So here we are again. On the 22nd of March, just months after the carnage in Paris, the world was witness to another round of savagery, as innocent men, women and children were massacred at an airport in Brussels. The body count at the time of writing is 31. ISIS has taken credit for the attack.
At this point, I hope I do not need to tell you what the reaction of the world has been. If you are curious, just take the time to look up what your favorite public figure had to say about Paris in November, and it should fit quite nicely for Brussels. It’s quite possible the world has run out of original things to say about terrorism. One narrative you often hear is that the perpetrators of such attacks are not “true” Muslims or that they have twisted the faith to fit political goals. I want to convince you that this narrative is a lie.
Islamists are Muslims who seek to impose Islam on all aspects of public life, often through acts of violence. Not all Muslims are Islamists. What I will be critiquing in this article are either Islamists or Islamic ideology, by which I mean the scriptures of Islam (the Quran and Hadith) and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.
There is a misunderstanding about what motivates Islamists. And how this is possible I cannot fathom, as Islamists are telling the world, ad nauseam, what motivates them. This point will be made clear with a couple of examples. Here is ISIS on its use of sex slaves:
“Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided…amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam”
ISIS argues that not only did the Prophet endorse sex slavery, but that to reject his actions and words is to reject Islam. Boko Haram, the ISIS-affiliated group, also makes this argument in defense of sex slavery. And when one reads the Surahs, there is very little there to split hairs about theologically. In no uncertain terms, God permits the Prophet to “lawfully” possess wives who are prisoners of war (33:50-51, 4:24).
The act of sex slavery is not the only crime defended by Islamic ideology and, consequently, Islamists. In defense of suicide attacks, the Taliban also borrows from the Quran (2:207):
“And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah: And Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees.”
This line, they claim, is God’s sanction of martyrdom, which becomes all the more necessary in defense of the faith. The edict seems to have had an effect. According to the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, since 2002, Muslims have committed 87% of the suicide attacks in the world when the religion of the perpetrator is definitively known.
Speaking of jihad, scripture is once again the justification of holy war within Islamist circles. Read the letter which was attached to secular filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s mutilated body. To justify both van Gogh’s murder and the threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Islamists make explicit reference to the Quran (80:34-42) and cite a “war against Islam.” This letter states that the “blood of martyrs” will bring Islam to victory.
What all these examples have in common is the confession of an explicitly religious motivation. This is key to understanding what drives Islamists and what kinds of attacks to expect in the future. That is not to say that all or even most Muslims adhere literally to their religious texts. Clearly, the majority of nominal or moderate Muslims interpret their religious documents peacefully. And this is a good thing.
Yet far too many still live in the shadow of Islamic dogma. And this is a problem. If you are still dubious, I encourage you to look up the Pew polls which show, among other things, that 74 percent of Muslims in the Middle East believe that Sharia should be official law, and, of those, 56 percent believe the death penalty is the proper punishment for leaving Islam.
Some will say that Islamists do not really believe their doctrine, and are motivated by geopolitical disputes or economic disparity. This has a kernel of truth. Islamists will often claim certain terrestrial motivations. But behind these claims, there is always the backdrop of theological conflict.
For instance, one of ISIS’ principle gripes is the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, dividing much of the Middle East between the French and British Mandates without consideration of religion. But why was the arbitrary division of the Levant such a problem in the first place? Many, myself included, would say that the Europeans did not realize the pre-existing theological disputes in the area, and thus did not foresee the years of sectarian violence which would arise as a consequence. One hardly needs to explain the extent to which religion underpins this “political” conflict.
But the explanation I just gave is not exactly the concern raised by ISIS. According to ISIS, the agreement was a problem because it put borders on Islam. The Christian crusaders had no right to split up “Muslim Land,” never mind that this territory was home to millions of non-Muslims. And once again, the same language and reasoning is used by other Islamist groups, such as Al-Qaeda. Here is what Osama Bin Laden had to say in defense of 9/11:
“For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places…turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.”
This is the language of someone who sees the world as a collection of religious domains in conflict. Thus we see how Islamists view even ostensibly political grievances (European Imperialism, the U.S. presence in Arabia) in terms of religious affiliation.
Why do we doubt the religious motivations of Islamists? When Christians speak against gay rights, who among us doubts that they are doing so primarily for religious reasons? Who claims that they’re “not true Christians” when they quote Leviticus? Oftentimes, these people (e.g. members of the Westboro Baptist Church) are desperate to quote verses from their texts, and oftentimes they’re supported by a literal reading of their texts. Yes, the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination (Leviticus 20:13). Yes, the penalty for apostasy is death in Islam, according to Sahih al-Bukhari 4:52:260. Yes, the Quran condones slavery (Quran 24:32).
It is grating when people use #prayforparis or #prayforbrussels. Religious piety is precisely what is killing our brothers and sisters. We can argue all we want about interpretations, but the bottom line is Islamists are driven by their faith and the scriptures do not explicitly contradict them.
None of the terrorist acts committed by Islamists makes sense without religious motivation. Political oppression does not explain the murder of aid workers, or the attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the killing of Theo van Gogh, or the destruction of world heritage sites and national treasures at the hands of ISIS. Disabuse yourself of the notion that the principles of Islam (the Quran, the Hadith, and the example of the Prophet) are unequivocally peaceful. And disabuse yourself of the notion that people do not actually believe in these principles.
We find ourselves in an ideological war with the religious doctrine driving these fanatics to action. Not just the interpretation offered by religious fundamentalists. We are at war with the principle that any book is sacred. We are at war with the idea that any man is more than a man. We are at war with the notions of martyrdom, jihad and the ummah, which serve to divide our world into sectarian communities divided along religious lines. And we are at war with the example of the Prophet and his empire, who spread the faith with the sword and committed atrocities on their path to world domination. This is a war we can ill afford to lose, and the sooner we acknowledge its existence, the sooner the fighting can begin in earnest.