Aristotle believed virtue was a mean between two extremes. If he was right, then public discussion about Islamist terrorism in the West is not particularly virtuous. The debate is often characterised by two extreme and uncompromising positions.

Some argue that Islam is intrinsically violent and therefore every Muslim is a potential terrorist. Then there are those who would have us believe Islam has nothing to do with the violence conducted in its name.

Former Roxburgh Park man Suhan Raham, aka Abu Jihad al Australi. The notion that religion and politics have separate roles in our personal and social lives is a distinctively Western idea.
Former Roxburgh Park man Suhan Raham, aka Abu Jihad al Australi. The notion that religion and politics have separate roles in our personal and social lives is a distinctively Western idea.
Photo: Facebook.
Both these positions are untenable. The notion that religion and politics have separate roles in our personal and social lives is a distinctively Western idea. It is not a concept found in Islam's theological tradition, nor one recognised by today's jihadists.

For the Muslim, God's revealed law extends into domains considered secular in the West, such as criminal law, inheritance law and treaties. This helps explain why the actions of jihadists can appear "political" to the Western observer and at the same time be conceived as "religious" by the actors themselves.

The idea that the Muslims fighting with groups like Islamic State are not motivated by their religious faith defies the weight of evidence to the contrary. Jihadists tell us at every breath that their goals and motivations are religious, whether the aspiration to revive the caliphate or the desire to implement sharia. They incessantly cite passages from the Koran, the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad, and classical and contemporary commentaries on those texts to support their claims.

Some commentators maintain that jihadists are cynically using Islam to legitimate their exclusively political agendas. But the evidence points to a far simpler explanation: jihadists really do believe what they say they believe. That the jihadists' interpretation of Islam's religious texts and tradition is not shared by the majority of Muslims, and that their aims look "political" to Western eyes, is not evidence that those interpretations are not genuinely held and that religious belief is not a key motivation for their actions.

If terrorism were a natural response to political grievances, such as political oppression, poverty and alienation, then frankly we would expect to see a world full of terrorists from all faiths, nationalities and political ideologies. For grievances of this type confront all peoples.

It is difficult on the basis of grievances alone to explain why one particular religious community generates a set of violent threats to Western interests and their own societies that no other religious, ethnic or ideological community currently does. It is also difficult to explain why the majority of Muslims who confront the same grievances don't respond with terrorism and violence if the link is so strong and natural.

The notion that all Muslims are either wolves in sheep's clothing or potential extremists who just need to read the Koran to become raging terrorists is just as difficult to sustain. Many in the West struggle to place Islamist terrorism in its true sociological, religious and historical context. In large part this is because extremist Islam is the only form of Islam that many in the West have any exposure to.

This produces the ironic situation whereby some non-Muslim commentators and members of the public find themselves agreeing with jihadists that the jihadists' interpretation of Islam is the one true authentic expression of the faith that all Muslims ought to follow.

This view fails to sufficiently take into account that the jihadist interpretation is only one interpretative school vying for the allegiance of today's Muslims. And it is currently a minority view with a proportionately small number of followers.

It's impossible to know what the fortunes of the contemporary jihadist movement will be, but it is worth noting two serious obstacles that should make us sceptical about the direst predictions of an impending extremist domination of Islam.

First, millions of Muslims simply find the jihadist agenda unattractive and repellent. Wherever jihadist regimes emerge, Muslims flee, from Somalia to Afghanistan.

Second, Muslims are resisting. We mustn't forget that the people fighting and dying in an effort to stop and defeat jihadists from Somalia to Afghanistan are Muslims, and by and large they are backed by Western power. This is not to say that Muslim counter-forces can or will defeat the global jihadist movement. If this was easy it would have happened already. But extremist domination of Islam, whether by persuasion or force, is far from inevitable.

As disconcerting, difficult and painful as it may be to accept, it would be a virtue if public discussion of Islamist terrorism could acknowledge the simple truth that the contemporary jihadist ideology is grounded in Muslim revelation, tradition and history. Acknowledging this fact is not the same as passing judgment on the legitimacy or otherwise of their interpretation of those sources.

But pretending, or perhaps hoping, that those fighting jihad are not motivated by their Muslim convictions, however sound or unsound, is merely a recipe for ignorance.

It would also be a great virtue if we could recognise that just because jihadists and some Western non-Muslim observers believe that the extremist interpretation of Islam is more authentic and valid than any of the others does not mean that the world's billion Muslims are destined to agree with them.

Jonathan Cole is a former senior terrorism analyst at the Office of National Assessments. These are his personal views.

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