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Understanding Jihadist Terrorism

University of Calgary


Jihadist Terrorism 

The Philadelphia
National Meeting
Sheraton Society Hill Hotel
April 1, 2006

A report last year by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service,
CSIS, indicated a central problem in understanding terrorists: they believe it
is both moral and a means to fulfil a religious obligation to commit a terrorist
act and that the highest morality is martyrdom. Likewise, in his book about a
19-year old Canadian, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, Sammy to his friends, Stewart
Bell noted: “For a terrorist to confess is not to admit to sins: it is the
opposite, to say proudly before God that he is not only a believer but one who
has acted on his faith.” Sammy pledged bayat, personal allegiance, to bin
Laden in the summer of 2001, following his training at the al Farook camp near
Kandahar. Incidentally, Kandahar is, today, the theatre of operations for the
FIRST Btn PPCLI, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, on its second
deployment to Afghanistan.

Bell’s book deals with a significant new phenomenon, the recruitment of
terrorists from a domestic population. In addition, both he and CSIS are puzzled
by the terrorists’ attitude, that acts of violence are “moral” and that
martyrdom, even including the suicide of the alleged martyr, is “the highest
morality.”  Both of these matters
carry implications that extend far beyond the borders of North America.

There are a number of terminological problems to be sorted out in order
to make sense of contemporary terrorists. Several terms are available to
describe the beliefs of the terrorists against whom we are fighting: Islamist,
jihadist, Islamic fundamentalist, radical Islam, salafist, and so on. I prefer
the term militant salafist because it has an intelligible intellectual pedigree
that can be traced back to a distinctive and highly dogmatic thirteenth-century
school of Sharia interpretation developed by Ibn Taymiyya who was himself a
member of the already strict Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. Second,
the adjective “militant” indicates that those who support an Islamist or
salafist ideological position are also engaged in “direct action,” to use an
evocative military term.

It may not be necessary to stress the importance of making distinctions
when speaking to the distinguished members of the Philadelphia Society, but in
general, the tendency among citizens is to simplify and blend. This is one
reason there was such a great ruckus over the purchase by Dubai Ports World of
the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company, and with it the contract to
manage the operations of several port facilities, including that of
Philadelphia. In fact it is highly unlikely that port security would have been
imperiled by this corporate acquisition by a cash rich company headquartered in
the United Arab Emirates. But for a lot of Americans it did not look that way.
In fact, if America cannot do business with the UAE, which is as pro-American a
place as exists in the Middle East, it cannot do business anywhere in the Muslim

So: distinctions matter. For example, some Palestinian and Iraqi
terrorist groups are secular militants and most salafist or Islamist groups are
not militant (in the sense of using terrorist direct action). Some – including
the Shiite Hizb al-Dawah and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq
– are allies of the United States. That is, radical Islamists are not
necessarily militant Islamists, even if they both use the same or very similar
language. Among the militant Islamists, furthermore, some such as Hamas and
Hezbolla, are pursuing so-called classic “national liberation” objectives
rather like the Tamil Tigers or the IRA. Others, notably al Qaeda, are
international or ecumenic; and in between the globalists and the nationalists
there are regional groups – Jemaah Islamiya comes quickly to mind.

Sometimes Islamist militants are referred to as “jihadists” though
this term is misleading in the same way that “national liberation” is
misleading. With the latter, there was never any question of liberty being
involved; with the former, there is nothing sanctified in the war that is being
conducted. For so-called jihadists, there is simply armed struggle (including
terrorism) against an existing regime. What most are engaged in is, properly
speaking, “hirabah,” unholy war, not jihad. On the other hand, almost no one
uses the term so we are probably stuck with “jihadists.” And finally, there
is the issue of Wahhabism: not all Wahhabis are militants or “jihadists,”
but most “jihadists” are Wahhabi. There are exceptions: the first
“jihadists” grew out of the radical (but not militant) Egyptian Muslim
Brotherhood and the Taliban are not Wahhabi at all.

The intellectual pedigree of radical Islam, which, as mentioned, can be
traced back to Ibn Taymiyya and his response to the Mongol destruction of the
Abassid Caliphate in 1258, does not explain how terrorist direct action came to
be understood as enacting the will of God. To begin with, it is highly improper
on traditional Islamic grounds to identify martyrdom with indiscriminate
violence let alone suicide. How the Islamist militants or salafist terrorists
came to the conclusion that killing the innocent by means of suicide attacks was
moral or was evidence of martyrdom is particularly surprising because the
salafists take their name from the al-salf al-salihin or “pious
forefathers.”  We shall see,
however, that they have nothing in common with the pious forefathers or, more
broadly, with what, in the absence of a Muslim orthodoxy, is often referred to
as Koranic Islam.

I tried to sort out some of these problems in New Political Religions
using several concepts developed by Eric Voegelin – and order forms are
available outside. I will mention only two: second reality and pneumopathology.
A second reality is the result of a deliberate act of the imagination. Human
beings have the capacity to imagine themselves to be subhuman or superhuman –
enjoying a direct line to God or to the meaning of history. 
In contrast to this reality of the imagination is the common experience
of being human that, in turn, is elaborated in several distinct but equivalent
symbolizations. As for the second term, literally a pneumopathology is a
spiritual sickness, in contrast to psychopathology – a psychological disorder.
The difference between the two is that psychopaths cannot tell the difference
between good and evil, whereas pneumopaths can tell the difference perfectly
well and go out of their way to hide what they know – typically by using
religious symbols and language to intoxicate themselves into oblivion with
respect to what they know.

Several years ago Bruce Hoffman noted
that terrorist killers almost always see their purposes as altruistic. In terms
we have been using, they can do so by creating a second reality where murder is
seen as sacrifice. This moral perversity was present in old-style terrorists
such as the IRA, but it was accompanied by some highly rational cost-benefit
calculations. They were engaged chiefly in “propaganda by deed” to use a
19th century formula. Or as Brian Jenkins said in 1975: “Terrorists want a lot
of people watching and a lot of people listening, and not a lot of people
dead.” Thirty years ago, terrorism was a kind of brutal negotiating technique
that calibrated violence more or less in light of an intelligible, commonsense
political objective. This cannot be said either for Islamist militants, whether
local or transnational. As Jenkins said in 1996: “if God tells you to do it,
God knows you did it. You don’t have to issue a communiqué.” In short, we
are not dealing with any form of negotiation.

have a couple of additional points to make. First, underlying salafist terrorism
is a dogmatic narrative of Islamic history that is, unfortunately, widely shared
in the ummah, the Muslim community. Political science must make yet
another distinction, this time between the history of Islam and Islamic history.
The former is similar to the history of gunpowder or the history of the
Republican Party of Pennsylvania. In contrast, Islamic history is the story of
God and humanity. It is a story of successive revelations of God’s will for
humans through the “monotheistic” or “Abrahamic” religions. This story
starts with the Jews and the Old Testament and continues with Christians and the
New Testament, and ends with the revelation to the Prophet and the words of the
angel Gabriel to Mohammed, which is the text of the Holy Koran. 
For traditional Muslim believers, this is a simple truth; for scholars of
Islam, and especially for political scientists, it is a theological account that
has a history similar to that found in Judaism and Christianity. For a
traditional Muslim, God told him that Jews and Christians were also Muslims,
though they did not yet know it. But they would someday. Moreover, the early
triumphs of the Arab armies seemed to confirm God’s will. Of course, there
were similar experiences in Judaism and Christianity, but there was never any
respectable way to account for “what went wrong,” when invariably it did. At
the end of the ninth century the philosophically inclined Mutazalite school was
suppressed and thereafter one finds only individual philosophical thinkers –
Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and the great Ibn Khaldun – and no schools, no
institutional support.

the response of Ibn Taymiyya, mentioned earlier, was typical. It combined strict
and dogmatic interpretation of sharia and vigorous enforcement by the
sword. His thirteenth century jurisprudence was the most important in the
present context. The formula was resurrected practically to the letter in the
18th century by Abd al-Whahab and simplified further by the de-tribalized
Whahabi “Muslim Brotherhood” in the nineteenth. By the time one reaches a
religious ignoramus such as Sayeed Qutb, bin Laden, or al-Zawahiri, the language
is as debased as that used by Nazis and Bolsheviks. In short, for 500 years the
fundamental assumption that law in the Muslim world was holy, and thus
immutable, resulted, in the felicitous phrase of Roger Scruton, in a
“confiscation of the political,” which has never been overcome. One might
add: the suppression of philosophers resulted in a confiscation of the rational
as well.

of this deculturation is familiar from Western historical experience for the
obvious reason that the process of social and political disorder engenders
typical human responses. Political, social, or spiritual disorder places in
question the received structures and institutions of life that conventionally
provide stability and meaning for most of us, most of the time. When things fall
apart, we are on our own, and usually that means we are lost. In theological
language, when God seems to disappear from the world and from life, when God
seems to cease supporting His people, human beings characteristically evoke
substitutes  – second realities –
that are symbolized in a language that is typically close to the original and
genuinely religious evocation.

is one example. In traditional or Koranic Islam a martyr, shahid, bears
witness to the truth of Allah, usually by suffering. In the Islamic tradition,
determining who is a martyr is a decision taken by the religious leadership with
respect to those who die for the sake of the ummah. The process is
similar to becoming a saint in the Catholic Church, though the details obviously
differ.  Suicide, however, is
prohibited – indirectly in the Koran and directly in reliable Hadiths,
the well attested “sayings” of the Prophet. One fine day in 1984, for
entirely political reasons, Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah invented the
doctrine of istihad, self-martyrdom, and with it an imaginary community
that can be joined only through death.        

addition to substituting their own meaning for well attested traditional ones,
the Islamist militants, particularly the transnationalist ones in al-Qaeda, have
created their own narrative to explain their actions. This narrative is in
conflict with the narratives of the nationalist and, relatively speaking, more
pragmatic militants, as well as non-militant salafists. Initially al-Zawahiri
sought to attack the “near enemy,” the so-called apostate regimes of the
Middle East. But the experience of the war in Afghanistan convinced him of the
necessity of an ecumenic and apocalyptic jihad against the “far enemy,”
first the Soviets, then, following the famous pseudo-fatwa of 1998 directed
against Jews and Crusaders, America. It is often forgotten that the more
pragmatic terrorists with intelligible political agendas were scandalized by the
strategy of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Their response to this criticism was to
become even more abusive, which may remind students of the early Soviet Union of
polemics between Stalin and Trotsky.

acrimony is, in fact, a symptom of a real problem for the Islamist militants.
The mujahid (in terms of his own self-understanding) looks over his
shoulder and sees nothing but infidels and apostates, kafir, in the very
places in the Muslim world that he, by his own lights, is striving to protect. 
These mujahadeen see themselves as fighting on a frontier to
protect a centre that has no room for them. They are not protecting any
particular piece of territory but, so to speak, the idea of a non-existent and
imaginary ummah. “They are besieged in a fortress they do not
inhabit,” as Olivier Roy said. The symbol of the empty fortress is the perfect
expression of the pneumopathological aspect of militant pseudo-jihad: their
spiritual journey is simply to fight, and dying is proof of success.

me leave you with this conclusion: terrorist consciousness, which is expressed
in the texts that are meant to interpret their acts, is the intelligible
expression of a universal human experience. Political disorder in the modern
Islamic world has evoked a genuine horror at existence and at the structure of
reality. From this experience arises a desire to escape reality or transform it
along the lines of a second reality more congenial to the pneumopathological
terrorist imagination. In short, we in the West have encountered such forms of
consciousness before in the great ideological movements of the last two
centuries, and we shall no doubt see it again after the last member of al-Qaeda
has been killed, or retired, or converted to Sufi mysticism.

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