A War on Jihadism, Not 'Terror'

Defining an enemy and an ideology


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.

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.