jihad blog

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

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

%d bloggers like this: