2016-06-30
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.

In other words, the Iraq war and the occupation of Iraq has actually motivated and catalyzed these various groups to unite with each other?

When they talk about people coming into Iraq from Syria and Iran and fighting Americans, these were not specific organized groups. They were young men who felt very strongly that there was a war going on against Islam, and an occupation, and they went to fight it. The groups that have been effective in organizing themselves are these radical Sunni Salafi groups. The movement existed, and it was probably expanding anyway. Oh, seriously? Because I think some people thought that it was plausible that after 9/11 it was not expanding. That the United States is hunting them down and catching them.

Certainly we're hunting down some of the leadership around bin Laden, but Al Qaeda is not just one centralized organization..It's a revolutionary movement. If you're part of a revolutionary movement, you join others who feel part of the revolutionary movement. As your sincerity is tested and people start to trust you, you start to get into inner cells and as you prove yourself in carrying out attacks against the enemy, then gradually you get into more and more powerful positions and you get more expertise and you can carry out operations. It's true that Al Qaeda has been dismantled in part--and that there is a reaction by progressive Muslims to militant Islam. All these things are going on simultaneously. And I think it's crucial to understand that they are going on simultaneously, and that if the United States expands its operations in the Middle East, I think it's absolutely predictable that there will be groups that are going to rise up in opposition to that.

Do you think the U.S. government knows the medieval historical analogues you mentioned earlier? Or cares? Or do the analogues not even matter?

I'm puzzled by the fact that the government probably knows these analogues. I know that some of the governmental advisers have talked about them explicitly. For example, Bernard Lewis, who is very influential on the Bush administration, takes the view that the colonial constitution of Iraq should be reinstated-the one that the British helped draw up under the British colonial rule. And I would call these the "Let's be colonialists and do it right" faction.

Of course, the Administration never presents it in exactly that way, but certainly people are conscious of that [history]. And I don't think there are many people in areas where the United States is acting that doesn't see this as a very close form of colonialism, very similar to British rule. We're going to bring democracy, we're going to set up a Parliament, we're going to bring women's rights, we're going to bring development. This is exactly what occurred under the British and French--and it did bring some development and some Parliaments and some good things-but people also felt it brought occupation. My concern is if the United States is entering into this world without thinking it through.

I have no idea how long the United States is going to be in Iraq and [I know there are some advisers] who are urging the United States to now move on to Syria and Iran in the same way. I don't know whether the American people, when we come to our elections, will think about these issues in terms of, 'Do we want to become colonial occupiers and hunt down the terrorists and occupy countries?' Will we look back on the British and think about why the British got tired of that?

I'm also curious about the Muslim landscape here in the United States post-9/11 and also post-Iraq and now in light of the Spain bombing. Do you have any concerns about what's going on in the United States among radical Muslims?

I have concern that there's a war going on between radical militants and Western power and that radical militants are finding their best technique is to carry out these terror attacks. That's been a concern before and after the Madrid operation. But that's not an issue of Islamic society, or Islamic religious tendency generally--that's just an issue of a particular form of warfare that's going on.

As far as the American Muslim community is concerned, it's so vast, so diverse. One trend is for people to say, "We have to develop more of a sense of ownership of our own Islam." That is, we no longer can rely on sending students to Saudi Arabia, or bringing in imams trained in Saudi Arabia by Saudi Salafi leaders. Many of them have very little understanding of American culture, especially if they have been indoctrinated in this conflict-oriented militant Salafism taught in Saudi Arabia in some of these institutions. And that's not our Islam. It doesn't reflect our realities, it doesn't reflect our very multi-religious, pluralistic society. And I think there are very active, powerful and progressive movements, constructive movements, whose goal is to have more of a sense of indigenous American Islam here.

So you do think that movement is powerful? I've heard mixed news about it.

I think people don't want Islam controlled by this one group. And they do want ownership of their own Islam. They want a mosque and a teaching that relates to their culture, to their society, their neighbors, that teaches them a way of getting along in peaceful and constructive ways with their non-Muslim neighbors. But Muslims are also now harassed in airports and encounter extreme prejudice, which is almost inevitable in these states of war-so they also feel that the United States is an aggressor power and that Western powers are still aggressor powers and occupiers in the Middle East. So that's a powerful double set of feelings.

Is the progressive Muslim movement strong in other countries?

It's hard for me to gauge the ultimate strength because these things are in progress.and one of the things about progressive religions is that they thrive insofar as people do not feel actively threatened in an immediate way.

But when people feel that their identity in whatever religious tradition they're part of is being actively threatened, conflict-oriented religion tends to have a strong appeal because it mobilizes people, gives people a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, a sense of unity against what is considered to be a threat.

My concern is that you have a vicious cycle, with the more terror events there are, the more the West gets anti-Islamic, and the more the West carries out large military campaigns with bombings and occupations, the more sense of conflict that brings, and the more appeal conflict-oriented versions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have.

So the picture's pretty bleak globally.

The Cold War used to give the world a framework for conflict. If people had a revolution against their country they could go to the Soviets and get Soviet aid or go to the Americans and get American aid, depending on what country their government was aligned with. And that framework allowed every kind of grievance to be framed within proxy wars fought all around the world. It was a terribly grim time in many ways-many countries were devastated.

Now the Cold War is over. Where do people go if they have deep grievances? They are going to religion. Where do people go if they feel like their identity is being threatened or that they are occupied? Revivals of militant Islam, militant Hinduism, militant Judaism, militant Christianity-they're all growing very quickly in the world.

A milder example is American society's response to "The Passion of the Christ." The people champioing that movie feel their identity has been suppressed; here's a way of having it expressed.

It's important people see how the militant aspects of religion are tied subtly into wider dynamics. Religions can't be and shouldn't be categorized by the militant aspects, but the militant aspects are always the ones that are in your face, make tragedy, are on the news. The most powerful resistance to religious militancy is to not get dominated by that image in the media of the violence, but by finding ways of looking around that to the rich world that isn't represented.

Militant religions think carefully about this aspect of war in which the actual physical damage to the enemy is minimal, but the damage gets into the minds of people.

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