In the wake of last month's Paris attacks, Iran's Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei published a public letter on Sunday to the "youth in western countries." But, as the supreme leader attempted to explain the ISIS threat, his rhetoric mimicked some arguments endorsed and promoted by the broader Salafi-jihadi movement.
Parallels between one of the most highly ranked Shia leaders and Salafi-jihadi ideologues rightfully seem paradoxical. Khamenei represents a version of Islam widely considered by jihadi circles as a form of apostasy. However, Khamenei's most recent public letter contains rhetoric that is typical of the propaganda released by the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Overall the letter had a positive message: it called for more dialogue between religious communities and condemned the actions of the Paris attackers. But along with this condemnation, the Shia leader explicitly accused the West of having "prejudiced and contradictory" policies toward the "Islamic world." This thesis is reminiscent of Salafi-jihadi groups, including ISIS. Khamenei attributed the current threat of global terrorism to the "military invasions of the Islamic world," explaining how the "pain" it had inflicted for decades on Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians and Afghanis, was proof that "the Islamic world has been the victim of terror" at the hands of "great powers."
The 'us versus them' narrative in Khamenei's criticism of western intervention was another striking similarity. This is a recurring theme in Jihadi propaganda. As the recent Centre on Religion and Geopolitics' report on ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda revealed, jihadi ideologues repeatedly narrate geopolitical events through a pan-Islamic lens that paints political motives in the region with an anti-Islamic religious agenda. This is a central aspect of the binary narrative that groups like ISIS exploit in order to attract recruits to their cause.
Khamenei says ISIS is the result of the clash of western culture with the Islamic world.”
On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Khamenei uses harrowing and emotive imagery. This mirrors the exploitation of suffering that we came across in ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda. Both jihadi groups and Khamenei refer to western governments and their allies as "invaders," as "merciless," and as "corrupt." When referring to Palestinians, Khamanei writes of the "Muslim women and children," depicting them as enduring underdogs, and the Zionists as the tyrants "armed to the teeth." In fact, by framing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through a religious paradigm, Khamenei exploits the conflict as yet further evidence of the pain inflicted on the Islamic world. Again, this is a technique shared with ISIS and al-Qaeda. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is framed as collective Muslim suffering by all Salafi-jihadi groups studied in our report.
Throughout our sample of ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda, there were regular references to a "Crusader-Shia-Zionist" alliance against Sunni Muslims. In his address to youth, Khamenei appears to imply something similar, but in the reverse, alluding instead to a "Crusader-Sunni-Zionist" alliance. With this, he accuses the West of "nurturing and arming" al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and supporting the Zionist cause and "supporters of takfiri terrorism" - presumably a reference to Saudi Arabia - at the expense of the Islamic world.
For Khamenei, the emergence of ISIS is the result of a clash of western cultural imports to the Islamic world. He slams the colonialist era for "planting the seed of extremism in this region." It is an argument that, again, shares parallels with Salafi-jihadi thinking. For groups like ISIS, countries such as Britain and France stripped the Islamic world of its glory, subjecting its people to humiliation. It is on this premise that Khamenei and Salafi-jihadi groups both agree. For both, the colonial period is the root of the "deep hate" between Europe and the Islamic world. It is this deep hate, according to Khamenei, that is at the heart of acts of terrorism against the West.
These parallels are certainly surprising given the strong animosity between Iran's supreme leader and Salafi-jihadi proponents. However, given that both are expressions of politicized Islam, maybe it should not be all that surprising. It does not matter that one is rooted in Shia identity, while the other is Sunni. Khamenei's letter reminds us that whoever the source of the rhetoric, the message is fundamentally the same. Muslims, as the message goes, are victims of a broad, religiously motivated agenda.
The broader Salafi-jihadi movement operates within a pan-Islamic worldview, and it seems that Khamenei does too. In his effort to condemn religious-motivated violence, he reaches a juncture of two otherwise bitterly opposing interpretations of Islam.