January 22, 2021
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Remove 'Jihad' From Muslim Politics

Some conflicts in which Muslims are engaged are called 'jihad' and others are not despite the fact that they basically share the same characteristics. It obfuscates rather than clarifies issues, and, worse, the use of the term to justify terrorist ac

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Remove 'Jihad' From Muslim Politics
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EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN

In the last few years, and particularly since 9/11, "jihadism" has become synonymous with "terrorism" and "jihadists" with "terrorists." Consequently, many Muslim intellectuals and public figures have gone into a defensive mode, trying to point out that the greater jihad is the struggle inside oneself to do what is morally right while armed struggle is merely the lesser jihad, secondary to the struggle to control one’s baser instincts.

While all this may be true, it is also the case that the greater jihad, since it does not occupy public space, is of little significance in the current global debate about the use of the term "jihad" and its offshoots "jihadism" and "jihadists." The irrelevance of greater jihad in public life is self-evident. Fighting temptation, striving to become a better human being, may be a laudable project, but is of marginal concern in the political arena.

"Jihad" has been an intensely political term from the early years of Islam, associated as it has been with the expansion of Muslim empires and justified by the argument that Muslims had the obligation to spread the word of God to humankind. The early Muslim empires were not particularly concerned about converting non-Muslim subjects to Islam and were, therefore, tolerant of religious diversity to a greater extent than their medieval counterparts in Christendom. However, they often used the term "jihad" to justify territorial expansion usually undertaken for economic or strategic gain.

Use of religious terminology to provide a veneer for secular projects is not unique to Islam. Expansionist wars, both of the universal and sectarian variety, conducted in the name of Christianity were usually far more ferocious and destructive of life and property than those undertaken in the name of Islam. Muslim rulers at least did not kill infidels to save their souls. They preferred taxing them to raise revenues for the state, one reason for their lukewarm attitude toward conversion of subject peoples to Islam.

The term "jihad" regained currency in the 19th century when the tide turned and European powers began to subjugate Muslim lands; jihad then took on defensive connotations. The quintessential jihad of the 19th and first half of the 20th century was resistance to colonial domination and war of national liberation. As nationalism in the Muslim world became equated with Muslim identity vis-à-vis the Christian colonizer, the term came to be defined in context-specific terms. The boundaries of the colonies, later to become the borders of post-colonial states, defined the geographic scope of specific jihads. Sudan, Algeria, Somalia, British India, all saw proto-nationalist Muslim resistance wars against European efforts to subjugate Muslim populations termed "jihad."

The colonial era nationalized jihads as a result of a paradigmatic change in international affairs associated with the development of the modern sovereign state and its corollary, the rise of nationalism in Europe, and its exportation to the colonies. Decolonization universalized the model of the nation-state, confining the notion of jihad further within national boundaries. This paradigmatic change cried out for ijtihad, interpretation based on reasoning to suit changed circumstances, but unfortunately none was forthcoming from the scholars of Islam at least as far as the notion of jihad was concerned.

The Muslim world is now in the era of nation-states and the attachment to national symbols in post-colonial societies is even stronger than in the original homeland of the nation-state, Europe. Wars are conducted on behalf of nations and primarily for reasons of state. Wars of nation- and state-building have become the norm throughout the post-colonial world, including its Muslim component. Wars among contiguous states over disputed territories have also become common. There have been several wars between neighboring Muslim states, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War being the prime example of this phenomenon.

Furthermore, the post-colonial world, including its Muslim component, is awash with ethnic conflicts and subnational revolts. Islamic terminology, including "jihad," have been used to justify both interstate and intrastate conflicts. Saddam Hussein announced that he was fighting the battle of Qaddasiya, the 7th century battle in which the Arab Muslims defeated the Sassanid Empire of Persia, against the Islamic republic of Iran, an irony lost on most Western observers with scant knowledge of Muslim history.

Kashmiri extremists have waged a jihad against India in the name of Islam to achieve national self-determination, another irony since national self-determination is a recent concept that belongs to the era of nationalist, not religious wars. Sectarian strife has also taken on the nomenclature of jihad. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq wage a jihad against Iraqi Shia Arabs by blowing up their holy sites and causing carnage in crowded markets. The Shia retaliate by waging their own jihad, blowing up Sunni mosques and sending death squads to kill Sunnis where the latter are vulnerable.

All this mayhem in the name of Islam makes one wonder why some conflicts in which Muslims are engaged are called "jihad" and others are not despite the fact that they basically share the same characteristics. After all, what is the difference between secessionist/irredentist wars waged by Muslim Kurds against Turkey or the Muslim inhabitants of Darfur against Sudan from similar wars waged by Kashmiris or Chechens against India and Russia? Why was the liberation movement in Bangladesh in 1971 against the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army not termed "jihad" despite its obviously just nature? Clearly, all of these conflicts are products of demands for ethno-national self-determination, often triggered by accumulated grievances resulting from their respective governments’ discriminatory policies. But why does one not hear of a Kurdish jihad or a Darfuri jihad or a Bengali jihad?

All this leads to the conclusion that the term "jihad" has been and continues to be grossly misused and deserves to be removed from the vocabulary of Muslim politics. It obfuscates rather than clarifies issues, and, worse, the use of the term to justify terrorist acts against civilians demonizes Islam and Muslims. The problem of saving Muslims from the negative fallout of all these jihads will not be solved by the kind of apologetics that elevates the personal jihad over the political jihad, calling one greater or lesser. The world is not taken in by such sophistry. It is time Muslims totally abjure the use of the term "jihad" in the contemporary context.

"Jihadist" and "jihadism," derivatives from "jihad," have become derogatory terms used to describe the most violent and extremist groups who have arrogated to themselves the right to declare jihad against all and sundry. The only way to remedy this situation is for the scholars of Islam to reach a consensus and declare publicly that the term "jihad" no longer applies in a world of nation-states where conflicts take place over issues of territory and ethnicity rather than on the basis of the simple dichotomy between dar-al-Islam and dar-al-harb.

In fact, that simple dichotomy did not exist in the classical age of Islam as well, as intra-Muslim wars going back to the early years of Islam testify. But that is another matter and not really relevant to the present discussion. What is evident, the concept of jihad is irrelevant to the current epoch of political relations, and it is the duty of Muslim scholars to make this clear. This is an ijtihad that is long overdue.


Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Michigan State University. This article is based on a presentation he made at IslamExpo in London on July 7, 2006. Rights: © 2006 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online


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