Struggle of Sword or Spirit
Groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State call their violent campaigns jihad — holy war waged on behalf of Islam. Mainstream Muslims argue that jihad is mostly a spiritual obligation involving internal struggle. In this view, violent jihad is permissible only in extreme cases when sanctioned by legitimate authorities. Nevertheless, the militant jihadists are winning recruits.
The number of groups engaged in violent jihad with the goal of creating their idea of purified Islamic societies grew to 49 in 2013 from three in 1988, a Rand Corp. study says. Their stated aim is to emulate Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad’s early followers, known as the Salaf. Like all Islamists, jihadists support rule by sharia, the precepts laid out mainly in the Koran and in the record of the prophet’s life. But unlike some fundamentalists, jihadists embrace violence. This has prompted censure in Arab countries largely by scholars and religious officials closely connected to governments. That association causes many citizens to discount their views. Similarly, many Muslims dismiss as terrorists those theorists who argue that the jihadists are on sound theological footing.
Literally meaning “to make an effort,” jihad can encompass spiritual, rhetorical, scholarly or military exertion to serve God. The concept of the just war is explored throughout primary Islamic texts, appearing first in the Koran when God permits Muhammad and his early followers to fight their persecutors in seventh century Arabia. In recent years, resistance, liberation and terrorist leaders have taken up the concept of military jihad. After jihadists pushed Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, non-Afghan Muslims who had fought with them returned home to continue holy war. Among them was Osama bin Laden, a Saudi. His group, al-Qaeda, complaining of U.S. aggression in the Middle East, declared war on the U.S. and its allies in 1998 and killed almost 3,000 people in attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
Some jihadists advocate offensive war until all non-Muslims convert or submit to Islamic rule, while others cast their campaigns as defensive, aimed at purifying Muslim lands or reclaiming territory once under Muslim rule. Both positions contradict the view of mainstream scholars that jihad is warranted only to defend Muslim-ruled territory from attack or protect persecuted Muslims. While jihadists have taken it upon themselves to declare war, it’s a well-established view among scholars past and present that only bona fide political leaders have this power. Critics also denounce jihadists for killing civilians, a practice forbidden in primary Islamic texts. Defenders of jihadists have responded with classic collateral-damage arguments. The number of Salafi-jihadist fighters was estimated by Rand to have climbed to as many as 105,000 in 2013 from 1,900 in 1988. Studies of captured and former jihadists indicate a variety of motivations including the need to achieve recognition, belong to a group, experience adventure and vent frustration — whether over a personal, political or economic grievance. Many recruits found the idea of martyrdom particularly alluring. One study concluded that volunteers generally don’t come from strong religious backgrounds. According to one theory, many are attracted by a new doctrine holding that the Muslim nation faces an existential threat and Islamic law requires every able Muslim man to defend it. The Internet has given contemporary militant groups a way to reach more potential adherents than ever. The biggest jump in recruitment started in 2010 and corresponds with the Arab uprisings, which weakened government control in parts of North Africa and the Mideast. That gave jihadist groups opportunities to expand that trumped the power of any theological position.
The Reference Shelf
- A guide to the theological debate over jihad published by the Henry Jackson Society.
- A study by the Rand Corp. tracks the recent growth of Salafi-jihadist groups.
- A primer on Islamists published by the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
- A report of the U.S. Institute of Peace analyzes histories of 2,032 jihadists to ascertain their motivations.
- An article by Atlantic contributing editor Graeme Wood explores the theological underpinnings of Islamic State.
First published Oct. 29, 2014
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