What about Islam and Jihad?
The term jihad is a loaded term with multiple and conflicting meanings. It was used for the Afghan resistance, and since then for every struggle involving Muslims fighting resistance and liberation as well as extremism and terrorism (Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, Bali, Gaza, etc.). The Bin Ladens, along with many non-Muslims ironically, conflate jihad with a Muslim holy war against unbelievers. But many observant Muslims will deny that link, but point to the Crusades as the origin of “holy wars.”
To most Muslims, jihad implies honor and sacrifice for others, even when interpreted military, it comes with many conditions, including the writ against targeting civilians. Using jihad and terrorism as synonyms is wrong and counterproductive, and the meaning of Jihad to Muslims is much more nuanced than what many Western commentators invoke.
Religion & Politics: Yesterday and Today
While people find linking of religion and politics in Islam as being peculiar, it belies history throughout which politics and religion have been linked. Judaism’s King David and King Solomon conquered and settled at the behest of God, Christianity’s kings and emperors were crowned by the Pope and fought crusades for expansion. Hinduism’s kings upheld “divine order” and used the doctrine of dharma to support the caste system.
In recent decades, religion has been used in wars of liberation and for terrorism throughout the world: Muslim Bosnians, Christian Serbs, Catholic/Protestants Irish, Muslims and Jewish fundamentalists in Israel/Palestine, etc.
Religion and Suicide Terrorism
Is religion a key precipitator of such terrorism?
The best research on this has been done by Robert Pape (referred to sometime ago on MM), author of Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism:
The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorists attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign-more than 94% of all the incidents-has had its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw. [Source: Interview on The American Conservative]
However, both religious and secular groups often frame their terrorist acts within a powerful religious context: Tamil Tigers using Hindu identity against Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Hamas using Islamic identity, even Al-Aqsa Martyrs, a secular militia using Islam, etc. Although suicide attacks seem to evoke Hamas as the originator, the most devastating suicide attack was against the US Marine barracks in 1983, killing 241 US soldiers, motivated by Hezbollah with the attackers belonging to diverse religious backgrounds. In Lebanon attacks since the 80s, attackers have included 8 Muslim “fundamentalists”, 3 Christians, and 27 communists/socialists.
Pape’s research also concluded that two-thirds of al-Qaeda suicide terrorists from ’95 to ’04 were from countries where the US had a heavy presence of troops since 1990. There was no suicide terrorism in Iraq before the invasion and occupation. But it was used by both Shias and Sunnis in their sectarian conflicts and in trying to end US occupation.
What do Muslims say about Western countries and Leaders?
While political radicals are more negative than moderates in their opinions about the West as a whole, stark differences exist between views about individual countries in the West. France and Germany have unfavorable levels of only about 25%, while UK is at 68% and US at 84% unfavorable. Similarly, 90% of political radicals and 62% moderates have absolute dislike for Bush. The number drops to 70% and 43% for Blair, and drops to minority levels at 39% and 24% for Chirac.
Furthermore, the US is considered “aggressive” by 81% of radicals, 67% of moderates, while only 8-9% of radicals and moderates see France or Germany as aggressive. So, in conclusion the data obliterates the suggestion that radicals or for that matter, the average Muslim, holds some overwhelming blind hatred for all of West and all of Western culture.
How is America viewed specifically?
Not very kindly of course. While America’s stated policy is to promote democracy, a sizable chunk of the Muslim/Arab population isn’t buying it. About 50% moderates are skeptical about this official US policy statement, while 72% of political radicals don’t buy it.
Muslims’ skepticism is based on what they believe are double-standards exhibited by the US on democracy and human-rights. A politician and community leader in Nigeria remarked that US and the UN turn a blind eye towards Israel when it attacks Palestine, but when there is a counter-attack by Palestinians, it is condemned as terrorism. As a female student at American University of Cairo, a leading institute of Western education, quipped:
Bush has given Israel carte blanch to attack Palestinians and Lebanese. The war on terror is an open-ended war on Muslims.
Ultimately, the authors conclude:
For the politically radicalized, their fear of Western control and domination, as well as their lack of self-determination, reinforces their sense of powerlessness. Thus, a belief has developed among the politically radicalized that they must dedicate themselves to changing an untenable situation.
Importance of religious & cultural identity
Modern post-World War II Muslim nations’ hopes of a bright future were not grounded in the reality of having arbitrary borders drawn by European colonial powers. It placed people with historical rivalries into the same nation, a fragile process that led to later conflicts and civil wars, such as in Lebanon and Iraq.
Arab nationalism movements led to the tumbling of Western-appointed rulers. At the same time, Islamic movements such as al-Ikhwaan (Muslim brotherhood) started attracting thousands of members in various Arab countries.
The 1967 Arab defeat to the Israelis was a watershed moment for Arab pride and identity. Governments started turning to Islam as a “stay in power” strategy. Thus, since 1970s, religion and culture have become more integrated in Muslim politics and society. Religious identity is important to both political radicals and moderates, and what they most admire about themselves and their nations. But more radicals (65%) give top priority to holding on to spiritual/moral values compared to moderates (45%).
On the other hand, one of the biggest resentments for both moderates and radicals towards the West is its “disrespect for Islam”, and “improving the presentation of Islam to the West” was a top response from both groups in what the Muslim world could do to improve relations with the West.
The “war against Islam”
Across the Muslim world, the belief of a Western war against Islam and Muslims has become a popular theme, with majorities in many Muslim countries believing that US’s goal is to “weaken and divide the Islamic world”.
There is a strong fear of the appeal of Western culture in movies, music and programs that encourage permissiveness and considered as an assault on Islamic character. What Muslims resent the most was consistently answered as “sexual and cultural promiscuity”, followed by “ethical and moral corruption” and then “hatred of Muslims” for both radicals and moderates. Another source of resentment is the depiction of Muslims in Western media.While a significantly greater proportion of the political radicals cite Western cultural saturation, immorality and moral corruption as top reasons for resentment, not even a small percentage suggests that the West should “stop being immoral and corrupt” in order to improve relations with the Muslim world.
What Muslims request for better relations has nothing to do with asking people in the West to change who they are, but rather what they do: to respect Islam and Muslims and make concrete changes in certain aspects of foreign policy.
This commitment to cultural values and the fear of Western hegemony drives political radicals to be much more fearful about the threat of foreign interference in their countries, relative to moderates who are more worried about economics. This fear extends to a distrust of the West’s desire for coexistence and pessimism about the future. Radicals (50% of them) are also more committed and believe that it is “completely justifiable” to “sacrifice one’s life for something one believes in”, while 18% of moderates believe this. So, although both moderates and radicals are concerned about Western bias and interference, the greater intensity and fear that radicals have about the West makes them a more fertile ground for terrorism recruiting.
Is sympathy for terrorist acts a Muslim monopoly?
We keep hearing that Muslims support terrorism much more than other groups, despite data showing that Muslim sympathy for terrorism is NOT driven by religious reasons.
Ironically, Muslims on average are more likely to condemn attacks on civilians unequivocally than even the general American public! A recent study shows that:
Only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified”, while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified” [See poll]
Similarly, 6% of American public thinks that attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified”, compared to Lebanon/Iran (2%) and Saudi Arabia (4%). Muslims in Paris and London are equivalent in their justification of attacks on civilians, even for a “noble cause”.
So, why does terrorism continue to flourish in Muslim countries, despite Muslims’ rejection of terrorism?
What these results indicate is that terrorism is as much an “out group” activity as any other violent crime.
Just like violent crimes (murders, rapes, etc.) continue to occur in US doesn’t mean that Americans are fine with them; similarly the presence of terrorism is not evidence of Muslims’ acquiescence to it. The statistical data indicates the opposite.
Diagnosis or misdiagnoses
Blaming Islam for terrorism is wrong and has serious repercussion. It reinforces radicals’ views about the West’s war on Islam, and alienates the moderate majority. Bush’s use of the word crusades in describing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (what some call a Freudian slip) doesn’t help matters.
Americans and the vast majority of Muslims despise extremism. According to the polls, Americans least admire “radicalism” in the Muslim world, and similarly Muslims’ top concern about their own society is extremism. This should not be surprising since Muslims have suffered the most from terrorism. Terrorists are not glorified; they are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims.
This then is the good news, plus the fact that 90%+ Muslims are in the “easier” moderate category. The bad news is that there is a sea of misunderstandings and misperceptions that Muslims have about the West and vice-versa, as well as the presence of many politically radicalized individuals who could move either way (to moderation or to greater extremism). While many Muslims (radicals and moderates) admire the West’s technology, freedom of speech, and value of hard work, Americans when asked what they know about Muslims had two predominant responses: “Nothing”, and “I don’t know”.
There are 1.3 billion Muslims today worldwide. If the 7% (91 million) of the politically radicalized continue to feel politically dominated, occupied and disrespected, the West will have little, if any, chance of changing their minds.
- The majority of respondents in predominantly Muslim countries condemn the vents of 9/11
- The minority (7%) who condone attacks and view the US unfavorably are no more religious than the general population
- What distinguishes political radicals from others is their perception of the West’s politics, and not its culture.