Three comforting but ultimately dangerous myths impede the West’s ability to understand the global jihadist movement. They have been with us since 9/11.
The first is that Islam is a religion of peace and, as such, jihadist theology is nothing short of a perversion of Muslim teaching that hardly deserves the label. The second is that jihadists cynically exploit religion to mask, or perhaps facilitate, exclusively political motivations and aspirations. The third is that the ranks of jihadists are made up the deranged and psychopaths, and therefore their ideology is incoherent nonsense that can’t be taken seriously.
Each of these myths relies on a false dichotomy: Islam is a religion of absolute peace or absolute violence, but nothing in between; the jihadist movement has religious or political motivations, not both; and jihadists are deceitful or mad, but not rational actors who believe what they say they believe. These myths all lead to the illusion that an understanding of the global jihadist movement and its violence does not require engagement with Islamic theology. The impact of this fallacy can be seen in the commentary of many terrorism experts, which all too often betrays a lack of in-depth knowledge of or interest in jihadist theology.
It is a matter of empirical fact that the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims do not actively participate in or support the jihadist movement. It should be obvious by now that it takes more than simply opening the Koran for a Muslim to become a terrorist. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that jihadist theology is grounded in Islam’s authoritative religious texts and traditions. It is true the jihadist interpretation of these sources is contested. But that the sources themselves are authoritative for Muslims is not. Whatever the merits of jihadists’ Koranic interpretation, the fact is that Islam’s holy book is integral to their world view and vision.
Why is it so hard for the West to accept that the jihadist movement is fundamentally a religious movement? Jihadists are under no such illusion. They tell us at every breath that their struggle is about Islam. As far as they are concerned, their movement emerged out of the Great Islamic Awakening of the 20th century and has been going since the 1960s. One of their longstanding beliefs is that one of the causes of Islam’s modern decline was the abandonment of violent jihad, and that reviving it will restore commitment to the Islamic faith.
There is no dispute that jihadists are political actors, have political goals and are having a profound political impact. But why do so many commentators appear to believe this means they also cannot possibly belong to a religious movement? Religious movements are perfectly capable of also being political actors, having political agendas and being of political consequence. Isn’t this precisely the experience of Western societies? Just think of the impact the Christian right continues to have in US politics.
It is well-documented that the jihadist movement attracts its fair share of criminals, drifters, adventurers, psychopaths and people with mental health problems. All conflicts do. However, one also finds among jihadist ranks intellectuals, Islamic scholars, gifted leaders, skilled technicians and cunning tacticians. These are much more representative of jihadist leadership and far more responsible for the movement’s ideology. Moreover, many of the movement’s fighters and supporters are devout true believers. The character of the movement is better judged by the career jihadists and ideologues who lead and perpetuate it rather than the flotsam and jetsam they attract from the fringes of the Muslims world in Western diasporas.
It is time the West abandoned these misleading myths about the role of Islamic theology in the contemporary jihadist movement, along with the false dichotomies on which they are based. The fact we are still debating whether Islamic theology has anything to do with a movement that has spawned something called the Islamic State shows just how far the West has to go. The West urgently must find a way to speak empirically, objectively and soberly about the global jihadist movement and its Islamic theology, free of the baggage of Western ideological battles that have nothing to do with the jihadist movement.
Accepting that Islamic theology plays an integral role in jihadist violence is not the end of the matter. It is merely the beginning of the conversation the West should be having but so far has been unable or unwilling to have. There is more to jihadists than Islamic theology. Jihadists, like all people of faith, are shaped to some extent by their cultural, social, political and economic environment. But it is not an either-or question.
The debate should focus on understanding the complex ways in which Islamic texts, tradition and theology interact with environmental factors in the thought of contemporary jihadists. As long as the West fails to resolve the fundamental question of whether to rule in or out Islamic theology as part of the conversation about the global jihadist movement, it remains destined to be locked in a conflict with a force it has no hope of understanding.
Jonathan Cole is a former senior terrorism analyst at the Office of National Assessments 2010-14. These are his personal views. He has a chapter, The Jihadist Current and the West, appearing in a forthcoming Bloomsbury book, Does Religion Cause Violence?