Islam and Terrorism.
It’s very strange that people seem to be condemning Islam as a whole for the actions of a very specific sect of that religion. A religion which happens to span every continent, dozens of languages and ethnicities, and intersects with regional cultural practices in many varied ways.
So it’s strange that (largely white, Christian, Conservative) Americans would somehow lump acts of terrorism on Islam instead of the specific sect in question. I’m sure this same demographic would be quick to leap on something as benign as Veganism as “not representing all Americans.” And when it comes to the actual violent ideologies and actions that our nation has produced, such as Dylann Roof, the same “not all white male Americans” would similarly pop up as a defense.
So the Islamic State is undoubtedly a big problem in the world today. I mean, this is a group that holds a stark us vs. them worldview. The consign much of the world as their enemies against which they are willing to use extreme violence. They champion the supremacy of the military, a rigidly controlled police state, censorship in the media, the ultimate crystallization of patriarchal and xenophobic values, and massive human rights abuses. They are the summation of what reasonable people everywhere should be fighting.
But they didn’t come in a vacuum. They’re a part of a larger trend in Middle Eastern History. Being me, my urge is to start at the beginning, but that would be too long, so let me sum up.
The Middle East, with the city of Baghdad at its heart, was one of the most sophisticated (by modern Western standards) societies on the planet until 1258 when the Mongols came and burnt everything. The “Islamic World” centered in Arabia and the Fertile Crescent fell into what most scholars consider a Dark Age, only to be conquered by the ascendant Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century, under whose yoke many of them lived until the 20th.
In the meantime, Europe was experiencing the Enlightenment, which was by no means a universal phenomenon. Some extreme Conservatives in the West still dispute its merit to this day. In short, the Enlightenment held that perhaps a religious worldview shouldn’t be the center of our world, that Kings were not divine appointees, and that maybe we should live in a world of equality before the law, tolerance of religious differences, and the sort of thing you find in the Bill of Rights.
The thing is, there were two really big problems with Enlightenment thinking. The first is that most religious people had to find ways to reconcile their faith with these new tenants. It’s easy to believe that everyone should be a [insert religious sect here] in a town when 5000 people makes a large city and the nearest town is 50 miles away. But as the 18th and 19th century progressed and people began to become more urbanized and ideas began to spread more quickly, ideas of how to co-exist that originated in the 1st or 6th or whatever Ancient Century were a bit less relevant. We still have adherents to old ideas about how society should be structured; one famous sect is called the Amish. But for most people—from Reformed Jews to many Christians denominations (Episcopalian off the top of my head, but most Catholics that I personally know too), to a lot of Muslims that live in the United States—yes, all these people have had to reconcile the fact that their Ancient faiths don’t always align perfectly with the modern world that they’re living in. But accepting mild cognitive dissonances is just something that modern people can easily do.
The second big problem with the Enlightenment is that it brought forward things like Nationalism as an alternative to how to organize society. And with things like the Napoleonic Wars or the Holocaust, well, we know how that ideology works. Nationalism pretty tidily led to Imperialism because hey, if your national group is totally the best, guys, it must be your right to dominate! But there’s the problem: for a lot of people in the world, really nice ideas like secularism or equality before the law got tied to the same ideology that was responsible for butchering 10 million Congolese in less than 50 years in just one strip of African jungle.
So, away from Europe and back to the Middle East:
The Arabs revolted, drove the Turks out, and established their own independent country! Well no, actually, the British and French moved in to get some of that Imperialism action for themselves. Now through this period, the French and British did what they always did: they empowered certain local elites to maintain their hegemony with a minimum of their own soldiers actually in the field. Particularly in the 1930s, the British and French drew down their own presence in Iraq and Arabia, granting formal independence to many Middle Eastern countries.
Still, the economic interests of the European nations remained. I mean, Churchill had just converted the Royal Navy from coal to oil, do you really think they were going to leave it all there if they didn’t still have sweetheart deals with Faisal and the rest of the local elites to get that oil cheaply, and military bases in the region to guard that interest.
Then came a large turning point: the establishment of the State of Israel. Now I don’t want to get caught too much in this quagmire, but look at it from the perspective of someone educated but not in power in one of these countries: you’ve had centuries of economic domination by the Turks, who are now members of NATO and allied with Western Europe. Then you’ve had decades of economic domination from Western Europe. Now, from your perspective, you’re seeing a large influx of settlers from Europe, and they’ve been setting up shop in exactly the last spot where the last big influx of Europeans with guns came, all with the blessing of Britain, the quintessential apogee of a European with a Gun.
Yeah, the optics here are really, really bad. So from the 1940s through the 1970s, the people in the Middle East tried a myriad range of strategies to throw off European economic domination that only benefitted their local elites. Let’s take a look:
• Mosaddegh was elected in Iran, the Shah fled, but then the CIA promptly orchestrated his overthrow, and the Shah returned, brutally cracking down on any form of Liberalism and reform in Iran. The oil must flow… West.
• In Iraq and Syria and Egypt they experimented with secularism! The Baath Party tended to be a cover for the personal enrichment of the Hussein and Assad families, respectively. They were more than happy to sell their oil too.
• A flirtation with Western style nationalism brought disastrous wars against Israel, and ultimately didn’t do much to improve the totally bent power structures within the Middle East itself.
• And in Arabia, now named for the House of Saud ruling it, well, they maintained their own hegemony and close ties to the West through brutal methods that we would easily recognize still in practice today.
So this is what it was like in the Middle East in the mid-70s. Advocating for Democracy would get a CIA bullet in the back of your head. Socialism in the region was a shell for thinly veiled monarchies. Nationalism would get you killed in the Golan Heights. So were there any alternative methods of societal organization?
There had been something brewing for a few centuries in Sunni Islam. A particular sect called Wahhabism. These were and are the ultra-fundamentalists of the modern Islamic world. Started by an 18th century preacher, it calls for the purge of all Islamic beliefs and practices that compromised with modernity. And in the 18th century, the House of Saud adopted it as their religion. Of course the Saudi Royal family is comprised of thousands of members, whose inner workings could make the most dedicated Game of Thrones fan get confused. By the dawn of the 20th century, the Saudi royals only payed lip service to this ideology. It was the only sect of Islam formally taught within their kingdom, but they themselves remained a self-interested and infamously debaucherous family well into the century.
1979. This is the big year.
First, the Iranian Revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini becomes the Supreme Leader. They kick out the Shah, and successfully nationalize the oil industry. Religion has been very effectively used as a unifying force.
In December, the USSR—the atheist state—invades Islamic Afghanistan.
And at the end of 1979, Islamists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Hundreds of pilgrims were taken hostage. Hundreds died, and the ringleaders, having failed in their attempted Coup, were executed.
The Saudi royal family sees themselves as the caretakers of Mecca and Medina, one of the few aspects of their religious mission that they took seriously. In Iran in 1979, however, there was a new rival in both culture (Arab vs Persian), religious sect (Sunni vs Shia), and now in government (monarchy vs theocracy). Note that many hardline Islamists do not believe that monarchies can exist in strict Islam, and thus, the Saudi royal family was nothing more than a western, imperialist creation that was ultimately un-Islamic.
The Saudi family feared that Iran would become a model for the commoners to rise up. The Saudi populace is very conservative and while the Saudi royal family has been famous for its debauchery and westernized living (especially abroad), for the most part the population had been quiet. The Seizure of the Grand Mosque, however, sent a shockwave through the Saudi family—what happened to the Shah could happen to them. They feared they too would be toppled by an Iranian-style revolution by those who deemed them not Islamic-enough.
As thus, the Saudis embarked on appeasing the hardliner Wahhabi clerics within their own country with more strict laws, a tougher moral police. In exchange, they continued the agreement to legitimize the Saudi family.
Furthermore, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was an unexpected boon. The Saudi government encouraged young Islamist-leaning males to go fight in holy jihad against the atheist communists and defend Islam in Afghanistan. A perfect release valve for frustrated young men. Also, the Saudi royal family and many Saudi citizens donated money to establish Wahhabi mosques in Pakistan and Afghanistan to preach their ideology and send more fighters against the Soviets. All of this was welcomed by the Saudi government, relieving much of the pressure internally as those fighters and money went away from funding fundamentalists internally.
This set up the multipolar system of the Middle East that many of us grew up with:
• The fundamentalist Shia state of Iran
• The fundamentalist Sunni state of Iraq
• The secular socialist (haha it’s a monarchy) Iraq
On the fringes were:
• Israel, increasingly becoming more openly allied with the West
• The secular nominally democratic Western allied Turkey
• And the US, in covertly supporting the mujahideen against the USSR, inadvertently fueled Wahhabi propaganda that they were the saviors against the infidels.
Well, having vanquished the Soviets, the Wahhabi extremists started to turn their sights on what they perceived as the other fringe elements that were corrupting their vision for a pure Islamic world. Shia Islamic extremism had worked in Iran. Now their brand of Sunni extremism had worked for them in Afghanistan. It was time to take on another Empire.
9/11 and the War on Terror soon followed. While al Quaeda has officially declared war on the Kingdom due to their allowance of US bases during the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia nevertheless continued to funnel money to their global franchise of Wahhabi mosques. 15 of the 19 hijackers that day were Saudi nationals. Terrorism, al Quaeda, and ISIS remains their release valve. They let their dejected, disaffected young men go off and fight the West, because it prevents them from rising up and overthrowing one of the most inequitable and repressive governments on the planet. And we keep buying their oil.
Then the US toppled Iraq, and left a skeleton crew of 25 year olds to build a national infrastructure. The Iraq war soon became a chaotic crucible in which Shia insurgents backed by Iran battled Sunni militias backed by Arabia with American soldiers trying to keep the peace within the meat grinder.
Through all of this rose the Islamic State, ISIS, the perfect summation of Wahhabi ideology: the restoration of the position of Caliph, combined with literalist teachings of the Quran, will Make Islam Great Again.
They literally believe that, through acts of terror, they will incite the infidel armies to form and challenge them on the field. Though their army will be vastly outnumbered, they believe that God will descend from Heaven to deliver them to victory. This they believe, and they will commit acts of terror, not only to incite the West to send forth their armies, but to also oppress moderate Muslims at home, driving them into the hands of the extreme Wahhabi clerics.
Yeah, they’re an apocalyptic death cult, the logical summation of decades of teaching.
They also have mastered social media and self promotion, leading to no shortage of alienated and disaffected young people to flock to them. I mean, doesn’t everyone want to believe the world is simple?
With the Christians in America, they want to believe in the new Crusade too. Pat Robertson and his evangelicals wants the Muslims in America to convert by any means necessary. They want the end times as well, though they don’t think it will come so soon.
Dawkins and the New Atheists are perfectly content with walking into the History section, dousing the books on the cultural and political context of the modern Muslim World with petrol, and walking out telling you that religion is just plain evil.
Well the world’s not that simple. We’re stuck here navigating this complicated morass of cultures, religions, and ideologies, and most of us don’t have the luxury of planting our flag firmly in one and claiming our identity and out belonging.
Figuring out where we are and how to navigate this complex struggle of being alive is just something that we have to do. But the lure of a cult is that life is simple and there’s one true answer. It’s very easy for lost and disaffected young men, who are promised a privileged place in the world but upon adulthood delivered into a world full of inequity and hardship to take the easy solution promised to them by deceitful demagogues.
Democracy and the Enlightenment. Monarchy and Divine Right. Socialism and Marxism.
Islam. Buddhism. Christianity. Judaism. Hinduism.
If you look through all of the above ideologies and beliefs and systems of structuring the world, you’ll find no shortage of abominable acts that are justified within their foundational documents, and bloody atrocities within their histories.
But, why Islamic Terrorism at this moment in time? Fine. Here’s your easy answer:
The self interested monarchy of Saudi Arabia found that by aggressively promoting the most regressive and violent sect of its own religion, it could more easily maintain its seat of power. This is an ideology that exists because hundreds of millions of dollars, derived largely from oil sales, are funneled into it by billionaires and princes who are convinced that they can buy their way into heaven. And its worst atrocities are committed by the young an disaffected, who are seductively convinced that the problems they face come from the outsiders, and not from the people within their own country who are using that lie of the clash of religions, the clash of civilization, to maintain their own unjust hold on power.
Don’t let yourself be misled into hatred by the liars within your own country too.