Jihad Studies as Trivia

by Raymond Ibrahim

Private Papers

This article was first published in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard.

A new article by Thomas Hegghammer in the Times Literary Supplement, entitled “Jihadi studies: the obstacles to understanding radical Islam and the opportunities to know it better,” lives up to its title — not so much by delineating what these obstacles are, but rather by being representative of them. Regrettably, the author evokes the same old mantras prevalent in modern academia’s study of jihad and jihadists.

First, even though one may suppose that the article at the very least would touch upon ideology, doctrine, or theology — after all, the words “jihad” and “radical Islam” are in the title — it all but ignores these concepts.

Instead, it focuses on “people” — the jihadists themselves. Hegghammer assures us that, with the availability of new primary sources, our knowledge of what makes a jihadist tick is destined to improve. He would like us to better appreciate “the importance of mundane and non-ideological factors in individual recruitment to jihadist activity.” He then explains the great need to learn the biographies of men like Osama bin Laden.

But what do we learn from this approach? Much ink is spent over biographical trivia about bin Laden — “Was Bin Laden really a playboy in 1970s Beirut, and a CIA stooge in 1980s Afghanistan? Did he really attend arsenal matches in London and sex orgies in Morocco in the 1990s?” — without once ever explaining the significance of such gossipy queries. After positing these questions, Hegghammer is quick to inform us that, “Just for the record, Bin Laden was never a playboy in Beirut; he was a shy and pious young man. He attended no arsenal matches or sex orgies.” Again, as if any of this trivia — pro or con — has anything to do with jihad and radical Islam. While this “people-first” approach is entertaining, it is unclear how, practically speaking, a “nuanced portrait of bin Laden” is supposed to help combat him.

The author next moves to Messages to the World, a compilation of 24 statements attributed to bin Laden. Drawing conclusions from this collection, Hegghammer assures the reader that “those who expect religious ranting will be surprised. There are no complex theological arguments.”

Again, Hegghammer errs by making bin Laden the spokesman for jihad. Had he only turned to the writings of Ayman Zawahiri — long known for being the ideologue of al Qaeda — which are available in The Al Qaeda Reader, he would have encountered over two hundred pages of treatises dealing with the subjects of jihad, martyrdom (suicide-bombings), and even the legality of killing women and children, and fellow Muslims, during the jihad, the need to always bear enmity for all non-Muslims, and various doctrines of deception (e.g., taqiyya) — all as articulated through usul al-fiqh, or Islam’s “roots of jurisprudence.”

Declarations and communiqués directed by al Qaeda at fellow jihadists are much more valuable — in that they are much more revealing — than the communiqués directed at the United States. The former are directed at fellow Muslims and thus couched in familiar Islamic terms and concepts; the latter, intentionally articulated through a Western epistemology — an epistemology that is utterly at odds with radical Islam.

Consider the disparity of the following two quotes, both by bin Laden, one directed to Americans, the other to Muslims. To Americans, he says: “Reciprocal treatment is part of justice; he who initiates the aggression is the unjust one.” However, in an obscure essay entitled “Moderate Islam is a Prostration to the West,” directed at fellow Muslims — his Saudi kinsmen, to be specific — bin Laden celebrates his understanding of Islam’s aggressive nature:

[O]ur talks with the infidel West and our conflict with them ultimately revolve around one issue, and it is: Does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporeally if not spiritually? Yes. There are only three choices in Islam: either willing submission [i.e., conversion]; or payment of the jizya [poll-tax paid by non-Muslims], thereby bodily, though not spiritual, submission to the authority of Islam; or the sword — for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die…. Such, then, is the basis of the relationship between the infidel and the Muslim. Battle, animosity, and hatred — directed from the Muslim to the infidel — are the foundation of our religion. (The Al Qaeda Reader, p. 42.)

Hegghammer goes on to tackle the notion that theology or ideology could ever inspire a would-be Muslim suicide bomber. He concludes they could not. Instead, he is somewhat sympathetic to one particular study that finds “that the root cause of suicide terrorism is not religion, but foreign occupation.” But Hegghammer is more inclined to believe that “It is probably not occupation, but nationalism, that generates suicide terrorism.”

The problem with the territory theory is the fact that Arab Christians — whether in Palestine or Iraq — have yet to blow themselves up during a suicide attack against Israel or U.S. forces in Iraq. As for Hegghammer’s own notion that nationalism generates suicide terrorism, Arab Christians have traditionally been at the fore of the Arab nationalist movement. According to his theory, then, one would logically expect them at the van of martyrdom operations, which they are not. Indeed, Christian and Muslim Arabs are identical: they look the same, live in the same place, speak the same language, and consider themselves “Arabs.” The only thing that differentiates them is religion. So, if all things — minus religion — are equal, is it not only logical to conclude that it is religion, or “ideology,” that is responsible for the suicide-bomber, as that is the only variable that Christian and Muslim Arabs do not share?

Early in his essay, Hegghammer indicates that one of the failures of Middle East scholars has been their “tendency to rely on simple grievance-based explanations of terrorism.” Yet his entire essay is a testimony to this model. He constantly tries to humanize bin Laden. He insists that doctrine or ideology has nothing to do with terrorism. And finally, in his conclusion, he, like many a Middle Eastern scholar before him, stresses only the need for us to comprehend our own shortcomings, before we condemn the terrorists — all in the platitudinous language we have come to expect:

But the most important reason [for our lack of understanding “jihadism”] is no doubt that the emotional outrage at al-Qaeda’s violence has prevented us from seeing clearly. Societies touched by terrorism are always the least well placed to understand their enemies. It is only when we see the jihadists not as agents of evil or religious fanatics, but as humans, that we stand a chance ofunderstanding them. (emphases added)

If this isn’t ultimately a “simple grievance-based explanation of terrorism,” what is?

Raymond Ibrahim is the editor of the Al-Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda.

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