The literal meaning of the word jihad is a struggle or effort to live in good faith and be true to Islamic values. As seen from the definition, originally, the term jihad does not have any negative connotations. Yet, jihadism is a military movement that uses terror, violence, and brute force to defend Islam. It has retained its resilience and keeps gaining new proponents despite being a minority view. The present essay discusses the reasons for the upheaval and persistence of jihadism in the modern world, tying it to the ambiguity of interpretation and the history of jihad.
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The Appeal and Persistence of Jihadism
Understanding the modern jihadist movement requires a thorough analysis of the concept itself and its evolution throughout the centuries. As it has already been mentioned, jihad has many meanings, each of which prescribes different actions to those who practice Islam (Bonner 5). The first jihad is the jihad of the heart: in essence, it is an internally motivated commitment to be pure and follow the religious teaching vehemently.
The second jihad is the jihad of mind and tongue: by executing this type of jihad, Muslims nudge those who have gone astray in the right direction, by condoning their behavior. Lastly, there is the jihad of the sword that has become the foundation of the modern globalist jihadist theory.
The question arises as to why only one type of jihad has become so widespread that it has grown to be a threat to global peace. For this reason, it would be incorrect to consider jihad solely as a religious concept and an individual striving for purity. This element of the Islamic religion needs to be critically evaluated in the historical context. Only then it becomes clear that the violent kind of jihad has been shaped during the centuries to meet the needs of those waging holy war and calling others to the battlefield.
Probably, the most problematic and misinterpreted aspect of jihad that has contributed to its resilience is its justification. Cook compares and contrasts the Western and the Islamic military military traditions and concludes that the Islamic thought does not consider justice as a valid category. In actuality, Islam blurs the line between defense and offense: originally, the jihad by the sword was only supposed to take place when the adherents of Islamic faith needed to protect themselves. In actuality, anything could be seen as a threat: “the proclamation of truth and the removal of the distortion and misrepresentation of it (Cook 96).” The presence and description of this argument in the religious texts have allowed for using religion as a tool to coerce and manipulate others.
Not only the ambiguity and distortion of religious texts are fueling the jihadist movement. Sageman argues that one of the reasons for the resilience of jihadism is its structure. The author says that many theorists decision-makers erroneously consider phenomena such as Al-Qaeda organizations and not social movements. Therefore, they are inclined to think in terms of organizational order and operations: tactics, strategies, membership, and recruitment (31).
However, in reality, jihadism is more of a social movement that is disorganized. Some groups are forming spontaneously by taking inspiration in what other terrorists are doing. Another strength of jihadists is their training of the newcomers where they are accustomed to the brutality of war (Lya 522). The new participants learn patience and self-sacrifice and are indoctrinated to accept armed confrontations.
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Populations at Risk and Preventive Measures
Some groups of people are more susceptible to getting indoctrinated by jihadists than others. Roy writes that over the last decades, the profile of a typical terrorist has remained quite consistent. The author argues that it is possible to identify two major categories: second-generation immigrants (60% of the sample) and converts (25%). Almost all of these people have been leading quite a secular lifestyle before joining religious terrorist organizations: drinking and clubbing.
The European Institute of Peace suggests that as many as 20% of people join radical movements for economic reasons and stay because of the sense of belongingness and responsibility. Apparently, insufficient social, political and economic opportunities can result in alienation, frustrations, and hopelessness. In order to prevent young people from turning to radicalism, they need to be integrated into society and receive support to put their lives in order and progress towards their goals.
Nowadays, the “external” jihad that can take many forms with probably the most controversial of them being the Holy War is highly criticized by Muslims. Yet, jihadist organizations remain highly active and keep recruiting new members. The question arises as to why this phenomenon still exists and what fuels the resilience of jihadism. One of the possible answers is the vagueness of religious texts that keep them open for interpretation. Another reason is the training that newcomers receive in terrorist organizations rewires them psychologically and desensitizes them to violence. People’s motivations for joining terrorist organizations are diverse, but generally, they do it for the lack of better opportunities.
Bonner, Michael David. Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice. Princeton University Press, 2006.
Cook, David. Understanding Jihad. University of California Press, 2015.
European Institute of Peace. Why Do People Join Terrorist Organisations? Web.
Lya, Brynjar. “Doctrines for Jihadi Terrorist Training.” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 20, 2008, pp. 518–542.
Roy, Olivier. “Can We Understand the Motives of Jihadists?” Pouvoirs, vol. 3, no. 158, 2016, pp. 15-24.
Sageman, Marc. Leaderless Jihad. Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.