(This commentary was written with Irfan Al-Alawi, International Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.)
The November 13 terrorist assault on Paris, which left at least 129 dead and 451 injured, has had a similar aftermath as its predecessors. The September 11, 2001 attack on New York and Washington, the March 11, 2004 bombing of the Madrid metro system, the London Underground bombings of July 7 and July 21, 2005 - were all carried out by members of Al-Qaida or their sympathizers. The Mumbai terror onslaught of November 25-29, 2008 was committed by the Pakistan-based ally of Al-Qaida, Lashkar e-Taiba. Sundry episodes of homicide and destruction have been perpetrated by radical Muslims across the Middle East and in the West during the past 14 years.
Responsibility for the latest Paris outrage, following the mass murder at the office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January of this year, may be laid to the cadres of the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS), directing the bloodthirsty operations from their headquarters in Syria. The November 13 offensive against the peaceful daily lives of Parisians was coordinated on the ground, apparently, by ISIS militants in Belgium and France.
So far, little has changed in the profile of intimidation aimed by groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS against the West, against India, and against Muslims Al-Qaida and ISIS condemn as apostates. The fanatics desire to wipe out all moderate, traditional, spiritual, conventional, and even conservative - but not radical - Sunnis, as well as Shias and heterodox Islamic sects. While atrocities in the non-Muslim lands attract global media attention, sympathy, and defiance, terrorism in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is relegated to the bottom of news reporting.
Following the Parisian carnage, Western politicians and media had recourse to common themes of the present time. The recruitment of Belgian and French radical Muslims who come from a North African background served to emphasize arguments that "home-grown" terrorism - meaning that committed by one's neighbors - is a product of economic and social marginalization. The role of ideological preaching from afar is played down. One may ask legitimately how a person who has gone to Syria or Iraq to fight and then returns to Europe is a "home-grown" terrorist.
Even with so many years gone by since 2001, other questions are asked repetitively when these episodes take place. Why is there no efficient method for identification and tracking of extremists? What effective response will take place? France, as the current front-line state, has committed to a serious military response to ISIS, with air bombing of the ISIS "capital" in Raqqa, Syria. The U.S. supports action against ISIS but has drawn back from a new campaign by American troops, aside from a small detachment of Special Forces training Syrian opposition fighters.
The West has yet to understand the doctrine impelling both Al-Qaida and ISIS. Neither are animated by a classical Islamic religious vision, but by a fundamentalist and puristic power ideology - Wahhabism - which appeared in Arabia only 250 years ago. Al-Qaida represented a Wahhabism resentful of Saudi and other Muslim lands' cooperation with the West. ISIS has put forward an ultra-Wahhabism fed by rage at the repression of the Sunni majority in Syria following "Arab Spring" demonstrations in the country, beginning in 2011. The Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad rests on an Islamized sect, the "Alawites," who claim to be Shia Muslims, but whose beliefs and practices are far from Islam as it is known historically.
More questions that were raised after September 11, 2001 remain unresolved: first, how far is Saudi Arabia willing to go to disestablish the Wahhabi sect, which enjoys a monopoly on religious life in the kingdom? The Saudis had spent time and money, beginning in the 1960s, spreading Wahhabism across the Muslim world and within Muslim communities in the West. After 9-11, that campaign decreased, and it was further restrained by the late, reformist King Abdullah, who died in January 2015 and was succeeded by King Salman.
Ultra-Wahhabi preachers in the Muslim lands and the West appear to have seized on the tragedy in Syria to reinforce their essential message: that Islam is in danger and may only be protected by jihad. On November 15, the distinguished Saudi journalist Khaled Al-Maeena wrote in The Saudi Gazette, of which he is Editor-At-Large, that offices in the kingdom for Islamic outreach and religious advice should be monitored to limit radicalism.
Al-Maeena stated "After several complaints concerning administration and finance and several other irregularities, some offices of dawah (the act of preaching Islam) and irshad (guidance) have been closed... A number of recommendations have been made, including the ending of both the collection of funds and the opening of extra offices in residential and commercial areas. The public strongly supports this move. I think that putting such offices on a tight leash is very important. Nobody knows what is going on inside such places and who the people are who are teaching new converts about Islam. In this age of extremism and terrorism, we have to be extremely cautious."
During the G-20 summit of leaders from the world's richest economies, held in Antalya, Turkey, on November 15-16, the Paris bloodshed hung over the proceedings. But one especially disturbing aspect of the G-20 parley was the announcement by Vladimir Putin of an alliance between Russia, which backs the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad, and France. As the London Financial Times put it on November 18, Putin "ordered Russia's armed forces to co-ordinate with the French military as 'allies' on a joint action plan in Syria."
Russia shields Al-Assad, and although claiming to bomb ISIS, Moscow's jets have targeted moderate opponents of the Al-Assad regime. Acceptance of Putin's strategy is being pressed to other members of the worldwide anti-ISIS coalition.
The rise of ISIS may be blamed on the regime of Al-Assad and its brutal response to civil protests in Syria. Neither Al-Assad nor ISIS can be supported by the Western democracies, which should avoid involvement with Russian intrigues in Syria - except to warn Putin of the consequences of military interference with Western anti-ISIS forces.