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Saint Augustine
Islamist Jihad in the 21st Century
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Article Index
Islamist Jihad in the 21st Century
Islamist Theoreticians
Islam: A Religion of Both Peace and War
The Islamic Law of War
Understanding Jihad
Radical Islam and Holy War
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By Reverend Wylie W. Johnson, D.Min., M.Div., M.S.S.; Chaplain (Colonel) U.S. Army Reserve (retired), Senior Pastor of Springfield Baptist Church, Springfield, Pennsylvania, and until his retirement in June 2012 the first Command Chaplain for the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Readiness Command.

Quotations from this paper

Modern Muslims are faced with a nagging conundrum which we might put this way: ‘How is it that Islamic people, who are the possessors of the only true religion and who ought to be the most powerful people on earth, are now so poor, backward and powerless?’

Like most social movements, there have been many thinkers contributing to the Islamist idea. A Sunni Pakistani, Syed Abul A'ala Maududi (1903-1979), linked the ancient faith with the revolutionary fervor of the present. Maududi‘s experience was in the Indian conflict between Hinduism and Islam. He also developed a worldwide jihadistic vision for imposing a new Islamic order. Maududi, as many of his contemporaries, melded the political rhetoric of communism and fascism into a revolutionary Islamic ideology. The goal of such an insurrectionist religious vision is global hegemony.

Introduction: Threads of Understanding

To begin understanding the modern phenomenon of radical Islam, one must have a working knowledge of Muslim history, theology and contemporary events. In this article, I will knit together these three threads in order to contribute towards such an understanding.

For the purposes of this project, Islamic Radicalism, Salifism, and Islamism are used as interchangeable terms. Islamists hold to a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. They condemn all who differ as kafir1 (hypocritical or heretical) and repress all divergence from their narrow view. The radical agenda includes a rejection of any form of civil law and strict adherence to Shari‘a law.2 I would further add that my concentration in this project is specifically upon those various groups that have declared jihad3 on the United States at home and abroad, and are actively pursuing future operations.

Many Muslims feel that they have successively been defeated, resulting in the loss of power to other nations; the loss of authority within their own nations; and finally through the loss of “mastery in his own house from emancipated women and rebellious children”4 who model their behavior and expectations on the ‘Christian’ West. The following story simply explains Middle Eastern feelings and motivations.

One day an elderly Bedouin man discovered that by eating turkey he could restore his virility. So he bought himself a turkey and he kept it around the tent, and every day he watched it grow. He stuffed it with food, thinking, Wow, I am really going to be a bull. One day, though, the turkey was stolen. So the Bedouin called his sons together and said, “Boys, we are in great danger now – terrible danger. My turkey‘s been stolen.” The boys laughed and said, “Father, what do you need a turkey for?” He said, “Never mind, never mind. It is not important why I need the turkey, all that is important is that it has been stolen, and we must get it back.” But his sons ignored him and forgot about the turkey. A few weeks, later the old man‘s camel was stolen. His sons came to him and said, “Father, your camel‘s been stolen, what should we do?” And the old man said, “Find my turkey.” A few weeks later, the old man‘s horse was stolen, and the sons came and said, “Father, your horse was stolen, what should we do?” He said, “Find my turkey.” Finally, a few weeks later, someone raped his daughter. The father went to his sons and said, “It is all because of the turkey. When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything.”5

This ancient story amply illustrates the Muslim community‘s sense of loss and vulnerability in a hostile world. Modern Muslims are faced with a nagging conundrum that we might put this way: ‘How is it that Islamic people, who are the possessors of the only true religion and who ought to be the most powerful people on earth, are now so poor, backward and powerless?’6

Muslims believe that ultimately all of humanity must accept Islam, which will eventually become the only worldwide faith. The Islamic Umma7 (the middle nation) is perfectly conceived and not prone to religious extremes of asceticism or depravity. “The Umma is the ‘assembly’ of the ‘party of God.’ It is the best nation and has a mission to be a witness over the nations.”8

Many Muslims hold an ideal in common with Christians—that of becoming the only world religion. In many ways, we may compare the Islamic notion of one world religion with the Christian Great Commission: Christ‘s imperative to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). For both religions the individual believer is responsible for global mission. However, there are fundamental differences in method and purpose. Christianity, propagating a redemptive gospel, is essentially a non-state religion. Even when the Christian faith becomes entangled with political authority, it usually remains distinct from the state. Islam is a nomocratic (law-based) state with imperialistic pretentions. Islam has “combined the dualism of a universal religion and a universal state.”9

The mission of Islam comprises both da’wah (witness and invitation) and dawlah (political and territorial mission).10 In Islam, mission and the establishment of Islamic social order are nearly synonymous, since “extending Islamic authority over peoples and territory was the same as extending God‘s rule.”11 Islamic rule has historically been extended by military conquest. In the Islamic faith, personal religion is ideally a matter of conscience, for the Qur’an teaches that, “There is no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2, 256). However, Muslim societies have been structured so that it is a burden to believe in any faith other than Islamic. The history of Islam has been an uneven balance between da’wah and dawlah over subject peoples.

It is not surprising that religious faiths come into conflict, particularly since each is convinced of its own exclusive veracity and its unique mandate for social unity. Religious conflict has intensified in the contemporary era. Benjamin R. Barber has declared that modern forms of traditional monotheistic religion “are parochial rather than cosmopolitan, angry rather than loving, proselytizing rather than ecumenical, zealous rather than rationalist, sectarian rather than deistic, ethnocentric rather than universalizing.”12 Formerly peaceful (or generally peaceful) comity arrangements have deteriorated into hostility and outright conflict around the modern world.

Adam Garfinkle attributes the phenomenon of modern political Islam to “a condition of blocked or distorted modernization.”13 He sees Islamic societies negatively reacting to Western cultural-imperialism that requires radical change from traditional to modern methods and mores. Traditional societies are strained by globalized social pressures as well as urbanization, pluralism, lack of education and economic opportunity. Such influences alter established mores and behaviors.14 Many Muslims, proud of their faith and heritage, resent the pressures of Western (especially Christian) culture-driven modernization that undermines the functioning basis of their society.

Religious responses to such forces are often chiliastic, that is, understanding the current cultural drift as clear signs of the end-of-time demise of society. One sort of cultural religious response is to become quietist (e.g., the Sufis)—seeking retreat from society to develop isolated communities that preserve the old ways and values.15 Another response may be a turning to authoritarian rule in an attempt to restore the status quo (e.g., Taliban). Others, like bin Laden, developed a vision of worldwide conquest for the establishment of the true faith and moral attitudes. “At such times, believers usually think that violence is part of a divine plan to hasten the end of the world, bring the Mahdi; re-establish the Caliphate, or whatever the theology requires.”16

Middle Eastern cultures are structured with an endogamous family construct, meaning arranged marriages within the family. Such relationships define family within the tribal structure. This retains wealth and property in the family, as well as undergirding patriarchal authority.

In most Arab societies, everyone knows where they fit into the overall structure. Loyalty is to extended family, individual agency is weak, and the entire structure tends to resist outside influence. Religion is organic to birth and reinforces the authority of the patriarchal system. However, it is the social structure, which predated Islam that comes first. Assaults to tribe and family, real or imagined, are therefore assaults against religion, and vice versa. Endogamous social organization helps explain why these societies tend to split into factions when they come under pressure. The Taliban, which most Westerners consider motivated by religion, are as much driven by concern over their tribal structures‘ viability. Westerners divide politics from religion and religion from social structure by second nature, but these divisions have no parallel in the Middle East.17

Chronically impoverished Arab peoples have not shared in the economic prosperity that the developed world enjoys—“per capita income has been virtually unchanged since 1980; in some countries, including oil-rich Saudi Arabia, it has actually fallen. Real wages and labor productivity are about where they were thirty years ago.”18 Oil wealth in each Middle Eastern nation resides in the hands of a tiny ruling clique, while regional development remains minimal at best. “Outside the energy sector, trade is at a standstill: the entire region‘s non-oil exports are smaller than those of Finland….The Arab world has, in effect, disengaged from the world economy.”19

Traditional population distribution within the region has rapidly changed from a rural to an urban majority. Combine this with a populace where more than half are under age twenty. “High concentrations of young people in a society, especially teenagers, correlates well with violence and poorly with stability...“youth bulges” have accompanied many of history‘s most dramatic upheavals.”20

Last Updated on Monday, 25 March 2013 18:55