Homeland Security Chief and the Meaning of Jihad

by Dr. David Aikman
June 18, 2010

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For 23 years Dr. David Aikman was a foreign correspondent and senior correspondent for Time magazine. A former foreign policy consultant in Washington D.C., he is a current senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. Read full bio.

John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism, recently made an extraordinary speech to an audience at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, explaining the administration’s new national security policy.  In his remarks he made such jaw-droppingly uninformed comments about the Islamic concept of jihad that one is tempted to despair of any serious understanding of Islam in the current White House.  Brennan said that it was against White House and State Department policy to refer to Islamic terrorists as “jihadis” since “jihad” was a “legitimate tenet of Islam.” He noted that it referred to “a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one's community.”  

For good measure, Brennan added that the extremists were victims of “political, economic, and social forces,” and that those plotting attacks on the U.S. should not be described in “religious terms.”  What he failed to address, of course, is that two jihads exist within Islam:  the “greater jihad,” which is indeed purifying yourself, and the “lesser jihad,” which is, quite simply, fighting non-Muslims.

Leaving aside all those Koranic-quoting “victims” who strap explosive belts on themselves and blow up innocent people on buses, Brennan ought at least to be aware that there is documentation in both the Koran, the hadith (collections of anecdotes about Mohammed), and other Islamic writings for “the lesser jihad,” which is simply warfare against unbelievers.  In Reliance of the Traveler: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law Umdat Al-Salik,  the authoritative source of Islamic rulings of the shafi school of Islam, it is stated, “jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahadan, signifying warfare to establish the religion. The scriptural basis for jihad is such Koranic verses as [2:216] ‘fighting is prescribed for you,’ [4:89] ‘slay them wherever you find them,’ and [9:36] ‘fight the idolaters utterly.’”

The Koran itself is the foremost Islamic authority for jihad’s meaning as a war against non-Muslims in order to establish Islam. This makes Brennan’s unawareness of key Islamic explanations of jihad baffling, especially considering that he once headed the CIA in the entire Middle East and spent a year learning Arabic at university in Cairo. If he read the Koran, he would know of Surah 2:216, “Jihad is ordained for you, though you dislike it…”

It is difficult to read key Islamic teachings over the centuries without being convinced that the jihad most discussed in them is the “lesser jihad” against non-Muslims.  Even today, jihad is used by Islamist movements as justification for their politics.  Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group currently ruling Gaza, openly describes itself as fighting a jihad against the infidel.   Back during World War 1, the entire Ottoman Empire officially declared jihad against Great Britain and all the Entente powers allied with her against Germany and her allies (which included the Turks).  I doubt the supreme mufti in Constantinople was focusing on the Ottomans’ spiritual condition. He wanted to kill the British.

To be charitable to Brennan, he surely doesn’t want Americans to turn on the nation’s own Muslims, many of whom have fought bravely in wars for the U.S.  Even President Bush was quoted, after visiting an American mosque after 9/11, as saying with more goodwill than accuracy, “Islam is peace.”  He was being conciliatory, and, in fact, there has been refreshingly little evidence of an enduring anti-Muslim backlash in the U.S. since the events of 9/11.  More disturbing is the intellectual dishonesty of people high in the U.S. administration who don’t want any aspect of the religious views of America’s terrorist foes to be publicly discussed. That is the equivalent of visiting Lenin’s tomb in Moscow’s Red Square and failing to mention that Lenin was a Communist. 

Come to think of it, when Brennan first referred to one of his favorite Middle Eastern cities, he first spoke of Al-Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem.  I wonder if he knew that the Jews had made Jerusalem their national capital more than a millennium before the existence of Islam. The Hebrew name for it, which predates Al-Quds by more than a millennium, is Yerushalayim.  It makes one wonder if Brennan’s favorite Russian city is Leningrad?  The modern -- and pre-Communist -- name for it is St. Petersburg.

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