The war against jihadism has been chronically misunderstood because of our failure to acknowledge the religious motives of Muslim jihadists. This failure began in 1979 with the Iranian revolution. Trapped in our Western secularist paradigms, we interpreted the uprising against the Shah as an anti-colonial revolt against a “brutal” autocrat propped up by the West for its own exploitative economic and geostrategic purposes. The aim of the revolution, the argument went, was to create a government more sympathetic to national sovereignty and Western pluralistic government. However, it soon became clear with the political triumph of the Ayatollah Khomeini that the revolution was in the main a religious one, inspired in part by anger at the Shah’s secularization, modernization, and liberalization policies. As Khomeini said in 1962, the Shah’s regime was “fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class.”
Despite that lesson, the rise of al Qaeda in the 90s was also explained as anything and everything other than what it was and still is–– a movement with deep religious roots. Under administrations of both parties, the mantra of our leaders has been “nothing to do with Islam.” We created various euphemisms like “Islamism,” “Radical Islam,” “Islamic extremists,” or “Islamofascism,” to explain an ideology that is firmly rooted in traditional Islamic theology and historical practice. We were anxiously assured that Islam was a “religion of peace,” its adherents tolerant and ecumenical. Popular figures like Osama bin Laden were “heretics” who had “highjacked” this wonderful faith, distorting its doctrines to serve their evil lust for power. We looked upon them as “beards from the fringe,” malignant cranks like Jim Jones, Charles Manson, or David Koresh.
This fundamental error continues today, as Muslim violence and anti-Semitism are explained by every factor instead of the essential one––the theology, jurisprudence, and history of Islam.
When one asks for evidence for this detachment of Muslim violence from the tenets of Islam, the best most apologists can do is produce a Westernized nominal Muslim, a propagandist like Tariq Ramadan, or a left-wing academic who reflexively considers any enemy of the colonialist, imperialist, capitalist West to be a friend of the left. Jihad is not, they assure us, the theological imperative to “fight all men until they say there is no god but Allah,” as Mohammed himself commanded. Jihad is merely a form of self-improvement and community service. “Allahu Akbar” is not the traditional Muslim battle cry, but merely a way of saying “Thank God.” Revered Muslim scholars like the Ayatollah Khomeini––educated in Qom, the “Oxford and Harvard of Iranian Shi’ism,” as Barry Rubin put it, and honored as a “grand sign of Allah” for his theological knowledge––was simply wrong when he said, “Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you,” and “Islam is a religion of blood for the infidels.”
Despite being consistent with such statements, dismissed as racist ignorance are the centuries of Western observation and bloody experience showing that, as Tocqueville wrote in 1838, “Jihad, Holy war, is an obligation for all believers. … The state of war is the natural state with regard to infidels … These doctrines of which the practical outcome is obvious are found on every page and in almost every word of the Koran … The violent tendencies of the Koran are so striking that I cannot understand how any man with good sense could miss them.” Likewise Samuel Huntington’s phrase “Islam’s bloody borders” is called a racist lie, used to justify neo-colonial incursions into Muslim lands. Meanwhile, of the 7 global conflicts costing more than a 1000 lives a year, 6 involve Islam.
As for “moderate” Muslims, those ordinary millions who we are constantly told abhor the jihadists as violators of the true Islam are, with some rare exceptions like M. Zudhi Jasser, curiously silent in the face of horrific jihadist violence against non-Muslims, the beheadings, torture, crucifixions, rape, kidnappings, and indiscriminate slaughter of women and children justified by supposedly slanderous distortions of their faith. After every jihadist atrocity, we never see global mass protests against this malicious degradation of Islam. But after 9/11, we did see thousands of Muslims worldwide cheering the attack in a “tremendous wave of joy,” as a London-based Saudi cleric wrote to President Bush in a Muslim newspaper.
But when newspaper cartoons deemed offensive to Mohammed, or false rumors of Korans flushed down toilets in Guantánamo, or reports of an obscure pastor planning to burn a Koran become known, then we see tens of thousands of Muslim protesting violently. Right now Muslim terrorists are committing unspeakable atrocities in northern Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and elsewhere, but there is no global “Not in Our Name” mass movement, no “Million Muslim March” springing up among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to protest this alleged distortion of Islam, and to reaffirm its true dogmas of peace and tolerant coexistence.
Another example of this intellectual myopia is the way many commentators explain the anti-Semitism rampant in the Muslim world, where Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the early 20th century Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are popular. Misled by this popularity and the use of Nazi-era metaphors describing Jews as a “bacillus,” “cancerous tumor,” or “vermin,” these pundits attribute Muslim anti-Semitism to the malign influence of Nazism on the Muslim Middle East in the 30s. However, such an explanation mistakes rhetoric for content. Nazi-style anti-Semitism flourishes among many Muslims because their faith has already created a “potential space” for it––the Koran-sanctioned use of violence to enforce Muslim hegemony, and the broader intolerance of other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism, resented as precursors and rivals to Islam. But the hostility of the Jews in Mohammed’s traditional biographies––for example, he died after allegedly being poisoned by a Jewish woman–– has made them an special object of contempt and hatred.
Consider the doctoral dissertation of Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi. No crank or fringe character, from 1996 to his death in 2010 Tantawi was the Grand Sheik of the most prestigious institution for Sunni Islamic theology, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a position reserved for the highest authority in Sunni Muslim thought. His 1966 dissertation, The Children of Israel in the Qur’an and the Tradition (Sunna), has asits subtitle, The Jews’ Abominations Described in the Qur’an Are Demonstrated Throughout the Ages. The following is a representative sample of this esteemed theologian’s thinking:
“In the Qur’an the Jews are people of various bad qualities, known for their loathsome characters and contemptible behavior. The Qur’an calls them infidels and liars and ingrates; selfish, arrogant and cowardly naggers and cheaters; rebels and lawbreakers, cruel and constitutionally given to deviating from the correct path . . . Jews are prone to crime and aggression. They cheat and steal people’s money with lies. The Jews must be oppressed and humiliated.”
The bulk of Tantawi’s book supports these slanders with meticulous exegeses of the numerous Koranic verses, hadiths, biographies of Mohammed, and theological interpretations of these texts over the centuries, large numbers of which have been collected in Andrew Bostom’sThe Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism.
This long tradition is the foundation of Tantawi’s anti-Semitic slurs, which are typical of both popular and academic writing in the region, such as the Holocaust-denying PhD dissertation of “moderate” Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Thus it beggars belief to think that these are idiosyncratic misinterpretations that violate the true meaning of Islam’s sacred texts, or that they are a recent creation of Nazi-era anti-Semitism––not when Tantawi was awarded such a highly prestigious position, one that requires expert knowledge of and fidelity to Islamic doctrine.
Obviously, later motifs of anti-Semitism, like the medieval blood libel or the fever-swamp paranoia of the Protocols, have over the years been taken up by Muslim anti-Semitism and used to reinforce and validate the traditional Jew-hatred of the Koran. Similarly, racists in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries incorporated Darwinism into their racist theory and rhetoric, a practice given warrant by Darwin’s The Descent of Man, with its speculations that the Negro is the transitional species between humans and animals. But no one argues that racism was a secondary effect of Darwinism. Rather, Darwinism and its technical terms conferred a patina of “scientific” prestige and validation on a preexisting irrational hatred, just as in the 30s writings from an advanced global power like Germany reinforced and legitimized traditional Islamic anti-Semitism.
Similarly, one can argue that the eliminationist rhetoric now lacing traditional Muslim anti-Semitism reflects Nazi influence. After all, historically Muslims did not aim, like the Nazi final solution, to kill off the whole Jewish race, but to keep Jews subordinated and subjected to a humiliating second-class status, as the Koran instructs. So too in the Jim Crow South, most whites were content to keep blacks in their second-class place, and violence reflected perceptions that blacks were getting “uppity” and threatening institutional segregation. Something similar has happened in the Middle East, where the failure of the Arabs to enforce Jewish submission to Muslims with violence has led to more radical calls to eliminate Jews completely from the region. But once again, the “potential space” for such genocidal aims was in place before the Holocaust, created by the justified violence used over the centuries against Jews who resisted or threatened Muslim hegemony.
The point is not that all Muslims are anti-Semites and terrorists, or even are sympathetic to the jihadists. Rather, the scope and volume of jihadist violence, the financial and moral support given to jihadists by many millions of Muslims, and the relative silence of those who have no intention of practicing jihad themselves, all suggest that modern jihadism and its theological justifications have deep roots in Muslim theology, and ample models in Mohammed’s life and Islam’s history. This in turn means that Muslims who oppose jihadism or Muslim anti-Semitism do not have the authoritative, traditional, canonical arguments and precedents for that position, unlike the jihadists, who routinely and copiously quote chapter and verse of Islamic sacred texts in support of their violence.
Finally, pretending that modern jihadism has “nothing to do with Islam,” and spinning pleasing distortions of Islam’s theology and history, will not help sincerely reform-minded Muslims, for they know that there is no historical or theological foundation for these flattering fairy tales, which consequently lack authority in the eyes of most of their fellow Muslims. They know their own history and religion too well, unlike the Western apologists who tell esteemed and learned Muslims like Khomeini and Tantawi that they don’t know their own faith. Indeed, a movement to create a genuine liberal-democratic Islam would be truly “radical” from the perspective of traditional Islam and its beliefs, as the continuing failure of liberal democracy to take hold in the Middle East demonstrates. But most of all, such fantasies endanger our attempts to destroy a committed enemy who is motivated by a storied history of conquest and domination, and inspired and justified by the most cherished beliefs of millions of their co-religionists.