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Violent Islamism: Terrorist Copycats are Nothing New


Violent Islamists, like those responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, learned its tactics from the anarchist and nationalist violence of the early 20th century. But its religious ideology glorifies the violent past of early Muslim conquerors.

Islamic State fighters march in Raqqa, Syria, last year. (Image source: AP/Militant Website, File)

This is the first piece in a four-part series on violent Islamism, its global reach, and what can be done to counter it. Please check back for the rest of the series this week here at TheBlaze.


The world is still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo massacre week where Cherif and Said Kouachi slaughtered a dozen people, shouting “Allahu Akbar!”

That same day, in more than a dozen other countries, like-minded violent Islamists were also killing their fellow citizens: Iraq, Libya, Syria, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Where did this violent religious ideology come from and why is it so attractive to tens of thousands of Muslim men?

In this multi-part series, we look at the roots of violent Islamism as a copycat of 20th century violent anarchism—like the assassination that launched World War I—explain its global reach, and argue for a robust Western response.

Islamism is the idea that the totality of human experience should strictly cohere to a form of Islam associated with the early experience of Muhammad and his followers. This is often called “salafism” (salafi=ancestor) because it is based on the practice and teaching of the earliest Muslims. Islamists glorify the early years of violent Muslim expansionism with its austere lifestyle and military conquests, rather than the more tolerant urban civilization associated with Baghdad and Cordoba that recovered and built upon the Greco-Roman tradition centuries later.

In this undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, fighters from the Islamic State group march in Raqqa, Syria.  (AP Photo/Militant Website, File) In this undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, fighters from the Islamic State group march in Raqqa, Syria. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)

Where does today’s violent Islamism come from? It is a copy-cat of the violent nationalist and anarchist movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Radical western intellectuals and their followers used assassination and terrorism to destabilize Russia (in 1905 and 1917), spark the first World War (with the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand), assassinate political leaders such as U.S. President William McKinley (by anarchist Leon Czolgosz), and inflame civil wars from the Mexican Revolution to the Spanish Civil War.

Thus, the tactics of terror were nothing new to the Middle East.

Enterprising intellectuals such as Indian (later Pakistani) Islamist (1903-1979) Abu al Maududi, the Egyptian school teacher Hassan al Banna (1906-1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and al Banna’s disciple Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) established the organizations and ideology of violent Islamism. Their ideology glorifies jihad and their legacy is one of destruction: the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the violent take-over of Mecca in 1979, the Charter of Hamas, Pakistani madrassas that gave birth to the Taliban, Sept. 11, 2001, Boko Haram’s abduction of 200 schoolgirls in 2014, the 2015 Paris shootings. A complete list of their infamous acts, murder, and destruction would fill a library.

This is where Al Qaeda and Islamic State were born. Al Qaeda’s roots are in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood (with the goal to create a medieval Islamist society) and the successful anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Afghanistan brought together Sunni Muslim militants from around the world, what we today call the “Afghan Arabs.” This created a network of violent radicals who “won” in Afghanistan and then returned to their homes across the Muslim world, seeking to overthrow authoritarian regimes from Morocco to Pakistan. Osama bin Laden was an Afghan Arab: a wealthy Saudi who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, went home to overthrow the Saud regime, failed, and was exiled, first to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan.

Although the U.S. hurt Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, the Iraq war (2003) created a new opportunity for jihadists. Despite achieving the U.S.’ initial objective of regime change in Baghdad, the security situation in Iraq spiraled out of control for a variety of reasons, most importantly a resurgent “Al Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI) affiliate whose primary purpose—according to its local leader Abu al Zarqawi—was to ignite a Sunni (Saddam Hussein’s minority of Iraq) vs. Shia (majority of Iraq and neighboring Iran) civil war. Although the U.S.-led coalition dismantled much of AQI, its successor is today’s Islamic State. For instance, Islamic State’s current leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was an AQI terrorist and served time in a U.S.-run prison camp.

In short, violent Islamist groups express a totalitarian religious ideology. They attempt to destabilize societies or invade existing environments of insecurity, taking advantage of the situation for their own nefarious ends. They are a dire threat when they operate as terrorists, but even more lethal when they achieve a measure of power, as in Iran, Sudan, and 1990s Afghanistan. But in most cases they live the dirty, rough life of down-at-the-heels bandits, subsisting in camps, caves, or urban ghettoes.

So, what attracts young men to this? That is the question for next time.

Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including "Debating the War of Ideas."

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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