To Better Fight ISIS, Take the Battle to Its Conspiracy Theories

Hassan Hassan

The Middle East can claim a measure of victory against radical extremism in this new year, as ISIS is vanquished in Syria and Iraq and as Al Qaeda is plunged into internecine conflict. But one thing we have learned from the 16 years thus far of the global campaign against terrorism, is that it is never prudent to anticipate victory in war. Jihadis have overcome near-defeats before; Al Qaeda is more potent than it was at the turn of the century; and other, lesser-known groups wait in the wings. The conditions that fuel extremism remain intact. Nevertheless, we can begin to discern some initiatives that dare to confront the enabling conditions of violent extremism. While it would be tempting hubris to say we are at the beginning of the end, we can at least see an emerging appreciation of one needful prescription: ending politicized sectarianism.

There is, in fact, no bigger enabler of violent extremism than political sectarianism. Sectarian ideologies, for example, have always been central to ISIS’s strategy. Thus, a fully considered approach to banishing this to the furthest reaches possible, would inflict the most damage to the cult of extremism. Fresh evidence of this new strategy comes from Saudi Arabia, where disciples of at least one Islamist demagogue – who counted among his followers the founder of ISIS in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – have come under strict restrictions and more.

To begin, some history. Despite the raw display of sectarian friction in the region, it is often misunderstood as a historical phenomenon; that it has always been so. The truth is, it is not, and has not. Political sectarianism, in fact, is of recent vintage. While today’s sectarian conflicts are based on interpretations of historical texts and events from long-ago history, the phenomenon itself as a political movement is a modern invention of misery.

In this context, perhaps one of the most dangerous manifestation is the idea that the Shiite sect today is intended as a means toward reviving an ancient imperial Persia. It is an ideological perversion meant to set Shiites and Sunnis – and Iranians and Arabs – against each other, benefiting none except those who peddle this dangerous falsehood.

The story begins in the 1980s. The main protagonist of this “racist sectarianism” is one Muhammad Surur, an Islamist theoretician from Syria who died in 2016. In 1981, Surur published a book entitled “The Time of the Magians has Come.” By “Magians,” Surur meant those of the Zoroastrian religion in pre-Islamic Persia, which he argued had returned in the form of the followers of the present-day Shiite sect. While the book eventually became reference material for both violent and non-violent extremists, Surur ideas struggled for traction in the early years. In television interviews, he claimed that Islamists and young people across the region had been so taken by the Iranian Revolution that they rejected his message.

But if so, that didn’t last long. His book eventually sold more than 100,000 copies – a massive number by Arabic publishing standards – as the initial euphoria over the Islamic Revolution faded. Untold more copies were pirated. The book even received semi-official endorsement in several Arab countries, as governments sought to contain revolutionary fervor to the northern shores of the Arabian Gulf.

The book’s core idea is that a large number of Shiites in the region are secret Zoroastrians who want to revive the legacy of pre-Islamic Persia. In the book’s introduction, Surur mentioned a trip to Morocco after the Iranian Revolution. During his sojourn there, he gave sermons to young Moroccans keen to hear his opinion of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. “Before I start my answers, I would glance at the faces of the young people that were glowing with optimism and confidence about the future of the Khomeini revolution and of the Arab revolutions that could follow it,” he wrote. “My answers would include a survey of Khomeini’s books and ideas, which were no different from those of his ancestors, the Shia Safavids [a dynasty in 16th-century Iran], the Buyids [in 10th-century Iraq] and the Sabaeans [an ancient Middle Eastern religion].”

The Shiite sect, in his view, is linked to a grand strategy by Iranians to reclaim the empire they lost at the hands of Muslims, even if under a new, Muslim “brand.” The same argument was advanced by Al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS in Iraq, to justify his group’s targeting of ordinary Shiites and their mosques in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.

Surur was one of the pillars of the Islamic Awakening, a revolutionary movement that emerged in the Gulf in the 1970s and reached its high point in the 1990s. The movement involved a marriage between fundamentalist and traditional principles derived from Salafism and the revolutionary and activist legacy of political Islam. The result was a movement that politicized Salafism and produced ideas that spawned groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, and more generally the so-called Salafi jihadis. As an architect of the Awakening, Surur even had a movement named after him, Sururiyah, which claims a following among Gulf religious activists. Much of the religious extremism and sectarianism widespread in the region today can be traced to the Awakening, which continues to influence activists committed to a narrow worldview of how Muslims should live.

But the good news is that the heat has been turned up against such enablers of extremism. In this context, it is useful to understand the influence of Muhammad Surur, given that his ideological legacy now is under a systematic and an unprecedented attack in Saudi Arabia and beyond. Two dozen Awakening activists were recently arrested by Saudi Arabia. And Muhammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince, recently mentioned the movement by name as a target of reforms. Speaking of group, he said: “In all honesty, we will not spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and immediately.”

Unequivocal condemnation of extremism is what the region needs to stem the tide of hatred spewed in the name of religion. And understanding exactly how it all began might improve the odds for more enduring gains. So maybe, it just might be possible to discern a horizon without ISIS or Al Qaeda.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow in Washington at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, where he focuses on militant Islam, Syria, Iraq, and the Arab Gulf states. He is the co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” Hassan can be followed on Twitter @hxhassan.