The prevailing largely negative view of Islam in the non-Muslim world is reinforced by the attacks on soft civilian targets like shopping malls and churches. As a result, the world is becoming increasingly familiar with Salafi militants and Deobandi extremists who have instigated terrible acts of terror and violence as part of a jihad or ‘holy war’. Their aggressive acts can hardly be explained away as armed resistance that early Muslims were permitted to engage in but only under certain stringent conditions. They contribute to the growing perception that Islam is in some singular way linked to terrorist violence primarily directed at the other faiths. Even standard intellectual perspectives are tagging Islam as having a predilection for violence. According to this view, Islam is defined as intrinsically violent and one of the primary sources of modern-day violence in the world. To suggest that the history of Islam has certainly not been witness to any more violence than one finds in other traditions is simply not enough.
In a reaction to this perception, Muslims are often forced to categorically deny that Islam has anything to do with terrorist violence. We hear Islamic leaders frequently refer to violence in which individuals or groups who claim an Islamic association are implicated as a debasement and evil distortion of the good and peaceful teachings of Islam. They refer to passages in the Quran that give precedence to the protection of monasteries, churches and synagogues over that of mosques in order to underline their inviolability and the duty of Muslims to safeguard them against any desecration or abuse, and protect freedom of belief. Some argue that Islam stands firmly against injustice and that the defence of religious freedom for all is the foremost just cause within Islam for which arms may be undertaken, as a last resort.
Such apologetic Muslim reactions claim that ‘Islam means peace’ while refusing to acknowledge that violent extremist groups indeed exist and often exercise disproportionate influence within Muslim societies. These elements propagate a reductionist and belligerent view of Islam popularising their views often aided by the global communications media. It is also difficult to argue against the alarming trend in many Islamic societies towards coercion of the majority in matters of the faith. There has been a significant erosion of the protection of freedom of belief and worship and tolerance for followers of minority sects within Islam and other religions.
One cannot ignore the fact that virtually all Muslims accept that Islam does not have a pacifist tradition and allows for and legitimates the use of violence under certain conditions. This was somewhat mitigated in the past by a spirit of magnanimity, co-existence, forgiveness and reconciliation, which has largely evaporated giving way to a tendency towards vengeance. Explaining jihad as a comprehensive concept embracing peaceful persuasion, passive resistance as well as armed struggle against oppression and injustice is lost in this charged environment. Jihad continues to be equated with aggressive ‘holy war, and, consequently, to many non-Muslims it has come to symbolise Islam as a religion of violence and fanaticism. The modern jihadi adept at terrorising innocents fits the hegemonic classical doctrine of jihad. His foul mission cannot be characterised as a personal spiritual struggle to discipline the lower impulses and base instincts in human nature.
In present times, in many countries some Muslims are engaged in armed conflicts in the name of ‘Islamic jihad’. The violent activities are of two types: guerilla war or proxy war. According to some Islamic scholars, both of these are wholly illegitimate in Islam. Guerilla war is illegitimate in Islam because it is conducted by non-governmental actors, and not an established government. And proxy war is considered illegitimate because it is engaged in by a government without making an open declaration of hostilities. The fact of the matter is that no movement can become a genuine jihad simply because its flag-bearers give it that label. An action can be considered an authentic Islamic jihad only if and when it is fully based on the conditions that Islam has laid down in this regard. If a movement does not fully meet the conditions laid down in Islam for a jihad, it will not be a jihad, but, rather, what is condemned in the Quran as fasad or persecution, chaos and strife.
We can agree that the contemporary global order is not by any stretch of the imagination a just one. However, many non-Muslim societies have found a way to live and prosper despite entrenched social injustices by encouraging democracy and peaceful co-existence. The complex socio-economic and political dimensions of contemporary violence in which Islam is implicated should be studied and simplistic analyses on the issue need to be avoided. The religious and spiritual contradictions within Islam should not be ignored. It remains to be seen whether the distinction between ‘genuine’ and ‘unauthorised’ jihad makes any difference to the struggling Muslims living under despotic and cruel regimes or to those non-Muslims and minorities who are exposed to the jihadi threat.