'Misconceptions' of Islamic Jihad?

“We were asleep. Opportunities were lost.” So said 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean about the many chances authorities had to stop the 9/11 highjackers. Opportunities are being lost on other fronts as well. General John Abizaid reminded us last week that this is “a battle of ideas as much as it is a military battle.” It’s just as important in the long run to try to stop the spread of jihad ideology as it is to mount a strong military response to terrorism. But jihad ideology isn’t being combated; those who are in the best position to do so are instead denying that it even exists.

Take, for instance, Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), who spoke on jihad at UCLA last week. His remarks echo the statements on jihad made by American Muslim advocacy groups ??¢â???¬ ¦quot; which make any ideological struggle against worldwide jihadis seem unnecessary.

UCLA’s Daily Bruin quoted Ayloush as saying that “The word ‘jihad’ makes most people think of Islamic extremists and events like Sept. 11. But they do not remember that the image of long-bearded men carrying machine guns is media-produced.”

Really? Bearded or no (Atta, after all, was clean-shaven), Islamic radicals are not a small group. Last week jihadist activities of various kinds were reported not only in the U.S., Israel, and Iraq, but also in Australia, Mali, Pakistan, France, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Thailand, Iran, Chechnya, Germany, and elsewhere. All this is media-created?

The Daily Bruin also has Ayloush explaining that “in Arabic, ‘jihad’ means the exertion of effort for the sake of God, and has no implications of war or violence.” The paper adds that the term “‘holy war’ does not exist in Islamic terminology and was only written to describe the Crusades in the 1400s, he said.”

It’s true: jihad doesn’t mean “holy war” in Arabic. In my book Onward Muslim Soldiers I give evidence from Islamic sources to show that while the term may not exist in Islamic tradition, the concept does. One manual of Islamic law defines jihad in part as “war against non-Muslims.” It stipulates that the Muslim community must make “war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians . . . until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.” (‘Umdat as-Salik, o9.8). This is founded upon the Qur’an: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day . . . (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Sura 9:29).

Muhammad himself says: “Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war . . . When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. . . . Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. . . . If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them” (Sahih Muslim, book 19, no. 4294.)

The great Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) puts it this way: “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” Islam is “under obligation to gain power over other nations.”

Radical Muslims worldwide are proceeding according to this traditional understanding of jihad. Ayloush would have done a great service if he had acknowledged the existence of these traditions and offered a way that they could be reformed, to bring Islamic theology and law in line with the principles of freedom and tolerance enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elsewhere.

Ayloush did grant that “Islam is . . . about fighting until persecution is no more.” Of course, this is just the justification Osama bin Laden adduced for September 11: “Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple: Because you attacked us and continue to attack us.” This is not to say that Ayloush endorses bin Laden’s statement, but it does show that Ayloush’s explanation of jihad, if this report is accurate, isn’t adequate to refute Islamic radicalism. Until Ayloush and other Muslims meet it with a real reform strategy, Islamic radicalism will continue to spread. Dismissing it as “extremism” does nothing to stop it.