Follies of Denial: Jihad and the Islamic State

03/26/2015 10:22 am ET | Updated May 26, 2015

Western leaders who deny the religious foundation of the jihadist group Islamic State are blind to its raison d'être, which is firmly grounded in Islamic texts and the concept of offensive jihad. Furthermore, models for militias such as Islamic State can be found in historic and contemporary jihads.

Foot soldiers of the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) may not be schooled in theology but their leaders have been rigorous in their observance of sharia law based on religious texts. Shared by all Sunni Muslims, these texts have provided IS and other jihadist groups with much of the inspiration to wage imperialist war. Their campaign of territorial expansion aims to restore transnational hegemony and sharia law structured on the ancient Muslim caliphate, and led by a ruler who claims ancestry from the Prophet.

Another major influence is attributed to Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, the foremost modern theorist of jihad. Qutb did not view jihad primarily as a defensive or spiritual struggle, but as an offensive assault that would spread Islam and unseat Muslim governments not committed to implementing sharia. He also advocated divine, rather than secular laws, and Islamic supremacism. Qutb's views were shaped by medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, who advocated a return to early Islam, and jihad waged against Muslims deemed unworthy or dissident.

Qutb was executed by Nasser's regime in 1966 but his ideology has endured in the development of modern radical Islam, transforming the grasshopper of domestic worship into the locust of politicized religion.

Wherever IS fighters migrate, they bring carnage and restrictions. Dissident Muslims have been executed. IS has enslaved infidel women, and enforced stoning, amputations, and punishments for homosexuality, apostasy, selling alcohol, wearing Western clothes and more. The militia persecutes religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims. Christians in Mosul were faced with three choices: conversion to Islam, execution, or payment of a high jizya tax, reserved for the dhimmi underclass. Christian homes in Mosul were marked with the Arabic letter N for Nasara, a historical term for Christians, and over 125,000 fled in fear. In Libya, IS recently beheaded 21 Coptic Christian hostages, causing thousands of Egyptian Copts to flee.

Apocalyptic ideas are part of the IS canon and are founded on Sunni texts that expound the looming End of Days. This era is thought to herald the advent of the messianic Mahdi, ordained to ensure triumph for Muslims. Luring the West into a conflagration would hasten his much anticipated arrival.

The uncompromising interpretation of IS might be fundamentalist and medieval but their exegesis has not been systematically and convincingly repudiated by religious scholars. Indeed, such authorities would risk being charged with apostasy.

History is replete with examples of violent jihads that aimed to extend Muslim sovereignty through conquest. These started with multiple military campaigns during the early centuries of Islam. Much later, jihads were aroused by European colonialism in North Africa, India and the Caucasus.

The medieval Order of the Assassins has provided the origin of the current word 'assassin' to describe a killer, and refers to a group that pursued a jihadist movement for about two hundred years. Formed toward the end of the 11th century and operating in various regions of Syria and Persia, they fought as jihadist warriors for supremacy amongst Muslims. Although a secret organization and a Shiite Ismaili sect, the Assassins, like IS, aimed to instill terror and gain submission through public executions.

In modern times, many Islamist militias have carried out jihadist insurgencies.
In Algeria, the government feared emergence of an elected Islamist regime in 1991, and cancelled further polls after the first round. A bloody civil war followed throughout the 1990s, when rebels allied to the Islamist Salvation Front maintained a jihad responsible for around 100,000 civilian deaths.

During the Sudanese civil wars, jihadi rhetoric and action have provided politically expedient instruments for the Islamist government to rule and oppress non-Muslims and dissident Muslims. Wars between the Muslim North and the Christian and animist South in 1955-72 and 1983-2005, claimed two million lives and displaced four million people.

In 1992, Bashir government forces attacked Muslim communities in the rebel-held Nuba Mountains of Kordofan and reportedly kidnapped and enslaved thousands as religiously sanctioned spoils of war. During the conflict in Darfur, the same government has used Islamic ideology to justify an onslaught against non-Arab Muslims, who accused the regime of oppression. The ongoing war has caused thousands of deaths, widespread rape and displacement.

Al Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabaab, is a Somali militia that imposes strict sharia in areas under its control. Since the early 1990s, activists in Somalia have raised funds in Western diaspora communities for jihadist propaganda and activity. Their profit from poaching elephants has been labeled "the white gold of jihad."

From 2012, Northern Mali was in the grip of Islamist militia Ansar Dine and several smaller groups, which enacted harsh sharia law. A coalition of forces led by France assisted the Malian army in ending most of the conflict in 2013, although jihadist attacks have continued.

According to researchers at Kings College London and the BBC, 16 jihadi groups were responsible for over 5,000 deaths in the month of November 2014. IS was responsible for 44 percent; the rest were carried out by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, and others, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, a rival of IS, in Syria. In this cauldron of violence, the number of new, competing jihadi groups continually rises, and some merge with others.

The connection between Islamist ideology and jihad follows a paradigm in line with previous onslaughts. Not recognizing the ideological association can lead to a false perception of Islamist militias as organizations of ignorant criminals, instead of acknowledging their successful military and economic strategies, stimulated by religious zeal. A notable IS achievement is evident in their recruitment of over 20,000 foreign fighters.

Another folly is the belief in a purely military solution to obliterate IS. This conviction ignores the self-righteous rage, religious fervor and anti-Westernization that inflames the region today, and find origins in the ideology of Sayyid Qutb, Abul Ala Maududi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Religion may help raise the flag of battle by Islamic State but it is not a precondition. In sectarian rivalry, Shia militias, some backed by Iran, have besieged Sunni villages in Iraq. These militias are poised to fill the vacuum if Sunni jihadists are overpowered. And Iraqi military units, some trained by the U.S., stand accused of human rights violations, after committing the same sort of atrocities as IS.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly claimed that Qutb was executed by Nasser's regime in 1996, when it was actually in 1966.