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Why They Fight — And what it means for us (Pt 1)

President Bush has said that the war against global jihadism is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century. We are still in the early years of the struggle. The civilized world will either rise to the challenge and prevail against this latest form of barbarism, or grief and death will visit us and other innocents on a massive scale.

Given the stakes involved in this war and how little is known, even now, about what is at the core of this conflict, it is worth reviewing in some detail the nature of our enemy–including disaggregating who they are (Shia and Sunni extremists), what they believe and why they believe it, and the implications of that for America and the West.

Islam in the World Today

The enemy we face is not Islam per se; rather, we face a global network of extremists who are driven by a twisted vision of Islam. These jihadists are certainly a minority within Islam — but they exist, they are dangerous and resolute, in some places they are ascendant, and they need to be confronted and defeated.

It’s worth looking at Islam more broadly. It is the second-largest religion in the world, with around 1.3 billion adherents. Islam is the dominant religion throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, which alone claims more than 170 million adherents. There are also more than 100 million Muslims living in India.

Less than a quarter of the world’s Muslims are Arabs. The Muslim world is, as William J. Bennett wrote in his in 2002 in his book “Why We Fight,” “vast and varied and runs the gamut from the Iran of the ayatollahs to secular and largely westernized Turkey.”

The overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunnites, or “traditionalists”; they comprise 83 percent of the Muslim world, or 934 million people. It is the dominant faith in countries like Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Sunni Islam recognizes several major schools of thought, including Wahhabism, which is based on the teachings of the 18th century Islamic scholar Mohammed ibn Abd Wahhab. His movement was a reaction to European modernism and what he believed was the corruption of Muslim theology and an insufficient fidelity to Islamic law. He gave jihad, or “holy war,” a prominent place in his teachings.

Wahhabism — a xenophobic, puritanical version of Sunni Islam — became the reigning theology in modern Saudi Arabia and is the strand of Sunni faith in which Osama bin Laden was raised and with which he associates himself.

Shiites, or “partisans” of Ali, represent around 16 percent of the Muslim world, or 180 million people. The Shiite faith is dominant in Iraq and Iran and is the single largest community in Lebanon. The largest sect within the Shia faith is known as “twelvers,” referring to those who believe that the twelfth imam, who is now hidden, will appear to establish peace, justice, and Islamic rule on earth.

“Across the Middle East Shias and Sunnis have often rallied around the same political causes and even fought together in the same trenches,” Professor Vali Nasr, author of “The Shia Revival,” has written. But he also points out “followers of each sect are divided by language, ethnicity, geography, and class. There are also disagreements within each group over politics, theology, and religious law…” Professor Nasr points out “…anti-Shiism is embedded in the ideology of Sunni militancy that has risen to prominence across the region in the last decade.”

It is worth noting as well that for most of its history, the Shia have been largely powerless, marginalized, and oppressed — often by Sunnis. “Shia history,” the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has written, “is about lamentations.”