In the wake of the Boston bombings, for which the motivations are still unclear, the connection between Islam and violence has surfaced again in the American media. Some voices on the American right have once again made it clear, as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson put it critically, that they “regard terrorism and Islam as interchangeable.”
There are some understandable reasons for this grossly mistaken view. In the past two decades, Americans have been repeatedly targeted by terrorists who don't just happen to be Muslim, but also justify their carnage by referring to a particular Islamic concept called jihad. On the other hand, voices from the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims, insisted that in its broadest sense jihad really means a “spiritual struggle” for a more noble soul — an explanation which was factually true, yet actually irrelevant.
The truth is more complex and nuanced. Yes, Islam, the second-largest religion in the world, carries a tradition of jihad, a term which implies a holy war. And yes, those Muslim extremists who want to kill as many Americans as possible refer to this tradition, proudly identifying themselves as jihadis, or “jihadists.” However, they don’t find real motivation in the classical Islamic texts written at least a millennium ago. Instead, their stimulus is rooted in ways in which they interpret — or misinterpret — current affairs in the modern world.
They are, in other words, driven by a political ideology that includes some religious references, rather than the religion itself.
The ideology in question is rooted in one of the responses to a major drama that Muslims have gone through in the past hundred years: defeat, humiliation and oppression of the umma — the global Muslim community — by other civilizations, especially the West, or by the enemies within, such as the secular dictators. Throughout time, many Muslim minds painfully pondered on these calamities and asked, “What has happened to us?” For some, the trouble arose from the mistakes of Muslims themselves. One of them, Ottoman scholar Said Nursi (1878-1960), whose works have inspired millions in Turkey, wrote that Muslims had “three big enemies,” namely “ignorance, poverty, and internal conflict.” Others, though, believed that the trouble was rooted outside. The “three big enemies” of the late Osama Bin Laden, for example, were “Americans, Jews, and Crusaders.”
This is the ideology that one finds with all “jihadist” websites and networks, with an indispensable list of cruelties committed against Muslims in four corners of the world, from Kashmir to Chechnya, from Burma to Bosnia. The “jihadists” then argue that these are not isolated events arising from local tensions, but a coordinated conspiracy orchestrated by the world system — which, naturally, is said to be run by the United States. They also see what Americans politely call “collateral damage” as nothing but willful massacres of the Muslim innocents. They even find ways to explain away the cases in which American foreign policy actually helped to save Muslims from slaughter — such as in Kosovo and partly in Bosnia.
The “self-radicalization” of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the apparent mastermind of the Boston attack who was killed during clashes with the police, is a case in point. According to US government sources quoted by the media, he was mainly driven by “anger over the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and was an avid follower of conspiracy-oriented websites such as Infowars.com, which is not Islamic at all but explains the whole world via CIA plots.
It is also notable that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar were not observant Muslims, but rather beer-drinking, marijuana-enjoying “cool” young men until their born-again moment — like many other terrorists of the recent past. The newfound piety of all such militants is mainly fuelled by politics — the suffering of the Muslims, whether real or perceived — rather than a spiritual path to Godliness. What they really subscribe to is a militant nationalism of the umma, and, like in all militant nationalisms, a hatred of the enemy.
At this point, the concept of “jihad” comes into the scene, as the justification to act on the hatred, and — this is crucial — mainly as a defensive mechanism: retaliation against those who are already believed to have launched a war on Islam. In other words, the “jihadists” are really not trying to convert the whole world to Islam, nor kill all “infidels” out there. Instead, they only target “the enemies of Islam.” To stress this point, Bin Laden once had asked Americans to think, “Why did we not attack Sweden?”
However, there is a problem for all the Bin-Laden-like “jihadists”: Jihad is a tradition of a just war, and it includes numerous rules of fairness, including a clear ban on attacking non-combatants. Prophet Muhammad is on the record for ordering his troops: “Do not kill the very old, the infant, the child, or the woman.” That is why some medieval Islamic scholars even disapproved of the usage of catapults during sieges, arguing that they would inflict indiscriminate violence on the population.
In other words, jihad can really inspire an armed campaign against an army, but it can never serve to justify terrorist attacks against civilian populations. This is the main point made by many mainstream Sunni and Shiite scholars in their condemnations of al-Qaeda and similar groups. Those groups, on the other hand, have tried to find loopholes in the classical texts, or argued that terrorism was an eye-for-an-eye response to “the slaughter of Muslims.”
The rest of us who want to live in a peaceful world can infer three lessons from all this:
First, all Muslims believe in Islam, but only a tiny minority among them believes in the “jihadist” ideology, let alone acts on it. Taking these extremists as representatives of all Muslims would be a disastrous mistake.
Second, since the “jihadist” ideology is driven by the perception that Islam is under attack, any further portrayal of Islam as “the enemy of the West,” as some far-right voices in the Unites States have done, does nothing but fuel the fire.
Third, the terrorists in question in fact do not deserve to represent jihad, a legal tradition that has always carefully distinguished between combatants and civilians. Hence, rather than doing them a favor by granting them the title “jihadists,” we should instead condemn them for violating the rules of the true jihad by their ruthless and mindless murders.
Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a columnist for two Turkish newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.