When the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) on February 4, 2014 issued a monograph, A Guide to Refuting Jihadism: Critiquing radical Islamist claims to theological authenticity (HJS Jihadism Guide) I shared it with a colleague, Clare Lopez. I posed a question to her whether given the HJS authors and Muslim commentators, this effort was tantamount to Da’wa, especially given an endorsement by a bevy of Sunni Muslim scholars. Lopez did not think that the HJS monograph was helpful.
The HJS Jihadism Guide propounded these conclusions:
Al-Qa’ida, Hamas and Lashkar-e-Ta’iba claim that their violent actions are supported within the four traditional schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence and that traditional Islam itself mandates a jihadist view of scripture. [The Guide] counters these theological claims by demonstrating that their arguments are not based on Islamic consensus or traditionally recognized interpretations of classical Islamic sources. Part I examines the division of the world into Dar al-Islam (‘lands of Islam’) and Dar al-Harb (‘lands of war’). By demonstrating that the Islamist understanding of the former is much narrower than that of classical scholars, the report counters key jihadist tenets, including the requirements to re-conquer Islamic lands; to reject peaceful relations with illegitimate states; and to re-establish an expansionist ‘Islamic’ state, known as the Caliphate. Part II demonstrates that the jihadist groups’ rendering of the rules of Islamic warfare – particularly who can declare jihad (‘religiously sanctioned warfare’) and when, as well as who can be targeted, whether suicide operations are religiously lawful and who should fight – diverges from both classical and contemporary sources of Islamic law.
It doesn’t really matter whether the fundamentalists are right about the nature of Islam – it’s loyalties and peer pressure that drive them. How much of what jihadis do is religiously motivated? At one extreme are those who claim their beliefs are entirely explained by oppression and reaction to social circumstances; at the other is the view that the Qur’an is a kind of brain parasite, compelling its victims to slaughter. This latter view is still quite popular on the fringes of the right. I’d like to think the view that religion doesn’t matter at all has been abandoned entirely but there is bound to be some groupuscule or cult that still clings to it. More sophisticated versions of the argument continue, though, and there was a fascinating outbreak … when the Henry Jackson Society published a pamphlet organized by a former jihadi giving theological reasons why jihadi violence is as unjustified as terrorism, and a counterblast saying this would persuade no one, as Muhammad himself had clearly done indiscriminately violent things and the fanatics we are dealing with use only the text of the Qur’an. Both sides in this dispute know what they are talking about. The Henry Jackson pamphlet comes with a foreword by the remarkable Usama Hasan, who himself fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s; the Christian counterblast comes from an experienced watcher of the jihadi scene.
The Christian counterblast was from Dr. Durie published by Lapidomedia.com. Here are Durie’s criticisms of the HJS Jihadism Guide:
This project is also helpful because it acknowledges what is often denied – that the credibility of radical jihadism relies upon religious, theological claims. It claims Islamic legitimacy and this is how, in practice, it gains converts. To counter this religious legitimacy it is also necessary to use theological arguments.
However there are some dangers here for Western governments. One is that there will be a cost to adopting theological positions on Islam. Is a secular state really in a position to make an announcement that one particular form of Islam is ‘correct’ over others? This is like saying that Catholicism is correct, but the Baptist faith is not. And if the state does canonize a “theologically correct” view on Islam, would it really be persuasive to the minds of young radically inclined Muslims that a secular government is teaching Islam to them, or would it just incite suspicion, and detract from the credibility of voices of moderation within the Muslim community? Also where does combating radicalism start and promoting Islam start? (The al-Azhar Sheikh in his introduction [in Arabic] to the report sees the report as an exercise in spreading Islam, not just in combating radicalism.)
The great weakness in the arguments offered is that they appear to be opportunistic, often ignoring conflicting evidence. For example on the subject of suicide bombing, a wide range of modern Muslim scholars have endorsed martyrdom operations against Israel, and to counter these means a more whole-hearted acknowledgement of the weight of the opposing voices. It is not just al-Qaradawi or Al-Qaida ideologues who say this.
Also there is a tendency to cherry pick texts. For example Al-Ghazali is cited to support an argument against killing women and children, but his justification of collateral damage against civilians is not cited:
[O]ne must go on jihad at least once a year… one may use a catapult against them when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them.
Another example is the discussion of ‘perfidy’ or ‘subterfuge’ in warfare. It is argued on the basis of a hadith from Sahih Muslim’s Hadith Collection that Islam forbids the use of deception in warfare, a key point in the theology of martyrdom operations / suicide bombing. However the hadith is cited from a secondary source and the translation is not accurate. The actual Arabic in Sahih Muslim (translated more accurately here) forbids stealing booty and a Muslim is not supposed to break his ‘pledge’. This is not about ‘cheating’ in general. Also the authors ignore the well-known hadith which supports deceit in which Muhammad said: ‘War is deceit’. This approach runs the risk of setting up a straw man only to knock it down. In Islam, support for deception in warfare is more resistant to re-analysis than this.
In the discussion on citizenship – which is a very important issue in Islamic law: can Muslims be loyal citizens? – the authors overlook important rulings collected by the International Fiqh Academy on this issue, which goes against their position.
Yet as soon as one raises such objections, one runs the risk of being accused of supporting the jihadis. My overall view is that the jihadis have more support than this document would acknowledge, and the arguments used against them would not be convincing to many.
The question I ask is whether these arguments will be convincing to a well-trained Muslim scholar. I am not convinced.
I believe the strongest Islamic argument of all against jihadi theology is the ‘necessity’ argument: it will harm Islam by causing its reputation to be destroyed, as we see already in Egypt.
What about the Al-Azhar Sheikh’s support? Well this is political. Al-Azhar must support the anti-jihadi cause, because the Brotherhood are being killed and wiped out due to their views. The wind is blowing against the jihadi position. Also I note that the Sheikh does not endorse specific arguments, just the general thrust of the project.
We asked both Clare Lopez and Dr. Durie for their concluding comments. Lopez wrote:
In the end it doesn’t really matter whether jihadis accurately or properly understand and follow the doctrine, law and scriptures of their faith. The point for the rest of us, who are their targets for conquest, is that they believe they do. As Stephen Coughlin has pointed out that becomes the enemy threat doctrine. It is not for us to pontificate, we must accept them at their word and try to counter them effectively and in a timely way before it is too late.
The HJS monograph is both misleading and inaccurate of how persuasive the jihadi position is. To ignore the jihadi’s arguments will cause authorities to waste money on projects which will do no good at al.
Durie and Lopez have ably criticized the HJS document as both misleading and inaccurate. As Durie states it would appear that the HJS instead of providing an exegesis of jihadist doctrinal has delivered a dangerously opaque document that will not serve their cause well.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.