Rome, April 6, 2015–Last week’s cold-blooded killing of 147 university students in Kenya by Somali terrorists exemplified the impact of a scary Islamic justification for the spread of indiscriminate slaughter of Christians. This atrocity– and others like it– represent a fresh extension of jihad, the 1400 year old concept of Muslim holy warfare originally designed to lay out conditions for defending and/or expanding the realm of Islam.
The twist in this neo-jihad is that Christians, by their very presence among Muslims, are seen to represent a danger to Islam and is the cause of real and imagined afflictions of the Islamic world. Therefore, Christians should be eliminated. In a break with tradition, Christians can not expect to live peacefully under Islamic rule, even if they were to pay the required poll tax.
The Middle East and western Africa are the two main centers of this theory and practice of murdering Christians. In the Middle East, key practitioners are al-Qaeda and its sometimes rival, the Islamic State, known as ISIS. In West Africa, it’s Boko Haram, the insurgency that terrorizes northeast Nigeria.
In the case of Middle East jihadists, damnation of Christians and other minorities, including Jews, is written into their instruction literature. Both al-Qaeda and ISIS, of course, have long accepted and nurtured other violent jihad innovations: assaults on civilians, suicide attacks, summary executions of helpless prisoners and the targeting of Muslim leaders deemed insufficiently dedicated to warfare against infidels. They also profess special disdain of, and hostility toward, Christians.
For instance, al-Qaeda writer al Ali al-Aliyani grudgingly accepts tolerance for Christianity but only so long as it is “clothed in humiliation and submissiveness.” Christian practices that he views as degenerate must be kept away from Muslims. Prohibitions include “forbidding them from openly proclaiming their religions and forbidding them from involving themselves with interest (on loans), fornication, or other things…” He also invokes Allah to destroy the Christians.
During the uprising in Syria, now in its fifth year, al-Qaeda theorist Mustafa Abdul-Qadir al-Set Mariam — known as Abu Musab al-Suri—declared jihad against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria because, among other reasons, Muslims needed to halt the imposition of “Jewish and Christian laws” in all Greater Syria– that is, the modern Syrian state along with Lebanon and Palestine.
As if these rationales were not enough, the jihadists also conflate Christianity with their main political enemies. In Iraq and Syria, where both Al-Qaeda and ISIS try to appeal to Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, that means the Shiite Muslim government in Baghdad. They link the small and powerless Christian minority with the majority Shiites, who are the Sunnis’ persistent arch-enemies. In 2004, the late Musab al-Zarqawi, once a disciple of Osama bin Laden (and who at the time, was leader of ISIS’ predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq), put Christians (and Jews) in league with the Shiites. “If the Muslims defeat the Christians and polytheists, this causes distress among the Shiites…The Shiites are not Muslims. They are a sect that follows the path of the Jews and Christians in lying and infidelity,” he said.
In Syria, al-Suri argued that rule by Allawites, the Shiite offshoot that is al-Assad’s religion, means the subjugation of Sunni Muslims by Christians and Jews. Under the Allawites, Muslims would have to “wear the garb of Jews and Christians and emulate their fads, their hairdos, their gestures, their diet and drink and their way of life. It requires that Muslims transmute into Jews, Christians, apostates or aimless cattle.”
These hateful concerns have produced bitter fruit. Last year, ISIS expelled the entire Christian population from in and around Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city; in Raqqa, Syria, ISIS imposed strict Islamic rules on Christians, vandalism of their churches and death to anyone who resists.
ISIS’ influence is spreading beyond the territory it holds, much as had al-Qaeda’s did a few years ago. So have assaults on Christians for just being Christians. Last February in Libya, a self-declared ISIS affiliate beheaded 21 Egyptian Christian migrant workers because they belonged to the hostile “Crusader” Coptic church in Egypt (never mind that the Copts in fact had nothing to do with the Crusades). In Egypt itself, followers of the Salafism, itself an intolerant branch of Islam, have spearheaded numerous pogroms against Christians. They have been egged on by al-Qaeda chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Somali terrorists, known as the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, that carried out the massacre in Kenya also follow ISIS’ lead. Shabaab members separated Muslim students out before executing only Christians. Those killings followed hard on numerous murders of Christian workers and bus passengers who, if they could not correctly recite Koranic passages, were shot dead.
Originally, Shabaab members justified terrorist acts as being in retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. Now, apparently, Shaabab sees sectarian killing as a winning propaganda card–both because ISIS successfully holds territory in the Middle East and also because it avoids the touchy subject of killing Muslims–something even al-Qaeda has had reservations about.
Boko Haram needed no prodding from ISIS or anyone else to attack Christians. Its members have been doing it for years. Bombings and shootings have included churches full of worshippers and Christian schools. In early March, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS chief, presumably to give Shekau’s organization cache beyond Nigeria. Anyway, Boko Haram had already made it clear that there was no place for Christians in the Islamic state it aspires to set up– throughout the whole country. In 2014, Human Rights Watch wrote about the abductions of Christian women by Boko Haram, and the rape, beatings, and forced marriages and conversions they endured.
Giving allegiance–bayah in Arabic–as done by Shabaab and Boko Haram does not signify operational alliance, at least not yet. Still, as guerrilla and terrorist movements pledge loyalty to ISIS, al-Qaeda and other groups like them, it is likely they will pay heed to their tactics. And that means troubled times ahead for Christians–and other minorities wherever they are in contact with the new jihad.
Be aware that the attacks are only the opening salvo of fundamentalist repression. Soon follow assaults on Muslims who don’t follow the jihadist line. In Mosul, Sunni Muslims have been whipped and beaten for criticizing ISIS online. Iraqi journalists have been killed. In Raqqa, Muslims are punished for ‘crimes’ as petty as smoking; reports of crucifixions there have involved Muslim victims. Boko Haram has bombed pubs and other gathering places of Muslims declared lax in thier morals and attacked imams who criticize its tactics.
Muslim leaders have condemned the various massacres and atrocities. They insist that the violence has “nothing to do with Islam,” in the words of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is made up of 56 Muslim-majority states. But defenders of Islam are not speaking the language of jihad.
Over the centuries, Muslim scholars and leaders have in fact set limits on the practice–and even on those who can declare a jihad and under what circumstances. It’s not clear who has authority to do so now and who would listen if he did. But it might be worth a consistent and persistent try. Civilians of all sects and ethnic groups must be placed off- limits to military violence. Expressions of concern and the recalling traditional (if mythical) tolerance are not enough.
Read this (at length) for a whole history of jihad and its meaning.