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The Role of Religion in U.S. National Security Policy since 9/11 - The Power of Islam
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Article Index
The Role of Religion in U.S. National Security Policy since 9/11
Historiographical Projections on Human Conflict and Religion
The Power of Islam
Demographic Surveys
Religion as a Paradigm in National Security Policy
Conclusion: The Way Ahead
Glossary of Key Islamic Terms
All Pages

Part II. The Power of Islam


First, however, it is important to give some direct attention to the religion of Islam. This would seem to be necessary for at least three reasons. One, Islamic terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11. Two, the Taliban and Al Qaeda continue to use the religion of Islam as a rallying cry against the United States and the West. Three, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and many other US allies are Islamic countries.

These data points raise a particularly challenging question. How are Americans to comprehend the influence and the nature of a faith that is held by some of our most aggressive adversaries, but also by some of our most valued friends? This is the confusion that many Americans feel about Islam, and it is a confusion that cannot be clarified until we are willing to look more closely at the faith and its divisions.

That religions have divisions within them is not unusual. Judaism may be divided into Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. Christianity may be divided into Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and many other denominations. What is unusual about Islam is that the divisions are extraordinarily complex and represent fundamentally different visions of how the faith is to achieve its universalization.

Yet we must understand Islam with its various divisions if we are to understand Islam as a power which motivates behavior. We must understand the faith dimension to derive the policy implication.83

Authoritative Documents84

There are many approaches to studying Islam, but one helpful way is to begin with a review of its authoritative documents and then move to its history.

Unlike Christianity, Islam emphasizes practice over belief, law over proclamation.85 Accordingly, Islam considers its authoritative source documents as supremely important. The primary authority in Islam is the Qur’an, revealed from 610 to 632 of the Common Era (CE) and considered to be “the eternal, uncreated, literal word of God, revealed one final time to the Prophet Muhammad as a guide for humankind.”86 The Qur’an reveals information about Allah as the radically transcendent, divinely omnipotent and omniscient God, who alone is God, who in himself is Unity; however, the Qur’an does not reveal God, for God is beyond all grasp and comprehension. Rather, the Qur’an reveals God’s universal will or law for all humanity.87

Stylistically the surahs, or chapters, of the Qur’an are composed of dramatic and shifting forms, and not chronological narrative.88 Surahs may be divided based on where the revelation was received—in Mecca or in Medina.89

The secondary authority in Islam is the Sunnah, composed of the words, deeds, and judgments of Mohammad, to include community practice flowing from the Prophet’s example.90 This form of customary law was written down by Muhammad’s Companions, with the written documents themselves called hadith.91 The sirah, or biographical accounts of Muhammad’s life, also lie within the category of Sunnah.92

Together the Qur’an and Sunnah form the basis of divine law, called Shari’ah.93 Meaning “straight path,” Shari’ah is that law in Islam that effects the rule of God and governs life—individual, community, and state. Shari’ah fuses the religious and civil worlds into one. Shari’ah is particularly instructive for the ummah, the one community of Islamic believers worldwide. Shari’ah tells the ummah what it means to be a Muslim.

A document of lesser, but still significant, authority in Islam is the fatwa, a formal restatement, or new application, of Islamic law. Fatwas are the result of difficulties both in understanding certain texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and in applying those texts to new situations. Islamic legal scholars issue fatwas to address aspects of life ranging from prayer and discipline, to marriage and family, to war and politics. The perceived authority of a fatwa can depend on the faith community’s respect for the scholar and his reasoning in matters of casuistry.

To enable resolution of interpretive difficulties, the Islamic legal tradition mushroomed. Principles of Islamic jurisprudence, or usul al-fiqh, established rules of interpretation, reasoning, precedence, and custom, to guide legal decisions.94 Siyar, the Islamic law of nations, also developed, detailing the Islamic law of war. Five legal traditions crystallized. Based on texts from the Qur’an and Sunnah and the extensive legal system, fatwas became a standardized way for leading legal scholars to shape and apply Islamic law.95

Brief Overview of Islam
The Qur’an documents a series of revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, beginning in 610 CE.96 After remaining silent for about three years, Muhammad went public and declared his revelations to the residents of Mecca. Decrying their polytheism and vices, he called for them to repent and submit fully to Allah, the one, supreme Being. Following years of difficult preaching and persecution, Muhammad and a small band of followers migrated to Medina in 622. There Muhammad consolidated his religious and political power into one office, which he occupied as the singular spokesman and Prophet of God.

At Medina, Muhammad showed himself to be a wise and talented leader of the Medina community and his nascent ummah. The continuing revelations he received in Medina proved especially important for his religious and military future. Certain Medinan revelations to Muhammad established Islamic rites and practices as part of a universal religion. Other revelations authorized offensive military operations in order to achieve that vision.

From Medina, Muhammad undertook a number of raids and battles, against neighboring tribes, caravans, Jews, and a force of thousands from Mecca. The trend line multiplied Muhammad’s power and wealth, and increased the number of those who submitted to Allah. The peaceful surrender of Mecca in 630 CE gave Muhammad undisputed control of the Arabian peninsula and religious hegemony based on his earlier order to expel all Christians and Jews. Before enacting a more expansive campaign to spread Islam through conquest, Muhammad fell ill and died in 632.

Following the death of Muhammad, the faithful demonstrated their resolve to realize their Prophet’s universal vision of Islam. Islam experienced extensive growth by military conquest in the seventh and eight centuries. Even through the twelfth century, Islam continued to expand its rule, but it achieved this growth in an ebb-and-flow manner as European Christian powers began to achieve dominance. Still, at the height of its power Islam could claim Spain, parts of France and Italy, all of northern Africa, and large portions of Eurasia. That said, internal Islamic struggles for leadership, an ethos constrained by regimented commitment to the past, and the external European dynamism of the Renaissance projected a final wall which Islam would not breech. Islam’s defeat at the gates of Vienna on September 11-12, 1683 marked the end of Islam’s linear, contiguous warfare to achieve universality. The vestiges of the great Ottoman Empire, launched in 1291, finally faded away through defeat in World War I. A new era for Islam had begun.

Before more thoroughly examining the claim that Islam initially expanded by military conquest in order to achieve its vision of universality, we must first note alternative views. Liberal scholarship and postmodern perspectives in the last century have articulated a transhistorical understanding of Islam’s universality in exclusively internal, spiritual terms.97 Other commentators have suggested that prudence precludes discussing a possible historical occurrence of Islamic militancy, to avoid aiding adversary recruitment or undercutting coalition building. Ibn Warraq sounds a cautionary note on bypassing history to satisfy ideology, especially ones own. Warraq quotes Isaiah Berlin, arguing that from the latent desire to “suppress what [one] suspects to be true...has flowed much of the evil of this and other centuries.”98 From this perspective, the hard investigation of history provides the surest way to the flourishing of humanity.

The multiple interpretations of jihad that exist within Islam today contend both for legitimacy and for adherents. The struggle over the definition of jihad is nothing less than the struggle over the defining character of Islam. Is the peace which Islam represents realized through external struggle, internal struggle, or a combination of the two? The original concept of jihad prioritized the meaning of jihad as external struggle or warfare, but included shadings of an internal or spiritual struggle. Changes in Islam’s external operational environment led to an evolving concept of jihad.

In this section I document the initial concept of jihad in Islam, its interpretation through the authoritative principles of Islamic jurisprudence, and its application within the Islamic war of nations. In the following section of this paper, I trace modern interpretations of jihad that have arisen from reformed Islamic positions.

My reading of Islam’s history, usul al-fiqh (principles of Islamic jurisprudence), siyar (the Islamic law of nations), and teaching on jihad (struggle or war) suggests that classical Islamic jurisprudence clearly accepted the proposition that Islam expanded by military conquest in order to achieve its goal of universality, as envisioned by the Prophet.99 To this one may add that the early emphasis on militaristic or external jihad was joined by a rising accent on spiritual or internal jihad, as the initial and stunning military advances of Islam slowed.

Shaybani, born 750 CE, wrote Islam’s most famous siyar, detailing the authoritative understanding of the Islamic law of nations and classical Muslim notions of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Shaybani’s siyar demonstrates the historical and theological connection of jihad to the goal of achieving a universal Islamic state. Majid Khadduri, arguably the foremost authority on Shaybani, comments

The Islamic faith, born among a single people and spreading to others, used the state as an instrument for achieving a doctrinal or an ultimate religious objective, the proselytization of mankind. The Islamic state became necessarily an imperial and an expansionist state striving to win other peoples by conversion.100

Because the vision of a worldwide Islamic empire could not be achieved immediately, Islam needed to generate new law to govern the continued prosecution of war, the distribution of the spoils of war, and the relations of Islam with those states which had not yet been conquered. These necessities gave birth to siyar and defined its scope.

Based on this scope, siyar assumed a state of hostility between the Islamic and non-Islamic world. The world was divided into two—dar al-Islam (the territory of Islam) and dar al-harb (the territory of war).101 Dar al-Islam was that part of the world ruled by Shari’ah, and dar al-harb was the military objective.

The territory of war was the object, not the subject, of the Islamic legal system, and it was the duty of Muslim rulers to bring it under Islamic sovereignty whenever the strength was theirs to do so.102

This does not mean that siyar required continuous warfare against the dar al-harb. Although “the ultimate objective of Islam was the whole world,” expediency or temporary Islamic weakness might justify the halting of hostilities and a temporary peace.103 When opportunity arose, however, the Muslim ruler was expected to return to offensive operations and, by conquest, achieve a universalization of Islam.

These offensive operations were by definition jihad. Khadurri notes:

The instrument which would transform the dar al-harb into the dar al-Islam was the jihad. The jihad was not merely a duty to be fulfilled by each individual; it was also above all a political obligation imposed collectively upon the subjects of the state so as to achieve Islam’s ultimate aim—the universalization of the faith and establishment of God’s sovereignty over the world.104

Hamidullah clarifies an important point. Jihad was not to be considered an individual duty in an absolute sense, but only in a derived sense, for jihad belonged to the state:

Jihad is not considered as a personal duty to be observed by each and every individual, but only a general duty which, if accomplished by a sufficient number, the rest will no more be condemned for the neglect of that duty—this fact renders the administration of jihad entirely in the hands of the government. The practice of the Prophet also shows the same thing.105

Such an understanding of jihad as state-sponsored, chiefly offensive military operations raises eyebrows today. Liberal and postmodern reformed accounts of Islam largely bypass documentary and historical evidence from the initial centuries of Islam in favor of emphasizing Islam as a religion that has expanded through the attraction of its inherently peaceful, spiritual discipline.

There is some evidence for each side, but most Qur’anic verses on jihad refer to actual fighting. Consider the following:

Indeed, Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties [in exchange] for that they will have Paradise. They fight in the cause of Allah, so they kill and are killed. [It is] a true promise [binding] upon Him. . . . Rejoice in your transaction.106

When the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah [alms], let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.107

Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who [Jews and Christians] do not adopt the religion of truth . . . - [fight] until they give the jizyah [annual tax] willingly while they are humbled.108

Not equal are those believers remaining [at home] . . . [compared to] the mujahideen, [who strive and fight] in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has preferred the mujahideen through their wealth and their lives over those who remain [behind]. . . . Allah has preferred the mujahideen over those who remain [behind] with a great reward.109

And fight them until there is no fitnah [sedition or idolatry] and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah. And if they cease - then indeed, Allah is Seeing of what they do.110

To the above verses we must add the authoritative example of the Prophet, in support of understanding jihad as war. From the time he arrived at Medina until his death, Muhammad was a warrior. When words and other actions could not convince or coerce non-Muslims to submit to him as the Prophet of Allah, he regularly used warfare to advance Islam. Sometimes such warfare was brutal. Muhammad’s role in ratifying the 627 CE beheading of between six and eight hundred captured Jewish men is well documented in the hadith.111 His farewell address in March of 632 reflected a similar understanding of jihad: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’”112

On the other side, there are Qur’anic verses, although significantly fewer, which emphasize jihad as a spiritual, inner struggle or striving. Examples include the following:

And strive for Allah with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty. [It is] the religion of your father, Abraham. Allah named you "Muslims" before [in former scriptures] and in this [revelation] that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give zakah [alms] and hold fast to Allah. He is your protector; and excellent is the protector, and excellent is the helper.113

Those who remained behind rejoiced in their staying [at home] after [the departure of] the Messenger of Allah and disliked to strive with their wealth and their lives in the cause of Allah and said, 'Do not go forth in the heat." Say, "The fire of Hell is more intensive in heat."114

There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.115

To these verses we must also add the later distinction of the “greater jihad” and the “lesser jihad.” In the ninth century, ascetic impulses within Islam began to merge into a mystical interpretation—Sufism—generating some documentation of a new distinction between a greater and lesser jihad. Although such documentation is absent from the authoritative hadith, Ninth century wisdom literature provides examples:

A number of fighters came to the Messenger of Allah, and he said: “You have done well in coming from the ‘lesser jihad’ to the ‘greater jihad.’” They said: “What is the ‘greater jihad’?” He said: “For the servant [of God] to fight his passions.”116

We must note that there need not be a contradiction, strictly speaking, between the belligerent and irenic passages of the Qur’an; jihad may entail both.117 That said, there is undeniable dissonance between the Qur’anic passages which portray jihad as state-sponsored, offensive warfare used to expand Islam and achieve universality, on the one hand, and jihad as inner, spiritual striving used to build Islam through peaceful, spiritual discipline. The Islamic legal tradition of usul al-fiqh helps in part to resolve this dissonance.

Within usul al-fiqh, the principle of naskh (abrogation) allows certain later passages of the Qur’an and elements of Shari’ah to take precedence over earlier passages or elements.118 This resolution rules out contradiction. Instead, based on the relative time of the revelations, the latter takes precedence over the former. In this way naskh has been used by some commentators to argue that the later, Medinan exhortations to wage war against infidels take precedence over and abrogate the earlier Meccan requirements to pursue only peaceful means.119 Terrorist Muslims continue to use naskh in this way as the basis in Shari’ah for their terrorist fatwas.120 Other modern commentators reject naskh to embrace earlier Islamic admonitions of peace.

The Central Question for Islam—How Islam Is to Achieve Its Universalization
This brief study of Islam, pivoting on historical periods of peace and war, and on alternative understandings of jihad, suggests that the problem of Islam is the problem of unity.121 Islamic unity begins and ends within Allah, who is uniquely and radically one in himself, transcendent beyond humanity and the world. Through the Qur’an and the testimony of the Prophet, God has given his divine law—Shari’ah—as the means for establishing his rule among humanity. Only in full submission to Allah, through obedience to his Shari’ah, can there be peace.122 Although the ummah and their dar al-Islam know this peace, dar al-harb does not. This presents a problem, for it is the will of the transcendent God who himself is Unity that all submit to him. Within the classical construction, only when dar al-Islam overcomes dar al-harb and places it under Shari’ah will God’s command be met and permanent peace realized.

In the initial stages of Islam, militant jihad was a critical component of life under Shari’ah. Dar al-Islam conquered large portions of dar al-harb, bringing Shari’ah to an ever-widening kingdom. But as the expansionist victories of Islam subsided, the realization of the Islamic vision of universality became problematic. A new approach to Islamic unity—other than military conquest to establish worldwide Shari’ah—seemed necessary. An evolving reality brought modifications to the previous jihad construct and to relations between Islamic and other states.

Below I identify six partially overlapping positions, or schools of thought, within Islam today, each of which attempts to address the problem of Islamic unity. These positions are found among both U.S. adversaries and partners in current overseas contingency operations. Understanding these positions is a vital starting point for resolving related conflict and national security issues.

My study of Islam suggests that Islam’s historic vision of its own universalization assumed that Shari’ah would one day rule all lands, that usul al-fiqh would remain authoritative for regulating the analysis of the legal sources and deducing the content of Islamic law, and that jihad as warfare would remain a legitimate mechanism to universalize Islam.123 Relative to this historic threefold vision, I identify six positions within Islam today.124 Those groups which retain this vision, albeit with some conditions and concessions to reality, I call traditionalists. I find three categories of traditionalists—radical, conservative, and neotraditionalist Muslims. Those groups which have left the traditionalist understanding, yet articulate another principle of Islamic unity that they apply to public and political life, I label reformists. I denominate two categories of reformists—postmodern and liberal. Finally, those groups which have retained allegiance to Islam as authoritative for personal faith and practice, yet reject any role of Islam in the political sphere, I refer to as secular-state Muslims. See Table 1 for a summary of the related nomenclature.125

Table 1. Islamic Positions

Full Name of Islamic Position Shortened Name of Position Name of Adherents
Radical Traditionalist Islam              Radical Islam               Radical Muslims
Conservative Traditionalist Islam  Conservative Islam      Conservative Muslims
Neotraditionalist Islam                         N/A                  Neotraditionalist Muslims
Postmodern Reformed Islam       Postmodern Islam          Postmodern Muslims
Liberal Reformed Islam                 Liberal Islam                   Liberal Muslims
Secular-State Islam                             N/A                   Secular-State Muslims

Radical traditionalist Islam generally sees no need to change from Islam’s historic assumptions regarding the universalization of the faith. Radical Islamic groups desire a return to Islam as it was practiced in its first centuries, seeking the expansion of Islam through Shari’ah, applying usul al-fiqh, and leaving open the possibility of militant jihad.

The roots of radical Islam as a revivalist movement were sown by the 18th century work of Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran led by Shi’i Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, and the 20th century evolution of Salafism as a movement containing increasing numbers of radical Muslims.126 Today, radical Muslims are present around the world and affiliated with scores of Islamic groups and countries, to include Shi’is from Hezbbollah and Iran; and Sunnis from Hamas, Fatah al-Islam, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other Wahhabist derivatives, to name but a very few.127 Radical Muslims frequently demonstrate hostility not only toward the West, but also toward those Muslims whom they judge to be apostate or corrupted.128

It is important to distinguish radical Islam from terrorism. As a defined group, radical Muslims are not all terrorists. That said, many within this group are terrorists.129 By terrorists, I mean those who aim violence against innocents, in order to create fear and advance their political ends.

The use of terror as a tactic is highly problematic within the Islamic tradition. Qur’an 2:195 and 4:29 are often quoted as proof that terrorist suicide operations are forbidden in Islam.130 Cook, however, cites a number of Islamic legal rulings and Qur’anic verses used by terrorists to argue just the opposite. Terrorist radical Muslims distinguish between “suicide operations” and “martyrdom operations,” and view martyrdom as a way to leverage minimal resources to achieve both maximum damage against the enemy, and eternal reward for the martyr.131

Conservative traditionalist Islam shares with radical Islam similar commitments to Shari’ah, usul al-fiqh, and jihad, but makes greater concessions to geopolitical realities. Here one finds a realist perspective on traditionalism. Khadduri is in many ways representative of such conservative Muslims. He seeks no reevaluation of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and no reformulation of Shari’ah, for he is content with the traditionally deduced law. He does, however, make concessions for Islamic nations vis-à-vis the international community and the power of the West. He argues that just as jihad evolved from imperialist expansion to defensive war due to the growing strength of adversaries, even so the Islamic principle of unity has had to evolve.132 Khadduri tracks an accompanying change from the goal of a universal Islamic state, to a system of Islamic nations no longer at permanent war with the West, to the goal of an Islamic bloc of nations in common cause cooperating within the community of nations.133 Here we find a conservative vision of unity founded not in Westphalian nationalism, but in the ummah living under Shari’ah, and united with fellow-Muslims of other Islamic nation states. Conservative Muslim approaches to unity may be found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and many other Islamic nation states.

Neotraditionalist Islam also values Shari’ah, usul al-fiqh, and jihad within the historic Islamic tradition, but seeks to readjudicate the goals and objectives of Shari’ah, in order to better integrate Islam in the present. Like conservatives, neotraditionalists frequently envision the unity of Islam in terms of an Islamic bloc of nations together addressing the community of nations. But going beyond this, neotraditionalist Muslims seek an updated integration of Islamic tradition within their respective societies.

Mohammad Hashim Kamali well represents the neotraditionalist Muslim position. His assessment is that over time usul al-fiqh became “a retrospective construct,” and “a theoretical, rather than empirical, discipline.”134 Over time, it fell short “of integrating the time-space factor into the fabric of its methodology.”135 As a result, usul-al-fiqh became literalistic, wooden, and incapable of bringing forward into present Islamic culture and society the original dynamism of the usul al-fiqh, Qur’an and the Sunnah. Kamali calls for a reevaluation of these sacred texts to capture anew

...their emphasis on justice, equality and truth, on commanding good and forbidding evil, on the promotion of benefit and prevention of harm, on charity and compassion, on fraternity and co-operation among the tribes and nations of the world, on consultation and government under the rule of law.136

Many Islamic movements may be described as neotraditionalist. These include the Muslim Brotherhood organizations found in many Islamic states, the Renaissance Party of Tunisia, the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria, the Jamaat-i-Islami found in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and others.137 It is significant that although such organizations may be designated as neotraditionalist, their “neo” status does not preclude their potential support for militant jihad.138

Reformed positions within Islam conceive of a different approach to the unity of the faith. While retaining a high view of the Qur’an and Sunnah, reformed Islam distinguishes between sacred traditions which may be anchored in historical conditions, and enduring principles and values which may be projected across time into the present. On account of this, reformed Islam accepts only non-violent concepts of jihad and seeks fuller integration within a globalized, western world.

Postmodern reformed Islam finds clear expression in the work of Tariq Ramadan.139 Many proponents of postmodern Islam focus on the Muslim experience in the West, and Ramadan is a good example. Ramadan’s goal is to articulate and apply universal principles for Islam which both respect pluralism, and enable Muslims to live out their faith in modern, secular societies.140 Based on his interpretation of Islamic sources and sciences, Ramadan identifies “three fundamentals of the universal at the heart of Islamic civilization,” namely, “the encounter with the Only One, the ‘full and natural faith’ of the created universe, [and] the ‘need of Him’ as the essence of being human.”141 These fundamentals bring changed conceptions of Shari’ah and jihad, and shift the concept of Islam unity from the external to the internal.142 This unity occurs first within the individual Muslim. First, “to be with God . . . all of us are required to return to ourselves and to rediscover the original breath, to revive it and confirm it.”143

From here, this unity is projected into society, because “one’s duty before God is to respond to the right of human beings.”144 This solidarity with society propels postmodern Muslims into a program of engagement for: the right to life and the minimum necessary to sustain it, the right to family, the right to housing, the right to education, the right to work, the right to justice, and the right to solidarity itself.145 From the postmodern Muslim perspective, this oneness, founded in the individual and projected into society, forms the basis of the universalized Islamic civilization.146

Liberal reformed Islam provides a vision similar to that of postmodern Islam, valuing the Qur’an and Sunnah, seeking enduing Islamic principles and values, and pursuing reform in the context of an increasingly modernized world. But beyond this, liberal Islam interprets the whole of the faith within the overarching categories of religious process and religious continuity. We will briefly examine both of these categories from the perspective of John L. Esposito, an ardent and articulate proponent of reformed Islam.147

Esposito locates Islam within the category of religious process in such a way that the historical underpinnings of the faith give way to deeper meanings which extend both backward and forward in time.148 Islam at its emergence was “a return to a forgotten faith.”149 As such, Islam was “not a new faith but the restoration of the true faith (iman), a process that required the reformation of an ignorant, deviant society.”150 Part of this reformation entailed jihad, a “struggle against oppression and unbelief,” which provides Muslims today “with a model and ideology for protest, resistance, and revolutionary change.”151 In short, Islam possesses a “transhistorical significance . . . rooted in the belief that the Book and the Prophet provide eternal principles and norms on which Muslim life, both individual and collective, is to be patterned.”152

Esposito also portrays Islam as participating in a great phenomenological continuity of world religion. Esposito praises what he perceives Islam, Judaism, and Christianity to hold in common—a heritage of monotheism, spiritual values, and peaceful proclamation.153

One might ask: what kind of reform will liberal Islam bring, being formed by religious process and continuity, and normed by enduring Islamic principles and values? The answers will vary, based on the realities of each Muslim society, but the process of contextualizing Islam within a globalized world will finally expand justice for Muslims across the domains of gender, economy, law, and politics, as Esposito sees it. As might be expected, western governments laud this vision and cheer the process.

Finally, secular-state Islam reflects that position which retains allegiance to Islam as authoritative for personal faith and practice, but rejects the role of religion in the political sphere. Egypt and Turkey are two such secular states, which have attempted to travel the difficult road to modernity while honoring Islamic piety. Significant challenges continue today.154 Their societies view Shari’ah as applicable for the private and community practice of Islam, and as decisive for the true unity of Islam across the ummah. That said, Shari’ah remains officially excluded from the power relationships of government. In other words, although Islamic principles may permeate law, Shari’ah itself is not state law, and is not determinative for state relations. Based on this understanding of private faith practice and secular political power, Egypt and Turkey have found common cause with the United States and other western nations, and are vital partners within the community of nations.

To summarize, the above six schools of thought represent varying approaches to the practice of Islam today. Most significantly, each position holds its own view on how the Islamic faith is to achieve its universalization. Understanding these positions is a prerequisite for policy makers who would address national security issues in the Islamic world. But to this understanding we must also add an awareness of the changing nature of coalitions within traditionalist Islam.

Alignments within Traditionalist Islam
Common wisdom in the West previously assumed that the chief divide within Islam was between Sunnis and Shi’is. Whereas this may well remain true theologically, this is not necessarily the case regarding national security. As we have seen, positions within traditionalist Islam—radical, conservative, and neotraditionalist—remain open to the potential legitimacy of jihad as warfare, whereas reformed Islam rejects violent jihad. This would suggest that the most significant divide within Islam is between the traditionalist and reformed positions, but the situation is yet more complex. Recent research shows that some traditionalist Sunnis and Shi’is align themselves together against the West, while other Sunnis and Shi’is find common cause against other Sunnis, notwithstanding the enduring differences in motivation and strategy which obtain between Sunnis and Shi’is.

Thomas F. Lynch III notes important differences in motivation and strategy that continue to surface when Sunni and Shi’ah groups each wage militant jihad on their own terms.155 He makes the case that Shi’ah terrorism emanates from the policy objectives of the state of Iran, and is executed as a campaign under the leadership of affiliates such as Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organization. This differs in form and substance from Sunni terrorism, which Lynch describes as being motivated by a “theologically-driven . . . grandiose, ideological framework” that is executed as a wave.156

Samuel Helfont would not disagree with Lynch’s thesis as far as it goes, but would add significantly to it. Helfont argues that if the task is “to assess the loyalties or predict the actions of various regional actors,” then at least in the Middle East the dividing line in Islam lies within traditionalist Sunni Islam, with groups siding either with Wahhabism or with the Muslim Brotherhood.157 As evidence, he points out that in both the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon, and in the 2008 Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza, regional politics did not divide along Sunni-Shi’i lines. Instead,

...Shias from Hezbollah and Iran sided with Sunni Islamists from Hamas and other Muslim Brotherhood associated organizations. On the other side of the regional divide were Sunni Arab Nationalists, traditional Sunni monarchs, and Sunni Islamists with Wahhabist tendencies.158

For Helfont, these represent the enduring alignments of Middle East Islamic power.

Helfont shows that these two streams of Sunni Islam differ greatly today. Wahhabism and their affiliated groups, such as al-Qaeda, hold to radical traditionalist Islam.159 They are motivated chiefly by theology, desiring to purify Islamic faith and practice by restoring radical traditionalist concepts of Shari’ah. Toward that end, radical Wahhabist organizations have endorsed jihad as offensive warfare against both the West and those Muslims deemed to be impure or corrupt.160

By way of contrast, Helfont characterizes Muslim Brotherhood organizations as chiefly political.161 Willing to work with Shi’i and even non-Islamic groups if necessary, Muslim Brotherhood organizations seek to consolidate adequate power locally and regionally to build modern political systems that respect human rights while retaining an Islamic identity. Falling far short of the theological commitments of radical and even conservative Islam, the neotraditionalist Muslim Brotherhood is dedicated to political reform, concerned with western perception, and committed to building viable, modern Islamic states.

Just how different the Brotherhood can be from Wahhabism is shown in their approaches to jihad.162 Given justifiable circumstances, the Brotherhood will employ any tactic of terrorist jihad, from suicide bombings to children as human shields, but only so long as the tactic may be construed as defensive. Their concerns for western perception and political settlement remain high. Wahhabists will also employ any terrorist tactic, but are willing to include jihad as offensive warfare because they see their warfare as divinely ordained. Not surprisingly, they accuse the Brotherhood of abandoning religious purity for political compromise. For the Brotherhood’s part, they decry what they consider to be the Wahhabists’ needless offenses against the West and their archaic and unworkable conceptions of the Islamic state. The strategic tension between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood is yet further magnified by Iran’s drive for regional hegemony.163

In short, the need for nuance in understanding the Islamic world has never been greater. National security policy needs to address overlapping and competing alignments grounded in six Islamic positions, accounting for the division between traditionalist and reformed Islam, divisions within traditionalist Islam, the division within Sunni Islam between Wahhabism and the Brotherhood, Iran’s drive for regional hegemony, and the power of other national and transnational Islamic organizations.164

Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 September 2015 11:22