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Jihad and Academicians

Reader comment on item: Jihad and the Professors

Submitted by Jean E. Rosenfeld (United States), Dec 27, 2002 at 12:25

I have just presented my second paper on the religion of bin Ladin. The first was delivered at UCLA in November, 2001. I used documentary sources, many of them generated by the al-Qaida sect. My purpose as a historian is not to spin the data, but to listen to the data.

Jihadism is like Christian Identity and Jewish ultramessianism. In each of the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism today, fundamentalism has seized the moment in a widespread reaction to secularism and the disappointment following from the establishment of states according to non-traditional boundaries set by empires or commercial powers. After centuries of colonialism, ethnic groups are attempting to return to old myths and boundaries, which is the essence of religion as humans have always practiced it. Look at Genesis. It is a genealogy that accounts for founders and the territories they claimed. On this oral tradition, stories were woven like patterns in a tapestry. But it is the genealogies that matter. Myth (story), names (which evoke power and identity), and boundaries (claim to land via eponymous ancestors) are the basic building blocks of religion, which is the concrete expression of culture and kinship.

Having discarded these ancient phenomena that bind humans together in community, secular institutions, including the civil state, have failed, after a century of the "terrors of history," according to the fundamentalists. The fundamentalist movements use selected proof texts, re-interpreted, and applied to current events, regarded as "signs" foretold. Thus, apocalypticism also is rampant in all three fundamentalist movements.

Each fundamentalist movement has thrown off extremist edge groups: Christian Identity (which has adopted the Phineas priest myth), ultramessianism (which claims Israel's purported ancestral (Davidic) territory), and Jihadism (a form of Salafism that is centered on Q. 9:5 and the reinterpretation of one hadith that has generated a myth of the "saved sect").

Each one of these edge groups has justified, mandated even, violence as a religious imperative, based on its heterodox reinterpretations of selected religious scriptures.

To argue that "jihad" has always been interpreted as al-Qaida interprets it (see Abdullah Azzam) is a distortion. Reuven Firestone has examined the early Medinan community and reasonably argues that the roots of the differences between those who interpret jihad as an exclusively bellicose virtue and those who do not lie in the Medinan factions of early Islam. As you note, there is now so much diversity among Muslims that one cannot reasonably argue that jihad has only one meaning. Those who do not intepret jihad as do the jihadists are in the majority and they are not deceiving themselves. Christians who do not accept the Identity version of an eternal warrior priesthood that punishes those who engage in "race-mixing" are not misguided, but mainstream. Jews who do not accept the notion that Israel must actualize its claim to all the land between Egypt and "the River," expelling all the "Canaanites" in the process, are not a majority of Jews. These are rabid, sectarian aberrations, not the norm.

To simplify "jihad" as perpetual bellicosity is inaccurate. To adopt the "saved sect's" view of jihad as the historical view is to read history backward. The "saved sect" is a myth of an elite that is rejected and stigmatized by its own community. Out of 73 sects only one is the saved sect, only one goes to heaven, only one is the true Muslim vanguard. Thus, do the jihadists rationalize their marginal status.

I do not argue that Judaism is imbued with "holy war" (haram) because a few ultramessianists believe so. I do not argue that Christianity is engaged in the "cleansing" of Jews and minorities from society because Identity heretics do so. And I do not argue that jihad is only "holy war" [sic] because a misguided terrorist elite do so. Were I to do so, I would be distorting the data.

Nor do I have blinders on where al-Qaida is concerned. It is a virulent, violent, recalcitrant religious heterodoxy that must be eliminated. However, the way to eliminate it is to eliminate recruits. The ideas that propel it will never disappear, but always exist as a possibility for others to actualize. One cannot fight ideas only with a militant response. Religion is the most conservative part of culture, language, and identity. One must marginalize the "saved sect" by trumping it with other ideas and by exposing it as heterodoxy within the Islamic tradition.

Your argument that jihadists represent the historical meaning of jihad will accomplish the opposite, strangely by legitimizing its authenticity. Firestone's scholarship, on the other hand, demonstrates that the simple view is reductionist and a reading of the present in the past. Accepting the manhaj of al-Qaida is only a means of perpetuating their views to future generations. Exposing the diversity of views in historical Islam can defuse the jihadi fundamentalist spin.

Religion is, inter alia, a process of intepretation.

Jean E. Rosenfeld
Historian of religions
UCLA Center for the Study of Religion
Submitting....

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