International Security Studies
Why the Jihad is So Durable
This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Security Studies and Middle East Studies, the U.S. Army's Eisenhower National Security Series, and Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies was part of an ongoing series on terrorism and homeland security.
Steven Simon began the talk by noting the over determined nature of jihad. While he identified several contributing and interlocking causes of the jihadist phenomenon, Simon's remarks focused on seven conditions in particular: the deep roots of the revival movement; the connection between contemporary salafism and jihadism; the changing nature of clerical authority within Islam; the globalization of Muslim identity; the evolution of anti-Americanism among Muslims; the linkages between jihadism and patterns of social organization; and the continuing debate over killing civilians in the defense of Muslim interests and Islam.
Before addressing each of the seven conditions and assessing their impact on the durability of the jihad, Simon acknowledged that other conditions, such as demographics and the role of democracy, were also significant drivers of Muslim militancy. But, he cautioned, even if Muslims themselves or the United States were able to deal with one or another of these causes, success would not necessarily follow. Because these conditions are so numerous, complex and rooted, Simon argued, it is difficult to see how the actions of governments would be able to counter the jihad.
Tracing jihad's roots back to the Arab reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Simon explained how this period's Muslim revivalism and opposition to Western colonialism led to the emergence of several influential reform movements. One group of reformers who emerged during this period was the salafis. Taking their name from the righteous ancestors, the salaf al-salih, the salafis advocated a return to the teachings of Muhammed and modeled themselves on the practices of his earliest followers. Many jihadis draw on the writings of Sayyid Qutb who was one of the most influential salafi commentators of this period. Qutb saw America as fundamentally corrupt and antithetical to the Muslim world. In this sense, Simon said Qutb was that period's Solzhenitsyn. Qutbs' rejection of the West has become a popular critique among jihadists over the years.
Simon also addressed the connection between contemporary salafism and jihadism by noting that the jihadist tradition has important roots in ideas, many in the salafist worldview. But while salafists and jihadists may at times share the same environment, Simon was quick to point out that few salafists are jihadists. Salafists may be militant, Simon said, but they are not violent.
Simon argued that as a set of beliefs, salafism is focused on boundaries – boundaries between "us" and "them," women and men, good Muslims versus bad Muslims, and finally, Muslims versus non-Muslims. This focus on boundaries lends itself to feelings of security in insecure times which Simon noted many people find compelling.
The breakdown of clerical authority and their corresponding loss of control over the interpretation of scripture also contributed to the emergence of jihadists. As the clergy became more and more associated with corruption and were seen as puppets of the regime, their legitimacy became challenged and their function in society began to be co-opted by other voices.
The appearance of a global identity among Muslims is another contributing factor to the durability of the jihad, according to Simon. This emergence of a broad identification with one's Muslim self has both good points and bad. On the one hand, he said, it allows Muslims to share in a sense of accomplishment with their co-religionists; on the other, it can lead to a shared sense of trauma felt by Muslims around the world. The latter, Simon noted, was a factor in the Madrid and London terror attacks, where the attackers appear to have been motivated by the suffering of their fellow Muslims in Iraq.
Yet another contributing factor to the resilience of the jihad is the prevalence of anti-Americanism in the part of the world where the jihad thrives. Simon cited Osama bin Laden's 2002 "Letter to the Americans" as an example of the variety and breadth of anti-American rhetoric out there right now. He noted that the letter was striking in its absence of a distinct Islamic critique. Instead, Simon said the letter resembled secular critiques, at times drawing heavily from Soviet or European left-wing criticisms of America. While acknowledging that the popularity and durability of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world made it difficult, Simon said he believed there were ways to chip away at it and cited two examples. The American response to the 2004 tsunami was favorably perceived by Indonesians, Simon noted, because it was seen as an unconditional act, devoid of other motives. Similarly, the recent comments by an American Foreign Service officer on al-Jazeera television in which he said the U.S. had been both "stupid" and "arrogant" in occupying Iraq have been welcomed by many in the Muslim and Arab world. Simon said both received a good reception in the Muslim world because they showed people that Americans were not as arrogant as they previously thought.
Simon also identified the existence of "parallel societies" as a contributing factor to the durability of the jihad. Over the years, public frustration with state corruption in the Arab world has led to the emergence of informal networks of individuals who, in Simon's words, "know how to get things done." Simon cited the Middle Eastern financial transfer system, hawala, as one such example, and said jihadists had learned how to exploit organizations and individuals operating within these parallel societies.
Simon concluded by noting that an ongoing debate in salafi circles these days focused on what constituted a legitimate form of resistance and specifically, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. While acknowledging that the existence of a debate was a good thing, Simon appeared pessimistic about its outcome, saying the prevailing trend appeared to be toward widening the definition of a combatant.