The Challenge of Responding to Jihadi Islam

August 29, 2014

Once again, the world is being subjected to horrific images of religious and ethnic genocide from Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria. These images make many around the world feel helpless, fearful, angry and even guilty that there seems to be very little anyone can do to stop these barbaric acts.


Many talking heads parade from one television network to the other presenting 'expert analysis' of the situation. The typical Muslim response is to condemn IS and Boko Haram followed by denials that their acts have nothing to do with Islam. Then we have the Islamophobic response which is at pains to prove that IS and Boko Haram have everything to do with Islam and actually represents its true face.




Commenting on the label Boko Haram (literally western education is forbidden), a label imposed on the Nigerian terrorist group, Andrea Brigaglia of the University of Cape Town makes the following insightful observation:


'The popularity of the nickname Boko Haram in the national and international press might be explained by two different reasons. For the northern [Nigerian] Muslims, especially those ideologically close to Izala and Ahlus Sunna, the label transforms the radical group into an exotic eccentricity and hides its embarrassing connection to the leadership of a well-established Salafi organization in the country. For the southern Nigerian Christian press, as well as the global Western media, the nickname Boko Haram magically captures all the stereotypes that have daily currency in Islamophobic discourses: at the same time obscurantist, primitive and ferocious, Boko Haram embodies all the prejudices associated with the supposed "essence" of Islam (Brigaglia 2012: 37-38).'


Contrary to repeated Muslim denials, aspects of the ideology of jihadi groups are rooted in Islamic texts and history. In fact, modern jihadi groups can be traced back to Wahhabi-Salafi teaching originally from Saudi Arabia. Leaders of jihadi groups have either been students of Wahhabi-Salafi scholars or inspired by their works. Brigaglia has outlined the connections between Boko Haram and Salafi leaders in Nigeria who are funded by al-Muntada, a Salafi Trust in the UK. In a forthcoming article I have located Boko Haram’s ideology in the wider northern Nigerian context. Wahhabi-Salafi thought in its modern expression, has its origins in a 14th century Islamic jurist-theologian, Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328), through Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792), renowned students and teachers of the Hanbali School of Law, one of four orthodox Schools of Law in Sunni Islam.


Hard talk


The rest of the non-Muslim world therefore need to engage in some hard talk with Sunni Muslims in particular to challenge them to engage in some introspection. Muslims are, however, already engaged in deep introspection, whether it is disillusioned young Iranians leaving Islam in droves and giving up on religion completely, or ordinary individual Muslims and communities turning away from Islam to other religions, including Christianity, or a growing progressive trend in Islam which is engaging in a critical re-reading of Islamic texts and history. There is no denying the fact that 'a wind is blowing in the house of Islam' and a battle for the soul of Islam is earnestly underway.


In his reflections on IS and Boko Haram, Mark Durie passionately and rightly calls attention to what he identifies as the 'theological illiteracy' of the West and the denial and failure of Western elites in coming to grips with the theological roots of jihadi Islam. Durie chastises mainstream Western scholars for what he calls 'obscurantist veil', 'willful historical ignorance', 'enforced cultural blindness and intellectual amnesia' all of which, he claims, has contributed to promoting a 'mythical Islamic construct'.


I have to admit that I share much of Durie’s frustrations but take exception to key components of his own prognosis and conclusions.


Writing on Boko Haram, Durie states that 'what will not help anyone… is putting forward weak arguments that no-one should judge Islam on the basis of Boko Haram's actions'.  Because 'attempting to persuade non-Muslim Westerners that Islam is not the problem actually makes it much harder to formulate an effective strategy for countering jihadi insurgencies'.




One problem with Durie’s approach is that it is disingenuous to claim that IS 'can ably defend their theology on the basis of Islam’s history and religious traditions'. For instance, the declaration of jihad is the preserve of a legitimate ruler. The exception is when Muslim land comes under attack or occupation by an enemy force when jihad or resistance becomes an individual responsibility. None of the above applied prior to 9/11 or today in the case of IS and Boko Haram.


Also, jihadi groups target and kill fellow Muslims who disagree with their views and justify this on takfir, declaring fellow Muslims unbelievers deemed legally permitted to be killed. This position of the jihadi groups was uniformly repudiated by mainstream Islam back in the seventh century and the Kharijites who espoused it were ruthlessly suppressed as terrorists.


Durie takes exception with Muslim apologists that 'what will not help anyone – least of all the victims of this outrage – is putting forward weak arguments that no-one should judge Islam on the basis of Boko Haram's actions'. This begs the question, if it is justified to judge Islam on the basis of the actions of jihadi groups, how then can we explain the actions of Kurdish Muslims who are fighting and dying to protect Christian and Yazidi minorities? The Kurds are also Muslims, reading the same Quran, following the same prophet and performing the same daily prayers.


Heinous acts


And if we go by that logic, is it then justifiable to judge Christianity on the basis of the numerous heinous acts committed by Christian sects and mainline traditions like the Dutch Reformed Church in Apartheid South Africa or the Southern Baptist Convention in America which only formally apologised in 1995 for its support of slavery, segregation and white supremacy? To suggest that these groups were in contravention of Jesus’ example and teaching does not help the victims of their theology and actions either.


But I think the most fundamental flaw of Durie’s analysis is what I call the textualist hermeneutic he adopts. Durie seems to take Sola Scriptura to new literal heights in thinking that everything can be proven or disproven by drawing a straight line between text and action. On this score, Durie is no different from the jihadists whose well-known mantra is 'Qur’an and Sunna alone'! Not only are texts cited as cause and validation of atrocities, they are selectively cited just as historical and contemporary contexts are selectively referenced. The truth, though, is that the vast majority of Christians and Muslims don’t live by Sola Scriptura or Qur’an and Sunna alone. There are intervening and mediating socio-political, ethnic, cultural, economic, historical and existential factors.




By refusing to take such extra-textual forces into account, Durie can be said to be equally guilty of willful ignorance and denial.


The narrative that atrocities committed by jihadi groups has everything to do with Islam is therefore just as false as the counter narrative that the atrocities have nothing to do with Islam. We should also note that those who ask Muslims to publicly condemn and repudiate Jihadi atrocities are among those who rubbish and dismiss such condemnations as taqiya(dissimulation). Similarly, there are people who call upon Muslims to take a critical re-reading of their scriptures, traditions and history only to turn around to discredit progressive Muslim readings of Islamic scripture and tradition just to make the point that 'Islam reformed is no Islam'! Durie adopts this dismissive attitude towards Qasim Rashid in his blog on Boko Haram.


I have focused on Durie’s analysis of jihadi groups because his views fit neatly into the narrative Brigaglia describe as embodying 'all the prejudices associated with the supposed "essence" of Islam'. Such narratives are alienating Muslims who are at the forefront of fighting the jihadists. At the heart of such narratives is the view that Islam is the problem, the Qur’an is the problem and Muhammad is the problem. To problematise Islam is not only to unwittingly seek excuses for the actions of a fringe group of twisted zealots, but is futile and disempowering and can only inspire more fear, more hatred and more violence. For instance, if the Qur’an and Islam are the problems, what is the solution? Drop bombs on the Ka‘bah in Mecca, the Prophet’s mosque in Medina and al-Aqsa in Jerusalem? Or pass legislations to proscribe Islam as a religion and ban the use of the Qur’an?


Long-term solution


I couldn’t agree more with Durie that a long-term solution to the toxic ideology and murderous orgies of the jihadists is 'to emphatically reject and stigmatise' the twin-pillars of jihad and dhimma in classical Islamic law.


Western governments need overcome the ideological posturing with Iran and Syria and come to terms with the fact that jihadi Islam is largely a Sunni phenomenon, not Shi‘a or Alawite. They need to get over the false binary division of the world into friends and foes and engage in hard talk with the friends.


Leading Muslim intellectuals around the world - from Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Sudan, South Africa and the West – are standing up against the jihadists. Countering this murderous ideology is best achieved by working with such Muslims to disenfranchise the terrorists. Attacking and problematising Islam will only alienate Muslims, create an 'us versus them' scenario, which is exactly what the jihadists preach and are seeking to achieve.





Azumah, John (2014), “Boko Haram in Retrospect” (forthcoming)


Brigaglia, Andrea (2012), “Ja‘far Mahmoud Adam, Mohammed Yusuf and Al-Muntada Islamic Trust: Reflections on the Genesis of the Boko Haram phenomenon in Nigeria”, in Annual Review of Islam in Africa, No. 11. pp. 35-44


Durie, Mark (2014), “Boko Haram and the Dynamics of Denial”, in Frontpage Magazine (May 15), accessed at


Durie, Mark (2014), “‘Three Choices’ and the Bitter Harvest of Denial: How Dissimulation about Islam is fueling Genocide in the Middle East”, in Lapido Media (August 12). Accessed at


Safi, Omid [ed.] (2003), Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender and Pluralism, Oxford: Oneworld Publication


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