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The War Against Global Jihadism

By Peter Wehner

President Bush has said that the war against global jihadism is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century. We are still in the early years of the struggle. The civilized world will either rise to the challenge and prevail against this latest form of barbarism, or grief and death will visit us and other innocents on a massive scale.

Given the stakes involved in this war and how little is known, even now, about what is at the core of this conflict, it is worth reviewing in some detail the nature of our enemy - including disaggregating who they are (Shia and Sunni extremists), what they believe and why they believe it, and the implications of that for America and the West.

Islam in the World Today

The enemy we face is not Islam per se; rather, we face a global network of extremists who are driven by a twisted vision of Islam. These jihadists are certainly a minority within Islam -- but they exist, they are dangerous and resolute, in some places they are ascendant, and they need to be confronted and defeated.

It's worth looking at Islam more broadly.[1] It is the second-largest religion in the world, with around 1.3 billion adherents. Islam is the dominant religion throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, which alone claims more than 170 million adherents. There are also more than 100 million Muslims living in India.

Less than a quarter of the world's Muslims are Arabs.

The Muslim world is "vast and varied and runs the gamut from the Iran of the ayatollahs to secular and largely westernized Turkey."[2]

The overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunnites, or "traditionalists"; they comprise 83 percent of the Muslim world, or 934 million people. It is the dominant faith in countries like Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Sunni Islam recognizes several major schools of thought, including Wahhabism, which is based on the teachings of the 18th century Islamic scholar Mohammed ibn Abd Wahhab. His movement was a reaction to European modernism and what he believed was the corruption of Muslim theology and an insufficient fidelity to Islamic law. He gave jihad, or "holy war," a prominent place in his teachings.

Wahhabism -- a xenophobic, puritanical version of Sunni Islam -- became the reigning theology in modern Saudi Arabia and is the strand of Sunni faith in which Osama bin Laden was raised and with which he associates himself.

Shiites, or "partisans" of Ali, represent around 16 percent of the Muslim world, or 180 million people. The Shiite faith is dominant in Iraq and Iran and is the single largest community in Lebanon. The largest sect within the Shia faith is known as "twelvers," referring to those who believe that the twelfth imam, who is now hidden, will appear to establish peace, justice, and Islamic rule on earth.

"Across the Middle East Shias and Sunnis have often rallied around the same political causes and even fought together in the same trenches," Professor Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, has written. But he also points out that "followers of each sect are divided by language, ethnicity, geography, and class. There are also disagreements within each group over politics, theology, and religious law..."[3] Professor Nasr points out that "[a]nti-Shiism is embedded in the ideology of Sunni militancy that has risen to prominence across the region in the last decade."[4]

It is worth noting as well that for most of its history, the Shia have been largely powerless, marginalized, and oppressed -- often by Sunnis. "Shia history," the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has written, "is about lamentations."[5]

Shia and Sunni: Different Histories

The split between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam is rooted in the question of rightful succession after the death of Muhammad in 632.[6]

The Shia believe that Muhammad designated Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, as his successor. To the Shia, it was impossible that God could have left open the question of leadership of the community. Only those who knew the prophet intimately would have the thorough knowledge of the true meaning of the Koran and the prophetic tradition. Further, for the new community to choose its own leader held the possibility that the wrong person would be chosen.

The majority view prevailing at an assembly following Muhammad's death, however, was that Muhammad had deliberately left succession an open question. These became the Sunnis, followers of the Sunnah, or Tradition of the Prophet. This is the root of the Sunni tradition. Sunnis have a belief in "the sanctity of the consensus of the community... 'My community will never agree in error': the Prophet is thus claimed by the Sunnis to have conferred on his community the very infallibility that the Shi`is ascribe to their Imams."[7]

The assembly elected as Muhammad's successor Abu Baker, a close companion of Muhammad, and gave Abu Baker the title Caliph, or successor, of God's messenger. Ali was the third successor to Abu Baker and, for the Shia, the first divinely sanctioned "imam," or male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

The seminal event in Shia history is the martyrdom in 680 of Ali's son Hussein, who led an uprising against the "illegitimate" caliph (72 of Hussein's followers were killed as well). "For the Shia, Hussein came to symbolize resistance to tyranny," according to Masood Farivar. "His martyrdom is commemorated to this day as the central act of Shia piety."[8]

The end of Muhammad's line came with Muhammad al-Mahdi, the "Twelfth Imam" -- or Mahdi ("the one who guides") -- who disappeared as a child at the funeral of his father Hassan al-Askari, the eleventh imam.[9]

Shia and Sunni: Different Eschatologies

Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi, is merely hidden from view and will one day return from his "occultation" to rid the world of evil. Legitimate Islamic rule can only be re-established with the Mahdi's return because, in the Shiite view, the imams possessed secret knowledge, passed by each to his successor, vital to guiding the community.

History is moving toward the inevitable return of the Twelfth Imam, according to Shia. Professor Hamid Enayat has written:

"The Shi`is agree with the Sunnis that Muslim history since the era of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs ... has been for the most part a tale of woe. But whereas for the Sunnis the course of history since then has been a movement away from the ideal state, for the Shi`is it is a movement towards it."[10]

It's worth noting that Shia have historically been politically quiescent, with "[the return of the Mahdi] remaining in practice merely a sanctifying tenet for the submissive acceptance of the status quo."[11]

In more recent times, however -- and in particular in Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala in 680 has been used to catalyze political action. Ayatollah Khomeini embraced a view that Hussein was compelled to resist an unpopular, unjust and impious government and that his martyrdom serves as a call to rebellion for all Muslims in building an Islamic state.

The end-time views of Ayatollah Khomeini have been explained this way:

"[Khomeini] vested the myth [of the return of the Twelfth Imam] with an entirely new sense: The Twelfth Imam will only emerge when the believers have vanquished evil. To speed up the Mahdi's return, Muslims had to shake off their torpor and fight."[12]

As Professor Matthias Kuntzel points out, Khomeini's activism is a break with Shia tradition and, in fact, tracks more closely with the militancy of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to reunite religion and politics, implement sharia (the body of Islamic laws derived from the Koran), and views the struggle for an Islamic state as a Muslim duty.

Professor Noah Feldman of New York University points out, "Recently, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, contributed to renewed focus on the mahdi, by saying publicly that the mission of the Islamic revolution in Iran is to pave the way for the mahdi's return..."[13]

Sunni radicals hold a very different eschatological view. "For all his talk of the war between civilizations," Professor Noah Feldman has written:

"bin Laden has never spoken of the end of days. For him, the battle between the Muslims and the infidels is part of earthly human life, and has indeed been with us since the days of the Prophet himself. The war intensifies and lessens with time, but it is not something that occurs out of time or with the expectation that time itself will stop. Bin Laden and his sympathizers want to re-establish the caliphate and rule the Muslim world, but unlike some earlier revivalist movements within Sunni Islam, they do not declare their leader as the mahdi, or guided one, whose appearance will usher in a golden age of justice and peace to be followed by the Day of Judgment. From this perspective, the utter destruction of civilization would be a mistake, not the fulfillment of a divine plan."[14]

Many Sunnis, then, look toward the rise of a new caliphate; Shia, on the other hand, are looking for the rule of the returned imam -- with the extremist strain within Shia believing they can hasten the return of the twelfth imam by cleansing the world of what they believe to be evil in their midst.

Other prominent Shia, like Iraq's Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, "take a more fatalist stance, and prefer to believe that the mahdi's coming cannot be hastened by human activity...."[15] Indeed, Ayatollah Sistani was a disciple of Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei in Najaf, who was from the "quietist school" in Shiite Islam and attempted to keep Khomeini from claiming the mantle of Shiite leadership.[16]

Contemporary Sunni Radicalism

Since the attacks of September 11, we have learned important things about al Qaeda and its allies. Their movement is fueled by hatred and deep resentments against the West, America, and the course of history.

In Islam's first few centuries of existence, it was a dominant and expanding force in the world, sweeping across lands in the modern-day Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and elsewhere. During its Golden Age -- which spanned from the eighth to the 13th century -- Islam was the philosophical, educational, and scientific center of the world. The Ottoman Empire[17] reached the peak of its power in the 16th century. Islam then began to recede as a political force. In the 17th century, for example, advancing Muslims were defeated at the gates of Vienna, the last time an Islamic army threatened the heart of Europe. And for radicals like bin Laden, a milestone event and historic humiliation came when the Ottoman Empire crumbled at the end of World War I.

This is significant because for many Muslims, the proper order of life in this world is for them to rule and for the "infidels" to be ruled over. The end of the Ottoman Empire was deeply disorienting. Then, in 1923-24 came the establishment of modern, secular Turkey under Kemal Ataturk -- and the abolishment of the caliphate.[18]

Osama bin Laden and his militant Sunni followers seek to reverse all that. Bin Laden sees himself as the new caliph; he has referred to himself as the "commander of the faithful." He is seeking to unify all of Islam -- and resume a jihad against the unbelievers.

According to Mary Habeck of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University:

"Jihadis thus neither recognize national boundaries within the Islamic lands nor do they believe that the coming Islamic state, when it is created, should have permanent borders with the unbelievers. The recognition of such boundaries would end the expansion of Islam and stop offensive jihad, both of which are transgressions against the laws of God that command jihad to last until Judgment Day or until the entire earth is under the rule of Islamic law."[19]

Al Qaeda and its terrorist allies are waging their war on several continents. They have killed innocent people in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Far East, and the United States. They will try to overthrow governments and seize power where they can -- and where they cannot, they will attempt to inflict fear and destruction by disrupting settled ways of life. They will employ every weapon they can: assassinations, car bombs, airplanes, and, if they can secure them, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

The theocratic and totalitarian ideology that characterizes al Qaeda makes typical negotiations impossible. "Anyone who stands in the way of our struggle is our enemy and target of the swords," said Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Osama bin Laden put it this way: "Death is better than living on this Earth with the unbelievers among us."

This struggle has an enormous ideological dimension. For example, both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two leader of al Qaeda and its ideological leader, were deeply influenced by Sayyid Qutb, whose writings (especially his manifesto Milestones) gave rise and profoundly shaped the radical Islamist movement. Qutb, an Egyptian who was killed by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser in 1966, had a fierce hatred for America, the West, modernity, and Muslims who did not share his extremist views.

According to the author Lawrence Wright:

"Qutb divides the world into two camps, Islam and jahiliyya, the period of ignorance and barbarity that existed before the divine message of the Prophet Mohammed. Qutb uses the term to encompass all of modern life: manners, morals, art, literature, law, even much of what passed as Islamic culture. He was opposed not to modern technology but to the worship of science, which he believed had alienated humanity from natural harmony with creation. Only a complete rejection of rationalism and Western values offered the slim hope of the redemption of Islam. This was the choice: pure, primitive Islam or the doom of mankind."[20]

Sunni jihadists, then, are committed to establishing a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example, has spoken about a "jihad for the liberation of Palestine, all Palestine, as well as every land that was a home for Islam, from Andalusia to Iraq. The whole world is an open field for us."

Their version of political utopia is Afghanistan under the Taliban, a land of almost unfathomable cruelty. The Taliban sought to control every sphere of human life and crush individuality and human creativity. And Afghanistan became a safe haven and launching pad for terrorists.

The Islamic radicals we are fighting know they are far less wealthy and far less advanced in technology and weaponry than the United States. But they believe they will prevail in this war, as they did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, by wearing us down and breaking our will. They believe America and the West are "the weak horse" -- soft, irresolute, and decadent. "[Americans are] the most cowardly of God's creatures," al-Zarqawi once said.

Contemporary Shia Radicalism

President Bush has said the Shia strain of Islamic radicalism is "just as dangerous, and just as hostile to America, and just as determined to establish its brand of hegemony across the broader Middle East." And Shia extremists have achieved something al Qaeda has not: in 1979, they took control of a major power, Iran.

The importance of the Iranian revolution is hard to overstate. In the words of the Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis:

"Political Islam first became a major international factor with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The word 'revolution' has been much misused in the Middle East and has served to designate and justify almost any violent transfer of power at the top. But what happened in Iran was a genuine revolution, a major change with a very significant ideological challenge, a shift in the basis of society that had an immense impact on the whole Islamic world, intellectually, morally, and politically. The process that began in Iran in 1979 was a revolution in the same sense as the French and the Russian revolutions were."[21] (emphasis added)

The taking of American hostages in 1979 made it clear that "Islamism represented for the West an opponent of an entirely different nature than the Soviet Union: an opponent that not only did not accept the system of international relations founded after 1945 but combated it as a 'Christian-Jewish conspiracy.'"[22]

Ayatollah Khomeini said in a radio address in November 1979 that the storming of the American embassy represented a "war between Muslims and pagans." He went on to say this:

"The Muslims must rise up in this struggle, which is more a struggle between unbelievers and Islam than one between Iran and America: between all unbelievers and Muslims. The Muslims must rise up and triumph in this struggle."

A year later, in a speech in Qom, Khomeini indicated the type of mindset we are facing:

"We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world."[23]

"Whether or not they share Teheran's Shiite orientation," Joshua Muravchik and Jeffrey Gedmin wrote in 1997, "the various Islamist movements take inspiration (and in many cases material assistance) from the Islamic Republic of Iran."[24]

Indeed. As Lawrence Wright points out:

"The fact that Khomeini came from the Shiite branch of Islam, rather than the Sunni, which predominates in the Muslim world outside of Iraq and Iran, made him a complicated figure among Sunni radicals. Nonetheless, Zawahiri's organization, al-Jihad, supported the Iranian revolution with leaflets and cassette tapes urging all Islamic groups in Egypt to follow the Iranian example."[25]

Today Iran is the most active state sponsor of terrorism in the world. For example, it funds and arms Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist organization which has killed more Americans than any terrorist organization except al Qaeda. Hezbollah was behind the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans and marked the advent of suicide bombing as a weapon of choice among Islamic radicals.

The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has said this: "Let the entire world hear me. Our hostility to the Great Satan [America] is absolute... Regardless of how the world has changed after 11 September, Death to America will remain our reverberating and powerful slogan: Death to America."

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has also declared his absolute hostility to America.[26] Last October, he said, "whether a world without the United States and Zionism can be achieved... I say that this... goal is achievable." In 2006 he declared to America and other Western powers: "open your eyes and see the fate of pharaoh... if you do not abandon the path of falsehood... your doomed destiny will be annihilation." Later he warned, "The anger of Muslims may reach an explosion point soon. If such a day comes [America and the West] should know that the waves of the blast will not remain within the boundaries of our region."

He also said this: "If you would like to have good relations with the Iranian nation in the future... bow down before the greatness of the Iranian nation and surrender. If you don't accept [to do this], the Iranian nation will... force you to surrender and bow down."

In Tehran in December, President Ahmadinejad hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers, and he has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map. "More than any leading Iranian figure since Ayatollah Khomeini himself," Vali Nasr has written, "Ahmadinejad appears to take seriously the old revolutionary goal of positioning Iran as the leading country of the entire Muslim world -- an ambition that requires focusing on themes (such as hostility to Israel and the West) that tend to bring together Arabs and Iranians, Sunni and Shia, rather than divide them..."[27]

Concluding Thoughts

It is the fate of the West, and in particular the United States, to have to deal with the combined threat of Shia and Sunni extremists. And for all the differences that exist between them -- and they are significant -- they share some common features.

Their brand of radicalism is theocratic, totalitarian, illiberal, expansionist, violent, and deeply anti-Semitic and anti-American. As President Bush has said, both Shia and Sunni militants want to impose their dark vision on the Middle East. And as we have seen with Shia-dominated Iran's support of the Sunni terrorist group Hamas, they can find common ground when they confront what they believe is a common enemy.

The war against global jihadism will be long, and we will experience success and setbacks along the way. The temptation of the West will be to grow impatient and, in the face of this long struggle, to grow weary. Some will demand a quick victory and, absent that, they will want to withdraw from the battle. But this is a war from which we cannot withdraw. As we saw on September 11th, there are no safe harbors in which to hide. Our enemies have declared war on us, and their hatreds cannot be sated. We will either defeat them, or they will come after us with the unsheathed sword.

All of us would prefer years of repose to years of conflict. But history will not allow it. And so it once again rests with this remarkable republic to do what we have done in the past: our duty.


[1] Sources for this section include The New York Times Almanac: 2007 and "Islam is faith with many faces," by David R. Sands, The Washington Times, October 21, 2001.

[2] Why We Fight, by William J. Bennett (2002).

[3] The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (2006).

[4] "Iraq's Real Holy War," The New York Times, March 6, 2004.

[5] The Foreigner's Gift (2006).

[6] The precepts of Islam were revealed through Muhammad, who Muslims believe was the last of a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muhammad was born around 570 at Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, and died in 632 in Medina. Muslims believe the Koran, which means "recitation" and consists of 114 chapters (or surahs), is the infallible word of God as revealed to Muhammad.

[7] Hamid Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought (Second edition, 2005).

[8] "A Faith Divided," The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2006.

[9] The February 22, 2006 attack in Iraq on Samarra's Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, was significant because, as the Washington Post reported at the time, "the mosque holds the tombs of two revered 9th-century imams of the Shiite branch of Islam, including Hassan al-Askari, father of the 'hidden imam,' al-Mahdi. Many Shiites believe that Mahdi is still alive and that his reemergence one day will signal the beginning of the end of the world. Shiites consider the mosque in Samarra to be a tangible link with the hidden imam." It should also be noted that the name of the militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric in Iraq, is the Mahdi Army. "Moqtada is absolutely hooked on the concept of the reappearance of the Mahdi," according to Amatzia Baram, the director of the Ezri Center at Haifa University.

[10] Modern Islamic Political Thought (Second edition, 2005).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Matthias Kuntzel, "A Child of the Revolution Takes Over," The New Republic, April 24, 2006

[13] "Islam, Terror and the Second Nuclear Age," The New York Times Magazine, October 29, 2006. It should be noted that Professor Feldman also argues, "Shiite Islam, even in its messianic incarnation, still falls short of inviting nuclear retaliation and engendering collective suicide."

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Anthony Shadid, "Call of History Draws Iraqi Cleric to the Political Fore," The Washington Post, February 1, 2004.

[17] The Ottoman Empire was established in the 13th century by the Osmanli (Ottoman) Turks. At the height of its power, this Turkish empire spanned three continents.

[18] The establishment of a secular Islamic state in Turkey was unprecedented for an Islamic nation. The reason is rooted in the history of Islam. According to Efraim Karsh, author of Islamic Imperialism: A History, "Islam has never distinguished between temporal and religious powers, which were combined in the person of Muhammad." The Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis puts it this way: "The notion of church and state as distinct institutions, each with its own laws, hierarchy, and jurisdiction, is characteristically Christian, with its origins in Christian scripture and history. It is alien to Islam... From the lifetime of its founder, Islam was the state, and the identity of religion and government is indelibly stamped on the memories and awareness of the faithful from their own sacred writings, history, and experience. For Muslims, Muhammad's career as a soldier and statesman was not additional to his mission as a prophet. It was an essential part of it."

[19] Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (2006).

[20] The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006).

[21] "Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2005.

[22] Matthias Kuntzel, "From Khomeini to Ahmadinejad," Policy Review, December 2006 & January 2007.

[23] The quotes by Ayatollah Khomeini appear in Matthias Kuntzel's "From Khomeini to Ahmadinejad," Policy Review, December 2006 & January 2007.

[24] "Why Iran Is (Still) a Menace," Commentary, July 1997.

[25] The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006).

[26] President Ahmadinejad is certainly a key figure in Iran and the world. It is worth noting, however, that the Iranian government has several different power centers, including the presidency, the parliament, the Revolutionary Guard, and the office of the Supreme Leader - currently filled by Ayatollah Khamenei, who ultimately oversees the armed forces and exerts great influence.

[27] "The New Hegemon," The New Republic, December 18, 2006. It should be noted that in his book The Shia Revival, Professor Nasr argues that the Islamic revolution is "today a spent force in Iran, and the Islamic Republic is a tired dictatorship facing pressures to change." He adds, "If the Shias are emerging from their dark years of ideological posturing, revolution, and extremism, the Sunnis seem to be entering theirs, or at least passing into a darker phase."

Peter Wehner is deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives.

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