jihad blog

An academic research blog on jihad and policy-making in the West

Michael Humphrey on the War on Everywhere


The world is divided into nations which have defined borders and which collectively acknowledge the authority of international law (consisting of treaties, declarations, conventions etc). Or do they?

Wars can be civil wars (within nations) or between nations or groups thereof. Wars have defined areas of operation. Or do they?

What about former US President Ronald Reagan’s so-called “war on drugs”? Could this be regarded as a real war? Or was “war” used as just a rhetorical device to impress upon Americans how serious he was in imposing a set of law enforcement policies?

What about former US President George W Bush’s “war on terror”? How does one declare war on a pronoun? Drugs at least exist in a material form. Terror if more like something you feel. What does terror look like? Is it fear? If so, common assault can be deemed terror. Domestic violence can be terror. Just about any violent crime in the statute books can be terror.

Is terror defined as a descriptor of a set of actions? Or is it a descriptor of a set of people, whose actions are almost necessarily to be deemed terror?

Or is terror really code for something? Or some people?

Michael Humphrey believes the war on terror is a transnational othering exercise which is in reality an exercise in futility. The word has changed, and our popular notions of war and security are struggling to keep up.

The US ‘war on terror’ declared in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 divides the world into friends and enemies [which] cannot correspond to any geographical and cultural reality in our globalising world. National security is not available through the fantasy of geographical or cultural separation …

The world is getting smaller, and parts of it are sitting in our neighbourhood. Whether we like it our night, we are living in cosmopolitan cities. If terror is to be regarded as a set of religious and/or cultural and/or ideological phenomena and/or of people who subscribe to these phenomena, chances are that it exists within driving distance as much as it exists on the other side of the planet. And if it’s on the other side of the planet, it is just a few keystrokes away.

To be effective, a war on terror has to be fought within all boundaries and without any. Here’s Humphrey again.

International immigration into the cities of … Australia has made them irreversibly transnational and multicultural places. Thus while the war on terrorism rhetorically divides the world, it at the same time declares war everywhere …

Terror is everywhere. All of us can be potential terrorists. And we can also be potential victims. You’d think such a dangerous phenomenon would be easy to define. After all, we have been able to define some of the most complex illnesses and viruses like HIV. Surely we should be able to point the finger at terror, or at least at the terrorists. Humphrey again.

Moreover the war on terrorism is … code for conflict between Islam and the West; and, despite the denials of presidents and prime ministers, the primary targets of the war on terrorism are Muslim individuals, families, communities and societies internationally marked by the September 11 attacks as potentially hostile, a risk.

As the planet is becoming smaller, we need to potentially be afraid of a group representing around a quarter of the population.

safran abu hamza

M Humphrey, “Australian Islam, The New Global Terrorism And The Limits Of Citizenship” in S Akbaradeh & S Yasmeen, Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia (2005) UNSW Press, p132

Baker on Screening Jihad

Here’s an amazing paragraph to summarises where so much modern jihadi thinking, writing and ideas come from.

These distorted interpretations originated from the prison “think tanks” of repressive and often violent authoritative regimes. Extreme strategists refined and adapted them in the cauldron of a brutal and at times murderous foreign occupation … They wrote them in the blood drawn by torturers.

Baker contends that much modern globalisation literature fails to factor in the reality that much violent jihadi extremism was born in an exceptionally violent ad oppressive environment. Their views, like their experiences, remained the minority which most Muslims in those societies were shielded from or too afraid to go anywhere near.

After 9/11, American pundits and politicians were desperately searching for a “good” Islam to counter a “bad” Islam they barely understood but which they imagined to represent a kind of Muslim mainstream. The good Islam was to be “a fully compliant Islam”.

Baker heavily criticises globalisation literature published since the first edition of Benjamin Barber’s Jihad -v- McWorld. Baker claims this literature projects Islam as being pitted against the unstoppable forces of worldwide markets and technologies. Barber’s book was written before bin Ladin, Taliban and HAMAS became household names of jihad. The “screening” work of these writers and their journalistic students has become so influential that …

Islam has survived as the Western enemy of choice in the global age.

Barber’s definition of jihad is very broad and it is virtually synonymous with his understanding if Islam itself. Hence Islam and jihad become almost interchangeable notwithstanding the caveats. .

… although it is clear that Islam is a complex religion that by no means synonymous with jihad, it is relatively inhospitable to democracy and that inhospitality in turn nurtures conditions favourable to parochialism, anti-modernism, exclusiveness, and hostility to ‘others’, the characteristics that constitute what I have called Jihad.

This broad screening of “jihad” as worldview has filtered into the writing and editorial work of the mainstream Western media in covering not just the so-called “war on terror” but also domestic reportage on things Islamic or deemed Islamic.

Baker rightly says that mindless Muslim apologetics are not enough to meet the intellectual dishonesty of of modern globalisation writers. The fact is that a certain kind of juristic interpretation of Islamic texts (or ijtihad) led to the modern “jihadi” approach to jihad. No amount of denial will change the reality that this ijtihad about jihad did lead to slaughter of innocents and terror.

Ijtihad is both jihad’s linguistic flipside and what grounds it. For 14 centuries jihad has been one of the most contested teachings of the faith and it requires ijtihad to be understood and implemented.

Baker insists that, contrary to Barber’s assertion, modern violent jihadis don’t resist globalisation. Many feel excluded by globalisation and hence are attracted to a certain kind of ijtihad. More likely they want to manufacture their own global order. Certainly this is the rhetoric of groups such as ISIS who appear to have global ambitions and whose recruits are not always excluded from Western modernity.

For Baker, Barber’s work as an emblem for modern globalisation theorists who assume that Muslim extremists have no real competition. That the “good Muslims” are a minority, if not in numbers then certainly in influence. Baker sees such logic as the “mainstream interpretive frames” that journalists rely on and reinforce.  Over a decade on, can we say the dominant media paradigm in Australia is largely the same?


RW Baker, “Screening Islam: Terrorism, American Jihad and the New Islamists” (2003) Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol 25 No 1/2, pp 33-56

Euben on jihad, death and Western politics

Roxanne Euben provides a fascinating critique of conventional Western understandings of the idea of jihad. She does not mean the jihad as understood by the broad consensus of Muslims but rather jihad as a political tool used by groups labelled as “Islamist”. The essay was published shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States, and she introduces her essay with some reflections on that event.

Euben writes of Benjamin Barber’s influential book Jihad -v- McWorld which she says:

…contains perhaps the best known discussion of jihad by a Western political theorist …

and acknowledges that Barber intends to use the term jihad in a generalised manner to describe a host of nasty practices present both in Western and non-Western environments. But specifically jihad is Jihad is a “pathological orientation associated with violence, intolerance” and scant respect for human life.

Euben claims many western explanations of jihad are too simplistic, ironing out ideological and historical complexity, dehistoricising jihad, erasing “contradictions and ambivalences” that make up the complex history and politics of the jihad idea. One need not believe in Islam as a religious tradition to avoid the complexity of jihad. Ultimately it is about prejudice, about distinguishing the Islamic “Other” from an idealised Western public sphere of alleged non-violence.

Euben further observes the West has a problem with studying and understanding jihad because it associates jihad with martyrdom and death. Many Western scholars cannot deal with death as it falls outside their pseudo-rational and pseudo-scientific intellectual realm. The relationship between death and politics is just too hard. Instead of confronting the politics of death, it is best just to avoid it or superimpose its ugliest bits in someone else.

For Euben, the jihad of Islamists isn’t just about reaching jannah (eternal paradise) or a “bloody scramble for temporal power” (as many Western scholars insist). For Islamists, it is about setting up a just community. Those who fight and don’t reach the goal are martyrs who have reached some kind of immortality. Those who do make it form part of the just order. Which all should sound very familiar in many modern cultures.

For modern Islamism (as opposed to Islam), jihad exists to create and establish a legitimate Umma (community of the righteous). If the Umma exists beyond a single lifetime, it represents both divine will and an immortalising of human deeds. In some historical periods, Umma represents Divine inevitability, but it still depends on human action ro survive. Jihad creates the Umma but is it also the other way round? Surely some righteously led Umma is required to establish a disciplined jihad in the first place.

Euben notes that many verses of the Qur’an and a large number of ahadith (reports of sayings, doings and responses of the prophet Muhammad) show an ambivalence toward armed conflict even if conducted in the way of God. Hence jihad is not a fixed doctrine of war but

… a recurrent and flexible motif with multiple interpretive possibilities.

Military jihad only became prominent during the age of conquests during the 2nd half of the eighth century. The political and international relations context of the time meant that emphasis was placed on encouraging recruitment to the Islamic empire’s armies.

R Euben, “Killing (For) Politics: Jihad, Martyrdom, and Political Action”, Political Action (Feb 2002) Volume 30, No 1, pp 4-35

From Exceptions To Rules to Exceptions Without Rules?

Every since the events of 11 September 2001, things have just never been the same. Or so we have been told. Apparently the sun no longer rises from the east. Rumour has it that politics and law are no longer what they used to be.

We’ve been told by pundits and politicians that we are now in a new kind of war. Exceptional times require exceptional measures. Ordinary rules now have a greater number of exceptions. Our political, legal and anything else related to “national security” is now in a state of exceptional discourse.

We used to think torture was a nasty thing, to be avoided at all costs. Now even legal academics are seeking justification for torture. You don’t need to have a trial date or even charges to detain people. Arguments about human rights sit on the fringe. Civil liberties? What are they? And who cares as long as national security is protected?

Here are some difficult questions about exceptionalism that Dr AW Neal raises:

What makes an event or situation exceptional? Are there certain recognizable qualities and conditions that mark something out as being so? Does the exception bring about certain necessities and imperatives? Does the exception dictate an exceptional response? What is the relationship between the exceptional event and practices of exceptionalism? How do claims about exceptions work? How are they received? What gives discourses of exceptionalism authority? Who designates the exceptional? How do they overcome political contestation? How is an imperative and mobilizing link made between exceptional events and exceptional practices? What is at stake in the discourse and practice of exceptionalism? What are the politics of the exception?

These questions go to the heart of the relationship between liberty and security in the new world of exceptions. Indeed they challenge the whole notion and discourse of exceptionalism. Neal argues that the liberty/security dichotomy challenges the very idea of the liberal “subject” i.e. the individual having rights and freedoms. The central notion of “liberty” both protects the individual from illiberal security practices as well as to legitimate them.

The political implications of liberal principles are being heavily contested. Judgements are put into play about who is liberal and who is illiberal, who is modern and who is pre-modern, and who is normal and who is exceptional. Liberal societies must be defended, we hear, but by and from whom?

… Exceptionalism problematizes not only the liberal subject, but also liberal society and the principle of liberty itself. How do liberal societies defend themselves, and what is the relationship between their liberal identity and their security practices? How do liberal political authorities make sovereign decisions about who and what is exceptional? How can the sovereign state make exceptions to liberty in the name of liberty, or exceptions to the law in the name of the law?

Neal notes an increasing interest in the work of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt.

In 1922, Schmitt proclaimed that ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’. Schmitt argued that there is always the ‘real possibility’ of an existentially threatening exceptional event or situation that falls beyond the limits of law, liberty, rights and constitutional government. The exception, according to Schmitt, brings about a more fundamental range of imperatives and necessities that can only be answered by unlimited, unconstrained and unmitigated exceptional sovereign power. For Schmitt, security always trumps liberty and liberal politics; the exception always trumps the norm.

The increasing presence of Schmitt-type arguments is perfectly logical when exceptionnalism becomes the rule and what we understood previously as the rule of law is relegated to the exception.

AW Neal, Exceptionalism and the Politics of Counter-Terrorism: Liberty, security and the War on Terror (2010) Routledge, Oxon

On the dangers of binary conflict

The 20th centuries saw one major international binary conflict between Communism and the “Free World” or capitalism or any non-communist nation. The 21st century has ushered in a new binary conflict of the West and “Islam” or the “Muslim world” or “jihadists” or “terror”.

The successive binary conflicts – cold war and West -v- Islam – were very different. The Cold War didn’t have as much of a religious as political, economic and strategic edge to it. (Though one could argue that the atheism and anti-religion in communism brought Islam and Christian forces together as shown in the Afghan jihad and the close ties between the US Christian conservatives and Saudi Arabia.)

The recent post-Cold War conflict goes to heart of religious heritage and historical conflicts such as Crusades.

The binary nature of the Clash of Western/Christian and Islamic Civilisations thesis may reflect a minority academic position but it certainly holds true with many influential policy makers, many of whom were advisers and decision makers during the Cold War and hence more accustomed to more simplistic views of the world as opposed to nuanced discussions of scriptural and jurisprudential interpretation. (Yet any understanding of how Muslims understand jihad must involve at least some reference to scripture, sacred law (sharia) and sectarian factors as well as the competing historical narratives underlying the sectarian differences between Sunni and Shia.)

BB Koshul & S Kepnes (eds), Scripture, Reason , and the Contemporary Islam-West Encounter: Studying the “Other”, Understanding the “Self” (2007) Palgrave Macmillan, NY.

Shia jihad in context


Shia Muslims make up between 10 and 15% of the Muslim umma. They are not one single sect and have a variety of religious, sectarian and cultural networks whose presence in Australia is growing especially among more recent arrivals from Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as more established communities of Lebanese, Iranian and South Asian heritage).

Shias are also interesting as they have a strong Islamic theocratic tradition that is quite alien to the dominant Sunni idea of a caliphate. Iran was the first Islamic theocratic state of the 20th century after the end of the Ottoman caliphate, and Iranian Islamic thought was very influential in political Islamic movements during the 1980’s and 90’s in both Sunni and Shia forms of political Islam. Including in Australian Muslim circles.

The Sunni-Shia dispute plays out in Muslim diaspora communities including in how the idea of jihad is understood and implemented.

A prominent Western scholar of Shi’ism is Juan Cole. He writes the history of Shi’ism not from a dominant modern Western perspective which he describes as emphasising

… artificial national boundaries … I propose to rescue Shi’ite Islam from the nation.

Shia Islam (and indeed any form of Islam) cannot be thought of existing within purely “national” categories. Otherwise important developments will be obscured. This methodology is useful in providing a more transnational analysis.

Cole distinguishes between the Arabic-speaking Shia and the Shia communities in and influenced by Iran. To the extent that these communities are present in Australia, the separate and at times parallel flows of theological and political influence are important to understand.

J Cole, Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam (2002) IB Tauris, London.

Jihad and the abodes of peace and war

Here are some interesting observations from 2002.

According to M al-Sayyid, When jihad was first taught by the Prophet, it referred to armed struggle against forces determined to destroy the new faith. Once the faith was established, jihad became greater (spiritual) and lesser (military) jihads.

Also the most authoritative statements on Islamic theory of international relations state that the distinction between dar al-Harb (house of war) and dar al-Islam (house of peace) no longer apply in modern era. Hence the idea that an Islamic state entity (in Sunni terms, a caliphate) is necessarily at war with states not established on he basis of Islam is no longer valid (assuming it ever was).

Just some of the many contested ideas surrounding jihad. Peace on earth? Try Airlie Beach in central Queensland.


M al-Sayyid, Mixed Message: The Arab and Muslim Response to ‘Terrorism’ (2002) The Washington Quarterly, 25:2, pp 177-190

Quoting God – Media and religion

Gympie toilet

There was a time when busy journalists would get on the phone and speak to a religious leader or cleric or imam to get some idea of religious teaching. Scholars of religion teaching at universities were ignored. John Dart, a former religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times confirms this based on 31 years of experience at this major US paper:

Secular (religiously neutral) news organizations have long relied on clergy leaders as sources on religious developments. But journalism’s increased use of religion scholars, who take a nonpartisan approach akin to that of journalists, enables the news media to put faith matters into a richer context.

When religious leaders don’t understand how media and mainstream public discourse, a vicious cycle can evolve. This may partly explain why Islam in Australia has received such bad press for such a long time. The gatekeepers of Islam and Muslim communities have tended to be religious leaders – imams, muftis, interpreters and leaders of religious organisations.

Popular prejudices generated by misuse of a religion by media can serve the (often destructive if well meaning) goals of governments or even partisan politicians. Returning to Dart:

… religious practice is suppressed by some nations, or mischaracterized by outsiders, or is so subtly influential as to be imperceptible but for the diligence of serious scholars and earnest journalists. Clarity about the future use and abuse of religion will be crucial as the United States and other nations seek to justify national security measures and aggressive military moves in the face of terrorist atrocities.

Bad journalism can directly threaten civil liberties and world peace. Bigoted politicians hiding behind a conservative facade need to be swiftly exposed.

Simplistic religious rhetoric from political figures calls for scholars and scribes to wield a swift communications scalpel with an integrity befitting both professions. Consumers of mass media (all of us) need insightful analysis from both journalism and academia.

(CH Badaracco (ed), Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion and Culture (2005) Baylor University Press, Waco Texas)


NOTE: Is the Islamic world the same as the Umma?

So often in discussions about jihad, we hear the phrase “the Islamic world”, often used interchangeably with the “Arab world” (despite the fact that there are large numbers of Arab Christians and that only a minority of Muslims are native Arabic speakers) or “the Muslim world”. Occasionally we also come across the word Umma (also spelt Ummah) which may be roughly translated as the international Islamic community or even as the nation of believers in all things Islamic.

Are these two entities one and the same?

In 2003, a book co-authored by J Tolan, H Laurens & G Veinstein Europe And The Islamic World A History was published by Princeton University Press. They argued that the idea of dar al-Islam (“the house of Islam” or roughly the Islamic world) needs to be distinguished from that of umma. The Islamic world may be defined as all those lands or countries where Islam is the dominant religion. It is not occupied solely by Muslims.

The umma refers to the all Muslims including those living outside dar al-Islam. Hence it likely includes “emigrants to Europe or North America”. Or indeed Australia and New Zealand.


The authors argue that the concept of umma is recognised across Muslim circles and is “widespread among Arab authors”. It is a fundamental marker of Muslim identity of a very cosmopolitan kind. It provides a sense of inclusion and belonging to all Muslims regardless of where they might reside and what their formal or legal citizenship may be.

In my opinion, the sense of belonging to the transnational umma can be especially attractive to young Western Muslims who feel isolated from the mainstream. The idea of umma can be used to keep a tiny number of these young people attracted to violent forms of transnational jihad from walking down this path but it may require a sustained effort to convince young people that Australian Muslims are equally part of the umma. Hence thinking globally can be achieved by acting locally.

Such efforts, however, can be made more difficult by an environment of deliberate and sustained marginalisation by “public” Muslims (spokespeople, leaders etc) as well as by the “mainstream”.

These are very preliminary thoughts on my part.


NOTE: Jihad against jihadis?

Dr Andreas Christmann has written a chapter entitled “Islamic Scholar and Religious Leader: Shaikh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti” in John Cooper, Robert Nettler and Mohamed Mahmoud (eds), Islam and Modernity: Muslim Intellectuals Respond (2000) published by IB Tauris, London.

Christmann notes that the (now deceased) Shaykh promoted the idea that Muslims could borrow from the West what they saw as useful and vice versa. He spoke from a position of Islamic ideas being superior to those of the West, whose people have separated themselves unnecessarily from religion as part of their rejection of the authority of the Church.

He continues:


However, despite this appealing analysis of recent developments concerning Muslim mentality, he is less clear and straightforward about how to achieve an Islamic society based on Islamic worship (‘ibadat) and law (shari’a). In his most controversial book, Jihad in Islam: How we understand it and how we apply it, the Shaikh basically rejects jihad (self-exertion in the cause of Allah) as a violent means to change the balance of of power and society. Against today’s mainstream Islamism, he declares the ultimate reason (‘illa) for jihad to be the prevention of robbery or brigandage (daf al-hirabah) and the defence of existing things, and not as a means to fight against unbelief (qada’ al-kufr).


Christmann also claims that al-Buti differentiates between mujahideen committing baghi (an evil or false endeavour) and those committing hiraba (highway robbery). The latter fall into an illegitimate and unlawful category as their jihad is without legitimacy. The former can still be legitimate in Islamic jurisprudence.

So who are those engaging in hiraba? Is it just those who hold up carriages on the freeway? al-Buti describes such people as:

… those who proclaim their attacks on their rulers, who are dedicated to kill, to assassinate treacherously (fatk), and to steal (khatf).

Little wonder al-Buti fell foul of many in the current Syrian opposition. His views effectively provided a basis for Assaad and other Middle Eastern dictators to use religious sanction to crush political opponents. At the very least, as Christmann notes:

… al-Buti’s differentiation has harsh consequences if mujahids are accused of being muharibun, then the ruler is allowed by Islamic law to treat them as such, as murtaddun or kuffar (people actively against Islam), which could lead to their execution. Because of this judgment, al-Buti was criticised  for being in the same camp as the currently ruling despots.

al-Buti’s position appears more complex than this brief summation. However, his views have proven influential in Western Muslim circles, especially those describing themselves as following the “traditional Islam” of scholars in Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Western countries.

al-Buti’s views on jihad will be explored further elsewhere in this blog.

Shaykh Ramadan al Buti


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