The Challenge of Militant Islam

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 3, No. 8, August 2015.

By Ambassador Curtin Winsor, Jr. Ph.D.

We have a vital stake in a civilizational war,
(that is) inside someone else’s civilization.” -James Taub[i]

Kurdish people, living in Manchester (UK), protesting against the Turkish government for their lack of action against ISIS (also known as IS or ISIL) in the Syrian border town of Kobane. (Photo by Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

Kurdish people, living in Manchester (UK), protesting against the Turkish government for their lack of action against ISIS (also known as IS or ISIL) in the Syrian border town of Kobane. (Photo by Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

Islam, as a religious culture, is used to sanction war and terrorism by the Prophet Muhammad as he united the tribes of Arabia.  Islamic civilization evolved to support the world’s most advanced centers of learning and science during the eight centuries following the end of the Roman Empire and through the medieval period in Europe.[i]  Islam became a great culture and then it devolved, most recently, into the confusion and chaos of today’s Middle East. It is being manipulated by militant Islamists to sanctify the uses of violence and terrorism by an Islamic state. The outcome of this conflict will play an important role in the future of the United States and its relationship with the Middle East.

Militant Islamists and their new Islamic State are presently using tactics of terror against Sunni Muslim peoples in the Middle East to force them to abandon secular aspects of their cultures and return to a totalitarian religious culture. Although this pivotal struggle is now taking place within someone else’s civilization, if the militant Islamists prevail in the Middle East, the struggle will become part of the United States’ struggle.  The United States and the West will constantly be challenged by a ceaselessly aggressive and totalitarian religious culture. Such a threat to Western civilization would at least rival the West’s 20th century struggles with the Nazis and Communists.

Islam was the new, militant religion that motivated the Arab Bedouin tribesmen of Arabia after they had been converted and united by war and persuasion by their Prophet Muhammad before his death in 632 AD.  Their armies were brought together by their belief in Muhammad’s divine revelations about perfected monotheism[ii] and by his explicit promises of fabulous rewards in the afterlife for the fallen warriors of Islam.

These Islamic armies stormed out of Arabia in 635 AD under Muhammad’s successors and relatives who were the four founding caliphs of the Islamic state. They conquered the territories to the east of Arabia: Egypt, North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean and north into Spain. They seized the territories of Persia’s Sassanian Empire to the west: through Afghanistan and up to the Indus River; and they defeated the Byzantine Empire to the north, seizing Palestine and Syria, and what are now parts of western Turkey and of Armenia.  The basic expansion of the Islamic State was accomplished by the year 711 AD, less than one hundred years after the death of Muhammad.[iii]

The early caliphs applied the Islamic religion and culture to conquered territories through the use of Shari’a, which is a comprehensive fusion of religious and cultural rules, attributed to divine revelations given to their Prophet Muhammad.  Being founded on divine revelations, Shari’a was and still is deemed to be infallible and unchangeable. Shari’a rules defined what people could and could not do — the parameters of life — under Islam and the frequently forced conversions of peoples conquered by the Islamic state.

The use of the Arabic language was also required of conquered peoples in order to sustain the purity of the sacred literature and the religious culture of the Islamic state. The combination of these requirements enabled the caliphs to maintain social and political stability in a political milieu that minimized individual choice and behavior as to be totalitarian.  This system was stable and overwhelmed any potentially divisive national and regional interests of varied peoples within the Islamic state.

The grand purpose of the early Islamic state and of the present day Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was and is to bring “peace” to all peoples.  Such “peace” could only follow the forced submission of conquered peoples to the totalitarian religious, cultural and political force of Shari’a, the Arabic language of the Islamic state.[iv] Today, under a self-styled caliph, militant Islamists are again expanding the territories of an Islamic state. They are recruiting warriors (jihadists[v]) from Muslim communities throughout the world, including the U. S. and Western Europe. Many of these recruits were motivated as militant Islamists by the widespread missionary activities of the Wahhabi sect, funded by Saudi Arabians since 1989.[vi]

The Wahhabis preached a version of Islam that was stripped of accumulated wisdom, tolerance and modern interpretations that had moderated Islam’s original religious culture over many centuries. When presented without moderating interpretations, the sacred books and the rules for Islamic culture (the Qur’an, the Hadiths [vii] and Shari’a) sustain a version of Islam that reflects 7th Century Arabian culture and supports militant Islam and the uses of terror against less devout Muslims and non-Muslims or infidels. [viii]

Ironically, the expansion of ISIL may become a serious threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has been the primary exporter of militant Islamist doctrines and teachings since 1989. The doctrines of the Saudi’s Wahhabi theologians call for the application of full Shari’a governance.  These are identical to those of the ISIL Caliphate.[ix]  ISIL has adopted the welfare and infrastructural requirements of Shari’a for its government services[x] as well as the better-known Shari’a law.[xi] It is possible that doctrinaire Wahhabi leaders could respond to an appeal by ISIL.  In such an event, ISIL would become a serious contender for leadership of the Arabian Peninsula.

The grand prize for ISIL would be control over Mecca and Medina, the two iconic cities of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula. Possession of these trophies would transfer to ISIL the symbols of Sunni religious leadership that currently sustain the House of Saud. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Caliph of ISIL, could become the new Emir of Arabia.[xii]

The larger objective of militant Islamists through ISIL is to seize control of the weaker, secular Sunni Muslim “post-colonial nations” of the Middle East. These are referred to as the “near enemy.” [xiii]  A number of these states are governed by kleptocratic dictatorships and at present, nine have emerging ISIL affiliates, called governorates (wiliyats).  The territories whose affiliations and homage (bay’a) have been accepted by ISIL include: Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Nigeria (Boko Haram), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia (The Caucasus) and Egypt (The Sinai territory).[xiv]

The militant Islamists’ primary targets for terrorist killings are Muslims who advocate or enable secular innovations and modernization. These persons are targeted because they weaken Shari’a governance by introducing non-religious institutions or alternatives for education and justice.[xv]  The militant Islamists and ISIL have also indicated their intent to eventually destroy the United States and Western Civilization, are called the “far enemy” and infidel.[xvi]

Militant Islamists have mostly joined the two main organizations committed to the uses of terror, ISIL and al Qaeda (‘the base’), of which ISIL is now clearly in ascendance. The late leader and founder of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, described al Qaeda’s existence and uses of terror as a prologue to the eventual development of an Islamic state and caliphate. He did not believe that he would see this event in his present lifetime. Unlike ISIL, al Qaeda has operated as a geographically diffuse network of often clandestine and autonomous cells that use terrorist tactics against secular Muslims, Shi’a and the West.  Al Qaeda has demanded specific regional political concessions from the West, including the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, the abolishment of the State of Israel, and the end of support for secular dictatorships in Muslim lands.[xvii]

A major source of discord between ISIL and some other militant Islamist groups, including al Qaeda, is over the extraordinary ‘blood thirstiness’ of ISIL.  Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi,[xviii] the Caliph of ISIL, recently designated large numbers of lesser offenses to be grounds for the charge of apostasy, traditionally defined as when a person renounced, perverted, defamed or discredited Islam.[xix]  The expanded grounds for the charge of apostasy incur the death penalty and have greatly increased opportunities for the uses of terror by ISIL.

According to ISIL, apostasy now includes such lesser sins as selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes, shaving one’s beard, and voting in an election — for a Muslim candidate.  Even displaying insufficient ardor in identifying another Muslim as apostate can be a basis for apostasy. Shi’a Muslims have also been declared as apostate, which marks millions of Iraqis for death.  ISIL has publicly declared its intent to murder so many classes of people that it easily satisfies all known definitions of genocidal.[xx]

Certain practices of ISIL, including uses of the death penalty as an instrument of terror (i.e.: against apostasy) enjoy support from significant segments of the world’s Sunni Muslim population.  According to Pew Research Center polling data in 2013, 41% of Iraqis believed that a person who abandoned Islam should be put to death, and 65% believed that Shari’a is the infallible word of Allah (God). These percentages were much higher in Pakistan and Bangladesh.[xxi]

Most Sunnis live with varying degrees of secular (moderate) life styles and have not actively supported the militant Islamists or ISIL. However, their acquiescence to growing Islamist abuses is accompanied by lack of citizen support for corrupt secular Muslim states in the region.[xxii]  The position of these conflicted Muslims may become analogous to that of many ordinary Germans who were unhappy with their weakened Weimer Republic. They tolerated or even abetted the rise of the Nazi Party in 1932.  Ordinary Russians forsook the weakened Kerenski Government at the time of the Bolshevik coup in 1917.[xxiii] These ordinary peoples were subsumed and then doomed to apocalyptic violence by the fanatics who seized their countries.

U.S. President Barrack Obama has called militant Islamists “international terrorists” and “violent extremists.” This description describes only one aspect of their tactics. It fails to define the broader threat horizon that their religious and cultural enmity represents. His unwillingness to describe ISIL as it describes itself blocks the development of tactics and strategy for managing and minimizing a conflict with potentially serious consequences to the United States and the West.

My recommendation for further actions on this issue is that the U. S., and the West if possible, take strong, swift, prudent, prompt and direct military action against ISIL, using ground forces as well as air forces in Iraq and Syria. A sudden and successful ground engagement (but no long term occupation) could force the collapse of ISIL.[xxiv] Shari’a requires the Islamic State to hold territory and to provide support and services to its subjects.  If ISIL were to be defeated on the ground and lost its control over much of its territory in Syria and or Iraq, it could not continue to function as a caliphate is required to do under Shari’a and its support base could collapse.[xxv]

JPR Status: Opinion

Archived 8/13/2015


[i]  Bernard Lewis. “What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.” (Oxford University Press, NY) 2002, p. 101.  “For the eight centuries, between the collapse of the Roman Empire –the dark ages- and the medieval period, the Islamic State and Caliphate was foremost in all areas of human achievement outside of China. It was the strongest military and economic power. It exercised leadership in medicine, the arts and sciences associated with advanced civilization…  Muslims inherited the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle East, of Greece and of Persia.  Their world added several important innovations to learning and governing that were introduced from the outside. These included the manufacture and uses of paper from China and the development of decimal position numbering from India.”

[ii]   Ibid. p. 101.   Muhammad believed that his revelations were the extension and perfection of monotheism, moving beyond the incomplete efforts of the Jews and then of the Christians. Muslims regard Christianity as an earlier, corrupted version of the true faith, of which Islam is its final revelation and perfection.

[iii]  Edward N. Luttwak. “Omens from the Seventh Century.” The Hoover Digest.  Winter, 2015. pp. 42 – 43.  The first four caliphs who came after Muhammad were called Rashidun or “rightly guided” by subsequent Sunni Jurists. The caliph is the ruler of the Islamic state and is roughly equivalent to an “Imam King.”  Muhammad frowned on Kings and Pharaohs; nevertheless, following the retirement and murder of Ali, the 4th Caliph, the caliphates of the Islamic State became a series of hereditary dynasties.

[iv]  Ibid. pp. 44 – 45.  The weakened Byzantine Empire and the Persian Sassanians had just concluded 30 years of conflict between themselves that began in 602 AD. Many of their African and Eastern Mediterranean cities were ruined, commerce destroyed, treasuries depleted and manpower reduced. Their provincial populations had been left to despoilment by outside looters, while they continued to be excessively taxed from afar. In 636 AD, the first great year of Islamic conquest, the army of Byzantine General Herakleitos was completely defeated by Islamist forces at the River Yarmuk.  The Byzantines would lose all of their possessions between Egypt and Syria by 646 AD. In the same year, the Sassanian Empire of Persia, which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley, was decisively defeated at Al-Qadisiyyah, losing its capital city of Ctesiphon.  By 642 AD, its King of Kings, Yazdegerd III, lost his final battle at Nihawand in Persia.  The Sassaian Empire ended with Arab Islamic invasions in 651.

[v]  Bernard Lewis. Op. Cit., p. 106.     Jihad is defined by Sunni Muslims as the Qur’anic obligation to do battle (war) for Islam. Some have sought to obscure this reality by referring to the Sufi aspect of Jihad, which can mean ‘inner struggle for self-control.’

[vi]  Curtin Winsor, Jr. “Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and the Spread of Sunni Theo-Fascism.” The Middle East Monitor, Vol. 2, No.1, June /July 2007.

See also: John Pike, “Wahhabism.”, Copyright 2000-2006.

[vii]   Andrew McCarthy. “Don’t Blame the Charlie Hebdo Mass Murder on ‘Extremism’: Intolerance for Free Expression is Rooted in Classical Islam.”Www.NATIONALREVIEW.COM, Jan. 7, 2015. 11:57 AM.  The Books of Hadith are collections of sayings or acts attributed to Muhammad by various persons who knew the Prophet or knew those who knew him.  They are not sufficiently substantiated to be included in the Qur’an, the contents of which are considered to be immutable and infallible.  In the Sunni branch of Islam, the canonical Hadith collections are the six books, of which those of Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are given the highest reputation for reliability by scholars.

[viii]  Alistair Crooke, “You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.” London Times, August 28, 2014.  The recent surge in militant Islamist volunteers traveling to ISIL is now perceived to be a threat by the Saudis.  The fall in oil prices may also have reduced funds available for Saudi – Wahhabi missionary activities.

[ix]  James Taub.  Op. Cit.

[x]  Graeme Wood. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic Magazine.  March 2015.

[xi]  Harleen Gambhir, “ISIS Global Strategy Coming into Focus.” (Institute for the Study of War), May 23, 2015.

[xii]  Alistair Crooke, Op. Cit.

[xiii]  Andrew McCarthy. Op. Cit.

[xiv]  “Islamic State: Spreading its Tentacles.”  The Economist. July 4, 2015. p. 37.

See also: Harleen Gambhir, Op. Cit.

[xv]  Bernard Lewis. Op. Cit. p. 107.

[xvi]  E. J. Brill. “First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936”, Volume 4, ISBN 9789004097902. p. 619.  The definition of infidel, kafir in Islam, is a broad one. One group, the so-called murtadd, translates as apostate Muslim.  For apostates, Islamic law prescribes death, with the opportunity first of obeying the demand to return to Islam. The other group, the so-called kafirun asliyun, or ‘unbelievers proper’, can only expect death or slavery.

[xvii]  Graeme Wood. Op. Cit., p. 4.

[xviii]   Alistair Crooke. Op. Cit.    The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or al Sham) is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself Caliph over its territories in Syria and Iraq on June 29, 2014.  Al-Baghdadi‘s birth name was Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. He is an Iraqi from Samarra, north of Baghdad. He is about age 40, holds a graduate degree in Islamic studies and served as an Assistant Dean and Professor at a college in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi claims descent from Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh of southern Arabia.

[xix] Graeme Wood. Op. Cit., p. 6.  Apostasy /Takfir:  “The practice of excommunication or declaring a person to be separated from Islam (Takfir) is theologically perilous. Muhammad himself once declared that: “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’ then one of them is guilty. If the accuser is wrong, he has committed apostasy by making a false accusation.” The punishment for apostasy is death.

[xx]  Stéphane Courtois. Op. Cit., p. 9.

[xxi]  James Taub. Op. Cit.

[xxii]  Graeme Wood. Op. Cit.

[xxiii]  Stéphane Courtois, et al. “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.” (The Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.) 1999. P. 9.

[xxiv]   Graeme Wood, Op. Cit.    The Islamic State’s obsession with a final battle on the “plains of Dariq”, previous to the apocalypse and the end of the world, suggests that ISIL might array its forces there for a direct confrontation.

[xxv]   Ibid.