The Larger War

Presentation by Douglas M. Johnston

As one looks beyond the immediate challenges of the war in Iraq, a much larger war looms-the war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. Winning this larger war-if it is winnable at all-will be incredibly difficult. For the better part of a millennium, Islam and Christianity have talked past one another at best or, alternately, resorted to conflict to settle their differences. To deal with this impasse, we need to first get past the rhetoric so we can address the real issues.

Since the attacks of September 11, we have heard proclamations by President Bush and Muslim leaders alike that “Islam is a religion of peace.” This is no more true of Islam than it is of any other religion. The texts and traditions of Islam are open to multiple interpretations; and as these interpretations accumulate over time, it becomes difficult to assert the existence of a pure orthodoxy. Just as the liberal humanist Muslim can find justification in Islamic texts to support a peaceful view of Islam, so too can the militant find theological justification for proclaiming a holy war. In short, Islam is no more inherently violent or peaceful than Catholicism, which has found justification within its own tradition to support the Spanish Inquisition as well as Mother Theresa.

In response to a number of political reverses over time-colonialism chief among them-and the socioeconomic failure of most Muslim regimes, an aggravated siege mentality has taken root in which all problems afflicting Muslims are seen to be the result of a carefully crafted conspiracy on the part of the United States, Israel and other suspects. As Dr. Ali Minai, a Pakistani-born professor at the University of Cincinnati succinctly puts it in a recently released book entitled Taking Back Islam:

“Without changing this mindset, no amount of military action will rid the world of Islamic militants. The swamp that must be drained is not in the mountains of Afghanistan, but in the minds of hundreds of millions of Muslims.”

Mindset aside, many wonder how Osama bin Laden can mount suicidal attacks against civilians and declare a holy war against Christians and Jews when both innocents and People of the Book are protected categories of people in the Qur’an and suicide itself is specifically prohibited. A good place to start is by examining what bin Laden himself says in his “Letter to America,” published in the November 24, 2002 issue of the Manchester Guardian. After listing a number of grievances relating to Palestine, Somalia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Lebanon, and the actions of puppet Arab regimes, he states:

“It is commanded by our religion and intellect that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression… Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her in security and peace?” He goes on to say, “You may then dispute that all the above does not justify aggression against civilians, for crimes they did not commit and offenses in which they did not partake.”

Bin Laden then keys to the fact that the American people choose their government through their own free will-a choice that stems from their agreement with its policies-and that they pay the taxes which “fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq. So the American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us.”

Michael Vlahos argues in Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam that rather than thinking of Islamic militancy as the work of terrorist groups within a particular political subculture of Islam, it actually represents a broader insurgency within Sunni Islam–a struggle for the heart and soul of the faith as manifested in a mosaic of intersecting movements, or “brotherhoods,” that work together as a single Muslim fraternity.

In its early history, Islam under the Caliphates came close to creating a universal empire. In the first one hundred years of its existence, its geographic scope exceeded that of the Roman Empire. Then it splintered and lost its cutting edge as it gave in to the pleasures of life. Whenever this has happened, as it has from time to time, a great leader would sweep in out of the desert to set things right and renew the corrupted ummah (body of Islam). And that is how many Muslims are viewing bin Laden today–a heroic leader recreating the spiritual experience of the original struggle to establish a universal ummah. Thus September 11 is seen to be a transcendental achievement, not merely a passing gesture of martyrdom. The very act of struggle itself is a triumph that joins one to God and puts one on the path to renewal, a struggle which according to early Muslim scholars, will last until the end of time.

Beyond the corrupting influence of the West and modernity, the secular Sunni states, especially those of Egypt, Syria and Algeria–also rank high as targets of this struggle. And, while hardly secular, Saudi Arabia is targeted as well, for permitting the stationing of U.S. military forces on its holy soil. As that widely renown scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, puts it more generally:

“By abandoning the law of God, the Shari’a, and replacing it with imported foreign laws and customs, they ceased to be Muslims…”

No discussion of terrorism and Islam would be complete without some treatment of Wahhabism, a theory of Islam developed in the 18th century and named for the Muslim scholar Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab. Wahhabism is a strict version of Islam that pervades Saudi Arabia and is viewed as both hard-line and exclusivist. Employing Wahhab’s ideas over the centuries, Muslim scholars have established a powerful conservative ideology on the premise that all existing political regimes lack Islamic legitimacy, and that Islam itself has become stale and weak. Wahhabis seek to revitalize both faith and society, hand in hand. The result is a fundamentalist movement seeking to reestablish Islam as it was in the time of the Prophet, but to do so primarily through political activism. This type of religious fundamentalism can be threatening, but it is not inherently violent. That said, Osama bin Laden has nevertheless commandeered a number of Wahhabi precepts in his rationale for violent struggle.

In his self-appointed role as a religious spokesman, bin Laden cites verse 29 of Surah 9 of the Qur’an as a call to violence for himself and his colleagues:

“Fight against those who believe not in Allah…until they pay the jizyah with willing submission…”

This tax, or jizyah, is often cited as an example of Islam’s fundamental bias against other religions. However, because Muslims under the Qur’an have a mandatory military duty to defend the state and non-Muslims do not, the jizyah is an accommodation to other religions that is intended to provide a fair sense of burden-sharing in protecting the state. To justify treating Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam, Osama bin Laden consistently highlights this verse without any reference to historical context. It is this kind of selectivity, or isolation of scripture, that is used to justify intolerance and which perverts the true meaning of what was originally intended.

Another al-Qaeda favorite is Surah 4, verse 89: “Slay the enemy wherever you find them.” Again, in isolation, this verse seemingly promotes an aggressive spirit of violence. However, if one continues on to verse 90, one finds the opposite to be the case: “If they leave you alone and offer to make peace with you, God does not allow you to harm them.” Muslim extremists purposely overlook this second half of the admonition, and thus compromise the Qur’anic intent.

There is no end to the verses that al Qaeda can find to meet its ends, just as militant Christians can and did during the Crusades, or Jewish zealots currently do in the West Bank. In short, none of the Abrahamic faiths are exempt from the kind of selective theological justification that lays the groundwork for violent fundamentalism. Of particular note, however, is the work of Sayyid Qutban Egyptian scholar and one of the most influential modern Muslim writers, whose radical interpretation of Islam has had a resounding impact on modern history. In his 1964 book, entitled Milestones, Qutb essentially sets the stage for a confrontation between Islam and the West. He repudiates democracy as “infertile” and says that the West is in decline because it lacks certain life-giving values. Islam, according to Qutb, is the only system that can provide the values that Western democracy lacks, an idea he actively pursued as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Central to his argument is a call for Muslims to recognize the ignorance (Jahiliyya) of the West. The antithesis of Islam is jahiliyya, and those who are deemed ignorant are essentially enemies of Islam. Qutb places all modern societies in opposition to Islam by labeling them jahiliyya because they do not base their legislative systems on the oneness of God. Using uncommon definitions and vague religious vocabulary is one of his techniques for setting up this confrontation. While words like jahiliyya are little known to non-Muslims and may on the face of it seem unimportant, consider the effect of another such word: jihad.

Since the time of the Prophet, the term jihad has commonly meant “striving” or “personal struggle” and is used by Muslims to describe their individual efforts to find a personal oneness with God. In Milestones, Qutb departs from this traditional usage and uses the word jihad to convey the idea of a “holy war.” Although this definition does have precedent in the Qur’an, it is rarely used. Thus, in classic fundamentalist style, Qutb isolated and converted a lesser idea into an overriding religious duty.

By the same token, as the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, said in a presentation last June at a Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council conference: “The word crusade, even though it may mean many good different things for Christians, for the Muslims it means only one thing: the military campaign against Islam. In the same way, the word jihad to Muslims may mean many good things, but for the Non-Muslim it means only one thing: the violent actions against their faith. Therefore, all of us should be extremely careful in using the words so that no one has need to apologize later that he or she did not mean by crusade what the Muslims mean, and that he or she did not mean by jihad what the Non-Muslims mean.”

The work of Sayyid Qutb holds a central position for most modern Muslim terrorist organizations. By manipulating the meaning and interpretation of scripture in response to modern times, Milestones has provided the foundation for pitting Islam against nonbelievers in a millennial confrontation. While he was simply presenting a theory of Islam like centuries of scholars before him, the work of Qutb struck an unusually responsive chord in an increasingly hostile and defensive Muslim society.

Equally central to the evolution of religious terrorism have been the activities of Hizbu’llah, the militant Shi’ite group operating in the Middle East. Just as Sayyid Qutb took advantage of the political atmosphere of Egypt in the 1950s to advance his own agenda, the spiritual leader of Hizbu’llah, Shaykh Fadlallah, in similar fashion took advantage of the tensions of war-ravaged Lebanon in the early 1980s. Inspired and supported by the newly founded Islamic Republic of Iran, Fadlallah initiated a coalition of Sunni and Shi’ite Lebanese, as well as Palestinians, in opposition to the “common enemies of Islam,” which included Maronite Christians, France, Israel and the United States. Shaykh Fadlallah connected the plight of the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees to Qutb’s concept of jihad, and preached self-sacrifice as the only appropriate response for defending Islam. He promoted the righteousness of suicide by stressing martyrdom as a means for bringing back the Messiah, thus fulfilling the vision of the Qur’anic apocalypse. In this regard, he used the concept of a cosmic war and the imminent approach of the “end times” to justify the use of violence by the faithful in the fight to overcome evil, thus creating a divine, suicidal mandate for his followers.

While Fadlallah’s campaign calling for the unthinkable act of killing one’s self in the name of religion was unprecedented, it was also seemingly justified and politically well-timed. The disaffected youth in the refugee ranks seized upon the concept of martyrdom as their best weapon against the otherwise insurmountable enemy that caused their suffering. Fadlallah’s teachings focused on the violent and apocalyptic traditions of Islam and replaced the stagnant Palestinian nationalist movement with a religious one, thus giving a new sense of hope to those Arabs and Muslims who had made the Palestinian cause their own. Searching for a face-saving escape from years of humiliation, many Arabs were willing to accept Fadlallah’s call for the creation of an Islamic state. A mass media campaign conveyed this thinking throughout the Arab world, and it was readily accepted on a broader scale. Furthermore, social services provided by Hizbu’llah that were not being provided by the government of Lebanon lent added legitimacy to his words. Political passions and the sense of injustice left by colonialism thus overwhelmed any concerns about unsound religious foundations and forever changed the Palestinian movement.

As we have seen, when religious scripture is retrieved selectively and applied situationally, it becomes a powerful tool for justifying the unjustifiable. This is crucial for the religious terrorist where religious legitimacy trumps all other considerations-whether they relate to ethnicity, nationalism or racism. If religious terrorists can point to a “precedent” in sacred scripture or tradition, opponents will find it difficult to dispute the morality of their actions, despite their obvious contradiction with the overarching spirit of the religion. This is true of all major world religions, as illustrated by the bitter, 20 year conflict in Sri Lanka where the peaceful tenets of Buddhism have been turned upside down to justify an endless stream of military atrocities.

To provide a more graphic illustration of the relationship between religion and the terrorist mindset, we have only to think about the passengers who overwhelmed the hijackers on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. As expressed by Islamic theologian Farid Esack:

“The sure prospect of their own deaths didn’t keep them from doing what they had to do to prevent greater harm, essentially to save a larger part of humankind. Difficult as this may be for us to understand, in the twisted minds of these suicide bombers, they too saw themselves as giving their lives so that a larger part of humanity may live. For them, the United States is the enemy, Satan incarnate, who is causing chaos and destruction around the world.”

The most obvious counter to religious terrorism would be to inspire respected Muslim religious leaders and scholars to speak out against the terrorists’ misuse of religious verse. When moderates don’t speak as loudly as the militants, the militants speak for them as well.

Another possible approach would be to interject an alternative paradigm. As Farid Esack has also argued, Muslims have only two theological paradigms on which to base their lives: that of a community of oppressed believers in Mecca and that of the same community firmly in control in Medina. He notes the need for a model of co-existing with others on an equal basis and suggests an “Abyssinian paradigm” as a way ahead. This refers to the time when the Prophet sent a group of his followers in Mecca to live in Abyssinia. They did so and lived there happily for quite a number of years to the point where many of them didn’t return, even after Muslims had seized power in Mecca. Nor did they make any attempt to turn Abyssinia into an Islamic state.

This third way, the way of cultural-coexistence and tolerance, is clearly needed if Islam is to find its way without further bloodshed. The West will have to do its part as well in alleviating to the extent possible those conditions that drive people to such desperate measures as the taking of one’s own life and those of innocent others. We are all in this together and time is running out.



Presentation by Douglas M. Johnston to International Military Chaplains Conference in Tallinn, Estonia.
April 8, 2003

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