Decoding ISIS – How Salafism, Our Close Relationship to the Saudis, and Middle Eastern Demography Gave Us Perpetual Jihad

Current Events

The attacks in Paris, and less publicized terrorist incidents in Beirut, for which ISIS has claimed credit, make the question of what motivates them – and more importantly, why so many Sunni Muslims in the West as well as in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan-Pakistan are receptive to their message – an urgent matter.

Many of ISIS’ actions from beheading Westerners to restoration of slavery for women according to Sharia law seem not only barbarous but totally irrational to Western minds. It becomes urgent, therefore, to understand where Sunni Muslims attracted to Salafist revolutionary organizations are coming from, even if understanding does not provide us with any easy or immediate answers on how to counter the trend.

We could take the story of Salafism all the way back to Ibn Tammiyah, who first expounded Salafist thought in the 13th Century when much of Islam was under the heel of the Mongols.   But a more logical starting point can be found in the creation of the Saudi Arabian State from 1910 to 1924.   In many ways, Saudi Arabia is the first true Islamic State,  and while ISIS has borrowed extensively from 20th Century revolutionary movements such as Mao Zedong’s in China and Vietnam’s Viet Minh and Viet Cong, the Saudis have done many of the same things the Islamic State has done.

Following the initial Saudi-Wahabi rebellion against the Ottomans in the 18th and early 19th Century (which was crushed) the Saudis retreated into the central Arabian Peninsula, chafed under the Ottoman sponsored Rashidi Emirate, bided their time, and husbanded their strength, as the Turkish empire progressively weakened.

In 1910, Abd al Aziz bin Saud captured Riyadh, which became the Saudi capital, and over the next decade the Saudis unified the Nejd and with the help of interlocutors such as “Jack” Philby and Gertrude Bell, were able to gain recognition by Great Britain and the United States, even though in the process they annexed other territories in acts of naked aggression that ran totally counter to international law at the time. In doing so the Saudis were able to create a zone in which Hanbali-Wahabi Salafist Islam was the law of the land, corresponding exactly to what ISIS is doing today in Sunni  Eastern Syria and Western Iraq.

Nor was the creation of this earlier “Islamic state” the Saudis sole doing. The House of Saud relied for its legitimacy on the Ikhwan, the original Muslim Brotherhood of which Hassan al Banna’s later movement was a divergent copy. The Ikhwan kept, and has continued to keep, the Saudi Royal Family true to Wahabi Islam throughout a modernization process jump-started by the discovery of Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves.

That oil came to be used to protect American world power and enable the United States to export its economic woes to the rest of the world through the symbiotic relationship known as the Petrodollar. The United States offered unconditional protection to Saudi Arabia and the rule of it’s royal family in return for Saudi Arabia accepting only US dollars for oil and coercing other OPEC nations to do the same.

This symbiotic arrangement has protected the Saudi Royal Family from almost all challenges, foreign and domestic, while allowing the United States to have a strong currency that almost all other nations need, making US imports and allowing America to defy economic gravity on such global issues as interest rates.

The United States thus finds itself joined at the hip with a regime that is every bit as Salafist as ISIS (though so far preferring dawa missionizing to jihad) , weakening the West’s hand considerably when it comes to suppressing the Islamic State fighters.

Beginning in the 1960s with the reign of King Faisal, the Saudis began to use some of their oil wealth to promote Wahabism in other countries. Mosques – and later university chairs – were endowed in the West. This missionary activity took on far greater urgency following the establishment of the Shia Islamic Republic in Iran, which seems to have  shocked the Saudis to the core.

After 1978, the Saudis would work with Pakistan to move formerly liberal Deobandi Islam in a more Wahabi-Salafist direction, meanwhile permitting their sons (like Osama bin Laden) to travel to Afghanistan and engage in jihad against the Russians–with American support.

The result was Al Qaeda and eventually, under the sponsorship of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, the Taliban.   When the Iraq-Iran War ended in a truce with Iran still intact, Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait in an effort to drive the price of oil higher. Once his invasion was repulsed by Western military force, one of the measures Saddam used to retain power was to embrace and encourage Salafism in his “Faith Campaign” beginning in 1993.  It was this campaign that turned out to be the true genesis of the organization that became Al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation and afterwards, with Saudi and Qatari military support, ISIS.

In the meantime, while the Saudis through missionary activities have not managed as yet to turn the entire Sunni populace of the Middle East completely Salafist, they have been able to promote their brand of religion effectively enough to crowd out more moderate Muslim voices, preventing the growth of a more moderate Sunni Islam.

This process was enabled by two key factors. First, Sunni Islam closed the door to ijtihad, or “independent reasoning” (which the Shiites haven’t) at the time of Al Tammiyah centuries ago. Secondly, regimes in most of the Mideast from the 1920s to the 2000s were secularizing regimes, beginning with Kemalism  in Turkey. These regimes suppressed Islamic fundamentalism as “anti-modern” as aggressively as they could, leaving a religious vacuum that Salafism has filled.

Salafism has gained clientele defining itself against the corruption and extreme repression of these same governments, which has been a feature of Middle Eastern politics since ancient times, according to David Price Jones in his book The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.

Furthermore, this legacy of corruption has interacted with the traditional view that women are chattel as well as polygamy with the result that fathers sell daughters to wealthy older husbands, leaving many young men with no matrimonial or normal sexual prospects. With life expectancies having risen into the 60s and 70s in the Middle East, young men face the prospect of waiting until their 40s or 50s to acquire the capital to marry and start a family. For the unemployed it means never wedding.

Young men thus seek their fortunes in the West, which explains the number of “economic migrants” in the European refugee stream. But many find themselves just as much at loose ends as they were in the Middle East. And the same can be true for many children of Muslim emigres, especially those who are ghettoized and suffer discrimination.

The traditional remedy for Sunnis who feel that they have been maltreated is jihad, a term which can mean internal struggle against one’s evil inclinations but which also can mean armed struggle against external oppressive forces.  Power struggles within Islam have always been couched in terms of jihad, which over the centuries was frequently externalized against unbelievers in wars to expand Islam that stretched from Spain to the Balkans to Russia to India.

Can’t afford a wife?  Take a slave from women of conquered unbelievers and make her your wife.  If you die in jihad, you are a martyr and merit paradise, but if you live and prevail, you will get your rewards here on earth.

When we keep this fact in mind we can decode ISIS’s messages to young Muslims: the old laws of Sharia still “work” when mated to the practice of modern guerilla insurgency. And ISIS recruiters find no shortage of young recruits interminably “in between” life stages, humiliated because they are unable to leave their family homes and launch a career and family.  A fraction of them, as with any population of teens and young adults, are suicidal and can easily be motivated to make their deaths “count for something”.  And the draw for young people – women as well as men – is similar to many cults and sects, which who appealed to disillusioned refugees from the counter-culture in the 70s and 80s.

It is unfortunate that these facts on the ground do not point to any obvious remedies. ISIS’s actions in Europe, for example, are calculated to throw a wrench into humanitarian efforts to assimilate Muslim refugees in a way that could eventually nurture a future, liberalized Western form of Islam.  Military action is certainly possible. But mobilizing to defeat the smaller Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by a long, drawn out effort similar in scope and time to the Vietnam War or even World War II may be impossible, while the West is allied with that larger Islamic state, Saudi Arabia.

The West may have a lot of work to do in weaning itself off the petrodollar and putting its own economic house in order before it can effectively cope with Salafist Islam.

Martin Katchen is an independent scholar, teacher, and researcher living in Los Angeles.  He specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly the state of Israel.  He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney (Australia).

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