This is the second piece in a four-part series on violent Islamism, its global reach, and what can be done to counter it. Please check back for the rest of the series this week here at TheBlaze.
Why is the ideology of violent Islamism attractive? There are at least two reasons for its widespread appeal to millions of Muslims worldwide.
First, it answers the “What Went Wrong” question. Second, violent Islamism loosens all restraints on behavior, at least for its male devotees. Anything goes!
Princeton University scholar Bernard Lewis argues that the Muslim world looked in the mirror during the mid-20th century and asked itself “What went wrong? We used to hold sway over mighty, wealthy caliphates … we were rich and powerful…what went wrong?”
Lewis suggests that there are two ways to answer this question: either by taking responsibility for one’s own failings or by blaming someone else. The former approach would recognize that closing down theological debate and interpretation (itjihad) by the 10th century AD and not allowing the sciences and arts to grow after the 12th century (symbolized by Averroes death in 1198) would inevitably result in intellectual and material decline. In other words, Muslims have no one to blame but themselves.
But, Lewis observes, “It is usually easier and always more satisfying to blame others for one's misfortunes.”
Who to blame? The Mongols, the Crusaders, the Jews, Europeans, the French and British colonial powers, the Communists, and the Americans, to name a few.
This image is from an August Ansar Beit al-Maqdis video showing the beheading of those it accused of passing information to Israel. (Image source: YouTube)
Despite the inaccuracy of this historical fallacy, let’s take it to its natural conclusion: why did Allah allow Muslims to fall into the clutches of these other groups? Islamists answer, “Because we [Muslims] turned away from the pristine, primitive faith of the earliest Muslims (salafis).” If Muslims go back to the lifestyle of that early era—the era of primitive devotion, austere living, and violent expansionism blessed by Allah—Muslims can turn back the clock and see a new golden era of Islam.
Thus, violent Islamism is attractive as a lens for blaming others for the poverty, insecurity, and lack of development characterizing much of the Muslim-majority world (see the United Nation Arab Development Reports).
Violent Islamism is also attractive to young men because it loosens all restraint. Those who are going to wage violent jihad, including the Sept. 11, 2001 bombers, Boko Haram, and Islamic State, allow themselves many of the pleasures of the flesh such as pornography, rape, or forced marriage. To be clear, the policy of Islamic State and Al Qaeda is theft, bullying, rape, coercion, intimidation, and murder. All this is justified by a religious carte blanche: it is acceptable if it is done in the context of jihad.
Neither of these justifications is very compelling. The “anything goes” excuse is hypocritical because most of the jihadists’ victims are their own Muslim neighbors.
Who does Boko Haram typically enslave or kill in Nigeria? Fellow Muslims.
Who does Islamic State attack? Fellow Muslims.
Who is the main target of most Al Qaeda affiliates, from North Africa to Yemen to Central Asia? Fellow Muslims.
Violent Islamists target their own communities and kill their own people: they should be public enemy number one for mainstream Muslims everywhere.
The “we are victims” excuse is also not very compelling. Muslim armies spent three centuries attacking North Africa, Europe, the Levant and Persia (600s-1000 AD) before the West responded with a counter-move: the Crusades. It was a Muslim Turkish nationalist, Kemal Ataturk, that ended the last caliphate (the Ottoman Empire) in 1922, not the West. The Muslim Brotherhood’s radical ideology began with its founder Hassan al Banna in the 1920s … a generation before the founding of a Jewish state (1948).
The colonial powers typically worked very closely with local leaders on the ground who had real sources of legitimacy in the Arab world, whether it be pashas in Egypt, the shah in Iran, hundreds of “princely states” in India, or the dynasties of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Yet, the colonial powers are long gone, so why kill Parisians and Londoners today? For that matter, why do Islamists slaughter helpless Afghans and Pakistanis and Iraqis and Yemenis at home? The “we are victims” answer is not logical.
The fact is that Islamists, whether physically violent or not, have deluded themselves into believing in an alternative reality. In their legendary past, there was a holy Muslim civilization ruled by Shariah where their forbears stood at the top of the world. In that world, Jews and Christians (and women and other minorities) knew their place as second class citizens to be taxed (dhimmis); others such as Hindus and animists were enemies, eligible for the sword. Contemporary Islamists are trying to construct a fantasy world that they have purified, generally by violence, from the influences of modernity and the West. It is a throwback to an earlier, simpler time where their marauding and murder can be cloaked with holy significance as advancing the kingdom of heaven.
But is this just a minority movement that can be isolated to corners of the greater Middle East? Is it just a “lone wolf” problem for the West that is tragic but only kills a few dozen Westerners every year? Unfortunately, the international spread of violent Islamism is a dire threat, and it is the topic of the next installment in this series.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of 12 books, including the co-edited volume "Debating the War of Ideas."
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