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The second political path taken after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was inspired by Wahabism, which aims to uproot and expel the interests and influence of “infidels” in Muslim lands. Many of the muftis and mullahs (and even Shi’a ayatollahs) – all former state functionaries who originally embraced European innovations in commerce, technology, education and government – turned against what they (often rightly) perceived as neocolonial attempts to dominate implementation of those innovations in Islamic lands for mostly European, rather than Arab or Muslim, benefit. They rejected the “trickle-down” theory of modernization.

In 1928 Egypt’s Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Musulmiyah). Through extensive charitable and educational operations, it sought to enroll people into a major political opposition group. With strong ties to Wahabism but also to Sufi mysticism, the Brotherhood campaigned against political and social injustice and British imperial rule, while painting a picture of Islam that restored the broken links of tradition by connecting them to modernity. By the end of the 1940s, the Brotherhood numbered one million members. It flexibly organized itself into paramilitary cells that could hide and disperse when stronger forces prevailed, but which could unite when conditions permitted political opposition. The cell structure itself was thoroughly modern, inspired by the success of fascist and communist cell organizations in Europe. This enabled the Brotherhood to survive the assassination of its founder and to spread throughout the Middle East and beyond. It still commands large and even growing support (judging from recent elections in Egypt) despite numerous crackdowns over the years by various Middle Eastern governments. The Palestinian Hamas is basically a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, formed by joining part of the Jordanian Brotherhood (in the West Bank) with part of the Egyptian Brotherhood (in Gaza) after these parts had become separated from their parent organizations by the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War.

A “purist” (salafi) extension of this second path to Muslim power, more virulent and violent, categorically rejects the Brotherhood’s willingness to compromise with other political organizations and the state. The mission of the friends and admirers of Al Qaeda is to usher in universal justice by purging Muslim society of “deviant and impure” elements, such as Shi’ism and Sufism, which had supposedly violated the spirit and letter of the sacred texts (sunna) and helped to bring ruination to Islamic Arab civilization. But to accomplish this task against “the near enemy” within, the Islamic community must first fight “the far enemy,&rduo; who gives life support to corrupt governments that continue to crush the aspirations of all pure Muslims and prevent others from finding the true and righteous path. This far enemy, primarily the United States and its allies, are the “New Mongols.” Most people in the Middle East and the larger Muslim world reject this most radical and violent political path. But its rise on the world scene will likely continue to strongly influence hearts and minds and events for some time to come.

Scott Atran is an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who writes about political conflict and violence. This excerpt comes from his book, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to Be Human(HarperCollins), in which Atran asserts that “people don’t simply kill for a cause,” but rather, “they kill for each other.”

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