poor and under educated communities and are often the only available source of any education. The basis for the argument that Saudi Arabia is a state sponsor of terrorism lies in their funding of extremist mosques around the globe.
As we fast forward to the 1980’s and the Soviet attempt to interevene in an Afghan civil war, we see Osama Bin Laden, an extremely wealthy Saudi Arabian Muslim trained in the Wahhabi tradition, call on all Muslims to join him in Jihad against Soviet aggression towards Muslims in Afghanistan. With extensive U. S. support, Bin Laden and his band of Jihadists were able to expel Russian forces from Afghanistan by the end of the decade. The conflict ended leaving Afghanistan a lawless nation controlled by local warlords now under the influence of the “Taliban” or “The students [of the Quran]” who are very largely influenced by Salafist and Wahhabi teachings. Further, it put Bin Laden and Jihadists on the map… They just defeated a global Super Power… U. S. support is what made Bin Laden a rock star in the Muslim community.
Salafism and Wahhabism is largely indistinguishable in practice, and if there is a divide it is along geographic lines with Saudi Arabia using the term Wahhabi, and much of the rest of the tradition using the term Salafist to describe the same line of reasoning. From a practical perspective, the differences are largely irrelevant in the study of Islamic terrorism. They are the root of extremist ideology throughout the Sunni population of Muslims. They are the ones decrying all Shi’ites and everyone else as apostates or non believers and lobbying for some rather draconian behavior. They are the source of most of the extreme ideology and they are the schools that teach a very literal interpretation of Islam and espouse killing and enslaving non-believers as the duty of all Muslims. We can thank Saudi Arabia’s funding of Wahhabi mosques for the rapid adoption and nearly global introduction of these extreme beliefs. This is a dog that has now turned on its master and even Saudi Arabia’s ruling class is threatened by the now global Jihadist movement.
Understanding the basic differences, divergences, and where they originated provides some background to allow you to have an intelligent discussion of terrorism, vice the polarized, overly simplified and childish mentality displayed by most of the mainstream media. These typically provide one of two explanations for Islamic terrorism – “All Muslims are terrorists”, or “No Muslims are terrorists and Islamic terrorism is the product of a few sick and demented individuals who have hijacked name of the religion”. Neither is remotely accurate.
The reality is that global terrorism was the inevitable product of a programmed expansion of the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam to generally poor and unstable regions of the world. All it needed to really take off was a global figure head with creditability to drive change, and we lit the fire that propelled Bin Laden to the top of the heap when we gave him a victory over Russia. The push for a return to a violent and aggressive expansion of Islam, and the volume of susceptible young, disenfranchised potential recruits has made the current state of affairs possible. While many international governments and Muslim countries are now struggling with how to separate the violent ideology espoused by the Salafist movement from the Muslim religion itself, extremists like ISIS are recruiting at previously unimaginable rates.
Understanding the roots of extremism sets the base line for a discussion of the culture and conditions under which extremist ideology can take root and flourish. In the next article, we’ll review the 2012 Pew Research Poll on global Muslim attitudes and explore the key takeaways as they show us the general pattern of attitudes of Muslims across cultures, and geographic boundaries. Part three in the series will specifically look at Islamic terrorist organizations, where their goals align and where they are different. Part four will explore the tenuous relationship between Islam and the Islamic nation states . Lastly we will look at the history of intervention and its successes and failures.
Stay informed and stay safe!
~ Patrick Henry