Radical Islam and the war on terror: do names matter?

Terror is not an ideology or a set of beliefs. It's not an organization, a government or a state against which one can wage war. Terror is a tactic

radical islam war on terrorPORTLAND, Ore. March 8, 2017 /Troy Media/ – In his first address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, Donald Trump uttered two words that no other American president has ever spoken publicly: “radical Islam.”

The statement was seen as a political victory for administration hardliners like adviser Steve Bannon and his protégé on the National Security Council, Sebastian Gorka.

But is there really a difference between the two terms? Does it matter?

The fact is, neither term is particularly instructive or useful.

Officially, George W. Bush first used the expression “war on terror” on Sept. 20, 2001, in an address to a joint session of Congress, following the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11. Unofficially, he made a similar remark on Sept. 16.

Ronald Reagan made reference to a “war on terrorism” in 1984, referring to the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corp barracks in Beirut in 1983.

In 2013, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. was no longer conducting a “war on terror,” but the expression has continued to be widely used.

Terror, as many have pointed out, is not an ideology or a set of beliefs. It’s not an organization, an institution, a government or a state against which one can wage war. Terror is a tactic. It’s a form of asymmetric warfare in which a weak player attempts to force a strong player to change behaviour by subjecting their combatants, institutions and civilian population to random acts of violence.

Terrorism requires only a small force and is relatively inexpensive.

Defending against it requires a much larger force and is far more expensive.

Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to find a lot of examples where a terror strategy causes a strong power to change its behaviour over the long-term.

The term “radical Islam” also has a relatively recent origin. It was first coined in January 1979, by Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson in reference to the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Initially, the term was used to refer to the policies pursued by the Khomeini government.

During the 1984 vice-presidential debate between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, Bush identified “radical Islam” as a threat to American interests. The reference, however, continued to be applied only to Iran.

By the late 1980s however, the term was used in the media to describe the rise of politically active groups, often committed to violent action, that espoused fundamentalist interpretations of the Qur’an.

In recent years, foreign policy hardliners have criticized the U.S. government for its unwillingness to use the term “radical Islam” as indicative of a reluctance to acknowledge the true nature of the threat to U.S. interests. The implication is that jihadist violence is an inherent consequence of the Islamic faith and that the two can’t be separated. In other words, Islamic radicalism and jihadist violence are synonymous.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations opted not to use the expression for fear that U.S. actions would be interpreted as a war against Islam and the world’s Muslim community, as opposed to being limited to those groups that were perpetrating acts of terror.

Neither definition is particularly useful or instructive.

The various jihadist organizations have three things in common:

  • They believe in a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the accompanying Sunnah and Hadith. The Sunnah refers to the religious practices established by Muhammad. The Hadith refers to comments made by Muhammad that were reported by his contemporaries and passed down orally.
  • They want to organize political, economic and social institutions in accordance with the practices that existed during the time of Muhammad and his immediate followers in the seventh and eighth centuries.
  • They want to impose their particular view of how society should be organized, by force, on Muslims and non-Muslims.

These jihadist groups are often described as Salafists. They are a small subset of a much larger Salafist community. Salafism is a religious movement advocating a return to the practices of the salaf or “devout ancestors.” The Salafist doctrine takes a fundamentalist, strict, puritanical, literal approach to Islam, based on emulating the practices of Muhammad and his first three generations of followers. The latter are called the al-salaf al-salih, “the pious forefathers.”

Salafism first emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century, and spread from there to Egypt and throughout the Muslim world. In Arabia, it gave rise to Wahhabism, to which it remains closely related. In Egypt, it inspired a number of anti-colonial movements, including most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.

Historically, Salafism has been characterized as apolitical and non-violent. Its emphasis was on proselytizing and education. These Salafists identified jihad with the personal purification of religious beliefs and practices rather than with violent actions against non-believers and the enemies of Islam. Increasingly, the Salafist movement has focused on political reform and the non-violent introduction of Sharia law.

The modern form of Salafist jihadism emerged in the mid-1980s in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the organization of Muslim groups from outside Afghanistan to resist it. Drawing inspiration from the mythology of Islamic military history, and the “divinely aided victories” at Yarmouk and Qadisiya, these jihadists believed that a return to religious orthodoxy would ensure God’s aid and a military victory against seemingly insurmountable odds. Arab jihadist claims that they were responsible for the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – a claim that had little substance – gave additional credence to this view.

These groups fused the belief in a literal interpretation of Islamic scriptures and the rejection of any metaphorical interpretations with the contention that insufficiently devout Muslims, including political leaders, could be proscribed and killed in defence and promotion of Islam. This definition of jihad focused on direct and violent action against the enemies of Islam and those branches of the Muslim faith, including Shias and Sufis, considered heretical.

In the eighth century, the Kharijites – a derogatory term now often used to described Salafist jihadists in Arab media – espoused many of the ideas of modern jihadists, including proscribing practising Muslims, revolting against leaders they deemed to have sinned and on the centrality of violent action. Such groups have recurred throughout Islamic history.

Today, there are approximately 60 well-organized Salafist jihadist groups, with a combined strength of 200,000 to 300,000 militants, not all active at one time. It’s estimated they’re actively supported by less than one per cent of the Muslim community, although that still could amount to around 10 million Muslims. It’s possible they have sympathizers well in excess of that, even though those supporters would be unlikely to involve themselves in violent action.

Although the vast majority of Salafists reject violent jihad, there’s no question that the spread of Salafism throughout the Muslim world has made it easier to radicalize some Salafists into joining jihadist groups. Since 1975, it’s estimated that the Saudi government has spent more than $100 billion and built more than 1,500 mosques and madrassas promoting Salafism. By comparison, in its heyday, the Soviet Union spent around $1 billion a year on its international propaganda efforts.

We’re not engaged in a war on terror or a struggle against radical Islam. We’re engaged in a struggle against the Salafist jihadist who wants to impose their views on how the rest of the world’s society should be organized.

It would be better if we dropped expressions like war on terror and radical Islam in favour of identifying the enemy for who it is: the 60 or so Salafist jihadist groups around the world.

That’s a term and a cause that the rest of the world, including its 1.5 billion Muslims, can rally around and support.

Troy Media columnist Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics. Joe is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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