Essay by our Director, Ziya Meral, published by War on The Rocks, 26 February 2015
After each terror incident relating to Muslim extremism, we see avalanches of commentary debating the doctrines of jihad in Islamic thought. A notable example of this is a recent essay by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” which has sparked a firestorm of debate. The trouble with these discussions is that they confuse theological justifications made by radical groups for the use of violence with causes behind the emergence and deployment of violence and its appeal among particular groups. The sum of all of the discussions on jihad in Islamic thought only leads us to a conclusion that it is permissible for a Muslim to deploy violence under certain circumstances and conditions. This finding is neither interesting nor useful for policymakers and strategists.
All uses of violence, whether by militants, terrorists or regular armies, need framing and validation. The social mechanisms used for unleashing violence as well as controlling the limits and outcomes of violent episodes are universal. It is not only religions that offer a cosmic framing of why war or violence might be inevitable at times; secular humanism, nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and international law too provide us with the same grounding, using the same mechanisms to appeal to and mobilize human beings. In fact, our common language of “just war” is a deeply theological framing and validation of the use of violence.
Thus, focusing on how the use of violence is justified in Islamic thought does not leave us any wiser about why we have seen groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerge, and why we have increasing numbers of people joining their campaigns and committing acts of terror as part of an “imagined community” fighting an imagined global battle.
It is clear that religion is an important part of this issue, but a healthy theological discussion starts somewhere else. The fundamental theological question that lies behind the appeal of such groups is not that of jihad but of theodicy.