Charlie Hebdo Attack & Muslim Tradition Regarding War

Jihadism & Scholarly Opinions On The Conduct Of War In Islam 

By Professor John Kelsay (Florida State University)

January 7, 2016         Picture: Mariam Rajavi/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

On September 9, 2015, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released the fourteenth issue of Inspire (its online magazine). As the contents made clear, the point was to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

As it happens, this was also the first issue of the magazine published since the January 2015 attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. An article on “Vengeance for the Prophet” appeared under the headline “Statement Regarding the Blessed Paris Operation.” Speaking of the Kouachi brothers as heroes, the author urged others to follow their example, and made a point of claiming credit: “We clarify to the ummah [Muslim community] that the one who chose the target, laid the plan and financed the operation, is the leadership” of AQAP.

Interestingly, that claim pointed to the organization’s rivalry with the Islamic State group (hereafter, IS). In its own magazine, Dabiq, IS commented on the matter in such a way as to emphasize the connection of the Kouachis to Amedy Coulibaly. Also known as Abu Basir al-Ifriqi, Coulibaly claimed allegiance to IS, and indicated that he coordinated his attacks (on a Jewish market, a jogger, and an unarmed policewoman) with the Kouachis. The IS article designated Coulibaly as the organizer of the set of operations, providing the brothers with funding and weapons. By contrast, AQAP’s analysis suggested that the correlation between the various attacks was a kind of coincidence orchestrated by God.

On one point, at least, the presentations of AQAP and IS converged. The “Paris operations” should not be seen as a random or one-time occurrence. Such attacks form a part of the groups’ war-fighting strategy. As such, they are set within the context of claims about Muslim tradition, not least the version of just war thinking represented in the “judgments pertaining to armed struggle” by which scholars through the centuries responded to questions about the rights and wrongs of resort to and conduct of war.

In what follows, I shall explain the relationship between the strategy of AQAP and IS to Muslim tradition. I begin with a brief account of the latter. Since the historical material points to some rather obvious difficulties for the contemporary groups, I follow up by focusing on the ways AQAP and IS try to deal with those. I close with some thoughts about the future of Muslim thinking about war.


Justice and War in Muslim Tradition

We can begin by thinking about the following text:

“Whenever God’s Messenger sent forth an army or a detachment, he charged its commander personally to fear God, the Most High, and he enjoined the Muslims who were with him to do good. He said: “Fight in the name of God and in the path of God. Fight the mukaffirun [ingrates, unbelievers]. Do not cheat anyone or commit treachery, and do not mutilate anyone or kill children. Whenever you meet the mushrikun [idolaters], invite them to accept Islam. If they do, accept it and let them alone. You should then invite them to move from their territory to the territory of the emigres. If they do so, accept it and leave them alone. Otherwise, they should be informed that they will be in the same condition as the Muslim nomads in that they are subject to God’s orders as Muslims, but will receive no share in the spoil of war. If they refuse, call on them to pay tribute. If they do, accept it and leave them alone. If you besiege the inhabitants of a fortress or a town and they try to get you to let them surrender on the basis of God’s judgment, do not do so, since you do not know what God’s judgment is, but make them surrender to your judgment and then decide their case according to your own views. But if the besieged inhabitants of a fortress or a town ask you to give them a pledge in God’s name or in the name of God’s Messenger, you should not do so, but give the pledge in your names or the names of your fathers. For if you should ever break it, it would be an easier matter if it were in the names of you or your fathers”.[1]

There is much to be learned from this account, which along with a number of other reports of Muhammad’s practice and the verses of the Qur’an provided the raw material from which Muslim scholars crafted responses to questions about the justification and conduct of war. Thus, if one asks “Who can authorize war?,” the answer rests on an extension of the opening line: “Whenever God’s Messenger…” In Muslim tradition, Muhammad is a political and military leader, as well as the recipient of divine revelation. His successors—the various khilafat, indicating those who follow or seek to govern in a manner consistent with the prophetic example—are charged with protecting the common good. In that capacity, they may authorize war, or they may delegate that responsibility to another public figure. The point is that war is a political act, with import for the entire community. It is not a matter for private individuals or small groups, but rather for the recognized head of state.

Montecruz Foto/Flickr
Montecruz Foto/Flickr“Berlin against ISIS”

Similarly, should we ask “what constitutes a reason for war?,” the place to start is with the mention of mukaffirun. Typically translated as “unbelievers,” the term actually refers to those whose behavior suggests hostility toward the cause of God. During the career of the Prophet, which standard accounts present as beginning around 610 and continuing until his death in 632, such behavior was characteristic of members of his own tribe, the Quraysh, who were dominant in Muhammad’s home city, Mecca. Since they are also typically presented as idolaters, we may read the reference to mushrikun as another way of making the point.

Muslim sources relate stories in which believers were subjected to economic boycott, torture, and a variety of other ills. Once Muhammad took his followers to Medina (in 622), the conflict took on a military cast, with the Quraysh forming an alliance with other tribes in an attempt to eliminate the Muslim movement. It is in this connection that we may understand the escalating rhetoric of the Qur’an, which at 22: 39-41 gives “permission” for believers to fight those who have forced them to leave their homes because of faith, then moves to the idea that war is “written” for believers (that is, it is their fate to live in a time in which fighting is necessary), and eventually to stronger terms.

The text thus points to what we might call the threat of unbelief, provided that phrase is understood in terms of hostile behavior rather than as a matter of disagreement. In subsequent generations, this would lead to a certain amount of scholarly debate regarding resort to war. In this, the largest share of scholarly opinions took the view that the head of state should only commit forces to fight when a neighboring polity demonstrates active hostility—for example, by testing the security of the borders of Muslim territory or by forming alliances that work to the detriment of a Muslim state. Other opinions reflect the view that unbelief always carries the potential for hostility, so that a wise ruler may authorize military force for purposes of prevention.

“War is a political act, with import for the entire community. It is not a matter for private individuals or small groups, but rather for the recognized head of state”.

Finally, should we ask “When is war an appropriate way to achieve political goals?,” the Prophet’s orders suggest two kinds of answers. In the first, the lines that describe an invitation to accept Islam or to offer tribute suggest that if the goal of security can be obtained by means short of war, then that is the way to go. War is not the first resort; it is deemed appropriate when other approaches fail. Then there is a second condition. For war to be just, soldiers must conduct themselves with honor. “Do not cheat anyone or commit treachery, and do not mutilate anyone or kill children.” In other reports, we find lists of noncombatants that add women, the very old, the lame, the blind, clergy, and others to the class of those who ought not be the direct target of attack.

“If the goal of security can be obtained by means short of war, then that is the way to go. War is not the first resort; it is deemed appropriate when other approaches fail”.

Evaluating Jihadist Groups

For Muslim tradition, then, the broad outlines of thinking about justice and war include an insistence on authorization by established authorities, for just causes, and honorable combat—a fair approximation of the criteria familiar to scholars of the Western tradition of just war. Where does this take us with respect to the claims of AQAP and IS?

In one sense, the answer seems simple. On all three of the central themes associated with the judgments pertaining to armed struggle, these and other jihadist groups are in trouble, and Muslim scholars at centers like al-Azhar in Egypt and elsewhere frequently cite the tradition as evidence that AQAP and IS are not in fact engaged in a legitimate war. As indicated, war is a matter for established authorities, and not for individuals or small groups; it is for those authorities to determine when there is a just cause for war, as well as to provide soldiers with the kind of training that will enable them to fight in honorable ways.

There is another sense in which the answer is more complicated, however. Consider the criterion of right authority. AQAP and other groups associated with al-Qa`ida reject the notion that those holding power in the historically Muslim regions should be regarded as legitimate. So does IS. Their argument is very clear. Some (for example, in Egypt) do not govern by Islamic law; others (for example, in Saudi Arabia) claim to do so, but do not get it right. And in all cases, leaders in the region are subject to the influence of the United States and others who dominate global politics. Either those holding power are impotent or they are corrupt. In any case, there is a crisis of legitimation, and the question asked by jihadist groups is who, under existing conditions, will protect the rights of Muslims and provide the kind of leadership needed to restore Islam to its proper role in the world?

Jason Fudge/Flickr
Jason Fudge/Flickr

“AQAP and other groups associated with al-Qa`ida reject the notion that those holding power in the historically Muslim regions should be regarded as legitimate”.

The answer rests in an appeal to the notion of fighting as an “individual” duty. This idea has a long and complicated history in Muslim tradition. While it is present in the work of some of the earliest scholars, it takes on a special resonance in times when Muslim states are under attack, and the authorities are in disarray—the Crusades, for example, or the thirteenth century invasion of the Mongols. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a variety of groups engaged in armed resistance to colonial powers cited the idea. In the rhetoric of AQAP and IS, Islam is under attack, and in the absence of any established government’s ability to mount a defense, authority for war devolves to those ready to do so. This puts the groups at odds with most religious, as well as political leaders, of course; but for those who see the world in the way characteristic of jihadists, that only proves the point.

When Islam is under attack, and existing authorities fail to do their jobs, then individuals and small groups must take up arms. Of course, everyone from the late Usama bin Ladin to the leadership of IS understands that this approach has limits. The leadership of al-Qa`ida thought that, if the United States and other powers could be persuaded to withdraw from the region, then believers would be able to unite and to reform or replace existing regimes. In the end, the goal would be a union of Muslim states along the lines that could be called a caliphate. IS replaced that gradualist vision with a more direct claim—once an armed group gains control of territory such that it can actually govern, it should establish a caliphate. In either case, the point is to say that the problem of legitimation can be solved, and IS in particular now argues that all Muslims have a duty to join with them, either by traveling to the area it controls or to one of its affiliates (as in Libya), or by carrying out attacks in countries that constitute the “Crusader Coalition.”

Number 10/Flickr
Number 10/Flickr

The debate over right authority already indicates the way that jihadists deal with the criterion of just cause. For them, Islam is under attack, and the front includes both the kind of local or regional conflicts currently in progress and the global presence of the United States, the UK, Russia, and other powers. To this, more traditional authorities argue that defense is legitimate only in the case of actual incursions into traditionally Muslim lands. They are divided as to whether NATO action in Afghanistan or the US led war to oust Saddam Hussein rises to this standard, but are almost unanimous in asserting that military operations outside the territory of Islam (as in the 9/11 attacks or the Madrid and London bombings) are not legitimate.

By this logic, it is clear why scholars thinking of historic Muslim tradition would condemn the actions of the Kouachi brothers and of Amedy Coulibaly. In these and other cases, the perpetrators sought to punish those they judged guilty of insulting the Prophet. They did so in territories not under the jurisdiction of Muslim law, however. And, since they also understood themselves to be acting under the orders of jihadist groups, they compounded the errors committed by AQAP and IS in supporting operations not consistent with a narrow definition of defense. For jihadists, by contrast, such attacks are a legitimate means of striking terror into the hearts of the enemies of Islam.


Thoughts on the Future of Muslim Just War Thinking

I think it is fair to say that the tradition of judgments pertaining to armed struggle is in crisis, and that this is a function of the lack of consensus regarding legitimate governance in the historically Muslim areas. Through their use of the idea of fighting as an individual duty, AQAP, IS, and other groups pose a challenge to more traditional religious authorities. And, since they combine military action with a political doctrine by which the current international system is out of sync with divine directives, their appeals resonate with people in search of an Islamic alternative.

There is of course a sense in which religious and moral traditions are always fields of debate, and the judgments pertaining to armed struggle is no exception. In periods when there is more consensus about, or at least acquiescence in a set of social and political arrangements, thinking about the rights and wrongs of war reflects this. In times of crisis, however, it is difficult to find the center, and the debates are often settled not by reasons, but by force of arms. For the vast majority of Muslims, this is frustrating, since they do not recognize AQAP or IS as reflective of the religion of Islam. The challenge is to recognize the validity of that perspective, while at the same time attending to the ways such groups try to articulate the relationship between their programs and Muslim tradition.[2]

Footnotes & References

[1] Taken from Majid Khadduri’s translation in The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1966), pp. 75-77.

[2] For a more extended overview of Muslim tradition on these issues, I invite readers to consult my book, Arguiing the Just War in Islam (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007); more recently, Ahmed Al-Dawoody, The Islamic Law of War: Justifications and Regulations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) covers a good deal of material.

John Kelsay
John Kelsay
John Kelsay is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. His publications include Arguing the Just War in Islam (Harvard, 2007) and a number of articles and book chapters dealing with the just war and jihad traditions. In 2002-03 he received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.
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