PARIS ATTACKS WERE NOT NIHILISM BUT SACRED THEOLOGY
by Mark Durie, pastor of an Anglican church in Melbourne, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Founder of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness.
Leading British media commentator Janet Daley, in an article in the British Telegraph entitled ‘The West is at war with a death cult’ stands for everything that is woeful about European elites’ response to Islamic jihad. It is a triumph of religious illiteracy.
The jihadist enemy, she asserts, is utterly unintelligible, so beyond encompassing in ‘coherent, systematic thought’ that no vocabulary can describe it: ‘This is just insanity’, she writes. Because the enemy is ‘hysterical’, lacking ‘rational demands’, ‘negotiable limits,’ or ‘intelligible objectives’ Daley claims it is pointless to subject its actions to any form of historical, social or theological analysis, for no-one should attempt to ‘impose logic on behaviour that is pathological’. Despite this, Daley then ventures to offer analysis of and explanations for ISIS’ actions, but in doing so she relies upon her own conceptual categories, not those of ISIS. Her explanations therefore fall wide of the mark.
Daley writes: ‘We face a violent and highly contagious madness that believes the killing of civilians is a moral act.’ Here she appeals to Western concepts of war, reflected, for example, in the Geneva Convention, which provides detailed principles for the ‘protection of civilian persons’. Yet the first step in understanding a cultural system alien to one’s own, is to describe it in its own terms. ISIS does not subscribe to the Geneva Convention. Its actions and strategies are based upon medieval Islamic laws of jihad, which make no use of the modern Western concept of ‘civilian’. They do, however, refer to the category of disbelievers (mushrik or kafir). ISIS believes that killing disbelievers is a moral act, in accordance, for example, with Sura 9:5 of the Qur’an, which states :‘Fight and kill the idolaters (mushrik) wherever you find them’.
Daley writes: ‘The enemy has stated explicitly that it does not revere life at all’ and ‘Civilians are not collateral damage in this campaign: their deaths are the whole point.’ She goes on to lament that the latest French attacks lack any purpose, but are ‘carried out for the sheer nihilistic thrill of it’. The claim that ISIS does not ‘revere life’ seems to refer to any number of statements by Islamic radicals, including an ISIS militant who vowed to ‘fill the streets of Paris with dead bodies’, and boasted that ISIS ‘loves death like you love life’. This is a theological reference to a series of verses in the Qur’an in which Jews are criticised for desiring life (Sura 2:94-96, 62:6-8).
According to the Qur’an, loving life is a characteristic of infidels (Sura 3:14; 14:3; 75:20; 76:27) because it causes them to disregard the importance of the next life. The taunt much used by jihadis, ‘We love death like you love life’, implies that jihadis are bound for paradise while their enemies are hell-bound. The point of these statements is that Muslims are willing to fight to the death, while their infidel enemies will turn back in battle. This is not about reverence for life, but about who has the will to win. This has nothing to do with nihilism, which is a belief that there are no values, nothing to be loyal to, and no purpose in living. In fact ISIS fighters have strong and clear loyalties and values, alien though they may be to those of Europe.
Daley’s claim that the deaths are ‘the whole point’ is also mistaken. While it is true that the jihadis consider killing infidels a meritorious act, potentially earning the killer a place in paradise, and they consider being killed in battle against infidels a ticket to paradise, in fact the killings serve a strategic purpose. This is to make infidels afraid, and thereby to weaken their will to resist Islamic dominance. This strategy is commended by the Qur’an, in Sura 8:12, ‘I shall cast dread into the hearts of those who disbelieve. So strike above their necks and strike off all their fingers!’, as well as by the successful example of Muhammad in fighting the Jews of Medina, referred to in Sura 33:26-27, ‘He brought down from their fortifications those of the People of the Book who supported them, and cast dread into their hearts.
You killed a group of them, and took captive another group. And he caused you to inherit their land, their homes, and their wealth, and a land you had not set foot on.’ A similar passage is Sura 59:2, which ISIS has in fact been quoting in its celebrations of the Paris carnage. It may seem to Daley that ISIS’ often-stated intention of defeating the West is fanciful, but the point is to understand ISIS, and as far as it is concerned, these deadly attacks are instrumental in weakening the will of infidels and hastening eventual victory. Daley wonders what possible point these attacks could serve. She speculates: ‘… what is the alternative that is being demanded? Sharia law? The subjection of women? An end to liberal democracy? Are any of these things even within the bounds of consideration?
What could be accomplished by national self-doubt or criticism at this point, when there is not even a reasonable basis for discussion with the enemy?’ It is hardly a secret that the ultimate goal of ISIS is to bring non-Muslims everywhere to convert to Islam or live under an Islamic caliphate as dhimmis. Sharia law and the subjection of women are part and parcel of this. It is odd that Daley laments having no reasonable basis for negotiating with the enemy. ISIS is not playing by a Western-style negotiating rule book. It is following Muhammad’s instructions to his followers to offer three choices to infidels: conversion, surrender, or the sword. Bin Ladin has explained that the West’s rejection of this framework is the whole reason for its conflict with what he calls ‘the authority of Islam’:
“Our talks with the infidel West and our conflict with them ultimately revolve around one issue; one that demands our total support, with power and determination, with one voice, and it is: Does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporeally if not spiritually? Yes. There are only three choices in Islam:  either willing submission [conversion]; or  payment of the jizya, through physical, though not spiritual, submission to the authority of Islam; or  the sword, for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: Either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die.”
It may seem unimaginable to European elites that ISIS is fighting for the goal of the surrender or conversion of Europe, but ISIS is thinking in time frames which extend to centuries, and their forebears conquered vast territories using such tactics. A final act of conquest can be preceded by decades, or even centuries, of military raids. While killing is currently the main mode of ISIS’ attacks inside the West, if they could they would use other tactics as well, such as taking booty and slaves or destroying infrastructure, as they have been doing in Syria and Iraq. Daley claims it is pointless to argue with people who have no reasonable grievances, for ‘the French people did not deserve this, just as Americans did not deserve 9/11’.
However the important question is how ISIS sees its own motivations. Their ideology teaches them that infidels deserve death, simply by virtue of their unbelief. This has nothing to do with France’s history of colonialism or its treatment of Muslim minorities. ISIS needed no appeal to grievances to justify killing and enslaving Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, so why should they view the people of France any differently? Their objection to Europeans is that they are not Muslims, and their objection to European states is that they do not implement sharia law. It is irresponsible and dangerous to claim that a tenacious enemy is insane and incomprehensible. To refuse to acknowledge the ideology of ISIS, and to deny its relevance is tantamount to a death-wish.
Like so many other revivalist Islamic groups, ISIS believes that it will be successful if it stays faithful to its divinely-mandated goals and tactics. It believes the nations of Europe are morally corrupt, weak infidels who love life too much to fight a battle to the death with stern Muslim soldiers who have set their hearts on paradise. It believes Europe stands on the wrong side of history. To combat this ideology it is necessary for Europe to prove ISIS wrong on all counts. It must show strength, not weakness. It must have confidence in its cultural and spiritual identity. It must be willing to fight for its survival. It must show that it believes in itself enough to fight for its future. It must defend its borders. It must act like someone who intends to win an interminably long war against an implacable foe.
There is a great deal Europe could have done to avert this catastrophe. It could, long ago, have challenged the Islamic view of history which idolised jihad and its intended outcome, the dhimma. It could have demanded that Islam renounce its love affair with conquest and dominance. It could have encouraged Muslims to follow a path of self-criticism leading to peace. This lost opportunity is what Bat Ye’or referred to in a prescient 1993 interview as the ‘relativisation of religion, a self-critical view of the history of Islamic imperialism’. Instead the elites of Europe embarked on decades of religiously illiterate appeasement and denialism. There is still much that European states could do to defeat ISIS.
They could, for example, inflict catastrophic military failure upon it as a powerful counter-argument to its theology of success. This will not deliver decisive, final victory against jihadism, but it will make the supremacist claims of ISIS less credible and hurt its recruitment. Islam’s laws of war allow Muslims to suspend their battle with infidels temporarily if there is no immediate prospect of victory and the risks to their cause are too great. Europe also needs to act to suppress incitement of jihadi ideology by its clients, including the anti-Israeli jihadism of the Palestinian Authority. It must put more pressure on the militarily vulnerable Gulf states to stop funding Islamic radicalism throughout the Middle East and exporting jihad-revering versions of Islamic theology throughout the whole world.
One hope for Europe is that Islamic populations will get tired of the doctrine of jihad and all its bitter fruits. There are some signs that this is already happening, and many of the Muslims who are now seeking asylum in their hundreds of thousands will have come to this conclusion. However it seems likely that Muslim communities now established within Europe will be the last to reconsider their dogmas and their take on history, because they have not had to suffer first-hard the harsh realities of life under Islamic dystopias such as the ISIS ‘caliphate’ or Iran’s Islamic Revolution. A 2014 opinion poll found that among French 18-24 year olds, the Islamic State had an approval rating of 27%, which must include the overwhelming majority of young French Muslim men.
For Europe, the challenge from within will be more enduring and intractable than the challenge from without. Nevertheless, European states could still do much on their own turf. They could ban Saudi and other Middle Eastern funding to Islamic organisations, including mosques. They could stop appeasing Islamists in their midst. They could, even at this late hour, demand that the large and rapidly growing Muslim communities now well-established across Europe engage in constructive self-criticism of their religion, for the sake of peace.