The question of how to understand the Muslim world is taking on greater importance at the national, social and individual levels. The terrorist attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the militant group's apparent murder of two Japanese hostages have fueled a sense of urgency for finding answers.
The vast majority of Muslims are no different from other people, religious believers and nonbelievers alike. They are peace-loving, law-abiding citizens. But some Muslims do embrace a particular interpretation of the political and military norms contained in the teachings of Islam -- one they feel compelled to realize, if necessary, by force in the name of jihad.
Islamic law governs not only the inner thoughts of Muslims but also the external realm. It covers political power, stipulating a domestic and international order based on the hierarchy of different religious groups. This harks back to the social and political conditions of the period when the religion was founded and developed -- roughly between the seventh and 12th centuries.
Accounts of how Muslims conquered adherents of polytheist religions on the Arabian Peninsula and brought Christians and Jews to heel, mainly through negotiations, are given in the Koran and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. These were developed into a legal code for ruling other ethnic and religious groups in the process of Muslim empire-building.
Origins of the conflict
The political and military norms in this code subsequently lost much of their substance as rulers began to interpret them liberally. From the second half of the 20th century, however, there was a growing trend among Muslim nations that had once adopted international law and attitudes toward human rights to try to repudiate these largely Western standards. Instead, they sought to put Islamic law into practice.
Jihadis, meanwhile, gained influence. They maintain that it is the duty of Muslims to carry out an armed struggle as a means of abolishing a status quo they deem legally illegitimate. According to a commonly held interpretation, non-Muslims who refuse to surrender to Islamic rule are subject to jihad.
Initially, the jihadis went after the "illegitimate rulers" of Muslim countries for shirking their obligation to organize and lead the battle. Suppressed by the force of arms, the jihadis then headed abroad: They built a coalition of militias against the Soviet Union after it invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
When the Soviets withdrew, the fighters lost their unified purpose. Some resumed campaigns against their home governments; others took part in the Bosnian war and other conflicts involving Muslims in the 1990s.
Many of these scattered warriors gravitated toward Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. The group was determined to fight the "new world order" that the U.S. and its allies had been shaping after their victory in the Gulf War. In 2001, al-Qaida gained infamy by carrying out the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, America's economic and political bastions.
That provoked the U.S. to launch its "war on terror," destroying al-Qaida strongholds and detaining the group's members. Forced into hiding, al-Qaida adherents resorted to propagating their ideas rather than expanding the organization. Leaders, including bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, stirred global unrest by sending messages and videos to their sympathizers online.
Affiliates and like-minded groups sprouted up, creating an array of radical "brands." Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, is linked to close aides of bin Laden. Al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State group's forerunner, was brought together by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is another affiliate. Groups that simply have an affinity for al-Qaida's ideas include al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Although al-Qaida's own influence and prestige have waned, its philosophy of global jihad remains compelling for some Muslims. Several groups style themselves under the name Ansar al-Sharia, or the guardians of Islamic law.
Forming large armed groups in the developed world, however, is unfeasible, as the police would quickly zero in on them. Instead, the strategy is to encourage the formation of numerous, isolated units and have them mount "lone wolf" attacks against symbolic Western targets.
Two types of jihad
Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, an ideologue who theorized this organizational shift among radicals, called small and spontaneous terrorist attacks in developed countries "individual jihads." Large organizations of armed jihadis, meanwhile, wage war on the "open battlefront."
Today, small groups disconnected from al-Qaida's core chain of command have begun to spearhead the global jihad. At the same time, the Islamic State group has found its open front in Iraq and Syria.
Following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, al-Qaida in Iraq staged an armed insurgency against U.S. troops, the new Iraqi government and Shiite Muslims in Sunni-controlled areas in the west and north of the country. U.S.-led strikes dealt the group serious blows, but it recovered once the Americans left.
In Syria, the government's instability after the Arab Spring protests of 2011 gave the nascent Islamic State group a sanctuary. From there, it made successful incursions into Iraq -- it captured Mosul, the country's second-largest city, last June. It also conquered Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in Syria, gaining control of wide, border-straddling swaths of territory.
Now that a large jihadi organization has established itself in Iraq and Syria, it is attracting combatants from across the globe. They come for training and take part in actual fighting before returning to their home countries -- where they can potentially launch individual attacks. The killings at Charlie Hebdo are a case in point: The assault, advocated by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula via the Internet, was carried out by "veterans" who were trained in Yemen.
In this way, individual jihads and open battlefronts are complementary, amplifying the menace of terrorism.
The influence of jihadis is not bound by geography. Once some people call themselves jihadis, their area becomes a stage for the fight. In the Libyan city of Derna, a powerful armed group declared itself part of the Islamic State. Boko Haram in Nigeria has pledged support for the group. Some elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan want to reorganize themselves under the Islamic State banner.
These factions have no significant geographic or organizational ties but are united by ideology.
While it is possible to thwart the territorial expansion of the Islamic State group through airstrikes and other military means, no force can prevent the proliferation of its ideas. Bands of would-be jihadis far away from Iraq and Syria could announce that they, too, belong to the Islamic State. The world could end up with numerous pockets controlled by groups sympathetic to the cause.
Satoshi Ikeuchi is an associate professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert in Islamic political thought.