Does Jihad Really Have “Nothing to do with Islam”?

Gatestone Institute, by Denis MacEoin, Feb. 24, 2018:

  • “National Security officials are prohibited from developing a factual understanding of Islamic threat doctrines, preferring instead to depend upon 5th column Muslim Brotherhood cultural advisors.” — Richard Higgins, NSC official.
  • At the heart of the problem lies the fantasy that Islam must be very similar to other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity, out of which it was, in fact derived.
  • The use of force, mainly through jihad, is a basic doctrine in the Qur’an, the Prophetic sayings (ahadith), and in all manuals of Islamic law. It is on these sources that fighters from Islamic State, al-Qa’ida, al-Shabaab, and hundreds of other groupings base their preaching and their actions. To say that such people have “nothing to do with Islam” could not be more wrong.

Recently, US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster once again downplayed the significance of faith by claiming that Islamic ideology is “irreligious”; meanwhile, up to 1.5 billion Muslims continue claiming, as they have done for 1400 years, that it is.

As Stephen Coughlin, an expert on Islam, told Gatestone, “It is the believers who define their religion, not the non-believers. If someone says his religion is that the moon is made of green cheese, that has to be your starting point.”

On February 20, 2017, President Trump appointed McMaster, a serving Lieutenant General of the US Army, to the important position of National Security Advisor, after the forced resignation of Michael T. Flynn. McMaster came to the post with a reputation for stability, battlefield experience, and intelligence. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“It is not an overstatement to say that Americans and the world should feel a little safer today,” tweeted Andrew Exum, an author and academic who saw combat in Afghanistan and writes widely about military affairs.”

After the controversies surrounding McMaster’s predecessor in office, McMaster came as a safe hand.

It was not long before divisions opened up within the NSC, however, with quarrels, firings, and appeals to the president. Many controversies remain today. By July, it was reported that Trump was planning to fire McMaster and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. By August, however, McMaster’s position seemed secure.

U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It is not the purpose of this article to discuss issues McMaster’s spell at the NSC has brought to light, except for one: McMaster’s position on Islam and terrorism. It became a cause for contention early in McMaster’s incumbency and continues to engender divisions, not just among NSC staff, but also with the president. The general’s viewpoint, which he has often expressed, is that international terrorism has nothing to do with the religion of Islam, a notion he seems to believe to the point where he has banned the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism” — a term that Trump uses often.

In an all-hands meeting of the NSC on February 23, 2017, three days after his appointment as NSC Director, McMaster said jihadist terrorists are not true to their professed religion and that the use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” does not help the US in working with allies to defeat terrorist groups:

“The phrase is unhelpful because terrorist organizations like ISIS represent a perversion of Islam, and are thus un-Islamic, McMaster said, according to a source who attended the meeting.”

More recently, on December 3, in an interview with Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, McMaster stated that “we make sure we never buy into or reinforce the terrorist narrative, this false narrative that this is a war of religion”. He followed this by elaborating on the criminality and supposed secularism of Muslim terrorists:

“Those who adhere to this ideology are really irreligious criminals who use a perverted, what the President has called a wicked interpretation of religion, in an effort to recruit young, impressionable people to their cause, to foment hatred”.

In taking that stance, McMaster has broken with many members of his own staff, several of whom he was later to fire, and with the Trump administration itself. This desire to deny a connection between Islam and terrorism or to distinguish between a “pure” Islamic religion and “perversions” of it had been for many years a characteristic of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, as well as Hillary Clinton’s tweets, when “this has nothing to do with Islam” was an oft-repeated refrain.

One of the people whom McMaster fired is Richard Higgins, a top NSC official who had written a memoir in which he warned of the dangers of radical Islam and its alliance with the far Left. In a lengthy document, Higgins wrote:

Globalists and Islamists recognize that for their visions to succeed, America, both as an ideal and as a national and political identity, must be destroyed…Islamists ally with cultural Marxists…[but] Islamists will co-opt the movement in its entirety…

Because the left is aligned with Islamist organizations at local, national, and international levels, recognition should be given to the fact that they seamlessly interoperate through coordinated synchronized interactive narratives…

These attack narratives are pervasive, full spectrum, and institutionalized at all levels. They operate in social media, television, the 24-hour news cycle in all media and are entrenched at the upper levels of the bureaucracies.

Clearly, Higgins did not mince his words, yet what he wrote seems entirely appropriate for the NSC, a body charged with the protection of the United States from radicalism of all kinds. According to Meira Svirsky, writing for the Clarion Project

Lamenting the lack of education given to government officials about radical Islam, Higgins previously wrote, “National Security officials are prohibited from developing a factual understanding of Islamic threat doctrines, preferring instead to depend upon 5th column Muslim Brotherhood cultural advisors.” [1]

Higgins’s stress on the lack of education about Islam is a vital recognition that something has been going wrong for years when it comes to American and European official responses to the religion and its followers. Rightly cautious about genuine Islamophobia, the growth of hate speech and intercommunal strife, governments and their agencies have adopted policies and measures to preserve calm even in the face of growing levels of terrorism by Muslims. Europeans in Paris, Barcelona, Manchester, London, Brussels, Berlin and Nice, to name just a few places, are at the forefront of attacks inspired by Islamic State, al-Qa’ida and other radical groups. But the US has suffered the heaviest casualties, with thousands slaughtered in the 9/11 attacks.

In the face of a renascent and at times violent Islam, politicians have adopted the policy of denying any connection between terrorist events and Islam. Many religious leaders have done the same. McMaster has adopted this policy, keeping him in line with established approaches:

“HR McMaster, a respected army lieutenant general, struck notes more consistent with traditional counterterrorism analysts and espoused consensus foreign-policy views during a meeting he held with his new National Security Council staff on Thursday”.

According to Svirsky:

McMaster believes the “Islamic State is not Islamic,” going so far as to describe jihadists as “really irreligious organizations.” As did former president Obama, he opposes use of any language that connects Islam to terrorism.

McMaster also rejects the notion that jihadists are motivated by religious ideology. Instead, he says they are motivated by “fear,” a “sense of honor” and their “interests,” which he describes as the roots of human conflict for thousands of years. He believes U.S. policy must be based on “understanding those human dimensions.”

There may be signs that McMaster, though he still has some way to go, at least recognizes that some deeply religious Islamic organizations are a threat to the West. Writing on December 13, Meira Svirsky cites a speech McMaster gave at Policy Exchange in Washington:

“Declaring the ideology of radical Islam an obvious and ‘grave threat to all civilized people,’ U.S. National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster singled out the Muslim Brotherhood and its brand of political Islam as a specific threat”.

In that speech, the general spoke of Turkey and Egypt as two major sources of support for the Brotherhood, including its Palestinian branch, Hamas. He clearly sees the threat, but does not, as yet, fully understand the meaning of its religious dimension (however much other factors play a role in terrorism).

I have no wish to be disrespectful towards McMaster, who carries out a vital task in securing the lives and property of so many Americans, but I fear his statements show that he has little or no knowledge of Islam, its teachings, or its history. Either that or he has invented a form of Islam that bears no resemblance to the religion that many of us have spent most of our lives studying. Not implausibly, he has given ears to advisors, possibly including Muslims, who have sought to play down any possible link between violence and the Muslim faith.

This willingness, even eagerness, to misrepresent Islam plays directly into the hands of anti-Western Muslims, radicals who anticipate the coming of an apocalyptic global Caliphate. In a recent article, Professor Richard Landes of Boston University lists the many ways in which this is done:

Only the most fervent of true believers could think that, even with Allah’s help, the global Caliphate was possible. In order to succeed, da’wa [outreach; proselytizing] Caliphaters needed the assistance of the targeted kuffar population to:

  • Disguise their ambition to subject the kuffar, by downplaying jihadi acts of war and their deployment among the targeted population.
  • Insist that “except for a tiny minority,” the “vast majority” of Muslims are moderate and peaceful, and Islam is a “Religion of Peace” that has nothing to do with the violence of jihadists.
  • Accept those who fight for the Caliphate with da’wa as “moderates” who have “nothing to do” with “violent extremists.”
  • Engage these “moderate” Caliphaters as advisors and consultants in intelligence and police work, as prison chaplains, community liaisons, college teachers, and administrators.
  • Present Caliphater war propaganda as reliable information, as news.
  • Attack those who criticize Islam (including Muslims) as xenophobic and racist Islamophobes.
  • Adopt the Caliphater’s apocalyptic enemy as their own, so that the kuffar join in an attack on one of their key allies.
  • Legitimate jihadi terrorism as “resistance” and denounce any recourse to violence in their own defense as “terrorism.”
  • Respect the dignity of Muslim beliefs even as Muslims heap disdain on their beliefs.
  • Take seriously Caliphater invocations of human rights when, in reality, they despise those rights for women, slaves, and infidels.
  • Welcome an angry “Muslim Street” in the heart of their capital cities.

At the heart of the problem lies the fantasy that Islam must be very similar to other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity, out of which it was, in fact derived. This would mean that Islam consists only of doctrines about a single God, heaven and hell, sin and punishment, spiritual endeavor, together with practices such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and alms-giving. There would be nothing to concern us were that the case, and certainly no reason to connect the faith with a few supposedly fanatical people who have misguidedly distorted it and turned to violence.

But that would be to ignore the totality of Islam. Apart from 12 years at the start of Muhammad’s mission, Islam has encompassed far more than worship and moral behavior. From the moment Muhammad led his followers from Mecca to Medina in the year 622, his religion became a system of government, of law, and of war. Several battles were fought with his Meccan opponents; the Jews of Medina were either driven out by force or executed and enslaved, and Muhammad returned to Mecca as its conqueror. On his death, his first successor embarked on a two-year war to bring recalcitrant tribes back within the fold, sent out armies to the north and, in just a few years, began the wave of invasions that made Muslims victorious across most of the known world. Of the first four “rightly-guided” caliphs, one was assassinated by an Iranian captive and the other two by other Muslims. Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn, was killed with his family in Karbala in 680 by the second of the Umayyad caliphs, before further internal wars. Jihadi wars continued, year in and year out, after that; they are still invoked by modern terrorists. Islam has never been at peace with the non-Muslim world.

The use of force, mainly through jihad, is a basic doctrine in the Qur’an, the prophetic sayings (ahadith), and in all manuals of Islamic law. (For examples, see hereherehere and here.)

If jihad were permitted only in self-defence, then excuses implying aggression, as we have seen, would need to be readily available to justify attacks. As the Washington Post wrote a fortnight after the attack on the United States on 9/11/2001:

At the heart of the bin Laden opus are two declarations of holy war — jihad — against America. The first, issued in 1996, was directed specifically at “Americans occupying the land of the two holy places,” as bin Laden refers to his native Saudi Arabia, where 5,000 U.S. troops have been stationed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The two holy places are Muslim shrines at Mecca and Medina.

In 1998, he broadened the edict to include the killing of “Americans and their allies, civilians and military . . . in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

It is on such Islamic sources that fighters from Islamic State, al-Qa’ida, al-Shabaab, and hundreds of other groupings base their preaching and their actions. To say that such people have “nothing to do with Islam” could not be more wrong.

It is not only wrong, it is demeaning to the many ex-Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Ibn Warraq and reformist Muslims who are fully aware of the connection, but are often apparently considered delusional or even fanatical. Last year saw the publication of Ibn Warraq’s detailed study, The Islam in Islamic Terrorism: The Importance of Beliefs, Ideas, and Ideology, which takes the reader through all the violent or violence-promoting individuals and groups in Islamic history, with discursions on the thinking behind them. With few exceptions, these individuals and groups are far from minor or obscure.

In chapter one of his book, Ibn Warraq examines what he calls the “Root Cause Fallacy”, whereby politicians, security advisers, and others deflect attention from religion as a motivator for terrorism. He shows that most radicals and terrorists are not primarily inspired or justified by poverty, lack of knowledge of Islam, lack of education, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestine, anti-Semitism, U.S. Foreign policy, Western Imperialism, or revenge for the Crusades. He refers (p. 31) to David Wurmser of the American Enterprise Institute and his view that:

“Westerners attribute too many of the Arab world’s problems ‘to specific material issues’ such as land and wealth. This usually means a tendency ‘to belittle belief and strict adherence to principle as genuine and dismiss it as a cynical exploitation of the masses by politicians. As such, Western observers see material issues and leaders, not the spiritual state of the Arab world, as the heart of the problem'”.

Overall, Ibn Warraq draws on an extensive body of scholarship, mainly from leading Western scholars of Islam and authoritative sources such as The Encyclopedia of Islam. McMaster and others, who repeat the mantra that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, are hardly in a position to override comment by individuals who have spent a lifetime deeply involved in the study of Islam through its original sources.

Ibn Warraq, moreover, cites (pp. 139-140) several Western and Muslim scholars who have said repeatedly that the idea that the “true jihad is a spiritual struggle” is completely unauthentic. It is arguments based on a reading of texts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and other languages that deserve to be treated as the basis for policy-making, identifying which people may be potential terrorists, or evaluating the true intentions of US-based Muslim associations such as CAIR or ISNA.

Clare Lopez, vice president of research and analysis at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, has commented on the broad lack of knowledge about Islam and how it has distorted thinking within national bodies. Beginning with criticism of McMaster, she raises broader issues:

McMaster is just wrong for NSC on so many counts. I think at least in part because, like others across national security at his level, who made rank in years post-9/11, he was systematically denied fact-based training about Islam, jihad, Shariah and the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] – whose affiliates, associates, operatives, fellow travelers and useful fools remain embedded within and close to the federal government and local law enforcement at various levels.

Now, of course, anyone who’s ever taken the oath to the Constitution has an affirmative obligation to know the enemy and that McMaster did not do this is his responsibility alone.

Those who got promoted within the military-security establishment over the past eight years got there precisely because of a “willful blindness about Islam”.

The problem for the United States government, Congress, Senate — and many important agencies which find themselves called on to discuss, monitor, report on, or make policies about Islam, American Muslims, Muslims worldwide, and more — is knowing where to look for accurate and authentic information. In the past, all of these have depended on Muslim academics, uncritical and cosmetic non-Muslim professors and commentators such as John Esposito, Karen Armstrong and the many teachers identified by Campus Watch; numerous university and college Islamicists with vested interests in posts funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim states (see here); self-appointed Islamic authorities such as CAIR, and amateurs within US institutions.

Criticism of Islam has become taboo and has been denounced as a right-wing or even far-right prejudice. The present writer, however, a political centrist, sees nothing wrong in bringing reasoned and fact-based criticism to bear on Islam, just as one would to every other ideology, from Marxism to Fascism. One can also appreciate the stunning contributions Muslims have made to science, art, architecture, calligraphy, music, and the spiritual endeavors of Sufis and Shi’i mystical philosophers. It is important for everyone to step back and bring accuracy and balance to the way we regard a large and expanding religion. 

Denis MacEoin has an MA in Persian, Arabic and Islamic History from Edinburgh University and a PhD (1979) in an aspect of Shi’i Islam in 19th-century Iran. He taught Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Religious Studies Department of Newcastle University and has published many books and articles on Islamic topics.


[1] There is evidence that the international Muslim Brotherhood is working for influence in US politics and that it has already placed people within several US bodies. See here.

EXCLUSIVE – Terrorism Expert: H.R. McMaster is Endangering U.S. National Security

AP/Susan Walsh

Breitbart, by Aaron Klein, Aug. 16, 2017:

TEL AVIV — H.R. McMaster, the embattled National Security Adviser to President Trump, is threatening U.S. national security by refusing to recognize radical Islamic terrorism, a top terrorism expert told Breitbart News.

“The refusal to utter or condemn by name radical Islamic terrorism only helps makes the battle against Islamic terrorism impossible to win,” stated Steven Emerson, executive director of the respected Investigative Project on Terrorism. “If you cannot identify the problem, you cannot beat it.”

McMaster’s refusal to “condemn radical Islamic terrorism by name is a threat to our national security,” Emerson posited.

Emerson was responding to a 2014 speech on the Middle East, unearthed yesterday by Breitbart News, in which McMaster claimed that Islamic terrorist organizations are “really un-Islamic” and are “really irreligious organizations” who cloak themselves in the “false legitimacy of Islam.”

McMaster’s comments represent views of Islamic terrorism that are diametrically opposed to those espoused by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly utilized the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

McMaster, who serves in a critical national security position, seems to be minimizing the central religious motivations of radical Islamic terrorist groups who are waging a religious war against Western civilization. Indeed, in his speech, McMaster urged the audience to focus on the “human factors” that he says drive conflict while downplaying any religious motivation.

The comments in the 2014 video are not the only time McMaster has seemingly denied the Islamic motivations of America’s terrorist enemies. In February, CNN cited a source inside a National Security Council meeting quoting McMaster as saying that use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is unhelpful in working with allies to fight terrorism.

In May, McMaster spoke on ABC’s This Week about whether Trump would use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in a speech that the president was about to give in Saudi Arabia. “The president will call it whatever he wants to call it,” McMaster said. “But I think it’s important that, whatever we call it, we recognize that [extremists] are not religious people. And, in fact, these enemies of all civilizations, what they want to do is to cloak their criminal behavior under this false idea of some kind of religious war.”

Emerson compared McMaster’s views on terrorism to those officially espoused for eight years by the Obama administration, which refused to attribute radical Islamic motivations to terrorism, instead referring to the phenomenon as “violent extremism.”

Stated Emerson:

Nearly the entire liberal/left wing media spectrum have been continuously condemning President Trump for not condemning by name the ultra-white nationalist groups who came out for battle on Saturday in Charlottesville instead of condemning the generalized categories of “hate and bigotry.”  In fact, we also criticized that hesitation to name the neo-Nazi  coalition, but at least the President  condemned them by name on Monday.

But by the scurrilous standards of McMaster and the 8 years of the Obama Administration, a generalized statement against “violent extremism” should have been enough for the events on Saturday. But of course, that meaningless euphemism invoked by Obama, to the murderous applause of a compliant media, meant absolutely nothing. And in fact, only emboldened the quest for power by radical Islamic front groups over truly moderate Islamic reform groups and leaders. That McMaster is pursuing the same refusal to condemn radical Islamic terrorism by name is a threat to our national security.

Also reacting to McMaster’s statements on terrorism, Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, told Breitbart News yesterday that he believes McMaster is endangering U.S. national security by seeming to scrub Islam as a motivating factor.

Stated Gaffney, “It is no small irony that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster – a man who wrote a book entitled Dereliction of Duty about malfeasant political interference in the U.S. military’s conduct of a war – is now perpetrating the greatest reprise of such dereliction since Vietnam with his insistence that the wellspring for jihadist terror is not authoritative Islam and its supremacist Sharia doctrine. President Trump must treat such incompetence as a firing offense.”

Shia and Sunni Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Islamic State each openly espouse Islamic motivations, repeatedly cite the Quran, and claim they are fighting a religious war.  Some of the Sunni groups are violent offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to create a global Islamic caliphate.

Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaida, infamously cited Quranic scripture and was heavily influenced by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader, ideologue and Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb, considered the Brotherhood’s intellectual godfather.  Writing in the New York Times magazine in 2003, author Paul Berman dissected the Quranic origins of Qutb’s book Milestones – utilized by bin Laden as a sort of religious guidebook – as being drawn from Qutb’s massive commentary on the Quran titled, In the Shade of the Qur’an.

Hamas’s original charter repeatedly cites the Quran and other mainstream Islamic texts.  In March, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, claimed that “removing the Jews from the land they occupied in 1948 is an immutable principle because it appears in the Book of Allah.”  Zahar was referring to the entire State of Israel.

While there are legitimate arguments about how much these terrorist groups in some cases may utilize an extremist interpretation of Islam, McMaster is clearly downplaying the transparent religious motivations of America’s terrorist enemies.

McMaster’s views on Islamic terrorism are the latest controversy to engulf the Trump administration official.

Last week, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the oldest pro-Israel group in the country, released an analysis of McMaster’s policies and reported views, concluding that he should be reassigned outside the NSC after it found that McMaster may be undermining Trump’s stated national security agenda.

The analysis states:

We find it hard to understand how someone who clearly has animus toward Israel, who supports the disastrous Iran nuclear deal, who opposes calling out radical Islamist terrorists, who fires Trump loyalists and supporters of Israel and opponents of Iran, who hires those opposed to President Trump’s policies especially on Israel and Iran, who refused to acknowledge that the Western Wall is in Israel, who opposes Israeli counterterrorism measures, and who shuts down joint U.S. counterterrorism programs that are of enormous value to U.S. security, can faithfully serve President Trump as top national security advisor. President Trump made it crystal clear, both before and since his election, that supporting Israel and the U.S.-Israel alliance, abrogating or at least vigorously enforcing the Iran deal while calling out and sanctioning Iran’s violations, confronting radical Islamist terrorism, and draining the Washington swamp were key, distinguishing policies of his administration.
The ZOA’s analysis cited Breitbart News articles from this reporter on McMaster’s background.
Last week, Breitbart News reported that McMaster served at a UK-based think tank financed by a controversial, George Soros-funded group identified by the Obama White House as central in helping to sell the Iran nuclear deal to the public and news media. 
From September 2006 to February 2017, McMaster was listed as a member of International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), where he served as consulting senior fellow. The IISS describes itself as a “world-leading authority on global security, political risk and military conflict.” The group was also financed directly by Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
Breitbart also reported that IISS is bankrolled by multinational corporate firms doing billions of dollars in business in Iran.
And IISS quietly took in about $32.5 million in funding from Bahrain, a country whose constitution explicitly enshrines Sharia Islamic law as its governing doctrine, Breitbart News documented.
The funding from Bahrain, a repressive regime with a dismal human rights track record but also an important regional U.S. ally, reportedly amounted to one quarter of the think tank’s total income.
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