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October & November 2006, No. 139
Jihad Then And Now
By Lee Harris
Andrew Bostom, ed. The Legacy of Jihad. Prometheus Books. 759 pages. $29.00
For anyone wishing to understand jihad — that “peculiar institution” of Islam — Andrew Bostom has provided an immense service with The Legacy of Jihad. Beginning with a splendid 80-page survey and overview of the history of that subject by Bostom himself, followed by an extensive anthology of writings on the topic of jihad and some of its accompanying features, this book, the product of exhaustive scholarly research, is written with a profound sense of urgency. Bostom, a professor of medicine at Brown who became a passionately committed scholar of Islam after 9/11, wants his readers to grapple themselves with the historical evidence and to come to their own conclusions about the significance of jihad. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that for him there are few challenges facing the liberal West today greater than that posed by radical Islam’s revival of the classical ideal of jihad. In his acknowledgments, Bostom expresses the touching wish that his own children and their children may “thrive in a world where the devastating institution of jihad has been acknowledged, renounced, dismantled, and relegated forever to the dustbin of history by Muslims themselves.”
Yet, after reading and pondering this invaluable book, it is difficult not to ask, Why should Muslims renounce and dismantle an institution that, while it may have been devastating to those who have been its victims, has nevertheless been the historical agent by which Islamic culture has come to dominate such a vast expanse of our planet? What would prompt any culture to abandon a tradition that has permitted it not only to expand immensely from its original home, but also to make permanent conquests of so many hearts and minds? But before we address this question, let us first note the curious difficulty Bostom faced in simply getting his contemporaries to recognize that Islamic jihad is a peculiar institution — an institution quite unlike any other known to us. In our current climate of political correctness, there has been a reluctance even to acknowledge the
most obvious facts about the nature of jihad. Indeed, just as there are Holocaust deniers, there is a contemporary tendency to deny the historical evidence relating to jihad, though, as Bostom’s book amply demonstrates, there is scarcely a lack of such evidence from any number of different sources,
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from every period, from the original wave of Arabic conquest in the seventh century to today’s headlines. Generally speaking, the approach of the jihaddeniers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is to dispute the notion that there is anything historically distinctive and peculiar about the Islamic concept of jihad.
Some have argued, for example, that the “true” meaning of jihad is the struggle within the soul of each Muslim to overcome his own failings and sins. On this view, jihad is a war declared by a Muslim upon himself and not upon infidels. Furthermore, it is a personal campaign, not one waged by the entire Muslim community collectively, and thus can be seen as akin to the classic and agonizing struggle of the Protestant with his own conscience. A variation on this, offered by Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at UCLA, in a paper written in 2002, claims that “Islamic tradition does not have a notion of holy war. Jihad simply means to strive hard or struggle in the pursuit of a just cause.” Note that on both these interpretations, jihad is not only rendered nonviolent, but also identified with traditions that are shared by other cultures and religions. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus — all struggle against the darker forces within themselves; they also, along with ethical atheists, struggle hard in the pursuit of a just cause.
Those who follow a particular religion are of course free to adapt its historical traditions in light of their own needs and modern ideals. Such modernizing revisions of traditional religious concepts can be useful in weaning the followers of a religion away from the primitive and often barbarous ethos out of which many ancient religions arose; in this manner they may serve a civilizing function. They allow a practitioner of a religion to believe he is being true to his faith even as he is radically altering its content. Thus, for those who wish to see Muslims repudiate the classical tradition of jihad, it may be beneficial to encourage the illusion that jihad has always meant an internal struggle against sin or a fight for a just cause and that any other interpretation is contrary to the “real” message of Islam.
Yet for those who are seeking to understand the nature of historical Islam, it is imperative to come to grips with what jihad has actually meant to Muslims throughout their history, and especially during those periods in which Islam expanded its domain, not only by conquering new territory, but also by transforming utterly the cultures of those who fell under its sway. The Normans, too, were ruthless conquerors, but like many other warlike people, they adapted to the cultures of those whom they conquered, acquiring the languages and customs of their subjects while abandoning their own — the same pattern followed by many of the barbarian invaders of the Roman Empire in the West. The Arab conquerors, on the other hand, not only retained their own unique culture, but also were able to impose it on the cultures they conquered. Furthermore, those thus transformed by the Arabs were not primitive cultures existing on a far lower plane of social organization, but were, rather, more civilized and sophisticated societies than those of the “backward” camel nomads who toppled them — two such examples being the conquest, in the first century of Islamic expansion, of the Byzantine Empire in Syria and the Sassanian Empire in Persia. How did this remarkable achievement come about?
The answer lies in what Andrew Bostom calls the “the historically unique institution of Jihad” — an institution that his fascinating and thoughtprovoking book examines from a host of different perspectives. Tracing the development of the concept of jihad from its origins in the Koran, Bostom devotes a hundred pages of his book to an anthology of various Muslim commentators, from Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani in the tenth century through the eleventh-century al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth, to Sayyid Qutb in the twentieth century. Letting these Muslim thinkers and scholars speak in their own words, Bostom is able to demonstrate beyond any doubt that the historical institution of jihad did not mean a personal and individual struggle against evil or the nonviolent pursuit of a just cause, but rather a violent struggle by the entire Muslim community against those outsiders who were not Muslims. Jihad, in other words, was the collective project of the whole community and not of a single individual.
Yet what kind of collective struggle was Islamic jihad?
The nineteenth-century English scholar of Arabic, E.W. Lane, in his book Modern Egyptians, explains that he once thought of jihad as being purely a war of aggression, but that after discussing the matter with a Muslim scholar, he persuaded himself that jihad meant what we in the West, since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, have called a just war. Curiously, the French scholar Jacques Ellul, in one of the most compelling essays in Bostom’s book, argues that the medieval concept of a just war was itself derived from the
Islamic notion of jihad and that the Crusades were simply jihads directed by Christians against their own infidels, i.e., the Muslims. For Ellul, however, both just wars and Crusades were equally betrayals of the true Christian ethics, which required a complete renunciation of any form of violence, including the violence of so-called just wars.
But was Islamic jihad the same thing that Medieval and later European thinkers regarded as a just war? The very concept of a just war makes sense only where there is an established and settled order of nations, each of which implicitly recognizes the right of other nations to exist. The underlying assumption is that there exists a more or less stable balance of power among the various players on the international stage. This rough stability represents the status quo, and all the players are expected to accept the status quo precisely for the sake of the stability and order that it provides. Any player who challenges this stability and
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order, therefore, is properly seen as a threat to it by all other players. If a nation decides to take a chunk out of its neighbor’s territory, this will upset the balance, and it will be necessary to force the player who is acting out of line to return back to his own borders. Nor do you need to be the nation under attack to want to restore the balance of power. In the Crimean War, for example, England and France went to war against Russia not because Russia had attacked them, but because, by attacking the tottering Ottoman Empire, Russia was threatening the global status that both England and France wished to uphold. They supported the Ottomans not because they thought their empire was in any way admirable, but because they feared what would happen to the rest of the world if it disappeared.
By European standards, a just war is a war of self-defense or a war fought to preserve a stable balance of power. The concept is dependent on the acceptance of the legitimacy of a pre-existing status quo — what is unjust is any disturbance of this status quo; what is just is the attempt to restore it.
Here again Bostom’s book dispels the notion that jihad is a just war in the sense recognized by the European concert of nations. Islamic jihad, from its commencement, refused to recognize the legitimacy of any status quo other than that achieved in Dar el-Islam, or “the domain of peace.” Other peoples’ delicate balance of power meant nothing. Outside the domain of peace there was only the domain of war, and here no entity could hope to be treated as representing a legitimate order, for no order that was not based on Islamic law could ever be recognized as legitimate in the eyes of Muslims. The only legitimate order was a Muslim order. Revolutionary France similarly refused to recognize the legitimacy of the European status quo of its time. In its famous proclamation of November 19, 1792, the French Convention offered military assistance to all the people of Europe who wanted to overthrow their established regimes. To the zealous Republicans of France, no government that was not a Republic could make a claim to legitimacy. The only legitimate order was a Republican order. Accordingly, violent revolution through Europe was preferable to the continuation of the evil status quo. Muslim jihad followed logically from the principle that all men should live in Muslim societies. Like the French revolutionaries, Muslims wished to liberate humanity, and they were aware that they could do this only by violently overthrowing the status quo and disregarding any claims to legitimacy based on mere custom or tradition.
Another way of putting this is that the concept of jihad does not fit the clash-of- ivilizations paradigm that is so often used to describe the current world situation. In this model, each player will try to improve his position within the framework of a settled order, but none will seek to demolish and annihilate the framework. A nation will go to war with another to achieve certain political goals that cannot otherwise be achieved, as Clausewitz argued. But no nation will embark on a course not merely of conquering another nation, but of transforming its culture into a replica of its own. Yet this is precisely the goal of jihad: to destroy the status quo of those outside the ambit of Islam in order to expand its realm — to create a realm in which Muslim culture completely transforms the old cultural traditions, as occurred repeatedly during those periods of Muslim expansion. Islam did not conquer territories to create a colonial empire, but to expand its own domain. It did not want subjects; it wanted converts. Of course, plunder and tribute were also nice; but by its very design, the religion of Islam always worked in the opposite direction from the path taken
by most military conquerors. Those conquered by Islam, instead of being cast as a class of permanent tributepayers, had a way of escaping the historical destiny of other conquered people: They could accept Islam. Often, the military clique that had done the actual conquering would be far from enthusiastic about this conversion process, since it meant a permanent reduction of the class of tribute-payers. From the point of view of their economic self-interest, it would have made more sense to have adopted an ideology of racial or tribal supremacy that permitted them to draw a fixed biological divide between conquerors and conquered, and to some degree this was the mind-set of the original Arab conquerors. Yet working against this elitist ideology was the essential commandment of Mohammed to struggle to convert all men to Islam one way or another. Had the elitist ideology prevailed, it is quite possible that the Arab conquerors would have made no deeper mark on history than other nomadic conquerors who appeared suddenly out of the steppes or the desert to disappear again before the next wave. In point of fact, the original Arab conquerors were later conquered themselves; what is different is that their conquerors were also followers of Islam. Regimes could come and go — and frequently did — but Islam remained, not merely as a profession of faith, but as an all-encompassing culture.
Indeed, what is most striking about the collective project of jihad has been its immense and, with few exceptions, permanent success. Once Islamic culture sank in, it became virtually impossible for any foreign cultural influence to make any headway against it — and here again we can see its profound difference from those ephemeral military conquests that, while capturing territory, are unable to capture the hearts and minds of those who have been conquered. Bostom devotes a large segment of his book to accounts of various historical jihads and provides overwhelming evidence of the fanaticism, brutality, and ruthlessness of the Muslim holy warriors. Indeed, there are several narratives here of the horror unleashed by Islamic jihad that, to our modern sensibilities, are simply revolting. Yet it is important to remember that there is nothing historically unique about this nauseating beastliness. During the Seven Years’ War in eighteenth-century Europe — the Age of Reason — one witness wrote that “We are surrounded by hanging corpses, and the soldiers do not hesitate to massacre women and children as well if they resist the ransacking of their houses.” In 1788, the highly civilized Prince Potemkin began a siege of the Ottoman city of Otchakof that lasted for six months. Later, the Comte de Segur wrote in his
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memoirs: “The fury of the Russian soldiers was such that two days after the assault, when they found Turkish children hidden in forts and underground refuges, they seized them, threw them in the air, caught them on the points of their bayonets and cried, ‘These
hostages will never do harm to Christians.’”
Man has always been wolf to man, and there is no atrocity committed by the holy warriors of classical jihad upon their infidel enemies that was not also committed by European Christians on each other at some point in the past — and the quite recent past at that. The Second World War is a good example of how far Europeans can descend into brutality and barbarism. Furthermore, Hitler’s wars of conquest provide another example of the failure of the clash-of-civilizations paradigm. Hitler was not interested in the balance of power or in preserving the status quo — his aim was to destroy both and to replace the old system with a New World Order. This New World Order would replace the old balance-of-power system with German hegemony in Europe and empire in the East. The comparison with Hitler’s war of conquest, however, highlights the factor that makes Islamic jihad unique. A Russian Jew who fell under Nazi domination did not have the choice of converting to Aryanism. An inferior race could not change its status by changing its faith or behavior. But in the case of jihad, there was always an alternative to subjugation and extermination — you could convert to Islam — and it made no difference who you had been before, or what race you belonged to, or what language you spoke. Even the bitterest enemy was offered the opportunity to convert. During the siege of Khartoum, the Sudanese Mahdi assured General Gordon that his life would be spared if he converted to Islam — something that Gordon, a devout if somewhat unorthodox Christian, obstinately refused to do. More recently, and even more remarkably, the late al Qaeda leader, al-Zarqawi, sent a message to George Bush saying that all would be forgiven if Bush himself converted to Islam. Indeed, as Andrew Bostom observes, a person could be pardoned even for crimes of the utmost wickedness — once he sided with Islam, all was forgiven. Needless to say, to those who have been brought up in the liberal tradition, the choice “believe what I believe, or die” is not an acceptable mode of persuasion. Yet at least it is a choice, a choice that Joshua did not give the Canaanites, nor the Nazis the inferior races who fell into their hands after the invasion of the USSR. To many in the West, this may not appear to be much of a difference: For us it is axiomatic that no one may threaten another man with death in order to make him change his religion or cultural traditions. But in terms of designing a successful policy of permanent conquest over new territories full of new people, this distinction is fraught with world historical implications.
If a conqueror gives the conquered people a choice between becoming one of his kind on the one hand and being subjugated or liquidated on the other, he will gain an enormous advantage over those conquerors who do not offer such a choice. If the conquered people know that they have no choice but to accept their status as slaves and chattel, their hearts will continue to be rebellious: They may obey, but only out of fear; they will certainly never come to feel that the conquerors represent legitimate authority; they will never be willing to fight to defend their conqueror’s position of supreme domination, but will rather work to subvert and undermine his hold on power. Things will go quite differently, however, if the conquered people know that by conversion to the faith of their conquerors they will be able to escape the humiliation of servitude and subjugation. If those who choose to convert are looked upon as members of the community of the faithful and no longer as infidels, then there will be a powerful incentive to convert. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any method by which a quicker pacification of a conquered people could be achieved than by allowing them to make a swift and easy transition from being outsiders to being insiders — a transition that only required a person to accept the simple principle, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.”
There is another ingenious feature to jihad that makes it unique, and that is the institution of what Bat Ye’or has called dhimmitude — the policy of offering “special” treatment to those whom Mohammed dubbed Peoples of the Book, i.e., Christians and Jews and, sometimes, Zoroastrians. Here again Bostom’s book is invaluable in the insights it provides. While normal pagans were given the choice “convert, or die,” Jews and Christians were offered the choice between conversion to Islam and the acceptance of an inferior status within the community of Muslim believers — a community in which every aspect of the public life of the Jews and Christians was under the control of Islam. Yet, as the Koran itself had commanded, and as the classical Islamic scholars continued to insist, it was not enough that the Jews and Christians within Dar el-Islam accept the cultural hegemony of Islam with their lips and outward behavior — they must, in the words of the Koran, “feel themselves subdued.” Like children brought up as slaves, they must psychologically feel their own helplessness and inferiority. Instilling this sense of submission in those who most stubbornly held on to their old faith was vital — it was necessary that Jews and Christians cease imagining that there could be an alternative to life under Islam. Islamic hegemony must be made to seem second nature to them, so that they would not think of rebelling but would go about their business resigned to the status quo achieved by Islam. Over time, this psychological submission would become an increasingly unattractive position for those who wished to be free of it — but here again there was a path to liberation from this state of mental dependence and servitude: conversion to Islam.
Andrew Bostom speaks of jihad as a “devastating institution,” yet the evidence he provides demonstrates that jihad was also a devastatingly effective institution. It succeeded in transforming whatever cultural traditions fell before it, and this — not the fanaticism and brutality with which jihad was systematically carried out — is what accounts for its uniqueness. But in light of its devastating effectiveness, we must return to the question that we asked at
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the beginning: Why would Muslims want to abandon an institution that permitted them to expand Dar el-Islam across so much of our planet? Why should they dismantle jihad so long as it continues to work for them?
The revival of jihad is the essence of radical Islam, and this revival indicates that those who follow the path of radical Islam are by no means ready to dismantle their unique institution. On the contrary, it would appear that they are vigorously working to adjust it to the circumstances of Western modernity. But the question is: Can they achieve their goal?
Let us put it another way: Can the peculiar institution of jihad still be as devastatingly effective in the twentyfirst century as it was during the centuries of Muslim conquest and expansion? Even if Muslims refuse to renounce it, even if they want to keep it alive, what difference would this make if, as an institution, jihad can no longer be effective in the modern world? The Mamlukes wished to keep their own military tradition of sword combat alive, too; but the Ottomans liquidated the Mamluke tradition by deciding to forgo swords and fight with guns instead. So even if the Muslims don’t relegate jihad to the trash bin of history of their own free will, might one not legitimately argue that history has already dumped it there? Haven’t the superior technology of the West and its vast military might rendered classical jihad as obsolete as Mamluke swordfighting? It is possible to look at the historical evidence that Bostom presents in his book and say, “Yes, yes — you have it right. You have described classical jihad to a T. But so what? As an institution, its day has long since passed away. There is no cause for us to be alarmed about those Muslims who regard themselves as engaged in jihad against the West. They are simply living in a fantasy world.”
But are they? Islamic jihad has demonstrated an astonishing adaptability to different historical and material conditions.
The spirit of jihad first emerged out of the plundering raids of Arab camel nomads who, like all warlike bands, took whatever they wanted from those who were weaker. They attacked merchant caravans and carried off their loot. Yet as they grew bolder they began to make raids into the settled and civilized populations of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires — without the intention of seizing these empires for themselves, but merely to rob them. Under Omar, however, a new project began. Seeing how weak and fragile these tempting empires were, it was decided that the warlike Arab bands would hijack the empires and control them for themselves. From that point on, the warlike bands lived off the labor of the peasants who had been the support of all the various empires that had emerged in the Levant since the time of the Assyrians. Yet the secret of the success of the Arab bands lay less in their own warlike qualities than in the weakness and decadence of the empires they overthrew. (A similar attempt to conquer Abyssinia around the same time failed miserably: The Abyssinians were still far too warlike themselves.)
For the Arab philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun, the conquest by the war-like Arabs of more advanced yet weak and decadent empires represented a deep historical pattern. When a civilization becomes too sedentary, too decadent, too forgetful of the struggle for existence that originally put it on top, it becomes ripe for conquest by those who are still warlike and driven by a fanatical sense of mission. Thus, he noted, superior wealth and superior civilization were no guarantee that those who possessed them could hold on to them in the face of small but determined bands of fanatics united by a sense of what he called “group feeling.” In short, for Ibn Khaldun, jihad can be devastatingly effective even when it is waged against a civilization that, in material terms, is far in advance of the jihadists.
Can the same thing happen again today — or over the course of the next few generations? Is such an idea even thinkable? Or should those who raise such questions be dismissed as alarmists and hysteria-mongers?
Here we can see again the most serious flaw in the clash-of-civilizations model. If jihad were being used simply as a means of conducting Clausewitzian warfare, it would indeed be a relic of the past about which none of us in the West would need to worry overmuch. If Muslim civilization only decided to clash with ours, we could clash back, and with overwhelming military force. If we were confronting the armies of Omar or of Tamerlane, there is little doubt which side would secure the victory. But the objective of jihad is not Clausewitzian politics continued by other means. Its objective is the destruction and dissolution of politics as we have come to understand it in the West. The jihadists are not interested in winning in our sense of the word. They can succeed simply by making the present world order unworkable, by creating conditions in which politics-as-usual is no longer an option, forcing upon the West the option either of giving in to their demands or descending into anarchy and chaos.
Consider the example of the Nazis’ approach to the Weimar Republic. After the failed Munich putsch of 1923, Hitler resolved never again to try to seize state power by force. Instead, the Nazis elected to follow a policy designed to make the Weimar system incapable of governing through normal political channels. Make the system unworkable; make parliament unable to handle crises; force the government to govern through emergency enabling acts; compel the head of state to assume more and more dictatorial powers — do all these things, and before long a situation would be created in which liberal politics was no longer an option and the people, in desperation, would seek an alternative to the clogged and deadlocked machinery of the parliamentary system — just as had happened when Mussolini’s Brown Shirts, a tiny faction of fanatics, made their celebrated march on Rome and vanquished the Italian Republic for which so many nineteenth-century idealists had shed so much blood.
Had Hitler’s aim been to gain power within the Weimar system, this approach would have been irrational; but his aim was to destroy the system root and branch. Therefore, for him and for his fellow Nazis, the politics of nihilism made perfect sense. Hating the
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system itself, they had no qualms about destroying it.
It is tempting to call this approach the crash of civilization: Those who take it want to destroy the status quo, and there is nothing those who represent and benefit from the status quo can do to bribe them or tempt them or seduce them away from pursuing their goal. Hitler himself refused to be paid off with anything less than appointment as chancellor of Germany — a position he used to liquidate the parliamentary system without which his party could never have come close to gaining the citadel of power.
It does not take a modern, sophisticated army to bring down a fragile and delicately balanced political order. The German army, even under the restrictions placed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles, could easily have crushed the Nazi movement if it had been a question merely of brute force. But those who controlled the army did not want to risk the perilous descent into chaos that such a move would inevitably have entailed. As for those who wished to overthrow the status quo, they were hoping for precisely such a descent into chaos — it was anarchy alone, they believed, that could give them power, although in this case, just the fear of anarchy was enough.
The chief strength of any established order is order. Order means organization, and organization is always to the advantage of those who possess it when they come into conflict with mobs and paramilitary rabble like the German SA. Therefore, it is always in the interest of the established order to avoid risking disorder — yet those who have no interest in preserving order, who are eager to destroy it, will welcome disorder for its own sake. It is by destroying order, by undermining the normal rules and regulations that preserve order, that those who wish to overthrow the status quo succeed. They do not need to achieve the same degree of force that is the monopoly of the established order. In the crash-of-civilization paradigm — contrary to Clausewitzian warfare — the enemy of a particular established order does not need to match it in organizational strength and effectiveness. It needs only to make the established order reluctant to use its great strength out of the understandable fear that by plunging into civil war it will itself be jeopardized. This fear of anarchy — the ultimate fear for those who embrace the politics of reason — can be used to paralyze the political process to the point at which the established order is helpless to control events through normal political channels and power is no longer in the hands of the establishment but lies perilously in the streets.
In short, on the clash-of-civilization model, the revival of jihad would not be threatening; on the crash-of-civilization model, however, things look quite different. The jihadists do not need to “win” in the battle against the West; it is enough if they can force the West to choose between a dreaded plunge back into the Law of the Jungle and acceding to their demands. This is a formula that has worked many times before and may work again.
It is a great pity that one cannot regard Andrew Bostom’s book simply as a fine work of historical scholarship on a fascinating but outmoded institution.
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Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies (Free Press, 2004). The Suicide of Reason is forthcoming from Basic Books in 2007.