I am about to write a piece examining the problem of political violence and othering in the contemporary Muslim world. Here are some thoughts on a good, recent work by John Kelsay.
Jihad has become a normal English word, a term to describe irrational violence, ‘holy war’, terrorism and the generally rather nasty things that ‘bad Muslims do’. Kelsay, in this wonderfully succinct and accessible work, wants to argue that the real issue in discussing jihad is to make sense of legitimate violence and how it may be deployed and hence to locate the discourse within an existing discussion about just war theory. I am not generally sympathetic to the use of the comparable frame of just war theory because as a juridical and ethical concept it is rather limited, arising out of a particular politico-theological context of medieval Catholicism. Having said that, any serious attempt to nuance the meaning of jihad in the contemporary world, to contextualise the discourse adequately and historically, and to pose difficult questions to those who appropriate it on the basis of a claim towards establishing justice and acting in a just cause is welcome. Kelsay is interested in the contemporary debate about the nature of political ethics among Muslims. His book is not just an attempt to ‘whitewash’ Muslims and their theologies from any culpability in the acts and ideologies of the likes of al-Qaeda. While he interrogates the theological and juridical reasoning of such terrorists, he wants to show not only their distance from historically grounded narratives of jihad but also how their reasoning may be shared. It is indeed foolish to argue that jihadi ideology has nothing to do with reasoning about jihad as such; it is counter-intuitive and unhelpful. He also wants to indicate how the language of just war is mutually supportive between the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’ and al-Qaeda’s war on the ‘Zionist-Crusaders’ (which is in theological terms also the subject of a forthcoming book by Alia Brahimi to be published by Cambridge University Press).
In six chapters, Kelsay takes us from the textual sources through to the arguments about justified violence in the contemporary world. Chapter one is not so much a discussion of the sources on jihad as a basic sketch of early Islam that one expects from introductory works discussing the near eastern context, the life of the prophet and the event of the Qurʾan and raising the question of how early Islam dealt with difference in a perfunctory manner. But he does not discuss the contentious issues of how one may access this or evaluate the sources. Nor does he discuss how the sources have been used and might be used.
The next chapter indicates why this may be the case as the focus is on ‘shariʿa reasoning’. Although he begins by mentioning other forms of reasoning through right and wrong (belle-lettrist, philosophical and theological approaches), he traces the ways in which Muslims beginning with the early caliphate and taking it up to the 1980s understand political ethics. The central concern that emerges is the problem of fitna, of discord and disorder and how the function of the political order is to control and quell it. Politics therefore strives for consensus and protects the community and the faith. Along the way, we get a brief discursus on Islamic law and the development of political thinking up to the present. What is not mentioned here is that the conflation of dissent and heresy and the obsession with fitna and fasād are precisely the themes of continuity with contemporary jihadi ideology. This single-minded focus on order and the identification of the acts of the state and the caliphate with the faith have meant that normative Sunni attempts at arguing against jihadi ideology face the problem of trying to decouple a form of juristic reasoning which is clearly linked.
Chapter three moves onto juristic reasoning about war and the rules of engagement focusing on al-Shaybānī and Ibn Taymiyya and discusses the nature of rebellion in the pre-modern period, the subject of an excellent if rather turgid monograph by Khaled Abou El-Fadl. Wars are conducted by states and legitimated by their rulers. The medieval Sunni consensus insisted upon justification by power. The chapter concludes with a brief mention of Shiʿi perspectives. Chapter four on armed resistance follows and represents the use of medieval precedent by jihadi ideologues to justify their actions. Developing from the anti-colonial struggles of the nineteenth century, the discourse becomes one of establishing the role of a just state which enforces the faith. Kelsay discusses a number of key texts beginning with the Neglected Duty and moving through to various statements from al-Qaeda leaders. The possibilities of shifting and flexible uses of precedents and analogies between the medieval past and the ‘resistance’ in the present are made all the more possible because of the crisis of legitimacy in the Muslim world that affects not only expected sources of authoritative proclamations on juridical reasoning but also the state itself. It is therefore no accident that most pronouncements on the nature of resistance and the theory of the state within a juridical way of life are articulated by non-state actors.
Chapter five on militancy and authority focuses our attention to the real issue in politics and juxtaposes the argument of militants with liberal voices represented by Abdulaziz Sachedina, Abdullahi an-Naʿim and Khaled Abou El-Fadl. It is the longest chapter in the book and the real pivot that addresses the present debate. As Kelsay acknowledges, the militants’ argument is that the alternative of a proper Islamic government (brought about through the use of violence) is a liberating process and even a humanitarian one (as argued in a recent book by Faisal Devji). The question of suicide bombing is therefore one of tactics. Most of the chapter is taken up with the ‘democrats’ who resist and refute the militant argument. Perhaps the main contribution of these liberal voices is to loose up the hermeneutical binds by insisting that texts are multivocal and the totalising and monopolising readings of militants does violence to the Islamic traditions that they pretend to defend and uphold. At the same time, these democrats set themselves outside of the mainstream of Muslim political thinking. The just war is not merely about the wielding of authority by a legitimate force but also about the very conduct of the violence. But ultimately both sides of the argument are genuflecting to the text.
The final chapter brings us to the critical context of the debate, namely US foreign policy and the war on terror. What chance do Muslim democrats have in such an environment? US policy justifies all manner of excess. However, the discussion of Ahmadinejad and his discourse on justice is not entirely apposite here. He is not concerned with just was but with just and equitable social order. The two need to be kept apart just as jihadi ideology and activities are not identical. The fact that Ahmadinejad can be seen to speak for Muslims (despite his Iranian, Shiʿi and non-ʿulema states) is a symptom of the crisis of authority and legitimacy in the contemporary world, so much so that in the present political crisis in Iran after the June elections, a number of Muslim observers outside Iran support him because he ‘speaks truth to power’, opposes US policy and speak openly about the wrongs perpetrated by Israel. The basic question remains: what constitutes legitimate use of force in the contemporary world?
Kelsay’s book is nuanced and insightful in its identification of the weaknesses of Muslim liberal voices and their context. He is also quite correct to note the real conflict and debate between liberals and militants. But one would wish to see more engagement with the traditionalists who equally oppose the militants and can do so on their own ground through shariʿa reasoning. Clearly an ethical turn is required. Any serious reinterpretation of the just use of violence justified in Muslim terms needs to refocus on the notion of justice itself and locate it within an ethical framework that asks the moral questions that the shariʿa poses, and not the issues with which Islamic law becomes embroiled. A turn to moral agency and responsibility is the basic requisite in these confused times.