The Struggle for the Soul of Islam

A reformation, while sorely needed, is nearly impossible as long as educated Muslims war with fundamentalists.

For the first thousand years of the Christian era, the Pope was unquestionably the head of the Christian church.  Splinter groups such as the Anabaptists and Waldensians never acknowledged the Pope's authority, but once the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, the Pope reigned supreme in matters religious throughout the entirety of Christendom.

The Catholics maintained their religious monopoly of Western Europe until the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500's.  It took centuries of war for Catholics and Protestants to learn how to get along with each other.

Islam was never as monolithic as Catholicism; the religion split in two when Muhammad died.  One group followed Muhammad's descendants, while another group followed one of his senior lieutenants.  These are the Shias and Sunnis, dueling groups we hear about today.

Fragmentation continued over the centuries to the point that there are many mutually-antagonistic sects who burn each other's mosques and kill each other.

Unlike Catholicism, there has been no central religious authority which authorizes Muslim clergy since Mohammad died.  Even in the days of the Caliph, Imams and even Ayatollahs could and did arise from anywhere.

An Imam has as much credibility and authority as he can earn through speeches, publicity, inspiring followers, or by any other means.  The Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled from Iran by the Shah.  He settled in Paris, from which sermons circulated throughout Iran via couriers who carried cassette tapes from mosque to mosque.  His sermons attracted such a following that he was able to assume supreme power in Iran when the Shah fell.

Khomeini also earned the obedience of a gang of thugs who make up the "Revolutionary Guard."  This quasi-military force is happy to imprison, torture, maim, and kill "enemies of the Iranian revolution."  Whether they do this out of religious fervor or out of self-interest doesn't matter to their victims.

Even though the President of Iran is supposedly elected, he serves at the pleasure of the council of ruling mullahs.  The president's efforts to beg, borrow, or steal technology to create an atomic bomb couldn't be carried forward without the approval of the theocracy.

But which one?

Islamic Politics in Action

The other week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran at the pleasure of the clerics, addressed the United Nations General Assembly:

Ahmadinejad said in New York that the "mysterious September 11 incident" had been used as a pretext to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. He had also previously expressed scepticism at the US version of events.

"By using their imperialistic media network which is under the influence of colonialism, they threaten anyone who questions the Holocaust and the September 11 event with sanctions and military actions," said Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad claimed before the entire world that the Twin Towers Incident was staged by the US and Israeli governments to advance the cause of Zionism in the Middle East.  Ahmadinejad is a vocal, card-carrying 9-11 Truther, and proud of it.

Mr. Obama objected to President Ahmadinejad's remarks:

Obama described this as outrageous and disgusting: "Particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of Ground Zero, where families lost their loved ones, people of all faiths, all ethnicities who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation; for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable."

So far, so conventional - Iran wants to undermine American efforts to keep Iran from getting the technology for an atomic bomb.  They're doing whatever they think might muddy the waters to gain time for R&D.  The fact that the head of the Iranian government would accuse other governments of mass murder shows what Iran believes about the proper role of government.

Al Qaeda Chimes In

Then, none other than Al-Qaeda joined the War of the Words.

Al-Qaida has sent a message to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asking him to stop spreading conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks.

The article that quoted al-Qaeda's request that Iran stop saying 9-11 had been a hoax explained what was bothering al-Qaeda:

"For them, al-Qaida was a competitor for the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised Muslims around the world," said the article published in the Inspire magazine. "Al-Qaida … succeeded in what Iran couldn't. Therefore it was necessary for the Iranians to discredit 9/11 and what better way to do so? Conspiracy theories."  [emphasis added]

Highlighting the competition between the Iranian theocracy and al-Qaida gets to the heart of the matter.  In considering the current war against Islamic terror, there are three sorts of Muslims:

  1. Pragmatics who claim to be Muslim but don't center their lives on Islam.  They're concerned with making a living, raising children, and getting along wherever they happen to be.  Most Muslims in America fall into that category, at least so far.  We can call them "Unitarian Muslims," in that they're about as Muslim as Unitarians are Christian - i.e. not much.
  2. Muslims like the Iranian theocracy who use Islam to gain power.  Iran sees the United States as a rival and claims a religious duty to eliminate the State of Israel, but doesn't talk about killing all non-Muslims or establishing one-world Muslim rule.  They claim not to want to kill all Jews, just their nation.
  3. Strict Muslim fundamentalists who seek to kill or enslave all non-Muslims and establish a "new Caliphate."  This dream goes back to a golden age when Islam ruled the known world.  Al Qaeda and bin Laden preached this belief.

Fundamentalists believe that Islam fell behind Europe because it lost religious fervor and thus Allah stopped helping them.  Only by killing non-Muslims can Muslims regain Allah's favor and rule the world on his behalf.

Many Muslim clerics have promoted this view of history.  They greatly influenced the young Osama Bin-laden who, as a son of a multi-billionaire, had the resources to strive for the Caliphate.  It doesn't take much imagination to deduce which individual he believed was most qualified for that position.

As troublesome as it is, al-Qaeda can't take over the world without the support of Muslims in all corners.  They particularly desire converts in oil-rich countries such as Iran or nuclear countries like Pakistan.  This requires "regime change."

Al-Qaeda accused Iran of hypocrisy over its "anti-Americanism".

The article said: "For Iran, anti-Americanism is merely a game of politics. It is anti-America when it suits it and it is a collaborator with the US when it suits it, as we have seen in the shameful assistance Iran gave to the US in its invasion of Afghanistan and in the Shia of Iraq, backed by Iran, bringing the American forces into the country and welcoming them with open arms."

Americans who encountered Iranian IEDs wouldn't agree that Iran had welcomed them into Iraq with "open arms," but that's al-Qaeda's take.

Who'll Be Top Imam?

Al-Qaeda is no friend of the Iranian clerics.  In a one-world caliphate, there can be only one top dog.  A world ruled by Bin Laden wouldn't make the Iranian clerics much happier than a world ruled by the United States and Europe because it wouldn't be ruled by them.

Al-Qaeda and Iran could presumably agree that Israel had to go, but then what?  Which would come out on top?

So far, al-Qaeda has failed to ignite a worldwide Muslim revolution to install their new Caliph.  Muslims in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and other countries are rebelling against their leaders.  It remains to be seen how much influence al-Qaeda will have once the dust settles.

The Iranian theocracy thinks that their government is Islamic enough to satisfy Allah and they need no help from al-Qaeda.  Pres. Ahmadinejad's 9-11 denial is an effort to take away al-Qaeda's major claim to fame.  Without 9-11, they've accomplished little for Allah and there's no reason to listen to them.

It's a war for the hearts and minds of the pragmatic, educated Muslims who'd rather get along than become suicide bombers.  Islam may eventually have its Reformation and learn to get along with other groups, but given that it took centuries of war for Catholics and Protestants to learn that, we won't hold our breath.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

From the article: "The Catholics maintained their religious monopoly until the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500's."

How can someone write an article on religious history and show such a fundamental ignorance of the history of religion. I am used to journalists ignoring the Orthodox Church in the US press, but this author answers to a higher standard because he is writing about history. To ignore one third of Christianity and pretend that the schism never happened and there are two groups of Christians in the world, Catholic and Protestant, shows such a level of ignorance that I didn't even read down to the actual subject of the article, Islam.

October 6, 2011 8:55 AM

@Chris Gait

Everyone ignores the Orthodox Church because it's sort of a skim-milk version of both Catholicism and Protestantism. There are minor differences but not enough doctrinal differences to bring converts from the other two. It's mostly a religion of tradition and culture where followers were born into it.

Keep reading. The rest of the article is good.

October 6, 2011 1:28 PM

The author wasn't talking about Orthodox Christianity in America, which is indeed mainly ethnic enclaves of Orthodox Christians (and a growing number of Catholics and Protestants looking for historic Christianity). The author simply acts as if there are two forms of historic Christianity in the world - Catholic and Protestant, and that is simply untrue. As to a lack of doctrinal differences between the three, I would say there are definitely some strong doctrinal differences between all, but Orthodoxy and Catholicism are definitely closer to one another than either one is to Protestantism of any flavor with the possible exception of the Anglicans.

October 7, 2011 4:08 PM

Will was writing in comparison with the Reformation and Renaissance, which were applicable to Western Europe and Western culture. Neither really applied to Orthodoxy, any more than to Buddhism, Confucianism, or for that matter the Nestorian or Coptic Christian churches, all of which existed during the same period of time but weren't particularly relevant to the course of Western history.

However, this wasn't made particularly plain. The article has been edited to clarify the scope more accurately.

October 8, 2011 2:07 PM

Please be advised that the Huguenots were, in fact, heretics. The Christian Church founded by Jesus, with the Apostle Peter, the Rock upon which Jesus built His Church, and the other Apostles, and the disciples, came down through history. The Nicene Creed was the absolute statement of the Faith, with the Church Fathers collating the New Testament, under the successors to St. Peter, the Popes, and the successors to the Apostles, the Metropolitains and bishops, to the present day. The teachings of the Church are what they are. Any contrary teachings are heretical. You might believe that they are better, or in some other way superior; but they are heretical because they contradict the teachings of the Church founded by Christ. The Churches founded by Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or Henry VIII, or John Wesley, or Jan Huss just don't have the same authority in my mind.

October 12, 2011 9:48 PM
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