This is above all a war within Islam: a conflict of Sunni against Shia, but also a war by Sunni extremists against more moderate Muslims—between those who think the Muslim world should be dominated by a single strand of Wahhabism and its extremist offshoot Salafism and those who support a pluralistic vision of Muslim society. The leaders of ISIS seek to eliminate all Muslim and non-Muslim minorities from the Middle East—not only erasing the old borders and states imposed by Western powers, but changing the entire ethnic, tribal, and religious composition of the region.
The primary target are Shias, who are dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, command a strong plurality in Lebanon, and form small minorities in almost every other Arab state. Shia-Sunni tensions have existed since the early days of Islam, but until ISIS, they had never reached the extent that one group is literally trying to exterminate the other. Among the group’s many atrocities, in late October, Human Rights Watch reported that ISIS had executed some 600 Shias during its takeover of Mosul last summer. Even Al-Qaeda’s anti-Shia pogroms in Afghanistan did not go this far.
The fate of other minorities in the region is equally imperiled. Already, the number of Christians in Iraq has dwindled from some one million in 2003 to about 250,000 today; half a million Aramaic-speaking Assyrians have fled, as have thousands of Armenians and Greeks. Syria is in an even worse state, with regular executions of minorities by the Islamic State now taking place amid a war that has already had disastrous consequences for the country’s many minorities.
The ideology that has produced such a perverse interpretation of Islam is Wahhabism—a Sunni sectarian view of Islam that is the official creed of Saudi Arabia and some of the Arabian Gulf states. The eighteenth-century founder of Wahhabi teachings, Muhammed Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791), was neither a jihadist nor a promoter of violence and hatred. He was part of the anti-colonial revivalist movement within Islam at that time and his only abhorrence was Sufism, the mystical side of Islam.
However, as part of its campaign to gain control of the Arabian Peninsula, the Al Saud tribal confederacy adapted Wahhabism to allow for the practice of two extremist ideas. The first is Salafism, which aims at recreating what is believed to be the puritanical Islam of seventh-century Arabia, when the Prophet Mohammed was alive. The second is the practice of Takfir—declaring all Muslims who do not follow the path set by the Salafis to be unbelievers and therefore worthy of having their throats slit.
A corollary to these Salafist ideas is ISIS’s determination to seize territory, carry out conquests, and reshape the Middle East as a single unitary state under a so-called Caliphate. Despite its hatred of Shias, ISIS has until recently largely avoided attacking Syrian government forces, a strategy that has allowed it to capture large amounts of territory already in rebel hands. Unlike Bin Laden and his followers, who worshipped martyrdom as a form of obedience to God, with rewards to be received in heaven, ISIS wants earthly power and possession of territory as well. As I have noted, in this respect ISIS is like the Taliban in Afghanistan, seeking to establish an actual Islamic state that it can govern according to its extremist precepts.