Rashad Ali is a counter-terrorism practitioner and trainer, and a Director of the counter-extremism consultancy Centri.
The murderers of Lee Rigby clearly laid out their motivations for their horrific act of barbaric violence. They saw themselves as “soldiers” in a war in defence of Islam and Muslims, fighting in a “Land of War” (Dar al-Harb) – that’s to say, the heart of London in the UK. They did not see themselves as murderers, let alone terrorists, and justified the killing of an off-duty soldier amidst the civilian population by blaming the policies of the Government, which had waged war on their brethren in “Muslim lands”.
We have previously seen the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki, the preacher and pseudo-theologian who went on to become the voice of Al-Qaeda in the Yemen, inspire vulnerable people within our Universities, public services and armed forces to turn against their citizens. His means was a reading of Islamic teachings on the rules of war, which he claimed was the authentic Islamic reading of Jihad. This literally means “struggle”, but within religio-legal circles refers to doctrines relating to war and peace, including when to engage in conflict, who can declare such conflicts, and how to conduct oneself in battle.
Al-Awlaki made certain specific claims: off duty soldiers are targets in such a “war”; indeed all Western civilians are targets; that the election and selection of civilans is justified in medieval and modern readings of Islamic jurisprudence; that, today, the situation necessitates such attacks in the heartlands of the West, and that the West is a zone of war. He thus provided a a simplistic narrative which both justified terrorism and provided alleged claims of religious authenticity for such tactics as suicide bombing.
Such ideas and understandings have not, however, appeared in a vacuum. They are a part of an continuing ideology, which has developed a religious-scriptural narrative claiming to be the authentic reading and, crucially, the traditional understanding of the religion of Islam. Those propagating this ideology claim that they are the true torchbearers of the religion as transmitted from medieval scholars. It has been promoted by the leading figures of al-Qaeda, such as Ayman Zawahiri. It has also found some justification in the edicts of neo-salafist Islamist scholars such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is on record as justifying suicide bombing – and, specifically, the killing of Jewish civilians in Israel and American workers in an “occupied” Iraq. Qaradawi is the de facto lead cleric of Hamas – the Palestinian Islamist resistance group which apparently has a terrorist “arm”. This understanding and ideology of terror is shared also by groups like Lashker-e-Tayba from the Indian sub-continent, which also justifies its terrorism as a “Jihad” and a struggle to restore the Islamic Caliphate.
A new report to be published this week, of which I am a co-author, demonstrates that in actual fact the claims of such groups is based upon a very recent ideological understanding of Islam and jihad – an Islamist subversion of the concepts of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, caliphate, jihad and the rules of warfare. Our report illustrates through reference to classical and medieval authorities that their claims are unfounded. We highlight, for example, medieval rules of warfare that completely forbid killing civilians; rulings which demonstrate that lands where Muslims are given the freedom of religious expression cannot simply be declared a “land of War”; and that international relations were and are dictated by treaty relations. It follows that war cannot simply be declared by clerics and activists – i.e. terrorist movements – but by legitimate states and authorities. In addition, a detailed understanding of the rules of declaring war show that warfare should not be initiated against peaceful countries. Indeed, such countries are part of an international family that, traditionally, Muslim scholars ruled should be fought alongside and defended from aggressors.
The report also has been well received by theologically authoritative Muslim cirlces and scholars, as well as by experts and academics specialising in the area. These include Lorenzo Vidino, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies; Professor Peter Neumann, the Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London and Sheikh Khaled Omran of al-Azhar University in Cairo – arguably the most authoritative institution within Sunni Muslim scholarly circles. We hope that a meeting to be held tomorrow in Parliament will provide an opportunity to discuss and explore these issues further – and also hope to enhance our understanding of them, and also how to help counter such false narratives.
A meeting to discuss the report, ‘A Guide to Refuting Jihadism: Critiquing Radical Islamist Claims to Theological Authenticity’, will be held tomorrow at 13.00 in the Boothroyd Room of the House of Commons. To attend this Henry Jackson Society event please RSVP to: firstname.lastname@example.org