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Ten years after 9/11 many politicians and pundits continue to misinterpret Islamic jihadism. Typical is the following comment from Senator Joseph Lieberman’s essay in Foreign Affairs, in which he speaks of “an ideological struggle within Islam, waged between an extremist minority that seeks to enslave the world and a moderate Muslim majority who want the same freedoms and opportunities that we all desire.” In this view, bin Laden and his ilk are outliers, fringe figures exploiting the lack of political freedom and economic opportunity among Muslims, particularly the young men who fill the jihadists’ ranks. This was the view of the New York Times right after the attacks, in an editorial opining that “the disappointed youth of Egypt and Saudi Arabia turn to religion for comfort.” In other words, we have interpreted jihadism through our own categories and concepts, dismissing the history and theology of Islam with which most Muslims are intimately familiar.
Indeed, this misapprehension began long before 9/11. The Iranian Revolution and its leader the Ayatollah Khomeini were analyzed from the perspective of Western notions. Khomeini, a revered and respected Islamic scholar, was dismissed by Time magazine as “a fanatic whose judgments are harsh, reasoning bizarre and conclusions surreal.” The revolution was seen not for what it was, a restoration of Islam’s political and social preeminence diminished by the modernizing secularism of the Shah, but as a nationalist, anti-colonial movement for which, Barry Rubin writes, “Islamist rhetoric was seen as a mask, as a convenient vehicle for expressing accumulated economic, political, and social grievances.” Mistaking a religious movement for a Western political one, the U.S. was caught unprepared for the theocratic regime that has for thirty years been the premier state supporter of jihadist terror, and today is actively seeking nuclear weapons.
Despite that mistake, our reaction to the latest phase of jihadism has been equally myopic. The 14-centuries-long doctrine of violent jihad against the unbelievers––copiously documented in the Koran, hadiths, and Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and written on every page of history––is dismissed as irrelevant compared to the Western ideals we assume drive all peoples: political freedom and material prosperity. Religious belief is either a Marxist opiate or a Freudian illusion, a relic from our benighted past that progress will reduce to what it is in the West today: a mere lifestyle choice with no greater claim on the public square or political policy than any other. The jihadists are thus “distorters” of Islam, disguised “fascists,” would-be tyrants exploiting religious beliefs in order to seize power for themselves. And this “extremist” minority stands in opposition to that alleged moderate majority, whom it is our duty to aid in their struggle for human rights, freedom, and all the goods we enjoy.
What is curious, however, is that for the last decade, the thousands of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims, the violent riots over trivial “insults” to Islam, the murders committed by Muslims like the Fort Hood killer are never met with global widespread protests on the part of all those Muslim “moderates” presumably outraged by this “extremist” distortion of Islamic doctrine. Muslim opinion did turn against bin Laden, but that came only after the al Qaeda jihadists began killing fellow Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Formulaic “condemnations” of terrorism are indeed trotted out by Muslim leaders after an attack, but always as the prelude to the demonization of Israel and American foreign policy, to whose depredations the attacks are an understandable response. I’ll believe in Senator Lieberman’s “moderate majority” when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Muslims march in protest against the next jihadist attack on Westerners.
Having created this “moderate minority,” for the last decade we have anxiously monitored our public statements about Islam in order not to alienate all those Muslims we think are outraged by the jihadists’ “distortions.” Thus we have heard from Republican and Democratic administrations alike all about the “religion of peace.” According to President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, Islam’s “teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.” Nearly a decade later, John Brennan, Obama’s assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, repeated the same received wisdom: “Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against ‘jihadists.’ Describing terrorists in this way––using a legitimate term, ‘jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal––risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve.” Unfortunately for this sort of thinking, the evidence for understanding jihad as the violent defense of Islam against its enemies is overwhelming in Islamic religious writings. Khomeini certainly thought so: “Islam is a religion of blood for the infidels but a religion of guidance for other people,” he proclaimed. And so did Muslim Brothers founder Hassan al-Banna, who wrote, “Fighting the unbelievers involves all possible efforts that are necessary to dismantle the power of the enemies of Islam including beating them, plundering their wealth, destroying their places of worship, and smashing their idols.”
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