Islamic jihad is not, as some Western apologists claim, simply a striving for individual moral perfection. Nor is it merely a series of unrelated clashes involving groups of Islamists, each with their own limited objectives. Rather, jihad is a radical, expansionist, totalitarian ideology that seeks to establish a global Islamic state ruled by Sharia law. The adherents of this ideology are willing and able to commit acts of violence to bring about their objectives.
The goals and motives of jihad are detailed in Islamic texts and by Islamic teachers. Osama bin Laden and other jihad leaders have repeatedly declared their intention to establish an Islamic social order globally. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predicted: “The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world.”
The fact that this jihad is justified by the Koran’s repeated exhortations for the faithful to do battle with the infidels renders negotiations with jihadis utterly useless. As Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, stated in the summer of 2006: “War with Israel is not subject to a treaty, cease-fire, ... or disputed borders, but it is jihad for the cause of God until the entire region is for him only ... from Spain to Iraq.”
The restoration of a unified Islamic state -- a caliphate -- governed by a ruler (caliph) who leads the Muslim community as a successor of Muhammad, is a key imperative for jihadists today because only the caliph is authorized to wage war against non-Muslim states to bring them under the rule of Islamic law. This idea is not an invention of marginalized jihadists, but is part of traditional, mainstream Islamic law. For example, a manual of Islamic law that in 1991 was certified by the most influential institution in Sunni Islam, Cairo’s Al- Azhar University, defines jihad as “war against non-Muslims.” And it spells out the nature of this warfare in quite specific terms: “The caliph makes war upon Jews [and] Christians ... until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya).”
Mandated by the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, jihad is a constant of Islamic history. From the earliest days of the faith, Muslims acted on these commands. First Muhammad unified the Arabian peninsula under his rule and directed that all religions be forbidden there except Islam. Then the Muslims turned to the larger non-Muslim world. Predominantly Christian lands -- particularly the Byzantine imperial holdings of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt -- surrounded Muslim Arabia. Four of Christendom’s five principal cities – Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – lay within striking distance of Arabia. The Byzantine Empire’s great rival, Persia, also lay in the path of the holy warriors.
Muhammad himself made the first Islamic overtures to these neighbors. He sent letters to the leaders of Persia, Byzantium, and Abyssinia, exhorting them to “embrace Islam and you will be safe.” None did. Thus, in 635 (just three years after Muhammad's death), Damascus fell to the invading Muslims. The next year, Antioch also fell. It was Jerusalem’s turn two years later, in 638. Many native Christians were killed; others were enslaved. The same pattern prevailed when the Muslims reached Cilicia and Caesarea of Cappadocia in 650.
The jihadists rapidly swept through North Africa and by 711 were in a position to invade Spain, so that Europe was beset from both the East and the West. By 715 the Muslims were well on their way to conquering all of Spain (which they would control for over 700 years), and were pressing into France. Charles Martel stopped them in 732 at the city of Tours.
The Jihad's Objective Today Is "Death to America":
The chant of “Death to America!” has resounded in the Islamic world since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution of 1979. Because of its efforts to establish viable democracies in the Islamic world, and because it represents the most formidable global alternative to the jihadists’ vision of a world ruled by Sharia, the United States is regarded by those jihadists as the most formidable obstacle in their path.
The jihadists are very clear about their intentions. “America,” declared Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith, “is the head of heresy in our modern world, and [as a result] ... we have the right to kill 4 million Americans -- 2 million of them children -- and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons.” The Saudi Sheikh Nasser ibn Hamed says it would be "permissible" to "annihilate 10 million" Americans "and burn their lands to the same extent that they burned the Muslim lands." Osama bin Laden wrote in his “Declaration of Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders” in 1998 that “killing the Americans and their allies – both civilians and military personnel – is a commandment for every individual Muslim who can do this, in any country in which he can do this...”
Such words do not represent a deviation from Islamic tradition; they are a new manifestation of an ancient impulse.
Jihad Demands the Killing of Infidels, or Their Conversion or Subjugation under Islamic Law:
The goal of jihad warfare is not so much to force the unbelievers to convert to Islam, as to extend the hegemony of Islamic law and to make unbelievers submit as inferiors. Islamic history and jurisprudence -- since the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself -- have established three choices for non-Muslims facing jihad: conversion to Islam, submission under Islamic rule, or death. Muslim jurists have constructed an elaborate legal edifice that is without parallel in any other major religion: a codified, detailed mass of laws for the subjugation of non-Muslims in the name of Allah.
One manual of Islamic law insists that people must be called to embrace Islam before being fought. But “if the infidels, upon receiving the call, neither consent to it nor agree to pay capitation tax [jizya], it is then incumbent on the Muslims to call upon God for assistance, and to make war upon them.”
The Jihad Is Not about American Policy Towards Israel or about Israel's Policy Towards the Palestinians:
Many, particularly on the American Left, believe that if the U.S. were to decrease its support for Israel, and if Israel were to surrender additional territory, jihad violence would cease. But this view is ahistorical; the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, the first modern Islamic terrorist organization and the direct ancestor of Hamas and Al-Qaeda, was founded in 1928 -- twenty years before the founding of the State of Israel. Its objectives have not changed markedly since then.
The founding of the Muslim Brotherhood was not a response to Zionism, but to the abolition of the caliphate by the secular Turkish government in 1924. Indeed, the jihad group Hizb-ut-Tahrir ascribes all the ills of the Islamic world today not to Israel or to American depredations in Iraq or elsewhere, but to the abolition of the caliphate: “Since that day the Islamic ummah [nation, community] has lived a life full of calamities; she was broken up into small mini states controlled by the enemies of Islam in every aspect.”
Although American and European officials continue to press forward with initiatives to grant the Palestinians various land concessions in exchange for peace, there has never been any indication from the other side that such concessions will bring out the coveted cessation of hostilities. In fact, jihadists have frequently rejected the path of negotiation and compromise in no uncertain terms.
Underscoring the fact that the jihad proceeds from theological imperatives within Islam, not from political grievances, is the fact that jihadists are active today in virtually every corner of the globe. The international media focus on conflict in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the jihad continues on a daily basis in places such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Chechnya, the Balkans, and Nigeria, to say nothing of the “soft jihad ” being waged in Europe and America.
The jihad likewise targets all religious groups. Historically it has been even more virulent against Hindu India than against Christian Europe; Hindus, since they were not “People of the Book” as the Qur’an calls Christians and Jews, were treated even worse by their Islamic conquerors.
Wherever Muslims are found, which is in almost every country on the planet, there are adherents of the ideology of jihad and Sharia supremacism. Peaceful Muslims have made no large-scale, organized attempt to delineate a countervailing vision of Islam that calls for indefinite peaceful coexistence as equals with non-Muslims, freedom of conscience, or the rejection of elements of Sharia that are at variance with otherwise universally accepted human-rights norms. No Muslim organization, mosque or school in the United States has any program to teach young Muslims and converts to Islam why they should avoid and reject on Islamic grounds the vision of Islam -- and of unbelievers -- that jihad groups offer them. As Islam scholar Robert Spencer observes, "This is extremely strange, given the fact that all the Muslim organizations, mosques and schools in the United States ostensibly reject this understanding of Islam. And even stranger is that no American authorities seem to have noticed the absence of such initiatives, much less dared to call out Muslim groups about this."
This Summary is adapted from "What Americans Need to Know about Jihad" (by Robert Spencer, 2007), and "More Beheadings, More Denial" (by Robert Spencer, November 18, 2014).