From Assaf Moghadam
In recent years, a growing number of analysts and policymakers, have referred to the doctrines guiding Al Qaeda and its associates as an ideology, and appear to have influenced the Bush administration into adopting the term as well. President Bush, for example, has characterized the 9/11 suicide hijackers as men who “kill in the name of a clear and focused ideology.” Although descriptions of the precepts and beliefs guiding Al Qaeda and its associates as ideological in nature certainly hit the mark, few serious attempts have been made to justify the use of the term ‘ideology’ in connection with the Salafi Jihad—the guiding doctrine of Al Qaeda, its affiliates, associates, and progeny. A closer look at what makes the Salafi Jihad an ideology reveals that a more proper term to describe the Salafi Jihad would be as a religious ideology.
The Salafi Jihad is an ideology because its functions are essentially congruent with those of other ideologies.
- First, ideologies have an explanatory function, whereby they attempt to raise awareness among a certain group that a certain problem deserves their attention. Salafi-Jihadists attempt to raise awareness among Muslims that their religion has been on the wane.
- Second, and analogous with the diagnostic function of modern ideologies, the Salafi Jihad identifies the alleged source of the Muslims’ conundrum in the persistent attacks and humiliation of Muslims on the part of an anti-Islamic alliance of what it terms ‘Crusaders,’ ‘Zionists,’ and ‘apostates.’
- The third function of the Salafi Jihad also parallels that of other ideologies, namely its attempt at creating a new identity for its adherents. Several scholars, including Olivier Roy, have argued that Muslims and Western converts adopting Salafi-Jihadist tenets suffer from a crisis of identity. To those who are disoriented by modernity, the Salafi Jihad provides a new sense of self-definition and belonging in the form of a membership to a supranational entity. Salafi-Jihadists attempt to instill into Muslims the notion that the only identity that truly matters is that of membership in the umma, the global community of Muslims that bestows comfort, dignity, security, and honor upon the downtrodden Muslims.
- Finally, like all ideologies, Salafi-Jihadists present a program of action, namely jihad, which is understood in military terms. They assert that jihad will reverse the tide of history and redeem adherents and potential adherents of Salafi-Jihadist ideology from their misery. Martyrdom is extolled as the ultimate way in which jihad can be waged—hence the proliferation of suicide attacks among Salafi-Jihadist groups.
What, however, is the Salafi Jihad’s relationship to religion? Religions differ from ideologies in two important respects.
First, the primary focus of ideologies is the group, whereas that of religions is the individual. Precisely because of its preoccupation with the group as a whole, ideology demands great loyalty and commitment on the part of the individual member. Ideologies, like religions, demand verbal assent from their members. But more than religions, ideologies also demand complete control over the thoughts, words, and deeds of their adherents. This characteristic also applies to Al Qaeda and like-minded groups.
Second, religions tend to support existing orders, while ideologies tend to confront them. “Ideologies are not merely world-reflecting but world-constituting,” writes Bruce Lawrence. “They tend to have a ‘missionary’ zeal to show others what they need to do, to correct and help them to that end.” Thus, unlike religious leaders, bin Laden goes beyond merely disagreeing with those who do not share his beliefs—he battles them.
Yet, while the Salafi Jihad is distinct from Islam due to the former’s ideological nature, it also differs from ordinary ideologies in an important respect. It tends to use religious words, symbols, and values to sustain itself and grow—a tendency that defines it as a religious ideology. Ideologies are usually devoid of religious symbols. Ian Adams, for instance, writes that “what separates [religion from ideology] is that while the central feature of a religious understanding is its concept of the divine, the central feature of an ideological understanding is its conception of human nature.”
Unlike secular ideologies, however, the Salafi Jihad invokes religion in three ways.
- First, it describes itself and its enemies in religious terms, such as the ‘Army of Muhammad,’ the ‘lions of Islam,’ and of course ‘jihadist.’ Their enemies are labeled as Crusaders, apostates, or infidels.
- Second, Salafi-Jihadists describe their strategy and mission as a religious one. Their struggle is a jihad, which they themselves define in military terms, as opposed to the ‘internal war’ against human temptations. Their main tactic, they claim, is not suicide attacks, but ‘martyrdom operations.’
- Finally, they justify acts of violence with references drawn selectively from the Quran. Most Muslims, including non-violent Salafis, cite a number of sources from the Quran and hadith against the killing of civilians. Salafi-Jihadists, on the other hand, cite a number of Quranic verses and Hanbali rulings in support of their actions.
Accurately labeling the nature of Salafi-Jihadist doctrine as a religious ideology is not merely an exercise in academic theorizing, but has important policy implications. Confronting Salafi-Jihadists on religious grounds is highly problematic because Salafi-Jihadists draw from the same religious sources—albeit selectively and stubbornly—that inform the lives and practices of over a billion other Muslims. It is for that reason that ordinary Muslims—not to speak of non-Muslims—find it difficult to challenge Salafi-Jihadists without running the risk of being accused of targeting Islam as a whole.
A counter-terrorism approach that highlights the corruption of Salafi-Jihadists ideology not on religious, but on secular grounds is more likely to have the desired effect of weakening the appeal of the Salafi Jihad. Rather than highlighting the doctrinal and theological inconsistencies within Salafi-Jihadists, the United States and its allies would be wise to grasp every opportunity they have to highlight the disastrous consequences that Salafi-Jihadist violence has wrought on the everyday lives not only of Westerners, but first and foremost on Muslims themselves.
It is a simple, though not sufficiently emphasized fact that the primary victims of Salafi-Jihadists are Muslims, who are killed and maimed in far greater numbers than non-Muslims. Salafi-Jihadists openly justify the killing of civilians, including Muslims, under a logic of the ends justifying the means. It is equally a fact that leaders of Salafi-Jihadist organizations hypocritically preach about the benefits of martyrdom, but rarely, if ever, conduct suicidal operations themselves, or send their loved ones on such missions. It is a fact that Al Qaeda and associated groups offer no vision for Muslims other than perennial jihad—hardly an appealing prospect.
Waging a battle against a religious ideology such as the Salafi Jihad is a challenging task that requires commitment and ingenuity. Yet, highlighting a few simple, but damaging facts about the actual results of Salafi-Jihadists can also go a long way.
Update: The longer article has appeared here. —MESH
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