Mohammad Hassan Khalil, Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book, and what particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
Mohammad Hassan Khalil (MHK): One often encounters the view that Islam is fundamentally violent. This stance has been articulated by numerous writers, including the so-called New Atheists. The latter group has been especially influential in certain academic contexts. Now, I have long been curious about the ways in which violent Muslim radicals invoke and modify jihad doctrines to justify acts of terrorism; but what moved me to write this particular book was seeing the influential New Atheist writer Sam Harris on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher claiming that violent Muslim radicals represent the “center” of Islam, and then again on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS asserting that Osama bin Laden’s interpretation of Islam is “straightforward,” “honest,” and fully in line with Islamic tradition. I scrutinize such claims in my book and compare the conflicting interpretations of jihad offered by mainstream Muslim scholars, violent Muslim radicals, and New Atheists.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MHK: I hope this book will appeal to a broad audience, from scholars of religion to scholars of Muslim-majority regions to political scientists to philosophers to promoters of interreligious understanding to educated readers in the general public. In light of current events, there is already much interest in each of the three topics covered in this book—jihad, radicalism, and the New Atheism—not to mention the individuals featured therein, from Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. I would like to think that this book will contribute to a better understanding of Islam, the doctrine of armed jihad, violent Muslim radicalism, and the New Atheism.
J: Are there any interesting findings you would like to share?
MHK: There is a widespread perception that the leadership of ISIS and al-Qaeda have a deep and coherent understanding of Islamic tradition. There is no denying that they make reference to events and figures in early Islamic history of which most Muslims are completely unaware, but a closer look at their propaganda reveals interesting gaps and contradictions. As a simple example, in the January 2017 issue of the ISIS online magazine Rumiyah, we read that according to the doctrine of armed jihad, it is “best” to attack at night, in the dark (which would increase the likelihood for collateral damage). Yet the anonymous Rumiyah author makes no reference to and seems to be unaware of a well-known hadith in the famous collection Sahih al-Bukhari that states that Muhammad never started an attack at night. In the same January 2017 issue, we read that every single enemy man is a legitimate target in armed jihad. This, however, contradicts the May 2017 issue of Rumiyah, where reference is made to statements attributed to Muhammad that prohibit the killing of certain noncombatant men. In short, the January 2017 issue contradicts the May 2017 issue. As for al-Qaeda, shortly after 9/11, Osama bin Laden asserted that Muslim forces are permitted to target noncombatants if enemy forces do the same. (This was one of several ostensibly contradictory justifications given for 9/11). Bin Laden went on to cite famous scholars who supposedly held this view. In reality, none did. And one of the scholars bin Laden invoked, al-Qurtubi (d. 1273), explicitly stated the opposite in his commentary on Qur’an 5:8, declaring that even if enemy forces targeted noncombatants, Muslim forces would not be permitted to do the same.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MHK: This book is quite unlike my first book, Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question (Oxford University Press, 2012). There, I examine how prominent medieval and modern Muslim scholars—with special attention given to al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE), Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240 CE), Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE), and Rashid Rida (d. 1935)—addressed the question of non-Muslim salvation. I show that while all four of the central figures of my study affirmed Islamic supersessionism, all of them also stressed divine mercy and envisioned a day in which at least the overwhelming majority (if not all) of humanity would be “saved.”
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MHK: I am now working on an edited volume tentatively entitled Muslims and US Politics Today: A Defining Moment (ILEX and Harvard University Press). The volume explores some of the ways in which Muslims today are being represented in and affected by US politics, and how they are engaging politics on individual and communal levels. This volume was a product of an April 2017 symposium I organized at Michigan State University.
Excerpt from the Book:
In the midst of a lively televised exchange between journalist Fareed Zakaria and author Sam Harris on the topic of jihad, Zakaria declared, “The problem is you and Osama bin Laden agree … after all, you’re saying … his interpretation of Islam is correct.”
“Well,” Harris responded, “his interpretation … this is the problem. His interpretation of Islam is very straightforward and honest and you really have to split hairs and do some interpretive acrobatics in order to get it … to look non-canonical.”
This exchange took place a little more than thirteen years after bin Laden and his associates masterminded the deadliest terrorist operation on American soil. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, tragedy, the notion that such violence was representative of the world’s second-largest religion was widespread enough to prompt then American president George W. Bush to counter that Islam “is a religion of peace.” Numerous skeptics have since dismissed this claim, some viewing it as nothing more than a politically correct token. Among the skeptics are individuals known as “New Atheists,” a label given to popular figures such as Harris who have produced influential anti-theistic and anti-religious works in the years following the September 11 attacks and who focus much of their attention on “the problem with Islam.”
Some New Atheist writers were themselves profoundly transformed by 9/11. In the case of the prominent ex-Muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for instance, her doubts about Islam were supplanted by nonbelief when she found it “impossible” to discount bin Laden’s “claims that the murderous destruction of innocent (if infidel) lives is consistent with the Quran.” As for Harris, he reportedly began writing his landmark book The End of Faith on September 12, 2001. In this best seller, Harris writes that the feature of Islam “most troubling to non-Muslims” is the very principle bin Laden invoked to justify 9/11: jihad.
As Islamic studies scholar Michael Bonner observes, in contemporary debates on Islam, “no principle is invoked more often than jihad.” Muslims generally understand jihad to be a noble “struggle” or “striving” for the sake of God. It comprises various actions, from fighting on the battlefield to endeavoring to attain inner peace in the prayer hall. It is, therefore, simplistic to define it – as many writers do – as “holy war.” It is also problematic to insist – as many apologists do – that it has nothing to do with warfare. In fact, in the specific context of Islamic law, jihad typically denotes an armed struggle against outsiders.
The purpose of this book is to offer a succinct, accessible examination of the ways in which bellicose Muslim radicals such as bin Laden and New Atheists such as Harris and Ali have conceptualized the purpose and boundaries of armed jihad. As one might deduce, here I use the term “radicals” to denote those seeking extreme changes, and my focus is strictly violent radicals, specifically those who sponsor or engage in terrorism in the name of Islam. My intention is not to offer an exhaustive analysis of jihad, violent radicalism, or the New Atheism; rather, I am interested in the intersection of the three. Nor is it my intention to explore (at least not thoroughly) other contentious aspects of Islamic law that often appear in the writings of radicals and New Atheists, including gender norms and punishments for adultery, apostasy, blasphemy, and treason—topics nonetheless worthy of scholarly consideration and engagement.
I have chosen to focus on the New Atheists largely because of their unique and ostensibly significant influence on Western—and to some extent non-Western—intellectual discourse. Notwithstanding their numerous detractors, what they say about jihad and Islam more broadly has ramifications within academia, to say nothing of the political and cultural spheres. Having taught in the humanities at two public research universities in the American Midwest, I have found that many of my own colleagues and students have been more profoundly impacted by the writings of New Atheists than, say, polemical works by far-right religiously affiliated critics of Islam (whose impact is more obvious in other contexts). And for those working to combat the very real problem of Muslim terrorism, it is critical to scrutinize influential discourses on the root causes of and potential solutions to this problem.
In Part I of this book, I introduce the themes of war and peace in the foundational texts of Islam (Chapter 1) and discuss pertinent medieval and modern Muslim scholarly rules of armed jihad (Chapter 2). In Part II, I examine the phenomenon of contemporary Muslim radicalism, specifically the discourse of the man behind 9/11, bin Laden, and his justifications for the attacks (Chapter 3); interrogate these justifications and survey the reactions and responses of prominent Muslim scholars, clerics, and leaders (Chapter 4); and proffer some observations on the contemporary radical organization ISIS and its conceptions of armed jihad (Chapter 5). In Part III, I discuss and evaluate the portrayals of jihad and radicalism that appear in the popular works of notable New Atheists, particularly Harris (Chapter 6) and Ali (Chapter 7), and offer additional reflections on the writings of other well-known New Atheists, namely Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (Chapter 8). Readers will notice that I quote extensively from the individuals I examine, be they Muslim radicals or New Atheists. These extensive quotations are not intended to privilege their particular claims but rather to convey each individual’s manner of thinking and tone (in some cases, through the filter of translation).
As we shall see, although many of the concerns expressed by the New Atheists regarding terrorism are shared by many Muslims, the New Atheists featured in this book tend to portray the interpretations of Islam promoted by radicals such as bin Laden as literalistic and especially faithful to Islamic scripture. The central argument of this book is twofold: (1) among the most distinctive features of radicals such as bin Laden are not their alleged literal readings of the foundational texts of Islam—in some cases, they go to great lengths to circumvent such readings—but rather their aberrant, expansive conceptions of justifiable combat and retaliation and their particular, often crude assessments of geopolitical reality; and (2) on account of the New Atheists’ overreliance on a limited array of sources and their apparent unfamiliarity with some of the prevailing currents of Islamic thought, they ultimately privilege anomalous interpretations of scripture. Yet not only do the New Atheists’ conceptions of armed jihad conflict with those of the majority of Muslim scholars and laypeople, they even overstep what we find in the discourse of radicals.