Elsewhere (3)
The Opposite of Coy

Naming the Devil

Tawfik Hamid ponders jihad and the perils of euphemism.   

Yes, the word “jihad” has several, including some peaceful, meanings - but that doesn’t change the fact that most authoritative Islamic texts and systems of jurisprudence maintain that its primary meaning is “warfare to subjugate the world to Islam”… And it is simply a fact that jihad, as taught by Sunni Islam’s four schools of jurisprudence, is either a war to defend Muslims or to impose Islam on non-Muslims. It may be uncomfortable to admit these facts - and doing so may run certain risks. But it is true, and the costs of ignoring reality are far higher than the benefits of glossing over it.

Not that this has prevented Islam’s hagiographer-in-chief, Karen Armstrong, from glossing furiously, with claims that, “jihad… for most Muslims, has no connection with violence,” and, “until recently, no Muslim thinker had ever claimed [violent jihad] was a central tenet of Islam.” By whitewashing the concept of jihad and its fundamental importance in Islamic history, apologists, moderate believers – and those to whom they appeal - are tactically wrong-footed. Moderation so conceived is essentially a sleight-of-hand, and, however well-intended, is at odds with history and Muhammad’s own exhortations to violence. It isn’t enough to pretend that jihad was originated and understood as something fluffy and benign. (In May 1994, when Yasser Arafat called for a “jihad to liberate Jerusalem,” it wasn’t entirely obvious how such a thing might be achieved by an inner spiritual struggle with no physical connotations.)

Hamid continues,

Islamists are not waiting for “infidel” Americans to define jihad for them; they defined it themselves, a very long time ago. If Muslim leaders wish to insist that the word refers primarily to a peaceful struggle against the self, they have that option. Let them clearly and publicly denounce the current doctrine and establish a new one. That’s the answer - not redefining reality… The movie The Usual Suspects may have put it best: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” One of the most devious tactics used by the Islamists is scaring their enemy out of speaking the plain truth about this virulent strain of Islam, for fear it might alienate or offend millions of moderate Muslims. But this ensures that no one will directly confront their violent ideologies and the books that contain them.

Revisionists like Armstrong would have their readers believe that jihadist ideology is an aberration of Islam, disconnected from the religion’s history and origins. But jihad - understood as aggressive warfare to advance the spread of Islam - is not some modern invention of bin Laden, or Sayyid Qutb, or al-Wahhab. It’s the invention of Muhammad and his immediate successors, and has been sacralised and codified by centuries of Islamic law. This is jihad as it appears in many Islamic schoolbooks. Mainstream commentaries on the Qur’an, including those by Ibn Kathir, explain in detail what constitutes “provocation” and thus justifies jihad. Kathir, like many others, defines as provocation pretty much anything that hinders the spread of Islam or contradicts its message. Thus, the threshold is so low - and so unilateral - as to enable the aggressor to cast himself as victim. This historical line of thinking explains in part the passive-aggressive tone so common to Islamist rhetoric. 

This accumulation of precedent and theology, and the sacralising of expansionist supremacism, cannot be wished away as some malicious fabrication. It has to be challenged head-on and, if possible, reformed. The theology of the past needn’t define a religion’s future; but it’s hard to see how a more functional form of Islam can be coaxed into existence on an institutional scale without a searching critique of its founder and his behaviour. This is the intimate flaw of Islam; the source of so much dysfunction and extraordinary insecurity. The founder of a religion, his example and the means by which he urged others to propagate the faith are not insignificant details. They influence laws, a worldview and the broader tenor of what follows. And when atrocity and intolerance can be traced back directly to Muhammad’s own deeds and purported revelations, dissonance and dishonesty may be difficult to avoid.