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Perhaps the Wrong Discourse:
Jihadist Terror in Historical Perspective

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Perhaps the Wrong Discourse:
Jihadist Terror in Historical Perspective

August 7, 2005

The current media has responded to Muslim terrorism by examining the sources for jihad, the commandment for Muslims to fight to the death against unbelievers. The reward for death in this battle (to be sure a military tactic) is to attain immediate paradise. And what a primitive nomadic paradise: to be inundated with perpetual virgins for eternity.

As an historian I understand the development of this idea which antedated Islam by some seven centuries. It was preceded by Christian promises of paradise to military and non military martyrs. Ultimately, as scholars are fully aware, the promise of reward for martyrs begins with Matityahu the Hasmonean's, father of Judah the Maccabee, innovative defense of fighting on the Sabbath. Neither Jews nor Christians, however, bribed their martyrs with perpetual sex and other highs.

As for the contemporary Muslim discourse, we must note that Islam developed in history, and, the divine conversation with Muhammed notwithstanding, the emergence of an Islamic society was dependent upon the Christian Roman law codes in effect at the time of the Muslim conquests. These codes, according to the treaties of surrender that parallel Deuteronomy, allowed the subject peoples who surrendered to live according to their ancestral laws. Thus we have to return to the Theodosian and Justinian codes to understand the infrastructure of Islamic laws and attitudes towards the People of the Book, more popularly known as Dhimmi.

These Christian Roman law codes established a derogated status for the Jews within Christian society, a status that has been exacerbated by ecclesiastical teachings for a millennium and a half. At the time of their adoption in the 7th century they contributed to the teaching of contempt that permeates Islamic writings as has been shown by medieval scholars and more recently by students of the status of dhimma.

Yet this contempt is primarily a religious competition. It never translated into murder of Jews as it did among the Christians, who learned during the Crusades that it was easy to kill Jews and, more importantly, that there was no retribution, at least in this reality, to that continued murder. Unfortunately the lesson was repeated through the period of the Holocaust by Catholic and Orthodox during World War II.

The major Muslim figure to call for the murder of Jews during World War II was Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. His argument for killing Jews was not based on Islam. Rather it was a consequence of his political alliance with Adolph Hitler.

How could a Muslim cleric advocate the mass murder of Jews, even those who were not part of the Dhimma covenant, which recognized their right to live within the Orbit of Islam? Such murder was contrary to Shariya and to the traditional Muslim relationship with Jews.

Yet it is documented! Moreover, the mufti recruited a Muslim legion in the Balkans to support the ethnic cleansing policy of the Nazis. And after the defeat of Hitler's regime, these warriors fled to Egypt where they later joined the jihad against the new State of Israel in 1948.

More important than the Nazi trained fighters is the spread of Nazi propaganda throughout the Middle East from the 1930s to the present. It is this verbiage, obvious to anyone who reads the anti-Semitic tripe of the Nazi period, which is repeated, interspersed with appropriate verses from the Koran that dominates the discourse of contemporary terrorism.

We in the West tend to ignore a broad based view of history and are more concerned with local, regional, occasionally national occurrences. Yet are we so naive as to blithely ignore what the enemy says and compare it to their sources? Has the Christian West such a residual fear and hatred of the Islamic East that it ignores the Nazi poison that permeates the contemporary discourse of hatred in Islam?

Both sides continue their traditional contempt for the Jews, a contempt written into their respective law codes and based on the virulent competition of their sacred texts. But now that contempt is in the modern language of political nationalism. Israel is the scapegoat of every anti sentiment: religious, economic, political, colonial, racist, you name it.

This verbal attack by the Right and the Left has exacerbated the reluctance of the West toward a Jewish state, regardless of Israel's own claim to be a secular democratic state. Unfortunately, the enemies of Israel have hijacked this term for the Palestinians, a misfortunate people who are bombarded by Jihadists and Nazi ideology that incites them to bomb the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and multi-religious Israeli society.

It would help us to react more successfully to the current spate of Islamic terrorism by understanding the multi-layered discourse that is its public discourse. The question, to our detriment, is why the west ignores this discourse? Even more curious, now that the Assassins have resurrected in the Christian West, is the lack of a coherent response to the violation of hospitality that is the hallmark of most societies.

Steven Bowman
University of Cincinnati

 

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