When the US government, which has the biggest and most sophisticated intelligence apparatus in the world, is stunned by the meteoric rise of ISIL, you know that you're dealing with a danger of an entirely different caliber. Within what seemed like an overnight operation, a third of Iraq was swept under the control a terror group most people in the West had never even heard of. Yet even the egregious expansion of ISIL wasn't sufficient to awaken the world. It took a macabre beheading of an American journalist to introduce every living room to the greatest danger facing the world today.
But given the military finesse of ISIL, surely the organization didn't emerge spontaneously. For those of us Shia Muslims who for decades have born the full brunt of terror at the hands of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups which emerged from its ominous womb, we know that far from a celestial comet or a Black Swan event, it didn't fall suddenly from the sky. Rather, the ISIL phenomenon is a sinister weed which grew in fertile ideological and political grounds. One that has deep roots and presents an existential threat not just to the political landscape of the region, but civilization as a whole, and imperils to ignite an enduring conflict which may define the 21st century as did the two World Wars to the 20th century.
Any strategic analyst is, thus, required to examine the roots of this phenomenon rather than engaging in a futile exercise treating its symptoms. As nefarious as the sword-wielding, shady-looking, fearsome ISIL militants are, they are but a manifestation of a bigger problem which the West failed to address or even recognize in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. This is why radical groups have only grown in both strength and profusion over the last decade. Consequently, the 'shock and awe' nature of the War on Terror has acted like an ill-executed surgical operation on a tumor, causing it to metastasize out of control. While there may be many reasons for this, I attribute the growing problem to two main mistakes committed by Western leaders:
1. The Vilification
Under the guise of homeland security and counterterrorism, ordinary, peaceful Muslims have suffered a great deal. Not only through a campaign of intimidation in mainstream media outlets (where 'Islamic' terrorism is the common vernacular, despite countless and overwhelming condemnation of terror by Muslims) but also through laws which have left Muslims feeling very vulnerable. Painting adherents of the world's second largest religion with the same brush as fanatical, fringe elements can only fuel the fire of radicalization, and turn friends into foes.
Islam is a religion of peace to 99.99% of Muslims, and trying to prove otherwise can only make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was a mistake committed by politicians and the media, both of whom stand to profit from a sensationalized and alarmist rhetoric. Imam Ali, the Prophet's successor and closest confidante is famous for enacting a law that said "whoever harms a believer in the Bible, harms me". The peaceful spirit of Islam is so pronounced that David Barfi, a Sotlof family friend, the second American beheaded by ISIL challenged the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to a debate, saying "You speak of Islam and the Holy Koran but I know the Quranic verses." Barfi then quoted a verse in the Muslim holy book about God's disdain for oppressors.
Vilifying Islam is not only wrong but counterproductive. A few weeks ago I engaged in a heated debate with non-Muslims after tweeting that ISIL should not be referred to as Islamic State, in that it is neither Islamic in its foul savagery, nor is it a state in any sense of the term.
We know that ISIL enjoys the support of thousands of young Muslims in the West, and given the fact they are mostly born and bread here, we also know they were radicalized in western countries. An environment hostile to Islam is ripe ground for extremist demagogues. Western leaders, therefore, have a vested interest in stemming Islamophobia and using every means available to ensure Muslims do not feel disenfranchised and alienated. It may also be prudent to consider extending legal provisions against anti-Semitism to hate speech directed at all religious and ethnic groups, including Muslims.
2. The Misdiagnosis
In the wake of September 11, 2001, and with America mourning and in shock, the 'Islam is evil' narrative fit more neatly into the political and media landscape than engaging in a deeper discourse. Instead of identifying the true root of extremist ideology, one that pushes a tiny fringe toward violence, the Western mindset chose to stare the problem in the eye and then look the other way. The real problem only needs a little deduction: What do the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, Nigeria's Boko Haram, all of the the 9/11 terrorists, the 7/7 bombers, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Somalia's Al-Shabab, Al-Nusra Front, and the many ISIL supporters and sympathizers from Western countries, all have in common? Remember, it can't be 'Islam', since most of their victims are Muslims themselves.
The answer is Salafism; an exclusivist, puritanical, coercive, misogynistic school of thought, espousing a misguided creed that oozes with hate from every orifice. Its superficial theology derives from the teachings of a particularly severe religious reformist who lived in central Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century named Bin Abdul Wahhab (hence the alternative appellation 'Wahhabi'). Salafism considers all other Islamic sects which refuse to adhere to their interpretation of the Quran to be innovators and idolators. Shias, for instance, are seen as heretics of the worst kind, whose murder guarantees entry to paradise! The intolerant doctrines and teachings of Bin Abdul Wahhab feature prominently in ISIL literature and is now part of school syllabus for both ISIL controlled regions as well as the Saudi department of education!
Through a pact with the 'House of Saud', Wahhabism became a state-sponsored religion, and in exchange for creating submissiveness (divinely mandated, as in Paul's Epistle to the Romans), Wahhabism receives unlimited financial support and protection from the government (said to be %1 of oil exports). Despite everything the Saudi PR machine churns out, the unholy alliance means militant fanaticism veiled with Islam is the oil kingdom's second largest export and with funding from petroleum exports, the movement underwent "explosive growth" beginning in the 1970s and now has worldwide influence.
The Salafi movement was largely tamed by the Saudis. That is, until 9/11 when they seem to have lost legitimacy with militant Wahhabis who grew away from "The King is God's shadow on earth" doctrine. So while they enjoyed the marriage of convenience to the House of Saud, they always fantasized about creating a caliphate, resembling what they see as the purest manifestation of divine will for mankind; that of the early Companions. An epoch where the loudest sounds were the clamor of swords and the cracking of the whip. This euphoric reverie will continue to attract young Muslims from around the world, unless the root cause is addressed.
Yet, having witnessed the horrors associated with militant fanaticism, Western governments remained unashamedly deferential to the oligarchs in Riyadh, the West's foremost "allies" in the Arab world. Mercenary and duplicitous to the core, the Saudi political establishment has been subsidizing the Salafists with oil money, providing them with the freedom to spread their venomous hate across the globe.
A quick look at Saudi Arabia and it becomes clear as daylight that we are aligned with the wrong side:
It is a country so totalitarian, the whole nation is officially named after the family of beduins who came to rule it after a long, bloody conquest. To put that into perspective, imagine the US and UK were named Bushistan and Blairia!
It is a country which has no constitution and no elections. Laws are enacted by royal decrees and ratified by a toothless parliament whose members are installed by the monarch. The king holds absolute power on all public affairs, including the appointment of chiefs of individual tribes. Women are not allowed to drive, and even travel is permitted only with a male relative. If this is how the Sunni citizens are treated, you can only imagine what the Shia face on a daily basis. The country's most senior Shia faith leader Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr was violently apprehended for demanding the most basic rights for all citizens. In his public sermons al-Nimr repeatedly condemned violence and called for peaceful protests, but is now facing "death by crucifixion" on charges of "creating public descent and insulting the king"!
It is said, with friends like these, who needs enemies? This is especially true of Saudi Arabia. A country which gave the world sadistic fanatics the likes of whom our generation has never seen, and terrorists whose savagery puts Hollywood's most vile antagonists to shame. A nation which institutionalizes ideological hatred of the other and resists any and all calls for reform away from its medieval system of government cannot be partner to combating terrorism. The only hope rests in the proliferation of true democracy in the region.
But if allowing Saudi Arabia to embrace democracy is too hard for western policymakers to swallow, then at least fight dogma with intellect. A military campaign, even with a global coalition, cannot by itself eradicate this poisonous ideology which has the potential to create, blue-eyed, blonde-haired suicide bombers in every western capital. This war cannot be won with Hellfire missiles alone, and due to the conservative nature of Saudi society, liberal voices will not undo Salafi fundamentalism. Instead, right of center, but anti-Salafi reformist Sunnis like Hassan Bin Farhan [https://twitter.com/HsnFrhanALmalki] and others must be sought to counter the growing threat.
Of course, Saudi rulers, having invested hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying firms in Washington and London, an army of reporters and analysts will attempt to argue that the regime is the only hope the world has for ISIL's containment. But that is both false and dangerous. False because clearly their containment policy (if anything of the sort even exists) hasn't worked and has even fueled the flame of militant Salafism. Dangerous, given the unholy alliance between Wahhabism and the House of Saud continues to underpin the political establishment to this day. Saudi policies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain have helped engulf the region into chaos. The ISIL ideology has its appeal in Saudi Arabia because it projects the image of what the country is today, but without the corrupt 15,000 member royal family, so keeping them on life support only serves to exacerbate the natural but acute autoimmune reaction.
We simply need to open our eyes and see the problem as it is. The thread that connects almost all so-called "Muslim" terrorists is militant Salafism. The same violent ideology that the late Saudi crown prince and the royal family's most influential ideologue Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz referred to when he said "the state of Saudi Arabia is a Salafi state. We will forever remain as such and shall never deviate from our Salafi roots as it is the source of our pride and greatness".