There is a structural weakness in Sunni Islam. Unlike Shia, Sunnis have no real hierarchy capable of ruling on doctrine. With five different schools of religious jurisprudence, there is no licensed clergy as such. Become a Sunni, open a tiny mosque, declare yourself to be a mullah, and your authority is whatever other Sunnis accord you.
By the 18th Century, the non-Arab Ottoman Turks had long controlled North Africa and the Middle East, apart from Iran, including Islam’s holy cities in modern day Saudi Arabia, the rest of which resembled a vast cat-box occupied by bickering Arab tribes. Into this mess came Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahab (1703-1792), who preached fire and brimstone, denouncing purported modern heresies, demanding a return to what he saw as the earliest Islamic practices to purge Islam of all its heresies and idolatries. Making a pact with one of the many chieftains, Muhammad bin Saud, they vanquished their neighbors and formed the first Saudi state. Since that time, these two families have governed in tandem; with Wahab’s descendants controlling the clergy and the Saud monarchs ruling the state.
By 1972 and the founding of OPEC as an oil producer cartel, Saudi Arabia was awash in money. As the extended royal family, the Saud monarchs, grew ever more decadent, the Wahabis (aka, the Salafis or Ikhwanis), remained puritanical spreading their influence by means of a cultural revolution throughout the Muslim world, a revolution based on Wahhab’s Jacobin-like hatred for the putrescence and deviationism that he perceived all about him. While Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States use Wahabism as religious colonialism, across the Muslim world some followers resented the long decline of Islam’s culture and power, the perceived Western interference (America) and the surge of materialistic values.
Long before ISIS, Wahabism attracted Muslims who saw nowhere to turn after feeling betrayed by the materialistic state-capitalism whose moderate clergy offered neither inspiration nor leadership. Where Western-style reforms failed to take root, under which freedom of religion would have proved sufficient for most, radicalism found a home. Now even China’s Ulghur minority, in touch with radicalized Muslim cousins in Central Asia, trade peaceful nationalist protests for Wahabi terrorism.
But one cannot understand current Middle Eastern affairs while ignoring the bifurcation that split Wahabism. While there were a few Wahabis content with the status quo, the most fundamentalist of the group wanted to overthrow the current Saudi rulers. What was the difference they asked between a debauched Saudi royal and a virtually identical Western unbeliever? Al-Qaeda was the first to break the ice by objecting to the Saudi government while limiting violence to the Saud’s allies, namely America. Egypt’s Wahabist Muslim Brotherhood lost Saudi support to Cairo’s military dictators because while the Saudis liked the Brotherhood’s fundamentalism, they could not abide their disloyalty to the throne.
ISIS now comes on the scene, eclipsing al-Qaeda in money, guns, members and enthusiasm. They are the Turbo-Wahabis with extra sales appeal and they want the heads of the Saudi rulers on platters. Declaring a transnational “caliphate,” they intentionally remind Arab Muslims of their glorious empires of old while shaming them for what they have become. While much of their ideology runs contrary to Sunni Islam, they instead offer something for everyone with an axe to grind, a group for those who do not mind a little crucifixion or beheading.
Where al-Qaeda launched occasional suicide bombers against Shia heretics, ISIS slaughters them wholesale. They hand out enslaved non-Muslim women to their teenage fighters, trophies forbidden to their prophet’s armies. In intentionally grisly ways they put even their fellow Sunni critics to death and murder what the Koran calls the “People of the Book,” non-Muslim monotheists, who Muslims are obliged to respect. They destroy the tombs and shrines of Muslim saints.
ISIS did not learn its savagery from Muslim history, they learnt it from studying the psychology of modern media. Beatings crowd out sermons, beheadings top beatings, crucifixions beat beheadings, while free slave-girls and complementary rocket launchers attract teenage thugs. It is scary, it is visual, the medium is the message.
Today, Wahabis comprise almost a quarter of all Saudi subjects, and just under half in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Up to half of the Saudis are said to cheer for ISIS, against their own rulers and many have fat check-books which is why the ruling family refuses to send its armies against the warrior thugs.
ISIS has said virtually nothing about Israel or the Palestinians because their fight is about who runs Sunni Islam, to which the Palestinian issue is irrelevant. This is why Iran remains involved but not immensely so. The Turks hope that ISIS finishes off the Kurds whose terrorists murder Turks. Qatar, the Emirates and elsewhere nearby, often scared of their own oppressed Shia minorities, only cheer on Sunni ISIS.
ISIS has recruited an army hundreds of thousands strong, far larger than estimated by the CIA, according to a senior Kurdish leader, Fuad Hussein, chief of staff of the Kurdish President Barzani. He estimates that ISIS rules a third of Iraq and a third of Syria with a population of between 10 and 12 million living in an area of 250,000 square kilometers, the same size of Great Britain, giving the jihadis a large pool of potential new recruits. In an impoverished region with few jobs, ISIS pay of $400 a month is attractive. “They will fight until death, and are dangerous because they are so well-trained.”
As well as terrifying their opponents by publicizing their own atrocities, ISIS has developed an effective cocktail of tactics that include suicide bombers, mines, snipers and the use of US equipment captured from the Iraqi army. Moreover in places they have conquered, they are remodeling society in its own image, aiming to educate people into accepting ISIS ideology.
Source: The Roots of ISIS by Stephen Masty, the Imaginative Conservative. You can read the essary in full at this link.