Monday, June 21, 2004

The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism

One of the challenges facing us in this latest struggle with totalitarianism is that the current strain doesn't clothe itself in nationalism as German, Italian and Japanese fascism did during WWII, nor in secular utopianism as communism did during the Cold War. Instead, it comes to us clothed in the religion of Islam.

This presents a challenge for a tolerant, secular democracy like the United States. A people for whom religious freedom is a founding principle may understandably, have qualms accepting the reality of a religious war or of an enemy motivated by religious beliefs.

The Bush administration has taken great pains to make clear that we are at war with terrorists, not with Islam. In his memorable speech before the Joint Session of Congress on September 20, 2001, President Bush said:
"The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics -- a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam. The terrorists' directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans, and make no distinction among military and civilians, including women and children...

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. (Applause.) The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them."
Is this entirely true? Are the terrorists responsible for 9/11 on the "fringe" of Islam? Clearly the President had compelling reasons to say what he did; the need to single out the terrorists as the focus of our upcoming efforts; his duty to protect American Muslims, etc. But despite how we view it, clearly our opponents see this as a religious war. In the June issue of Policy Review, Shmuel Bar addresses this aspect of the war in The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism (Via No Left Turns).

Mr. Bar argues that there are factors, deeply embedded in Islam, that motivate terrorist attacks. Chief among these is that "Arab" Sunni Islam is essentially "unreformed" and frozen in the 10th century. Both Christianity, which went through the bloodshed of the Reformation and counter-reformation and Judaism, which saw the destruction of the Temple and the diaspora, experienced a separation of secular and temporal power.
"The underlying element in the radical Islamist worldview is ahistoric and dichotomist: Perfection lies in the ways of the Prophet and the events of his time; therefore, religious innovations, philosophical relativism, and intellectual or political pluralism are anathema. In such a worldview, there can exist only two camps Dar al-Islam ('The House of Islam' - i.e., the Muslim countries) and Dar al-Harb ('The House of War' - i.e., countries ruled by any regime but Islam) - which are pitted against each other until the final victory of Islam."
There is no separation of church and state in Islam. Although there is no Caliphate today, it remains the ideal: "Islam is, in essence, both religion and regime (din wa-dawla) and no area of human activity is outside its remit."

This dualism leads to the duty, under Islam , of jihad, which Mr. Bar makes clear means a "divinely ordained war", not some new age "striving". Mr. Bar cites the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a crucial factor in reviving the concept of jihad as a personal duty of Muslims:
"The basis of this duty derives from the 'irreversibility' of Islamic identity both for individual Muslims (thus, capital punishment for 'apostates' - e.g., Salman Rushdie) and for Muslim territories. Therefore, any land (Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Spain) that had once been under the sway of Islamic law may not revert to control by any other law. In such a case, it becomes the 'personal duty' of all Muslims in the land to fight a jihad to liberate it. If they do not succeed, it becomes incumbent on any Muslim in a certain perimeter from that land to join the jihad and so forth. Accordingly, given the number of Muslim lands under 'infidel occupation' and the length of time of those occupations, it is argued that it has become a personal duty for all Muslims to join the jihad. This duty - if taken seriously - is no less a religious imperative than the other five pillars of Islam (the statement of belief or shahadah, prayer, fasting, charity, and haj). It becomes a de facto (and in the eyes of some a de jure) sixth pillar; a Muslim who does not perform it will inherit hell."
Additionally, the funding of jihad, or, in this case, the funding of terrorism in the name of jihad is "deeply entrenched" in Islamic tradition: "While there have been attempts to bring Muslim clerics to denounce acts of terrorism, none, to date, have condemned the donation of money for jihad." This allows those who are not willing to take up arms themselves to receive religious approbation by funding those who are.

These religious roots make it difficultMuslimsny moderate muslims, who have no desire for jihad, to denounce terrorism; "...the less observant or less orthodox will hesitate to challenge fundamental dogmas out of fear of being branded slack or lapsed in their faith."

Is our conflict with Islam then? Not necessarily. While the concept of jihad is deeply rooted in Islam, Mr. Bar points out that the emphasis on it as a personal duty was considered a heresy in medieval time and is subject to interpretation; "...much of the debate between radicals and nonradicals is not over the religious principles themselves, but over their implication for actual actual behavior as based on the detailed legal interpretation of those principles." More importantly, Mr. Bar stresses the need for the West to address the religious aspects of the war along with the military and political aspects. Chief among these are the need for moderate voices in Islam to step forward and condemn the actions of these murderers. President Bush's interpretation of Islam may not carry much weight, but a fatwa, from the right authority, declaring "suicide bombimgs are clear act of suicide, and therefore, their perpertrators are condemned to eternal hellfire" might do much to quell the flood of volunteers.

Mr. Bar lays out a persuasive case for the need for the West to overcome its discomfort and address the religious aspects of the war on terror. It does not have to be a war on Islam, but Islam needs to fight its own battles.