CNN has a rather vacuous piece out today dealing with Islamic terror recruiting efforts among young people and how they are using rap music in an attempt to reach the disaffected masses. In one way, it’s absolutely true. The terrorists have definitely been fine tuning their message and expanding their communications channels into new media in an effort to reach more converts. But the underlying message is the same in all these efforts… it’s a call to Jihad against the perceived evils of the west.
This is a repeating theme which we all seem to have accepted somewhere along the line. Just this past fall, Clare Lopez at the Center for Security Policy published a lengthy entreaty in which she asks the public to not refer to the actions of these destructive creatures as terrorism, but to use the J word.
Jihad is a unique descriptor: it is motivated solely by one ideology—an Islamic one. It encompasses any and all tactics of war, be they the kinetic violence of terrorism, the stealthy influence operations of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian intelligence agencies, or funding, speaking, teaching, and writing. Importantly, the term ‘jihad’ is the one used by its own practitioners—the clerics, scholars, and warriors of Islam. Arguably the most valid qualification of all is that Islamic Law (shariah) defines jihad as “warfare to spread the religion [Islam].” Warfare encompasses many things, though, and not all of them are violent.
An appealing and common sentiment to be sure, but along with many other dark thoughts which have been occupying my mind of late, I’ve begun to doubt that the leaders of these violent movements are truly interested in Jihad at all. To clarify, the day to day practitioners of terror attacks are most assuredly true believers and feel that they have been called to holy war. (You’d have a hard time convincing a sufficient number of young people to blow themselves up or run into a hail of bullets just for a regular paycheck or the promise of a future recording contract with Def Jam Records.)
But when it comes to the leaders of such groups, we may be overlooking some important lessons of history as we evaluate their actions and motivations. Whether you’re talking about Abubakar Shekau, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ayman al-Zawahiri or any of the other names you find at the top of these villainous heaps, they all have (or in some cases, had) one thing in common. Something drove them to take control and make a name and a place for themselves in history. When we consider the question at hand, that sort of lack of humility isn’t one of the typical traits which comes to mind when thinking of religious leaders.
Let’s step away from Islamic caliphates for a moment and think of some of the other ideologies which have sprung up around the world over the span of human history. Sooner or later (and generally much sooner) the leaders of any revolutionary effort begin to develop a keen interest in what sort of wealth and perquisites they can amass for themselves in addition to the already tempting attractiveness of power over your fellow man. Was there ever a benevolent despot who was followed up by more despots of similarly gracious nature? (Consider the line of rulers in Rome from Augustus to Nero or Caligula.) Communist leaders love to call everyone comrade and restrict their titles to something along the lines of First Among Equals. But examine the lives of the leadership in places like Cuba, China and North Korea. The leaders and their loyal party followers do quite well for themselves. At the very top, life can be quite opulent and even the village snitch can make sure they are well fed and housed. The rest of the people enjoy a very different type of equality. Dictators such as Saddam Hussein were infamous for not being “good Muslims” in their personal lives, with vast collections of wealth, pornography and sex slaves.
Even in democratic states such as our own, let’s not pretend that some people don’t seek high office to enrich and aggrandize themselves. The only difference here is that we can generally get rid of them without breaking out the tumbrels and guillotines. So why do we seem so fully willing to ascribe such altruistic, holy motivations to the leaders of terrorist groups simply because they are rallying their followers from behind a pulpit? Is it really so unthinkable that these men are actually intoxicated by the thought of ultimate power just as so many other tin pot dictators have been and are looking forward to the first pick of the “wives” they capture and some of the finer things in life?
Let’s take another look back at one of the only good pictures of al-Baghdadi. Remember this one?
Say… nice watch you’ve got there, pal. Any more like that back in your badawī? Somehow I doubt that this is an isolated example. It takes a certain personality type to not only believe oneself capable of leading an entire people, but to reach out for that brass ring no matter the cost in blood and treasure. In the case of terrorist groups, that megalomania must be exponentially greater. So these “leaders” are surely commanding an army of people who may believe they are engaged in Jihad, but in reality, I suspect the fighters are chumps who are enriching a group of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.