Commentary Magazine


Who Are the True Jihadists?

The exact meaning of jihad is not a new question. It came up, unsurprisingly, at the Conference on Democracy and Security organized by Natan Sharansky, Václav Havel, and José Maria Aznar in Prague last week (about which Joshua Muravchik has been blogging).

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, was in the middle of a rousing speech about the mystique of democracy. He warned of the danger to democracies posed by jihadists, who abuse its freedoms to subvert democratic institutions. Up rose Sami Angawi, director general of the Amar Center in Saudi Arabia, to protest: “I am a jihadist!” Angawi explained how, as a Muslim, he saw his struggle for freedom, democracy, and human rights in Saudi Arabia as a jihad.

I listened to Angawi develop his point: that jihad is too important a concept for it to be the exclusive property of Islamists, and that it needs to be recaptured and decontaminated by moderate and secular Muslims. I felt real sympathy for Angawi—and not only because he stopped me from walking in front of a Prague streetcar. But there is, depite the best efforts of reformers like Angawi, little likelihood that jihad will lose its ominous connotations for non-Muslims any time soon.

The concept is freighted with memories that go back 1,400 years, to the earliest days of Islam. Whether moderate Muslims like it or not, jihad has a history that extends from Muhammad’s farewell address in 632 (“I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah’”) to Osama bin Laden’s deliberate echo of his words in November 2001. The proclamations of jihad against the West that we have witnessed since the Islamic revolution in Iran are not very different from those of Muslim conquerors throughout history (several of whom came close to fulfilling those proclamations).

Nor, it should be noted, does the fact that some of the Islamic warriors of the past were admired for their chivalry (rather than abhorred for their cruelty, as the Islamists of today are) mean that their concept of jihad was any less warlike and apocalyptic. In 1189, Saladin, the great antagonist of Richard Coeur de Lion, threatened to pursue his jihad across the sea to Europe “until there remains no-one on the face of the earth who does not acknowledge Allah.”

Ignác Goldziher, the Hungarian Jew who pioneered modern Islamic scholarship, began in the late 19th century the long effort by Western orientalists to reinterpret the meaning of jihad—an effort ongoing more or less ever since. But the paucity and insularity of Islamic hermeneutics means that no new interpretation of jihad is likely to gain acceptance in the dominant theological schools of Cairo and Mecca. The Wahhabi interpretation of jihad, which deliberately overlooks the prophetic injunction to practice “greater jihad” (peaceful struggle) as well as “lesser jihad” (war against the infidel), is hugely dominant among them, and will remain so. For these scholars, marooned in the 7th century, war against the infidel is not only legitimate, but laudable and even obligatory—however unholy such war may be in the eyes of more moderate Muslims.