Martyrdom: the promise of Jihad
Liam Stewart | Monday, April 3, 2017
An assignment at Iowa State University drew national attention last week, evoking outrage from conservative news outlets and right-wing groups across the country. The assignment asked International Studies students to write a paper that “gives a historical account of 9/11 from the perspective of the terrorist network.”
Political pundits were quick to criticize the prompt as an abhorrent and thinly-veiled effort to advance a negative and deeply distorted view of the United States. The professor, a registered Democrat and long-time lecturer at Iowa State, declined to comment on the assignment, although a University spokesperson did release a statement of support Tuesday morning.
While these criticisms of the professor’s motivations are almost certainly warranted, the assignment itself is not entirely without merit. Understanding the ideology that drives radical Islamists to commit acts of terror should be an integral component of any course that addresses this issue.
Of course, any attempt to rationalize or somehow validate this perverse ideology by conveying a distorted view of the U.S. and the Western world is utterly detestable. The portrayal of the United States as the ‘great Satan’ throughout much of the radical Islamic world has popularized anti-American sentiment and inspired decades of jihadist attacks. It is important that this not only be recognized, but also categorically and completely rejected.
It has been argued that the greatest threat to global security is not conventional interstate conflict or even the proliferation of nuclear weapons; rather, it is the threat of international extremist groups, radicalized individuals and transnational terrorist networks. The rise of IS and the frequency of radical Islamic terrorist attacks in recent years would certainly seem to support this view.
Given the severity of this threat, understanding the motivations of those responsible for the vast majority of global terrorism is crucial to defending against future terrorist attacks. Too often in Hollywood, villains are portrayed as absolutely evil, driven solely by a desire to harm others — evil for the sake of evil. These characters are the typical ‘mustache-twirling,’ James Bond class of villain: usually a psychopath that prides himself on being the ‘bad guy.’ In reality, of course, this is rarely the case.
In a conflict, each side perceives itself as justified and fighting for what it believes is right. This is certainly also true of radical Islamic terrorists and the ideology of global jihadism. As difficult as it is for us to conceive, most of these individuals and groups perceive their actions to be moral and pious. Driven by an extreme and perverse interpretation of Islamic texts, jihadi terrorists justify their horrific acts under the banner of religious conviction.
Violence, in the view of those radicals, is necessary to preserve the rule of Allah, promote Islamic fundamentalism and ultimately establish a worldwide Islamic state. Islamic militants commonly identify as martyrs and typically record ‘martyrdom videos’ to profess their beliefs and inspire others. The hijackers in the 9/11 attacks famously released a martyrdom video titled “19 Martyrs,” in which they claimed to be soldiers of the prophet Mohammed.
Many of these terrorists consider the West to be godless, decadent and morally corrupt; others see the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as a profane imperial conquest. Most adhere to a strict interpretation of the Islamic faith that is fundamentally opposed to mainstream Western values. This extreme interpretation includes a stringent enforcement of Sharia Law that oppresses women, persecutes homosexuals and allows for the public execution of dissidents. It favors totalitarian theocratic regimes over democratic ones, fanaticism over tolerance and brutal violence over political reform.
In 2014, IS declared itself an Islamic “caliphate” or dominion, having effectively seized most of Iraq and Syria. Its leader, Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself as a “caliph” — successor to the Prophet Mohammed — and called on Muslims everywhere to unite behind the newly-formed Islamic State. Restoring the Islamic caliphate has long been the stated goal of Sunni-Muslim extremists, most of whom consider it a sacred mission ordained by God.
This declaration led to a global increase in terrorist activity, including well-coordinated operations like those carried out in Paris, and lone Islamist attacks, such as the events of San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida. IS also began to cultivate a sophisticated and prolific propaganda machine to recruit and radicalize Muslims internationally.
The importance of understanding and rebuking the motivations of these terror groups cannot be underestimated. To ignore the ideology of radical Islamic militants — or simply portray terrorists as mentally-deranged, evil psychopaths — is irresponsible and disingenuous. The war on terror is, at least to some extent, less of a military conflict than it is an ideological one.
As the leader of the free-world, and the greatest beacon of hope and freedom on Earth, it is incumbent on the U.S. to lead the fight against terrorism and completely eradicate the ideology of radical jihad.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.