For anyone looking to get an introduction to the history of Islamic fundamentalism, Sunni and Shi'ite sectarian strife, and other related topics, here are a few of my favorites:
The Origins of the Shia-Sunni Split
This five-part series that broadcast on NPR last month is a good place to get a general, if incomplete overview of the partisans of Ali, the twelfth Imam, and more.
Mark M. Alexander also discusses the subject in his column on Townhall.com, On Sunnis and Shi'ites:
Mark's first article, The real Islam, can be found here.
Two prevailing issues lend urgency to our understanding of these, the two great sects of Islam. First, as Congressional Quarterly's Jeff Stein demonstrated in a series of biting reports over the past several years, even the most senior and seasoned U.S. legislative, foreign-policy, intelligence and law-enforcement leaders have next to no understanding of the differences between Sunnis and Shi'ites, what countries are dominated by which sect, or why it matters. Second, as is so readily apparent in Iraq today, Sunnis and Shi'ites have little compunction when it comes to slaughtering each other. This is because each considers the other heretical -- that is, outside the oma or community of true Islam.
So, is our fight against terrorism or against Islamic fascism? To wit, is Islam peaceful, or intrinsically fascist?
The answers couldn't be clearer. Terrorism is not an enemy; it's a tactic. Muslim examples aside, terrorist tactics have been adopted by groups as varied as Northern Ireland's IRA, Colombia's FARC, the Shining Path of Peru, West Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, Italy's Brigate Rosse, Spain's Basque ETA, and our homegrown Symbionese Liberation Army. Mostly separatists and leftists, none of these groups viewed terrorism as an end in itself, but as a means to another, political end.
Unlike terrorism, Islam is an ideology bent on territorial expansion and political domination. These traits, along with iron-fisted socioeconomic controls, are the essential characteristics of fascism. When this expansion requires violence, Islam turns to jihad, and within the context of jihad, terrorism is an acceptable tactic. According to Pipes, "Islam is a political religion in a way that none other is. There are many elements within the religion and the history of Islam that suggest there is a dynamic of conquest." Pipes continues, "There is something inherently expansionist about Islam. Jihad is expansionist warfare."
Additionally, this article by Dinesh D'Souza puts an entirely different spin on the relation of Islam and Terrorism, why America is targeted, and the ultra-sensitive and vicious liberal backlash at such unconventional thinking.
If this is what Islam is all about -- fascist expansionism and totalitarianism -- where do moderate or liberal Muslims come from? In short, they come from the same place that liberal Christians and Jews come from. Confronted by the 18th century Enlightenment and its heir, modernism, all religious expressions have found themselves influenced by the ideas and ideals of secular humanism. As Muslims integrated with the West and the West came into increased contact with the Muslim East, Islam experienced the same synthesis. Consequently, liberal Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists, all under the influence of modernism, confess the same essential creed: The intrinsic equality of human beings, a basic commitment to man's reason, the supremacy of the individual, and man's innate goodness in the state of nature. Thus, like liberal Christianity or Judaism, liberal Islam isn't Islam at all; it's an entirely different religion.
In the end, any realistic assessment of Islam must accept "fascism" as a term that is far more descriptive than pejorative. In his remarks on the hurtful nature of the term, Professor Khan said that if anyone is "using the label in this broad sense, and thus accusing Islam and not merely the militants, they should say so."
Bin Laden, The Left and Me
I encourage you to dig into these authors, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are atypical thinkers, provocative, and interesting.
In the pages of Esquire, Mark Warren charges that I "hate America" and have "taken to heart" Osama bin Laden's view of the United States. (Warren also challenged me to a fight and threatened to put me in the hospital.) In his New York Times review of my book last week, Alan Wolfe calls my work "a national disgrace . . . either self-delusional or dishonest." I am "a childish thinker" with "no sense of shame," he argues. "D'Souza writes like a lover spurned; despite all his efforts to reach out to Bin Laden, the man insists on joining forces with the Satanists."
Why the onslaught? Just this: In my book, published this month, I argue that the American left bears a measure of responsibility for the volcano of anger from the Muslim world that produced the 9/11 attacks. President Jimmy Carter's withdrawal of support for the shah of Iran, for example, helped Ayatollah Khomeini's regime come to power in Iran, thus giving radical Islamists control of a major state; and President Bill Clinton's failure to respond to Islamic attacks confirmed bin Laden's perceptions of U.S. weakness and emboldened him to strike on 9/11. I also argue that the policies that U.S. "progressives" promote around the world -- including abortion rights, contraception for teenagers and gay rights -- are viewed as an assault on traditional values by many cultures, and have contributed to the blowback of Islamic rage.