We’re all familiar with the routine by now. A terrorist attack occurs. Hours later, the world learns the identity of the attacker (or, the identities of the attackers). Then comes the inevitable question, “What was the motive for the attack?”
Sometimes a general consensus is quickly reached. Few disagree, for instance, that Anders Breivik was motivated by xenophobia and ultranationalism when he killed 77 fellow Norwegians in 2011, or that anti-Muslim bigotry propelled Darren Osborne to plow his car into a crowd of Muslims near the Finsbury Park Mosque in London in June 2017.
Yet other times, particularly when the perpetrators are Muslims, such a consensus becomes elusive. Suddenly the motive becomes complicated, if not opaque altogether. We’re told that the attackers could have been influenced by any number of factors, and for some — including many journalists, pundits, social scientists, terrorism experts, and even heads of state — there is one factor that likely did not, or even could not, play a role: Islam.
A week after the Westminster attack in March 2017, Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept proffered this argument in an article with the unequivocal title, “You Shouldn’t Blame Islam for Terrorism. Religion Isn’t a Crucial Factor in Attacks.” According to Hasan, Islam is not the “main motivation” in Muslim terror attacks, and if the attackers do cite religion as an influence, it is because they are “cynically appealing to Islamic motifs or doctrines” that provide “a ready-made justification” for their violence.
As Hasan has argued before, Muslim terrorism is best understood as a political phenomenon. A week after the 2013 murder of British Army soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, for instance, Hasan wrote in the New Statesman that “Muslim extremists usually cite political, not theological, justifications for their horrendous crimes.” As evidence, Hasan cites the words of Michael Adebolajo, one of the two men who killed Rigby: “The only reason we killed this man…is because Muslims are dying daily.”
But Hasan omits (because his argument depends on ignoring half of what jihadists say) Adebolajo’s multiple references to Islam during his 80-second on-camera rant. “By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone,” he said, his blood-soaked hands holding two blood-soaked knives. “So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands?” And, clearly providing a religious justification for his act, Adebolajo said, “We are forced by the Qur’an in Surat at-Tawba [the ninth chapter of the Qur’an], through many many ayat [verses] throughout the Qur’an, that we must fight them as they fight us.”
Adebolajo’s statements indicate that we shouldn’t understand Muslim terrorists’ motives, contra Hasan et al., as being either political or religious. Rather, we should recognize that according to their worldview, the two domains are inseparable. Simply put, their theological convictions inform their political beliefs.
That Adebolajo was not just “cynically” using Islam as an “excuse” is evident by looking at the ten years that preceded his assassination of Rigby. Consider these biographic details: after enrolling at Greenwich University in London in 2003, Adebolajo began mingling with Islamists, including members of al-Muhajiroun (a group once co-led by the infamous Anjem Choudary, recently found guilty of inviting support for the Islamic State); in 2006, Adebolajo participated in a demonstration outside the trial of Mizanur Rahman, who had called for “another 9/11” in countries “all over Europe” in response to the publication of the Danish cartoons caricaturing Muhammad; in 2009, Adebolajo attended a protest of the English Defense League and implored those in attendance to convert to Islam; and a year later, Adebolajo was apprehended and returned to the United Kingdom after attempting to emigrate to Somalia, where, he told authorities, he hoped to live under Islamic law (and allegedly tried to join the militant group al-Shabaab). Clearly, Islam was not an inconsequential factor in Abebolajo’s radicalization or, as we saw, his justification for killing Rigby.
And Adebolajo’s story is not a one-off. Countless Muslim terrorists have demonstrated that their political grievances and terrorist acts are inspired by a sincere belief in a radical — albeit plausible — interpretation of Islam. Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, wrote a four-page letter to his co-conspirators drenched with references to martyrdom and the glory awaiting them in paradise. (“Be happy, optimistic, calm because you are heading for a deed that God loves and will accept,” Atta instructed the attackers. “It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise.”) The note left by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the boat in which he hid from authorities after the Boston Marathon bombing likewise contained numerous references to Allah, Muhammad, the hereafter, and a religious duty to exact revenge. (“[Y]ou hurt one you hurt us all,” he wrote, adding, “well at least that’s how Muhammad (pbuh) wanted it to be.”) And two individuals who appeared in the 2016 British documentary presciently entitled The Jihadis Next Door later went on to commit acts of terror: one, Abu Rumaysah, became an executioner for ISIS, and another, Khuram Shazad Butt, led the group of terrorists that carried out the London Bridge attack in June 2017.
Of course, Hasan and fellow members of the “it’s-not-Islam” crowd will argue that these terrorists have followed a perverted version of Islam, a religion that ultimately teaches peace and tolerance. But an honest reading of Islam’s most revered and influential texts — including the Qur’an, hadiths (collections of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad), the biographies of Muhammad, and tafaseer (exegeses or commentaries by respected Islamic scholars) — indicates that Islamists, jihadists, and even terrorists are following coherent interpretations of the religion.
Consider, for instance, Islamists’ desire to establish a religious state and resurrect the once vast caliphate. (The final iteration of the caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, was abolished in 1924, shortly after which Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood emerged.) Verse 18:26 of the Qur’an says that Allah “shares not His legislation with anyone,” and verse 4:59 declares, “Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day.” It ought not be any surprise, then, that the Pew Research Center in 2013 found that in numerous Muslim-majority countries, more than half of those polled were in favor of making shari’a the law of the land, and that there is strong support for amputating the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, and executing apostates — punishments laid out in the Qur’an and hadith.
Though many Muslims agree on the desirability and even necessity of establishing a religious state, there is a difference of opinion as to whether violent means can be used towards this end. Some groups — we’ll call them Islamist groups — abstain from using violence to advance the cause of theocracy, while other groups — we’ll call them jihadist groups — condone and use violence. And though, of course, most Muslims oppose the behavior of groups like ISIS, many jihadists are remarkably careful about grounding their beliefs and actions on internally consistent interpretations of Islam’s revered texts.
Some argue that violence can be used to restore religious rule in territory once controlled by Muslims that has ceased to be sufficiently governed by Islamic law. Indeed, al-Qaeda attacked Saudi Arabia and called for its monarchy to be deposed for this reason, as members of the ruling family had become “false Muslims” with their decision to station American troops on Saudi land during and after the Gulf War, contrary to Muhammad’s deathbed injunction that “there not be two religions in Arabia.”
One verse that supports this argument is 5:50, which reads, “Is it the judgment of [the time of] ignorance they desire? But who is better than Allah in judgment for a people who are certain [in faith]?” The respected medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir, a student of the proto-Wahhabi thinker Ibn Taymiyyah, interpreted this verse to mean that “The Most High rejects those who, turning away from Allah’s decrees, which encompass all good and forbid all evil, stray toward the opinions, whims, and traditions of men without support from the shari’a of Allah.” Ibn Kathir then added — clearly legitimizing rebellion against secular rulers and the reimposition of theocracy — that “whosoever does this…is an infidel who needs to be fought till he submits to the Commandment of Allah and his Messenger, so that he reigns in evil for the shortest amount of time.”
There are, of course, tolerant and peaceful verses in the Qur’an — verses that seem to prescribe a “live and let live” ethic and that permit violence and warfare only for the sake of self defense. Verse 2:256, for instance, famously says that there is “no compulsion” in religion, and verse 2:190 says, “Do not transgress. Indeed, Allah does not like transgressors.” However, the doctrine of abrogation (based on several verses in the Qur’an) dictates that if two verses conflict, the verse that was uttered later in time (not in the Qur’an itself, which is not organized chronologically) abrogates or supersedes the earlier verse. The belligerent verses that came toward the end of Muhammad’s prophetic career — when the Muslims’ military and political power were ascendant — thus override the more tolerant and dovish verses.
Though some scholars insist that Muhammad practiced only defensive warfare, others argue that Muhammad waged offensive campaigns and sanctioned aggressive warfare against nonbelievers, especially in the last years of his life. Some contend that the battle of Khaybar in 628 was offensive in nature, as well as the battle of Mut’ah in 629 and the subsequent march on the Byzantines at Tabuk. It was in the run-up to the Tabuk expedition that Muhammad spoke verse 9:29, which arguably abrogated the verses preaching tolerance and nonaggression. “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture,” it reads. “[Fight] until they give the jizyah [protection tax] willingly while they are humbled.” (Some argue that the “sword verse,” 9:5, abrogated more than 100 tolerant and peaceful verses, but others argue — I think, convincingly — that this particular verse relates only to pagans who had violated their treaty with the Muslims.)
Other statements from Islam’s revered texts also lend themselves to justifying the use of violence to spread and coerce submission to the one true faith. For example, the two most trusted hadith collections (those of Bukhari and Muslim) testify to Muhammad declaring, “I have been commanded to battle mankind until they declare that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” And the renowned medieval Muslim scholar and Islamic jurist Ibn Khaldun wrote, “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation) to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. Therefore, caliphate and royal authority are united in Islam, so that the person in charge can devote the available strength to both of them at the same time.”
The verses, hadith, and commentaries cited above all provide a firm theological basis for Islamists’ desire to legislate and enforce shari’a and jihadists’ use of violence to topple secular regimes and establish a religious state. But this still leaves us with the issue of Islamic terrorism, including why it is carried out and how the terrorists justify killing civilians — and even themselves.
As the statements by Tsarnaev and Adebolajo attest, many Muslims terrorists see their attacks as a legitimate (even compulsory) form of defensive jihad: their killing of civilians in the West is payback (or “blowback”) for Western governments killing Muslims in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
At first glance, one might see a purely secular, even reasonable ethical principle at play here, but the doctrine of defensive jihad is fundamentally religious: it is predicated on Muslim solidarity — on Muslims fighting on behalf of fellow Muslims. And, importantly, the terrorists’ sympathy is evidently not for all Muslims (as Muslims are often among their victims), but often only for the righteous Muslims who share their goal of establishing a religious state. Recall, for instance, that Adebolajo attempted to flee to Somalia in order to live under Islamic law and possibly tried to join al-Shabaab (a group linked to al-Qaeda) before he assassinated Rigby, and recall that Abu Rumaysah became an executioner for ISIS, a group whose primary victims are fellow Muslims whose lack of devotion to Islam and the caliphate makes them kuffar (infidels) and thus legitimate targets of jihad and terrorism.
In other words, terrorist attacks cannot be viewed as distinct from the jihadists’ goal of toppling secular regimes and creating a pan-Islamic state. Osama bin Laden explained the singular purpose behind al-Qaeda’s attacks on the Muslim world and the West this way in his “letter to America” in 2002: “The removal of these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Ummah, to make the Shariah the supreme law and to regain Palestine. And our fight against these governments is not separate from our fight against you” [emphasis added]. And in a 2016 article entitled “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You” published in its magazine Dabiq, ISIS explained that it hates and fights the West, first and foremost, not because of its foreign policy but because of its disbelief. “The gist of the matter is that there is indeed a rhyme to our terrorism, warfare, ruthlessness, and brutality,” the article explains. “We have been commanded to fight the disbelievers until they submit to the authority of Islam, either by becoming Muslims, or by paying jizyah — for those afforded this option — and living in humiliation under the rule of the Muslims.”
While the religious motivation for terrorist attacks is often clear, what is less obvious is their religious justification.
Undoubtedly, terrorism is controversial in Islam. First, there is the controversy over the deliberate killing of civilians, which is repudiated by many leading Islamic scholars. Yet some have attempted to justify the killing of innocent civilians by redefining what it means to be “innocent.” One hadith from Bukhari seems to lend credence to this mode of justification. According to this hadith, Muhammad once used catapults — weapons that could strike women and children just as easily as they could strike infidels — while laying siege to the town of Ta’if. When Muhammad was asked about why catapults could be used if noncombatants could be hurt, he is recorded as saying, “They [women and children] are from among them [infidels].”
Some modern thinkers have seized on and applied this rationale to justify terrorist attacks on civilians. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, one of the most influential Islamic scholars in the world, has argued that Israeli women and children can be targeted because of Israel’s law mandating a stint of military service (even though many potential conscripts are granted exemptions). And al-Qaeda has argued that attacking Western civilians is justified because of their collective political support for governments that engage in hostilities in Muslim lands.
There is also the controversy over the killing of fellow Muslims. While verse 4:93 says “whoever kills a believer — his recompense is Hell,” what it means to be a “believer” is, like the word “innocent,” open to interpretation. According to Bukhari, Muhammad once said, “When a person calls his brother (in Islam) a disbeliever, one of them will certainly deserve the title. If the addressee is so as he has asserted, the disbelief of the man is confirmed, but if it is untrue, then it will revert to him.” In other words, according to this hadith, even un-Islamic behavior such as falsely accusing a believer of disbelief can cause a Muslim to lapse into infidelity.
Takfir — the declaration that a Muslim is not a true believer — has a long tradition in Islam, dating back to the Sunni-Shi’a split and the Kharijites of the seventh century. It was used most notoriously by Ibn Taymiyyah, who argued in several fatwas around the year 1300 that Muslim Mamluk troops could engage in battle against the invading Mongols despite their leader’s recent conversion to Islam. The Mongols, Ibn Taymiyyah claimed, were not true Muslims because of the influence of Shi’ite and Mongol beliefs and customs on their society. In recent decades, jihadist groups have used takfir as a justification for killing self-professed Muslims, both troops and civilians.
Finally, there is the controversy over suicide terrorism — whether Muslims can kill themselves while attacking the enemy. At first glance, it appears that Islam prohibits such actions. Indeed, verse 4:29 says, “And do not kill yourselves.” However, other verses and some hadith qualify this message to the point of ambiguity, if not outright contradiction.
Verse 4:74, for example, encourages martyrdom by promising “a great reward” to those who “fight in the cause of Allah” and “sell the life of this world for the Hereafter.” And multiple hadith indicate that Muhammad approved of fighters entering battle against overwhelming odds, even if their death was all but certain. According to one Muhammad said, “In order that the people have a livelihood, it is best that they have a man who holds on to the reins of his horse, battling in the way of Allah. He flies upon [his horse’s back] every time he hears the call or alarm, wishing for death or expecting to be slain.” It is no surprise then that the respected medieval Cordoban scholar al-Qurtubi wrote that “There is no wrong for a man to single-handedly attack a mighty army — if he seeks martyrdom — provided he has the fortitude.” (Verse 2:154 also can be read in a way that justifies suicide attacks. “And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah, ‘They are dead,'” it reads. “Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [it] not.” One could argue that, according to this verse, such attacks are legitimate because the attacker’s suicide is not real — only apparent.)
The excerpts and analyses above laying out the religious bases of Islamism, jihadism, and terrorism serve several purposes.
First, they undermine specious arguments about the motives of Muslim terrorists. Yes, these terrorists do harbor political grievances against Western powers. But these grievances derive from their religious beliefs — beliefs about the mandate to establish a religious state, the duty to fight those who oppose them, and the legitimacy of targeting noncombatants. They also indicate that jihadists do not merely use religion as “a cover” for their actions — as a contrived post hoc justification. And they have not obviously hijacked or perverted what is a self-evidently peaceful religion. Rather, they are arguably living out an extreme yet learned and even plausible interpretation of the faith.
Second, they undercut facile arguments about Islam and its connection to religious violence. Some argue, for instance, that Islam cannot be a cause of jihadist and terrorist violence because throughout its 1,400-year history, not all Muslims have exhibited such behavior. As Fareed Zakaria put it in an op-ed in 2014, “You can never explain a variable phenomenon with a fixed cause. So, if you are asserting that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant — ‘the mother lode of bad ideas’ — then, since Islam has been around for 14 centuries, we should have seen 14 centuries of this behavior.”
But Zakaria’s argument doesn’t hold up, as Islam is not a “single cause.” (Are we not often told by people like Zakaria that Islam is not a monolith?) This is because Islam is a decentralized religion, with various madhhabs (or schools of jurisprudence) and no universally accepted leader. Thus, one can view the different interpretations of Islam as distinct “causes” or “variables,” and there is undoubtedly a strong positive correlation between a subscription to radical interpretations of the religion and the phenomenon of Muslim violence.
A variation of this argument is that Islam cannot be to blame because most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims reject jihadist forms of violence such as suicide bombing. This argument is similarly flawed. That most of the world’s Muslims repudiate groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS does not mean that Islam is inherently peaceful, or that Islam cannot be a motive for terrorists. After all, this would be equivalent to saying that Catholicism does not preach the sinfulness of contraception because most Catholics condone the use of birth control. A religion’s teachings are not determined by what a plurality or majority of a religion’s adherents believe or do.
Some argue that simply pointing out the connection between Islam and religious violence is offensive to Muslims. But that is only true if one equates the criticism of beliefs and an assessment of their real-world effects with the believers themselves. In other words, this argument fallaciously conflates the criticism of beliefs with the criticism of — or bigotry toward — people. The former, however, does not necessitate or justify the latter. As Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz have eloquently put it, “In an open society, no idea can be above scrutiny, just as no people should be beneath dignity.”
Some nevertheless argue that exposing the genuine theological roots of Islamism, jihadism, and terrorism is dangerous because it “plays into the hands” of groups like ISIS by “endorsing the narrative” that the West is at war with Islam.
But as Harris has pointed out in his criticism of the “narrative narrative,” this argument rests on a bizarre assumption: apparently, merely stating that there is a connection between radical interpretations of Islam and jihadist violence is enough to anger, alienate, and radicalize Muslims to the point that they might themselves turn violent. Do those who recommend political correctness and self-censorship not see that they are assuming that some Muslims are so insecure and volatile that merely identifying a causal link between Islamic doctrines and violence is enough to “drive them into ISIS’s arms?” (About what other ideology or group is this said? Where are the leftists and liberals demanding that we not scrutinize conservative Christian beliefs or the tenets of white nationalism for fear of radicalizing their followers?) This unique protection of and deference toward Islam is an example of the bigotry that many claim they are resisting: namely, the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Finally, there is a practical benefit to establishing the connection between militant interpretations of Islam and Islamism, jihadism, and terrorism. Grasping this connection is essential to understanding the beliefs and motivations of the radical groups at odds not just with the West, but with civilization itself. We should pay attention when ISIS declares, “We will never stop hating you until you embrace Islam, and will never stop fighting you until you’re ready to leave the swamp of warfare and terrorism through the exits we provide, the very exits put forth by our Lord for the People of the Scripture: Islam, jizyah, or — as a last means of fleeting respite — a temporary truce.”
It is words like these that should guide our strategy in the long-term battle against groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and others that share their ends and means. Yes, the West and its allies will be hated and even attacked for thwarting these groups’ irredentist and imperialistic ambitions. But we should wear this hatred with pride, unite against these common civilizational enemies, and defeat these groups — ideologically and military. Mutual coexistence with these groups is as undesirable as it is impossible. Let us learn this lesson sooner rather than later.