Radical Islamic ideology provides a central motive in acts of terror committed by the likes of Omar Mateen.
There is at least one indisputable fact in the ongoing debate about how to address the problem of jihadi terrorism: there are approximately three million Muslims in America, and out of that number, which itself constitutes only about one percent of the U.S. population, only a small handful attempt acts of terror in the name of Allah. It is with that simple fact in mind that one can grasp the reluctance of President Obama to employ the phrase ‘radical Islam’ when discussing the threat of jihadi terrorism.
Yet this is a mistake, for the fact remains that acts of terror such as the massacre in Orlando this past week, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and the attempted Times Square bombing in 2010, among many others, have been undertaken by individuals who proclaimed their ideological support for groups that encourage acts of terror in the name of Allah and Islamic ideology. As has been reported by several outlets, Omar Mateen allegedly called 9-11 and pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) before carrying out his attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which, as Thomas Joscelyn at the Weekly Standard observes, “is exactly what (IS leader) Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate tells people to do before they die as a ‘martyr’ or otherwise.” IS subsequently sent out a message on the Amaq News Agency claiming responsibility and identifying Mateen as a ‘brother.’ While the ties between Omar Mateen and IS are still being investigated, and early hints indicate that Mateen was not trained by IS and was instead a lone wolf engaging in homegrown terror, it is still the case that IS ideology seems to have held sufficient appeal for Mateen to proclaim his loyalty to IS, a jihadist group that justifies violence in support of a fundamental political goal: the implementation of sharia law worldwide (or at least as far and wide as possible).
Similarly, Tamerlan Tsarnaev of Boston Marathon bombing fame was sympathetic, as reported by Bill Roggio in testimony to House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, to the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, a group with substantive links to Al Qaeda. Faisal Shahzad, the man who attempted but failed to set off a bomb in Times Square in May 2010, confessed to being trained by the Taliban (a group with extensive links to Al Qaeda) in a camp in Waziristan, a tribal agency in the semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas of western Pakistan. In a martyrdom video, Shahzad explained his understanding of jihad as an offensive weapon of ‘holy war’ in the service of Islam. A report in the Long War Journal describes Shahzad’s account:
“One of the most prominent things in Islam when I came to it was Jihad,” Shahzad said. “People do their prayers, pay Zakat [a tax], fast, and perform Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia]. They follow one part of the religion, and drop another, which is the fight for the sake of Allah. Jihad means holy war for the sake of God. It is one of the holiest deeds in Islam, and one of its pillars. With Jihad the word of Allah is raised higher, and his religion prevails. By abandoning it, religion is destroyed, and Muslims are put in a humiliating position; their lands are stolen, and their authority is stripped from them.”
The concept of jihad provides a central justification for the violence that extremist groups beholden to Islamic ideology promote. It is a complex concept that has several meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. For many in Islam, it refers to the ‘inner struggle’ of Muslims to stave off the temptations of sin. But there also arises in Islamic ideology a distinction between defensive jihad and offensive jihad. Defensive jihad refers to the struggle to evict foreign occupiers from Muslim lands. Offensive jihad refers to the struggle to expand the domain over which the religion of Islam maintains hegemony. Offensive jihad amounts to a ‘holy war’ in support of the globalization of Islamic rule, and is famously associated with a twentieth-century thinker by the name of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who proved heavily influential to the generation of extremist movements committed to militant Islamic ideology in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century.
The goal of a worldwide caliphate is not simply the crazy idea of a ragtag band of militant religious zealots. It is, rather, a deep and abiding belief in a totalitarian utopia espoused by many thousands of ideological minions who make up a revolutionary movement which is years, decades, and even centuries in the making, depending on the context of the analysis. It is only a few years in the making, if one considers how IS broke off from Al Qaeda beginning in 2013 and subsequently declared a caliphate under the rule of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2014. It is decades in the making, if one goes back to 9-11 and the Iraq War when the Western world was engaged in a bloody foreign conflict with Al Qaeda (a group also committed to the idea of a worldwide caliphate, though with a different strategy for achieving it than IS), and even farther to 1979, a critical year in the evolution Islamic jihad and revolution in the twentieth century. It was in 1979 that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, stoking the jihad that became a central part of modern jihadi lore. It was in 1979 that Pakistani students stormed the US embassy in Islamabad, set it afire, and watched it collapse into smoldering ruins. It was in 1979 that Islamic revolutionaries took possession of the US embassy in Iran and held 52 American prisoners hostage for 444 days. And it was in 1979 that a band of young Islamic extremists, who believed they were led by the Mahdi, stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca and took hostages until the siege came to an end after violent exchanges with security forces.
The year 1979 was an inflection point, but it was not even close to the beginning of revolutionary Islamic movements guided by the call to offensive jihad and Dawah (Islamic proselytizing). It was only one watershed in a long history of Islamic revolutionary fervor that had been latent ever since the time of Mohammed, but entered a new chapter in the early twentieth century with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al Banna in 1928, and the rise of a new generation of Islamic ideologues, perhaps most notably an Egyptian by the name of Sayyid Qutb.
Qutb was an Egyptian who came to the US in the late 1940s on a scholarship, attending the Colorado State College of Education. While in America, Qutb found himself increasingly at odds with American culture, which he saw as steeped in a culture of jahiliyya (state of ignorance)—i.e. materialistic, shallow, and overtly sexual—existing outside a pure realm of strict obedience to Islamic rites, rituals, and mores. He returned to Egypt in the early 1950s. He initially supported the July 1952 overthrow of the pro-Western regime by the Free Officers Movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, but soon found himself embroiled in controversies stemming from the political conflicts that arose between the Nasser regime, which found its rhetorical inspiration in secular nationalism, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which called for a prominent role in government for Islam.
Qutb was eventually implicated in a Muslim Brotherhood plot to assassinate Nasser, jailed for several years, and executed by the regime in 1966. In the ensuing years, his ideology would find a devoted audience among a generation of purist Muslims who were drawn to extremist ideology. Among them was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was introduced to Qutb’s brother Mohammad (also radicalized in prison; eventually released, he went on to a career teaching Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia and promoting Sayyid’s writings) by a relative and became one of Mohammad Qutb’s students. Another man who attended lectures by Mohammad Qutb went by the name of Osama Bin Laden.
Sayyid Qtub was an ideological forefather of Zawahiri, Bin Laden, and a whole generation of Islamic extremists who coalesced around the Al Qaeda movement that arose in the late 1980s after the death of Abdullah Azzam (an important mentor of Osama Bin Laden who helped organize the jihad in Afghanistan). Qutb wrote several works, including Social Justice in Islam which was published while he was in America, but his most famous works are the thirty-volume In the Shade of the Quran and a nifty little manifesto called Milestones which summarized his main ideas, including an ideological call to arms for a future generation of Muslims to engage in offensive jihad.
The band of extremists who coalesced around the ideology of Sayyid Qtub grew into a worldwide network of financiers, recruiters, radical imams, trainers, facilitators, guesthouses, safe houses, and travel routes—in short, a terror infrastructure in which incubates the threats of jihadi terrorism that permeate the world we currently live in. And make no mistake. State sponsors of terrorism like Iran and Qatar, the wealthy Arab donors who give financial support to extremist groups and organizations affiliated with the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood network, the recruiters and operations experts who send fighters off on terror missions, the bomb makers and munitions experts who train them, the document forgers who provide them with their passports and IDs, the social media experts who inspire them with propaganda—they are all united by a radical understanding of Islam that calls for self-sacrifice in the form of suicide bombings and other martyrdom operations against infidels.
As the many millions of innocent and peace-loving Muslims will tell us, this network of extremists is driven by a distorted understanding of Islam. This may be true, but the ideology that drives them is still steeped in Islam—in particular, the ideas and teachings about Islam that one finds in the writings of Sayyid Qtub and other twentieth century ideologues (e.g. Abul A’la Maududi). Qtub was a profound thinker (for a good overview, see this profile in the New York Times by Paul Berman, written in 2003); his writings were not simply infused with a zest for murder and mayhem but with a profound disaffection with what he saw as the impurities of any society not sufficiently regulated by the strictures of Islam. Such disaffection has given rise to a movement of purist Muslims who do not tolerate any deviation from an extreme view of their religion, to a point where they are moved to commit acts of terror such as we witnessed on 9-11, in Madrid in March 2004, in London in July 2006, in Paris in November 2015, in Brussels in March 2016, and in Orlando last week.
Given the importance of ideology, it would seem a critical component of any strategy that seeks to reverse the rise of jihadi terrorism must be a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to wean disaffected young Muslims from the influence of extremist interpretations of what is a peaceful religion to many millions of Muslims. The Obama administration has been criticized by many for not having an effective and comprehensive strategy to defeat the jihadi terrorists, but one idea that should be amenable to the Obama administration is a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign: a concerted effort to counter and undermine the propaganda of IS, which employs the rhetoric of its purist version of Islam to recruit and foster potential radicals to commit violence. For example, one central idea of IS (and Al Qaeda) propaganda is the call to martyrdom. As Thomas Joscelyn points out at the Weekly Standard, writing about Omar Mateen’s desire for ‘martyrdom,’ the call to martyrdom “has only become more prevalent during the past decade and a half.” This is a point echoed and documented in the book ‘The Globalization of Martyrdom’ by Assaf Moghadam, published in 2008 as a rebuttal to the theorists who argue that the phenomenon of suicide bombings is primarily a response to foreign occupation. As Joscelyn concludes, “[p]erhaps the U.S government should be seeking ways to discredit this idea, instead of pretending it is not what motivates men to commit heinous acts.”
It is a shame that many millions of Muslims who would not dream of committing such dark acts of evil are forced to defend their faith to avoid being judged alongside extremists. There is little doubt among millions of peaceful Muslims that the extremists adhere to a distorted view of Islam. But that does not mean extremism is not based in a profound feeling of communion with the faith of Islam. It is Islam that unites them, just as Islam unites the millions of peace-loving Muslims as well. It is unfortunate that extremists thereby incite unwarranted suspicion about the essential teachings of one of the three great religions of the world, just as it is tragic when Christians or Jewish extremists commit acts of terror in the name of Christianity or Judaism based on dubious interpretations of biblical teachings. But just as any act of terror committed by a radical Christian in the name of Christianity is an expression of radical Christianity, and any act of terror committed by a radical Jew in the name of Judaism is an expression of radical Judaism, any act of terror committed by a radical Muslim in the name of Islam is an expression of radical Islam, and President Obama refuses to acknowledge this reality by refusing to utter the phrase ‘radical Islam.’
It is not hate per se, but hate driven by a distorted view of Islam, that motivates acts of terror perpetrated by the likes of Omar Mateen, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and Faisal Shahzad. When President Obama refuses to utter the words ‘radical Islam,’ he blends a brand of extremism that we saw in Orlando last week with other forms of hate and extremism. In so doing, he underappreciates the influence of ideas like jahiliyya and offensive jihad which are part of the legacy of Sayyid Qutb; he underappreciates the central appeal of martyrdom in the recruitment rhetoric of Islamic extremists influenced by the legacy of Qutb; and he underappreciates the strategic importance of confronting the ideology that underlies a particularly pervasive movement to bring terror to our shores. It is always difficult to assign a motive to a heinous act of terror like the one we saw in Orlando, but it is not unreasonable to ask whether, in the absence of IS ideology and its call to martyrdom, Omar Mateen would have gone ahead with his plan to carry out mass murder at an Orlando nightclub.
If there is a likelihood that the answer is no, President Obama is wrong to avoid the phrase ‘radical Islam.’
Without a motive, it can prove difficult to understand the crime.
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