How the Iraq War United Radical Islam

Islam expert Michael Sells analyzes global Islam in light of the Madrid bombings.

BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell

 
With the latest world events--fighting in Fallujah, gun battles in southern Thailand, and an attack on the diplomatic quarter of Damascus--attention is turning even more intently to radical Islam. In March, after the Madrid train bombings, Beliefnet talked with Michael Sells, a renowned comparative religions scholar whose specialty is Saudi Salafism, also known as Wahhabism, about the state of play in global Islam and terrorism. We are reprinting it today because his comments are, if anything, more accurate now than they were a few weeks ago.

What does this mean for the landscape of worldwide Islam?

If it's true that this was an Islamic radical group with ties to Al Qaeda, then it seems to be another act of an organized anti-Western group that has shifted now from the jihad of the Taliban centered around Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to an international war against what is viewed as Western occupation.

Are you saying that terrorism is decoupling from Islam?

No--I think the ideologies under which these groups operate are grounded in one particular radical version of Islam.

And what is that?

Al Qaeda is grounded in aspects of the most militant version of Saudi

Salafism

, sometimes called Wahhabism. These -ism terms are always difficult because there are a lot of people who follow the teachings of Ibn Wahhab or Saudi Sunnism without being attached to any terrorist groups or sympathizing with them.

But there are some of those teachings that have helped galvanize these groups and have helped form their ideology. Other teachings come from the Egyptian Islamic brotherhood. And these writings have been combined with some of the Saudi Salafi militant writings to form a view that only this one version of Islam is the correct version of Islam. All other versions of Islam are heretical and should be fought, and Christianity and Judaism are inherently threatening, and Muslims should have as little contact with them as possible, and a jihad in a military sense should be carried out against any group that is threatening the purity of this form of Islam.

Radical Salafism is based on a particular reading of the Medieval writer

Ibn Taymiyya

, who wrote after the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols. He viewed non-Salafi Muslims, and Christians, and Jews, as allies of the Mongols and as threats to the security and purity of Islam. And he was particularly angered by Mongols who had invaded Islam and said they had converted, but who weren't, in his view true converts. The latest radical view of Islam sees a [new] threat of occupation by outside forces..It sees the West as occupying Islam, so it views them the way Ibn Taymiyya viewed the Mongols.

That's interesting, because I think most people view their cause as anti-globalization, anti-American culture, or anti-military.

When I hear Islamic radicals denounce occupation, I think they are referring to different things: Israeli occupation of the area of the Middle East that Israel is in; the American occupation of Iraq; and American troops stationed in other Islamic countries. But I think occupation also is involved with the saturation of the world with American and Western media -- cultural values which are implicitly Judeo-Christian values.

What has changed in the world of radical Islam lately?

The Iraq invasion has sparked [outrage] among Muslims from different parts of the world who feel occupied, whether it's culturally or militarily. Some of them will now just join the force that's resisting that operation, which has this generic Sunni Salafi militant ideology.

Continued on page 2: »

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