From Waco to Isis: The Roots of Radical Jihadism

My initial impression after September 11 was that it was the work of “crazy people,” people suffering from a deep mental illness of some sort. But as profiles of the terrorists emerged, that scenario was not supported. Instead, the actions of bin Laden and his cohorts on September 11 were a carefully crafted irregular type of warfare (which is why the word “attack” is often used for terrorist actions). And that warfare was grounded in a view of history quite different from the view traditionally taught in Western schools. The opening salvo of that new war was met with far more approval from sane and rational people in the islamic world (from Morocco to Malaysia) than I would have imagined. Why was that the case? I began researching Islam and the Qur’an, looking for the roots of radical Islam. It would be unfair to assume that the terrorists were normal, everyday Muslims, just as it was unfair to assume that Koresh was a normal, everyday Adventist. Nevertheless, in each case, their disturbing view of the world was heavily grounded and justified by important islamic and Adventist ideas respectively. But before we get to the religious ideas behind the jihadist actions, I will begin with an analysis of history from the islamic perspective.

From the islamic perspective, the root of most problems in the islamic world are the result of colonialism. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire (based in modern-day Turkey but extending from North Africa into central Asia) after World War I, the victorious European powers (England, France, Italy) divided up the former Ottoman lands into artificial “countries,” whose boundaries were chosen by outsiders with little or no sense of the impact on the ground. For example, the new colonial boundaries ignored tribal connections. The Hashemite tribe extends from modern-day Jordan deep into western Saudi Arabia. But the colonial borders split the tribe in half. The Houthi tribe was split between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And pertinent to the formation of ISIS, the Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq was split into eastern Syria and western Iraq. What had once been natural communities were now divided into different countries with all the barriers to travel and divided loyalties that could arise from that.

Similarly, the colonial borders also ignored religious divisions and connections. The main body of Shiite Muslims live in an arc running from Iran to Lebanon. But in the heart of this Shiite arc is a strong contingent of Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority in Syria and western Iraq, but are a minority in Lebanon and Iraq as a whole. Although a minority within the arc, Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are supported by their compatriots in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But to make it even more complicated, within this volatile Sunni-Shia mix are a significant element of secularized Arabs who are not completely comfortable with either Sunni or Shiite militancy. It is doubtful if any system of borders in the Middle East could fully accommodate this complexity, but it is clear to jihadists that the borders instituted by the Western powers do not serve islamic interests and should be considered null and void.

A further aspect of colonialism that still impacts things today was the tendency of the European powers to rule these “countries” through a social elite. Rather than installing true democracies, the colonialists ruled through local elites (people already recognized locally for their wealth and influence) who were often Western educated and generally supported the colonial powers in exchange for additional wealth and power. This approach created a serious divide between the mass of common people and the authorities (such as tribal chiefs) who had once ruled by popular consent but now were in power as the “lackeys” of foreign oppressors. Colonialism drove a wedge between the people and their traditional leaders, planting the seeds of rebellion and revolution.

Opposition to the colonial powers came from two main sources. The first group of opponents were the “pan-Arabists,” who were secular and dreamed of a “United Arab Republic,” a “United States” of the Arab peoples who dominate the landscape from Morocco to Iraq. Their goal was to overthrow the colonial powers and replace them with a home-grown Arab version of the secular West (or at times the Communist ideology). The big pan-Arabist name in the middle of the Twentieth Century was Gamal Abdul Nasser, who for a time ruled Egypt and Syria, calling the combined states the United Arab Republic. Figures like him were replaced with the current generation; al-Sisi in Egypt, Yasser Arafat in Palestine, King Hussein in Jordan, Bashar Assad in Syria, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The second group of opponents to colonialism were the “pan-Isalmists,” whose vision was based in the islamic religion and thus transcended ethnicity. Pan-Islamists dreamed of a “caliphate” (an islamic version of Israel’s theocracy– direct rule by God) which would expand far beyond the Arab world, including Muslim-dominated countries all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia. While the pan-Arabists centered their goals on a society run by and for Arabs, the pan-Islamists centered their goals on a society ruled by islamic principles. The biggest islamic “success story” in the Twentieth Century occurred first in Saudi Arabia and then, after 1979, Khomeini’s Iran. In these countries a board of islamic clergy had ultimate veto power over elected or appointed governments.

Those who were promoting islamic rule were not crazy. There was a deep and penetrating analysis of reality behind it. We cannot even begin to deal with the jihadist mentality unless we understand the theology and the philosophy behind it. Next time. . .

3 thoughts on “From Waco to Isis: The Roots of Radical Jihadism

  1. Majiyd Suru

    A good and humble analysis, taking into account the real situation of the people and the current situation of the countries dominated by Muslims. The current situation, it appears is influenced by colonial legacy which imposed the materialistic views of the world among communities immersed in spiritual and moral development. For them, the Muslims, moral development presides over materials development.


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