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The ISIS is basically engaged on two fronts: one against the apostates, and the other against the non-believers. The apostates are those who have abandoned their religion, including rules and precepts, and are usually associated with the Shia. This explains the recent wave of attacks against the Shia in Iraq and Lebanon, and those targeting the Alawites in Syria. When the concept is stretched, the regimes of Egypt and Turkey are also apostates when they oppose the caliphate. And the penalty for apostasy is, according to several hadiths, death. Instead, the non-believers are the atheists, or those belonging to other creeds, like the christian “crusaders” – recently targeted in Paris and Brussels – or the yazidis, the jews and so forth.

This is what pushes the ISIS in the fight to create a caliphate, but it is also its Achille's heel. Being against each and everyone will ultimately lead to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's defeat. Nonetheless, both terrorism and the widespread Islamic ideology that fuels it will remain. To eradicate extremism will take decades and will not be accomplished without the direct support of muslim countries.

After the caliphate

Besides the fight against other religions, the main conflict is within Sunnism and between its fundamentalist salafist soul and the more moderate and ascetic sufi one. One could object that the rise of Sunni Islamic terrorism has been favored by a series of exogenous circumstances – the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Palestinian issue, the fall of Gaddafi, the restoration of the military dictatorship in Egypt – and endogenous ones – the lack of democracy and the brutality of the regimes across the Middle East – yet these are but mere side-dishes to the main and central theological war within Sunnism.

It is also clear that the political and military struggle between Sunni countries, with Saudi Arabia in the lead, and Shia ones, basically Iran, has favored radicalization and thus helped the ISIS. However, behind the theological smokescreen there are also a number of other elements at play: the fight for the hegemony in the Middle East, the strategic interests of the superpowers, the control of energy resources. The ISIS is never the cause, but the combined outcome of all of the above dynamics.

The West, Russia, some Arab or muslim countries all think of a military solution to defeat the ISIS. This was the same approach adopted by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq and, more recently, in Libya. They only thought about getting rid of the enemy, but little did they think about what would happen next. We are now at risk of repeating the same mistake all over.

The military approach is logical when facing a traditional warfare. But in this case, this is a non-conventional war, this is terrorism and the strength of one's army has only a limited value. Terrorism cannot be erased with a conflict, but has to be eradicated from the social texture where it breeds and finds support. This will only be possible through a revision of Sunni theology on one side, and an improvement of the living conditions of the Arab people on the other. Will this be possible?

The fundamentalist soul in Sunnism benefits from a wide support due to two factors: the economic power of Saudi wahabism and the social engineering of the Muslim Brotherhood. We also always have to keep mind that Islam has no Vatican; there is no central authority to define the interpretation of the sacred books and thus guide the community. Any school of thought can come up with its own interpretation of the same lines and thus twist their concepts in the direction it likes. This approach results in the muslims being told everything and its opposite. Salafism wants to reinstate the Islam of the origins, it is against any modernity and is at the basis of the extremism that bursts into terrorism. It is hence not just a theological problem, but also a cultural one. And when you enter this time warp, you find yourself in the era that followed the death of Mohamed: territorial conquests, the fight against the infidels, the beheading of the enemies.


The concept of jihad

One of the key concepts that has been transformed into a tool of war is that of jihad. In Islamic culture, the term was initially employed to identify a series of practices to free the spirit from vice and from religiously inadequate behaviors. A series of spiritual rites to discipline and purify the believer that are typical of moderate sufi Islam. The predominantly moral role of the jihad did not prevent, when needed, to it being used when defending oneself during a conflict. The salafis have twisted the concept and turned it into an offensive one, politically motivating the recourse to the jihad. The ISIS, as other groups before it, employ the jihad in their armed struggle, to recruit and to dominate power.

More than any other religion, Islam has a strong social impact and results in the overlapping of religion and politics. This is true for Sunnism and, even more, for Shiism. Khomeini claimed that “Islam is politics, otherwise it is not Islam”. The Muslim Brothers are the Sunni equivalent of the ayatollah's regime. This is why they are banned in several Arab countries as they try to overstep their religious role. What has happened in Egypt, where the confraternity was originally founded, is a clear example of this.

In such a radical view of Islam, the establishment of a caliphate tops the list also for the Muslim Brotherhood. What differs is how to reach that target: through a social process and not via a military conflict. One of the slogans often repeated during their rallies sums this up: “Islam is the solution”. And when we talk of “offensive” jihad, one of the first proponents to develop and promote the fight against western culture was one of the Brotherhood's most important theologians, Sayyd Qutb.

ahmad imn hanbali

Ahmad imn Hanbali

The schools of thought

There are a series of schools of thought in Islam. The four main Sunni ones were born in the years immediately following the passing away of Mohamed: the moderate “hanafi”, the “shafi'i” focusing on Islamic law, the “maliki” that has always been opposed to sufism and the “hanbali”, the most radical one and the basis for modern day extremist and salafi ideology.

What differs from one school of thought to the next is their approached to the sacred books. They shift from a literal and uncritical reading of the texts to an historical, analogical and contextualized analysis of the words of god. In the first case, whatever is on paper is just sacred and cannot be altered by time. There is no way the preachings can be adapted to a mutating world. This is the dogma. The truth, the haqiqa, of the sacred texts is immutable.

It is pretty clear that the literal approach is the simplest one to put into practice. It doesn't require any theological dissertation or understanding and can be easily assimilated and applied even by uneducated people. This is what also facilitates the ISIS, although we should not forget Abu Bakr al Baghdadi studied Islamic law at the Baghdad university and is an expert manipulator.

Another characteristic of the Islamic dogma is that god decides our fate, there is no such thing as free will. If a combatant dies or wins it is for god to decide, that's it. We are all at the mercy of a superior being. The ISIS militant faces his destiny with the awareness that he is just a tool fulfilling a divine scheme. This explains why so many people are willing to turn into “martyrs”. Life has no value if it cannot be sacrificed to one's god.

The history of the spreading of Islam is associated with military conquests spanning from the Dar Islam, the land of the muslims, to the Dar Harb, the land of the infidels. This is familiar to other monotheistic religions as well, although in different historical periods. We should always remember about the crusades from 1099 until 1272. In other words, Islam is a millennium late in terms of religiously fueled conflicts. The same goes for the literal interpretation of the sacred books. If one were to do it with the Bible, he would probably reach similar conclusions as the salafis.

Lacking any other ideological alternative – communism was for the christians, while Arab socialism served the purposed of keeping the Baath parties into autocratic power – the Middle East has not been able to free itself from political Islam. It should hence not come as a surprise that anything, from class struggles to war, is fought in the name of Allah.

Presently, those inspiring armed salafism are the Algerian Djamel Beghal, hosted in French prisons and affiliated with al Takfir wal Hijra, Abu Khalid al Suri – nom de guerre of Mohammed Baahaiah – one of the leaders of Ahrar al Sham killed in Aleppo in 2014, Jordanian Abu Mohammed al Tahawi, alias Abdul Qadir Shahada, and the Syrian Abu Musab al Suri, aka Mustafa bin Abdelqadir Setmarian Nasser, author and theorist of the jihad. They have all replaced traditional theologians and provided an alibi to extremists. Their ideas are the one we have to fight.

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