The Debate About Jihadism

Every so often, jihadists attack a target in the West; and each time, westerners debate the issue. Sadly, these debates seem to repeat as mindlessly as the attacks they are about. In debating whether jihadist violence is connected to Islamic teachings, people argue about what Islamic sources “really” say—with each side battling to legitimize its own interpretation of Islamic doctrine as the “authentic” one. But this exercise entirely misses the crux of the issue, which is about how jihadists interpret Islamic doctrine. The debate about jihadism, in essence, is about how to explain acts of jihadist violence. And because all acts of jihadist violence result from choices made by jihadists, asking what causes this violence is equivalent to asking what causes those choices. In other words, it is primarily a psychological question, not a theological question. This psychological question is not particularly complicated to answer, and the answer—which, of course, implicates various aspects of Islamic theology, such as the key tenet that Muhammad’s life represents a perfect model of human conduct—straightforwardly explains acts of jihadist violence. But as long as we insist on debating the empty question of what Islamic doctrine “really” says, this understanding will continue to elude us.

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