After the recent killing of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by U.S. special forces, a Jordanian commentator writing for the Jordanian newspaper, Al-Dustour, claimed that Al-Baghdadi had been an Israeli agent, who had been trained by the Israeli foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, for a mission to tarnish the image of Islam. This interpretation of events is part of a grander narrative, according to which the West and the Jews are engaged in a “War against Islam”. Accordingly, the creation of ISIS is just the latest instance of their masterplan to destroy Islam, which some Islamist thinkers—Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb among them—believe has been going on since the beginning of Islam. This sectarian vision pits the West and the Jews as aggressors against Muslim victims. The Islamists will often cite the Qur’an—“Never will the Jews nor the Christians be pleased with you until you follow their religion” [2:120]—as evidence that this is an eternal struggle that can only be resolved by the annihilation of one side. This conspiracy theory, among others, has become very widespread in the Middle East, though many reject it and some have criticized it. Nonetheless, it provides the Islamists with a powerful foothold to serve their agenda.
The conspiracy theory of a “War against Islam” has different sub-narratives. First, there is the alleged Jewish plans to destroy the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Second, there is the accusation that the West seeks to spread decadent ideas among Muslims to undermine the spiritual and moral basis of Islamic society. Third, there is a notion of a coordinated military war against Islam, from Kashmir to Palestine, under the leadership of a Jewish-controlled United States of America. Within this there is the sub-narrative that paints the Shi’a as the “internal enemy”, aiding this external conspiracy to destroy Islam. This thesis, partly instrumentalized by regional governments as a counter-measure to the Shi’a revolutionary government in Iran, has been gaining popularity since the 1980s, particularly in Salafi circles. It was this legacy that ISIS’s founder adopted to justify the terror campaigns against Shias. These narratives and sub-narratives are often articulated independently or in part, but taken together they form one super-narrative that claims to explain recent history and current events.
While the exact moment of the conspiracy theory’s creation cannot be determined, its development can be traced back to at least the late nineteenth century, when European conspiracy theories accusing Freemasons and Jews of seeking to topple the existing order through secret machinations were translated into Arabic, and spread throughout the region. This was before the creation of the infamous antisemitic fabrication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was first published in 1903. In the first decade of the twentieth century, these ideas started to have an impact on the intellectual and political landscape of the Middle East. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Manar, belonging to Muhammad Rashid Rida, played a critical role in spreading these conspiracy theories. Rida was the leading pan-Islamic activist of that age, a significant intellectual influence on Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. In his articles, Rida maintained that the Jews stood behind the Young Turk revolution in the Ottoman Empire in 1908 and had also orchestrated the French Revolution of 1789 and the 1905 rebellion in Russia. Rida also believed that the Jews were planning to take over Al-Aqsa Mosque and expel the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the Holy Land. Rida’s mix of European conspiratorial thought and political Islam left a lasting mark.
As the historian James P. Jankowski has shown, the idea that the West was engaged in cultural and spiritual “War against Islam” arose shortly after that. It first became popular in Egyptian-Islamic literature in the 1920s, with polemicists alleging there was a campaign to slander Islam led by Christian missionaries and Western scholars, known at the time as orientalists, a word later appropriated and transformed into a term of abuse. The ahistorical nature of using “orientalist” in this way could not be more clear: there was hardly anybody more prone to sympathy for the Arabs and more curious to understand Islam and its various currents than the Western orientalists. By then, too, the missionaries had largely abandoned their plans to convert the Muslim population and had concentrated on improving education in the region. To this day, the top educational institutions in the region, like the American University of Beirut, are products of the missionaries’ efforts. None of this stopped the nascent Islamist movements creating their conspiracy theories and escalating the rhetoric to the point where the missionaries and orientalists were said to be the equivalent of the Crusaders in that time.
Ideas of an inevitable confrontation between what would then have been called Christendom, now the West, and Islam, unquestionably contributed to the escalation of the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s—more than sixty years before the American political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote his essay, ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, which is sometimes blamed for instigating this clash. In this period after the Great War and the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate, the Islamist movement started to speak of the interaction between the West and Islam as a religious war and became increasingly involved efforts to create such a thing.
The Muslim Brotherhood held that the Jews not only had territorial ambitions in Palestine, but were engaged in a broader war of their own against Islam, which included the dissemination of subversive “Jewish” ideas like Freemasonry and Communism. Amin al-Husseini, the leader of the Arab national movement in Palestine who later collaborated with Hitler to try to destroy the Jews altogether, was an adherent to such theories and used them to solicit support from the Muslim world. The alleged threat to Al-Aqsa mosque became his preferred rallying cry. By the late 1930s, the idea of a Jewish-Western “War against Islam” had moved well beyond the fringe among Muslims of the Middle East, and German propaganda during the Second World War successfully capitalized on this. It was these beliefs that helped make a territorial compromise in Palestine impossible.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s miscalculation in the 1950s in dealing with the new strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who swept aside the liberal monarchy, led to the organization being crippled for decades. Even this weakening of the Brethren and the rise of Nasser’s secular Arab nationalism did not defeat the conspiracy theory; like antisemitism in Europe, it simply mutated form a strictly religious concept into a racist one.
Qutb hated the Jews even more than the West and his tracts, like the 1950 pamphlet, Our struggle with the Jews, were easily taken up by Arab secularists. Qutb claimed that the Jews had been the arch-enemies of Islam since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and stood behind all the historical events that had undermined the unity of Islam—from the emergence of the Shi’i sect in the eighth century to the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924.
The Islamists did not mourn the defeat of Nasser, and by extension pan-Arabism, in the 1967 war against Israel; they did, however, quickly move to exploit this deadly blow to the prestige of their rival ideology. The Pakistani founder of the influential Jamaat-e-Islami movement, Abul Ala Mawdudi, spoke for the Islamist trend when he blamed the Arab defeat on the import of Western ideologies into the world of Islam as part of the spiritual war of the Jews against Islam.
The generations of Islamists that emerged after the Six-Day War have more firmly believed that the end goal of an Islamic state is attainable through violence and terrorism than their predecessors, and no wonder since such a thing came into being in Iran after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.
The prominent figures working for this vision have all, unsurprisingly, been attached to the same conspiratorial mindset. Abdullah Azzam, who was instrumental in the establishment of Hamas and worked closely with Osama bin Laden and other “Afghan Arabs” who went on to found Al-Qaeda, was a firm believer in antisemitic conspiracy theories. In his book, The Red Cancer, he blames “Jewish” ideas like Communism for the weakness of the Palestinian national struggle. It is probably not a coincidence that the Hamas Charter, written in 1988, a year before Azzam was mysteriously killed, quotes directly from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Azzam had wanted to create a pan-Islamist elite force to intervene around the world in conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Many of the veterans of the Afghan-Soviet War would follow the path Azam had suggested, fighting in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, Chechnya, even parts of the Philippines, believing themselves to be countering a global “War against Islam”. The jihadists saw all Westerners as complicit in this effort against Islam, and Al-Qaeda presented itself as the vanguard of this movement with Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa calling for violence “against Jews and Crusaders” everywhere. ISIS has somewhat modified this idea, even criticizing Al-Qaeda for adopting Western-derived conspiracy theories, but it has played up its own version of the “War against Islam” where the Shi’a have a much more central role as allies of the Jews intending to take down the religion from within.
The “War against Islam” narrative remains one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of Islamists. Allusions to it can be easily found in sermons from back-alley mosques in Europe uploaded to Youtube to cartoons in Islamist Facebook groups to contemporary Rap music. The belief in a global “War against Islam” has been used successfully to induce in impressionable young Muslims feelings of discrimination and marginalization, feelings which are often consequences rather than causes of Islamist radicalization. This conspiratorial mindset is, therefore, a key component that countering violent extremism (CVE) programs must tackle. This realization is especially important given the unfortunate tendency of a number of Western governments to cooperate with supposedly “moderate” Islamists from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in countering violent Islamists, despite the fact that the Brotherhood and its offshoots are among the main proliferators of this and other conspiracy theories, setting what one analyst calls the “mood music to which jihadists dance”. Successful deradicalization efforts must be ready to tackle the conspiratorial core of the Islamist mindset.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 For a more detailed discussion of the ‘War against Islam’ conspiracy theory, see my German language article ‘Der jüdisch-westliche “Krieg gegen den Islam” – Genealogie und Aktualität einer islamistischen Verschwörungstheorie’, in Antisemitismus im 21. Jahrhundert, Virulenz einer alten Feindschaft in Zeiten von Islamismus und Terror, ed. Marc Grimm and Bodo Kahmann (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2019).