Magazine article The Christian Century

Avoid `War on Islam' Image, Experts Advise

Magazine article The Christian Century

Avoid `War on Islam' Image, Experts Advise

Article excerpt

An interpretation of jihad, or holy war, far different from that of mainstream Muslims is central to deciphering the motives of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in masterminding the September attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In interviews and his own writings, bin Laden has promoted a holy war against the United States, death to "infidels" and suicidal attacks believed to guarantee eternity in paradise.

For most who practice Islam, however, jihad refers primarily to the inner struggle of being a person of virtue and submission to Allah in all aspects of life. This is sometimes described as "jihad of the heart." But jihad also encompasses the external struggle against injustice and oppression, the "jihad of the sword." And in that secondary sense, the concept could shape Islamic perception of how America responds to the events of September 11.

Almost every scholar of Islam agrees that if the Bush administration hopes to navigate its war effort with success, it must do so with clear understanding of how U.S. retaliation could shape the perception and future actions of more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide. A U.S. response perceived in Islamic countries as a war on their religion could unravel the international coalition needed to wage war on terrorism, according to experts on Islam.

"You could have rioting in the streets, a breakdown of law and order, a toppling of regimes in Islamic countries," said Abdullahi An-Na'im, an internationally recognized scholar of Islam and a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta. R. Kevin Jaques, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, predicted "massive backlash" if the U.S. "overreaches."

Islam, like many other religions, allows for armed self-defense. Just as Christians have written volumes justifying or limiting a "just war," Muslims have differed over the requirements of jihad. While not all Muslim terrorists are religiously motivated, bin Laden has appeared deadly serious in his spiritual zeal "When he formulates his declarations, he makes every effort to justify his means through Islamic law, and adheres to his own conception of what the laws of jihad entail," said David Cook, who teaches Islamic studies at Rice University. …

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