Counter-Terrorism: Why Islamic Radicals Don't Last

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February 6, 2012: A major problem with Islamic radicalism and terrorism is that it has been around for over a thousand years and is endemic to Moslem nations. This is because Islam is based on the belief that government, and the lives of all Moslems, should be ruled by Islamic law (sharia). Yet through most of its history (since Islam arrived 1,500 years ago) Moslems have been ruled by secular laws (or a combination of sharia and secular, with non-clerics having the final say). In other words, the concept of sharia never caught on in a big way. Yet all Moslem religious education stresses that living according to sharia is the ideal lifestyle for a Moslem. Moslem clerics continue to believe this, although many recognize the reality of secular rule and do not encourage rebellion. But it's easy for a Moslem cleric to go old-school and start preaching the primacy of sharia.

The problem is that most Moslems do not want to live according to sharia. Those that do, because they have no choice, are usually unhappy with how it is applied. Some of this unhappiness springs from the fact that there is no one interpretation of sharia accepted by all Moslems. There is no Islamic pope, thus there is no doctrinal unity. Then there are the divisions within Islam. There are two main forms of Islam, Sunni (about 80 percent of all Moslems) and Shia (about ten percent, most of them in Iran). Even within these two branches of Islam there are many further divisions. For over a thousand years disputes, and often wars, have arisen because of theological disputes between the factions. For the last century, the major source of fatalities from religious violence has been Islamic factionalism, which often includes attacks on non-Moslems by Islamic radicals who believe this is what God wants.

This violence usually begins locally, with a particularly articulate and charismatic Islamic cleric gathering together enough holy warriors to attract the attention of secular leaders. This would often lead to fighting, which might last for months or years and cause widespread death and devastation. But the secular rulers would always prevail. The secular rulers could be as ruthless as they had to be, while Holy Warriors eventually suffered from money, supply, and recruiting problems. The secular rulers were usually quick to go after the clerics who were stirring everything up, and once these men were captured or killed the uprising would fall apart. This policy prevented many religious uprisings from even getting started. This policy is still standard for rulers of Moslem populations.

The 20th century brought with it electronic media and world-wide communications. Moslem nations tended to be economically and technically backward (because so many clerics considered this stuff, and so much more from the West, as un-Islamic) and these revolutionary technologies were late to appear. But when radio and tape cassettes showed up they made it easier for radical clerics to inspire young Moslem men to take up the sword (or rifle or bomb) in defense of Islam. This changed the nature of Islamic radicalism. Before radio, cassettes, and, currently, the Internet secular rulers could quickly stamp out any new cases of Islamic radicalism. But with the Internet a radical cleric can stir up trouble around the world. As long as they behave where they are operating from they are relatively safe from retaliation.

At least that was the case until September 11, 2001. In a case of "be careful of what you ask for, as you might get it", the Islamic terror attacks against New York and the Pentagon that day gave the West an incentive to go after Islamic radical preachers in many, but not all, their sanctuaries. Since then, radical clerics have had to be careful what they say. If they go too far, either the local government will hit them (sometimes fatally) or the U.S. or Israel will do so. As has happened many times in the past, new technology or tactics that helped the Islamic radicals was quickly countered by secular forces. Unfortunately, as long as Islam remains in its present form there will continue to be Islamic radicals.

 


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