It is difficult to have an open and objective discussion about the responsibility Islam bears for the recent cycle of violence sweeping the globe. As far as some Western commentators are concerned, there is some inherent flaw within Islam that drives its zealots to acts of barbaric violence against their foes. This simplistic assessment is the mirror image of the argument that Islam has nothing to do with terrorist acts such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre. From this ‘these are not real Muslims’ perspective, it is illegitimate to call the perpetrators of such violence ‘Muslim terrorists’ - they are simply terrorists who happen to be Muslim.
These two opposed outlooks are united by a desire to evade discussing the real cause of jihadist violence. Were the proponents of these mirrored views genuinely to explore jihadist violence’s inner dynamic, their worldviews would crumble.
Because it offers a way of life to its adherents, Islam exercises a powerful influence over individuals and society. But the meaning and interpretation of Islam varies over time and geography. Consequently, Muslims are as different from each other as Christians. Islam, like any religion, can be the motivation for a violent crusade – and many have used it in this way. In this sense, Islam is no different to many of the great world religions. But how a religion is used when politicised is only tangentially related to its doctrine – other factors have to be taken into account to explain such episodes as the communal violence in India, the Christian Crusades, or the genocide of Armenian Christians in 1915.
Twenty-first-century jihadists do draw on modern variants of Islamic theology. The Wahhabist fundamentalist drive to renew Islam and the outlook of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood theoretician, have exercised influence over movements like the Islamic State and other jihadists groups. But the question that needs to be addressed is what are the causes and drivers of the global jihadist moment?
It is important to recall that the radicalism prevalent in the Muslim world until the late 1970s was political rather than religious. Movements like the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Pan-Arabism had a distinctly secular orientation. Arguably, the failure of these movements created a demand for alternatives. The Iranian Revolution indicated that a version of politicised Islam possessed considerable mobilising potential, and similar experiments were initiated in Afghanistan, north Africa, and parts of the Middle East. So the politicisation of Islam was preceded by the decline and disorganisation of radical secular forces.