While the world media has been consumed with speculation about the health and whereabouts of jihad leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it has hardly noted at all a challenge he issued just before he was injured. Yet this challenge could in the long run prove to be more potent than the suicide bombings he continues to inspire in Iraq. It came in the form of an audiotape he released on May 20, in which he presents a detailed justification of his operations. His defense unfolds not on prudential, but on theological grounds: making copious reference to Islamic sources, Zarqawi does his best to portray the murderous behavior of his al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers group as legitimate jihad operations that every Muslim should endorse — and cheerfully torpedoes the Leftist dogma that all religions are equal in their capacity to inspire violence.
Since 9/11, American Muslim advocacy groups, influential elements of the government, and the establishment media have gone to great pains to assure us that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by a tiny minority of extremists who hijacked a peaceful religion. We were assured that Osama bin Laden and other jihad leaders were not Islamic scholars, and didn’t have an Islamic leg to stand on. The unquestioned assumption has been that the Islamic justifications they presented for their actions were transparently wrong from the mainstream Islamic standpoint. Soon the moderate mainstream would assert itself, we were told, and Muslims would denounce Al-Qaeda and other jihadists, repudiating and isolating them worldwide.
Why hasn’t this happened? Zarqawi’s May 20 communiqué suggests one reason why: it is the jihadists, not the moderates, who are reasoning from Islamic sources and presenting detailed Islamic theological arguments. By doing this, Zarqawi has thrown down the gauntlet to moderate Muslims worldwide, in effect saying to them: defend your vision of Islam or get out of the way. On the tape he criticizes them directly: “the wicked scholars have looked the other way and sold their Deen (religion) for a miserable price in this life.” He notes that one outcome of the present conflict will be to separate “the true believers from the rest.”
Zarqawi helps this process along by fulminating against “the defeatists from our own skin” who “decided to stab the true Mujahideen in the back and throw doubts about the permissibility of their operations.” These people have “in fact directly or indirectly helped the cross worshippers in their campaign against Mujahideen. The defeatists, the unfaithful, and the ill-intentioned people from our own skin, have criticized our operations against the enemies of Allah on the bases that some of these operations results in killing so called ‘innocent civilians.’”
On the contrary, Zarqawi asserts that “the Mujahideen carry out their operations under strict adherence to the rules of engagement as set forth by Allah, His messenger, our prophet Muhammad, and his companions. And why not? After all, the Mujahideen took to the battle fields only to establish the Deen of Allah (Islam), to make the word of Allah high above any others, and to gain the pleasure of Allah.” In his address, therefore, he undertakes to “put forth and clarify the judgment and the rules of Allah’s Sharia’ah (Islamic Jurisprudence) in connection with those incidents in which Muslims are killed as a result rather than the main target of Mujahideen operations.” He warns, however, that he does “not intend to address the legality of martyrdom operations for it has been decided by more than one scholar already.”
Zarqawi’s exposition of Islamic theology as he sees it is most revealing. “There is no doubt,” he says, “that Allah commanded us to strike the Kuffar (unbelievers), kill them, and fight them by all means necessary to achieve the goal. The servants of Allah who perform Jihad to elevate the word (laws) of Allah, are permitted to use any and all means necessary to strike the active unbeliever combatants for the purpose of killing them, snatch their souls from their body, cleanse the earth from their abomination, and lift their trial and persecution of the servants of Allah. The goal must be pursued even if the means to accomplish it affect both the intended active fighters and unintended passive ones such as women, children and any other passive category specified by our jurisprudence.” He is arguing, in other words, that operations such as 9/11 are fully sanctioned by Islamic law.
And that holds true, he argues, even if Muslims are among the victims: “This permissibility extends to situations in which Muslims may get killed if they happen to be with or near the intended enemy, and if it is not possible to avoid hitting them or separate them from the intended Kafirs. Although spilling sacred Muslim blood is a grave offense, it is not only permissible but it is mandated in order to prevent more serious adversity from happening, stalling or abandoning Jihad that is. If one says that we must not allow the killing of Muslims under any circumstance, especially in light of modern war tactics, this means nothing except stalling or permanently abandoning Jihad. This will lead to handing over the land and people to the unbelievers who are full of hate for Islam and Muslims. The unbelievers will have a free hand to humiliate and persecute Islam and Muslims and Muslims will be forced to live by Kafir rules and be treated like slaves. Many Muslims will be pressured or forced to give up their religion, Islam will be altered, modified, and replaced with another form that will be totally different from that which was revealed to the one who was sent with the sword, peace and prayer be upon him.”
In support of his presumably unaltered Islam, Zarqawi quotes the Muslim Prophet Muhammad: “I was ordered to fight people until they bear witness that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, establish regular prayers, and pay Zakat (purifying charity). If they do, their blood and their wealth become sacred and their fate will be determined by Allah” (Sahih Bukhari, vol. 1, book 2, no. 24).
Zarqawi adds that “there are many Ayat (verses) [of the Qur’an] and Hadith [Islamic traditions] mandating Jihad and warning Muslims of the grave consequences of stalling or abandoning Jihad or staying behind.” He quotes Qur’an 2:191: “And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for persecution is worse than slaughter…” and cites various scholars as explaining the verse to mean that “the state of Kufr [unbelief] or Shirk [idolatry] is worse than the act of killing and worse for the believer than being killed. Therefore, preserving life, or any of the other four essentials at the expense of losing the Deen [religion], is a violation of Allah’s Sharia’ah.” In other words, unbelief is worse than killing, thus Muslims should not hesitate to kill unbelieving noncombatants. He asserts that “it has become known to people of understanding that the consequence of abandoning or stalling Jihad is worse than consequence of practicing it. Practicing Jihad may lead to loss of life and wealth, such and adversity falls under the individual or specific category. However, abandoning Jihad will lead to loss of Deen and life at the level of the entire Ummah [Muslim community].” He cites several Islamic scholars to justify jihad attacks against unbelievers even when those unbelievers are using Muslims as a shield, if “there is no other way of reaching, separating, and killing the Kuffar.”
Zarqawi’s tape amounts to a direct frontal assault on the glib and still oft-repeated assertion that the 9/11 attacks are condemned by Islam because Islam forbids the killing of innocent civilians. It is urgently to be hoped that all those courageous groups that identify themselves as forces for Muslim moderation — Free Muslims and the Center for Islamic Pluralism, as well as professed moderates such as Hussein Ibish and the Council on American Islamic Relations — construct responses to Zarqawi that reason from Islamic principles. For if Islamic moderates convince non-Muslims that Islam is peaceful, those non-Muslims will go home reassured, but that is all: only if the moderates can convince their fellow Muslims of this will there be any weakening of the jihadist initiative. With this audiotape, Zarqawi has seized the intellectual and theological initiative within the global Islamic community, and reinforced the jihadist claim to represent “pure Islam” — a claim that has proved to be a potent recruitment tool among Muslims worldwide, as well as here in the United States. If moderates do not or cannot take that initiative from him, the consequences could reverberate across the world for decades to come.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch; author of Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery), and Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter); and editor of the essay collection The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: Islamic Law and Non-Muslims (Prometheus). He is working on a new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) (forthcoming from Regnery).