GOTTINGEN, Germany – After any terrorist attack by jihadists – from the Sept. 11 attacks to those in Bali in 2002, Madrid in 2004 and London in July – two contradictory views are usually heard. Some people claim that such religiously legitimated terror has its roots in Islam; others, principally Muslims and politically correct Westerners, say such terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.
The truth can only be reached by putting aside both extreme views and by recognizing the difference between Islam, the religion, and Islamism, the religious-political ideology. Although jihadism may not be Islamic, it is based on the ideology of Islamism, which has emerged from the politicization of Islam in the current war of ideas.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of recognizing this truth. Jihadism will continue to be with us for decades to come, as long as the movement related to it within Islamic civilization continues to thrive and to disseminate its deadly ideas.
Jihadists see themselves as non-state actors waging an irregular war against “kafirun,” or unbelievers. They see their struggle as a just war legitimated by a religious, political and military interpretation of the Islamic concept of jihad.
Jihadism’s relation to Islamism can be stated in a nutshell: Jihadists read the classical doctrine of jihad in a new mind while reinventing Islamic tradition.
Although the Koran allows Muslims to resort to “qital” (physical fighting) for the benefit of Islam, this is clearly for reasons other than terrorism, because the Koran allows qital only under strict rules, while terrorism, by definition, is a war without rules. The new interpretation of jihad adds an “ism” to it, jihad becoming jihadism (jihadiyya), an irregular war that is a variety of modern terrorism.
It is wrong and even deceitful to argue that jihadism has nothing to do with Islam, because the jihadists believe that they are acting as “true Islamic believers” and learn the Islamist mind-set in mosques and Islamic schools, including those of the Islamic diaspora in Europe.
It follows that the debate over whether these terrorists are “Islamic” or “un-Islamic” is meaningless. The fact is that jihadism is a new direction in Islamic civilization, an expression of the contemporary “revolt against the West” that enjoys tremendous popularity in the ongoing war of ideas. In order to combat the deadly idea of jihadism successfully, it is necessary to seek Muslim cooperation to determine who the jihadists are, rather than engaging in empty arguments.
The jihadists are followers of the ideas of Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, who laid the foundations of Islamism as a political and military interpretation of Islam. Islamism aims not only to purify Islam but also to establish the “Nizam Islami,” or Islamic order.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, some commentators said that jihadists were now targeting the West because they were “fighting somebody else’s war.” This is utterly wrong. The intellectual father of jihadist Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in Cairo in 1966, made the message crystal clear: Jihadism is a “permanent Islamic world revolution” aimed at decentering the West in order to establish “Hakimiyyat Allah,” or God’s rule, on a global scale.
Early Islamists honored Qutb’s distinction between two steps, the local and the global, in the jihadist strategy: First topple secular regimes at home, and then move on to global jihad. What Al Qaeda has done is not to fight somebody else’s war, but rather to confuse the two steps in the jihadist strategy. This confusion continued to manifest itself in the terrorist attacks in Madrid and in London, because of the existence of a Muslim diaspora in Europe that has its own problems.
What can be done to counter jihadism? As a Muslim immigrant living in Europe, I wholeheartedly reject the idea of a “clash of civilizations.” But it would be nai”ve to overlook the reality of an ongoing “war of ideas” – a struggle between global jihad and democratic peace as competing directions for the 21st century.
Instead of giving in to talk of a “clash of civilizations,” what is needed is an alliance between Western supporters of democracy and enlightened Muslims against jihadist Islamists.
It is important to realize, however, that democracy is a political culture and not simply a procedure. Shiite clerics in Iraq, for example, have failed to recognize this – and as a result they are unable to provide an alternative to Sunni jihadism.
(Bassam Tibi is a professor at the University of Go”ttingen, Germany, and a professor-at-large at Cornell University. He is the author of “Islam between Culture and Politics.” )