A Case for Calling Jihadists “Islamic”

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I abhor Donald Trump and his odious call for a ban on Muslim immigration. But I also disagree with President Obama’s insistence that we avoid terms like “radical Islam” and “Islamic terrorism.” And not just because avoiding such terms provides jerks like Trump with a wedge issue.

Obama argues that calling jihadists “Islamic” plays into their hands, alienating moderate Muslims and turning the war against ISIS into a clash of civilizations, precisely what the jihadists want. According to this argument, by refusing to define these butchers as Islamic we deny them an important symbolic and semantic victory.

But such a refusal also blinds us to who we’re up against and contributes to a dangerous additional denial; namely, that if the jihadists are not really Islamic then neither is their ideology, which we can instead dismiss as a “perversion of Islam.” Even the most cursory glance at Islamic history shows how inaccurate that is.

Historically, Sunni Islam has had many strains. Centuries ago there was a tolerant, pleasure-seeking, wine-drinking, inquisitive strain that led to an Islamic golden age. There has always been a strict, legalistic strain. For centuries there has been a relaxed, peaceful, Sufi strain. And there are many others.

But importantly, there has also always been a violent, aggressive, jihadist strain that draws inspiration and legitimacy from certain actions of Muhammad and his companions. This ancient ideology argues that Islam has a destiny and duty to subdue the entire world. And since it started with Mohammed and his companions, it’s foundational. As such it has resurfaced again and again throughout Islamic history.

For more than a thousand years, when Islamic leaders felt beleaguered or insecure the easiest solution was to invoke the words and deeds of Mohammad and his companions, declare militant jihad against the unbelievers, and presto – legitimacy restored.

This particular strain of Islam seemed to die out a few hundred years ago, but not because of some enlightened decision that jihad was morally wrong. It petered out because by the 1700s the West had become so advanced and powerful that attacking us became impossible. Instead, the resurgent West turned the tables and began subjugating the Islamic world – not to mention the Confucian world, the Hindu world and pretty much everybody else. For a brief period after the First World War, every Muslim land on earth was ruled by a Christian power, with the notable exception Saudi Arabia.

So for most of the 18to the 20 centuries Westerners forgot about the militant strain of Islam, and forgot how their ancestors from the time of the Byzantines to the time of Bach often lived in fear of jihad. But now that strain has reawakened, and its adherents love to point out how, rather than being new or an “innovation,” it is instead ancient and traditional.

Does this mean that most Muslims openly or secretly support jihad? Absolutely not. The vast majority want to get along with their neighbors and live peaceful lives just like everyone else.

But Muslims who abhor militant violence face a genuine challenge that people in most other traditions don’t have to confront. A central tenet of Islam is to try to model your life on the lives Mohammed and his companions. How they lived and acted and the things they said and did are collectively called the Sunnah, sometimes translated as the ‘habit’ or ‘path.’ Which is why most Muslims call themselves Sunnis; people who strive to follow the Sunnah.

And despite the many egalitarian and inspirational qualities of Islam’s founders, they were without question militant and austere warriors who spent much of their lives attacking and subjugating non-Muslims. As a result, although Muslims who reject militancy and extreme austerity have usually been a majority, they have nonetheless often been a bit on the defensive. Jihadists can easily point to countless examples of how militancy, extreme piety and aggression towards non-Muslims were key parts of the way Mohammed and his companions lived – in other words, key parts of the Sunnah - and it’s hard to contradict them.

Of course there are other key parts of the Sunnah that glorify charity, love, compassion and peace, and those are the parts moderate Muslims rightly choose to emphasize. But to call the violent parts “perversions of Islam” is, at best, wishful thinking. It’s almost the opposite. For centuries Muslims who rejected austerity for a glass of wine, or who chose to stay home when others marched off to jihad, risked the accusation that they were the ones rejecting true Islam as practiced by the founders and by generations of heroes after them.

Which is precisely the argument ISIS and Al Qaeda make today. It’s one reason their propaganda can be so effective among angry, impressionable youth itching for a cause and a fight. Jihadists can point to story after story in the hadiths – the record of Mohammad’s deeds and words, which is the foundation of much of Islamic law and tradition – to support their violent views and actions. And their opponents have trouble contradicting this, although they should surely try.

Which brings us to the question of whether to call such militants “Islamic.” We can hope that by refusing we somehow delegitimize them and declare solidarity with moderate Muslims, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But you can equally argue that we delegitimize ourselves, displaying our ignorance of history and the powerful allure of major Islamic traditions. Even worse, in doing so we violate a key strategy in war: “Know your enemy.”

Our enemy is not Islam in general, which is way too big, glorious and varied a religion to be pigeonholed in such a crude way. But our enemy is definitely an ancient and venerable strain of Islam that believes that the violence and extreme austerity of the founders are models for all time. This is not Islam’s only strain by a long shot. But it’s a powerful one that has resurfaced again and again for 1,400 years, causing untold misery in the world.

We can’t help our moderate Muslim allies combat this evil unless we recognize it for what it is, admit its historical role in Islamic tradition and history, and make a strong case for why that role is now antiquated and obsolete and should be discarded. But we can’t do that if we refuse to call it what it is and pretend it’s something it's not