Social Studies April 2006

A War on Jihadism—Not 'Terror'

The threat against America can be defined as Jihadism, with a capital J. Jihadism engages in or supports the use of force to expand the rule of Islamic law.

Speaking to reporters last week, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, made a striking admission. The Bush administration, Biden said, defines the threat that the country now faces "too broadly and inaccurately." But the president, continued Biden, is in good company. "I have never been able to define the threat, and my party hasn't been able to define the threat, either."

After four and a half years, the Civil War was over, World War II was over, and the Revolutionary War was winding down. The Cold War lasted four decades, but everyone understood from the beginning that the enemy was a particular ideology, communism. The current war, plainly, is a more muddled affair. In last month's National Security Strategy, the administration declared, "America is at war." But who precisely is the enemy? "Terrorism." And "terrorists." And "terrorist networks." As in: "a terrorist enemy that is defined by religious intolerance." Factions of the Irish Republican Army might qualify.

On a few occasions, albeit inconsistently, President Bush has been more specific. In a speech last October, he said, "Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others militant jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism." Having ventured three religious terms in one sentence, he then hastened to add, "Whatever it's called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam," and its adherents "distort the idea of jihad."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the West's most eloquent spokesman, has been only slightly more forthcoming. In a speech last month, he maintained that the terrorists are not "proper Muslims," their extremism "not the true voice of Islam." Still, "To say [the terrorist's] religion is irrelevant is both completely to misunderstand his motive and to refuse to face up to the strain of extremism within his religion that has given rise to it." In the context of today's debate, Blair's statement counts as blunt talk.

"I think defining who the enemy is is a real problem in this war," says Mary Habeck, a military historian at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. "If you can't define who's a real threat and who's just exercising free speech, it's a problem." As it happens, Habeck is the author of one of three new books that, taken together, suggest the time is right to name the battle. It is a war on jihadism.

Jihadism is not a tactic, like terrorism, or a temperament, like radicalism or extremism. It is not a political pathology like Stalinism, a mental pathology like paranoia, or a social pathology like poverty. Rather, it is a religious ideology, and the religion it is associated with is Islam.

But it is by no means synonymous with Islam, which is much larger and contains many competing elements. Islam can be, and usually is, moderate; Jihadism, with a capital J, is inherently radical. If the Western and secular world's nearer-term war aim is to stymie the jihadists, its long-term aim must be to discredit Jihadism in the Muslim world.

No single definition prevails, but here is a good one: Jihadism engages in or supports the use of force to expand the rule of Islamic law. In other words, it is violent Islamic imperialism. It stands, as one scholar put it 90 years ago, for "the extension by force of arms of the authority of the Muslim state."

In her new book, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, Habeck sets out to map the ideological contours of Jihadism. The story begins, but does not end, with religion. "Western scholars have generally failed to take religion seriously," she writes.

"Secularists, whether liberals or socialists, grant true explanatory power to political, social, or economic factors but discount the plain sense of religious statements made by the jihadis themselves." Pretending that Islam is incidental, she notes, is not just incorrect, it is patronizing.

Jihadists, she writes, are not merely angry about U.S. policies. They believe that America is the biggest obstacle to the global rule of an Islamic superstate. Ultimately, in the Jihadist view, "Islam must expand to fill the entire world or else falsehood in its many guises will do so." Violence is by no means mandated, but it is assuredly authorized.

And always has been. The point that Bush, Blair, and others understandably finesse is that the ideology of Jihadism traces its lineage to the very beginning of the religion of Islam. It has "roots in discussions about Islamic law and theology that began soon after the death of Muhammad and that are supported by important segments of the clergy (ulama) today," Habeck writes.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In