As the anniversary of 9/11 has once more been observed with solemnity and promises of eternal remembrance, the question of how the West should understand the religion of the terrorists who then and now swear destruction for America remains a disquieting issue.
What has become the stock response – that Islam is a religion of peace – contains, however, a serious flaw. Even Islamic scholars, like Sahar Aziz of Texas A&M, argue that "these terrorists are not related to religion" and that terrorism is instead "a complex political problem." This is echoed in official foreign policy statements, such as the keystone speech on September 10, when President Obama stated that ISIL is not "Islamic" and that "no religion condones the killing of innocents." Other authors take a slightly more balanced view, calling terrorism a "complex problem" in which religion is a "symptom" rather than a cause.
These various explanations center on a premise that religion is not and even cannot be the motivation behind terrorist attacks. However, these arguments appear far less credible when examined in the light of Islamic history, Quranic scripture, and, perhaps most clearly of all, the statements of the terrorists themselves regarding their own actions. The evidence points not only to a logical association between Islamic religious teaching and terrorist violence, but also to a unique relationship between Islam and violent conquest which is not associated with any other religion (as key differences are present, though usually ignored, between past Islamic wars and the Crusades or the European Wars of Religion). While acknowledging the complexity of the problem of terrorism, it is thus essential to question realistically the premise of peace that is currently guiding our foreign policy and which, if not corrected with a more balanced view, may have long-lasting consequences for the West. History provides us with a "two-eyed" perspective.
7th century background
When the Arabs emigrated north in the 7th century, the Christians at first welcomed them because they were more lenient than the Byzantines, at least in regard to taxes. This changed quickly when the Muslims attained more power. Then the Christians either left the area, converted to Islam, or paid the jizya (head tax) and become subject to the Muslims. They were held in fear because the other alternative was death.
The Byzantines and Persians (Sassanians) had been fighting each other for a long time and were "war weary" (sound familiar?). The Byzantine forces, which had been protecting the Syrians and "Palestinians," pulled back and left the towns and cities vulnerable. The Arabs swarmed into the vacuum and took hold of the opportunity.
Some Christian eyewitnesses testified to the ruthlessness of the invading Arabs. Sophronius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, in his Christmas sermon of 634 AD, referred to the conquerors as "vengeful and God-hating Saracens," who carried a "blood-loving blade." He was not only saying that they were prone to violence, but he was also strongly indicating that they were not religious (except for the leaders). Thomas the Presbyter (640 AD) relates how the Arabs invaded and conquered Syria in 635-636, even killing a number of monks when they stormed the monasteries. In the 640s, the Homily on the Child Saints of Babylon, referred to the Saracens as religious yet barbaric. They would boast about their fasts and prayer, but were also regarded as "oppressors" who "massacre and lead into captivity the sons of men." In fact, the similarities between the 7th century invaders and the present day ISIS terrorists is quite revealing. Like the present day Islamic State, the 7th century terrorists instilled fear among those whom they subjugated. The leaders were guided by religious principles, but their chief end was a quest for Power. Once they were in control they forced the majority Christians to accept one of three choices: submit, and pay the jizya, convert, or die. Like today, many chose a fourth opportunity and fled to safer regions leaving all their possessions behind.
Push to a Logical Conclusion
In order to understand what is really going on today in regard to ISIS, we need to reveal the core motivation of their actions. Many in the western world, most likely influenced by fear, deny that ISIS has anything to do with the religion of Islam. However, the leaders of the Islamic State assert boldly that all that they do is strictly motivated by their submission to Allah and their slavish adherence to the Qur'an and the sunnah of the Prophet. Indeed, their war cry, "Allahu Akbar" (God is greater), has become the universal call to submit to the violent Jihad verses in the Qur'an (of which there are over 150). Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (1928) made it very clear as to what Jihad was all about: "It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its laws on all nations and to extend its power to the entire world." Sayed Qutb, the famed spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared that all non-Muslims should be considered "infidels," therefore justifying the Qur'an's mandate to fight against them "wherever they are found." (In other words, there are no "innocent" non-Muslims). More recently, Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the new Islamic State, urged his followers to "Support the religion of Allah through jihad in the path of Allah. Go forth, O mujahideen, in the path of Allah. Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death in the places where you expect to find it, for the dunya [worldly life] will come to an end, and the hereafter will last forever." Hasan al-Banna, Sayed Qutb, and al-Baghdadi claim to be the true voices of Islam today. Why, then, do we allow non-Muslim pundits, reporters, and politicians to tell us what Muslims believe about Islam?
Furthermore, it is undeniable that the actions of these Muslim leaders are derived from their beliefs. They justify their violent attacks by resorting to the Qur'an. For example, Surah 9:5 states, "But when the sacred months are passed away, kill the idolaters (non-Muslims) wherever ye may find them; and take them, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in every place of observation." This verse is said to abrogate (nullify) more than 114 other verses that prescribe less severe treatment for non-Muslims. Moderate Muslims may try to claim that these violent verses are not for today, but that does little to change the minds of radical Muslims who are following the accepted interpretation of the last 1400 years.
The Qur'an is also clear in the use of beheading as a punishment for those who oppose Islam. Surah 47:4, "And when you meet those who misbelieve, non-Muslims, while fighting in Jihad, cut off their heads until you have massacred them, and take them captive [referring to the women and children].
In regard to the many Muslims who are killed by ISIS, the terrorists resort to the practice of takfir, where the captured Muslims are first declared to be "kafir," or unbelievers so that they can then be subdued, killed or enslaved. This is a practice that is not currently recognized by the west, which leads to a false supposition that religion is not behind the terrorist attacks. However, the Qur'an makes only too clear that world domination is the ultimate goal for the faithful. Thus, once the unwanted Muslims are either killed or cowered into submission, ISIS will turn to the western world to fulfill the mandate from Surah 8:39, in which Muslims are told to keep fighting until Islam is the only religion: "and keep fighting them until there is no division among you, and Islam is the only religion." Supposedly, then, the peace that is part of the Islamic promise will be manifested when all other religions will be wiped out and all the remaining people have submitted to Islam. Clearly this is not the "peace" which western readers have in mind. For example, Anjem Choudary, an Islamic spiritual leader in the UK states boldly, "You can't say that Islam is a religion of peace, because Islam does not mean peace. Islam means 'submission.' So the Muslim is one who submits. There is a place for violence in Islam. There is a place for Jihad in Islam."
The Core of Islam
The West today faces a real dilemma. ISIS claims to be radically Islamic, yet critics claim that ISIS is not Islamic at all. How can we resolve the cognitive dissonance that is taking place? First, we need to realize that the core of Islam and the core of Christianity (and thus of western values) are polar opposites: one for Power, the other for Love. Islam perceives Allah as a singularity whose essence is pure Will, revealed to man as Power. This is why the proper response for man is total submission to Allah, which expresses the word "Islam." However, the mandate from Allah to those who have submitted is that they should then subdue the whole world until all are in submission to the Power of Allah. In order to carry out this mandate, the followers of Islam need to exert power over non-believers, as well as other Muslims who have been deemed, through takfir, to be kafir (non-believers).
This mandate demands the exact type of behavior that ISIS is displaying right now. Fear is the best tool to demonstrate power over the infidel (Qur'an 59:2) Thus, if we push the core beliefs of Islam to their logical conclusion, it is clear that in this way ISIS supporters are more faithful to the goal of the Qur'an than the many Muslims who would oppose such actions. In regard to this, we may say that "Radical" Islam is closer to the "root" (Latin, radix) of Qur'anic teaching than so-called "Civilized/Moderate" Islam. Perhaps a better comparison would be "Literal" Islam versus "Nominal" Islam, since the latter group often wants to deny many verses in the Qur'an, especially the ones calling for a violent jihad.
In stark contrast to this we have Christianity, the core motivation of which is Love for God and for one's neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37-40), because the essential nature of God Himself is Love. When Christians seek to live in this love, then their actions bring freedom and true peace, rather than the submission and fear that comes from a pursuit of Power. Thus, "radical" Christians should only become more loving, even as radical Muslims would seek more and more power in a quest for domination and subjugation. The fruit will always show the true nature of the tree. Thus, since ISIS clearly strives to follow the core beliefs of Islam, as their history and own declarations reveal, then we need to recognize it as a valid representation of the religion of Islam.
One thing that history has taught us is that beliefs have consequences. The history of Islam, combined with an accurate understanding of the Qur'an, has demonstrated that Islam has not been a religion of peace. Furthermore, since the modern terrorists specifically refer to this past and this scripture, it is neither good logic nor good policy to ignore such crucial roots of the current Middle Eastern crisis. A clearer understanding would produce solutions that better understand the motivations and character of the ISIS movement. Subsequently, this would be more effective in meeting the need of the hour while also preparing for future conflicts and implications of radical Islam. A Russian proverb says, "Dwell on the past and you will lose an eye; forget the past and you will lose both eyes." In our present struggle with "literal" Islam, however, if we ignore the past we may literally lose our heads!