About jihad, sharia, deception, and perpetual war -- also known as "radical Islam." What follows is the text of my formal witness statement to the House Armed Service Committee: "Strategies For Countering Radical Islamist Ideologies: Overcoming Conceptual Difficulties, by Raymond Ibrahim." The PDF can be found here. To listen to the actual hearing, click here.
The greatest hurdle Americans need to get over in order to properly respond to the growing threat of radical Islam is purely intellectual in nature; specifically, it is epistemological, and revolves around the abstract realm of “knowledge.” Before attempting to formulate a long-term strategy to counter radical Islam, Americans must first and foremost understand Islam, particularly its laws and doctrines, the same way Muslims understand it—without giving it undue Western (liberal) interpretations. This is apparently not as simple as expected: all peoples of whatever civilizations and religions tend to assume that other peoples more or less share in their worldview, which they assume is objective, including notions of right and wrong, good and bad.
The mainstream interpretation, particularly in academia, of radical Islam is that it is a byproduct of various sorts of discontent (economic, political, social) and has little to do with the religion itself. To trace “jihadist” violence to Islam itself is discouraged; in academia, it may be treated as anathema.
Americans think this way because the secular, Western experience has been such that people respond with violence primarily when they feel they are politically, economically, or socially oppressed. While true that many non-Western peoples may fit into this paradigm, the fact is, the ideologies of radical Islam have the intrinsic capacity to prompt Muslims to violence and intolerance vis-à-vis the “other,” irrespective of grievances. Obviously, when radical Islam is coupled with a sense of grievance—real or imagined—the result is even more dramatic.
Conceptually, then, it must be first understood that many of the problematic ideologies associated with radical Islam trace directly back to Islamic law, or sharia. Jihad as offensive warfare to subjugate “infidels” (non-Muslims); mandated social discrimination against non-Muslim minorities living in Muslim nations (the regulations governing ahl al-dhimma); general animosity and lack of sincere cooperation vis-à-vis non-Muslims (as articulated in the doctrine of al-wala’ we al-bara’)—all of these are clearly defined aspects that have historically been part of Islam’s worldview and not “open to interpretation.”
For example, the obligation to wage expansionist jihad is as “open to interpretation” as the obligation to perform the Five Pillars of Islam, such as praying and fasting. The same textual sources and methods of jurisprudence that have made it clear that prayer and fasting are obligatory, have also made it clear that jihad is also obligatory; the only difference is that, whereas prayer and fasting is an “individual” duty, jihad is understood to be a “communal” duty (a fard kifaya).
The prophet of Islam, Muhammad himself said: “He who wages jihad in the path of Allah — and Allah knows who it is who wages jihad in his path — is as commendable as one who continuously fasts and prays [emphasis added]. Allah guarantees if he who fights for his cause dies, he [Allah] will usher him into paradise; otherwise, he will return him to his home safely, with rewards or war booty.” 1
By and large, then, to assert that radical Islamic groups, such as al-Qaeda, have “hijacked” or “distorted” Islam is unsatisfactory.1 They and others have spent much time and effort justifying their actions via Islamic law, and have been by and large successful.2 The unique role radical groups have been playing since the early 20th century is not so much distorting Islam, but rather bringing sharia back to the forefront of Islamic society, giving it a renewed sense of urgency, insisting to fellow Muslims that the root cause of all their troubles is that they have abandoned the laws of Allah and so must begin to tenaciously adhere to them.
That said, radical Muslims have further managed to exploit what the law maintains by making clever arguments. For instance, al-Qaeda’s number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, argues that, if offensive jihad is an obligation on the Muslim world—and it is—how much more is to be expected from Muslims when they are defending their territories from aggressors, the usual culprits being Israel or the U.S? He goes on to quote from prominent Islamic scholars, such as the medieval jurist, Ibn Taymiyya, who decreed centuries ago that, whenever “infidels” invade the Islamic world, the greatest obligation Muslims have, after faith itself, is to wage a defensive jihad. According to this popular definition, even women and children are required to participate—as evidenced among the Palestinians and in Iraq.
Being able to understand all this, being able to appreciate it without any conceptual or intellectual constraints is paramount for Americans to truly understand the nature of the enemy and his ultimate goals. Any attempts at formulating a proper strategic response without this necessary data is doomed to failure, especially in the long-term. Unfortunately, recent developments are indicative that the opposite is happening.
For example, far from closely examining Muslim doctrines and ideologies, a recent government memo, arguing that “words matter,” has all but banned several Arabic words that connote Muslim ideology and doctrine from formal discourse—such as mujahid, jihadi, umma, sharia, caliphate, and so on—asking analysts to rely primarily on generic terms, such as “terrorists.” However, without knowing the ideology that fuels any particular terrorist group one will be severely handicapped in trying to formulate a counter-strategy.
Censorship3 hardly seems to be a strategic response at this juncture.
Finally, while Americans appear to be suffering from the ability to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of Islam’s worldview, many radicals have proven themselves expert at understanding—and thus exploiting—the worldview of the liberal West. For example, al-Qaeda and many other radicals make it a point to intentionally use the language of political grievance when addressing Americans, only to abandon such language when talking to fellow Muslims, instead stressing only what Islamic law demands, such as jihad.
Before addressing the two, interconnected failures hampering the formulation of an effective strategy vis-à-vis radical Islam—education and epistemology—it is imperative that the reader better understand what sharia law is and how it is articulated, as this is pivotal to understanding how “knowledge” and hence “truth” is established within a purely Islamic paradigm.
The rest, including footnotes, can be read here.