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The Muslim World after 9/11

The Muslim World after 9/11


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The Muslim World after 9/11

Examines the major dynamics that drive changes in the religio-political landscape of the Muslim world, the effects of 9/11, the global war on terrorism, and the war in Iraq, and their implications for global security and U.S. and Western interests.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780833037121
Publisher: RAND Corporation
Publication date: 12/28/2004
Pages: 546
Product dimensions: 6.66(w) x 9.80(h) x 1.47(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Muslim World After 9/11

By Angel Rabasa Cheryl Benard Peter Chalk C. Christine Fair Theodore W. Karasik Rollie Lal Ian O. Lesser David E. Thaler

Rand Corporation

Copyright © 2004 RAND Corporation
All right reserved.

Chapter One

The Middle East: The Cradle of the Muslim World

David Thaler


This chapter assesses the mosaic of Islam in the Middle East. The goals of the chapter are (1) to portray in detail the diversity of Islam in the region, (2) to describe recent trends as they pertain to the development of religious and political Islam and to assess the effect of September 11 on these trends, and (3) to identify challenges and opportunities for U.S. policy, especially in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war.

In the context of this study, the Middle East refers to the predominantly Arab belt of states and territories that extends from Egypt and Sudan in the west to the states of the Arabian Peninsula in the east and Syria and Iraq in the north (see Figure O.3 in the Overview). It contains 15 countries or entities, including the West Bank and Gaza but excluding Turkey and Iran. The people of the region-although largely Arab and Muslim-represent very diverse religious, social, and ethnic backgrounds who have manifested themselves in a variety of ways in modern times, particularly in attitudes toward political Islam.

As the chapter title suggests, the Middle East is Islam's historic heartland, the region in which the ProphetMuhammad preached and from which his teachings spread to distant lands. Islam's holiest sites are found there. The shrines in the cities of Mecca and Medina, located in the Hejaz region of western Arabia, are the most venerated. It is Mecca toward which all Muslims face in prayer, and it is to Mecca that the pious Muslim hopes to conduct the hajj (pilgrimage) at least once in his lifetime. Jerusalem, a city holy to Jews and Christians as well as Muslims, is believed to be the site of Muhammad's ascension to heaven. Other sites in the Middle East are venerated as well; for example, the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala hold great importance in Shi'a theology and tradition.

The dominant language of the Middle East is Arabic. Arabic unifies disparate populations and helps them transcend national borders. It is also the language of the Quran. Arabic is thus more than just a mode of conversational, political, and mercantile discourse like English or French. It contains deeply historic and religious symbolism and has been used very effectively by modern-day religious radicals who seek to influence Arabic-speaking Muslims. Moreover, it has been used as a vehicle for the export of Islamism and Arab culture to non-Arab parts of the Islamic world.

The Middle East is rich in Arab and Muslim tradition. Following the early years of Islam's establishment and rapid expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries, the Middle East became the world's center of science, law, mathematics, and philosophy. This period of relative openness and tolerance occurred under Arab caliphates in Damascus and Baghdad and extended to Muslim-ruled territories as far away as Spain. The period is seen as a golden age in Arab culture, in stark contrast to the stagnation and lack of freedom many average people in the Arab world face in modern times. Arab civilization began a long decline beginning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the people of the region came under the rule of a long line of non-Arab powers. The more recent experience with European colonialism-and the subsequent line of authoritarian Arab regimes after the British and French withdrew from the area-left a deep impression on the Arab psyche. The average Arab citizen in the Middle East has not controlled his or her own destiny for centuries. It is this lack of control, and the feeling of humiliation that has accompanied it, upon which extremist religious elements have fed. In this view, whose best-known proponent is Bernard Lewis, the rise of fundamentalism and extremist political tendencies in Islam can be seen in the context of colonialism and the failure of postindependence Arab regimes to regain the perceived glory of Arab and Muslim civilization.

Along with this historical context, a number of factors have served to help make political Islam-Islamism-a dominant force in the Middle East in the latter half of the twentieth century. These factors, which we discuss below, have been amplified by a series of catalytic events. Although our focus is on developments after September 11, 2001 and the 2003 Iraq war, it is important to identify and analyze the consequences of critical turning points for the Middle East during the second half of the twentieth century. The catalytic events that shaped the political dynamics in the Middle East before September 11 are

the 1967 Six-Day War

burgeoning oil wealth in the Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s

the 1979 Iranian revolution

the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent withdrawal

the 1991 Gulf War.

These events have served to bring underlying conditions and processes to the forefront and in many cases have facilitated the spread of extremism and even violence. The Arab defeat by Israel in 1967 marked the eclipse of Nasserism and pan-Arab socialism and the beginning of a surge in current forms of Islamic extremism. With the rise in oil prices in the 1970s following the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War in 1973, Saudi Arabia was able to fund the spread of its own form of fundamentalism far and wide, while the Iranian revolution and the Soviet presence in Afghanistan accelerated the process of radicalization. The 1991 Gulf War widened the differences between the Saudi establishment and religious extremists and dissidents, largely as a consequence of the establishment of a significant U.S. military presence in the kingdom.

Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while not a catalytic event in our definition of the term, has cast a long shadow over political discourse in the Arab world and U.S. relations with countries in the region. Its intensity has ebbed and flowed over decades, with periods of low-level conflict separating relatively severe clashes. The seeming intractability of the conflict has been a source of frustration for all who desire to see a solution that allows Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace, security, and prosperity. And it has served in the larger Arab world as a catalyst for radicalism -both Islamic and secular-even before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

Although the swift Israeli defeat of the Arab armies in June 1967 deflated the causes of Nasserism and pan-Arabism, the subsequent Israeli presence in previously Arab-held lands-especially East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza-gave impetus to an invigorated Palestinian cause and served as a rallying cry for Arab public opinion. For the Palestinians themselves, the conflict has played a substantive, even existential, role in their daily lives. In the rest of the Arab world, however, the Palestinians' plight has taken on a very different hue. Shibley Telhami has likened the Arab affinity for Palestine to the intense emotional ties Jews have to the State of Israel. As such, many Arabs have visceral reactions to scenes of Palestinian suffering filling their television screens every day. Numerous scholars have noted that Palestine is used as a powerful symbol by states as well as subnational and transnational groups to promote their own agendas, with rhetorical support for the Palestinian people usually more forthcoming than tangible support.

Before discussing the evolution of political Islam and the sources of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East, we first provide some background on the diverse religious, ethnic, and cultural environment of the Middle East. Then we describe the region's Islamic landscape and introduce the factors that have influenced the rise of radical Islamism. Next, we analyze those factors and their effect on the Islamic landscape, including post-September 11, in four key areas: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and the "Ba'ath belt" (Iraq and Syria, with some reference to Syrian-influenced Lebanon). This is followed by a general overview of Arab responses to the September 11 attacks. Finally, we conclude with an assessment of the potential effects of the 2003 Iraq War on Islamism in the Middle East, and what this means for U.S. policy.


Ethnic Arabs constitute the largest segment of the region's population of about 220 million. But one also finds many non-Arab ethnic groups. The Kurds and Turkomans in northern Iraq and eastern Syria; Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Ethiopian Jews in Israel; and Berbers in Egypt all bring vastly different experiences to the area's landscape. Ethnic Arabs are a minority in Sudan. In addition, millions of laborers from South and Southeast Asia live in the Gulf states and work in the oil and gas industries and in service-related sectors. Over five million Pakistanis, Indonesians, Filipinos, and others reside in Saudi Arabia alone, making up over 20 percent of the population. Non-nationals also constitute 35 percent of the population in Bahrain, 55 percent in Kuwait, and around 80 percent in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Despite their common language and heritage, the Arabs of the region are by no means a homogenous group. One can differentiate the Arab people of the area according to religious belief, social status, family or tribal affiliation, and, of course, nationality. These differentiations are critical to understanding the language in which public discourse is couched and the motivations for the policies of governments and agendas of Islamic groups. Table 1.1 depicts the countries of the Middle East along ethnic and religious lines. Religious sects that appear in boldface italics are minorities that rule their respective countries.

The Muslims of the region can be divided into a variety of sects and belief systems. The major schism is between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, and their most profound disagreement centers on the successors to the Prophet Muhammad, whom the Shi'ites believe should have been Muhammad's son-in-law Ali (the fourth caliph), Ali's son Husayn, and his descendants. Sunni Muslims are a majority across the area, although the Shi'ites form a majority in several states (Iraq, Bahrain) and regions (Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, Southern Lebanon). Moreover, smaller offshoots of Sunni and Shi'a Islam thrive in various locales, including Alawis in Syria; Druze in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel; Ismailis in parts of Yemen and Saudi Arabia; and Ibadhis (a majority) in Oman.

Christians make up a sizable minority (30 percent) in Lebanon, where they share power by agreement with representatives of the Sunni and Shi'ite communities; Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian territories also have Christian minorities. In Sudan, where Christians have engaged in armed conflict with the northern Muslims for years, animists constitute 25 percent of the population and Christians, 5 percent.

Social status and geographic distribution can play an important part in the discourse across the region. This is especially the case among Palestinians. One can observe tensions between refugees and nonrefugees, between Palestinians in the territories and those in the diaspora, and even between residents of the West Bank and residents of Gaza.

The importance of clans and tribal affiliations cannot be overestimated; familial ties, in fact, are a key determinant of social status in many locales. They far precede the advent of Islamic fundamentalism and, in many ways, run deeper in the fabric of the Arab world. Clan-based monarchies control government and politics on the Arabian Peninsula. The Al-Saud family rules Saudi Arabia, and members of the royal family occupy key positions in the government and business sectors. Other examples of ruling families can be found in Kuwait (the Al-Sabah clan), Bahrain (Al-Khalifa), Oman (Al-Said), Qatar (Al-Thani), and the UAE (rulers of the seven emirates). Jordan has been ruled by the Hashemite dynasty since 1921, five years before that family's ouster from the Hejaz region (where Mecca and Medina are located) during the Al-Saud ascendancy to power in Arabia.

As was discussed at greater length in the Overview, familial and tribal ties are important in other political frameworks as well. In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein and his most loyal followers hailed from tribes centered in the town of Tikrit, some 90 miles northwest of Baghdad. Families constitute a key ingredient in Palestinian politics. And Bedouins in Jordan have a special status as longtime loyalists and protectors of the Hashemite dynasty; they play a disproportionately large role in elite Jordanian fighting units and in the officer corps. We now describe the landscape of the Middle East in more detail. We begin with a discussion of Islamic tendencies in the region and move on to a general overview of the prevailing conditions and processes that drive more radical tendencies.

The Islamic Landscape in the Middle East

The schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites constitutes the primary cleavage within Islam in the Middle East. Within Sunnism and Shi'ism, there are multiple schools of thought. Sunni schools were introduced in the Overview. The largest group of Shi'ites in the region are known as the Imamis or Ithna Asharis ("Twelvers"), who trace a line of twelve imams beginning with Ali, whom they consider the first. They dominate the Shi'ite populations in Bahrain, southern Iraq, Kuwait, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Branches can also be found among the Shi'ites in Syria and southern Lebanon, where they are called Matawila. A second Shi'ite sect is the Zaydi, who constitute the vast majority of Shi'ites in Yemen. The Ismailis represent a third sect whose adherents live in small numbers in central Syria, western Yemen, and the southern Saudi region of Asir. The differences among these three sects are based on how they trace lines of succession from Ali. Three other Muslim sects of consequence are the Alawis, the Ibadhis, and the Druze. An offshoot of the Twelvers, the Alawis, who rule Syria, are concentrated along that country's western coast in Latakia province. Besides devotion to Shi'ite precepts and the family of Imam Ali, they practice certain rituals of Christian and Zoroastrian origin. The Ibadhis, found today almost exclusively in Oman, originate from the Khawarij sect, a group whose schism with mainstream Islam predates the Sunni-Shi'a break. Historically, the Druze religion is related to Shi'a Islam. The Druze belief system, however, has evolved to the point where the Druze are considered somewhat distinct from Islam. They are known to emphasize moral and social principles and loyalty to the states in which they reside. The largest Druze communities are in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.

Major Islamic Groupings in the Middle East

In the Middle East, one can find examples of all the major categories of Islamic belief. Traditionalists, modernists, mainstream fundamentalists, and radical fundamentalists are represented in some form in all the countries of the region, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, liberal and authoritarian secularists have a long and varied history in the states of the region, particularly since independence. Table 1.2 depicts examples and characteristics of these tendencies.

According to our definition of traditionalism (see Overview), a large part of the Sunni and Shi'a populations of the Middle East could be considered traditionalist. One of the main criteria is overt acceptance of sources of law and custom that are not limited to Salafi interpretations, such as the religious adoption of local customs and the veneration of saints. For example, many Sunnis in the formerly Ottoman-ruled areas who practice Hanafi-based forms of Islam are more likely to be traditionalists. Twelver Shi'ites who worship at the tombs of saints would be included in this group, as would Shi'ite offshoots like the Ismailis.


Excerpted from The Muslim World After 9/11 by Angel Rabasa Cheryl Benard Peter Chalk C. Christine Fair Theodore W. Karasik Rollie Lal Ian O. Lesser David E. Thaler Copyright © 2004 by RAND Corporation. Excerpted by permission.
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