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Barcelona: Islam is at war with itself and the West isn't helping

Bryan Dean Wright

Following more terrorist attacks  in Europe – this time in the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Cambrils – the world’s leaders are once again expressing their outrage at jihadist terror.

Missing from these statements, however, is the fiery resolve of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s condemnation made last June after her nation was assaulted on the streets of London.

“The recent attacks,” she explained, “are connected … by the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism that preaches hatred, sows division and promotes sectarianism.”

It’s possible that frank assessments like this will still come in the days ahead. As a former CIA officer, I certainly hope so. Prime Minister May was in fact on to something critical.

Islam is at war with itself and the West isn’t helping. Here’s why:

Reflect for a moment on the attacks in America and Europe over the past 20 years. New York. Washington. Boston. Fort Hood. Paris. Brussels. Madrid. London.

And now Barcelona.

What do these attacks have in common? All were inspired by the teachings of Salafi Islam.

Many Americans will be puzzled by the word “Salafi.” And that’s precisely the problem.

Let’s start with the basics. Islam is a religion comprised of different types of believers who largely fall into two branches: Sunni and Shia. In very rough terms, it’s like the split between Protestants and Catholics, each with important doctrinal differences.

Most Muslims around the world are Sunni, while the Shia are fewer in number and predominantly live in Iran.

Within Sunni Islam, there are dozens of different types of sects with distinct beliefs. The vast majority are moderate and want to live in peace. Indeed, they’re willing and eager to live amongst diverse groups of people, including Christians and atheists. 

Not the Salafi sect, however. These Sunni Muslims follow an ultra-conservative set of beliefs that originated in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations. Salafis reject a separation of mosque and state, believing that governments should be made up of religious clerics — and only clerics — that use the Quran to justify their governing decisions.

Their world is a very dark and dangerous place. Women face many restrictions on what they can do, where they can go and what they can wear. Dancing, music and other forms of art are banned. The penalty for being gay can be death.

Democracy? Totally unacceptable.

It is this ideology that forms the backbone of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups.

Sadly, the world’s political leaders have let Salafis take advantage of our open, liberal societies by allowing the operation of Salafi mosques and madrassas (religious schools). From Bangladesh to Los Angeles, Salafis spread their violent beliefs shielded by the constitutional guarantees of free speech and religious liberty.

This radical ideology is the dirty little secret in our war on terror. Most politicians don’t want you to understand it. Why? If you did, the implications would be profound.

A religion in crisis: First, we would stop saying, “Islam is a religion of peace,” and instead say, “Islam is a religion in crisis.” Our politicians would make it clear that our fight is against a religious ideology rather than a random group of fanatics.

Accordingly, the people and governments who embrace and spread Salafi Islam would be labeled enemies of the state.

Meanwhile, our Departments of State and Homeland Security would support the moderate, non-Salafi Muslims who are battling the extremist agenda. This includes collaborating with reformist academics, clerics, women’s rights activists, and others who understand the importance of separating mosque and state.

For older Americans who remember the Cold War, our approach would resemble the fight against the Communist ideology.

Rewrite the ban: Next, President Trump would fundamentally change his travel ban. As of now, the president is focused on six Muslim nations. But the truth is that the Salafi ideology reaches every continent, every country, and every city. In Germany, for instance, they number nearly 10,000 strong.

Additionally, the administration would acknowledge that the Salafi sect is in the United States too, some as citizens. The FBI would work more closely with local law enforcement to prioritize the monitoring of these individuals and the mosques that indoctrinate them. Where laws need adjusting to allow for it, Congress would move quickly.

Self-inflicted wounds: Third, we’d recognize that some of our foreign policy decisions are working against us. From our war in Iraq to our efforts in Libya, it is we who have helped spread the virus of radical Islam. Recent case in point: we have provided money and military weaponry to Salafi Islamist rebels in Syria.

The Saudis and Gulf Arabs: Finally, we would publically address the role that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations have played in sponsoring and spreading Salafi Islam. Ever since 15 Saudis launched attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, America’s politicians have made half-hearted demands of the kingdom to do something about their terror ideology.

Almost 16 years later, very little has changed. Saudi Arabia still operates terror mosques and madrassas around the globe, focusing on nations like Kosovo and Albania that are too weak to fight back.

Meanwhile, even President Trump has faltered on taking a strong stance against the Saudis. Indeed, he spent his first overseas trip offering the Saudis a $110 billion weapons sale, including advanced arms, and billions more in other business deals. Not to be outdone, CIA Director Mike Pompeo gave a Saudi prince a medal for his work on countering terrorism.

In other words, we continue to reward an arsonist for being a part-time firefighter.

None of this will change until and unless politicians of all stripes start being honest about why our citizens, soldiers, and spies continue to die at the hands of Islamic extremists.

It’s the ideology. And it’s time we’re honest about it. 

Bryan Dean Wright is a former CIA ops officer and member of the Democratic Party. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.