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Mention the word ‘jihad’ to most people in the West and they will immediately

conjure up a bunch of bloodthirsty fanatics, intent on murder and mayhem. To an


extent, they would be justified in this supposition. This is precisely how jihad
is being interpreted by Osama Bin Laden and his followers. Ironically, the literal
translation of ‘jihad’ is ‘holy war’; but, in today’s context – it is holy only in
the warped minds of its protagonists.

The fundamentalists’ interpretation of jihad has led many non-Muslims to believe


that Islam is a religion whose principle tenets involve revenge and retribution.
This is far from the truth, however. The Koran sets clear boundaries on the use of
vio¬lence. Historically, Sunni religious scholars have insisted that local battles
be¬tween Muslims and their enemies be fought locally and not as a jihad, in which
all able-bodied Muslims would be required to participate. They have argued, as
many still do, that a true jihad requires the leadership of a caliph, an office
that currently does not exist. Indiscriminate violence - the killing of
noncombatants, women, and children – and, especially the killing of fellow
Muslims, has been almost universally condemned throughout most of the history of
Islam.

Wait a minute. Most of the people killed by the insurgents in Iraq, for example,
are fellow Muslims. How can that possibly be justified? That, in fact, has been
one of the "achievements" of Al Qaeda and the diverse terrorist outfits it has
spawned. They have been able to forge an ideology that loosens the shackles on
jihad and justifies indiscriminate violence, including the killing of Muslims.

Although Osama Bin Laden is the popular poster boy of militant Islam, that honor
should really go to Sayyid Qutb - the enormously influential Islamist thinker of
the past century. Qutb was the most influential advocatem in modern times, of
jihad. He emphasized that, not only was it legitimate to violently resist regimes
that claim to be Muslim, but whose implementation of Islamic precepts was judged
to be imperfect; it was a sacred obligation.

Qutb’s major literary work is Fi Zalal al-Koran (In the Shadow of the Koran), a
commentary on the Koran in 30 volumes. From his reading of the Koran, he deduced
that the Christians are all destined for hell. He postulated that Christians, Jews
and the Western way of life, was destined to end up in the dung heap of history.
However, what may come as a revelation to most Westerners is that Qutb's fiercest
venom was reserved for those who were Muslims - or rather, those who – according
to him - claimed that they were Muslims. In his view, neither Egypt under Nasser's
dictatorship, nor Arabia under the Saudi monarchy, had made any serious attempt to
implement the Shari'a, or religious law. He regarded the territories of Islam as
being governed by corrupt, Westernized dictators and princes. Sounds familiar? It
is, in fact, one of Bin Laden’s favorite dictums.

Again, contrary to popular Western belief, 9/11 did not evoke a uniform, immediate
response from all Muslims. Establishment clerics were virtually unanimous in
condemning the attacks on religious grounds. Muhammad Sayyid al-Tantawi, the head
of Egypt's Azhar University, declared, "Attacking innocent people is not
courageous; it is stupid and will be punished on the day of judgment.” Other
preachers insisted that Islam prohibits "all forms of attacks on innocents."

This, naturally, did not suit Al Qaeda. To justify their warped ideology, they
took refuge in Salafism, which believes that the only true form of Islam is that
which existed during the days of the Prophet. This also implies that the Koran
needs to be taken literally; and is not open to individual interpretation. It was
another matter that Bin Laden cherry picked those portions of the scriptures that
suited his beliefs. For example, according to Ibn Ishaq, the Prophet earliest
biographer, Mohammed ordered the decapitation of 700 men of the Jewish Banu
Quarazya tribe in Medina, for plotting against him. Therefore, presumably, it was
permissible – even a sacred obligation – to kill Jews. Notice how cleverly a
specific incident was metamorphosed into a generic commandment.

In April 2002, seven months after 9/11, the violent wing of the Salafist movement
- a group called Qaidat al-Jihad - issued a carefully reasoned justification for
the use of violence in pursuit of Mus¬lim interests. This manifesto, "Regarding
the Mandates of the Heroes and the Legality of the Operations in New York and
Washington," served two objectives: first, to establish the religious
qualifications of their own, anti-establishment clerics; and sec¬ond, to show
conclusively that the Quran and the Prophet's own actions provided ample support
for the use of violence against civilians.

The authors of the manifesto heaped scorn on the scholarly elite, using the same
strategy Islamist radicals have employed for decades, of denigrating them as the
stooges of the West. "These great events (9/11)," they wrote, "which changed the
face of history on such a grand scale occurred in the umma (the congregation) and
it will be a great regret to anyone who blames those who brought about the
operation in September. Those ignorant ones do not speak with legal evidence or
reasonable logic. Rather, they speak their masters' lan¬guages and in the concepts
of the enemy of the umma.” The "ignorant ones," of course, are the "sultan's
parrots," the clerics on the state's payroll, as the overwhelming majority of
establishment clergy are. Their "master" is Saudi Arabia, and the "enemy” of the
umma is the United States.

These accusations, coupled with growing popular anti-Americanism, are driving


clerical opinion to the extreme in much of the Muslim world. A decade ago only
fanatical preachers, like the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, might issue a fatwa
explicitly calling for the killing of Americans. But today, even some moderates,
who are fearful of seeing their influ¬ence wane, are moving towards extremism to
preserve their diminishing authority.

One famous cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, who is based in Qatar, is widely
considered a moderate imam; and has an international standing that has made him a
source of guidance to Muslims worldwide on a wide array of issues. Qaradhawi has
flatly condemned the September 11 attacks. But in 2004, he issued an opin¬ion
endorsing attacks on Americans - including civilian contractors - in Iraq. His
shift was not unique. At about the same time, a dozen sheikhs at al Azhar
University, the preeminent seminary of the Sunni world, expressed similar views.

The erosion of the authority of the established clerics is one indication that
Islam might be at the very early stages of some sort of reformation. A new breed
of religious authorities is emerging that is not the product of the religious
establishment. As a result, indi¬viduals with Western-style educations – and not
just those brainwashed in madrassas - have taken it upon themselves to interpret
scripture and, in essence, to declare their insights on a par with the great
commentators of the past.

The challenge to the authority of establishment clerics over such cen¬tral issues
as the legitimate use of force - and over the right to deliver binding religious
rulings (fatwas) - comes not just from al Qaeda, but from a swelling group of
self-proclaimed imams. These clerics are self-taught, inspired by the firebrand
imam at their local mosque, or by pamphlets and Web sites that endorse jihad. They
are also more likely to pick and choose which traditions or trends in scholarly
opinion to follow.
With growing frequency, legal justifications are being offered for at¬tacks
against civilians - and, in particular, children - who were histori¬cally treated
as "inviolable." In late 2001, an Al Qaeda spokesman issued a statement that
specified that the war against the United States would not be over until Muslims
have fulfilled their "right to kill four million Americans - two million of them
children - and to exile twice as many; and wound and cripple hundreds of
thousands. Further¬more, it is our right to fight them with chemical and
biological weapons, so as to afflict them with the fatal maladies that have
afflicted the Muslims because of the [Americans'] chemical and biological
weapons."

His views are catching on among other radicals. By arguing that, in democracies,
citizens are responsible for the acts of their governments, because they voted for
them, the fundamentalists contend that all Americans provide vital support for
U.S. military operations. Consequently, among the jihadists, the entire notion of
the non-combatant is disappearing. The emphasis on killing children is justified
by a law of proportionality. As one Palestinian preacher put it, "If the infidels
target Muslim women, children, and elderly, then it is permitted for Muslims to
repay them in kind and kill [their women, children and elderly] as they killed.
This is because of the word of Allah the Supreme, 'Anyone who at¬tacks you, attack
him as he attacked you.”

There is a perverted logic in this approach. At a time when the United States and
Israel command overwhelming conven¬tional military might, suicide bombing and
attacks against "soft targets" are permitted because of the lack of alternatives.
As this fundamentalist dogma becomes more widespread, it is lowering the social
barriers to participation in the jihad and indis¬criminate violence. It is
preparing radical Muslims to set themselves the goal of causing massive violence.

The most frightening sign that massive violence is becoming morally acceptable for
some individuals is the discussion that surrounds the use of nuclear weapons. In
2003, Sheikh Nasir bin Hamad, a well-regarded young Saudi cleric, produced "A
Treatise on the Ruling Regarding the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction Against
the Infidels." The work aimed to settle the question of whether Islamic law
allowed the use of weapons of mass de¬struction in jihad. Hamad, relying on an
argument of proportionality, concluded, "If a bomb was dropped on them [i.e., the
Americans] that would annihilate 10 million and burn their lands to the same
extent that they burned the Muslim lands—this is permissible, with no need to
men¬tion any other proof.”

This, then, is the awesomely terrifying face of the new terror. America and its
allies are pitted against an enemy that follows no rules; recognizes no
boundaries; and is consumed with an implacable hatred of everything the West
stands for. This is where the attention of America’s leaders should be focused.
The war in Iraq has already achieved its objective of creating a generation of
jihadists, whose visceral hatred of the West is often beyond the comprehension of
its ‘civilized’ citizense. In this context, setting a timetable for the withdrawal
of US troops from Iraq becomes almost irrelevant. It might save a few hundred
American lives, but it is not going to make America any safer.

This is an enemy that cannot be defeated, simply because it cannot be precisely


located. This is an enemy that does not need millions of dollars of sophisticated
equipment; just a few dozen ‘martyrs’ with bombs strapped to their chests. This is
an enemy that does not wear uniforms; but moves invisibly and may, even now, be
among us. All the West can do, really, is rely on its vigilance – and on
providence.