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The Terrorist Challenge—Understanding and Misunderstanding
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Faced with the growing threat of terrorism, Western officials and analysts seem hard put as to how to deal with something they find difficult to understand.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has advised the media not to use the term “Islamic State” for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—known as “Da’esh” in Arabic—because, he claims, the “caliphate” based in Raqqa in Syria is not Islamic. In other words, Cameron is casting himself as an authority on what is Islamic and what is not. At the other end of the spectrum, French Premier Manuel Valls speaks of “Islamofascism” and claims that the West is drawn into a “war of civilizations” with Islam.

Cameron continues Tony Blair’s policy in the early days of Islamist attacks on Britain. Blair would declare that although the attacks had nothing to do with Islam he had invited “leaders of the Muslim community” to Downing Street to discuss “what is to be done.”

As for Valls, he seems to forget that Islam, though part of many civilizations including the European one, is a religion not a civilization on its own. He also forgets that civilizations, even at the height of rivalry, don’t wage war; political movements and states do.

While it is important to understand what we are dealing with, it is even more important not to misunderstand the challenge.

To circumvent the hurdle of labeling the Da’esh-style terror as “Islamic,” something that runs counter to political correctness and could attract cries of Islamophobia, some Western officials and commentators build their analysis on the “sectarian” aspect of the phenomenon.

Thus, we are bombarded within seminars, essays and speeches seeking to explain, and at times explain away, the horrors of ISIS and similar groups as part of sectarian Sunni–Shi’ite feuds dating back to 15 centuries ago.

However, the “sectarian” analysis is equally defective.

There is no doubt that much of the violence in the Middle East today does have a sectarian aspect.

However, what we have is not a war of Islamic sects but wars among sectarian groups. Nobody has appointed ISIS as the representative of Sunnis, some 85 percent of Muslims across the globe. And, in fact, so far ISIS has massacred more Sunnis than members of any other sect or religion. The Internet “caliph” and his cohorts have beheaded more of their own comrades than any kuffar (Infidels).

At the other end of the spectrum no one has appointed the Khomeinist mullahs in Tehran as leaders of the Shi’ites. The Khomeinist regime has killed many more Shi’ites than members of any other sect or religion. (Human Rights groups put the number of those executed since Khomeini seized power at over 150,000.)

Equally absurd is to present the Alawite (or Nusayri) community in Syria as a branch of Shi’ism, something that no Shi’ite theological authority has ever done. Even then, the Ba’athist regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad has never claimed religious credentials, boasting about a secular, supposedly socialist ideology. In Shi’ite theology, the Alawites are classified among the “ghulat” (extremists) with a host of other heterodox sects.

The Khomeinist regime’s backing for the Houthis in Yemen cannot be explained in sectarian terms either. The Houthis belong to the Zaydi sect which, though originally exported from Iran to Yemen, has never been regarded by Twelvers (Ithna-’ashariyah), who make up the bulk of Shi’ites across the globe, as being part of the Shi’ite family.

In the 1970s Iran’s Shah bribed a few ayatollahs in Qom to issue declarations in favor of Zaydis—which they did, without however providing definitive theological endorsement.

In any case, the Houthis, though representing a good chunk of the Zaydi community, cannot be equated with that faith as a whole. Tehran’s support for them is politically motivated as it is in the case of Assad in Syria and the various branches of Hezbollah, notably in Lebanon. (The other night in a discussion circle in London a self-styled expert was mistaking Zaydis with Yazidis, insisting that former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was a Yazidi!)

There is no doubt that Tehran arms and supports a number of Shi’ite groups, ranging from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hazara in Afghanistan. However, it also supports some Sunni groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Tehran also did all it could to help the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, including the sending of a high-level mission with offers of billions of dollars in aid provided the brotherhood agreed to purge the Egyptian army.

In Afghanistan, Iran sheltered and, for years, financed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Sunni Hizb Islami, although it had massacred quite a few Afghan Shi’ites in the early 1990s. Since 2004, Tehran has also maintained contact with the Taliban, a militant anti-Shi’ite Afghan terror group. (At the time of this writing Iran is preparing to allow the Taliban to open an unofficial embassy in Tehran.)

Iran is also training and arming Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, almost all of them Sunnis, to fight ISIS, which casts itself as the standard-bearer of Sunnis.

At the other end of the spectrum, various opponents of the Khomeinist regime, among them some Sunni powers, have supported anti-regime Shi’ite groups at different times. Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein protected, financed, and armed the People’s Mujahedin, an Iranian Shi’ite group, for decades, and at one point sent them to fight inside Iran itself.

Pakistan, a Sunni-majority country, has become a base for anti-Iran terror groups which, according to Iranian Border Guard, have been responsible for more than 80 deadly attacks over the past 12 months.

At one end of the spectrum it is not enough to be Shi’ite of any denomination. Unless you also worship the “Supreme Guide” you are worse than the “infidel.” At another end, being a Sunni Muslim is not enough to let you live a reasonably human life in areas controlled by ISIS; you must also pledge fealty to the self-styled “caliph.”

The Khomeinists, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, Boko Haram, Hizb Islami, and a whole host of other outfits may try to market their discourse with a religious narrative. They may even be sincerely motivated by rival interpretations of Islam. What they cannot claim is the exclusive representation of Islam as such or a particular sect. They are part of Islam but Islam is not part of them. These are political movements using violence and terror in pursuit of political goals. They pretend to be waging war against the “infidel” and may even be deviously sincere in that claim. But they are primarily waging war against Muslims, regardless of schools or sect.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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