President Obama chose to avoid linking the killer, Omar Mateen, to Islam, except as a representative of “perversions” of belief. Instead, he put the killings of fifty nightclub patrons in Florida in the context of mass shootings in the US. He threw a fit on TV when it was suggested he was dancing around the issue of the ideological roots of terror.
Obama’s favored successor, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, acknowledged an Islamic link, although in a “poisoned” form. She promised an “intelligence surge” to root out potential domestic perpetrators and cooperation with allies in a fight against someone. What? Was there no proper intelligence-gathering and international cooperation before?
Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, congratulated himself for knowing something bad would happen eventually. He wants more informants among Muslims, and to keep Muslim immigrants out of the country. He likes the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” though he doesn’t seem to have thought much about what that might exactly mean.
This hodge-podge of attitudes is compounded by generalized, nebulous debates among commentators over the religious and ideological foundations of terror attacks. Critics of Islam say it’s all about the religion; defenders say such attacks have nothing to do with Islam.
First, it ought to be acknowledged that the conceptual movements behind the massacre are religiously-based and have names– Salafism and Wahhabism. Both are minority sects within Sunni Islam, which is the Muslim world’s dominant branch. Recognizing their influence would end broad-brushed criticisms of Islam and also cut through the foggy defense provided by groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR says that the ideas behind terrorism distort Islam, but doesn’t say how.
Salafi and Wahhabi followers base their ideas on a narrow view of Islam and its practices. Salafis date their movement from the early years of Islam and say their beliefs are based on unchallengeable readings of Koranic texts, along with words attributed to the Prophet Mohammed and actions of his close associates. No interpretation needed. No thinking, either.
Wahhabis follow similar teachings, expounded by an 18th Century revivalist preacher in Arabia named Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab. His ideas, over time, were spread across the globe by the Saud family, the long-time, current rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Both movements place strict prohibitions on a variety of activities and thought. Homosexuality is but one—Salafis and Wahhabis consider gays as deserving of death by execution. Restrictions on women are severe. Followers of other religions, including Judaism and Christianity, along with Shiite Islam and other Islamic off-shoots, are damned. Adherents of non-monotheistic religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, are explicitly subject to persecution.
Would pinpointing the sources of intolerance offend other Muslims? Not necessarily since, under Salafi and Wahhabi notions, errant Sunni Muslims—that is, those who refuse to follow the letter of Salafi or Wahhabi teaching—ought also to be punished. Salafis and Wahhabis alike disdain Sufis, whose mystical practices are widespread within Sunni Islam.
There are plenty of authoritative Islamic voices that speak out against Salafi and Wahhabi concepts, but they are supported by no major political movement and rarely break through the clutter of mass media controversy. (In the Middle East, they are caught in a double bind: opposition not only from fanatical Salafis and Wahhabis but also dictators who oppose the democratic views of liberal Muslims.)
Meanwhile, the physical danger from Salafi/Wahhabi attitudes stems from the enforcement of their doctrines through an expanded practice of jihad, or Islamic holy war. Back in 2002, French political scientist Gilles Kepel called this fusion of ultra-conservative Islam and holy war “Jihadist-Salafism.”
Jihad concerns the defense and expansion of Islam. Over the centuries, scholars, jurists and preachers produced numerous guidelines for the practice of jihad in accordance with the needs of Islamic empires, states, their rulers, their armies and societies. Wahhabis and Salafis have discarded many of those rules. Among them were limits on who can declare holy war, prohibitions against killing civilians and injunctions against suicide. Suicide bombers are exempted from that taboo in the name of carrying out “martyrdom operations.” Martyr status was also stretched to include innocent Muslim victims killed by a holy warrior who was targeting enemies of Islam.
Traditionally, jihad required Muslims to fight an armed enemy. Contemporary jihadists direct their followers to make holy war on unarmed civilians, including those who live peaceably under the rule of Islam. The presence of Christians—tolerated if subjugated in Muslim tradition– is now undesirable because their very existence lures Muslims from the true faith. The neo-holy warriors moralistically revel in attacking targets where Westerners enjoy themselves—the attacks on Paris took place in an entertainment and tavern district of the city as well as outside a stadium. The Orlando massacre at a gay nightclub fits the mold of killing the young and happy.
The spectacular dispensing of archaic punishments—beheadings of enemies or burning them alive, crucifying infidels, stoning women, throwing gays off rooftops– serve as a warning to all, Muslims included, who dare oppose this new version of holy war. There have been numerous reports of summary executions and floggings of Muslims in Mosul, the Sunni city in Iraq taken over by the Islamic State in 2014.
A new framework for participating in jihad has helped spread radical terrorism. The framework is particularly relevant to the attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino as well as the Boston Marathon bombing three years ago and the Fort Hood army base killings in 2009. All were carried out by individuals working in isolation, without direct orders from anyone.
This approach was formulated by an al-Qaeda tactician named Mustafa Abdul Qadir Set-Mariam—known as Abu Musab al-Suri. Over the past several years, Al-Suri developed a style of participation in jihad based not on membership in a centralized, hierarchical organization (like al-Qaeda) but on adherence to shared “beliefs” and involvement in a “system of action” by any individual anywhere. He called this scheme “individual jihad.”
For al-Suri, a single Muslim anywhere can participate in holy war. A committed jihadist need not belong to a group. He need not know anyone else equally devoted to the cause. He may express allegiance to the Islamic State, for instance, but that does not connote formal membership or direct communication with the group. The individual works at his own pace. He can train himself and plan in solitude. The jihad online magazine Inspire once advised an aspiring holy warrior to take terrorist action based on his own “ability:
“You choose the target.
Your pool of targets is large, so make sure to think of all of the available options.
An example of something local, easy, and effective is attacking an army recruiting center, nightclub, highway, or busy shopping mall.”
Inspire could have been addressing Mateen. The Orlando killer had valuable murderous abilities–he was trained as a security guard, so he knew how to use weapons. He had no criminal record that might constrain an arms dealer from supplying him with weapons. His connection with the world of jihad was tenuous enough that the FBI, though agents interviewed him, considered him no threat. He knew his area—central Florida–and scouted out the target.
Something local, easy: Pulse nightclub.
In the West, this kind of terrorist has been labeled a “lone wolf.” Of course, the wolf is not alone. Mentors, instructions and inspiration for “individual jihad” are readily available online.
So what to do? What to say? Obama is in a quandary partly of his own making. While trying to avoid taking an alarmist stand against lone wolves, he simultaneously is has engaged the US in a low intensity war in both Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State, the inspiration for lone wolves. He tries to keep the domestic threat and the foreign ventures separate, but it might be best to explain how such US activities abroad contribute to stopping domestic attacks, if in fact they do.
The two candidates to succeed Obama as president agree on the need to find out more about potential “individual” jihadists. Trump wants some sort of surveillance of mosques and tattling by residents. His ideas might have more appeal if he was not so aggressively insulting to Muslims and other minorities. Meanwhile, is Clinton’s “intelligence surge” really different from Obama policy? The very word “surge” seems more like sloganeering than a plan; it harkens to George Bush’s 2007 much-ballyhooed surge of troops in Iraq to hold back a Qaeda-involved insurgency.
Muslim leaders in the US have stopped short of specifying the source of jihadist distortions of Islam. They only need to turn on satellite TV and the Internet to find them. They ought to explain the differences between mainstream Sunni Islam and Salafi and Wahhabi concepts. It might also help to inform their followers that contemporary jihad is a threat not only to non-believers but to most Muslims as well.
Of course, winning the war of ideas is not enough. Ending incessant warfare in the Middle East, much of which has involved foreign powers, including the US, would certainly help—wars which after all form the backdrop of the jihad ascendancy. That seems unlikely, no matter who is elected US president or what terminology is used to explain terrorism.