Whenever the subject of Islam and “reform” is brought up, as it often is these days, there is always one particular subject that is brought up far more than any other: jihad. It has always fascinated me how much just this one concept has permeated modern pop culture so thoroughly, from right-wing media’s ominous talk on “violent young jihadis emerging in the West” to the perpetual Hollywood stereotype of the hyperviolent Arab man, brandishing a machine gun as he chants incoherently about Allah. Point being, there is no use in not talking about jihad anymore; it’s here, and it’s here to stay. The discussion around jihad, whether they involve non-Muslims or “authority-approved” Muslims is perpetual and unchanging, with the same tired points, and the same tired narratives being driven home again and again: Muslims must unequivocally reject violent forms of jihad, which under no circumstances can exist in the peaceful, modern society of today, modern-day terrorism is undoubtedly an accurate representation of jihad, and any Muslim who dares to believe in the validity of jihad is merely a stepping stone away from performing the hijrah to Syria, and must be considered an active threat to the state. Jihad, after all, is the perfect symbol of the alleged brutality of the Islamic tradition: war in the name of God. The renouncement of jihad, then, is the final step that must be implemented to “fix” Islam, to make it compatible with modernity, and to assimilate Muslims into the West, once and for all. And inch by inch, after having had the very foundations of our deen chipped away at for years, Muslims are beginning to accept this under the misguided politics of integration into the aforementioned “peaceful, modern society”.
But what is “peaceful, modern society”? We live in a culture that is simultaneously horrified by violence, priding itself on its supposed removal from modern life, yet is continuously entranced by it. From our deification of the military, to our media’s obsession with blood (“If it bleeds, it leads”), we bear the hallmarks of a society discomfited by its deep-seated fixation with bloodshed. Even our modern preoccupation with the superhero genre betrays our addiction to violence– we don’t like Captain America because he signs peace agreements with the Nazis, we like him because he punches Hitler in the face. It is true that as a species we may be inherently good, but we are not inherently peaceful. Again and again, we murder, we commit atrocities, and again and again we weep, “Never Again!”. And yet we do do so again, over and over with no end in sight. Without divine guidance to control our desires, mankind falls to the level of the animals. But it is our ability to accept guidance, to turn to a higher power, that makes us superior. Without it what are we left with?
And thus lies the true irony of the Western call to secularize jihad, one that demands the destruction of a noble tradition of just war waged in righteousness, protecting non-combatants, to be replaced by utter barbarity, the kind of cruelty in which men in darkened rooms navigate machines to blast apart innocent schoolchildren millions of miles away as “collateral damage”.
But of course, the West does not want Muslims to adopt its own concept of war and retribution, the West does not want Muslims to adopt any form of retaliation, because it (rightly) fears that if we do, Muslims will begin organizing militarily and begin, for once and for all, to root out the systemic Western occupation and presence that has been crushingly felt in the Muslim world, topple the secular dictators, junta leaders, and monarchs that have been imposed there by the West and have ruled in tyranny, and reinstitute a true Islamic government, spanning the entire Muslim world, and ruling with justice and fairness towards all. They almost quake in their boots imagining such an occurrence, utterly terrified at the mere possibility that their multiple century-spanning imperialist project might come to an end. And so they feed generations of Muslims repulsive myths about jihad and martyrdom, anesthetizing them from the basics of Islam. They attack and defame groups like Hamas, not merely for their (admittedly troubling) human rights record, but for their very right to rebel against the Israeli regime. How dare they attempt to fight back against the nation that drove them, and continues to drive them, off their land, the typical reply goes, turning an all too convenient blind eye at the oppression, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid perpetuated by their partners in Western civilization. The response to jihad in the Western tradition is the same as its response to all Islamic values that clash with its imperialist ambitions: Pacify, secularize, modernize, neuter, and erase.
And it is because of all of this that I now firmly say that pacifism is nothing less than a tool of subjugation by the powerful to manipulate the oppressed: Be peaceful, be calm, dialogue rationally, and always go to bed contented with the way things are. Despotism is like the rising tide of an ocean, either you actively fight against it or you will be carried along with it whether you like it or not. By contrast, pacifism is a fundamentally selfish ideology that prizes maintaining a fictional state of innocence over combating injustice. Pacifism does not possess the power to enact revolutionary change, because it is inherently anti-revolutionary. When Muslims capitulate to the demands of the West to prove their loyalty, when they strive to “Americanize” Islam to make us no different than our secular neighbors, when they give their bay’ah to presidents and leaders in events like the National Prayer Breakfast and other civic religion-promoting affairs, they destroy the faith from the inside by making us subservient to a disbelieving government that actively attacks us, all in the name of a very one-sided “peace”.
It is nothing less than a humiliation unto our deen that we have accepted this deformation of one of our religion’s great traditions, attempting to excise the entire concept of physical jihad from our holy scripture. All jihad is, we are told, is a struggle for the sake of goodness, which while correct, is hardly the whole story. Gradually, the term will be warped even further, to define any struggle that fits a Liberal, earthly standard of good: the jihad to get better grades, the jihad to get a promotion at work. One wonders what may come next if we continue to play along with the Liberal dictum of good being derived from self-benefit– the jihad to score more dates, the jihad to obtain yet more wealth. It’s repulsive, a tragedy. I can almost see the Messenger (sws) himself, weeping at what has occurred.
Now, if it is the task of explaining jihad to a non-Muslim audience we are worried about, this is really not difficult at all, though it may at first seem that way: The notion of a physical fight to stamp out injustice and make superior the good isn’t merely an Islamic value, it’s a universal one. We now live in a time when dying in the cause of secular nationalism is considered heroic, yet martyrdom for the cause of God is considered horrific. How? How can sacrificing your life for a scrap of cotton be superior to sacrificing it for the Lord himself? So if an American can feel honor at the sight of troops marching off to fight an invasive war, thousands of miles away, he should surely be able to respect the notion of an army, sent out to ward off injustice and oppression. And if a Christian can worship Isa (sws) for sacrificing himself on the cross, they can understand the honor bestowed in getting to lay down one’s life in martyrdom for the deen.
It has begun to occur to me that the concept of jihad may just be the last stand of the Islamic tradition in the West from being turned into yet another wing of the Great American Religion. The fact that there is indeed a Great Religion in this supposedly secular land is incontrovertible, it spans the nation, from sea to shining sea, the God of Abraham (sws) made subservient by its feet: The Founding Fathers are its prophets, presidents its holy men. The flag is its cross, and its god is Freedom. Freedom to sin, to commit evil, to lie, to backbite, to steal. Freedom to live lives of gross hedonism and sloth. Jihad is thus unwanted by the modern world precisely because it rebels at the very nature of this belief, for it exists precisely to drive back against these forces of tyranny and evil, by the heart, pen, and especially the sword.
“Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.” (Quran 2:216)
“Indeed, Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties [in exchange] for that they will have Paradise. They fight in the cause of Allah , so they kill and are killed. [It is] a true promise [binding] upon Him in the Torah and the Gospel and the Quran. And who is truer to his covenant than Allah? So rejoice in your transaction which you have contracted. And it is that which is the great attainment.” (Quran 9:111)
“Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.” (Quran 2:190)