The Revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 followed almost immediately by the Mujahedeen movement in Afghanistan inspired an Islamic awakening that has unfolded in a variety of manifestations.
There are the extreme strains that surfaced after 9/11, representing the austere desert Wahhabi form of Islam favored by Al-Qaeda, the Salafists – a variation of Wahhabism; the Muslim Brotherhood, a less fanatical organization but equally extreme and committed to absolutist interpretations of Islam; and, of course, conservative Shia Islam, as imposed on the Iranian people by the country’s theological establishment.
These versions of Islam are followed by millions of Muslims yet millions more do not subscribe to the extreme elements of the Islamic faith. The Islamic awaking is increasingly associated with fanaticism but also, at the very least the more conservative movements of Muslim theology.
The fundamental ambition and fixation of these Muslim extremists is to create a new Caliphate that would cover the Middle East, North Africa, and all of the lands that had once been under Islamic rule. In effect, this could include: all of the Balkans, Hungary, and the Crimean region to as far west as Spain, including parts of Africa.
Once Al-Qaeda affiliates, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, actually established a mini version of an Islamic state in parts of Syria and Iraq. In the short time that it has ruled this small part of the region it clearly has demonstrated the fate awaiting both Christians and moderate Muslims who have the misfortune to come under their clutches.
Once they established control the Jihadists closed churches, arrested hundreds of Syrians who disagreed with its goals and even executed some perceived offenders of strictly interpreted Shariah law, the code of Islamic behavior it had imposed.
Fortunately, fighting broke out between the Syrian insurgents and their onetime allies, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and with even some other fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda that the Syrian opposition has rejected as too extreme. The fighting that began recently spread from parts of northern Syria into Raqqa, the largest city in Eastern Syria, that had been under the group’s control.
Some activists said the group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, had been largely evicted from Raqqa, which it had ruled for months. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is affiliated with Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, but separated from the Nusra Front, another Qaeda-linked insurgent group in Syria, and the Nusra Front has now joined the fight against ISIS in many areas.
The tragedy is that Islamists and Jihadists are fighting over the degree of extremism they can agree and accept. Any deviation results in violence and death. The Jihadists are driving Iraq into becoming a failed state but perhaps with US support the Government in Baghdad can defeat the al-Qaeda groups competing over which one will commit the greatest number of atrocities and inflict the most destruction on the unfortunate country.
Outside of the Middle East terrorism is still a potent threat and in part it is driven by the difficulty some small number of Muslims have as minorities in European and North American cities. Traditional Muslim theological schools did not foresee the possibility of Muslims living as minorities.Association,interaction or cooperation with non-Muslims is not favoured in the Koran; a Muslim should always prefer Muslims to non-Muslims.
This is a reality that may not apply to Muslims living as good citizens in the West but it is part of how Islamic scholars see the world. Another example is the shabby treatment that is meted out to non-Muslims in Islamic countries. In Egypt at the fist sign of trouble the reflexive reaction for the Muslim Brotherhood is to attack Coptic Christians – burn their churches, while mobs kill any Copt they get their hands on since the local police rarely intervene.
Another interesting, and often quietly overlooked factor, is that Muslim states do not accept the customs and traditions of non-Muslim visitors. Saudi Arabia has a religious policy who enforce, often with public beatings, anyone, man or woman from non-Muslim countries, who is caught not properly dressed. And Saudi Arabia is an ally of the West.
Even so-called moderate Turkey the Ecumenical Patriarchate has historically suffered persecution at the hands of the authorities; which would be intolerable if similar abuse was given to Muslims in the West there would be world-wide outrage.
Certainly, in the past and in the present, Christians and Jews have adjusted to coping with the needs of the majority Muslims in Islamic countries and the theological leadership of these minorities have helped their followers adjust to a religious and social alien environment.
In the same vein, there is a need for Islamic theologians to realign Muslim thinking under the new circumstances that immigrants face as minorities in Europe. On the positive side, Muslimthinkers have been seeking to develop and refine a formulation of Muslim jurisprudence on minorities, the Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat, since the mid-1990s.
(Andre Gerolymatos is the Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouve)