In the wake of Abdul Artan’s car and knife attack at Ohio State University, the usual questions are being asked: What was his motive? Did he have psychological problems? Will there be a backlash against the Muslim community?
But to those of us who suspect we already know the motive, the most pertinent question is the question of what can be done to defeat Islamic terrorism. The answer according to many experts is that you can’t defeat jihad without first defeating the ideology behind it. We must, it is said, so thoroughly discredit and delegitimize that ideology that the enemy ceases to believe in it and therefore loses the will to fight.
So far, so good. That all makes sense. We should do everything we can to undermine the ideology that inspires ISIS, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Lone Wolves. So, what exactly is this ideology? Here, things become a bit murky. I’ve read a number of authors who’ve written about the subject, but most come up short on specifics. They seem to assume that calling the beast “radical Islamic terror” is sufficient.
The reason for the evasiveness is that the elusive ideology of the terrorists is strikingly similar to Islam itself. When terrorist leaders speak of their “ideology,” they do so by citing the Koran and the commands of Allah. Here’s a sampling:
It is to this religion that we call you…It is the religion of Jihad in the way of Allah, so that Allah’s Word and religion reign Supreme.
—Osama bin Laden, founder of al Qaeda
There is no doubt that Allah commanded us to strike the Kuffar (unbeliever), kill them and fight them by all means necessary.
—Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq which later morphed into ISIS
Support the religion of Allah through jihad in the path of Allah. Go forth, O mujahidin in the path of Allah.
—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, founder of ISIS.
Hmm. It seems that the ideology that motivates terrorists is a religious ideology. And what religion might that be? Here’s where the religion-that-must-not-be-named syndrome kicks in. Say what awful things you want about al-Qaeda and ISIS, just don’t say they have anything to do with Islam.
But how can you criticize the ideology of the Islamic State without also criticizing Islam? And if you can’t criticize Islamic beliefs, how can you defeat the ideology of the Islamic State?
Criticize Islamic beliefs? The reason we don’t want to go there is that many consider such criticism to be tantamount to declaring war on Islam. For example, intelligence expert Sebastian Gorka, who makes a very good case for waging ideological war against ISIS et al., also insists that we are not at war with Islam. I understand the prudential reason for saying that. The vernacular expression of the rationale goes something like this: “Do you want to go to war with 1.6 billion Muslims?
Still, if you can’t criticize Islam, how can you defeat the ideology of the terrorists—an ideology that is inextricably bound up with Islam?
Gorka, along with others, says we should base our fight against terrorism on the Cold War model of our fight against communism. But in the Cold War we didn’t wage ideological war against “perversions” or “misunderstandings” of communism, but against mainstream communism itself. We didn’t urge Russians and East Europeans to practice a more moderate form of communism. We urged them to separate themselves altogether from that pernicious ideology. If we were to follow the Cold War model, we would indeed have to criticize Islam itself—or, at least, many aspects of it. It is faith in Islam, not faith in “violent extremism” that fuels jihad. Jihadists don’t kill people for the hell of it. In fact, they do it to avoid hell, and to reap a heavenly reward.
Which brings us back to the Ohio State jihadist. Last I heard, the authorities were still looking for a motive to explain why Abdul Ali Artan drove his car into a crowd of fellow students. Apparently, if you don’t find an official ISIS photo ID in his wallet, there’s just no way of telling. At the risk of sounding simplistic, let me advance a novel hypothesis. My guess is that a large part of Mr. Artan’s motivation was the promise that several dozen virgins were anxiously awaiting his appearance in the afterlife. Oh sure, I suppose he had other motives, as well—anger over “Islamophobia,” anger about all the Muslims who have been killed by American troops, and so on. But there are plenty of angry eighteen-year olds and the vast majority of them find other ways to express their anger than plowing their cars into pedestrians. On the other hand, the religion of Allah provides constructive things to do with your anger and frustrations. You can, as Mr. al-Zarqawi suggests, follow the command of Allah to “kill them (the unbelievers) and fight them by all means necessary.” And you can be sure that you will be abundantly rewarded in a much happier life in the hereafter.
Are there other ways of claiming your reward? Yes, there are. But the only surefire method according to Islamic tradition is the one chosen by Artan. When Muhammad was asked by a companion if there were any deed that equaled jihad in heavenly reward, he replied “I do not find such a deed” (Bukhari 4.56.2785).
Did Artan leave any record of a desire to join the promised brides? Probably not. For some sensitive souls, some topics are just too delicate to be bandied about. Besides, as a cum laude graduate like Artan would understand, it sounds much nobler to say you are doing this deed in “retribution” for Muslim deaths than to say “I am doing this ‘cause I want my 72 virgins.”
There is however, evidence from diaries, letters, posts, and interviews that the virgins are very much on the mind of jihadists and would-be-jihadists. Take Mohamed Atta. Due to an airport error, his suitcase was left behind on the day of the 9/11 flight. In it were a wedding suit, a bottle of cologne, and a touching letter addressed to his brides to be.
Three thousand Americans are dead because Mr. Atta and his companions wanted to be with virgins in paradise. So it makes sense that in order to defeat the ideology of jihad you should train your ideological weapons on that adolescent fantasy and blast it to smithereens. Take away the virgins and you take away one of the chief incentives for jihad.
But do you really want to go there? It just so happens that this particular fantasy is shared by the vast majority of Muslim males. It’s part of their religion. Here we come back to the general reluctance to criticize Islam. Part of that reluctance, as I’ve said, stems from the fear that criticism will precipitate World War III. The other reasons for the reluctance is the (largely secular) notion that religion is a private matter between an individual and his God and therefore it’s none of our business what another person believes.
That, of course, is sheer nonsense, and especially in regard to Islam. Islam is a very public religion that aims to regulate every aspects of a Muslim’s life down to how he should wash his hands. Moreover, Islam is an expansionist religion that seeks dominance over all other cultures and religions—by force, if necessary. It’s not exactly a private matter when a Muslim warrior takes a sex-slave in Mosul, or flies a plane into the World Trade Center, or plows his car into a campus crowd. Islam doesn’t consider itself to be a private religion and neither should you. You have a personal stake in what Muslims believe just as Poles, Hungarians, and East Germans had a personal stake in what communists believed.
Some say that Islam is a political ideology, some say that it is a religion, and some say that it is a mixture of both. But from one perspective, it doesn’t really matter. Islam is a belief system, and since those beliefs can have dire consequences for non-believers, they ought to be subject to public examination and criticism. There is certainly a risk in doing so, but it’s difficult to imagine anything more risky than the current policy of see-no- Islam. Ideological cold wars do not always lead to hot wars. The West’s Cold War victory over the Soviet Bloc seems to have prevented one. On the other hand, our reluctance to engage the more problematic aspects of Islamic thought only insures that more young men like Abdul Artan will be attracted to them. The jihad is accelerating, but our ideological war against it is still stuck in first gear.