article on this page is owned and copyrighted by the named author
They Fight And what it means for us.
Peter Wehner - January 9, 2007
Wall Street Journal Editorial
President Bush has said that the war against global jihadism is more
than a military conflict; it is the decisive ideological struggle of
the 21st century. We are still in the early years of the struggle. The
civilized world will either rise to the challenge and prevail against
this latest form of barbarism, or grief and death will visit us and
other innocents on a massive scale.
Given the stakes involved in this war and how little is known, even
now, about what is at the core of this conflict, it is worth reviewing
in some detail the nature of our enemy--including disaggregating who
they are (Shia and Sunni extremists), what they believe and why they
believe it, and the implications of that for America and the West.
Islam in the World Today
The enemy we face is not Islam per se; rather, we face a global network
of extremists who are driven by a twisted vision of Islam. These
jihadists are certainly a minority within Islam--but they exist, they
are dangerous and resolute, in some places they are ascendant, and they
need to be confronted and defeated.
It's worth looking at Islam more broadly. It is the second-largest
religion in the world, with around 1.3 billion adherents. Islam is the
dominant religion throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Central
Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, which alone claims more
than 170 million adherents. There are also more than 100 million
Muslims living in India.
Less than a quarter of the world's Muslims are Arabs.
The Muslim world is, as William J. Bennett wrote in his in 2002 in his
book "Why We Fight," "vast and varied and runs the gamut from the Iran
of the ayatollahs to secular and largely westernized Turkey."
The overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunnites, or
"traditionalists"; they comprise 83 percent of the Muslim world, or 934
million people. It is the dominant faith in countries like Afghanistan,
Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria,
Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.
Sunni Islam recognizes several major schools of thought, including
Wahhabism, which is based on the teachings of the 18th century Islamic
scholar Mohammed ibn Abd Wahhab. His movement was a reaction to
European modernism and what he believed was the corruption of Muslim
theology and an insufficient fidelity to Islamic law. He gave jihad, or
"holy war," a prominent place in his teachings.
Wahhabism--a xenophobic, puritanical version of Sunni Islam--became the
reigning theology in modern Saudi Arabia and is the strand of Sunni
faith in which Osama bin Laden was raised and with which he associates
Shiites, or "partisans" of Ali, represent around 16 percent of the
Muslim world, or 180 million people. The Shiite faith is dominant in
Iraq and Iran and is the single largest community in Lebanon. The
largest sect within the Shia faith is known as "twelvers," referring to
those who believe that the twelfth imam, who is now hidden, will appear
to establish peace, justice, and Islamic rule on earth.
"Across the Middle East Shias and Sunnis have often rallied around the
same political causes and even fought together in the same trenches,"
Professor Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival," has written. But he
also points out that "followers of each sect are divided by language,
ethnicity, geography, and class. There are also disagreements within
each group over politics, theology, and religious law . . ." Professor
Nasr points out that "[a]nti-Shiism is embedded in the ideology of
Sunni militancy that has risen to prominence across the region in the
It is worth noting as well that for most of its history, the Shia have
been largely powerless, marginalized, and oppressed--often by Sunnis.
"Shia history," the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has written, "is
Shia and Sunni: Different Histories
The split between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam is rooted in
the question of rightful succession after the death of Muhammad in 632.
The Shia believe that Muhammad designated Ali, his son-in-law and
cousin, as his successor. To the Shia, it was impossible that God could
have left open the question of leadership of the community. Only those
who knew the prophet intimately would have the thorough knowledge of
the true meaning of the Koran and the prophetic tradition. Further, for
the new community to choose its own leader held the possibility that
the wrong person would be chosen.
The majority view prevailing at an assembly following Muhammad's death,
however, was that Muhammad had deliberately left succession an open
question. These became the Sunnis, followers of the Sunnah, or
Tradition of the Prophet. This is the root of the Sunni tradition.
Sunnis have a belief in "the sanctity of the consensus of the community
. . . 'My community will never agree in error': the Prophet is thus
claimed by the Sunnis to have conferred on his community the very
infallibility that the Shi`is ascribe to their Imams," Hamid Enayat,
wrote in his book "Modern Islamic Political Thought."
The assembly elected as Muhammad's successor Abu Baker, a close
companion of Muhammad, and gave Abu Baker the title Caliph, or
successor, of God's messenger. Ali was the third successor to Abu Baker
and, for the Shia, the first divinely sanctioned "imam," or male
descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
The seminal event in Shia history is the martyrdom in 680 of Ali's son
Hussein, who led an uprising against the "illegitimate" caliph (72 of
Hussein's followers were killed as well). "For the Shia, Hussein came
to symbolize resistance to tyranny," according to Masood Farivar. "His
martyrdom is commemorated to this day as the central act of Shia piety."
The end of Muhammad's line came with Muhammad al-Mahdi, the "Twelfth
Imam"--or Mahdi ("the one who guides")--who disappeared as a child at
the funeral of his father Hassan al-Askari, the eleventh imam.
Shia and Sunni: Different Eschatologies
Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi, is merely hidden from
view and will one day return from his "occultation" to rid the world of
evil. Legitimate Islamic rule can only be re-established with the
Mahdi's return because, in the Shiite view, the imams possessed secret
knowledge, passed by each to his successor, vital to guiding the
History is moving toward the inevitable return of the Twelfth Imam,
according to Shia. Professor Hamid Enayat has written:
"The Shi`is agree with the Sunnis that Muslim history since the era of
the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs . . . has been for the most part a tale
of woe. But whereas for the Sunnis the course of history since then has
been a movement away from the ideal state, for the Shi`is it is a
movement towards it."
It's worth noting that Shia have historically been politically
quiescent, with "[the return of the Mahdi] remaining in practice merely
a sanctifying tenet for the submissive acceptance of the status quo."
In more recent times, however--and in particular in Iran under
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala in 680
has been used to catalyze political action. Ayatollah Khomeini embraced
a view that Hussein was compelled to resist an unpopular, unjust and
impious government and that his martyrdom serves as a call to rebellion
for all Muslims in building an Islamic state.
The end-time views of Ayatollah Khomeini have been explained this way:
"[Khomeini] vested the myth [of the return of the Twelfth Imam] with an
entirely new sense: The Twelfth Imam will only emerge when the
believers have vanquished evil. To speed up the Mahdi's return, Muslims
had to shake off their torpor and fight," according to Matthias Kuntzel
writing in the New Republic this past April.
As Mr. Kuntzel points out, Khomeini's activism is a break with Shia
tradition and, in fact, tracks more closely with the militancy of the
Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to reunite religion and politics,
implement sharia (the body of Islamic laws derived from the Koran), and
views the struggle for an Islamic state as a Muslim duty.
Professor Noah Feldman of New York University points out, "Recently,
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, contributed to renewed focus on
the mahdi, by saying publicly that the mission of the Islamic
revolution in Iran is to pave the way for the mahdi's return . . ."
Sunni radicals hold a very different eschatological view. "For all his
talk of the war between civilizations," Professor Feldman has written:
"bin Laden has never spoken of the end of days. For him, the battle
between the Muslims and the infidels is part of earthly human life, and
has indeed been with us since the days of the Prophet himself. The war
intensifies and lessens with time, but it is not something that occurs
out of time or with the expectation that time itself will stop. Bin
Laden and his sympathizers want to re-establish the caliphate and rule
the Muslim world, but unlike some earlier revivalist movements within
Sunni Islam, they do not declare their leader as the mahdi, or guided
one, whose appearance will usher in a golden age of justice and peace
to be followed by the Day of Judgment. From this perspective, the utter
destruction of civilization would be a mistake, not the fulfillment of
a divine plan."
Many Sunnis, then, look toward the rise of a new caliphate; Shia, on
the other hand, are looking for the rule of the returned imam--with the
extremist strain within Shia believing they can hasten the return of
the twelfth imam by cleansing the world of what they believe to be evil
in their midst.
Other prominent Shia, like Iraq's Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, according
to Professor Feldman, "take a more fatalist stance, and prefer to
believe that the mahdi's coming cannot be hastened by human activity .
. . ." Indeed, as Anthony Shadid pointed out in the Washington Post in
2004, Ayatollah Sistani was a disciple of Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei
in Najaf, who was from the "quietist school" in Shiite Islam and
attempted to keep Khomeini from claiming the mantle of Shiite
Contemporary Sunni Radicalism
Since the attacks of September 11, we have learned important things
about al Qaeda and its allies. Their movement is fueled by hatred and
deep resentments against the West, America, and the course of history.
In Islam's first few centuries of existence, it was a dominant and
expanding force in the world, sweeping across lands in the modern-day
Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and elsewhere. During its Golden
Age--which spanned from the eighth to the 13th century--Islam was the
philosophical, educational, and scientific center of the world. The
Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power in the 16th century. Islam
then began to recede as a political force. In the 17th century, for
example, advancing Muslims were defeated at the gates of Vienna, the
last time an Islamic army threatened the heart of Europe. And for
radicals like bin Laden, a milestone event and historic humiliation
came when the Ottoman Empire crumbled at the end of World War I.
This is significant because for many Muslims, the proper order of life
in this world is for them to rule and for the "infidels" to be ruled
over. The end of the Ottoman Empire was deeply disorienting. Then, in
1923-24 came the establishment of modern, secular Turkey under Kemal
Ataturk--and the abolishment of the caliphate.
Osama bin Laden and his militant Sunni followers seek to reverse all
that. Bin Laden sees himself as the new caliph; he has referred to
himself as the "commander of the faithful." He is seeking to unify all
of Islam--and resume a jihad against the unbelievers.
According to Mary Habeck of the School of Advanced International
Studies at Johns Hopkins University:
"Jihadis thus neither recognize national boundaries within the Islamic
lands nor do they believe that the coming Islamic state, when it is
created, should have permanent borders with the unbelievers. The
recognition of such boundaries would end the expansion of Islam and
stop offensive jihad, both of which are transgressions against the laws
of God that command jihad to last until Judgment Day or until the
entire earth is under the rule of Islamic law."
Al Qaeda and its terrorist allies are waging their war on several
continents. They have killed innocent people in Europe, Africa, the
Middle East, Central Asia, the Far East, and the United States. They
will try to overthrow governments and seize power where they can--and
where they cannot, they will attempt to inflict fear and destruction by
disrupting settled ways of life. They will employ every weapon they
can: assassinations, car bombs, airplanes, and, if they can secure
them, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.
The theocratic and totalitarian ideology that characterizes al Qaeda
makes typical negotiations impossible. "Anyone who stands in the way of
our struggle is our enemy and target of the swords," said Abu Musab al
Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Osama bin Laden put it
this way: "Death is better than living on this Earth with the
unbelievers among us."
This struggle has an enormous ideological dimension. For example, both
Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two leader of al
Qaeda and its ideological leader, were deeply influenced by Sayyid
Qutb, whose writings (especially his manifesto "Milestones") gave rise
and profoundly shaped the radical Islamist movement. Qutb, an Egyptian
who was killed by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser in 1966, had a fierce
hatred for America, the West, modernity, and Muslims who did not share
his extremist views.
According to the author Lawrence Wright:
"Qutb divides the world into two camps, Islam and jahiliyya, the period
of ignorance and barbarity that existed before the divine message of
the Prophet Mohammed. Qutb uses the term to encompass all of modern
life: manners, morals, art, literature, law, even much of what passed
as Islamic culture. He was opposed not to modern technology but to the
worship of science, which he believed had alienated humanity from
natural harmony with creation. Only a complete rejection of rationalism
and Western values offered the slim hope of the redemption of Islam.
This was the choice: pure, primitive Islam or the doom of mankind."
Sunni jihadists, then, are committed to establishing a radical Islamic
empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for
example, has spoken about a "jihad for the liberation of Palestine, all
Palestine, as well as every land that was a home for Islam, from
Andalusia to Iraq. The whole world is an open field for us."
Their version of political utopia is Afghanistan under the Taliban, a
land of almost unfathomable cruelty. The Taliban sought to control
every sphere of human life and crush individuality and human
creativity. And Afghanistan became a safe haven and launching pad for
The Islamic radicals we are fighting know they are far less wealthy and
far less advanced in technology and weaponry than the United States.
But they believe they will prevail in this war, as they did against the
Soviet Union in Afghanistan, by wearing us down and breaking our will.
They believe America and the West are "the weak horse"--soft,
irresolute, and decadent. "[Americans are] the most cowardly of God's
creatures," al-Zarqawi once said.
Contemporary Shia Radicalism
President Bush has said the Shia strain of Islamic radicalism is "just
as dangerous, and just as hostile to America, and just as determined to
establish its brand of hegemony across the broader Middle East." And
Shia extremists have achieved something al Qaeda has not: in 1979, they
took control of a major power, Iran.
The importance of the Iranian revolution is hard to overstate. In the
words of the Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis (writing in Foreign Affairs,
"Political Islam first became a major international factor with the
Iranian Revolution of 1979. The word 'revolution' has been much misused
in the Middle East and has served to designate and justify almost any
violent transfer of power at the top. But what happened in Iran was a
genuine revolution, a major change with a very significant ideological
challenge, a shift in the basis of society that had an immense impact
on the whole Islamic world, intellectually, morally, and politically.
The process that began in Iran in 1979 was a revolution in the same
sense as the French and the Russian revolutions were." (emphasis added)
The taking of American hostages in 1979 made it clear that "Islamism
represented for the West an opponent of an entirely different nature
than the Soviet Union: an opponent that not only did not accept the
system of international relations founded after 1945 but combated it as
a 'Christian-Jewish conspiracy,' " Mr. Kuntzel wrote in Policy Review
Ayatollah Khomeini said in a radio address in November 1979 that the
storming of the American embassy represented a "war between Muslims and
pagans." He went on to say this:
"The Muslims must rise up in this struggle, which is more a struggle
between unbelievers and Islam than one between Iran and America:
between all unbelievers and Muslims. The Muslims must rise up and
triumph in this struggle."
A year later, writes Mr. Kuntzel, in a speech in Qom, Khomeini
indicated the type of mindset we are facing:
"We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another
name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land
go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the
"Whether or not they share Teheran's Shiite orientation," Joshua
Muravchik and Jeffrey Gedmin wrote in 1997 in Commentary magazine, "the
various Islamist movements take inspiration (and in many cases material
assistance) from the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Indeed. As Lawrence Wright points out in his book "The Looming Tower:
Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11":
"The fact that Khomeini came from the Shiite branch of Islam, rather
than the Sunni, which predominates in the Muslim world outside of Iraq
and Iran, made him a complicated figure among Sunni radicals.
Nonetheless, Zawahiri's organization, al-Jihad, supported the Iranian
revolution with leaflets and cassette tapes urging all Islamic groups
in Egypt to follow the Iranian example."
Today Iran is the most active state sponsor of terrorism in the world.
For example, it funds and arms Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist organization
which has killed more Americans than any terrorist organization except
al Qaeda. Hezbollah was behind the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine
barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans and marked the advent of
suicide bombing as a weapon of choice among Islamic radicals.
The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has said this: "Let the
entire world hear me. Our hostility to the Great Satan [America] is
absolute . . . Regardless of how the world has changed after 11
September, Death to America will remain our reverberating and powerful
slogan: Death to America."
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has also declared his absolute
hostility to America. Last October, he said, "whether a world without
the United States and Zionism can be achieved . . . I say that this . .
. goal is achievable." In 2006 he declared to America and other Western
powers: "open your eyes and see the fate of pharaoh . . . if you do not
abandon the path of falsehood . . . your doomed destiny will be
annihilation." Later he warned, "The anger of Muslims may reach an
explosion point soon. If such a day comes [America and the West] should
know that the waves of the blast will not remain within the boundaries
of our region."
He also said this: "If you would like to have good relations with the
Iranian nation in the future . . . bow down before the greatness of the
Iranian nation and surrender. If you don't accept [to do this], the
Iranian nation will . . . force you to surrender and bow down."
In Tehran in December, President Ahmadinejad hosted a conference of
Holocaust deniers, and he has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off
the map. "More than any leading Iranian figure since Ayatollah Khomeini
himself," Vali Nasr has written, "Ahmadinejad appears to take seriously
the old revolutionary goal of positioning Iran as the leading country
of the entire Muslim world--an ambition that requires focusing on
themes (such as hostility to Israel and the West) that tend to bring
together Arabs and Iranians, Sunni and Shia, rather than divide them .
. . "
It is the fate of the West, and in particular the United States, to
have to deal with the combined threat of Shia and Sunni extremists. And
for all the differences that exist between them--and they are
significant--they share some common features.
Their brand of radicalism is theocratic, totalitarian, illiberal,
expansionist, violent, and deeply anti-Semitic and anti-American. As
President Bush has said, both Shia and Sunni militants want to impose
their dark vision on the Middle East. And as we have seen with
Shia-dominated Iran's support of the Sunni terrorist group Hamas, they
can find common ground when they confront what they believe is a common
The war against global jihadism will be long, and we will experience
success and setbacks along the way. The temptation of the West will be
to grow impatient and, in the face of this long struggle, to grow
weary. Some will demand a quick victory and, absent that, they will
want to withdraw from the battle. But this is a war from which we
cannot withdraw. As we saw on September 11th, there are no safe harbors
in which to hide. Our enemies have declared war on us, and their
hatreds cannot be sated. We will either defeat them, or they will come
after us with the unsheathed sword.
All of us would prefer years of repose to years of conflict. But
history will not allow it. And so it once again rests with this
remarkable republic to do what we have done in the past: our duty.
Copyright © 2007 Dow
Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.