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The author, a scholar of the Middle East, posits uncommon explanations of Muslim extremist opposition to the West. Jihadist violence originates in very long-standing differences in the historical experiences of the two. Prof. Jandora discusses how new frontiers of experience can possibly be engendered, without which no cessation of terrorist confrontations can be expected. – Ed.

Jandora | Frontier and Community: The Deconstruction of Jihad

by John Jandora

“The successive movements of Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and Information Revolution took place outside of the Islamic World. The irony is that the intellectual impetus for the Renaissance came from within that world.”

After nearly two years of American military engagement in Iraq, the related issues of information warfare and psychological operations are taking more prominence in public debate. As America’s military leaders discuss the issues at the Pentagon and service schools, America’s journalists are highlighting successes and failures of the psyops campaign against the resistance in Iraq. However, this debate may be too confined. After all, the turbulence in Iraq is just one node in a decades-long continuum of violence in the Middle East and the greater Islamic World. Although that violence has involved both inter- and intra-state violence and inter- and extra-regional agitation, the entire continuum has reflected the theme of jihad—with greater or lesser intensity. Americans are fairly well familiar with the Mujahideen’s resistance to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, the global jihadist campaign of the so-called al-Qa’ida network, and the on-going jihadist resistance to the American intervention in Iraq. Conversely, they are generally unaware that many of the Arab “volunteers” in the Palestine War of 1948 styled themselves Mujahideen, or that Iran declared jihad against the Muslim country of Iraq in 1980, or that Saddam Husayn first called for jihad against the United States in 1990, among numerous relevant examples. The paramount questions become: what is this tenet of “holy war” that lends itself to so many causes and incites people to leave their home countries to kill people who never formally made war on them, and how does America counter it?

An academic answer would be that jihad is a complex, traditional word-symbol that serves to justify the resort to armed conflict, generate force, sustain conflict, and justify certain conduct in war. This definition may sound inclusive, yet it is truly not, because it begs further questions. What are the components of said complex symbol, and can they be explained in terms that are intelligible to the average American? Perhaps they can, but not by analogy – explaining one phenomenon as being like (or resembling) another. The correct approach is contrastive analysis – demonstrating differences on the basis of some common criteria. The demonstration of such an approach follows.

The first task is to consider the tenet of jihad as a cultural reflection on the historic founding of a community – in the sense of a new society or state. The circumstances in which the Islamic community emerged in history differ in many respects from those in which the American commonwealth emerged. However, the key factor for understanding the jihad tenet is that emergent Islam encountered closed frontiers, whereas emergent America encountered open ones. That difference accounts for two unique sets of symbols (of epic events and heroic actions), whose motivational force in one of the cultures may often be unintelligible in the other.

America’s frontier experience started with trans-oceanic exploration and colonization and proceeded with the gradual taming of an expansive wilderness. The “founders” of American society met with little or no organized military resistance to their settlement of new lands. Yes, they fought some battles, but they endowed a great many non-militant symbols of national origin and growth. There were the great movements associated with the Wilderness Trail, (opening of) the Northwest Territory, California Gold Rush, Oregon Trail, and Oklahoma Land Rush. The heroes of these movements were frontiersmen— pioneers, settlers, and ranchers. The impetus for these movements was the opportunity to make a new life. The circumstances were generally advantageous for self-governance, compromise, and mutual gain – and so the Mayflower Compact (code of self-government) was reenacted over and over. Whether consciously recognized or not, these are the symbols and associated values that have influenced American thinking on society and right conduct.

The Islamic historical experience was quite different. After an initial, two-phase surge (633-715 CE), the Muslim expansion out of Arabia ran into staunch resistance from the Franks north of the Pyrenees, the Byzantines in central Anatolia, and the Hindu princes east of the Indus River. The conquest movement devolved into a centuries-long stalemate, which entailed the repetitive gain and loss of outposts and perennial cross-border raids —of varying dimensions. The hero image that emanated from this combative experience was the border warrior/raider (ghazi), a figure unlike the American frontiersman in certain key respects. According to myth, the American hero was a rugged individualist who pursued self-interest, which coincidentally benefited both the local community and the wider one, that is, the state. The Islamic hero was a militiaman who pursued a higher cause—the salvation of all mankind through expansion of the Islamic dominion. The Muslim warriors gathered at the frontiers not to make a new life under man-made law but to impose a regime of social justice as mandated by divine revelation. “Fight them until there is no strife and total belief in Allah (Quranic verse, Surat Anfal).” True, the element of Providence (divine intervention in history) was present in the Manifest Destiny movement of mid-19th century America. However, this theme was an episode, not an enduring institution on a par with jihad, which is backed by scripture and supported by religious doctrine.

The strength of the jihad institution has been manifested in its transformation over the course of history. Although Islamic expansion remained at stalemate in the West and East, the jihadist élan was revived in the 11th century by the newly-converting Turkic peoples, who eventually fought through Anatolia and the Balkans into Europe’s Danube Basin. The military communities that took shape at those expanding frontiers were quite like those at the earlier frontiers. They consisted of warrior bands, some based on kinship and others based on (what might be termed) “clientship.” In other words, the war band was either a tribal militia or a troop of aliens (outcasts, ex-slaves, defectors, and others) who individually became attached to some prominent war leader. As the Ottoman Turkish sultanate evolved into the great “ghazi state,” it incorporated the earlier institutions into its highly structured war-making apparatus. The state brought kinship-based militias into service, mainly as auxiliary troops. Provincial officials raised their own troops of alien-origin soldiery, while the central government modified and greatly expanded that practice in creating its “slave-soldier” establishment – the Kap-i Kulu Corps, of which the Janissary infantry was the most renowned component. It is worthy of note that this same dual pattern has been more recently reflected in the Taliban mobilizing Pashtun tribesmen and al-Qa’ida recruiting radical individuals – alienated against their own rulers – from around the Islamic World. Another noteworthy observation is that mobilization for jihad was, and remains, devoid of what we in the West call civic militarism. There could, and can, be no citizen-soldiers where the fighters identify with either their tribe or their commander.

Although the jihadist community is still based on both kinship and clientship, the phenomenon of state-led offensive jihad vanished with the demise of Ottoman power. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Christian states of Europe progressively gained technical military advantage over the Ottomans and gradually displaced them from the Danube Basin, the Balkans, and North Africa and intervened in the crises of the Arab Middle East. By the outbreak of World War I (1914), the Islamic intellectual elite had legitimized the idea of defensive jihad. The key terms of war-making were accordingly changed from offense and campaign objective to defense and threat. This development, like the original forging of the jihad ethos, involved consciousness of a geographic frontier. However, in modern times the Islamic experience was one of collapsing, rather than of closed, borders. The images of foreign (infidel) protectorate, invasion, and occupation of historically Islamic territory evoked a high degree of alarm and resentment. The Ottoman regime, though, was not up to the task of defending its dominion and soon after the war fell victim to Ataturk’s nationalist movement. The Ataturk regime quickly attained stable borders and international recognition and so was better able to promote secularism and disavow the entire “ghazi-state” cultural-political legacy. Yet, the idea of defensive jihad remained to inspire Muslims outside of Turkey, who had no comparable security.

The following statements are illustrative of contemporary exploitation of the defensive jihad theme, which depicts the creation of Israel, the staging of U.S. and coalition troops in Arabia, and even U.S. military assistance to certain regional governments as part of a long and enduring trend of aggression. In an effort to counter coalition building consequent to the take-over of Kuwait, Saddam Husayn harangued the Arab-Muslim world. “The imperialists, deviators, merchants, political agents, the servants of the foreigner and Zionism all stood up against Iraq only because it represents the conscience of the Arab nation . . . (Iraq) is determined to carry out jihad without any hesitation or retreat and without any fear from the foreigner’s power.”1 Reacting to Saddam’s later propaganda and the coalition bombing during Operation Desert Storm, the leader of the Islamic Unification Movement, Shaykh Sha’ban, made a similar harangue. “By staying neutral on an issue of the magnitude of this crime, which will make us lose Iraq after we have lost Palestine, means we are becoming partners in realizing the Israeli dream, when Baghdad falls and when the Atlantic alliance settles in the heart of the Muslim World.”2

The experience of collapsing frontiers had still other ramifications for the meaning of jihad. The rupture of Ottoman hegemony in southeastern Europe was not the first such threat to the Islamic dominion. A similar threat had evolved on the eastern flank of Islam with the Mongol invasions of the13th century. The Mongols came as infidels, but they quickly converted to Islam. Conversion notwithstanding, they remained a threat to the Turk- and Mamluk-ruled states of the Islamic heartland. For the Sunni religious authorities of those states, this situation posed the dilemma of declaring jihad against fellow Muslims. The precedent had already been established by the Shi’ite and Kharijite sects of Islam, which based its legality on the principle of takfir – the act of one Muslim (or group of Muslims) condemning another as infidel. Of the two sects, the Kharijites were notoriously vicious in attacking other Muslim communities. In any case, the principle of takfir had not been commonly accepted among the Sunnis when Ibn Taymiyya sanctioned it in order to justify jihad against the Mongols.

Ibn Taymiyya’s example has in contemporary times been invoked by radical Islamists who target Muslim rulers in Cairo, Riyadh, and other capitals. The rationale is that their rule is oppressive, and hence they cannot be genuine Muslims. Thus, jihad takes two tracts—one against the domestic oppressors (reduced to the status of infidels) and another jihad against the foreign infidels (Americans, Israelis) who buttress and add to the oppression. The full case against the domestic and foreign oppressors is found in the prolific religio-social writings of Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966 for spreading subversive ideas. His works are the main intellectual underpinning of radical Islamic activism, which presently manifests itself as jihadist propaganda and terrorist strikes. Qutb’s ideas are, of course, incompatible with the thinking of mainstream Islam, as is the principle of takfir. The negative publicity of “Islamic terror” has evoked a reaction by moderate Muslim clerics and intellectuals, who are making a noticeable effort to expose the errors of the extremist doctrines. Their arguments and endeavors can easily be found on the Internet by searching the terms: kharijitekharijism,khawarijQutbQutubitakfirtakfirism, and Taymiyya. The searcher will find, though, that digesting the results is more complicated, due to obscure references to doctrines, people, and historic events. Nonetheless, such tracing does indicate a level of effort and a potential for cooperation in the war against terrorism.

The advocates of moderate Islam have undertaken a two-track campaign against the extremist-jihadists, discrediting their cause on doctrinal grounds and sanctioning the reactive counter-measures of the regimes they threaten. Both of these tracks might benefit from discreet American assistance. Regarding the struggle to influence minds, America’s information warriors would do well to leave the rhetoric and the topical content to the native experts. Americans would likely have no more success in recasting jihad lore than radical Islamists would have in recasting American frontier lore! Conversely, the moderates’ cause would be well served if Americans helped them to publicize their ideas with advanced media dissemination means and methods. Regarding counter-measures, at-risk regimes are fairly proficient in employing overlapping security organizations that have traditional informant networks and uneven capabilities in technical surveillance. They would undoubtedly benefit from covert and selective U.S. assistance in intelligence collection, information archiving, operations-intelligence coordination, remote targeting, equipment upgrades, and other facets of terrorist targeting.

This could all be done with limited expenditure of U.S. assets. Still, such measures would bring only a temporary remedy. The potential for resurgent jihadism would continue because of the stress of demographic change on weak economies. The main complaint of the radical Islamist-jihadists is that local regimes have failed to establish socio-economic equity as enjoined by the Quranic revelation – not strict equality in wealth, but fairness in opportunity to make a living. (Even outside observers note that there is some correlation between poverty/despair and receptivity to jihadist appeals.) The authorities retort that there is not enough bounty for everyone. The radicals counter with blaming the authorities for squandering and mismanaging their country’s wealth. However, the argument is non-productive. In actuality, Islamic countries are, in general, non-industrially and non-technologically progressive, and there is a conspicuous dearth of real development in the Islamic World. The situation will only worsen as the trend of population increase brings greater economic demands. Neither the regime leaders nor the Islamists have a program to remedy it. They both see the problem as one of “redividing the pie” (the sum of goods and services) rather than “enlarging the pie.” The radical Islamists, or others like them, always have the option of reviving the social justice via jihad harangue, because the symbols of the Islamic myth of origin can be brought back, in politicized form, to incite kinship and clientship-based groups to take militant action.

The casual Western observer might think that all these societies need do is to turn their entrepreneurs and innovators to the task of growing the economy. However, the fundamental drawback is that such a class of people is virtually non-existent in the Islamic World. How can that be? The answer is found in the work of Ibn Khaldun, the one Arab historian who is fairly well known in the Western World and considered to be a founding father of the discipline of sociology. His famous work, whose title is translated as Introduction to History, includes among its chapters a summary of the disciplines that constituted the normative curriculum of Islamic educational institutions in the 14th century. The very significant point is that speculative philosophy was specifically excluded. That exclusion was deliberate and resulted from the earlier collusion between the political and religious hierarchy of Islam to create and enforce norms of orthodoxy to stop the proliferation of sects and movements that threatened the stability of the Islamic dominion. The authorities put an end to the dar al-hikma (house of wisdom) institution and other forums where free thinkers had been able to exchange and spread their ideas (in the late tenth and eleventh centuries, when the urban society of Baghdad and Cairo represented the world’s high civilization). The consequence of that deliberate proscription of innovative and speculative thought has been the gradual stagnation of Islamic society. Modern Muslims with oil wealth have been able to import “state-of-the-art” goods, but they can hardly repair or upgrade them or produce substitutes on their own technical ability.

The successive movements of Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and Information Revolution took place outside of the Islamic World. The irony is that the intellectual impetus for the Renaissance came from within that world. The orthodox crack-down on the free thinkers resulted in migration of their ideas and books through Italy and Spain into Europe. With that transfer came Western knowledge of optics, which prompted the invention of the telescope and microscope, astronomy and esoteric philosophy, which infused the disciplines of cosmogony (creation of universe) and cosmology (structure of universe), and the wrongly maligned alchemy, which evolved into modern chemistry and metallurgy, along with many other subjects that stimulated new sciences.

The American frontier closed around 1890; the Islamic frontier started collapsing long before then. The Americans eventually reacted to their situation by creating “new frontiers” through aerial flight and the exploration of outer space and also the expansion of the “virtual” arena (info sphere). If the Muslim peoples could be prompted and assisted to create some new frontiers in a similar fashion, they might be able to solve the problems of economic-demographic imbalance and resentment-laden jihadism. The development-management “science” approach of infusing some capital here or some technology there is no remedy, because it has consistently failed. The genuine solution would be to create new attitudes about education and worthwhile knowledge.

At the higher level, the task would be to revive the “house of wisdom” as a genuine native institution and a base for training and supporting inventors, design engineers, entrepreneurs, and like-minded teachers. Again, America could help with discreet assistance. Such a task would be difficult because of its implicit challenge to both the existing educational establishments and the advocates of radical Islamic activism. The project would even be suspect with authoritarian regimes, which might see it as an inroad for discussion of self-rule, legitimacy, accountability, and other political topics. At the lower level, the task would be to establish trade schools or technical institutes to train the labor force for new enterprises. To be worthwhile, this effort would have to be more than a quick turn out of people with certificates. With careful management, some of the most promising graduates could be paired with NGO-supported development projects or U.S.-supported civil affairs projects to sustain and enhance skills. Others could be brought back into the tech school system as instructors. In all of this, the best talent, not the “favorite son” or best-connected person, should be given preference (which, admittedly defies the prevailing tribalism), and the foreign advisors would have to put aside their SOPs and let the natives lead.

Creating a new frontier (of technical knowledge and inventiveness) could prove very difficult. Without it, there is no pacifying the Islamic World—except on a piecemeal, temporary basis. Militant extremism may be eliminated in one country only to emerge in another country or re-emerge in the place of its earlier demise. Such considerations notwithstanding, it is questionable whether the concerned power brokers (either foreign or domestic) would promote or permit genuine human development initiatives. Of course, some observers argue that authoritative regimes, being a big part of the problem, deserve to be ousted. However, such advice lacks foresight. There are few native, general-welfare-oriented constitutionalists to replace the autocrats; the successors would likely be another set of autocrats or, worse still, radicals. The bottom line is that it is not possible to eradicate jihad symbolism from the historic conscious of Islamic society. The key is to render it irrelevant to solving that society’s problems.

1. New York Times (August 11, 1990), A 6.
2. Statement from foreign news (February 21, 1991) cited in Lawrence Davidson, Islamic Fundamentalism (Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1998), p. 167.


The author, an adjunct faculty member of Webster University’s graduate program in international relations, earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department. He is the author of Militarism in Arab Society: An Historiographic and Bibliographic Sourcebook (Greenwood Press, 1997).


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