jihad blog

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

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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