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Jihadists: Understanding the Nature of the Enemy

At the peak of its strength, the Islamic State (or ISIS)1 not only controlled a large swath of territory — an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom — it also proved itself a formidable global menace. It instigated, directed, and inspired attacks from Brussels to San Bernardino, London to Orlando, Paris to Istanbul, Manchester to Barcelona. Now that ISIS has been practically routed from the territory it had once controlled in Iraq and Syria,2 the natural question is: Will this mean a reduced threat of further attacks?

Perhaps yes, in the near term; but beyond that, no, and we have every reason to expect the problem to persist.

Why? The reason is not just that the Islamic State might linger on, rebuild, or morph and re-emerge in the shape of a new, more deadly faction. That’s entirely imaginable. The Islamic State itself began life around 2003 as a member of the Al Qaeda network, later breaking away and eclipsing its former partner in brutality, territorial conquest, and global reach.

Nor is the problem just that future attacks might look different. Al Qaeda made its mark with the intricate September 11 plot to hijack four passenger jets simultaneously and ram them into buildings. But the Islamic State has recruited people to carry out simpler, often unsophisticated, mass murders using knives, guns, and vehicles to mow down their victims.

The reason that we can expect future attacks is that there’s far more to the problem than these attacks; more than the Islamic State; more than Al Qaeda. In some vague way, many of us sense that. While people often talk loosely about the “terrorist” threat, it doesn’t take much to see that terrorism is a tactic — a means, not an end. And it is a tactic commonly deployed by various groups and organizations (think of the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatists of ETA, or the Ku Klux Klan), so it’s nowhere near a uniquely distinguishing feature of the problem.

What, then, is this cause? Who is the enemy? We should be able to answer these vital questions. Any rational attempt to deal with this threat must begin with a clear conception of the enemy’s nature and goals. That’s a necessary condition of defining an effective plan for ending the menace. The point holds true in every conflict. Can you imagine America achieving victory in World War II if we had viewed the enemy as “Kamikaze” attacks — the tactic of deploying fighter pilots on suicide missions — rather than imperialist Japan? And yet today, nearly seventeen years since 9/11, we have nothing like clarity on the nature of this enemy.

Notice the semantic breakdancing around the issue of what to call the attackers. For example, after the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush launched a “Global War on Terrorism,” referring to our enemy variously as “terrorists,” “haters,” “evil doers,” and “hijackers” of a noble religion. The Bush administration tried out the term “Islamofascism,” but quickly dropped it. Barack Obama’s team whipsawed between the overly narrow — “Al Qaeda”; then “ISIS” — and the hopelessly broad, favoring the worse than meaningless term “violent extremists.” Donald Trump has at times talked of “Radical Islamic terrorism,” suggesting some ideological features of the menace, though the administration’s own view is less than coherent on that point.

What all this betrays is much more than semantic confusion. It reveals an underlying conceptual failure: a major part of the problem is that we haven’t properly defined the problem. We see some of the enemy’s features, if dimly; we fixate on non-essential or derivative aspects; we play down, ignore, or evade others that are fundamental to it.

That leads to a failure to understand the nature of the enemy. It’s a misconception to view the problem as hinging primarily on the most salient faction — whether that’s Al Qaeda, or ISIS, or a successor group — or on its preferred tactics. To view the problem so narrowly is to miss what’s essential to this enemy, why it predates Al Qaeda and has persisted long after Osama bin Laden’s death, why it will outlast the routing of ISIS, what animates it fundamentally — and, thus, what’s needed to end it.

We urgently need a clear understanding of the enemy, what ideas animate it, and why. Such clarity is an indispensable condition for combating it effectively, a point confirmed by the failures of American Mideast policy over the last two decades. Let us then step back, take a wider perspective, and bring into focus the nature of this foe.

Confronting Difficult Questions

What’s the point of all the slaughter? What’s the enemy’s end goal? The path to reaching the answers we need is crowded with difficult issues — difficult to untangle, but also difficult emotionally. For example, the killers call themselves jihadists (holy warriors) fighting for the supremacy of Allah’s law on earth. While it may be an uncomfortable thought, we must still confront the question: is religion — specifically Islam — the animating force behind the self-identified jihadists?

For many people, particularly our political and intellectual leaders, the answer is a vehement no. The killers, we hear, have nothing to do with any faith, let alone the Muslim faith. We hear that they distort that religion, which is a religion of peace. But is it true that the killers have nothing to do with the religion of Islam? It’s quite obvious that many, many Muslims repudiate the self-styled jihadists, and that they themselves are peaceful, productive individuals. But does it follow that the agenda of such jihadist groups as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State bears no connection to the religion’s commonly recognized teachings?

To ask this question is to risk being accused of prejudice toward Muslims. The worry here is that such a question is meant to imply that the problem is somehow all Muslims. That worry stems from a profound distortion and an actual issue in our culture.

There is real prejudice toward Muslims, often manifesting in the United States as xenophobia. Sometimes it manifests as a kind of racism that considers Muslims — whether from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Indonesia — as interchangeably non-white and somehow constituting a race. There’s no place for racism, xenophobia, or prejudice in any civilized society.

The distortion is that some people blur together race — which is unchosen — and a religious outlook — which is a chosen set of beliefs. Such blurring leads some to feel an unwarranted, collective hostility toward all Muslims. (Partly reacting to that distortion, other people adopt an uncritically positive view of the religion, regarding any analysis of it and of its followers as taboo.) To make sense of the jihadists, however, we must keep the issues of racial identity and religious/ideological outlook sharply differentiated.

Then there’s another line of thinking that tells us that what really animates jihadists is something non-religious. This view holds that, although these self-styled jihadists quote holy texts and pledge their faith to Allah, fundamentally there are other factors that drive them, notably political or economic grievances. For example, observe that jihadist recruitment videos and talking points hammer on American Mideast policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What are we to make of such seemingly non-religious factors?

The answers here are not obvious, but they are attainable.

What I intend to convince you of is that the enemy constitutes an ideological movement rooted in Islam. Let me stress key elements of that claim.

It is an ideological movement: it’s a religious outlook, based on ideas and teachings of Islam, which the followers of the movement choose to embrace. It’s not about anyone’s race, nor is it fundamentally animated by material (political or economic) factors.

It’s crucial to see that it is an ideological movement: despite murderous enmity, sectarian rifts, splintering, and infighting among its constituent regimes, groups, and factions, what unites them — and defines the movement — is their common end. It is the aim of creating a totalitarian society under similar interpretations of Islamic religious law.

It’s an Ideological Movement Deeply Rooted in Islam

Let’s start by looking at the evidence of what the jihadists themselves believe and act on. Read the notes left behind by the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, a four-page document with minute guidance on how to prepare for martyrdom. Listen to the courtroom testimony of the man who slaughtered Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, proudly admitting his crime in the name of Allah. Notice how the Charlie Hebdo attackers — like so many others — screamed “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great!), adding that they were avenging the Prophet Mohammad. Or recall how the shooter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, described himself as a soldier of Allah, pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State. To these examples we can add many more. The commonality is that they see themselves as fighting in the name of Islam.

These holy warriors have been instructed, inspired, and guided by the intellectual leaders of their movement. Prominent among these intellectual leaders are Abu al-Ala al Mawdudi (1903–1979), Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989). Many differences separate these three. Mawdudi and Qutb came out of the Sunni sect of Islam; Khomeini, from the Shiite sect. Their arguments are colored by their local political context and concerns. Mawdudi was an Indo-Pakistani thinker, Qutb helped shape the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Khomeini became the founder and first “Supreme Leader” of Iran’s theocracy. Despite these and other differences, several fundamental themes unite them.

First, they see the world around them, and especially the political system, as pervaded with corruption and impiety. Unbelief and godlessness abound across the face of the earth. Islamic religious law, or sharia, no longer governs men’s thought and action. Wherever you look, according to Qutb, people’s ideas, habits, traditions, culture, art, and laws reflect an ignorance of Allah’s will.3

Second, they believe that Islamic law, or sharia, must be universal, shaping every facet of society, politics, and the individual’s life. Qutb argued that it was necessary to ensure “that the obedience of all people be for God alone,” everywhere.4 The faithful must establish an Islamic dominion, under divine authority, with the ultimate goal of carrying their faith “throughout the earth to the whole of mankind, as the object of this religion is all humanity and its sphere of action is the whole earth.”5

Third, they hold that it is time for the righteous to solve these problems — the world’s deviation from the true path — by imposing religious law as an all-encompassing, total political-social system. In the words of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that gave rise to Al Qaeda, Hamas, and many other factions, “Islam is the solution.”6 In Khomeini’s political vision, realized in the Iranian regime, it is a cleric — one deeply knowledgeable about (religious) law and justice — who must hold ultimate power within society.7 While Qutb and Mawdudi had their own views of how to structure government, they agreed with Khomeini on the basic solution to the impiety pervading the world: a sharia regime enveloping the totality of human life and society, where religion and the state are one. It is a political system wherein every individual must submit to Allah’s will. A fitting description for this vision is Islamic totalitarianism.

Qutb, Mawdudi, and Khomeini also share the belief that jihad is a means for bringing about a truly just world. The term “jihad” is seen as having two meanings — referring both to personal struggle and to a holy war.8 But what Qutb, Mawdudi, Khomeini, and kindred thinkers call for — and lionize — is the waging of war to expand the dominion of Islam. The Iranian regime was both an embodiment of that totalitarian vision and a self-declared leader in exporting its revolutionary doctrine beyond its own borders. Indeed, the Iranian regime has been not only a galvanizing force for the Islamist movement globally, but also a major leader of it.9

It is this political-ideological vision that underlies the jihadist bombings, massacres, and random-seeming violence. The ultimate point of the attacks and killing is to punish unbelievers, compel us to submit in obedience to Allah’s law, and enforce sharia law, everywhere. That desire for world domination sounds fanciful and unachievable, but what matters here is that it animates the enemy.

Here’s how the Islamic State explained their outlook. Because the statement is particularly clear and emphatic, it’s worth quoting at length:

We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah — whether you realize it or not — by making partners for Him in worship, you blaspheme against Him, claiming that He has a son, you fabricate lies against His prophets and messengers, and you indulge in all manner of devilish practices. It is for this reason that we were commanded to openly declare our hatred for you and our enmity towards you. “There has already been for you an excellent example in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people, ‘Indeed, we are disassociated from you and from whatever you worship other than Allah. We have rejected you, and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred forever until you believe in Allah alone’” (Al-Mumtahanah 4). Furthermore, just as your disbelief is the primary reason we hate you, your disbelief is the primary reason we fight you, as we have been commanded to fight the disbelievers until they submit to the authority of Islam, either by becoming Muslims, or by paying jizyah — for those afforded this option — and living in humiliation under the rule of the Muslims. Thus, even if you were to stop fighting us, your best-case scenario in a state of war would be that we would suspend our attacks against you — if we deemed it necessary — in order to focus on the closer and more immediate threats, before eventually resuming our campaigns against you. Apart from the option of a temporary truce, this is the only likely scenario that would bring you fleeting respite from our attacks. So in the end, you cannot bring an indefinite halt to our war against you. At most, you could only delay it temporarily. “And fight them until there is no fitnah [paganism] and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah” (Al-Baqarah 193).10

When judged by their words and deeds, what motivates the jihadists is their interpretation of Islam.

Nothing to Do with Islam?

Nonetheless, many people insist that these killers have nothing to do with the religion of Islam.

Part of what gives that notion some plausibility is that within the global community of more than one billion Muslims, there are indeed differences on how to understand the Koran and the sayings and deeds attributed to Mohammad. There are rival sects within Islam, and there are also multiple schools of thought on the body of laws known as sharia. But does the outlook of jihadists have nothing to do with Islam?

That’s the strong claim we hear in many of the post-9/11 speeches of George W. Bush (here, here, and here, to give just three examples). Bush went so far as to describe them as “traitors to their own faith.” The view has persisted. In 2014, after the Islamic State slaughtered an American citizen, President Barack Obama stated that the group’s “actions represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith.”

The claim that some interpretation of Islam (or another religion) is a departure from, a perversion, or a “hijacking” of the one true faith relies on a dubious assumption. It counts on the assumption that religious dogma — by definition lacking objective, empirical foundation — lends itself to one definitive interpretation. Conflicting and warring sects may each hold that view, but from the vantage point of the outsider, we see that there is no way to answer which is the true version of, say, Christianity or Islam.

To evaluate whether the Islamist movement is deeply rooted in Islam’s teachings and ideas, we need to approach the issue differently. We need to look at whether the movement’s views, agenda, and actions constitute an intelligible interpretation of Islamic books and historic doctrines. Put another way, the question to ask is whether the views and injunctions that jihadists take away from their reading of Islamic texts mesh with the religion’s commonly recognized teachings — or fly in the face of those religious teachings by denying, for instance, mankind’s fundamental duty of submission to religious authority.

The answer we find is that what the leaders of the Islamist movement call for connects to commonly recognized teachings of Islam. Let’s compare three key features of the outlook of Islamic totalitarians with commonly identified teachings of the religion of Islam. Take the Islamist demand for (1) submission to Allah’s law; (2) the universal scope of sharia law; and (3) expanding the dominion of Islam. For an account of Islam’s teachings, let’s consult John L. Esposito’s college textbook, Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford University Press, 3rd ed.). Esposito is a noted scholar of Islam at Georgetown University, and his book is a sympathetic account of the religion.

1. Submission

“Despite the rich diversity in Islamic practice,” writes Esposito, “the Five Pillars of Islam remain the core and common denominator, the five essential and obligatory practices all Muslims accept and follow.”11 From Esposito’s discussion of the Five Pillars, we can observe that the sum of these supreme duties is to effect and demonstrate the believer’s complete submission to authority.

The first pillar is the call upon a Muslim (“one who surrenders”) to proclaim: “There is no god but the God [Allah] and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” With this acknowledgement, writes Esposito, “a person professes his or her faith and becomes a Muslim.”12

The second pillar is to reaffirm this commitment through prayer, five times a day.

The third pillar is the obligation of alms-giving (zakat): “All adult Muslims who are able to do so are obliged to pay a wealth tax annually”; Esposito goes on to explain: “This is not regarded as charity since it is not really voluntary but instead owed, by those who have received their wealth as a trust from God’s bounty, to the poor. The Quran (9:60) and Islamic law stipulate that alms are to be used to support the poor, orphans, and widows, to free slaves and debtors, and to assist in the spread of Islam.”13

The fourth pillar is the annual fast of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and sex, from dawn to dusk, for a month.

The fifth pillar is the duty to make a pilgrimage (the Hajj) to Mecca, incumbent on males.14

What do these obligations add up to? We can see that to practice his religion, the believer is duty bound to bow continually before Allah; reaffirm his submission five times a day; cross oceans and continents in pilgrimage to demonstrate unwavering faith; sacrifice worldly values and efface personal desires in the name of devotion to the supernatural master.

All of this hinges on a belief grounded only on faith. To have faith means to believe without evidence (and despite counter-evidence), to suspend one’s own perception and rational judgment. The faithful individual is required to put the dictates of religious authority above his or her own grasp of facts. He must learn that he is not a sovereign individual; Allah alone is sovereign, and man must bow to religious authority. What this moral code offers is guidance on how one can achieve the ideal of becoming a servant of Allah.

Islam demands the individual’s submission to religious authority. Fundamentally, leaders of the Islamist movement also call for mankind to submit to religious authority. Listen, for example, to Sayyid Qutb:

The theoretical foundation of Islam, in every period of history, has been to witness “La ilaha illa Allah” — “There is no deity except God” — which means to bear witness that the only true deity is God, that He is the Sustainer, that He is the Ruler of the universe, and that He is the Real Sovereign; to believe in Him in one’s heart, to worship Him Alone, and to put into practice His laws. Without this complete acceptance of ‘‘La ilaha illa Allah,” which differentiates the one who says he is a Muslim from a non-Muslim, there cannot be any practical significance to this utterance, nor will it have any weight according to Islamic law.

Theoretically, to establish it means that people should devote their entire lives in submission to God, should not decide any affair on their own, but must refer to God’s injunctions concerning it and follow them. We know of God’s guidance through only one source, that is, through the Messenger of God — peace be on him. Thus, in the second part of the Islamic creed, we bear witness “Wa ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasul Allah” — “And I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”15

If the Five Pillars form the core of Islam, is not Qutb’s one intelligible interpretation of their meaning and application?

2. Universality of Sharia

Islam provides a body of laws, or sharia, derived mainly from the Koran and interpretations of sayings and deeds attributed to Mohammad.16 Esposito explains:

Law in Islam is both universal and egalitarian. The Sharia is believed to be God’s law for the entire Islamic community, indeed for all humankind. In the final analysis, God is the sovereign ruler of the world, head of the human community, and its sole legislator. As a result, Islamic law is as much a system of ethics as it is law, for it is concerned with what a Muslim ought to do or ought not to do. All acts are ethically categorized as: (1) obligatory; (2) recommended; (3) indifferent or permissible; (4) reprehensible but not forbidden; or (5) forbidden. To break the law is a transgression against both society and God, a crime and a sin; the guilty are subject to punishment in this life and the next. The idealism of the law can be seen in the fact that ethical categories such as recommended and reprehensible were not subject to civil penalties. Islamic law is also egalitarian; it transcends regional, family, tribal, and ethnic boundaries. It does not recognize social class or caste differences. All Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, rich and poor, black and white, caliph and craftsman, male and female, are bound by Islamic law as members of a single, transnational community or brotherhood of believers.

The belief that Islamic law was a comprehensive social blueprint was reflected in the organization and content of law.17

Notice in Esposito’s description how morality and political life are united (the breaking of religious law is both a sin and a crime).

The Islamists agree that Islam’s embrace must be universal, and that the Koran answers the needs of mankind. For example, Qutb notes that “The distinctive feature of a Muslim community is this: that in all its affairs it is based on worship of God alone.”18 Islamists argue that Muslims and their rulers have strayed from the requirements of piety by adopting man-made laws, which are morally corrupting, instead of recognizing that sovereignty belongs only to Allah.

For the Islamist movement, the universality of Islam means that it must encompass all of a believer’s existence but also the existence of non-believers. It must span all of Allah’s creations. Mawdudi, for example, argued that a sharia regime cannot be limited in its scope: “Its approach is universal and all-embracing. Its sphere of activity is coexistent with the whole of human life.”19 Qutb echoes that theme: Islam, he writes, “addresses itself to the whole of mankind, and its sphere of work is the whole earth. God is the sustainer not merely of the Arabs, nor is His providence limited to those who believe in the faith of Islam. God is the Sustainer of the whole world.”20

3. Expanding the Dominion of Allah’s Law

The call to fight unbelievers in order to expand Islam’s earthly dominion flows out of Koranic statements, and it is reflected in the example of the Prophet Mohammad, whose actions are widely seen as embodying the true path. For example, the Koran (9:29) states: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, [even if they are] of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”21

And in practice, during the last nine years of his life, Mohammad is “recorded as having participated in at least twenty-seven campaigns and deputized some fifty-nine others — an average of no fewer than nine campaigns annually.”22 Islam’s vast empire grew under the shadow of the sword. Mohammad’s successors marched on.

Fighting unbelievers in order to expand Islam’s earthly dominion is precisely what Islamic totalitarians seek to do. That’s what the Islamic State sought to do, a point evident in the lengthy passage I quoted earlier. Long before the Islamic State eclipsed Al Qaeda, and before both were household names, the Islamist movement’s standard-bearer was, and largely remains, the Iranian regime.

“The Iranian revolution,” declared Ayatollah Khomeini, “is not exclusively that of Iran, because Islam does not belong to any particular people. . . . We will export our revolution throughout the world because it is an Islamic revolution. The struggle will continue until the calls ‘there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’ are echoed all over the world.”23

Islamists demand total submission to sharia, they believe sharia’s scope to be universal, and their widest aim is to enforce religious tyranny, everywhere. Does that fundamental end, and the idea of fighting to achieve it, fly in the face of Islamic teaching? No. Does the Islamist movement’s interpretation intelligibly flow out of Islam? Yes.

The Islamists constitute an ideological movement deeply rooted in Islam. We should believe jihadists, then, when they tell us that they are Muslims. But while all jihadists are Muslims, it’s plainly false that all Muslims are jihadists. Rather, the Islamist movement is a subset within the community of people who profess the religion of Islam. Clearly, even though all Muslims are expected to accept the Koran, only some — the jihadists — hold and practice their interpretation of Islam as a totalitarian ideological-political cause.

To put this point into even sharper focus, let’s consider two contrasting views which I brought up earlier in this essay. Each in its own way pushes back on the idea that Islamic ideas are fundamental to the nature and aim of this movement. One blurs ideas and race; the other plays down or negates the role of religious ideas and tells us to look to material factors, such as political or economic issues, as fundamental. Let’s take each of these in turn.

It’s Not About Heredity; It Is a Chosen Religious-Political Worldview

It’s true and important that many, many jihadists were born into families and communities that are Muslim. That fact, however, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of becoming a follower of the Islamist movement. It’s not about genetic lineage (an unchosen group membership); it’s about what is being taught and a recruit’s chosen embrace of a religious-political worldview.

You can see that from the cases of individuals who’ve chosen to join — and from some who reject — the movement. For example, Maajid Nawaz was born in the UK to a Pakistani family. Not particularly religious when he encountered the Islamist movement, he became deeply involved in it and worked for some years as a recruiter for the cause. But he eventually turned his back on the movement and renounced it.24

By contrast, John Walker Lindh was raised in Maryland and in Marin County, California; his father is Catholic and his mother, a follower of Buddhism. Having converted to Islam, he went on to read Islamist materials, and made his way to Afghanistan before 9/11, where he trained at an Al Qaeda camp and took up arms alongside the Taliban.

The Islamic State trumpeted the fact that it attracted converts from Christianity who emigrated to live and fight under its black flag. In the July 2016 issue of its magazine Dabiq, for example, the Islamic State featured one former Christian from Trinidad, another from Finland.

Yet many people today fail to understand that the Islamist movement is an ideological phenomenon — that its followers are fundamentally driven by a set of religious ideas about life, the world, and the good.

No one is born a follower of any religion or ideological cause — whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Marxism. These are belief systems that an individual must come to adopt. An individual may well do so passively, conforming with the flow of the people and culture around them; but it remains the case that they can choose to question that ideological outlook and reject it.

Observe an important implication of this point, which relates to the widespread lack of understanding about the Islamist movement.

Clearly it’s essential that we analyze, discuss, criticize and morally judge this ideological movement, just as we must every ideological movement, secular or supernatural. In doing so, we’re evaluating a set of ideas and the people who choose to embrace them. That’s in sharp contrast with racial, tribal, or xenophobic condemnations of groups of people, which is obviously wrong.

If we recognize this critical distinction, then we should reject the increasingly prevalent idea of “Islamophobia.” This deliberately confusing term seeks to shut down critical analysis of the Islamist movement and its ideas by smearing such discussion as inherently prejudiced against Muslims, or worse.

No one seeking to combat prejudice toward Muslims can honestly believe that that problem can be solved by silencing discussion of the Islamist movement and entrenching the cultural ignorance already besetting this issue.

Fundamentally, It’s Religious Ideas, Not Political or Economic Factors, that Animate the Islamist Movement

Let’s turn now to a contrasting view that would seem to loosen, if not fully sever, the fundamental causal link between jihadists and their religious worldview. The Islamists quote holy texts, but (on this line of thinking) their ideological outlook is not what ultimately motivates them. Instead, we should look to material factors, such as political or economic issues, as fundamental drivers of the movement.25

What makes this perspective plausible? Consider two salient points: (1) Some followers are poor, and the Islamist ideologues themselves invoke political grievances in their manifestos and in recruitment propaganda. (2) Some followers of the movement seemingly lack deep knowledge of religious ideas.

Certainly, some jihadists, in some parts of the world, come from desperate poverty. Note, however, that many other people around the world face similar, if not worse, circumstances, but few of them become holy warriors. You can also find eager jihadists who are well-educated, raised in middle-class homes in some of the world’s freest, most-advanced countries.26

Islamist tracts, recruitment materials, and propaganda videos do invoke various political grievances. For example, bin Laden’s infamous 1996 “Declaration of Jihad” against America decried the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. It also emphasized the issue of “Palestine,”27 which has been all over various jihadist propaganda, for years.28 Islamists have leveraged these claims (along with various others) to recruit for their jihad.

But when we take a closer look, it becomes clear that such grievances are effective precisely because of a fundamental religious narrative that frames them. In that story there is a cosmic struggle for a “just” world, one subservient to religious dogma. The crux of that is the striving of the faithful (Islamists) against the unbelievers (impious Muslims, apostates, infidels, atheists; particularly in the West). Within that framework, a great many issues and conflicts can actuate new recruits, who see themselves as part of a global Muslim community (or, “umma”).

Here are some emotional-ideological “buttons” that the Islamists have pushed in order to galvanize, recruit, and draw people into the movement. The fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, attracted a significant influx of foreign holy warriors (Osama bin Laden among them). The Bosnia conflict, during the 1990s, was another trigger, because Muslims were targeted.29 In his memoir Maajid Nawaz recounts how seeing videos of Muslims being slaughtered in the Bosnia conflict inflamed him. The victims were all strangers to him, but they belonged to a global Muslim community, and Nawaz felt impelled to fight for the redemption of his co-religionists.30 The bond of collective religious solidarity was that strong. During the mid-2010s, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria proved an even more powerful magnet for international jihadists; one of its themes was the sectarian hostility toward non-Sunnis.

The common factor here is the specifically Islamist narrative that frames the worldview of recruits, manipulating their emotions. They are primed to feel a powerful solidarity with co-religionists throughout the world and to regard anything short of an all-encompassing Islamist regime as a metaphysical injustice that they must fight to rectify.

For example, in the case of the “Palestine” issue, the basic concern of Islamists is not any political grievance about Israeli borders, land-use policy, or alleged oppression of particular individuals.31 They demand not freedom and prosperity for Palestinians (or anyone else), but submission: Islamists seek to enslave the world — including Palestine — under Allah’s laws. Only conquering Israel and raising the flag of Islamic totalitarianism over Palestine and Jerusalem could satisfy them.32

The same applies to their framing of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The removal of American troops from the region would not pacify the Islamists, nor the cessation of American military strikes in Muslim lands, nor the halting of American backing for some of the region’s dictators. U.S Mideast policy is riddled with serious problems (which I’ve written about at length), but there’s no version of American policy in the region, and no genuine problems we might rectify, that Islamists would regard as unproblematic. Their basic objection is that we’re unbelievers, everything we do is an affront, and, in the end, it is they who should dominate, everywhere, in the name of religious totalitarianism.

Consider how the Islamic State explained this point in its magazine Dabiq. Among the reasons for hating and fighting to overthrow the West’s secular, liberal societies, the article lists American foreign policy, but stresses how that is a derivative factor.

What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam. Even if you were to pay jizyah and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you.

What’s equally if not more important to understand is that we fight you, not simply to punish and deter you, but to bring you true freedom in this life and salvation in the Hereafter, freedom from being enslaved to your whims and desires as well as those of your clergy and legislatures, and salvation by worshiping your Creator alone and following His messenger.33

What, then, are we to make of the fact that some followers of the Islamist movement appear to lack substantive knowledge of religious doctrine? One anecdote that’s taken to illustrate the point: before setting out for the battlefront in Syria, two British would-be jihadists ordered copies of Islam For Dummies and The Koran for Dummies.

Leaving anecdotes to one side, researchers have found that recruits certainly have varied profiles. Peter Neumann and his colleagues at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, found that recruits bound for the Islamic State fell into three broad categories: “defenders” who were devout and seeking to protect co-religionists; “seekers” attracted to the jihadist counterculture, which met their “need for identity, community, power and a feeling of masculinity”; and “hangers-on” who join because the leader of their social circle decided to.34

Should we be surprised if some, many, or most of the tens of thousands of recruits who flocked to join the Islamic State were drawn by the desire for a pseudo self-esteem as heroes for the cause, a source of religiously endorsed self-worth and identity? Should we be surprised that for some the appeal lies in the opportunity to live out a video-game fantasy where they actually get to murder people? None of that should be surprising; it makes sense that such abhorrent specimens of humanity would gravitate to a movement seeking domination.

More broadly, it’s a feature of ideological movements that they tend to attract people of varying levels of understanding, from the ardently committed to those whose understanding of the cause is shallow. Was every last warrior for communism a theoretician, or deeply versed in Marxism, or qualified to interpret the sacred theory of dialectical materialism? Clearly, no. What defines the Islamist movement is its over-arching ideological-political end.

Why It Matters That We Grasp the Enemy’s Ideological Character

If we are to develop anything like a sensible policy response to the Islamist threat, we need to begin by conceptualizing it as an ideological movement. This has at least two major implications.

First, we need to take a wide-angle perspective. There are many Islamist groups, factions, organizations, regimes. Among them, there are differences over doctrine, sect, tactics, even strategic priorities. And they fight among themselves, a lot, and brutally. For example, Saudi Arabia is hostile to the Islamic State, and both revile Iran. They jockey over who is more pious, and who will dominate where. Yet what unites all of them — along with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram, and still others — is their common ideological goal.

Second, a crucial feature of this movement is that particular regimes — notably Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and above all, Iran — are central to it.35 The Iranian regime has been the movement’s spearhead, galvanizing the Islamist cause.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a foundational group in the movement, started in Egypt in the 1920s, but accomplished little. What supercharged the jihadist cause was the 1979 Iranian revolution. That shockwave brought to power in Tehran an Islamic totalitarian regime determined to export its ideological revolution. Iran was such an inspiration because it made the Islamist cause seem achievable. Iran armed, trained, and funded Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It has backed insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in its own way, the Saudi regime has nourished the Islamist cause. The Saudis invested millions of dollars setting up religious schools, distributing books, and proselytizing across the globe for its preferred strain of Islamic totalitarianism. Saudi money funds various jihadist groups, including the Taliban.

And the Gulf states, for their part, have bankrolled their favored jihadist factions. Qatar, for example, is a backer of Hamas.36

Absent the inspiration and material backing of these regimes; absent the galvanizing spectacle of real-life, functioning Islamist regimes such as in Iran and elsewhere; the jihadist cause would have amounted to little more than a bunch of seething pamphleteers and ineffectual revolutionaries. Such regimes make the ideal actuating the jihadists appear righteous, potent, practical.

With that understanding, we can define a policy response that directs the full range of our diplomatic and military resources toward eliminating these regimes. Without that understanding? Take a look at the confused mess that has been our Mideast policy for upwards of two decades.

Prior to September 11, American policy was prone to a fragmented, myopic outlook. The 9/11 attacks came as a surprise, but they should not have. Islamists had tried to bring down the Twin Towers before, in 1993, using a truck bomb. Nor was that the only jihadist attack prior to 9/11; in my book Winning the Unwinnable War, I describe how the road to 9/11 was punctuated by an escalating sequence of violent attacks. Our policymakers and leaders viewed the threat as a series of crises, to be dealt with in the moment, without wider, ideological context. There were many dots, and we recognized each as a problem, but we failed to connect those many dots to see the bigger picture: the common ideas animating the Islamist movement.

Earlier, I pointed out how George W. Bush continually insisted that jihadists were motivated by something other than religious ideas. Bush’s perspective denied the common denominator uniting the Islamist movement. This was a factor in his evasion of the fundamental centrality of Iran and Saudi Arabia to the movement. Despite some of Bush’s rhetoric about going after those who harbor and support the “terrorists,” recall that Iran and Saudi Arabia were not merely omitted from the “Global War on Terrorism”; Saudi Arabia was affirmed a loyal ally, and, eventually, Bush sought to engage Iran in diplomatic negotiations. After scattering the jihadists in Afghanistan, the focal point of Bush’s response became Iraq — a regime that had little to do with the Islamist cause.37

The Obama administration, vowing to avoid Bush’s failures, reverted to a kind of hyper narrow conception of the threat (our enemy is Al Qaeda! no, it’s ISIS!). This conception was drained of ideological substance; a person becomes a “violent extremist,” we were told, mainly because of political grievances and economic privation.38 By playing down the role of ideas, by viewing the problem as consisting of many disparate groups, factions, regimes, rather than a movement united by an ideological outlook, Obama’s policy saw no contradiction in seeking to combat “terrorists” while also engaging leading regimes within the movement, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Trump administration has no coherent view of the problem. Trump has at times used the term “Radical Islamic terrorism,” but he has also implied that the problem is in some sense all Muslims (for example, recall the openness to creating a Muslim registry). Furthermore, he’s put great emphasis on the fact that certain attackers were “outsiders” — that they did not share his (or, in his view, “our”) Anglo-Saxon identity (notice Trump’s repeated emphasis on the fact that some attackers were immigrants or the American-born children of immigrants).39 This blurring of ideas and racial identity obscures the crucial fact that we’re dealing with an ideological movement, one that individuals must come to embrace by choice (rather than belong to through heredity). Among other things, this means that those who adopt and advance this ideology can — and must — be evaluated morally. But notice that, like his predecessors, Trump is not only willing to (re)negotiate with Iran, but is also friendly with Saudi Arabia.

From these sketches of how we’ve approached the problem, you see that by putting out of focus the nature and goals of the Islamists, we end up with inconsistent, short-term, immoral, and, in the end, ineffectual policy. And it is our persistent failure to confront Islamic totalitarianism that helps explain the durable appeal of this cause. That’s reflected not only in the masses who flocked to live under the Islamic State, but also in the ability of that group and of Al Qaeda to actuate independent, so-called lone-wolf jihadists to carry out attacks on their own initiative. Central to that phenomenon is the appeal of furthering a cause that the jihadists continue to see as viable.

For many years now, our approach to the problem has been deeply flawed. We had no clear idea of the nature of the problem, and we persuaded ourselves of explanations that were worse than superficial, fixating on non-essential features.

But it’s well within our capability to end this menace. Any sensible response to the jihadist threat requires that we confront not only the salient factions but also, and especially, the regimes at its forefront.

To formulate a workable plan for achieving that goal, we must start by grasping clearly the nature of our enemy.

*   *   *

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  1. The group is known by various names, including ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), and Daesh. For simplicity, I’ll refer to it as the Islamic State or ISIS, since these have gained some currency.
  2. There are also several “provinces” of the Islamic State (for example in Libya, the Sinai peninsula, and Yemen) run by groups that have sworn allegiance to it.
  3. Qutb used the term “jahiliyya” to denote this state of affairs, which he regarded as comparable to the barbaric ignorance that obtained in pre-Mohammedan times.
  4. Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (New Delhi, India: Abdul Naeem for Islamic Book Service, 2007), 63.
  5. Qutb, Milestones, 72.
  6. Note, for example, that the official slogan of Hamas (officially: the Islamic Resistance Movement) is “Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.” See, , The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, 1988.
  7. On some of the ways these thinkers diverge, see for example, Vanessa Martin, Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran (New York, London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), 120–21, 138–39.
  8. A discussion of these two senses can be found in, for example, David Cook, Understanding Jihad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), ch. 2.
  9. On Iran’s galvanizing role in the movement, see Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); on the regime’s long history of backing jihadist groups, see, for example, Ilan Berman, Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power (New York: Encounter Books, 2015), and United States Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism, 2016 and earlier,
  10. “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You,” Dabiq, no. 15, July 2016, 31 (an English-language magazine published by the Islamic State), accessible at All words in brackets are in the original. “Jizyah” is a special tax on non-Muslims permitted to live under Islamic rule. The quoted verse about Abraham (“There has already been for you an excellent example in Abraham . . .”) appears to be from the Koran (60:4); the passage about fighting unbelievers (“we have been commanded to fight the disbelievers . . .”) seems to be a paraphrase of Koran (9:29); and the quoted verse (“And fight them until there is no fitnah . . .”) echoes Koran (8:39).
  11. John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 88.
  12. Esposito, Islam, 88.
  13. Esposito, Islam, 90.
  14. The foregoing survey draws on Esposito, Islam, 88–93.
  15. Qutb, Milestones, 47.
  16. Esposito writes that “Quranic principles and values were concretized and interpreted by the second and complementary source of [sharia] law, the Sunna of the Prophet, the normative model behavior of Muhammad.” These “Prophetic deeds” were “transmitted and preserved in tradition reports (hadith, pl. ahadith).” (Esposito, Islam, 79–80) These are two major sources of religious law — the Koran and the example of Mohammad; Esposito notes a number of subsidiary sources, too.
  17. Esposito, Islam, 87–88.
  18. Qutb, Milestones, 78.
  19. Quoted in Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 208.
  20. Qutb, Milestones, 59–60.
  21. Words in brackets appear in the original translation, by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, accessible at “People of the Book” is taken to mean Jews and Christians; “jizya” is a special tax levied on non-believers who are permitted to live under Islamic law. Notice that this Koranic verse is paraphrased in the statement from the Islamic State, which I quoted at length above.
  22. Cook, Understanding Jihad, 6.
  23. Quoted in Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, 217.
  24. See, Maajid Nawaz and Tom Bromley, Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism (Lanham, MD: Globe Pequot Press, Lyon Press, 2013).
  25. One version of this argument can be found in Obama’s speech at a 2015 summit titled “Countering Violent Extremism.” He argues that Islamists are at “war with Islam,” that they are “desperate for legitimacy,” and that they exploit religious themes to draw people in. The task of combating them, he insists, largely entails resolving economic and political grievances that they rely on. See Barack Obama: “Remarks at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” Feb. 18, 2015. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project,
  26. One example is “Jihadi John.” Born in Kuwait and raised in the UK, he went to university and worked as a computer programmer before joining ISIS. See Cahal Milmo, Kim Sengupta, Jamie Merrill, “‘Jihadi John’: Mohammed Emwazi — from British Computer Programmer to Isis Executioner,” Independent, Nov. 13, 2015, Another example is Osama bin Laden. Although raised in the Middle East, he was born to a wealthy family, he was educated, and thus he had many opportunities in life.
  27. See Osama bin Laden’s “The Betrayal of Palestine” (Dec. 29, 1994) and “Declaration of Jihad” (Aug. 23, 1996) in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, ed. Bruce Lawrence, trans. James Howarth (New York: Verso, 2005).
  28. See Thomas Hegghammer and Joas Wagemakers, “The Palestine Effect: The Role of Palestinians in the Transnational Jihad Movement,” Die Welt des Islams 53, no. 3–4 (2013).
  29. Note that Osama bin Laden describes Bosnia as one of several places where Muslims are being assaulted; see “Declaration of Jihad” (Aug. 23, 1996) in Messages to the World.
  30. Nawaz, Radical, 56–61.
  31. For an in-depth analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it intersects with the Islamist movement, see my book What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
  32. See, for example, Osama bin Laden’s statement: “The legal duty regarding Palestine and our brothers there — these poor men, women and children who have nowhere to go — is to wage jihad for the sake of God, and to motivate the umma [global Muslim community] to jihad so that Palestine may be completely liberated and returned to Islamic sovereignty.” Messages to the World, 9.
  33. Dabiq, 32–33.
  34. Peter Neumann, Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016), 90–92, 93, 93–97.
  35. Pakistan is another significant regime enabling the Islamist movement, notably the Taliban in Afghanistan.
  36. On Qatar’s backing of jihadists, particularly Hamas, see Jonathan Schanzer, “Assessing the U.S.-Qatar Relationship,” Testimony Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa, July 26, 2017,
  37. In my book Winning the Unwinnable War, I explore Bush’s rationale for targeting Iraq, and the administration’s evasive policy toward the regime in Pakistan, which was instrumental in the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan (and later, following the U.S. invasion, in the Taliban’s resurgence).
  38. See, for example, Obama, “Combatting Violent Extremism.”
  39. For example, in his 2018 State of the Union speech, Trump stated that two recent attacks “were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration” (both forms of legal immigration); in 2016, after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Trump stressed that the killer was born of Afghan parents, who immigrated to the United States. It’s worth noting that the killer was born in New York (like Trump himself).

Elan Journo

Elan Journo is a fellow and director of Policy Research at the Ayn Rand Institute. His latest book is titled What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (June 2018). Elan is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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