Sanity Injection

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Posts Tagged ‘Muslim Brotherhood’

A brief guide to the ideological roots of Islamic terrorism

Posted by sanityinjection on August 21, 2017

It is hard for most Westerners to understand how Islamic terrorism fits into the spectrum of Muslim theology. We are told, accurately, that terrorist fasadis like ISIS and al-Qaeda represent a fringe extremist view that most Muslims disavow. But where does this view come from, and what has caused it to become more popular and prominent over the last few decades?

First, let’s recall that most of the Muslim world is divided between the two major dominations, Sunni and Shi’a. (There are other minority sects that don’t fall into either category, but their influence on politics is minimal.) The Shi’ites are fewer in number and their political power is mostly restricted to Iraq and Iran. Most Muslim countries, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, are predominantly Sunni.

Within Sunni Islam, there is also quite a bit of variation in views on both religious and political matters. The particular strain of thought that today’s terrorist groups generally arise from is called Salafism, and it began as a reform movement over two centuries ago. Salafism is essentially a form of Islamic fundamentalism, which holds that the oldest forms of Islam practiced by Muhammad and his immediate successors are the most pure, and any modifications that have occurred within Islam since that time are errors that should be corrected.

It should be noted that there is nothing inherent in Salafism that requires political involvement or necessarily endorses violence. The first Salafists were mostly concerned with stamping out what they saw as idolatrous veneration of Islamic saints and places of worship. (ISIS’ habit of destroying historic monuments is an extreme manifestation of this viewpoint.) There are many Salafis who advocate staying out of politics, and many politically activist Salafis who do not condone violence. But this is the larger ideological context that most violent Sunni groups fit into.

Salafism as a political force first came into its own in Arabia, when the founder of a sect called Wahhabism made an alliance with the tribe of ibn Saud. The Wahhabis agreed to support the Saudis politically, and the Saudis agreed to promote Wahhabism as the correct form of Islam. The Saudis kept that bargain, and when they became masters of most of Arabia after World War I, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and subsequently became rich from Arabia’s oil, they began to have a major influence on the Islamic world. Saudi oil money paid for mosques, Islamic schools and charities, all of which dutifully spread the Wahhabi version of Salafism. Conservative even among the fundamentalist world of Salafism, Wahhabism is responsible for the many cultural restrictions on dress, music, and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and the fact that slavery wasn’t abolished there until the 1960s. The terrorist groups’ adoption of these cultural restrictions can be traced directly to the Saudi-funded schools and mosques where they were educated.

However, the real shift occurred with the victory of Islamic groups over the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989. This effort was heavily backed by Saudi money and many of the jihadis who fought there espoused Wahhabi beliefs. The lesson was that violent jihad against the enemies of Islam was not only appropriate, but could be successful. The prestige of Wahhabism, previously viewed among the Muslim world as more of an Arabian oddity, increased dramatically.

A final group that must be mentioned is the Muslim Brotherhood. Based in Egypt, the Brotherhood is an international coalition of political Islamists, generally Sunnis but not tied to any particular orientation, instead stressing the need for Muslim unity. The Muslim Brotherhood is devoted to the goal of establishing Islamic government and sharia law, by democratic means if possible. However, they have at times engaged in violence. (The US continues to debate whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as Russia and Saudi Arabia have done; many experts argue this would be neither accurate nor helpful.) The Muslim Brotherhood has specifically disavowed any support for ISIS or al-Qaeda, but it was a Brotherhood leader, Sayyid Qutb, whose anti-secular, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic writings influenced the founders of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Saudi Arabia was once a supporter of the Brotherhood, but they fell out as a result of the Gulf War and now are confirmed enemies. However, both the Saudis and the Brotherhood now find themselves unhappily dealing with the fallout of these terrorist groups they helped to inspire. (Ironically, within the past year the Saudi monarchy has been moving to liberalize Wahhabi cultural restrictions, both to improve the country’s image and to try to curb the power of Wahhabi clerics and reduce potential support for jihadi groups within the Kingdom.)

To sum up: Today’s terrorist groups were birthed in the 1990s amid a soup of Saudi-financed Wahhabi fundamentalism and Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamist politics, and inspired by the success of violent jihad in Afghanistan.

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