Many radicalized Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, such as ISIS and al Qaeda, adhere to a doctrine that can be summed up as “the religion of Islam vs. the world.” The most recognizable such name in our time is that of Osama bin Laden who, with Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (deceased), founded al Qaeda. Another is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who became the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and waged jihad on U.S. and coalition troops and on Iraq’s Shiites (he was killed in June 2006). Another recognizable is Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s longtime chief ideologue, who was named al Qaeda’s leader after bin Laden’s death (May 2011). He is thought to be holed up somewhere in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
During the past few years, a murky figure named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS (or, IS, the Islamic State), has been aiming to surpass the reputations of bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Zarqawi as the most powerful jihadi leader. He took over AQI in 2010 or 2011, and began turning it into a worse child of hell than al Qaeda itself. However, according to Michael Morell, former Deputy Director of the CIA, Baghdadi was booted out of al Qaeda in January 2014 because he would not obey Zawahiri – not because ISIS had become inordinately violent, as is commonly reported.
So what’s up with this “us vs. everyone else” mentality anyway? And why does it drive these Sunni jihadist organizations? We began to see in the previous two posts, that a well-thought, modern-day rationale can be found in the prolific writings of the Sunni political activist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). I don’t mean that you would find his books calling for suicide bombings, beheadings, and similar other horrors. But it’s clear that “the religion Islam vs. the world” is an organizing principle of his worldview. It is also clear that jihadist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda are deeply indebted to Qutb’s worldview, which can be traced to his radical view of history and of Islam, which we will now look at.
But first a caveat. I can sympathize with the countless numbers of Sunnis who are not violent and who hate it that the above jihadi leaders and their organizations are seen as representing Sunni Islam. In my own tradition, Christianity, countless numbers of us hate it that many people consider violence done by Christians as representing Jesus. Guilt by association is a horrible mark to have to bear, not easily, if ever, removed. Nevertheless, the jihadis mentioned above, as well as Sayyid Qutb, claim to be Sunni, not Shia or Sufi, Muslim.
Previously, we saw that Qutb argued in Islam: The Religion of the Future (IRF) that the root human problem is a religious one: We habitually choose to let God rule our religious, and perhaps our moral, life, but not public life, and so we have become idolaters (a word Qutb uses frequently). That is, having kept God’s rule out of social, political, and other aspects of life, we created human systems for ruling them ourselves. Qutb is pointedly clear about this, and no one can accuse him of being short of breath about it, either. Perhaps this was because for him it meant the loss of the sovereignty of God over all of life (his doctrine of the sovereignty of God was key to his worldview). Loss of God’s sovereignty expressed itself, for Qutb, in what Qutb called the miserable state of the world, beginning with the ancient Jews and culminating (in his time) with the Marxists, for whom God was completely off-limits.
In (IRF), Qutb shorthanded this root human problem as “the hideous schizophrenia,” or “the sacred vs. the secular dichotomy,” whereby not only world history but also Islam was sliding to its nadir. And the reason? Islam, he believed, was once totally submitted to God’s total rule, but only for a very short time. Mostly, Islam, including its contemporary expression in his day, had a habit of falling prey to idolatrous ways of running public life, so it lost God’s favor, and with that its authority and rulership. This is a view held by al Qaeda and ISIS.
But why was Islam once getting the job done and what had scotched that? Qutb’s answer takes us back to a conclusion that he drew about religious purity and Islam’s original vision, and it is a key for understanding the “us vs. everyone else” religious mentality of ISIS and al Qaeda. To help in understanding Qutb on this crucial point, I want us to look in the next post at Islam’s earliest years.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by EMSL & r-z respectively (permission via Creative Commons)