Why They Fight
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, The Weekly Standard:
AFTER 9/11 BROUGHT RADICAL ISLAM to the country's attention, some Americans wondered, "Why do they hate us?" Since then, many answers have been offered. But the best way to understand what drives jihadists is an examination of their own words. To that end, Professor Mary Habeck's book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (Yale University Press 2006) makes a vital contribution. It is the most thorough and valuable explanation of jihadist ideology available in English to date.A must read.
Central to Habeck's argument is the failure of most Western scholarship to comprehend religion as a sociopolitical factor. Most academics, journalists and policymakers in the increasingly secular West have never considered religion an important part of their lives, and have trouble understanding how it can be a prime motivating force in world affairs. Thus, they tend to look to factors such as poverty, colonization, and imperialism to explain jihadist grievances.
Such an analysis fails to provide us with deep insight into jihadist thought. As Habeck points out, U.S. support for Israel alone doesn't explain the 9/11 attacks. Jihadist ideologue Sayyid Qutb's anger was focused on the United States in the early 1950s, more than a decade before America became associated with Israel. Nor do colonialism and imperialism provide a convincing answer. Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab "developed his version of radical and violent Islam long before the West colonized Islamic lands, indeed at a time when Islam seemed triumphant."
SO WHAT DOES EXPLAIN jihadist hatred of the West? It is true that factors such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can help drive people into the enemy's camp. (Habeck refers to that conflict as the jihadists' "single best recruiting tool.") But Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their comrades aren't simply reacting to U.S. policies. Their pronouncements reflect "their own most deeply held religio-political views of the world." READ MORE
While Habeck draws a sharp distinction between jihadist theology and traditional interpretations of Islam, she notes that jihadist ideas "did not spring from a void, nor are all of them the marginal opinions of a few fanatics." For example, the scholar Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328), who is widely respected in Muslim circles, lived when the Mongols ruled over the Islamic world. Although they claimed to be Muslims, the Mongols' system of laws was based on their native customs rather than Islamic law (sharia).
Disturbed by this situation, Ibn Taymiya argued that the Islamic faith requires state power because the Koran only says that Muslims are the "best community" when they "enjoined the good and forbade the evil." In failing to base their legal system on Islamic law, the Mongols disregarded that Koranic injunction. Thus, Ibn Taymiya said that Muslims were required to take up arms against the Mongols.
Contemporary jihadists liken the modern rulers of the Muslim world to the Mongols. And there are scholars beside Ibn Taymiya to whom they can look for inspiration, including Abdul Wahhab and the three major jihadist thinkers of the twentieth century: Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi and Sayyid Qutb.
DRAWING UPON AN IMPRESSIVE ARRAY of primary-source material from these and like-minded Islamic radicals, Habeck makes her greatest contribution by illuminating the building blocks of the jihadist worldview.
It begins with the notion that only the Koran and ahadith (the sayings and traditions of Prophet Muhammad) are relevant to ordering the Muslim community. The views of more modern legal scholars, which may have a moderating effect on the faith, are given far less weight. With the Koran and ahadith as their only guides, jihadists believe that it is their duty to discover the "comprehensive ideology" contained in the Islamic faith.
For the jihadists, that comprehensive ideology begins with a concept known as tawhid. An Arabic term denoting the oneness of God, all Muslims have a shared belief in tawhid--but, as with so many theological concepts, the jihadists have a somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation of its implications. Echoing Ibn Taymiya, jihadist thinkers like Maududi and Qutb argue that if only God can be worshipped and obeyed, then only God's laws can have any significance or legitimacy.
This provides them with justification not only for violently overturning social systems that aren't based on a "correct" understanding of Islam, but also for declaring fellow Muslims to be non-believers if they accept secular rule in place of the Islamic order that jihadists seek to impose.
The consequences of the view that only sharia law has legitimacy are far-reaching. For one thing, jihadists' unwillingness to accept secular rule places them on an inevitable collision course with the West. The jihadist thinker Fathi Yakan, for example, wrote of the need for jihad in response to "attacks from every materialistic ideology and system that threatens the existence of Islam as a global paradigm of thought and system of life."
Not only do jihadists see this clash between Islam and the non-Muslim world as an integral part of God's plan, but many also seek to portray Islam's enemies as the aggressors. In this view, the "mother of all crimes" was Kemal Ataturk's abolition of the caliphate in 1924. (Jihadists regard Ataturk as a tool of the Jews and colonialists.) Qutb went so far as to argue that no truly Islamic societies existed since the caliphate was abolished.
With that in mind, many jihadists contend that their warfare against insufficiently Islamic regimes is defensive. Qutb said that defense should be understood as "'the defense of man' against all those elements which limit his freedom." Because true freedom can only be found through adherence to God's law, fighting to impose sharia is defensive: It protects man from the secular rule that would otherwise abridge his freedom.
Just as jihadist theology informs the movement's stance on warfare, so too does it determine their strategic vision. While the endgame differs from one jihadist group to another, all strategies attempt to emulate Muhammad's life. As Muhammad and the early Muslims undertook the hijra (a migration from Mecca to Medina in response to severe persecution), Qutb argued that "true" Muslims should form a community requiring state power to carry out God's commands. "At this point," Habeck writes, "the group, however small it might be, had to follow Muhammad and migrate [to] set up the kernel of an Islamic state." This would then become the new caliphate.
Despite a diversity of jihadist visions of how the caliphate would come about, there is a consensus that this is what they are fighting for. Some, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, have even begun to envision what this caliphate might look like. (In Hizb ut-Tahrir's vision, it would be a totalitarian society where the state even regulates secret thoughts.) And there is a unanimity that once the caliphate is reborn, Muslims can really get serious about the war with the infidels.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior consultant for the Gerard Group International LLC. His book My Year Inside Radical Islam will be published in February 2007 by Tarcher/Penguin.