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