“Ninety percent of the stuff that gets written on global jihad is just junk” and “usually replete with ‘Islamophobia,’ ” stated Naval Postgraduate School professor Glenn E. Robinson during a Nov. 10 webinar on his new book, Global Jihad: A Brief History. Although unusually objective for Georgetown University’s Saudi-founded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU), his presentation was nevertheless fundamentally flawed.
Moderating the webinar, ACMCU professor John Voll noted longstanding failures to appreciate Islam’s political influence. He said when he was a graduate student “in the 1960s, if somebody would have said you are going to be leading, moderating a book discussion on the global jihad … in the 21st century, everybody would have simply laughed.” At the time, such influential scholars as Peter Berger were predicting an increasingly secularized world.
Robinson said he “wanted to write a book that could analyze this topic in a serious scholarly way, but without resorting to these sort of ‘Islamophobic’ tropes” that he did not identify. Unnamed books were “not the type of stuff that I would ever want to assign in the classroom” for his military officer students. Such a statement implies an aversion to historiography he deems overly critical of Islam, an error that could lead to deadly misjudgments by his students in assessing future threats.
Although comparisons of Islam with totalitarian movements like communism and Nazism are commonplace, Robinson claimed to observe a “tendency … to treat anything in the Muslim world as sui generis” as a “form of Orientalism.” As a “comparativist, the last thing that occurs in my tradition is to just say that it is unique,” he stated; “that’s almost always wrong.”
Robinson’s slideshow elaborated his comparisons. Global jihad is “marked by nihilistic violence and apocalyptic ideologies—and is thus not sui generis, but is comparable to other, religious and non-religious, forms of extreme political violence,” read one slide. Another compared the Communist “Khmer Rouge in Cambodia,” jihadists from “Boko Harem in Nigeria” and Nazi “Brownshirts in Germany.”
Given these analogies from modern history, Robinson correspondingly asserted that the “rise of Islamism or ‘political Islam’ ” is “very much a 20th-century phenomenon.” This is “very much linked with the rise of the mass societies,” he added. Yet past speakers at ACMCU events, including University of Toledo Islamic-studies professor Ovamir Anjum, have noted that precisely the concept of “Islamism” is of recent origin in the Islamic faith that historically has not distinguished between piety and politics.
Robinson himself suggested that jihadist violence is more a question of modern practical tactics, and not historic principles, among Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928. “As a general principle, political Islam groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have tended not to emphasize violence. I don’t want to say they are peaceniks,” but rather saw violence “as a tactic that becomes necessary from time to time,” he said. By contrast, “for the jihadis, violence is a cornerstone,” an ideology that arose “in large measure because of the failure of Islamism to create significant differences” in the political realm.
Chronologically, the “laying of the intellectual architecture of jihadism” occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s, argued Robinson. “We are not talking about the traditional jihad dating back to the dawn of time,” he claimed. How modern jihadists deviate from Islamic orthodoxy remained unexplained.
Recurrence in Robinson’s slides of the word “innovations” highlighted the problematic foundation of his theories. For example, he described the “Palestinian-Jordanian” Abdullah Azzam, who died in 1989, as the “godfather of global jihad” and the “most prolific ideologue of the Afghan jihad.” Azzam was “one of the few ideologues of global jihad that actually has a serious religious credential” from Al-Azhar University, Robinson stated, an indirect reference to the common claim that jihadists have no scholarly training in Islam.
A slide labeled “Azzam’s Ideological Innovations” stated that the “First obligation after faith is the defense of Muslim lands.” Yet, as noted by Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s unit charged with hunting Al-Qaeda jihadist Osama bin Laden, this is traditional Islamic doctrine. Unsurprisingly, Bin Laden, who never claimed any theological pedigree, remained faithful to his mentor Azzam.
Another slide listed “Ideological Innovations under ISIS” (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) as including “State Building to Banish Apostasy.” Given prohibitions against apostasy and blasphemy throughout Islamic history, however, Robinson’s claim is peculiar. He added that in ISIS recruitment efforts “things that would be abhorrent to the vast majority of Muslims are targeted for these young men.” But common human decency among Muslims notwithstanding, practices such as ISIS sex slavery have a solid Islamic doctrinal basis.
Islamic doctrine’s historic nature hints at why Robinson is pessimistic about Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs. Responding to a question by ACMCU founder John Esposito, Robinson said, “There have been a lot of things that haven’t worked very well.” “The reeducation programs that the Saudis have done, for example, and others, they may have done a little bit of good, probably not a whole lot,” he noted in reference to the persistent failure of jihadist deradicalization programs.
Robinson ended by discussing the “$64,000-dollar question” in current crises in Afghanistan. Has the Taliban “learned that within the Westphalian rules, it can do almost anything it wants inside of its own country without risking its survival as a regime as long as it doesn’t do one thing,” he queried. Namely, the Taliban cannot host fellow jihadists who will emulate Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the wider world.
Dubiously, Robinson relied upon the Taliban’s rationality to predict that it will not “cross that redline again.” Nonetheless, a resurgent Taliban provided context for his admonition “to right-size the threat. Don’t exaggerate,” as after 9/11. Perhaps “today we are just forgetting about it” with an American “pivot to Asia,” he worried.
Robinson is correct to worry about jihadist threats, as they are not recent “innovations” but actions grounded in Islamic canons. As his own review of history indicated, modern jihadist movements reflect a tactical response to the longstanding Sharia supremacist desires of Islamists. Unfortunately, his at times ahistorical approach can leave military leaders ill-equipped to accurately assess future national security threats.