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UNDERSTANDING THE ENEMY
Lesson 1. The great human questions, including the great questions of public life, are ultimately theological.
How we think about God – or don’t think about God – has a great deal to do with how we envision the just society and determine the appropriate means with which to build it. This means taking theology seriously, which includes others’ theologies as well as the theologies that have shaped the civilization of the West. If we have not learned this over the past five years, then one wonders if we have learned anything. Yet that very question – what have we learned? – arises every time a commentator or statesman uses “theology” or “theological” as a synonym for “superstition” or “mindless.” Such glib usages are an impediment to clear thinking about our situation.
Lesson 2. The trope that describes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “the three Abrahamic faiths” obscures more than it illuminates, and ought to be permanently retired.
There is an obvious truth here, in that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins to Abraham, and that from the perspective of a Buddhist, a Hindu, or a Shinto adherent, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam look perhaps more similar than different. But in fact the theological parallelisms are rather limited, especially with regard to Islam. It is often suggested that there is an affinity between Christianity and Islam that is virtually identical to what Rabbi David Novak calls the “common border” between Judaism and Christianity; Islamic regard for Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mary, is often cited as an example of this affinity. Yet as Alain Besançon has pointed out,
The Abraham of Genesis is not the Ibrahim of the Qur’an; Moses is not Moussa. As for Jesus, he appears, as Issa, out of place and out of time, without reference to the landscape of Israel....
Jesus is indeed granted a position of honor in the Qur’an, but this Jesus is not the Jesus in whom Christians proclaim their faith. The Jesus/Issa of the Qur’an promulgates the same message as the earlier prophets. Indeed, all possess the same knowledge and proclaim the same message, which is Islam. Like the rest, Issa is sent to preach the oneness of God. He is emphatically no Trinitarian; ‘do not say Three,’ he protests. Nor is he the son of God, but a simple mortal. Nor is he a mediator between earthly men and their heavenly Father, because Islam knows not the concept of mediation. Nor...does he die on the cross; a double is substituted for him.
In addition to these dramatic discontinuities, Islam’s deep theological structure includes themes that render the notion of “three Abrahamic faiths” less than helpful in understanding Islam’s faith and practice – particularly if this trope is understood popularly as a matter of three legs on a single monotheistic stool.
Take the question of Islamic supersessionism: Islam’s claim that it supercedes Judaism and Christianity, which are finally unveiled, in the revelation to Muhammad, as false religions. Despite the supersessionist claims that some Christians have made throughout history vis-à-vis Judaism, no orthodox Christian holds that God’s self-revelation in Christ negates God’s self-revelation in the history of the People of Israel. Islam, by contrast, takes a radically supersessionist view of both Judaism and Christianity, claiming that the final revelation to Muhammad de facto negates any prior revelatory value (so to speak) that might be found in the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament.
Then there is the nature of the Qur’an itself. The mainstream Christian understanding of biblical inspiration was expressed by the Second Vatican Council: “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own powers and faculties so that...it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.” That theological understanding of “inspiration” provides for the possibility of interpretation of the sacred texts, and indeed for the development of doctrine in light of an evolving understanding of the full meaning of Scripture. The Qur’an, by contrast, is understood to have been dictated by its divine source, word for word, so that there is much less question of “exegesis” or of a post-scriptural development of doctrine. The Bible is a moral teacher which calls faithful Jews and Christians to use their reason to understand the meaning and import of its teaching, including the commandments. Islam’s holy book, by contrast, is described by an influential Egyptian Islamic activist in these terms: “the Qur’an for mankind is like a manual for a machine.” Thus Besancon does not exaggerate when he writes:
Although Muslims like to enumerate the 99 names of God, missing from the list, but central to the Jewish and even more so to the Christian concept of God, is ‘Father’ – i.e., a personal God capable of a reciprocal and loving relationship with men. The one God of the Qur’an, the God Who demands submission, is a distant God; to call him ‘Father’ would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege.
Thus Islam is “other” in relationship to Christianity and Judaism in a way that Christianity and Judaism cannot be to one another. The late Pope John Paul II recognized this. In the international bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul expressed his admiration for “the religiosity of Muslims” and his admiration for their “fidelity to prayer;” but prior to this he had cut to the theological heart of the matter:
Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Qur’an, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and... the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.
That theological anthropology – Islam’s theologically-driven concept of the human person as one called to submission to a distant God of majesty – yields, in turn, a view of the just society that is dramatically different from that of Judaism and Christianity. Islamic theological anthropology is one root of what Efraim Karsh has termed “the fusion of religious and temporal authority” in Islam, which is not peripheral to Islamic self-understanding. That fusion has, in turn, led to what Karsh calls “Islam’s millenarian imperial experience” – and, one might add, the millenarian political expectations of some Muslims today.
Islamic theological anthropology also helps explain Islam’s difficulties in creating the cultural conditions for the possibility of social pluralism. Whether Islam can evolve into a religion capable of providing religious warrants for genuine pluralism is thus one of the great questions on which the future of the 21st century will turn.
Lesson 3. Jihadism is the enemy in the multi-front war that has been declared upon us.
There are many forms of Islam. Some of them, often called “fundamentalism” or “Islamism,” stress the need for a deep religious and moral reform within the House of Islam and the reestablishment of Islamic political power. The specific form of Islamism which threatens the West is best described as jihadism.
Jihadism was recently defined by Richard John Neuhaus: “Jihadism is the religiously inspired ideology [which teaches that] it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means [are] necessary to compel the world’s submission to Islam.” That, I suggest, is naming the enemy correctly: those who hold this view are, de facto, in a state of belligerency against the rest of the world. Neuhaus goes on to note, “It will be objected that, in the Qur’an, jihad can also mean peaceful spiritual struggle. That is true, as it is true that those Muslims who believe jihad means peaceful spiritual struggle are not the enemy.” Indeed, much of the history of this century will turn on the question of whether the jihadists’ definition of jihad becomes the most culturally assertive definition within the many worlds of Islam. But that the jihadists understand jihad as Neuhaus describes it cannot be doubted, since this is precisely what they claim.
Lesson 4. Jihadism has a complex intellectual history, the chief points of which must be grasped in order to understand the nature of the threat before us.
Modern jihadism is rooted in a profound Islamic sense of Islamic failure: the world has not turned out the way it should. One can see traces of that sense of failure in the inertia of the Ottoman Empire before World War I. In fact, though, the inertia has a far longer pedigree, which involved a kind of turning-off of intellectual inquiry in a Muslim world that once found ample room within itself for an incorporation of the wisdom of the classical world, and helped transmit that wisdom to the medieval West.
The causal chain that takes us from medieval debates about Islamic law and theology to the caves of Tora Bora and 9/11 involves numerous figures, among them Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al- Halim ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703/4-1792), and two contemporary theorists, Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) and Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966). To make a long story desperately short: At a time when the Mongols had conquered much of the Islamic umma, ibn Taymiyya taught that the survival of Islam requires political power; that the pursuit of that power could, indeed should, be undertaken by the use of armed force; and that jihad involved both an absolute love of God and an “absolute hatred” for all that God proscribes, which includes “not only heretics, apostates, hypocrites, sinners, and unbelievers (including Christians and Jews)...but also any Muslim who tried to avoid participating in jihad. Ibn Taymiyya thus adumbrated the intra-Islamic civil war that has now spilled over into jihadism’s struggle against the rest of the world.
Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab emphasized the radical unicity (oneness) and lordship of God, whose relationship to the world is that of an absolute lawgiver: God is will, period, and there is no spiritual wrestling, so to speak, with the divine will – there is only submission. Yet Wahhab had little influence in his own time, however, or indeed for centuries afterwards; it would take a vast transfer of western wealth to Saudi Arabia to make Wahhabism a potent force in the world.
Hasan al-Banna, Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the “mental colonization” of Islam under colonial rule, and urged a struggle against a West that he perceived as having thus far won a “ruthless war whose battlefield has been the spirits and souls of Muslims...” Al-Banna proposed an Islamic social reformation. The educational, social, economic, religious, and charitable activities of the Muslim Brotherhood would be one form of this reformation. Jihad would be another, for God had given Muslims the privilege and duty of saving the world from its errors. After cleansing the House of Islam, true Muslims would cleanse their territories of infidels and unbelievers, beginning with al-Banna’s own Egypt, and then move on, until, as he put it, “...all the world shouts the name of the Prophet and the teachings of Islam spread throughout the world. Only then will Muslims achieve their fundamental goal...”
Sayyid Qutb, whose formative experiences included being scandalized at the “decadence” he perceived at a church social in Greeley, Colorado, in 1949, brought these various lines of jihadist thought together in a singularly influential way. He, too, stressed the idea of God as Absolute Will, God as the unique lawmaker; thus, for Qutb, liberal political thought (even conservative liberal political thought), was a false religion, not simply bad politics. Like others before him, but in a harsher way, Qutb stressed that those Muslims who did not live authentic Islamic lives (as he understood the term) were enemies to be fought and, if necessary, killed; so were those Jews, Christians, and unbelievers whose existence was a permanent, unchanging, and necessarily aggressive threat to the success of Islam, exactly as it had been from the beginning. Here, then, was a mind literally frozen in time, in which the Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista were present realities, summoning forth a perpetual struggle, violent if necessary, until the final, global triumph of Islam.
The power of jihadism derives from its theological roots. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his Regensburg Lecture in September 2006, the key theological move that underwrites today’s jihadist ideology (and practice) is the identification of God as Absolute Will. If God is absolute will, God can command anything – even the irrational. And so, in an extension of the thought of Sayyid Qutb, contemporary jihadists believe that the murder of innocents is, not simply morally acceptable, but morally required, if such murders advance the cause of Islam. This deeply distorted understanding of the nature of the God of Abraham leads, in turn, to other theological distortions.
Mercy, for example, comes to be understood as weakness. Justice, one of the four cardinal virtues in Christian moral theology, is traduced by jihadism’s defective concept of God into revenge. Given Sayyid Qutb’s conviction that Islam, rightly understood, and modernity were “utterly incompatible,” and given the defective theology that undergirds Qutb’s worldview, what seems incomprehensible to many westerners – the “death cult” that forms “the core of al-Qaeda” and similar entities – begins, within a jihadist frame of reference, to make a certain perverse sense.
Jihadism thus creates a theologically warranted “world without limits” in which the battlefield “now spans pizzerias, buses, public squares, commuter trains...subway stations,” and a Jewish center in Seattle; in which a Turkish film, “Valley of the Wolves,” depicts an American Jew harvesting organs at Abu Ghraib for resale; in which the Palestinian state press mocks the Secretary of State of the United States for her race and appearance; and so forth, and so on, in a seeming infinity of variants on the instruction posted in Kabul by the Taliban’s religious police: “Throw reason to the dogs – it stinks of corruption.”
The line from Taymiyya and Wahhab that would later influence Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb came to one conclusion when Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, an Egyptian and a Saudi, a veteran political operator and propagandist and a somewhat dreamy charismatic leader – joined forces to form al-Qaeda: the result was something new, and something terribly dangerous: global jihad.
Lesson 5. Jihadists read history and politics through the prism of their theological convictions, not through the prism of Western assumptions about the progressive dynamic of history.
Thus jihadists read the 1990s as a moment that revealed fatal Western weaknesses. To jihadists, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan (irrespective of the fact that it was made possible by Western aid and technology), meant that modernity was on the run. This provoked new patterns of aggression, which were reinforced when the generally feckless response of the United States led to bin Laden’s apotheosis as the jihadist champion who had taken on the Great Satan and prevailed. Then, when the U.S. failed to respond to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in such a way as to ignite the war in Afghanistan in which bin-Laden hoped to trap the Americans (as, according to his own mythology, he had trapped the Soviets), he decided that something else was required: as Lawrence Wright puts it, “he would have to create an irresistible outrage.” The result was a vast hole in the ground in Lower Manhattan, the loss of almost three thousand lives, and an economic cost of billions of dollars.
To understand that jihadists read history in a distinctive way leads to several other sublessons:
- As Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted in a September 2006 address to the Labour Party, “This terrorism isn’t our fault,” and “until we shake ourselves free of the wretched capitulation to the propaganda of the enemy, that somehow we are the ones responsible,” we will not prevail.
- Jihadism is not caused by poverty. Sayyid Qutb sailed to the United States in a firstclass cabin on one of the great trans-Atlantic liners. The nineteen death-cultists of 9/11 were middle-class and well-educated. Poverty, in and of itself, doesn’t turn men and women into jihadists.
- Jihadism isn’t caused by the fact of the State of Israel. Israel is, for jihadists, the excuse not the reason, the “deadliest of all Arab alibis” in a political culture formed in part by an ideology of victimhood. Jihadis do not hate the West because of Israel, they hate Israel because it is part of the West – hence, that standard jihadist trope, “Zionist-Crusaders.”
It is a great folly to think that jihadism and the terrorism it underwrites are to be understood as a psychological aberration. Within their own theological frame of reference and the reading of history it warrants, jihadists are not crazy; they make, to themselves, a terrible kind of sense.
Lesson 6: It is not “Islamophobic” to note the historical connection between Muslim expansion and conquest, or between contemporary jihadism and terrorism. Necessary truth-telling is the pre-requisite to genuine interreligious dialogue.
In Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture, the Holy Father gave the world an interreligious and ecumenical vocabulary to engage in a genuine conversation about the threat jihadism poses: the vocabulary of “rationality and irrationality.” Criticized at the time as a diplomatic “gaffe,”, the Pope’s proposal has now drawn two responses from international groups of Muslim leaders, and a meeting in March  at the Vatican is planned. It is not without interest that this newfound interest in senior Islamic circles in serious theological conversation with the Pope about the right-ordering of society (which Benedict XVI has insisted be the focal point of the discussion) followed, not the usual exchange of banalities and pleasantries that too often characterizes interreligious dialogue, but a robust critique of the theological roots of jihadism. Surely there are lessons here for the future.
One is that the western media acquiescence to Muslim complaints about “Islamophobia” should stop: it is not “Islamophobic” for the Pope, or anyone else, to pray in the presence of Muslims; to defend religious freedom; or to condemn violence in the name of God – suggestions made by National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the New York Daily News during Benedict XVI’s December 2006 visit to Turkey. It would also be helpful if the Western press – and particularly that part of the Western press that reaches the Islamic world, like CNN and the BBC – would call things by their right names: murderers in Iraq are murderers and terrorists, not insurgents or sectarians; suicide bombers are, in fact, homicide bombers; and so forth.
Lesson 7. This is a multi-generational struggle.
The below-replacement-level birthrates that prevail throughout virtually the entire Western world are another factor in this global struggle for the human future. As the inimitable Mark Steyn puts it, given present demographic trends, “the Belgian climate-change lobbyist will [soon] be on the endangered species list with the Himalayan snow leopard” – a fact that, given Belgian parallels in the Netherlands, France, Spain, and elsewhere, has already changed the political landscape of Western Europe.
Yet Steyn notes that birth rates are already declining in some Islamic countries, such that the jihadists’ demographic advantage will eventually decrease as well. So the historical window for the achievement of the jihadists’ most ambitious goals will likely begin to close in, perhaps, twenty-five years or so. The demographics of the Islamic world, coupled with the staying power of the passions unleashed by jihadist ideology and distorted religious conviction, thus suggest that the current phase of the contest for the human future will last at least two or three generations. This is, indeed, a long war. It is important that we understand that, acknowledge it politically, gird ourselves for it, and plan both strategy and tactics accordingly.