Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Last week we introduced you to a little thing called the Middle East. We looked at how colonialism was the driving force behind the region's development and how this development led to an era of instability. If you haven’t read the first post in this five-part series, check it out here.
Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at Islam and how a few very extreme branches of a peaceful religion emerged during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
But before we get into it, two warnings:
1. First, I’m neither Muslim nor am I from a Muslim-majority country. I've done my best to discuss the Islamic religion in this post, but if there are any glaring issues or cultural misinterpretations, please let me know.
2. Second, this post is what I call information heavy. Usually, I will try to stay away from information-heavy posts. But in order to capture the nuance of such an enormous religion, I think it’s important to be information heavy here.
With that said, let’s get into it.
Abraham and his Religions
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are pretty much the same religion.
Don’t believe me? Let’s check it out.
1. They’re all considered Abrahamic Religions for a reason. All three religions began with the original form of Judaism around 300 BC.
2.They’re all monotheistic religions, meaning they each have one God. (Also, all of their Gods are eerily similar to one another...)
3. They all have very similar Holy Books. Crack open the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Torah and read each book front to back. Go ahead, I’ll wait. They’re very similar, right?
Better yet, here’s a timeline to make it little easier for you:
See, I wasn't lying! The first mention of the word "Israel" was around 1,200 BC. Judaism was thought to have formed about 1,000 years after that. Then, Christianity branched off right after the Roman Empire began. Finally, Islam emerged about 600 years after that.
And here’s my favorite part about all of this. These religions didn’t STOP branching off from each other. Much like evolution, religion continues to branch and change and will continue to branch and change in order to fit the standards and beliefs of our society.
Let's look at Christianity for example:
The best part is that Judaism and Islam aren’t any different in this regard. They’ve both got a ton of branches in their respective religions too.
Let’s look at Islam.
Keep this visual in mind. This is what we’ll be talking about today.
Islamism and the Square-Rectangle Rule
There are two big groups that emerge from Islam: Sunni and Shi’ah. For all intents and purposes, I’d compare this to the Catholicism/Protestantism divide in the United States.
Here’s a breakdown of religion in the United States:
It doesn't matter which color represents which branch of Christianity. That's not really the point.
Now here’s a breakdown of Islam in the East:
Again, the color representation doesn't matter.
Here's my point: The division of religion in these two images is very similar.
Different religions form based upon geography, social pressures, political climate, etc. It happens everywhere.
And with Islam, you've got many different beliefs even within the same religion. Some of these different beliefs that emerge are ultraconservative movements, which came to be known as Islamism (not to be confused with Islam).
Confusing, I know. I don't know why they named it this. I don't make the rules.
These are the branches of Islam that are considered to be part of Islamism.
Unfortunately, when an American hears about the Middle East and Islam on the news, it’s usually in regard to Islamism (remember, not Islam).
It’s important to separate Islam and Islamism. You can remember this difference by using the Square-Rectangle rule from Geometry.
Or worded another way….
But what do Islamists (remember, not Islam) and ultraconservatives believe?
Generally speaking, they believe Western influence (European and American) is destroying the world. As a response, Islamists call for the creation of a strict Islamic society (similar to the Ottoman Empire) that follows a strict interpretation of something known as Sharia Law.
Sharia Law is a structure of law that was put into place with the creation of Islam. Think of it as the Islamic version of Christianity’s Ten Commandments or a religious version of the United States’ Bill of Rights. (This isn’t entirely accurate, but you get the idea.)
Islamists (remember, not Islam) believe that Sharia Law is the proper mechanism for guiding life, government, and society. Islamists take a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and of Sharia Law, much like Fundamentalist Christians do with the Bible.
What emerges from Islamism is a bunch of groups that gained popularity in the early 20th century as a response to colonialism, Western culture, and an unstable life.
One of the branches that emerges from Islamism is known as the Salafi movement.
A Closer Look at the Salafi Movement
Let’s look at that tree of Islam again.
Let's get closer:
A little closer...
Okay, good! Stop here. This is the Salafi movement.
The Salafi movement is an ultraconservative and extreme form of Islam, and while it is not an inherently violent form of Islam, the views it espouses lends itself well to violence and terrorism.
Why? Because Salafi adherents believe Islam is a zero-sum game, meaning that Islam either wins or loses. Their goal is to stop the flow of Western influence and to spread Islam around the world.
See? Not inherently violent. But you could probably understand how a movement like this could eventually become violent.
And you guessed it, the Salafi movement eventually became violent.
This violent group of Salafism came to be known as the jihadist movement, or Salafi-Jihadism.
Side note: While the word Jihad is associated with ultra-violence in the West, the original term wasn't. Jihad is defined as “a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam”.
Now let's take a little trip in our time machine and go back to the early 20th century where Salafi-Jihadism began.
A History Lesson
Remember, the Middle East is in full recovery mode. Colonialism is ending, the Ottoman Empire has collapsed, and new governments and countries are springing up everywhere. The West is sticking their nose in everyone’s business. New ideas are spreading faster than you can believe. Governments are pretty unstable with ideas clashing and joining together and splitting apart and joining together again. There are groups forming that support the government. There are groups forming that don’t support the government.
Hell, just look at how many new countries/governments were created since 1920.
To make matters worse, these newly independent governments and countries weren't technically 100% independent. Many of the countries still had European soldiers all over them, telling them what to do and, in some cases, running their governments.
With that said, let's hop out of our time machine and check out the birth of the Salafi-Jihadist movement.
It all began in Egypt in the early 20th century with a little-known group called the Muslim Brotherhood. And just like your favorite hipster band before they sold out and went mainstream, the Muslim Brotherhood began to pick up steam in small social circles through word of mouth. From there, they quickly gained influence and a cult following.
Side note: the formation and growth of the Muslim Brotherhood is actually a very interesting story about a guy who went to college in the United States, loved Hollywood movies, and then started one of the deadliest movements known to man. I suggest you check it out.
At some point, the Muslim Brotherhood turned to violence and Salafi-Jihadism.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, "Yeah, okay. I understand there might have been outside pressure, but violence doesn't just happen. There must have been some defining event that pushed people to violence."
Well, you're right, there was a defining event!
And that defining event was known as the Six-Day War.
The Six-Day War was a war fought between Israel and a bunch of Muslim-majority countries, and it lasted for...
You guessed it! Six days.
Now, let’s take a little detour to a place named Israel and learn about this so-called defining event.
A Little Detour to a Place named Israel
Summary time: Israel was established by the UN in 1947 as an independent Jewish state. It’s basically the only Jewish country in the Middle East.
I think you could guess how tensions might form if a Jewish-majority country was placed right in the middle of Muslim territory.
With help from the UN and the United States, Israel quickly established itself as a dominant military and economic force in the region. Needless to say, the surrounding Muslim-majority countries weren’t exactly thrilled about this development.
Tensions rose between Israel and the rest of the Middle East over the years, and after a period of particularly high tension where Egypt blockaded Israel shipping routes, Israel undertook a preemptive strike on Egypt by decimating its air-force...in about two-hours' time.
Other Muslim countries joined in to help Egypt and they got decimated too.
This defeat had an ENORMOUS effect on the Middle East and is one of the core reasons the Brotherhood’s ideologies became mainstream and violent.
Violence is the Answer
You see, when a bunch of Muslim-majority countries get their butts handed to them in six days, it tends to have an effect on the people from those countries. And remember when we said that Salafi-Jihadists believe in a zero-sum game where Islam either wins or loses?
Well they were just defeated by an opposing religion, and in their minds, they're losing.
And when people lose, they start to blame things. They blame Western influence. They blame their government for becoming secular (nonreligious). They blame other Muslims who aren't doing enough to spread Islam and stop the spread of Western influence. Then this blame turns to anger.
And these angry people get together and make a plan. They decide to strike back at the West for creating Israel and for non-Islamic views. They decide to strike back at their own governments for doing so little to stop the spread of Western Influence and for allowing a secular set of laws to govern. And they decide to strike back at their own people who allowed all of this to happen in the first place.
Violence was the answer because it could have a large impact. That's all there is to it. It's easy for a small group of people to do, but it can have an enormous payoff. And these people have nothing to lose. Because in their eyes, they've already lost.
The Muslim Brotherhood felt that they were in this position. So, they turned to Salafi-Jihadism and began an era of violence and terrorism that became bigger than anyone could have predicted.
It became bigger than the Muslim Brotherhood.
It became bigger than Israel.
And it became bigger than Egypt.
It was the perfect storm.
This era, begun by the Muslim Brotherhood, ignited a lifestyle that would come to define the Middle East and the news around the world for the next fifty years.
Just Some Perspective
Just to put this all in perspective for you: The Muslim Brotherhood was a group within Salafi-Jihadism, which is part of Salafism, which is a sub-category of Islamism and a branch of Hanbali, which is a branch of the Sunni Islam, which is a sect of Islam.
So, what's the moral here? The moral is that it doesn't take very many people to create a violent movement. All it takes is the right recipe and a big enough population for sheer probability to take over. However, once a violent movement is created, influence can play a powerful role in spreading these dangerous and violent ideas.
And spread they did, right next door into Saudi Arabia.
Some Closing Thoughts
The religion of Islam has never been the problem. The problem has always been the external pressures exerted on these particular people at this particular point in time. It could have happened to anyone at any time.
The human condition is like a recipe from a cookbook: if you follow the directions for baking a cake, don't be surprised when you pull a cake out of the oven.
I want you to consider a couple of thoughts before we part:
1. Consider how influence spreads within your friend group. It happens one person at a time and one decision at a time, whether you're convincing your friend to watch a specific movie or to try a certain food. Now think about this same thing happening in an unstable country. Can you picture how these religious movements could spread one person at a time and one decision at a time?
2. Now, think about the many different social groups you're a part of. You probably have co-workers, family, friends. You may even have multiple groups of friends. You probably also talk about different things with each separate social group you're a part of. Here’s the thing: EVERYONE on the planet has multiple social groups. Can you imagine how one or two of these social groups might become violent in some way given the right external pressures at the right time?
Until Next Time...
In our next post on the Middle East we’ll look at the rise of Saudi Arabia and how it became a regional power in the span of about five years (hint: it was the oil). We’ll also look at the role the Cold War played in escalating tensions in the Middle East.
But before we talk about that, we'll be taking a little detour for our next post.
Our next post will cover that juicy subject called Globalization. We’ll explore how globalization developed after WWII and why so many people around the world (including Trump) seem to hate it these days.
See you in two weeks!