There is something familiar about this impulse to jihad, as expressed by the aspiring martyrs beheading people etc. online. Some people find redemption in violence. Facing death elicits our deepest emotions, and war is a reliable way of experiencing both love and hate. War is cathartic. It is the premise for some of history’s broadest literature — The Illiad, Paradise Lost, volumes dissecting world wars, and so on — and we have yet to discover why wars exist. Why do we orchestrate chaos and destruction? Almost nobody benefits. Why do we go to war?
I remember decompressing on the porch at my parents’ house in the evening on 9/11, after watching hours of news coverage showing the planes hitting the Twin Towers on repeat. I vowed then that I would join the fight as soon as possible. After high school, in 2004, we were still fighting. A VHS arrived in the mail addressed to me with a twelve minute video about how exciting the deck of an aircraft carrier can be, and soon after watching it I enlisted in the navy as an Aviation Electrician. I wanted the military experience, to skip college loans, and to take part in revenge.
If we ask the self-styled jihadis why they go to war, they might say something like what’s written in the introduction to Muhammad Bin Ahmad al-Salim’s book 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, published by Al Qaeda in 2003. They fight for “dominance over the people of disbelief.” Salim’s book claims, “the entire world has announced its war on terrorism — or, rather, on Jihad —” and the connection between terrorism and jihad still resonates, thanks in a very small part to Terak Mehanna’s translation efforts.
While I was in bootcamp, Mehanna traveled to Yeman, supposedly to study Arabic texts about jihad. He is a book enthusiast, who now writes lengthy Facebook posts from prison. In 2011, before ISIL entered the lexicon, in an effort to squelch terrorist propaganda in English, a U.S. court sentenced Mehanna to 17.5 years in prison for conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. 39 Ways particularly caught the FBI’s attention. It reads like a call to war, “Having the inner intention to fight — the true inner intention which leads to one seeking to answer the call of Jihad whenever the caller calls: ‘Saddle up, O cavalry of Allah!’” It is a military recruitment tract, recognizable by the nerves it tickles and its reverence for abstractions like a god and a land.
After warriors unified the Levant and conquered North Africa in the 7th century, followers of Muhammad entered a renaissance in literature and science (PBS). Well before the Caliphate shrunk into the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim world gave us a digital system for mathematics, outlined the causes of disease, and allowed thinkers like Ibn Sina to publish phrases like, “The world is divided into men who have wit and no religion and men who have religion and no wit.” Around the time that the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, the Islamic Empire began a gradual decline (New Yorker). Rulers squabbled and their influence began shrinking into what would become the Ottoman Empire, which fractured completely after World War I. Our narratives about what was and why it was, our histories, can inform our grudges.
A popular myth in the West is that crusades into the Islamic Empire, into areas formerly controlled by the Roman Empire, brought back insights that sparked the European Enlightenment. Who knows? Documents like Ibn Rushd’s Fasl al-Maqal (Muslim Philosophy), with ideas about how religion and science (belief and applied disbelief) can co-exist, were more likely brought to Europe by Spanish traders despite the fighting, and proliferated piecemeal through the hands of conscientious readers who copied and revised them into their own books. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press about 150 years after the crusades, and it took a few hundred more years for good ideas from the Islamic Empire to circulate and stick in European cities. Fundamentalists of every stripe burned documents — destroying records, histories, bad and good ideas alike. Some weird stuff survived. Martin Luther published The Jews and Their Lies (PDF) ninety years before Galileo published his theory on the solar system (PDF). Our religious debates stretch back centuries, and we are still struggling with the ramifications of a universe that was not created for us.
We tend to collectivize through customs and myth, through the stories and rituals we use to explain metaphysics and morality. We have constructs, religious and political identities, that call us to struggle together, to help each other. We share in war, and theoretically we share in the spoils. Our governments (the stewarts of our lands and various identities) go to war over political control of wealth and territory, and rely on us to willingly join together in fights. Our impulse to fight in groups is ancient. Chimpanzees are documented going to war in troops, massacring other communities and eating their young, in Uganda’s Kabale National Park (NY Times), so our species is not alone in its blood lust. This impulse to fight, to take or defend space, is guttural. Sometimes we need it to survive, and sometimes it helps us to thrive, but it is an emotion, not a reason. The impulse to fight might be related to that righteous feeling of jihad we get in our hearts when we see something evil, or something wrong that can be made better. The impulse to jihad might be called an impulse to struggle for justice.
We keep squabbling over access to oil, over roads, over bridges, over dams, burning up oil fields, destroying wetlands and farmlands. ISIL wants to play out a doomsday scenario. It is a death cult in a death spiral, wreaking havoc on civilization, and we can only speculate on the fallout. We imagine nuclear attack scenarios on Jerusalem, or a second Holocaust, and apply theocratic labels — Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Sunni, Shi’ite — on local political interests. When we simplify theology to this level, the KKK is Protestant, and Baptists are particular suspects (Salon). We need to take a moment and consider what beliefs truly drive us into violence and warfare.
A recent strain of Sunni Wahabism, ISIL, with its ambition to restore the Islamic Empire of the 7th century, captures our imaginations. Their propaganda triggers our fight or flight responses. We see images of the Jim Foley beheading, or the Prophet Muhammad, or a passenger plane getting shot down in Ukraine and feel an intense sense of evil in need of resistance. We feel the impulse to jihad, which is resistance evil. But what’s the focus of our jihad? ISIL, with its tough purchase on the word, wants to return the Middle East to a time when the earth was not mapped, before America conceptually existed, before the bubonic plague ravaged Europe. They hope to call down Allah’s judgement in the cradle of human civilization. They are the Middle Eastern wing of the Armageddon Lobby. Conservatives of every stripe share the simultaneous idealization of the past and the future.
Doomsday is in our most ancient literature, carved in stone, with roots extending into the forgotten recesses of oral history. Stories in which gods murder people on a whim with floods and eternal fires are poetry and fiction, which is essentially free association of ideas, memories and assertions. Myths and rituals are ancient speculations about death and consciousness. It’s why we bury or destroy our corpses. The ancient stories we have saved offer insight into ancient religious rituals, justifications for brutal justice, incest, ethnocentricity, slavery, the horrific memory of human sacrifice, that pertinent immoral fib that killing people can redeem a civilization. These stories offer moral guidance, in that they give us a precedent and words to use when discussing our desires and instincts. Many cultures find mystical and spiritual characteristics in warfare. Humanity has worshiped a host of war gods, besides Yahweh aka Allah. Generally behind those gods are physical interests, like lands of milk, honey and oil, if not for now, then in the hereafter.
The Qua’ran’s teachings on jihad can be interpreted in a few ways, depending on context and translation. Muhammad said to his followers, “The true believers are those who believe in God and His messenger, then attain the status of having no doubt whatsoever, and jihad with their money and their lives in the cause of God. These are the truthful ones” (Qur’an 49:15). If you apply this passage in a time of war, jihad could easily mean to fight. In peacetime it has an entirely different ring. In one disputed hadith, the Prophet says upon returning from a military campaign, “This day we have returned from the minor jihad to the major jihad” (Islamic Supreme Council), the major jihad being rebuilding the society crippled through warfare. Like any document from a time when paper was both scarce and useful for making fires, we need to read the Qur’an in context of its creation, along with the other documents and artifacts we have from that time period and earlier in order to understand its origin and trajectory.
Applying basic physics and historical knowledge to our reading, there is no reason to believe that gods or angels visited ancient personalities or writers any more frequently in the past. We can apply the same skepticism to the claims of Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammad, as we do to the the claims of David Koresh. The mystical forces of yesteryear are linguistics. Muhammad’s teachings might well be heavenly, and are certainly beautiful to hear sung in Arabic (ASMR inducing for me), but they only offer us a glimpse at a set of religious principles that unified the Middle East at one point in the past. I think jihad can be a useful word for understanding our struggles, if we read texts about jihad with an ear for irony as well as sincerity.
I’ll try to avoid apologetics, because I don’t think we can take any sense out of religions. They are lovely fictions. Religions are about emotions and rituals, and the reasons that they offer are myths. They make us feel good and righteous, but they are not the truth. I intend to blaspheme the final solutions of gods, spirits, prophets or politicians as they come up, because there is no evidence that the universe can support an eternal garden. The words and concepts organized through religious structures help make sense of our actions and reactions. Religious texts attempt to divide heaven from earth, evil from good, and to explain origins, time and eternity. Like all fictions, they provide comforting misdirections, and narratives that resolve in time. Sometimes we cannot see the earth for the stars. We get caught up in the idea of forever, imagine that we understand, and use our religious certainty as an excuse to not address our conflicts peacefully, with reason and fairness.
We know wars start in violence. Any violence will do — the assassination of an archduke, the betrayal of Yahweh, or a kidnapped queen. It doesn’t matter, because once violence erupts, it’s on. But what really drives us to war? The Sumerians had an abstraction that combines the metaphysics of war with the physics of fire, Nergal. He is the winged lion god of war and fire, images of whom ISIL removed from the earth in February. In firefighting school they taught us the combustion triangle — air, fuel, and heat — fire’s three ingredients. Take one away, and there’s potential fire. Take two away, and it’s a safe environment. We might impose a triangle on war as well, to categorize its causes. We could call the sides ideology, weaponry, and violence. If we divide the reasons that we go to war into these three categories, we might find that we can reform ideology, destroy weapons, and adjudicate violent incidents. Ending war may be impossible, because there are physical reasons to fight. Individuals can and do gain through warfare, like Halliburton investors (International Business Times), but the vast majority of people do not profit, and are lucky to break even. We war with each other as societies, but each of our individual actions feed our wars. We are the fighters. We are the voters. Our words and actions give shape to our ideology. Jesus supposedly warned of false ideologies, and offered a simple litmus test for sorting the good from the bad, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16, NKJV). The ideas espoused by ethnocentric groups like ISIL, the KKK, and Zionists, produce violence, chaos, and death.
My only qualm with Islam is its reliance on text for truth. That problem derives from Judaism, and the Christianity of the Roman Empire in particular. It’s partially the fault of excessively reverent bookworms. We know text is malleable, and that it disappears without effort, but maybe gods do speak to us this way. If Muhammad, Jesus, and Abraham existed, so be it. If they did live, they probably were not divine. We cannot know what they actually said, because if somebody did conduct an oral history interview with them, or wrote their words down word for word at some point, we have not found those documents in the sands. We can read ancient texts as historical fictions when they have fictional elements: horses do not have wings; people cannot walk on water; and heaven is not above the sky. That’s outer space.
We do not know whether eternity is more than a figment of desire for more living, and we cannot know. Life is much too short and precious, in the words of Edwin Starr, to worry about a final judgement. Let’s just do what’s right instead of trying to justify ancient moral codes. We need to end America’s Armageddon Lobby, and make earth better, starting in the places where we live. Let’s struggle to make life better and longer for more people to enjoy in the future. Let’s enjoy life, and jihad by curing disease and addressing the problems caused by the climate or the molten stone and shifting plates of earth beneath us.
America has never been at war with Islam. I met a few Islam haters in the navy, but not many. Some of those people get out of the military and join the KKK (Vice News). If enough people get a cynical outlook about life on earth, if enough people invest in an eternal kingdom, and the idea that the fate of the universe revolves around what happens/happened in Israel, or anywhere else, then we are primed for warfare. Our moral compass breaks under biblical mistakes, and we become ready to justify evil deeds, even torture. After reading Terek Mehanna’s translation of 39 Ways, I felt defeated. It promotes the idea that jihad is violent holy warfare, a Wahhabi teaching. That is problematic. It sets the core Islamic belief in a Day of Judgement into violent opposition with a vast amount of scientific knowledge about how the world works.
Barring a massive asteroid strike, humanity will continue to exist for generations. If a Caliphate does rise, let’s hope it’s a good one. Kingdoms and theocracies are dictatorships veiled in genealogies, and dictatorships can prosper. Militaries are dictatorships. Orders travel from top down, and they can be oppressive, exploitative, and selfish or evil. The ancient dictatorship of King Xerxes empowered him to destroy thousands of lives and the Mediterranean economy in the 5th century BCE. Generous rulers, like Queen Elizabeth (Shakespeare’s patron), happen occasionally, but there are better ways to govern ourselves. The U.S. Constitution is not a perfect model. Our culture is sometimes vapid and dull, though we did get rid of slavery. We’ve made mistakes overall, and it appears that our children’s children will have exceptional trouble with the weather because of our polluted atmosphere. We are on an uphill jihad, but if we look beyond our generation, and above our personal grievances, maybe we can make life better.
Mehanna’s translation effort was a form of jihad, and his intellectual struggle to define jihad continues to be polarizing. Every month or so someone posts Mehanna’s writing from prison on the Free Tarek Facebook page. His most recent post on June 3rd is abstract, superstitious and poetic. After several paragraphs about the invisible here-after he wrote, “This is perhaps the first time in history that so many people across the globe have rebelled against Shaytan [Lucifer] on such a scale. But you’ll find that even in Ramadan, most remain under his spell. Why? al-Qurtubi [a Sunni Imam who wrote a commentary on the Qur’an in the 13th century] wrote that despite the shayatin [devils] being chained up during Ramadan, his effects emanate ‘from other sources, such as wicked souls, despicable customs, and the human shayatin [devils].’” He’s an Islamic Pat Robertson.
I do not defend theological conspiracy theories, but I do believe in freedom of speech. I have faith that reason can quell emotional nonsense. The desire Mehanna expressed to know the world better by translating documents ought to be encouraged. His intellect ought to be appreciated and engaged, not imprisoned. Even lying to federal agents is an absurd charge. Why are we punishing speech crimes in America?
Reading 39 Ways I feel embittered, angry, and disillusioned. I want to support Tarek, but his book (because any translation belongs in part to the translator) reminds me of the worst of Christian apocalyptic literature. It assumes Judgement Day will happen physically on earth, and calls the faithful to arm themselves. “An invading enemy who has occupied lands, violated honor, made orphans out of children and widows out of women, has begun to strike at Islām in every valley . . . after all of this, is there a doubt that the only way to come to an understanding with this enemy is through the language of force and revenge?” There’s no reconciling 9/11 with the despicable way the Israeli government treats Palestinians in Gaza. Those are two separate tragedies. The cognitive dissonance that this book causes (the idea that peace comes from war, instead of a collective effort to be peaceful) might well be fatal for some people. It compels Muslims to fight based solely on a belief in the Prophet Muhammad, with no rational reflection on their means or ends. It’s all about bringing a final judgement on the state of nature from a deity. This text makes jihad out to be warfare against the West and threatens people that do not want to fight with hellfire. That is wrong. It is malicious and misguided, and I want to break it down piece by piece.
39 Ways is as much terrorist propaganda as The Turner Diaries. It probably has inspired a few self righteous individuals to destroy themselves and kill others, but I have faith that free speech can help us to reason in the long term. I hope that most people, when presented with text, think critically. As much as I dislike Mehanna’s work, his prison term is unjust. Certain language incites violence, like yelling fire in a crowded theater, like ordering missile strikes, like planning a hijack jihad, but inspiring passages about holy warfare can be laughed into oblivion. We should talk about them, and dismiss this dream of eternity from our midst.