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Sectsploitation: How to Win Hearts and Minds in the Islamic World

A rational discussion of Islam’s causal role in American “overseas contingency operations”—the erstwhile “global war on terror”--or the multitude of “man-made disasters” besetting the modern world has become almost impossible in the current hyper-partisan American political climate. Many on the Left, who can’t be bothered to actually read a Qur’an, remain blindly convinced that there is nothing intrinsically violent in literalist Islam;[1] that all religions are equally peaceful (except perhaps for Christianity); and that the violent legions around the world engaged in decapitation, assassination and detonation in emulation of Muhammad are actually, unbeknownst even to themselves, motivated rather by something, anything, else: alienation, victimization, anti-Americanism, lack of education, etc. Some on the Left—such as candidate, if not President, Barack Obama—even continue clinging to the myth that “poverty causes Islamic terrorism,”[2] empirical data be damned. Too many on the Right, on the other hand, assume that the history of Islam is coterminous with a history of violence; that the only Muslims that matter are fundamentalist Sunnis motivated by death, domination and the pursuit of houris; and that while there may be a demographic sliver of moderate Muslims, there is no such thing as moderate Islam.[3]

Both are wrong.

President Obama, two months ago, told the New York Times that “the American military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban.”[4] In the same interview, the President explained further that “If you talk to General Petraeus…part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists.” Leaving aside some rather crucial issues (whether the successful “surge” strategy can be translated directly to Afghanistan;[5] the questionable reduction of Sunni shaykhs in Iraq to mere Islamic fundamentalists; and the misconception that such a thing as a “moderate Taliban” actually exists), the Obama administration is nonetheless on the right track (as was that of Bush, albeit more publicly vocal) in its search for non-jihadist Muslims. In this vein, next month the President will deliver a major speech in Egypt, “seeking to strengthen U.S. relations with the Islamic world and fight extremism.”[6] One key to doing the former is to acknowledge that the Islamic world does have a long theological and historical strain of the latter--based largely on a literal reading of the Qur’an and the Hadiths (alleged practices and sayings of Muhammad)—as well as to identify, contact and support moderate branches of Islam.

Islam is not necessarily literally violent, but much if not most of the time literal Islam IS violent. How could it not be? Sura al-Nisa’[4]:34ff says “those wives from whom you fear rebellion….beat them.” Sura Muhammad [47]:3ff and Sura al-Anfal [8]:12ff say “when you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads.” Sura al-`Imran[3]:157ff says “If you should die or be slain in the cause of God…before Him you shall be gathered.” Five different sections of the Qur’an promise “dark-eyed” huris, “bashful virgins whom neither man nor jinn will have touched,”[7] to those who die fighting on Allah’s behalf.

Of course, taken literally the Bible—at least the Old Testament—could promote violence: for example Deuteronomy 7:1ff tells the Hebrews not only to avoid intermarrying with the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, etc., but to “tear down their altars” and “utterly destroy them.” But modern Jewish rabbis and Israeli politicians do not cite such passages to justify violence, not just because these ancient peoples no longer exist but because a literal reading of such verses is no longer accepted, either in scholarship or in the popular mind.

As for the New Testament, it’s impossible to read it literally and condone violence. Matthew 26:52 says Jesus told Peter “put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Furthermore, Jesus told his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[8] The Crusades and the Inquisition were rejections of Jesus’ teachings, not fulfillment of them—which is exactly the opposite of the case with Muhammad and jihad. However, there are New Testament passages that, taken literally, are problematic: for example, in Luke 10:19 Jesus told the 70 that “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions…and nothing will injure you.” There are some tiny Christian denominations that encourage taking these passages literally, even going so far as to handle poisonous snakes during services.[9] But the vast majority of Christians—courtesy of several centuries of Biblical criticism, not to mention application of simple common sense—can put those passages in exegetical and historical context, realizing that what was true for the 12 Apostles and the 70 Disciples two millennia ago, not to mention Jesus Himself, is NOT necessarily binding on us today. Christianity, like Judaism, long ago developed a non-literalist exegetical paradigm, which is adhered to by a majority within each religion.[10]

The same is not true of mainstream Sunni Islam, which makes up some 87% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslim population. In that majority Muslim community, “the doctrine of taqlid, of adherence to a given legal madhhab,[11] was elaborated into the doctrine that the ‘gates of ijtihad’[12]…had closed in the ninth century” [C.E.].[13] This meant that"the right of ijtihad" -- independent religion-legal reasoning -- was replaced by the duty of taqlid or ‘imitation.’ Henceforth every jurist was an ‘imitator’ (muqallid) bound to accept and follow the doctrine established by his predecessors.”[14] Original ideas about interpretation of the Qur’an were forbidden; only slavish imitation of early Muslim commentators, literalists all, was—and still is, technically—allowed. Thus, a Sunni Muslim confronted with the clear Qur’anic mandate of beheading for infidels on the battlefield cannot advance exegetical arguments that the passage 1) applied only in Muhammad’s time or 2) today is to be read metaphorically as “apologetic decapitation” or the like. The Qur’an reports, you do not get to decide. The ancient school of Mu`tazilism, which did briefly allow for non-literalism regarding the Qur’an, was stamped out in Sunnism.

But while this is the sitation within Sunni Islam, it is not necessarily true within non-Sunni Muslim denominations and sects. Islam is far more variegated than simply Sunnis and Shi`is. There are at least three major divisions of Shi`i Muslims, the largest of which is the Ithna`ashariyah, or “Twelvers,” of Iran, Iraq and Iraq (the others are the Ismai’ilis and the Zaydis), so called because they believe there have been only 12 Imams, or legitimate leaders of the Islamic world, since Muhammad (and that the 12th one, who disappeared in the 9th century C.E., did not die but will return as the eschatological Mahdi).

Because of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s general opposition to the U.S. on the world stage for the last quarter-century—epitomized by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime holding Americans hostage for 444 days, and reinforced by President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust-denying and apocalyptic threats against Israel—many Americans (to include political analysts) lump Twelver Shi`is into the category of “Islamic fundamentalists.” However, Twelvers are anything but fundamentalist, since “Islamic Shi`ite jurisprudence [has been kept] alive and fresh throughout the ages” by “individuals who continuously follow the path of independent judgment, ijtihad….”[15] One example of Shi`i new religion-political thinking is the concept of vilayet-i faqih, “Rule of the Jurisprudent,” which Khomeini developed to put the Twelver clerics in guardanship over the state until the coming of the Mahdi. One may say many things about this political ideology, but it is certainly something new under the sun—quite the opposite of Sunni-style taqlid. And if Twelver Shi`ism allows for new religion-political dispensations that are oppressive and inimical to non-Muslims, it also arguably holds the potential for developing other ideas that are opposed to the literalistic reading of the Qur’an regnant in Sunni circles. Last year, while at the Mahdism Conference in Tehran, I was discussing, with a researcher from the Bright Future Institute (the Iranian quasi-governmental entity which sponsored the conference), the interpretation of the violent passages of the Qur’an. When he told me the jihad passages were not to be taken literally, I replied (somewhat tongue-in-cheek), “but that’s not what the Salafists[16] say.” He replied, somewhat haughtily, “I am talking about TRUE Muslim interpretation.”

While the reformist potential of Twelver Shi`ism remains largely latent, another branch of Shi`ism long ago manifested it. The Isma’ilis, or ‘Seveners,”[17] started out as a violent, revolutionary brand of Shi`ism some 1100 years ago—in fact, one of their branches was the “Assassins”—and evolved into a quietist, mystical form of Islam that teaches the necessity to “enable the believers to go beyond the apparent or outward form of the revelation in search of its spirituality and intellect.”[18] Numbering perhaps 15 million worldwide, the Isma’ilis are headed by the Aga Khan and comprise substantial communities in South Asia (India and Pakistan), East Africa/Yemen, Europe and Canada. Their focus on the batini, “hidden,” meaning of the Qur’an and Islam over against the zahiri, “apparent,” one has enabled them, for example, to adopt a view of jihad in which its primary components are “microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalisation of historic cities”[19] rather than IEDs, flogging of women and other violent expressions of jihad. One might think Isma’ili communities in Pakistan and Yemen could serve as legitimately Muslim intellectual and social counterweights to the al-Qa`idah types.

On the margins of Shi`i theology and practice are the Alawis of Syria and Lebanon. They make up some 10% of Syria’s population but run the country since both Presidents al-Assad—Hafiz and Bashar—have been Alawi, as is the bulk of the military and intelligence services. The Alawis began over a millennium ago as a Shi`i sect but as the centuries passed developed such heterodox beliefs and practices—divinization of Ali, the first Imam; reincarnation; non-utilization of mosques; drinking of wine—that as long as 700 years ago the famous Sunni cleric Ibn Taymiyah issued fatwas denouncing the Alawis as apostates whom it was lawful to kill.[20]

Because of the political considerations of the al-Assads, Syria under Alawi rule has allied itself with Twelver Shi`i Iran and this has reinforced Alawism’s position as a non-Sunni-fundamentalist, pseudo-Shi`i Islamic cult in which ijtihad is allowed to exist. Despite Damascus’ geopolitical obstreperousness from an American (and certainly Israeli) point of view, one positive aspect of Alawi rule is its decidedly anti-jihadist position; in fact, Hafiz al-Assad crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, and to this day Alawi Syria remains theologically, if not always politically, opposed to militant Sunnism. Were Syria to adopt a less confrontational stance toward its fellow Arab states like Egypt and Jordan, it might be possible for Alawi Arab Syria to serve as an ecumenical bridgehead between those states and the ijtihadistic Islamic Republic of Iran.

Alternatively, Syria—unlike the other two majority-Muslim states on the U.S. State Department’s terrorism sponsors list, Iran and Sudan—is ruled not by its majority (Syria is 75% Sunni Muslim) but by a small, heretical minority, a situation that might very well make for successful religious destabilization operations against Damascus, should the U.S. decide to go that route by, for example, building on the aformentioned Ibn Taymiyah fulminations. The Egyptians, for one, are fed up with what they see as Syrian and Iranian support for Hizbullah cells in their country.[21] How hard would it be for the Obama Administration to persuade the Egyptian government to have al-Azhar, the preeminent seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship, issue new fatwas underlining the non-Islamic nature of the Alawi regime and calling on the Sunni majority to rise up against it?

The fact that the Islamic world is divided into sects offers the West in general and the U.S. in particular a myriad of opportunities to both empower friends and punish enemies. And lest anyone wax too indignant about such imperial meddling by a Christian power in the Islamic world, know that the Muslim Ottoman Empire did exactly the same during the Reformation in Europe. No sooner were Luther’s 95 Theses fluttering in the wind on the Wittenberg church door than the Ottoman Sultan “was aware of and exploited this tear in the fabric of Christendom,” playing off the German Protestant rulers against their own overlord, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and urging them to ally with the French.[22]

Many other Islamic sects could be proffered as moderate—that is, non-literalist regarding the Qur’an—alternatives to Sunnism, including the Druze of Lebanon, Zaydis of Yemen, Alevis of Turkey and the Ibadis of Oman. But the major para-Islamic grouping that has been put forward as a collective alternative to both militant Sunnism and Iranian Shi`ism is Sufism, Islamic mysticism, most notably by Stephen Schwartz.[23]

Sufi orders developed early in Islamic history, similar to mystical movements in Judaism and Christianity, out of a dissatisfaction with mere adherence to Islamic law as a path to Allah and a desire to experience the Divine directly, usually through intensive prayer. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Sufi orders sprang up and many still exist, most notably the: Naqshabandis of South Asia, Iraq and Syria; Qadiris and Tijanis of West Africa; Bektashis of Turkey and the Balkans; Chishtis of India; Salihis of East Africa; etc. While no exact enumeration of their adherents has been done, a conservative estimate is that they number at least 45 million.[24] Schwartz maintains that “Sufis can help Islam and the world by tenaciously maintaining their attitudes of independence, pluralism, [and] respect for other faiths….”[25] But while he also admits that there have been “many incidents of brutality against Sufis,”[26] he glosses over—indeed, largely ignores—the examples in Islamic history of Sufi-led and –staffed violence against other Muslims (and Christians, and Hindus, and Sikhs, and….) over 14 centuries of Islamic history, the most notable of which include: Sayyid Muhammad Jawnpuri, a Chishti Sufi, whose Mahdavis of 15th century CE fought the Gujarat ruler; Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi,[27] a Naqshbandi Sufi, leader of an anti-Sikh and anti-British jihad in 19th century India; Muhammad Ahmad, a Sammani Sufi who led a massive Mahdist jihad against the Ottomans, Egyptians and British and by 1885 took over Sudan; Imam Shamil, the leader of several 19th century North Caucasus jihads against the Russians, who was a Naqshabandi; the “Mad Mullah” of Somalia, Muhammad bin `Abd Allah, a Salihi Sufi who led revolts against the Italians and British until his death in 1920.

Sufism particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the early 20th, provided a ready-made organization and ideology which could all too often be put at the disposal of a charismatic Sufi shaykh convinced that he was on a mission from God. Indeed, this brand of Sufism has not totally dissipated, for earlier this year Naqshabandis from Iraq met the head of Hamas and provided him both ideological finanical support.[28]

But if Schwartz downplays the latent militancy of Sufism, he is exactly right that many Sufi orders and their members are opposed to jihadist Sunnism, not least because the progenitor of the latter—Muhammad b. `Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), founder of the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia—hated the Sufis and his followers down to today largely retain that attitude. Sufis, like the aforementioned Isma’ilis, distinguish between the literal words of the Qur’an and their intrinsic meaning. As an example of how Sufi Islam can serve as a de facto ally in the war against jihadists, look no further than Somalia, where the Sufi umbrella group Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jama`ah recently came out in support of the Mogadishu government of Shaykh Sharif Ahmad over against the jihadist threat from the al-Shabab organization.[29] Sufis may not pave the road to global harmony, but they certainly present—to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s line about Mikhail Gorbachev—“an Islam we can do business with.”

Combining the three branches of Islam explicated in this paper (Isma’ilis, Alawis and Sufis) with the ones mentioned in passing (Druze, Zaydis, Alevis, Ibadis) and neo-Sufi, modernist groups such as the increasingly influential Gülen movement of Turkey, we arrive at a figure of some 90-100 million adherents. This constitutes some 7 or 8% of the world Muslim population—admittedly, a small percentage but a figure probably equal to the hardcore Sunni jihadist ranks. (Add in the Twelver Shi`is and the figure doubles.) This is certainly a large enough slice of the global Muslim demographic pie to to have an effect, were their ideas to gain more prominence and traction in the global ummah (community), in undercutting fundamentalist Sunnism’s claim to sole legitimacy and providing ammunition to those who claim that Islam has been “hijacked” by such Sunnis. Sunni Muslims, by and large, are prohibited from, or simply scared of, telling the Taliban of the world that the very real violent injunctions of the Qur’an do not have to be taken literally. Were the Aga Khan, or Shaykh Hisham Kabbani,[30] to stand up next to President Obama and tell the mullahs of Swat that their wooden Qur’anic literalism was not only dangerous but wrong, we’d know the President had found the true moderate Muslims whom he seeks. And we’d all be the better for it.

[1] One of the foremost purveyors of this ahistorical view is Karen Armstrong (http://www.time.com). But, hard as it is to believe, former President George W. Bush publicly agreed with such sentiments (http://www.jihadwatch.org).


[3] This view is espoused by anti-jihadists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Dutch legislator Geert Wilders.


[5] Three major differences between Iraq and Afghanistan that might affect the translation of the surge policy are: the latter has a much greater rural/urban population, a much less educated populace, and—most importantly—a large Sunni majority, whence springs the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban (whereas Iraq is 65% Shi`i, a branch not known for its dedication to violent Islam in the same fashion as fundamentalist Sunnism).


[7] The last line, specifically, is from Sura al-Rahman[55]:36ff; the other references are found in Sura al-Naba’[78]:17ff, Sura al-Dukhan [44]:41ff, Sura al-Waqi’ah[56]:8ff and Sura al-Tur[52]:2ff,

[8] Matthew 5:44

[9] In fact, the father of one of my high school friends in Kentucky in the 1970s belonged to such a denomination, and he died from just such a snake bite.

[10] According to sources such as the 2007 “Time Almanac,” and www.adherents.com, Christians number some 2.1 billion, of which a majority consists of non-literalist/fundamentalist churches such as Roman Catholicism (1.1 billion), Eastern Orthodoxy (225 million), Anglicanism (77 million), Lutheranism (66 million), and many other denominations with membership in the low millions each. Biblical literalists of the “fundamentalist” Protestant variety (Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, etc.) are large in real numbers but, world-wide, comprise a minority of the world’s Christian population. Of course, Biblical literalism exists within most, if not all, denominations—but by-and-large it predominates within those Protestant ones that adhere strictly to the concept of sola Scriptura much more than it does where Tradition is accorded a role alongside the Bible. As for Judaism, of the three major branches of the religion—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform—only the Orthodox still adhere to a literal reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, and they make up somewhere between 1/3 and less than ½ of the world’s Jewish population: http://www.jcpa.org. And yes, while there are other factors that determine whether adherents of any particular religion are “moderate” or “extremist,” it is also nonetheless true that Scriptural—Biblical or Qur’anic—literalism is almost certainly the major one and the starting point for analysis.

[11] “School” or “group” of interpretation

[12] “Independent judgment in a legal or theological question”

[13] Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. II: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 406

[14] N.J. Coulson, A History of Islamic Law (Edinburgh: University Press, 1964), pp. 80ff.

[15] ‘Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’I, Shi`ite Islam (Albany: SUNY Press, 1975), Seyyed Hossein Nasr, trans. and ed., p. 104.

[16] “Salafists” are Sunnis who believe in emulation of the “salaf,” “ancestors” of the the Islamic community who lived in Muhammad’s time. They are, in a very real sense, fundamentalists.

[17] So named because they trace the line of legitimate Imams through fewer, and slightly different personages, than do the Twelvers.



[20] See Yaron Friedman, “Ibn Taymiyya’s Fatawa against the Nusayri-`Alawi Sect,” Der Islam, 87 (2005), pp. 349-363


[22] Daniel Goffman, The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 111

[23] See his book The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony (New York: Doubleday, 2008), as well as Getting to Know the Sufis,” The Weekly Standard, February 7, 2005: http://www.weeklystandard.com

[24] This is extraplolation based on the reasoning by several Islamic scholars that in the early 20th century Sufis comprised ~3% of the entire Muslim population.

[25]The Other Islam, p. 236


[27] This man and his movement should not be confused with Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi (d. 1921), founder of a neo-Sufi, anti-Deobandi movement in South Asia.



[30] Head of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani order in America: http://www.naqshbandi.org/