There are more than one billion professed Muslims in the world. US Intelligence says that at its height, Al Qaeda numbered perhaps fifty thousand members and another hundred thousand supporting persons. That works out to about 0.015% of all Muslims. If all terrorist groups and – let’s be generous – all radical Islamist groups which desire to attack the West and Israel are counted, that number reaches a total of perhaps ten million people, or just 1.0% of all Muslims. While Islam has many factions which are hostile to American values and policies, it must be understood at the outset that the overwhelming majority of Muslims have effectively nothing in common with terrorists. The common complaint from the West that Muslims must protest the behavior of terrorist groups misses the point that most Muslims already consider terrorists to be well beyond the pale, so that protesting against them would make no more sense than believing that young white Christian men should disavow any connection to Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, or Charles Manson – it should not be necessary to state the obvious.
This is not to claim that the Muslims are just like Christians, except for a few different customs and spiritual practices. Islam is a strongly evangelistic faith, based on the belief that only Islam is true in God’s eyes, all other beliefs being in error or outright rebellion against God. Tradition is revered in Islam, because Islamic law (Sharia) is rooted in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed and his hand-picked disciples and successors (the Caliphs). This is roughly comparable to the old Roman Catholic practice of considering the Church of Rome to hold the full authority of Peter as granted by the word of Jesus Christ Himself, back in the day when the Pope could call up armies to kill in the name of God. It should be noted, however, that the Caliphs of Islam are long removed to the past, so that no current Imam has the authority to speak for all of Islam. From time to time, someone gets bold enough to declare himself the Mahdi, basically the Muslim equivalent of the Messiah, which effort up to now has invariably resulted in a bloody war of conquest, ending in the death of the false Mahdi and his supporters. This point is significant, in the light of reports that the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been pushing to have himself proclaimed the Mahdi of Islam or Twelfth Imam (the ‘hidden Imam’). This is not merely narcissism, but also a power play intended to promote the ascendancy of the Iranian race, the Aryans (yes, those Ayrans) as the natural leaders of Islam. Ahmadinejad appears to be playing Sunni against Shia in order to advance a racial caste to the top, conveniently his own. While to Western eyes and ears this kind of claim may appear laughable, there are various accounts which purport to describe the physical appearance of the Mahdi, and Ahmadinejad has been spinning the ones which happen to work in his favor (not all of them do, of course).
Ahmadinejad’s attempts to spin himself as a spiritual leader are part of the Middle East political movement renewing state ties to religion. This is actually a periodic cycle for the region, dating back to the Islamic Caliphates prior to the Fatimad Empire, which shifted the center of power to Egypt and created a meritocracy in the government. This secularization was further continued by the Khan invasions of the thirteenth century, which saw the Mamluks come to power through their defense of the nation (note, defense of the nation, not the faith). Later, Islam became influential in politics again under the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughul empires, but as the names imply, this regional division of power devolved the unity of Islam still further.
Following the first World War, the Ottoman Empire essentially collapsed, and the vacuum was partly addressed by the rise of Wahhabism, a movement begun in the eighteenth century which argued that Muslims were being punished by Allah for an impure faith. It is important to understand that the leader of that movement allied himself with one Abdul Ibn Saud, who successfully claimed the territory of present-day Saudi Arabia for himself, and not coincidentally this territory included the two holiest places in Islam, the cities of Mecca and Medina. Saud’s success seemed to indicate that radical Islam could prevail over the colonial powers, restoring Muslims to their rightful control of their own land.
To Muslim eyes after World War 2, modern history shows the consistent rise of Muslim power, from the removal of colonial powers, to the end of secular masters, to the increased wealth and power worldwide of Islamist states. The existence of Israel and the annoying habit of Americans in demanding that their views become global polity aside, the leaders of the Islamist movement came to believe that their power and influence would only increase, and all that was left to do was to simply follow through.
‘Following through’ did not work out so well. Attempts to invade and destroy Israel failed over and over again, and frequently cost the Muslim forces much more than it did the Israelis. The various oil crises posed threats to the United States, but they too seemed to end to the Americans’ advantage. The Islamists have a bad knack of choosing the wrong friends, from Germany in both World Wars, business negotiators who could not see beyond the end of the decade, and religious leaders whose extreme ideology made their doctrines inpracticible in any real sense. Unfortunately, rather than admit errors and rethink the strategy, the Islamists in positions of power reacted with hostility and malice. It is no random fact that the Muslim Brotherhood, which engaged in small-scale murders and thuggery in the 1920s, evolved into more elaborate and extensive conspiracies to topple undesirable regimes (e.g. the Shah), blackmail wealthy families into bankrolling terrorist operations (Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt, especially), and seek to eradicate western presence through violence and intimidation.
The western response also evolved. Early capitulation in paying ransoms and acceptance of hard-line Muslim dogma (such as refusing to do business with Jews, women, or blacks in positions of importance as corporate representatives) became less attractive as groups became less mercenary and more bloodthirsty. American businesses began demanding better protection from their own government, and mercenary armies came into being to protect western compounds and facilities. Eventually, this need to protect American interests influenced official policy under the Reagan and Bush Administrations. Even the Clinton Administration supported sub rosa operations, which were accepted by Middle East governments because they did not embarrass the officials personally. But by the end of the twentieth century, it was becoming apparent that terrorist groups had taken on a new dimension; the façade of legitimacy.
The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza territory is a solid example of what happens when terrorists are allowed to gain political power and to present themselves as the duly elected representatives of the people. But Hamas is not the first group to play this role. Elements of the PLO, Islamic Jihad, and of course Al Qaeda have all played the game of diplomat, in some cases becoming able to claim the image of respectability, as seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the Sudan, and Yemen. This was a tipping point for the George W. Bush Administration, the concern that the sense of control in their own territory would lead to attacks on American soil. This concern, of course, was built in large part on the character and scale of the 9/11 attacks. The profile of the conflict, as well as the stakes, changed completely almost overnight.