by Jeffrey M. Bale
Special to IPT News
October 10, 2014
Note: This analysis has been excerpted, with the approval of the author, from a much longer scholarly article that will be published in an academic journal.
“Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgement that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas – jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy – reliably lead to oppression and murder?”
Sam Harris, Sleepwalking Toward Armageddon
As is invariably the case these days in the wake of the terrorist violence, brutality, and atrocities carried out explicitly in the name of Islam, a host of dissimulating Islamist activists, other Muslims in a state of psychological denial, and apologetic Western pundits insist that the actions of the terrorist group calling itself al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (IS: the Islamic State) have little or nothing to do with Islam.
Not long ago, many such commentators also argued that the horrendous actions committed by the Nigerian jihadist group Jama’at Ahl al-Sunna li al-Da’wa wa al-Jihad, better known as Boko Haram (Western Influence is Sinful), had nothing to do with its members’ interpretations of Islam.
In all such cases, however, the perpetrators of these violent actions not only proudly insist that their actions are inspired by the Qur’an and the exemplary words and deeds of Muhammad himself (as recorded in the canonical hadith collections), but explicitly cite relevant Qur’anic passages and the reported actions of their prophet to justify those actions. Therefore, to argue that jihadist terrorists are not directly inspired and primarily motivated by their interpretations of Islamic doctrines and by clear precedents from early Islamic history, one must stubbornly ignore what the actual protagonists keep telling the entire world.
But why ignore the claims of the perpetrators and instead rely on Islamist activists, who are often peddling outright disinformation, or on Western commentators, most of whom know little or nothing about Islam or Islamism, for explanations of this behavior? These pundits are prone to minimize the central role played by Islamist ideology and erroneously ascribe the actions of jihadist terrorists to assorted subsidiary causal factors, such as garden-variety political grievances, poverty, lack of democracy, psychopathology, greed, or simple hunger for power.
Needless to say, most of the commentators who keep insisting, against all evidence to the contrary, that the actions of jihadist terrorists cannot be attributed to their interpretations of Islam do not also argue that the violent actions of other types of extremists cannot be attributed to their ideological beliefs. On the contrary, whenever other types of terrorists carry out gruesome attacks, many of those same commentators are quick to ascribe their actions primarily to their proclaimed theological and ideological beliefs – and justifiably so.
One can easily illustrate this glaring contrast with respect to the analytical treatment of Islamist terrorism by asking a simple question: when was the last time that any more or less respected commentator made the case that Nazi ideology had nothing to do with inspiring particular acts of terrorism committed by self-identified neo-Nazis, or that notions of white supremacy had nothing to do with anti-minority violence committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan? Thus it is virtually only in cases of acts of terrorism committed by jihadists that one encounters so much unwillingness to face reality and so much frantic desperation to absolve Islam itself – or even Islamist interpretations of Islam – from shouldering any responsibility for inspiring acts committed in its name.
Some academicians mistakenly minimize the role of ideology as a key factor in inspiring the violence and terrorism carried out by non-state extremist groups, not just in the case of jihadist terrorism but also in other such cases. These efforts are seriously misleading, since they tend to be based on flawed social science theories that overemphasize the role of “rational choice,” materialistic rather than idealistic motives, personal psychological factors, “really existing” political and economic grievances, or larger impersonal structural forces as causal factors in the etiology of terrorism. However, they at least have the merit of not employing double standards, i.e., of making an unwarranted and wholly artificial distinction between the causes of Islamist terrorism and other types of ideologically-inspired terrorism. Indeed, although some have specifically applied such problematic notions in the context of Islamist terrorism, there is no reason to suppose that they regard ideology as being any more important in other terrorism contexts.
But the most egregious nonsense about the Islamic State is currently being peddled by ideologues, spokesmen, and activists from Islamist organizations, both in the Muslim world and in the West. Leading Saudi clerics, Saudi-sponsored and Saudi-funded international Islamic organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and numerous Islamist groups and networks linked to the Muslim Brotherhood are now belatedly hastening to denounce the IS and to falsely claim that it has “nothing to do with Islam” or that its appalling actions are “un-Islamic” or even “anti-Islamic.”
Unfortunately, many naïve or agenda-driven Western journalists cite these deceptive statements by Islamists in an effort to challenge conservative Western media claims that not enough Muslims are speaking out against the IS. Indeed, those journalists tend to highlight such statements to give the impression that lots of supposedly moderate Muslims are publicly opposing the IS, either without actually knowing or without bothering to mention that most of the people and organizations that are making such statements are in fact Islamists who are trying to whitewash Islam and their own brands of Islamism, burnish their own tarnished images and thereby protect themselves, and/or mislead gullible “infidels” in the media.
Most of these commentators repeat the same one-sided mantras that have been endlessly repeated since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, e.g., that “Islam is a religion of peace” or that “Islam does not sanction terrorism and beheadings,” usually without providing any actual textual or historical evidence in support of their claims. This is all the more peculiar, since if the jihadists affiliated with the IS were in fact egregiously misinterpreting Islam, it should be very easy indeed for their critics to point this out by referring to Islam’s sacred scriptures and the reported words and deeds of Muhammad to explicitly repudiate barbarous IS actions such as the wholesale massacre or torture of captives, the confiscation of their land and wealth, the enslavement (sexual and otherwise) of their women, the gruesome public beheadings and stonings of designated enemies and “sinners” in order to terrorize others and perhaps also to precipitate the arrival of the Mahdi and the onset of the “end times,” the wanton destruction of places of worship and historical monuments, and the list goes on and on.
Yet they generally fail to do this. On those rare occasions when they try to demonstrate that these kinds of activities are “un-Islamic,” usually by citing a handful of Qur’anic passages out of context or by noting a few recorded examples of Muhammad’s compassion, their arguments are weak and unconvincing, if not preposterous. The jihadists themselves and certain hardline pro-jihadist clerics have thus far seemingly had little trouble rebutting their Muslim critics’ often specious arguments.
An illustrative example of such Islamist sophistry is provided by Nihad ‘Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a key component of the Muslim Brotherhood network in the U.S.
In an opinion piece entitled “ISIS is Not Just Un-Islamic, It is Anti-Islamic,” ‘Awad describes ISIS as a “criminal gang” that “falsely…claims to uphold the banner of Islam.” In support of his claim, ‘Awad attempts to redefine the term jihad in such a way that it cannot be associated with offensive warfare.
Dr. Jeffrey M. Bale is an Associate Professor in the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where his focus is on the study of political and religious extremism and terrorism. He obtained his B.A. in Middle Eastern and Islamic history at the University of Michigan, and his Ph.D. in modern European history at the University of California at Berkeley.