I just finished a terrific book, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, by Charles Allen. Allen traces the roots of Al Queda and the Taliban back into medieval times. It’s a complicated tale that moves back and forth between India and Saudi Arabia. You can trace linkages in people and organizations for at least three centuries. In a nutshell, here’s what I learned:
–Al Queda and the Taliban did not spring up out of nothing. On the contrary, they have roots going back into the 13th century with a Syrian theologian named Ibn Taymiyya. In the 18th century his belief in violent jihad against all infidels, including Islamic “heretics,” was taken up by leaders in both India and Saudi Arabia who possibly met and certainly studied at the same period in the Arabian peninsula.
–This extreme version of Islam has never been generally popular among Muslims, because it is highly intolerant. In fact, its hatred toward other Muslims who do not follow its theology burns fiercer than that extended toward Christians, Jews and Hindus.
–However, there are communities, particularly in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in Saudi Arabia, that have been linked to such extreme and puritanical versions of Islam since the 18th century. The Bedouin and Pashtun concept of hospitality has provided safe havens for the warriors of these sects during extended periods when they were under military pressure. Sound familiar?
–The rise of these groups has often seemed inspired by a loss of prestige and power for Sunni Islam. This began with the Mongol invasions of the Middle East in the 1200s—the time when Ibn Taymiyya taught–and carried on with the extension of British power in India and the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries.
–The modern prominence of this ancient, minority view has been largely fueled by the post-1967 riches of Saudi Arabia. Oil revenues enrich a monarchy that is officially committed to this intolerant theology of jihad, and these views are spread by Saudi money that goes to build and support schools and mosques throughout the world. Ironically, American money spent on Saudi oil has fueled our most dedicated enemies.
Allen hints at three conclusions: 1. Extremist Islam has never had lasting popularity within Islam because its violent intolerance is fundamentally unattractive. 2. The linkages between American money and Saudi monarchy and Al Queda/Taliban organizations are fragile and could well break down. 3. We are unlikely ever to eradicate this plant, because it has deep roots, but with patient and skillful diligence we might well succeed in reducing it to its regular status as a small, fanatical cult. That has happened before.
God’s Terrorists is a good read, with plenty of fascinating stories.