Most Americans are sympathetic to public references to Islam and to Muslims that do not offend patriotic American Muslims or affix to the Islamic religion the rantings of al-Qaeda. But sensitivity to the need to be civil to Muslims doesn’t—or shouldn’t—obviate the need for intellectual honesty when discussing or analyzing America’s Islamist political foes.
At a recent briefing to scholars and reporters at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, went into contortions to avoid admitting what seems commonsense to most Americans: there is a connection between some parts of Islamic thought and the repeated assertions of Osama bin Laden and his supporters and sympathizers that they are waging “jihad” against the United States. Brennan said the religious views of America’s Islamist terrorist adversaries shouldn’t even be discussed. Yet to accept that view would be like asking the State Department to examine the views of Adolf Hitler during Word War II and avoid mentioning his hatred of the Jews.
Brennan said the White House and State Department were avoiding reference to “jihadists” even though terrorist adversaries of the United States often call themselves exactly that. He said that jihad was “a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam meaning to purify oneself and one’s community.” True, this is the “greater jihad,” as defined by Mohammed himself—but it is not the whole meaning of jihad at all. In fact, serious and respected scholars of Islam such as Professor Bernard Lewis assert that by far the largest proportion of Islamic historical references to jihad refer to what is called the “lesser jihad”—the duty of Muslims to wage war on non-Muslims in order to subdue all countries and communities for Allah.
The Quran, Islam’s holy book, is quite explicit about this. Surah 9, for example, the “surah of the sword,” explicitly calls on Muslims to “fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and his Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the book [i.e,. Jews and Christians] until they pay the tax in acknowledgement of superiority and they are in a state of subjection” (Surah 9:29). Just in case readers didn’t get that message, Surah 2:216 says “jihad is enjoined for you, though you dislike it, and it may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you, and it may be that you love a thing while it is evil for you, and Allah knows, while you do not know” (Surah 2:216).
Brennan claimed that the extremists were victims of “political, economic, and social forces,” and that they should not be described in “religious terms.” But if America’s Islamist opponents describe themselves in religious terms, why shouldn’t we take seriously what they are saying?
In addition to the Quran, other sources of Islamic interpretation of jihad include the “hadith,” anecdotal stories illustrating Mohammed’s life; and the “sharia,” the corpus of Islamic religious law. Though there are four main schools of law within Islam, there is almost a complete overlap among all of them in the interpretation of jihad.
In “Reliance of the Traveller: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law” Umdat Al-Salik—the authoritative source of Islamic rulings of the shafi school of Islam—it states: “jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word ‘mujahadan,’ signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self....The scriptural basis for jihad, prior to scholarly consensus, is such Quranic verses as [2:216] ‘fighting is prescribed for you,’ [4:89] ‘slay them wherever you find them,’ and [9:36] ‘fight the idolaters utterly’ and such hadiths as the one related by Bukari and Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said...the hadith reported by Muslim, ‘to go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.’”
Brennan’s unawareness of key Islamic explanations of jihad is baffling when you consider that he once headed the CIA in the entire Middle East and he spent a year learning Arabic at university in Cairo.
Even today, jihad is used by Islamist movements as justification for their politics. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that currently rules Gaza and which seeks the entire destruction of Israel, openly describes itself as fighting a jihad against the infidel. Back during World War I, the entire Ottoman Empire officially declared jihad against Great Britain and all the Entente powers allied with her against Germany and her allies (which included the Turks). I don’t think the supreme mufti in Constantinople was trying to get the Muslims of the world to simply become purer in their behavior: he wanted them to kill Brits.
There is certainly a need to be cautious in discussing Islam, especially since many Muslims live in the United States and indeed love the United States. But to avoid the word “jihadis” when it is employed by terrorists themselves is rather like visiting Lenin’s tomb in Moscow and failing to mention that Lenin was a communist. Come to think of it, Arab-language specialist Brennan went into contortions during his first mention of Jerusalem, a city he says he loves. He called it “Al-Quds,” the Arabic term that didn’t come into existence until the era of Islam in the 7th century AD. Jerusalem is the English word that comes from Hebrew Yerushalayim. In fact, this city had been inhabited by Jews for hundreds of years before Mohammed claims to have visited it.
Is the White House listening? Less political correctness and more honesty and common sense, please.
This column appeared originally at One News Now on June 8.