The sectarianism of ISIS: Ideological roots and political context


President Obama’s rebuke yesterday of the Republican’s use of the phrase, “radical Islam,” was good as far as it went. Yet this debate about ISIS, which views it as either the violent heart of Islam or as an utterly un-Islamic perversion of the religion, is simplistic and misleading on both sides.

Hassan Hassan writes: The Islamic State’s extreme ideology can be viewed as the product of a slow hybridization between doctrinaire Salafism and other Islamist currents.

Many of the extremist religious concepts that undergird the Islamic State’s ideology are rooted in a battle of ideas best understood in the context of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) movement in the 1970s, and a similar movement in Egypt, as well as in other countries. In those countries, the interplay of Salafi doctrinal ideas and Muslim Brotherhood–oriented political Islamic activism produced currents that still resonate today. Indeed, the commingling of Salafism and Brotherhood Islamism accelerated in the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011, filling the void left when traditional religious establishments failed to respond adequately to the aspirations and grievances of the Arab masses. The Islamic State and other Islamist and jihadi groups seized the opportunity to enforce their vision of the role of Islam.

In Saudi Arabia and in Egypt, the marriage of traditional Salafism and political Islam produced new forms of Salafism that were influenced by, and critical of, both movements. Political Islam became more conservative and Salafism became politicized.

In many instances, Salafi concepts were substantially reinterpreted, appropriated, and utilized by a new generation of religious intellectuals who started to identify with a new movement. In Saudi Arabia, the Sahwa generation moved away from the Najdi school, the adopted name for the Wahhabi clerical establishment.

The practice of takfir, or excommunication after one Muslim declares another an infidel or apostate, became increasingly prominent, first during the 1960s in Egypt and then after the first Gulf War in the 1990s when veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan began to apostatize Saudi Arabia for hosting and supporting Western troops to fight Iraq’s then leader, Saddam Hussein.

Politically submissive Salafism, which had rejected political rebellion, began to give way to political takfirism that carries the banner of caliphate, jihad, and rebellion. At the same time, the growing influence of Salafi ideals led to the Salafization of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist theorist and leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s, drew on Salafi ideals to create an all-embracing takfiri ideology. Qutb argued that Muslim-majority societies are living in a state of jahiliyya (pre-Islamic obliviousness). He believed that all ideologies—including capitalism, communism, and pan-Arabism—have failed, and that the only system that will succeed globally is Islam. Qutb considered Islam the only reference for society (known as hakimiyya, or sovereignty of God), and he urged Muslim youth to reject their societies and lead change.

Qutbism provided a political ideology that introduced Islamic supremacism and nationalism, and that rejects many aspects of modern Muslim society and political regimes. It took conservative ideas and molded them to serve as the foundations of a political ideology that has little sympathy for views that deviate from Qutb’s understanding of the Islamic way of life. It is inward-looking and prioritizes internal threats over foreign threats.

Qutbist concepts such as hakimiyya and jahiliyya shape the Islamic State’s dealings with the religious and ethnic communities it controls. The Islamic State believes that local populations must be converted to true Islam and that Muslims can accuse one another of apostasy without adhering to traditional clerical criteria, which stipulate a series of verification measures to ensure the apostasy of an accused person. The group also believes in the Qutbist idea that Muslims have fundamentally deviated from the true message of Islam and that correcting this deviation will require a radical, coercive revolution. [Continue reading…]

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