by  Ayaan Hirsi Ali



Why the Call for Holy War Is a Charter for Terror

We don't expect Islamic holy war in Ottawa, Canada's chilly capital city. But in October 2014, a young Muslim named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot an unarmed Canadian soldier who was guarding the tomb of the unknown soldier at Ottawa's National War Memorial and then was himself killed in a shoot-out inside the Canadian Parliament's Hall of Honor. 

In the immediate aftermath, a Washington Post reader sent the following to the newspaper's website: 

"ISIL, via an incredible internet marketing, recruitment and promotion campaign, is delivering a message that is resonating with westerners. Western governments and society will need to figure out how and why this message of death is more appealing than the life these folks have been given in their countries."

That is the question, in various forms, that gets asked after each new atrocity, whether it happens in Oklahoma City or Sydney, Australia. In the wake of the shooting, stabbing, and attempted beheading of the British soldier Lee Rigby in broad daylight on a London street by two Muslim converts, the same question was asked. One of the men, Michael Ade-bolajo, gave his answer in a handwritten note he gave to a stunned bystander. The note read:

To my beloved children know that to fight Allah's enemies is an obligation. The proofs of which are so numerous that but a handful of any of them cuts out the bewitching tongues of the Munafiqeen [hypocrites].

Do not spend your days in endless dispute with the cowardly and foolish if it means it will delay you meeting Allah's enemies on the battlefield.

Sometimes the cowardly and foolish could be those dearest to you so be prepared to turn away from them.

When you set out on this path do not look left or right.

Seek Shaheedala oh my sons . . .1

"Shaheedala" means martyrdom for the sake of Allah. It is the ultimate obligation—and reward—of the Islamic imperative of jihad: holy war.

The injunction to wage jihad is as old as the Qur'an, but in Muhammad's time there were no automatic weapons, no rocket-propelled grenades, no improvised explosive devices, no suicide vests. It was not possible to leave homemade bombs in backpacks near the finishing line of a race.

The carnage that erupted on April 15, 2013, some fifty yards from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, was apparently perpetrated by two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Born in the former Soviet Union to a Chechen father who had sought asylum in the United States in 2002, each of the brothers had received the gifts of free education, free housing, and free medical care from various U.S. governmental agencies. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, had already been granted his American citizenship, administered to him on, of all dates, September 11. Tamerlan was merely waiting for his final citizenship paperwork to be processed. 

The brothers spent months preparing for their bombing to take place on Patriots' Day, which commemorates the heroes of the American Revolution. How to explain such staggering ingratitude toward their adopted homeland?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev offered at least the beginnings of an explanation in a note written not long before he was apprehended: "I'm jealous of my brother who ha[s] [re]ceived the reward of jannutul Firdaus [the highest level of Paradise] (in-shallah) before me. I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions. I ask Allah to make me a shahied (iA) [a martyr inshallah] to allow me to return to him and be among all the righteous people in the highest levels of heaven. He who Allah guides no one can misguide. A[llah Ak]bar!"2 

He also offered this explicit account of his and his brother's motivations:

the ummah is beginning to rise/ [unintelligible] has awoken the mujahideen, know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that[?]3

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is very far from the only young man in the West to have fallen under the spell of jihad. 

Consider the near-perfect all-American life of Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani national who also became a naturalized U.S. citizen. 

He arrived on a student visa, married an American, graduated from college, worked his way up the corporate ladder to become a junior financial analyst for a cosmetics company in Connecticut, and received his citizenship at the age of thirty. A year later, in 2010, Shahzad tried to blow up as many of his fellow citizens as possible in a failed car bombing in New York's Times Square. 

Prior to his courtroom sentencing, the criminal trial judge asked Shahzad about the oath of allegiance to the United States that he had taken, in which, like all newly minted citizens, he did "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen." Shahzad replied: "I sweared [sic], but I didn't mean it"—the legal equivalent of swearing with one hand and crossing his fingers with the other, but with far more damaging consequences. He then expressed his regret about the failure of his plot and added that he would gladly have sacrificed a thousand lives in the service of Allah. He concluded by predicting the downfall of his new homeland, the United States.

When trying to explain the violent path of some Islamists, Western commentators sometimes blame harsh economic conditions, dysfunctional family circumstances, confused identity, the generic alienation of young males, a failure to integrate into the larger society, mental illness, and so on. Some on the Left insist that the real fault lies with the mistakes of American foreign policy.

None of this is convincing. 

Jihad in the twenty-first century is not a problem of poverty, insufficient education, or any other social precondition. (Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was earning more than $90,000 a year working for a drilling company in British Columbia, where he also reportedly proclaimed his support of the Taliban and joked about suicide bombing vests, with no repercussions.) 

We must move beyond such facile explanations. 

The imperative for jihad is embedded in Islam itself. It is a religious obligation.

But it also reflects the influence of the strategic minds behind global jihad, in particular Sayyid Qutb, the author of Milestones, who explicitly argued that Islam was not just a religion but a revolutionary political movement; Abdullah Az-zam, Osama bin Laden's mentor, who propounded an individualist "lone wolf" theory of jihad; and the Pakistani army general S. K. Malik, who argued in The Quranic Conception of War that the only center of gravity in warfare was the soul of the enemy and that therefore terror was the supreme weapon.4

In Great Britain, the radical cleric Anjem Choudary has declared: 

"We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam." 

That domination can only come through the waging of jihad. 

Through his words, Choudary has helped to send hundreds of Europeans to the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, as well as to plant the seeds for jihadist attacks inside Britain. Choudary also supports the IS beheadings of Americans and Britons, telling a Washington Post reporter that the victims deserved to die. 

This message may seem foreign or outlandish to most Westerners, but we underestimate its appeal at our peril.

The Call to Jihad

As a sixteen-and seventeen-year-old girl in Kenya, I believed in jihad. With the enthusiasm of idealistic young Americans who want to join the Peace Corps, I was ready for holy war.

For me, jihad was something to aspire to beyond chores for my mother and grandmother and my dreaded math class. 

The ideal of holy war encouraged me to get out of the house and engage in charitable work for others. It gave me a focus for my inner struggle; now I could struggle to be a better Muslim. Every prayer, every veil, every fast, every acknowledgment of Allah signalled that I was a better person or at least on the path to becoming one. I had value, and if the hardships of life in the Old Racecourse Road section of Nairobi felt overwhelming, it was only temporary. I would be rewarded in the afterlife.

That's how jihad is generally first presented to most young Muslims—as a manifestation of the inner struggle to be a good Muslim. It's a spiritual struggle, a path toward the light. But then things change. Gradually, jihad ceases to be simply an inner struggle; it becomes an outward one, a holy war in the name of Islam by an army of glorious "brothers" ranged against the enemies of Allah and the infidel. Yet this martial jihad seems even more appealing.

The origins of jihad can be traced back to the foundational Islamic texts.5 

Key verses in the Qur'an, and many verses in the hadith, call for jihad, a type of religious warfare to spread the land ruled by Allah's laws. For example:

9:5 "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."

8:60 "Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly."

8:39 "And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere."

8:65 "O Prophet! rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred."

Today, these words have lost none of their appeal. Beguilingly presented by modern theorists of jihad such as Qutb, Azzam, and Malik, they can readily inspire young men to try to replicate the achievements of Muhammad's warriors in battle.

Celebrity Jihad

When I was a teenager, only a few decades ago, there were only so many jihadists who could be recruited. 

It was a tedious process of finding the right recruits in the right mosques and madrassas. It required a form of charismatic retail politics, of selecting, nurturing, and pulling along. Today, it is far easier. All a jihadist needs is access to a smartphone, and recruits will follow him. 

Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, even the pages of Facebook have become virtual recruiting grounds with a global reach. For young people who have very limited chances to achieve fame and notoriety in their current situation, jihad is like one giant selfie. Suddenly, they have Twitter followers and video viewers. Suddenly, more and more people are paying attention to them. They become social media celebrities.

An Egyptian student, Islam Yaken, is a good example. He studied engineering, received a law degree, and was fluent in French and Arabic. A fitness buff who once posted workout tips and photos of his bare torso on his Facebook page, he left Egypt to join IS. His photo uploads changed from gym scenes to images of him riding a horse and holding a sword. The news raced across Egyptian social media websites, only amplifying his newfound celebrity.

Jihadists do not have to wait for martyrdom to bring them fame. 

Thanks to electronic media, they can be immortalized in an instant. Photos and 140-character postings from Syria and Iraq currently litter the Internet. 

They show smiling jihadists, relaxed, with their rifles or trophies of war. A young man named Yilmaz, a Dutch national from a Turkish family, posted a photo of himself holding a cute Syrian toddler. After a Florida man, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, carried out a suicide bombing in Syria, an image of him smiling and holding a cat popped up online. 

Another who has achieved instant infamy is the man nicknamed Jihadi John, whose face was disguised but whose English accent was clearly audible as he appeared in IS videos with the severed heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker. 

As Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College, London, explains, the message is: "Come out here and have the time of your life. It makes it look like jihadi summer camp."

Jihad, it seems, has become a kind of hip lifestyle for disaffected youth. Online videos use "jihad rap." There is a distinctive jihadist look, too. In photos and videos, they all look the same: men in the backs of trucks, waving their rifles aloft, bearded, dressed in black. Whether they are IS warriors driving toward Baghdad, Boko Haram members striking a Christian village in northern Nigeria, Taliban fighters attacking a school in Peshawar, the style is very much the same.

Yet we should not confuse style with substance. While modern technology allows jihadist groups to glamorize their activities, the content of their videos remains firmly rooted in Islamic tradition and the theory of global jihad. 

These are rebels with a cause. In their own minds, they are reliving the glorious past of holy war, reenacting Muhammad's early battles against the Quraysh, when he and his men were grossly outnumbered yet still were victorious, egged on by Allah's promise of rewards for those who died as martyrs.

I was about eight years old when I first heard the tales of the Prophet's army, at my Qur'an school in Saudi Arabia. (Our teachers showed us dramatic video re-creations of the battles.) Make no mistake: today's jihadist fighters have been raised with these same stories—and often the ineptitude of the jihadists' opponents seems to make history repeat itself. In Iraq, government soldiers fled their positions when IS attacked, despite being better armed than their attackers. In Nigeria, too, despite substantial Western assistance, the authorities failed miserably to free "our girls" from Boko Haram.

After the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the airport attack in Karachi, Pakistan, the jihadist websites gloated that Allah had weakened the enemy, allowing victory—exactly the same story I heard from Somalis back in 1994 after eighteen American military personnel were killed and mutilated in Mogadishu. Even the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan in exchange for five Taliban leaders can be presented as another victory for Allah's warriors over the infidel.

The jihadists, then, are not simply disaffected youths from deprived backgrounds who have surfed the wrong websites. They are men and women with a sense of sacred mission. The words of a ten-year-old Palestinian boy, speaking after his father's own death, perfectly capture what I mean:

By Allah, oh my father, I love you more than my own soul, but that is trivial because of my religion, my cause and my Al-Aqsa [the mosque in Jerusalem]. Father, my eyes will shed no tears, but my finger will pull the trigger—this trigger that I still remember. I will never forget, beloved father, the times when you taught me the love of jihad. You taught me the love of arms, so that I would be a knight, Allah willing. I will follow in your steps and fight the enemies on the battlefield. Every drop of blood that dripped from your pure body is worth dozens of bullets directed towards the enemies' chests. Tomorrow I will grow up, tomorrow I will avenge, and the battlefields will know who is the son of the Martyr, the commander, Ashraf Mushtaha. Finally, father, we are not saying goodbye, rather, I'll see you as a Shahid [Martyr] in Paradise. [I am] your son, who longs to meet you, the young knight, Nairn, son of Ashraf Mushtaha.7

"You taught me the love of jihad." That is the message being heard today across the globe. And thousands are heeding it.

Global Jihad

The scale of the jihadist problem is growing much faster than most people in the West want to face. 

At the University of Maryland at College Park, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), part of the Global Terrorism Database, tracks terror attacks worldwide. What they are finding is that "worldwide terrorism is reaching new levels of destructiveness," according to Gary LaFree, a START director and professor of criminology and criminal justice at Maryland. Leading this dramatic rise is an "incredible growth" in jihadist attacks perpetrated by "al-Qaeda affiliates." 

In 2012, START identified the six most lethal jihad terror groups as the Taliban (more than 2,500 fatalities), Boko Haram (more than 1,200), Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (more than 960), Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (more than 950), Al-Qaeda in Iraq (more than 930), and Al-Shabaab (more than 700).

The numbers for 2013 and 2014 will likely be even higher. Places such as Iraq and Syria are of course a long way away from the United States: it is five and a half thousand miles from New York to Damascus. Even Europeans tend to regard the Middle East as distant: from London to Damascus is, after all, nearly three thousand miles.

To many of us, Syria may just seem like this decade's Bosnia or Rwanda; we tend to assume, in a slightly cynical or fatalistic way, that the next decade will bring along a new list of distant conflict zones. On an intellectual level, we may accept that we should be concerned about jihadists abroad, but on an emotional level, most people in the West are still disengaged.

But the rise of Western jihadists is changing that. Almost no one in the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe could escape the ghastly spectacle of a British-born jihadist beheading helpless American and British captives.

A report from the AIVD, the Dutch intelligence service, describes a pattern that can be seen not only in the Netherlands but right across Western Europe: young Muslims are quickly moving from being merely "fellow traveler sympathizers" with jihadists to being fully fledged "ruthless fighters." It is not just an apostate like me who must now live in fear; even moderate Muslims face threats. "Muslims in the Netherlands who openly oppose joining the Syrian conflict and challenge the highly intolerant and antidemocratic dogma of jihadism have found themselves increasingly subject to physical and virtual intimidation," according to the AIVD.8 High-profile Muslims who oppose the jihadists "cannot even go out in public without protection," while former Muslim radicals, who have turned away from the violent ideology, are severely threatened.9 

And the call to jihad is transmitted through multiple channels. As the AIVD report puts it: "it is now available in multiple forms and many languages, with material ranging from the movement's classic written works to sound recordings of lectures and films from the front line."10

The jihadists have the upper hand in Europe—and they know it. In April 2014, a Dutch jihadist addressed the following tweet directly to the AIVD: 

"Greetings from Syria! Intensively monitored for years, sent back 4 times and now drinking Pepsi in Syria? Que pasa what went wrong?" 

The AIVD report grimly predicts attacks throughout Europe, on governments, on Jews, on moderate Muslims, both Sunnis and Shiites. The threat, it concludes, is greater than ever before.11

Why should the United States be any different, even if in relative terms the Muslim share of the population is smaller than in most Western European countries? A Pew survey from 2007 noted that American Muslims under the age of thirty were twice as likely as older Muslims to believe that suicide bombings in defense of Islam could be justified, and 7 percent of American Muslims between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine said that they had a "favorable" view of Al-Qaeda.12

While the proportion may be small, the absolute number of Americans committed to political Islam and willing to contemplate violence to advance its goals is not trivial. Another Pew survey, from 2011, found that somewhere around 180,000 American Muslims regarded suicide bombings as being justified in some way.13 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, is said to have told his U.S. Army Reservist guards when he walked away from four years of detention in Camp Bucca in Iraq, "I'll see you in New York." I fear it is only a matter of time before IS does indeed manifest itself in Manhattan.

Islam has always been transnational. It was founded and established and spread across the world when the nation-state and national identity were at best inchoate and more often nonexistent. People belonged to tribes, city-states, empires, or religious orders. But whereas Christianity was configured from its inception to co-exist with states and empires alike (if they would tolerate Christianity), Islam from the outset aspired to be church, state, and empire. If you are a self-respecting Islamist, you are therefore bound to be a crosser of national borders. You may need to gain local power, but your ultimate goal is to have Islam rule the world. And today you can write and talk openly about that goal on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else you like.

Islamic State's social media mastermind is believed to be Ahmad Abousamra, a dual American-Syrian citizen, who grew up in the comfortable Boston suburb of Stoughton, while his father, worked as an endocrinologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He attended the private Xaverian Brothers Catholic high school in Westwood, Massachusetts, before transferring to Stoughton High in his senior year, when he made the honor roll. He also made the dean's list at Northeastern University.

If this sounds like a privileged upbringing, that's because it was. Yet, according to the testimony of FBI agents, Abousamra "celebrated" the 9/11 attacks and, while in college in the early 2000s, expressed his support for murdering Americans because "they paid taxes to support the government and were kufar [nonbelievers]." 

Abousamra worshipped at the same Cambridge mosque as the Tsarnaev brothers and five other high-profile terrorists, among them Afia Siddiqui, an MIT scientist turned Al-Qaeda agent known as "Lady Al-Qaeda," who was sentenced to eighty-six years in prison for planning a chemical attack in New York.

An MIT scientist. A dean's list student at Northeastern. These jihadists are hardly uneducated, unskilled, or impoverished. 

Some have been the beneficiaries of the best Western education that money can buy. That they have nevertheless committed themselves to holy war against the West is deeply perplexing to those of us who cannot imagine anything being more attractive than the Western way of life. That is why we cast around desperately for explanations of their behavior— any explanations, other than the obvious one.

The Roots of Jihad

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, there was a rush to deny that the Tsarnaev brothers had been motivated by religious radicalism. 

President Obama went out of his way to avoid referring to Islam in his statements after the Boston bombing. 

When it became impossible to deny that the perpetrators had in fact been avidly reading the online tirades of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian teacher and mentor of Osama bin Laden, the Islamic Society of Boston issued a bland statement saying that "one suspect [had] disagreed with the moderate American-Islamic theology of the ISB Cambridge mosque."

It was much the same story just over a month later, on May 22, when Lee Rigby was hacked to death in Woolwich. Within hours, a woman named Julie Siddiqi, representing the Islamic Society of Britain (and a convert to the faith), stepped before the microphones to attest that all good Muslims were "sickened" by the attack, "just like everyone else." 

The Guardian ran a headline quoting a Muslim Londoner: "These poor idiots have nothing to do with Islam." Try telling that to Lee Rigby's murderer who killed him while yelling ("Allahu ak-bar") (God Is Great).

Omar Bakri also claimed to speak for the true faith following the Woolwich killing. Of course, he was unavailable for the cameras in England because the Islamist group he founded, Al-Muhajiroun, was banned in 2010, so he spoke from Tripoli in northern Lebanon, where he now lives under an agreement with the Lebanese government that prevents him from leaving the country for thirty years. 

A decade earlier, in London, Bakri had taught Michael Adebolajo, the accused Woolwich killer who was videotaped at the scene. 

"A quiet man, very shy, asking lots of questions about Islam," Bakri recalled of his student, the terrorist. The teacher was impressed to see in the grisly video of Lee Rigby's murder how far his shy disciple had come, "standing firm, courageous, brave. Not running away. . . . The Prophet said an infidel and his killer will not meet in Hell. That's a beautiful saying. May God reward him for his actions. ... I don't see it as a crime as far as Islam is concerned."14

Omar Bakri is not making up Muhammad's words. If the Qur'an or the hadith urges the believer to kill infidels ("slay them wherever ye catch them" [2:191]) or to behead them ("when ye meet the Unbelievers [in fight], smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly [on them]" [47:4])—or to whip adulterers and stone them to death (Sahih Muslim 17:4192), 

then we cannot be wholly surprised when fundamentalists do precisely those things. 

Those who say that the butchers of Islamic State are misinterpreting these verses have a problem. The Qur'an itself explicitly urges pitilessness.

Or consider the case of Boko Haram, the organization that briefly attracted the attention of the American public by kidnapping 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria last year. 

The translation of Boko Haram from the Hausa language is usually given in English-language media as "Western Education Is Forbidden." But "Non-Muslim Teaching Is Forbidden" might be more accurate. 

Like individual terrorists, organizations such as Boko Haram do not spring from nowhere. The men who establish such groups, whether in Africa, Asia, or even Europe, are members of long-established Muslim communities, most of whose members are happy to lead peaceful lives. To understand why the jihadists are flourishing, you need to understand the dynamics within those communities.

It begins simply enough, usually with the establishment of an association of men dedicated to the practice of the sunnah (the tradition of guidance from the Prophet Muhammad). 

There will be a lead preacher, not unlike Boqol Sawm, the Muslim Brotherhood imam I encountered as a girl in Nairobi. Much of the young man's preaching will address the place of women. He will recommend that girls and women be kept indoors and covered from head to toe if they are to venture outside. He will also condemn the permissiveness of Western society.

What kind of response will he encounter? In the United States and in Europe, some moderate Muslims may quietly draw him to the attention of authorities. Women may voice concerns about the attacks on their freedoms. 

But in other parts of the world, where law and order are lacking, such young men and their extremist messages can thrive. 

In particular, where governments are weak, corrupt, or nonexistent, the message of Boko Haram and its counterparts is especially compelling. Not implausibly, they can blame poverty on official corruption and offer as an antidote the pure principles of the Prophet.

But why do so many young men turn from these words to violence? At first, they can count on some admiration for this fundamentalist message from within their own communities. Some may encounter opposition from established Muslim leaders who feel threatened. But the preacher and his cohorts persevere because perseverance in the sunnah is one of the most important keys to heaven. And over time, the following grows, to the point where it is as large as that of the Muslim community's established leaders. That is when the showdown happens—and the argument for "holy war" suddenly makes sense to leader and follower alike.

The history of Boko Haram has followed precisely this script. 

The group was founded in 2002 by a young Islamist called Mohammed Yusuf, who started out preaching in a Muslim community in Borno state of northern Nigeria. He set up an educational complex, including a mosque and an Islamic school. For seven years, mostly poor families flocked to hear his message. But in 2009, the Nigerian government investigated Boko Haram and ultimately arrested several members, including Yusuf himself. The crackdown sparked violence that left about seven hundred dead.

Yusuf soon died in prison—the government said he was killed while trying to escape—but the seeds had been planted. Under one of Yusuf's lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram turned to jihad. In 2011, Boko Haram launched its first terror attack in Borno. Four people were killed, and from then on violence became an integral part, if not the central part, of its mission.

It is no longer plausible to argue that organizations such as Boko Haram—or, for that matter, Islamic State-—have nothing to do with Islam. It is no longer credible to define "extremism" as some disembodied threat, meting out death without any ideological foundation, a problem to be dealt with by purely military methods, preferably drone strikes. We need to tackle the root problem of the violence that is plaguing our world today, and that must be the doctrine of Islam itself.

The Practice of Jihad: The Worldwide War on Christians

One of the most devastating manifestations of the modern era of jihad is the violent oppression of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority nations all over the world.

In Islamic history, the land controlled by Islam is referred to as dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam). The land controlled by non-Muslims is dar al-Harb (the abode of War).15 

Historically, after being conquered by Muslims, groups deemed People of the Book, including Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, were required to pay a special tax, the jizya, as a mark of their humiliation. If they did so, they were allowed to keep their religion (9:29). Yet there was always a strain of "eliminationism" in Islam, too. The Prophet himself promised to "expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and . . . not leave any but Muslims" (Sahih Muslim 19: 4363-67). The Quran (5:51) warns Muslims: 

"take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors." Muslim men may marry Jewish or Christian women but Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men because under Islamic law the religious identity of children is passed through the father (5:5).

Modern Islamists go further. 

In some countries, governments and their agents openly sponsor anti-Christian violence, burning churches and imprisoning observant Christians. In others, rebel groups and self-proclaimed vigilantes have taken matters into their own hands, murdering Christians and driving them from regions where their roots go back centuries. Often, local leaders and governments do little to stop them or simply turn a blind eye.

This phenomenon of Christophobia (as opposed to the far more widely discussed "Islamophobia") receives remarkably little coverage in the Western media. Part of this reticence may be due to fear of provoking additional violence. But part is clearly a result of the very effective efforts by lobbying groups such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Over the past decade, these and similar groups have been remarkably successful in persuading journalists and editors in the West to think of each and every example of perceived anti-Muslim discrimination as an expression of a deep-rooted Islamophobia. This, of course, extends with an Orwellian illogic to coverage of Muslim violence against Christians. 

Yet any fair-minded assessment of recent events leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the Christophobia evident in Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other.

Take Nigeria, where the population is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, who for years have lived on the edge of civil war. But the stakes have risen dramatically with the gains made by Boko Haram, which has openly stated that it will kill all of Nigeria's Christians. And it is making good on its promise. In the first half of 2014, Boko Haram killed at least 2,053 civilians in ninety-five attacks.16 They have used machetes, guns, and gasoline bombs, shouting "H/-lahu akbar" (God is great) while launching their attacks, one of which—on a Christmas Day gathering—killed forty-two Catholics. They have targeted bars, beauty salons, and banks. They have murdered Christian clergymen, politicians, students, policemen, and soldiers.

In Sudan, the authoritarian government of the Sunni Muslim north of the country has for decades tormented Christian (as well as animist) minorities in the south. What has often been described as a civil war is in practice the Sudanese government's sustained policy of persecution, which culminated in the infamous genocide in Darfur that began in 2003. Even though Sudan's Muslim president, Omar al-Bashir, has been charged at the International Criminal Court in The Hague with three counts of genocide, and despite the euphoria that greeted South Sudan's independence in 2012, the violence has not ended. In South Kordofan, for example, Christians are still subjected to aerial bombardment, targeted killings, the kidnapping of children, and other atrocities. Reports from the United Nations indicate that there are now 1 million internally displaced persons in South Sudan.17

Both kinds of persecution—-undertaken by nongovernmental groups as well as by agents of the state—have come together in Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. On October 9, 2012, in the Maspero area of Cairo, Coptic Christians—who make up roughly 5 percent of Egypt's population of 81 million18—marched in protest against a wave of attacks by Islamists, including church burnings, rapes, mutilations, and murders, that followed the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship. During the protest, Egyptian security forces drove their trucks into the crowd and fired on protesters, crushing and killing at least twenty-four and wounding more than three hundred people.19 Within two months, tens of thousands of Copts had fled their homes in anticipation of more attacks.20

Nor is Egypt the only Arab country where Christian minorities have come under attack. Even before the advent of IS, it was dangerous to be a Christian in Iraq. Since 2003, more than nine hundred Iraqi Christians (most of them Assyrians) have been killed in Baghdad alone, and seventy churches have been burned, according to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). 

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled as a result of violence directed specifically at them, reducing the number of Christians in the country from just over a million before 2003 to fewer than half a million today. AINA understandably describes this as an "incipient genocide or ethnic cleansing of Assyrians in Iraq." The recent decimation by IS forces of Mosul's two-thousand-year-old Christian population—who fled under threat of death or forced conversion, and saw their possessions stolen and looted, their homes marked with "N" (for Nazarene) and their churches desecrated—is merely the latest episode in a campaign of persecution.

One Mosul resident, Bashar Nasih Behnam, escaped with his two children. "There is not a single Christian family left in Mosul," he said. "The last one was a disabled Christian woman. They came to her and said you have to get out and if you don't we will cut off your head with a sword. That was the last family." Those fleeing were also robbed: the IS fighters took their money and gold, ripped earrings from women's ears, and confiscated mobile phones.

Then there are the states where intolerance is part and parcel of the nation's legal code. Pakistan's Christians are a tiny minority—only about 1.6 percent of a population of more than 180 million. But they are subject to intense segregation and discrimination: allowed to shop only at a few sparsely stocked stores, forbidden to draw water from wells earmarked for Muslims, and forced to bury their dead, stacked on top of one another, in tiny graveyards because Muslims cannot be buried near people of other faiths.

They are also subjected to Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, which make it illegal to declare belief in the Christian Trinity. 

When a Christian group is suspected of transgressing the blasphemy laws, the consequences can be brutal. In the spring of 2010, the offices of the international Christian aid group World Vision were attacked by ten men armed with grenades, who left six people dead and four wounded. A militant Muslim group claimed responsibility for the attack, on the ground that World Vision was working to subvert Islam. (In fact, it was helping the survivors of a major earthquake.)

Not even Indonesia—often touted as the world's most tolerant, democratic, and modern majority-Muslim nation—has been immune to the fever of Christophobia. Between 2010 and 2011, according to data compiled by the Christian Post, the number of violent incidents committed against religious minorities (and at 8 percent of the population, Christians are the country's largest minority) increased by nearly 40 percent, from 198 to 276.

Despite the fact that more than a million Christians live in Saudi Arabia as foreign workers, even private acts of Christian prayer are banned. To enforce these totalitarian restrictions, the religious police regularly raid the homes of Christians and bring them up on charges of blasphemy in courts where their testimony carries less legal weight than a Muslim's. Saudi Arabia bans the building of churches, and its textbooks enshrine anti-Christian and anti-Jewish dogma: sixth-grade students are taught that "Jews and Christians are enemies of the believers." An eighth-grade textbook says, "The Apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the Swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians."21 

Even in Ethiopia, where Christians make up a majority of the population, church burnings by members of the Muslim minority have become a problem.


Anti-Christian violence is not centrally planned or coordinated by some international Islamist agency. It is, rather, an expression of anti-Christian animus that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities. As Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, pointed out in an interview with Newsweek, Christian minorities in many majority-Muslim nations have "lost the protection of their societies."

Of course, intolerance of different faiths is not unique to Islam. The Roman Empire first persecuted Christians, then persecuted non-Christians after Christianity was adopted as the Empire's official religion. 

In medieval Christendom there was no "religious freedom" as we would recognize it today; heretics were cruelly punished, Jews persecuted. When Pope Urban II called for the first crusade in 1095, he told knights willing to journey to Jerusalem that they would be forgiven all their past sins if they killed unbelievers in the Holy Land. And when European Christians set out to conquer and colonize the world, their treatment of "heathens" was often brutal to the point of genocide. 

Yet Patricia Crone argues that there was always something unique about the Muslim concept of jihad—"the belief that God had chosen one people over others and ordered them to go conquer the earth." 

Christians today, with few exceptions, repudiate the intolerance of the past. In the twentieth century, the horrors of the Holocaust forced Christian thinkers to confront the pernicious role of anti-Semitism in European history. 

The contrast with the Muslim world is stark. There, intolerance is on the rise and the remit of jihad has been extended to include all nonbelievers.

Why Are the Jihadists Winning? Because We Are Letting Them

In July 2014, the prospect of a flag bearing the words of the Shahada being raised over Downing Street got the attention of one hundred British imams, who signed a letter urging "British Muslim communities not to fall prey to any form of sectarian divisions or social discord" but rather "to continue the generous and tireless efforts to support all of those affected by the crisis in Syria and unfolding events in Iraq . . . from the UK in a safe and responsible way." Qari Muhammad Asim, the imam at the Makkah Mosque in Leeds and one of the authors of the letter, told BBC radio: "Imams from a cross-section of theological backgrounds have come together to give a very strong message to young British Muslims who might be inclined to go to Syria or Iraq to fight, saying to them, 'Please don't expose yourselves, don't put your lives at risk and the lives of others around you.'" Responding to a question, he went further:

Islam itself has been hijacked and [some] people . . . have been completely brainwashed. It's completely ridiculous to say that people, fellow human beings, are enemies and as a result they should be blown up. Obviously, social media plays a huge part, the Internet plays a huge part, in brainwashing and radicalizing people.22

According to Asim, more than one hundred imams were planning to launch appeals on social media and platforms like Twitter. They have even developed a website,

"A lot of work needs to be done," he acknowledged. But "it's not just the responsibility of the Muslim community and the imams. It's law enforcement, intelligence services. We all need to work together in partnership and make sure that young British Muslims are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains."

It would, of course, be deeply reassuring if we could believe that the Western jihadists are merely the victims of online brainwashing and that a few moderate websites would soon fix the problem. 

But the reality is very different. Those who have been recruited to the cause of jihad have not just been unlucky in their Internet browsing selections. 

Since the 1990s, foreign-born imams have established themselves in pockets of London and other major European cities, preaching sermons and distributing audio recordings in which they have explicitly and repeatedly called for jihad.

With the best of intentions, no doubt, the British government opened its doors to many of these imams, often recognizing them as legitimate asylum seekers and offering them the usual welfare benefits available to those fleeing persecution. 

To give just one example, the Finsbury Park Mosque, led by the Egyptian imam and now convicted terrorist Abu Hamza al-Masri, had among its congregation the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, the 9/11 "twentieth hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be Los Angeles airport bomber Ahmed Ressam, as well as Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who stands accused by the Pakistani government of murdering the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

In response to this kind of threat, the British government developed what it calls the "Prevent strategy." Prevent is supposed to stop Britons and residents from being drawn into terrorist activities and networks, by working with all branches of government, from education to law enforcement. For instance, Prevent is supposed to help the immigration authorities to deny visas to extremist imams. But the remit of Prevent is broad: it is supposed to cover all forms of terrorism, from right-wing extremism to something vaguely called "nonviolent extremism," whatever that means.

The potential weaknesses of this approach can be seen in the comments of one of its regional managers, Farooq Siddiqui, who in 2014 used a Facebook chat to offer his approval to Britons who wanted to travel to Syria to fight against the regime of President Assad, saying that these men had "walked the walk." He compared these fighting jihadists to British Jews who might join the Israel Defense Forces and could then return to the United Kingdom, arguing on that basis that jihadists returning from Syria should not face automatic arrest. "If a man describes himself as wanting to help the oppressed and dies," Siddiqui wrote, "in that case he is a martyr."23 It is not immediately obvious what a man like Siddiqui is going to prevent, aside from a serious discussion of the problem Britain faces.

Ghaffar Hussein, the managing director of Quilliam, a British think tank working on combatting terrorism, notes that jihad is appealing because of its "one size fits all" set of answers to complex problems. 

Introspection is not required, he notes, because all blame is shifted to outside enemies and "anti-Muslim conspiracy theories." The jihad narrative has therefore become "the default anti-establishment politics of today. It is a means of expressing solidarity and asserting a bold new identity while being a vehicle for seeking the restoration of pride and self-dignity." In response, "mainstream Muslim commentators"—not to mention non-Muslims—have failed to articulate a positive narrative that does not simply reinforce the idea that Muslims are somehow victims. In short, Hussein's argument is that the jihadists have the more compelling narrative. To understand the power of that narrative, let's look more closely at what motivates young Western-educated Muslims to sign up for jihad.

In 2013 Umm Haritha, a twenty-year-old Canadian, traveled to Syria via Turkey to join Islamic State. Within a week, she had married an IS fighter, a Palestinian national who had been living in Sweden. He was killed five months later and Umm, a widow, turned to Hogging, offering advice to others who wished to move to Syria, marry jihadists, and create families inside the IS caliphate.

Her words make for interesting reading. In an interview with Canada's CBC via text messages, Umm described herself as "middle class," adding that her decision to join jihad was made by a desire to "live a life of honor" under Islamic law rather than the laws of the "few/ar," or unbelievers. She had begun her journey to jihad in Canada, where she donned the niqab, a veil that exposes nothing more than the wearer's eyes. She told her interviewer that she felt "mocked" and harassed by her fellow Canadians, adding, "Life was degrading and an embarrassment and nothing like the multicultural freedom of expression and religion they make it out to be, and when I heard that the Islamic State had sharia in some cities in Syria, it became an automatic obligation upon me since I was able to come here."24

Umm's online postings describe life in Manbij, an IS-controlled city of 200,000 close to the Turkish border, and show images such as the white loudspeaker van that patrols the city streets to remind residents of their daily prayers. She notes approvingly that a man was recently crucified and beheaded for the crime of robbing and raping a woman. And she adds that many of those who have moved to the caliphate have "ripped up their passports." Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader, who has renamed himself "Caliph Ibrahim," has called on Muslims worldwide to move to the caliphate, saying, "Those who can immigrate to the Islamic State should immigrate, as immigration to the house of Islam is a duty." 


As the stepbrother of a radicalized British man explained, the purveyors of jihad know what their recruits "are craving—identity, respect, empowerment. They push all the right buttons—make them feel special. And once you're in the door, it's like family. They look after each other."

Consider, too, a 2014 BBC 5 Live interview with a man calling himself Abu Osama, who claimed to be from the north of England and said that he was training with the Al-Nusra Front in Syria with the ultimate goal of establishing a caliphate (Khilafah in Arabic) across the Islamic world. 

Osama told the BBC: 

"I have no intention of coming back to Britain, because I have come to revive the Islamic Khilafah. I don't want to come back to what I have left behind. There is nothing in Britain—it is just pure evil." 

And for emphasis he added: "If and when I come back to Britain it will be when this Khilafah—this Islamic state—comes to conquer Britain and I come to raise the black flag of Islam over Downing Street, over Buckingham Palace, over Tower Bridge and over Big Ben."25 

(Anjem Choudary has promised the same, predicting that the black flag of IS will fly over both 10 Downing Street and the White House after the conclusion of the great global battle that is now under way.)

Such seemingly wild narratives are not out of the mainstream; rather, they present jihad just in the way it has always been taught. 

"If you look at the history of Islam," as the young jihadist Osama put it, "you will see that the Prophet fought against those who fought against him. He never fought those that never fought against the Islamic state. Where I am, the people love us, the people love the mujahideen, the warriors." 

As for Osama's family, at first they had found it "hard to accept," but he had won them over to his "good cause." As he put it: "They are a bit scared but I tell them we will meet in the afterlife. This is just a temporary separation. They said, 'We understand now what you are doing,' and my mother said, 'I have sold you to Allah. I don't want to see you again in this world.'"26

Is Jihadism Curable?

The Harvard Kennedy School scholar Jessica Stern has spent years studying counterterrorism and, in particular, efforts to prevent the spread of jihad. 

Indeed, she was consulted on the development of an anti-jihad effort in the Netherlands after the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh ten years ago. In a recent article, she describes in detail a Saudi Arabian jihadist rehabilitation program that has "treated" thousands of militants, and claims that the graduates have been "reintegrated into mainstream society much more successfully than ordinary criminals."27

The Saudi approach, Stern notes, is inspired by the efforts of other governments in other regions of the world to "deprogram" everyone from neo-Nazis to drug lords. 

The goal is to get them "to abandon their radical ideology or renounce their violent means or both." 

The method is a full-time residential program that includes "psychological counseling, vocational training, art therapy, sports, and religious reeducation," along with "career placement" services for themselves and their families, if needed. Upon completion, the program's graduates— some of whom have been previously incarcerated in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay—receive housing, a car, and even funds to pay for a wedding. The Saudis will even assist them with finding a wife.

But the program doesn't end there. There is what Stern describes as "an extensive post-release program as well, which involve[s] extensive surveillance." Rather like convicted sex offenders in the West, ex-jihadists will be monitored for most if not all of the rest of their lives. Stern goes on to explain that the "guiding philosophy" behind the program is that "jihadists are victims, not villains, and they need tailored assistance." Accordingly, the Saudis have a very specific term for the program's participants. They are "beneficiaries."

Stern maintains that, while terrorist movements "often arise in reaction to an injustice, real or imagined," that the supporters "feel must be corrected," ideology generally plays a limited role in someone's decision to join the terror cause. She writes: 

"The reasons that people become terrorists are as varied as the reasons that others choose their professions: market conditions, social networks, education, individual preferences. Just as the passion for justice and law that drives a lawyer at first may not be what keeps him working at a law firm, a terrorist's motivations for remaining in, or leaving, his 'job' change over time." 

Stern also argues that the terrorists who "claim to be driven by religious ideology are often very ignorant of Islam." The Saudi "beneficiaries" have, she writes, little in the way of formal education and a limited understanding of Islam.

I am deeply skeptical about all this, for two reasons. 

First, as part of the Saudi program Stern describes, clerics are brought in to teach the beneficiaries that only "the legitimate rulers of Islamic states, not individuals such as Osama bin Laden, can declare a holy war. They preach against takfir [accusing other Muslims of apostasy] and the selective reading of religious texts to justify violence." One participant in the program told her: "Now I understand that I cannot make decisions by reading a single verse. I have to read the whole chapter." No matter how well intentioned this approach may be, it leaves the core concept of jihad intact.

Second, we should not forget that the global jihadist network would not exist on anything like the scale it does today if it had not been for Saudi funding—to say nothing of the millions that have flowed to terrorist organizations from other Gulf states. 

As Nabeel al-Fadhel, a liberal member of Kuwait's Parliament, told The Christian Science Monitor: 

"There isn't a bomb that explodes anywhere [inside Syria] without some of its material financed by Kuwait." Noting the vast number of Kuwaitis who have donated to the jihadist cause, he added that while they may "think they are getting closer to God by giving this money," instead, "it is gong to places [they] never dreamt of."28

The last people we should expect to develop an effective counterforce to jihad are the rulers of those countries that, over the past thirty years, have played the biggest role in funding the Medina Muslims who have been jihad's most ardent advocates.

Decommissioning Jihad

In one of the many IS videos that can be found online, a British man who identifies himself as Brother Abu Muthanna al Yemeni extolls the virtues of jihad. 

He encourages foreign Muslims "to answer the call of Allah and His Messenger when He calls you to what gives you life. . . . What He says gives you life is jihad."29 

This is not empty rhetoric. We need to answer these words. We need more than just a counternarrative. We need a theological reply.

The nuclear arms race of the Cold War was not won by the proponents of unilateral disarmament. No matter how many thousands of people turned out for antinuclear marches in London or Bonn, missiles were still deployed in NATO countries and pointed at the Warsaw Pact countries, which had their own missiles pointed right back at the West. 

The only way the arms race ended was with the ideological and political collapse of Soviet communism, after which there was a large-scale (though not complete) decommissioning of nuclear weapons. 

In much the same way, we need to recognize that this is an ideological conflict that will not be won until the concept of jihad has itself been decommissioned. 

We also have to acknowledge that, far from being un-Islamic, the central tenets of the jihadists are supported by centuries-old Islamic doctrine.

The IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani recently called on Muslims to use all means to kill a "disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian or a Canadian."30 

"Please don't" is not an adequate reply. As Ghaffar Hussain, himself a former Islamist, has said, "You need to stand up, challenge them, and rubbish their ideas."

It is obviously next to impossible to redefine the word "jihad" as if its call to arms is purely metaphorical (in the style of the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers").31 

There is too much conflicting scripture, and too many examples from the Quran and hadith that the jihadists can cite to bolster their case.

Therefore I believe the best option would be to take it off the table. 

If clerics and imams and scholars and national leaders around the world declared jihad "haram" forbidden, then there would be a clear dividing line. 

Imagine the impact if those hundred imams in Great Britain had explicitly renounced the entire concept of jihad. 

Imagine if the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holy shrines, itself renounced jihad, rather than turning the jihadists into beneficiaries of (yet more of) its largesse.

And if that is too much to expect—if Muslims simply refuse to renounce jihad completely—then the next best thing would be to call their bluff about Islam being a religion of peace. 

If a tradition truly exists within Islam that interprets jihad as a purely spiritual activity, as Sufi Muslims tend to do, let us challenge other Muslims to embrace it. 

Christianity was itself once a crusading faith, as we have seen, but over time it abandoned its militancy. If Islam really is a religion of peace, then what is preventing Muslims from doing the same?