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.
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Two other new books strikingly document the connection. One is The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims. Edited by Andrew G. Bostom, it provides more than 700 pages of source material on jihadist doctrine and practice (including many fascinating translations from Arabic). A second is Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh, a political scientist and historian who heads the Mediterranean studies program at King's College (part of the University of London).

"The birth of Islam," writes Karsh, "was inextricably linked with the creation of a world empire, and its universalism was inherently imperialist." Karsh cites, for example, the Prophet's farewell address to his followers: "I was ordered to fight all men until they say, 'There is no god but Allah.' " Muhammad, Karsh writes, spent his last decade fighting to unify Arabia under his reign; within a decade of his death, Islamic conquest had already built an Arab-Muslim empire, "one of the most remarkable examples of empire-building in world history."

Karsh makes no attempt to analyze Muslim theology; his interest is in the worldly politics of Islam, especially in the Middle East. Islam has, he notes, two distinct but intermingling mainstreams. One is aggressively imperialistic; the other, pragmatic and compromising. To bridge the two, Middle Eastern rulers and Islamist ideologues have accommodated Western power while holding out to themselves and their followers the promise of future empire. "The Islamic imperial dream of world domination has remained very much alive in the hearts and minds of many Muslims," Karsh writes. From the Ottoman Empire of a century ago to modern Iraq, Iran, and Palestine, Karsh continues, the dream of Islamic empire has borne consistently tragic fruits.

Enter Osama bin Laden. His tactics and ambitions are audacious—not even Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dared to unleash frontal war on America—but he is, says Karsh, quite orthodox in his goals: "Declaring a holy war against the infidel has been a standard practice of countless imperial rulers and aspirants since the rise of Islam." If Karsh is correct, then bin Laden and other jihadists are not "hijacking" Islam, as President Bush and others (including me) have said; they are renewing an ancient strand of Islamic tradition, and hoping to marginalize or even obliterate its pragmatic rival.

"This is a struggle over Islam and who's going to control Islam," Habeck says. "If you can't talk about that, you can't talk about most of the story." Specifying that the war is against Jihadism—as distinct from terrorism or Islam (or Islamism, which sounds like "Islam")—would allow the United States to confront the religious element of the problem without seeming to condemn a whole religion. It would clarify for millions of moderate Muslims that the West's war aims are anti-jihadist, not militantly secular.

In any case, says Habeck, "people are not buying the administration's claim that this has nothing to do with Islam." A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that the proportion of Americans saying that Islam helps stoke violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled (to 33 percent) since January 2002, when 9/11 memories were still vivid. If anything, the tendency of Bush, Blair, and other Western leaders to sweep Jihadism under the rug is counterproductive and fuels public suspicion of those leaders and of Islam itself.

Habeck cites one other reason to call the enemy jihadists: "This is what they call themselves." The word "jihad," scholars say, is theologically multifaceted, with nonviolent and defensive aspects. But when Umm Nidal, a Palestinian legislator, says, "A Muslim mother should raise her children on prayer, good deeds, and, of course, on jihad," she is not talking about spiritual struggle or peaceful protest. Ceding the word "jihad" to violent Islamic imperialists may be a pity, but they are the ones who chose it.

And so our enemies offer Sen. Biden the clarity he seeks. From now on, the West should take them, literally, at their word.

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

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