In the last year al Qaeda, once the worst of the worst when it came to Islamic terrorism have been relegated to “moderate” status by the more vicious ISIL. You could have seen this coming ten years ago, when the Iraqi Islamic terrorist groups that signed on to be an al Qaeda franchise quickly found themselves being criticized by Osama bin Laden for excessive and counterproductive brutality. Crushed but not totally destroyed in 2007, these Iraqi Islamic terrorists went on to rebuild and morph into a truly horrific form of Islamic terrorism that even al Qaeda felt compelled to denounce publically. The sad part of this is that it’s nothing new and has been going on inside the Islamic word for centuries. Now the West and most of the Arab world finds itself fighting alongside al Qaeda groups to destroy ISIL.
Islamic terrorism has long been caught in a self-destructive cycle of its own making. It works like this. Islamic radicals obtain their popularity and power by proclaiming that they are defending Islam from non-believers and sinners (within Islam). In order to maintain this moral superiority the Islamic radicals must be better, superior and more righteous Moslems and insist that others do as they do. Since Islam is a religion that dictates how one lives, in considerable detail, as well as how one plays, this business of being a "good Moslem" can get tricky. And it is. There's long been a competition by Islamic radicals, and the clergy that provide theological support, to issue, and enforce, more and more rules on how a good Moslem should live.
For example, a Saudi Islamic scholar recently issued a fatwa (a religious ruling by a qualified religious official, although unqualified clergy can try to issue these and hope that people will obey) banning the use of alcohol as a substitute for petroleum in vehicle fuel. The reasoning is that the Koran forbids the use of alcohol for any use, not just for drinking. The fatwa applies to all Moslems, everywhere. That’s the theory. Since there is no central authority for Islamic scholars and clerics and their fatwas, there are a lot of contradictory farwas out there. Enforcement is up to the most violence groups backing a particular collection of fatwas.
The way this works is that with controversial issues, once enough clergy get behind some lifestyle rules, they also grant permission for religious vigilantes to use force to enforce these rules. Saudi Arabia and Iran have government supported lifestyle police that can arrest, and imprison you. The God Squad can also use force to restrain (arrest) offenders, and often do. In Saudi Arabia, this has gotten so bad that the king fired the head of the religious police more than once because of growing complaints from about the rough treatment citizens were getting from the religious cops, and the king felt compelled to agree that things had gone too far. But the king continues to resist calls for the religious police to be eliminated.
In the late 1990s, the Taliban in Afghanistan made themselves so unpopular with the use of their lifestyle police that they lost control of the country after the U.S. intervened in the civil war (against some northern tribes who had not yet been conquered by the Taliban) with a few hundred Special Forces troops and CIA operatives (and a few hundred smart bombs.)
Islamic radicals have not come up with a way to avoid this trap. Every time the Islamic radicals gain some control over populations they begin implementing stricter, and sometimes absurd (even to many of the locals) lifestyle rules. When the radicals try to enforce all these rules the people eventually push back and the religious dictatorship falls.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri recently released an audio message, via the Internet, in which he blamed moderate Moslems for preventing more conservative or radical Moslems from taking control in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. This was a remarkable statement because in the past al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups called on moderate Moslems to join them in overthrowing oppressive governments and share power once that was done. But Zawahiri correctly noted that whenever that happened the Islamic radicals pushed the more moderate Moslems aside and tried to establish an Islamic (religious) dictatorship. This failed because the moderates were more numerous and unwilling to submit to another dictatorship. At least that’s what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. In Iraq and Afghanistan the Islamic radicals never got to share power because in both those places the radicals revealed themselves as violent thugs early on.
Al Qaeda and Zawahiri accuse the moderate Moslems as being bad Moslems for their opposition to using Islamic law (sharia) to govern secular and religious affairs. During the 7th century, when Islam was founded, the intent was that sharia would apply to all aspects of life for Moslems. But those who had to actually govern found that this did not work in practice, in part because there was no (and still is not) a supreme authority to interpret sharia law. Thus the rulers and the clergy were feuding over the true meaning of sharia from the beginning. Naturally, the guys with the weapons won these arguments, at least temporarily. This is how al Qaeda justifies the use of weapons and terror to establish the true religious dictatorship they believe Islamic law requires. Unfortunately, even among Islamic fundamentalists there is still no agreement on how to interpret sharia, which is why Islamic radical groups often fight each other. This tendency to drift into constant feuding and violence has been a problem with militant Islamic conservatives for over a thousand years. While modern technology makes this Islamic terrorism more widespread and lethal, the built-in self-destruction of Islamic radicalism remains and most Moslems realize it. It is a cycle of righteousness and rejection that seems to have no end. At least not until Islam goes through a religious reformation like Christianity did in the 16th century to permanently suppress (but not completely eliminate) religious zealots.