Ideological Wars

“The fight against the enemy nearest to you has precedence over the fight against the enemy farther away… In all Muslim countries the enemy has the reins of power. The enemy is the present rulers.” – Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj

There is a civil war going on in the Muslim world for the past 80 years.

This is my attempt at analyzing the basic critical points of the principle combatants. This is not something we should shy away from. Any discussion of political philosophies obscures nuances and details, but our goal should be to categorize each philosophy well enough to properly view and judge them in relation to others.  I also believe it is acceptable to be wrong, provided we approach the issue on an empirical basis and correct for faults.

“Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”- Sun Tzu

Governing Philosophies and Political Violence

Politics and economics manage scarce resources with alternative uses. Scarcity is rarely a cause of conflict. Conflicts emerge over decisions on how to use resources and for whose benefit. Inefficient or biased management destroy lives so every individual has a high stake in these decisions. Strong convictions and incompatible ideologies prevent compromise. Wars do not occur between the ignorant.  Most intrastate wars occur precisely because both sides understand each other too well.

Political beliefs are exclusive, similar to religion. There are exceptions, but for the most part one can be a liberal or a communist, a republican or a monarchist, but not both. The differences are irreconcilable. Because these represent disputes over the nature of government, in ideological wars individuals are more likely to kill their cousins than a stranger on the other side of the world.

Some of the most vicious wars are those within civilization. The Long War thesis explains the three World Wars of the 20th century as a war between competing ideologies (monarchism, liberalism, communism, fascism) in Western Civilization.

The current war is an Islamic Long War, which began with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.

The Islamic Long War
The Islamic World is undergoing 80 years of political and spiritual turmoil following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Republic of Turkey, under Kemal Ataturk, abolished the Caliphate in 1924. While the Caliph was a only a symbolic office, it had spiritual significance.  There was no successor to Muhammad for the first time in Islamic history. More pragmatically, imperial pretenders and ideologies claimed to be successors to the Ottoman Sultans.

Imperial pretenders claimed to be the new Caliph and new philosophies formed. Various factions competed for control over the Islamic World including Orthodox Muslims, Socialists, Arab Nationalists and Revolutionary Salafists (Islamists). There is also a continuation of the Sunni-Shia struggle in the Middle East. These factions fought a large number of wars over the past 80 years.

The ideological war overlapped with the Long War of the West. Today, the Anglo-Saxon States are allied with the Middle East Socialists and some Orthodox Muslim groups against the Islamists and Arab Nationalists. Western Socialists allied with Islamists against the Anglo-Saxons.

The Caliphate

The Caliph is the political and spiritual leader of Dar al-Islam and the Caliphate represents the Islamic unity required by the religion. Dar al-Islam is explicitly ordained by God to be a unified society, under the Caliphate, ruled by Sharia law. The modern Muslim nation-state system is artificial according to this ideal.

This triggers the political debate “What comes next?” Political competition increases as factions sought control. Islamic countries have fallen into periodic internal wars over the past 80 years. Much of this is 4th generation warfare waged by non-state actors that has often gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Sometimes it resulted in full-blown wars.

Islamism Forms

The European Enlightenment and Industrialization disconcerted many Muslims. For almost 200 years, the Ottoman Empire steadily conquered and colonized Europe. The social and military revolutions within the West halted their advance at the Battles of Vienna and Lepanto. From 1700 onward, the Ottoman Empire lost ground everywhere as Europeans retook lost territory. New naval technology let the Europeans bypass the Middle East trade routes for the first time in history, opening overseas routes directly to India and China as well as colonizing the Americas. Ottoman trade and wealth plummeted.

The Turks underwent a transformation in the 19th century and adopted many of the European ideas of the Enlightenment. The military tossed aside their Steppe nomadic heritage and reformed the army. This pragmatic military reform spread into political and social reform. The Young Turks were Westernizers and secularists. After World War I these officers revolutionized Turkey. Kemal Attaturk undertook the only true secularist reforms in the Islamic World. He abolished the Caliphate, claiming that no one would ever take Muslims seriously with such an archaic institution. Secular Turkey broke with much of its Islamic past. Islam is specifically separated from the state in their Constitution, unlike all other Muslim governments.

Other Muslim rulers attempted less radical reforms. Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt in the 19th century, made some modernization reforms. Ali, however, was a European as were his ideas, and his reforms did not last. Most Muslim governments over this time period, such as the Qajars of Iran, remained stubborn conservatives, balancing tribal, religious, and military factions while ignoring the rapid growth of Europe.

All Muslims look to the first three generations of Muslims for guidance. The Sunnah consists of two primary sources the Koran, the literal word of God, and the hadiths, the sayings and history of the Muhammad. Additionally, the leadership for the first Caliphs and the creation of the first Arab Empire provides models for emulation.

Political Salafism emerged as a Sunni revolutionary political movement in the 19th Century. This differs from earlier forms of Salafism that calls on Muslims as individuals. Revolutionary Salafism creates a political party calling for Revolution to restore the Caliphate and reunite Islam politically and religiously.

This form of Revolutionary Salafism (or Islamism) borrows as much from Karl Marx than Muhammad.

Abul Ala Maududi wrote “Jihad in Islam” outlining the principles:

“In reality Islam is a militant ideology and programme which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals. “Muslim” is the title of that International Militant Party organized by Islam to carry into effect its militant programme. And “Jihad” refers to that militant struggle and utmost exertion which the Islamic Party brings into play to achieve this objective.

Islam wishes to destroy all States and Governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam regardless of the country or the Nation which rules it. It must be evident to you from this discussion that the objective of Islamic “Jihad” is to eliminate the rule of an un-Islamic system and establish in its stead an Islamic system of State rule. Islam does not intend to confine this revolution to a single State or a few countries; the aim of Islam is to bring about a universal revolution.”

Outside of Turkey, Muslims rejected secularism and Westernization. In the 19th century, Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani blamed Muslim defeats by the West on the corruption of Islam. Salafism, according to him, would counter the West’s power because 7th Century Islam represented true rationalism, not the limited scientific rationalism of the West. The Arab Empire at its height was a military superpower and a leader in sciences because of its submission to Allah. Returning to these values would bring back strength to the Muslim people. Muhammad Abduh, a Grand Mufti of Egypt in the late 19th century, created the term Salafism to describe this new movement, and his religious training and status gave it more religious credibility.

Failures within the Islamic world go back to the Umayyad Dynasty. Islamist critics like Qutb accuse the Umayyads as betraying the principle of Islam and acting as a mere temporal kingdom. This is a true statement and all subsequent Islamic empires behaved as normal empires.

Salafists emphasizes the Koran and hadiths over legal traditions. Many Salafists downplay the importance of ulema (religious scholars) in Muslim society. Orthodox Muslims fought back against these challenges, especially as Salafist writers were political thinkers and not religious scholars. It should be pointed out that there is no real difference in interpretations of the Sunnah because Muslims are fundamentalists.

Salafism grew and changed and some movements picked up the West’s idea of a world-wide Revolutionary movement. Many of the first generation of Salafis were liberal secularists and tried to modernize the state to compete with the rise of Europe, while Salafism remained an individual religious practice. Some attempted and failed to implement similar reforms in Arab countries. Other groups remained orthodox Muslims who sought to persuade others to follow this lifestyle without violence.

The more revolutionary Islamist movements branched off into Wahhabism, Deobandism, Arab Nationalism, and the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups propose the violent overthrow of the Nation-State system, the forging of a New Islamic Empire and Caliphate according to their values. Those who oppose these movements are not considered true Muslims and may be killed to achieve these goals. So begins the Islamic World’s Long War.

Subgroups in this war:

Arab Nationalists
The Arab revolt against Turkey during World War I created the idea of restoring a unified Arab Empire. King Hussein led the revolt and even claimed the role of Caliphate, but failed to unify the Arab Empire.

Arab Nationalists are inspired by the Salafi Arab Empire and borrowed ideas from European Nationalism. Leaders such as Nasser in Egypt tried to create a new Arab Empire (Unified Arab Republic) by force. Egypt temporarily united Syria and Yemen under its rule in the 1960s, but insurgencies made this a bloody enterprise.

The Ba’ath Party formed during World War II in Damascus Syria, under Vichy French rule. Early Ba’athists modeled their ideology and goals after the Nazi Party and French fascists. They believed that Pan-Arab Nationalism and Socialism would restore the Arab Empire. In the 1960s and 70s, the Ba’ath Party violently seized control over Syria and Iraq and aligned their states with the Soviet Union.

Pan-Arab Nationalism and Socialism was highly influential for decades, but it lost its attraction by the 1990s. The defeat of Saddam Hussein likely killed the movement. Radical Islamists movements gained in popularity since the 1970s and today represent the principle Revolutionary Party.

In the late 1700s Muhammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab preached a new form of puritanical Salafist Islam. His followers converted a few Arab tribes. The Saudis overstepped their limits when they invaded and conquered Mecca and Medina at the start of the 19th century, ousting the Hashemite monarchs. In 1819 Ottoman Empire and Egypt under Muhammad Ali defeated the Saudi armies, recaptured the holy cities and razed the Saudi capital. They put the early Wahhabis to death.

Orthodox Islam fought off countless extremists on the fringes and believed the Wahhabi movement would die out in the sparsely settled Arabian desert. By the 1920s, the Saudi Royal Family made a political return and took over much of the Arabian peninsula. Their control over Mecca and Medina and massive amounts of oil wealth allowed them to propagate this sect of Islam world-wide. The Saudis fund mosques and maddrasah religious schools in the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia, where Wahhabism challenges traditional Islamic practices.

Wahhabis seek to purify the faith of non-Islamic cultural traditions and eliminate all sects, as sects and factionalism is forbidden in the Koran. Islamic laws, traditions and customs often adopted the practices and rituals of non-Arab peoples that are not in accordance with literalist interpretations of Islam. Wahhabism opposes many Muslim groups, such as the Sufis and Shia, and it attacks the impure practices of many Muslims in Asia and Africa.

Wahhabism is not directly responsible for political violence but it does provide the religious urge for many to begin their careers as Islamist Revolutionaries.

Deobandism emerged in Pakistan following the fall of Mughal Empire. This Muslim Empire ruled over much of India and its defeat by the British was a psychological blow to Indian Muslims. The Pakistani political movement called for the creation of Islamic homelands in India. Deobandism provided a religious motivation for this independence movement.

It is an exceptionally austere form of Salafism, calling for Muslims to purge their society of corrupting technology and alien cultures. The Taliban follow Deobandism. One can judge the policies from experience.

The Muslim Brotherhood
Hassan al-Banna founded the Egyptian Islamist party in the 1940s. Al-Banna aimed to create an Arab Islamist Empire, merging Arab nationalism and religious Salafism together. The Muslim Brothers formed an underground movement to destroy the Egyptian government, create an Islamist state, and begin a universal revolution. Hassan al-Banna, and many associates, admired the Nazi Party and copied its organization and nationalist rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, he hated Jews. Organizationally, al-Banna’s party imitated the early Nazi movement. It formed its own security services and used gangs to intimidate and attack political opponents.

The Brothers underwent a number of changes and breakups. The Egyptians executed al-Banna and outlawed the Party. Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak periodically purged the Brotherss. The last major purge occurring after the Brotherhood assassinated President Sadat in the hopes of triggering a nation-wide revolution. The Brotherhood today presents an unofficial Parliamentary Opposition Party to President Mubarak.

The Brotherhood has many related organizations operating outside of Egypt. The most famous one is the Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine – HAMAS.


Al-Qaeda, the base, represents an alliance of Muslim Brothers, Wahhabis, and Deobandis like the Taliban. The Ba’ath Party allied with Islamist movements provided they did not strike Syria or Iraq.

Disputes with Orthodox Muslims
Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood scholar, wrote Milestones. Qutb is a major intellectual for the Islamist movement. Like many Salafists, he saw the original Arab Empire as a model and blamed the Umayyad Dynasty of the 9th century for the decline of Islamic values.

Qutb received an education in America in the 1950s and returned to Egypt disgusted with secularism and American moral depravity. While he rejected Socialism, he adopted a Marxist analysis of the world. He divided the world between Dar al-Harb (House of War) and Dar al-Islam (House of Submission). Islam is a-priori good and will triumph according to God’s will. This victory marks the end of history and the creation of a utopian empire on Earth. He borrows the dialectic struggle of Marxism, with Islamists playing the role of the proletariat.

According to Qutb, all Americans lived in a state of Jahiliyya (barbaric ignorance). Culturally, we are defective. He criticized swing music, close dancing between men and women, Church socials, and the failure of his barber to give him a good haircut.

This judgment of America would not be unusual. However Qutb went one step further. He declared that nearly all Muslims are in a state of Jahiliyya. Essentially, he argues that Muslims live in a state of false conciousness, to borrow the Marxist phrase. Muslims lost the meaning of true Islam and today live like barbarians without realizing the error of their ways. Qutb calls for a restoration of Islam and Islamic Imperialism. Going further, he argued that Muslim opponents of the Revolution are Takfir, or apostates. And apostates in Islam are put to death.

Taken literally, any Muslim who is not a radical Islamist is not a true Muslim and may be killed to win the Revolution. It can be debated if Qubt meant only Muslim governments or nearly the entire population. In either case, Islamists are at war with every single Muslim government on Earth.

Islamists also oppose many orthodox religious scholars. Islamists like Qutb are Unitarians. They question the religious traditions of Islamic scholars and try to unify the jurisprudence into a single legal tradition.

The Quran may only be interpreted literally, but the hadiths are broader in scope and allow more interpretation. Sharia law is based on these texts, and four legal schools developed.
There are four traditional schools of Sunni shari’ah: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali.

Jurisprudence creates a tradition beyond the Sunnah and gives Islam more flexibility. Qutb opposed fiqh and the schools of Islamic law. Islamists intend to reorganize the religious traditions of Islam as thouroughly as the political practices.

Islamists are not religious scholars, by and large. Their principles are political in nature, not religious. Their opposition to traditional ulema and orthodox Muslims is widespread.

The Muslim Civil War

 The “Near Enemy”
Islamist Revolutions intended to overthrow the regional apostate rulers of Muslims and establish a united Islamic Empire. This would be the center of strength and virtue of the world as it was in the 8th century. And so the “Far Enemies” would fall to the Islamic Empire. Like the communists, they incorrectly assumed that there would be a mass popular uprising once they take action.

Islamists movements first emerged as a coherent political force in the 1940s. In Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, these movements initially targeted local rulers and sought outside assistance from the Nazi Party. The Nazis largely ignored them and the Islamists were too weak in general to overthrow local governments.

The second movement of political violence began in the late 1960s and 70s. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist Parties became more active. Between the 1970s and 80s, Islamists launched insurgencies and terrorist campaigns against the “Near Enemy.”

The Muslim public turned against the Islamist parties wherever they fought against the “Near Enemy.” Terrorist campaigns and massacres of civilians in Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere left Islamists without popular support. Without a popular uprising to assist them, the Muslim States brutally crushed Islamist centers of resistance. Syria massacred the town of Hama to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood uprising there.

Attacking the Near Enemy failed. Most Muslims disagreed with Islamists denouncing their opponents as heretics and apostates. Orthodox ulema criticized the theological underpinnings of violent Revolutionary Islamism. Terror campaigns were too weak to overthrow a dictatorship, yet too strong to win over popular support. The “holier than thou” attitudes also chaffed many Muslims. Islamists Parties remained relatively small.

The Far Enemy
Islamists viewed the Afghan War as their first true success. Afghan guerrillas defeated the Soviet military and inspired Arab and Pakistani Islamists to support them. While Arab governments barely mentioned the Soviet-Afghan War, Islamists Parties rallied popular support against the Non-Muslim enemy. In reality there was considerable tension between the Afghans and foreign Islamists. One of the major Afghan mujahedeen leaders, Shah Moussoud, became the fiercest opponent of Islamists after the war and formed the Afghan Northern Alliance to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Islamists believe they defeated the Soviet Union. In this revisionist history, Islamists claim that the Soviet Union was the most powerful empire. The Soviets used massive force without hesitation to defeat their enemies – a mark of virtue to the Islamists. The Islamists believed the Communism, with its similar ideology, was also a source of strength.

In this belief, now only the weaker empire, the US, remains. The Americans waver in their commitment and withdraw rather than retaliate. The Islamists noted how Americans abandoned Lebanon after a single terrorist strike and how US soldiers withdrew from Somalia after suffering less than two dozen deaths.

Kill a few and they go away. The Muslim public loves this and it strengthens the Islamist movement. Bin Laden directly referenced the American defeats and noted that when the Muslim public is given a choice between, “the strong horse and the weak horse, they will choose the strong horse.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Strategy
Zawahiri was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and witnessed the failure of the first strategy. He formed his own organization – Egyptian Islamic Jihad – and joined a confederacy with Osama bin Laden and other major Jihadi networks under the banner of Al-Qaeda. Bin Laden remained a spokemen but Zawahiri is the principle ideologist and strategist of Al-Qaeda and the Revolutionary Islamist movement world-wide.

Zawahiri changed the Islamist strategy to target non-Muslims in the 1990s. Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner in 2001 described the new strategy for the movement. He noted the “Near Enemy” was still the principle target in any war, yet the Islamists could not count on popular support when the revolution required the killing of a large number of Muslims.

Attacking the Far Enemy is more popular and can be more easily justified within orthodox Muslim tradition. Terrorist attacks against the United States are especially popular since the Americans are seen as the superpower and leader of the Christian world. If the Islamists strike the Americans, and better yet, the Americans withdraw and run away in terror, the Islamists movement would be seen as the great defenders of Islam. With its ranks swollen, the Islamists may take over the Muslim States more easily and restore the Empire.

Al-Qaeda created a broad network alliance, originally stationed in Sudan but later moved to Afghanistan. They used these locations as a base of operations to launch terrorist attacks against the Far Enemy.

Why Us? Zawahiri is clear in his writing. Symbolic Propaganda. There was no rational reason behind the 9/11 attacks, even the targets were selected for propaganda value rather than material value.

Zawahiri’s strategy is reasonable on its own merits however. The goal of these attacks is to defeat the Near Enemies, in the future a unified Islamic Empire will defeat the United States. The terrorist attacks against the “Far Enemy” tap into the Islamists dreams, rather than rational policy objectives. Islamists, like Communists, rely on fantasies and beliefs that one’s side is pre-destined to win the war. Propaganda victories count for more than reality in these types of ideologies.


  • Muslims and Islamists are at war with each other
  • Islamists intend to attack the “Near” and “Far” enemies
  • This Islamic Civil War has splitover onto the Western World
  • By analyzing the core political and philosophical distinctions of Islamism, we may be able to distinguish Islamists from normal Muslims.
  • The Ultimate strategy is to help Muslims defeat the Islamists on their own.