‘A Word of Truth’ About Linda Sarsour’s ‘Jihad’
Linda Sarsour bores me. She is the radical flavor-of-the-month. But she is a numbingly familiar type to longtime observers of sharia supremacists in the West: the forked tongue, the flag-draped anti-Americanism, the close partnership with the hard left, and so on. Eight years ago, I wrote a book called The Grand Jihad about this breed of Muslim Brotherhood-mold operative. Sarsour fits the pathology to a tee … but once you’re on to them, these people are a dime a dozen. Yawn.
She got my attention, though, with her call for “jihad” in executing the Islamist-Leftist “resistance” to Donald Trump. Naturally, this has led to a brouhaha about whether she was really calling for violence or using “jihad” in the revisionist non-violent sense of “an internal struggle for personal betterment.”
I have no doubt that Lee Smith (in Tablet) is correct: Sarsour is a provocateur who was trying to call attention to herself while laying the groundwork to play the victim when she was inevitably criticized. What I have found amusing, however, are the two premises urged by her apologists: (a) we should take the jihad revisionism seriously; and (b) she must have meant “non-violent” jihad because she introduced the term by referring to a hadith in which Mohammed, Islam’s prophet, explains that, rather than violence, “the best form of jihad” is to speak “a word of truth” before a tyrant.
On the first point, jihad is essentially a forcible struggle. As Lee Smith points out, the evidence of sense should tell us all we need to know about it: just look at what is happening “on the killing fields of the Middle East.” Still, we do not need to make a deduction because the meaning of the word is clear, and because non-violent connotations of jihad are understood to be in support of the same mission as forcible jihad: the implementation of sharia, Islam’s societal framework and legal code.
Derivatives of “jihad” are used numerous times in the Koran in the militaristic sense. As I explained in Willful Blindness, my memoir about prosecuting jihadist terrorists in the mid-nineties, Bernard Lewis, the West’s pre-eminent historian of Islam, observes that “some modern Muslim theologians” have attempted to interpret the term as “striving … in a spiritual and moral sense.” Yet, he counters, “The overwhelming majority of early authorities,… citing relevant passages in the Qur’an and in the tradition, discuss jihad in military terms."
Furthermore, Thomas Patrick Hughes’s renowned A Dictionary of Islam (1895) defines jihad as follows:
A religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad. It is an incumbent religious duty, established in the Qur’an and in the Traditions as a divine institution, and enjoined specially for the purpose of advancing Islam and of repelling evil from Muslims.
Note here that there is nothing contradictory in the concepts of (a) waging war to establish the reign of Islamic law, and (b) striving in other ways to advance Islam and repel evil from Muslims – which, Islam teaches, is also done by establishing sharia. Thus, the premise that the non-violent jihad negates violent jihad has always been nonsense. The varieties of jihad work together toward the same end. To take a prominent example, many American Islamists who claim to reject terrorist jihad nonetheless support Hamas; they rationalize this contradiction by claiming that Hamas’s jihad is “resistance” not “terrorism” – got it?
In any event, we should note that Sarsour gave her jihad speech at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. ISNA was established by the Muslim Brotherhood to be a progression from the Muslim Students Association, the Brotherhood’s foundational building block in the West. In the Justice Department’s terrorism financing prosecution, the Holy Land Foundation case, ISNA was an unindicted co-conspirator because the evidence demonstrated that it participated in the movement of funds to Hamas.
ISNA has a close collaborative relationship with the Brotherhood’s American think tank, the International Institute of Islamic Thought. IIIT provided an endorsement to Reliance of the Traveller, the English translation of an ancient sharia manual. The manual (sec. o9.0) relates this duality of jihad as a fundamentally military concept, in which forcible and non-forcible means are joined in the mission of implementing sharia:
Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is the spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihad, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.”
The manual elaborates that “the scriptural basis for jihad” is found in such Koranic verses as: (1) “Fighting is prescribed for you” (Koran 2:216); (2) “Slay them wherever you find them” (Koran 4:89); and (3) “Fight the idolators utterly" (Koran 9:36). It is further rooted in such hadiths as Mohammed’s instruction: “To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.”
That hadith is good segue for our consideration of the laughable claim that Sarsour could not possibly have been endorsing violent jihad because she prefaced her remarks by referring to the hadith about speaking “a word of truth” before a tyrannical ruler.
In my aforementioned memoir, Willful Blindness, appears an account of how my notorious defendant, the Blind Sheikh (Omar Abdel Rahman) – a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence graduated from storied Al Azhar University in Cairo – issued a carefully worded fatwa (sharia edict) calling for the murder of Anwar Sadat. Egypt’s then-president, Sadat had made peace with Israel and was not enforcing sharia strictly. When his followers predictably murdered Sadat at a military parade, the Blind Sheikh was charged with murder.
He presented his own defense at trial, which was based on this very same hadith. Except … the Blind Sheikh was presenting the hadith – quite accurately – as a justification of violent jihad, not a divergent interpretation of jihad.
I related the episode as follows:
“One of the greatest forms of jihad,” a Hadith famously teaches, “is to utter a word of truth in the presence of a tyrannical ruler.” When he was finally brought to trial after nearly three years in prison, the Blind Sheikh resolved to make this lesson the leitmotif of his defense before the courts of Egypt, a nation which purports, above all else, to honor Islamic law. Betting that his incontestable mastery of that corpus would transform him from a feeble prisoner into an intimidating presence, Abdel Rahman delivered an unflinching tour de force: flaying the regime and its craven, compliant ulema [Muslim scholars regarded as clerics].
Tactically exploiting the paltriness of proof that he had (a) specifically authorized the murder of Sadat (as opposed to rhetorically condemning all unfaithful leaders) or (b) taken—or, indeed, was physically capable of taking—an operational role in the plot, the emir of jihad embarked on a brazen defense of the conspirators. It was as if he were a professor objectifying a historic event remote from himself. If the killers had acted honorably, how dare the tribunal accuse them, much less condemn him?
Jihad is not merely a duty. It is, as Abdel Rahman ceaselessly counseled his disciples, “the peak of a full [embrace] of Islam … [T]here is no work that equals jihad.” Acts of jihad could not be condemned. What were condemnable were efforts by cowardly clerics and corrupt rulers—using the prestige of their positions to distort jihad’s true meaning—to divert Muslims from this sacred striving. For fourteen centuries, the Sheikh admonished, jihad had unambiguously and unapologetically called for the aggressive application of military force against oppressors and infidels. It “means fighting the enemies.” Jihad was not about internal betterment, other efforts at peaceful achievement, or to be accomplished by such quotidian practices as prayer, mosque attendance, alms giving, or living a virtuous life. At such nonsensical suggestions, he often scoffed (as in this recording from his American trial):
Jihad is jihad…. There is no such thing as commerce, industry and science in jihad. This is calling things … other than by [their] own name. If God … says, “Do jihad,” it means do jihad with the sword, with the cannon, with the grenades and with the missile. This is jihad. Jihad against God’s enemies for God's cause and his word.
The nature of jihad, like the strictures of Islamic law, were unchanging. They could not change for they had been enunciated by Allah Himself. His injunctions were eternal, not confined to the time and place in which they were revealed. Mere men had no power to modify them for changing times or expedience. These commands held that society must be governed by sharia; if it is not, it becomes the individual duty of every Muslim to perform jihad against the regime until it is either overthrown or enforces God’s law as God decreed it. This self-evident truth, Abdel Rahman thundered, required no scholar to interpret and no fatwa to vindicate. Thus, Sadat’s slayers were performing a sacred duty, and it was pointless to quibble over whether it had been authorized by him or by any man; it was dictated by the Qur’an, which Muslims can read for themselves.
It was a strategy as brilliant as it was frightening. The core of the regime’s case against him, the Sheikh’s equivocal fatwas, was reduced to a side issue. The main event was God’s law, which it was a cleric’s duty to interpret when asked, and which Egypt claimed to venerate but was plainly not enforcing. Muslims, especially those presiding over court proceedings involving other Muslims, are required to acknowledge the binding force of legally prescribed obligations even if they are not themselves adhering to those obligations. And, as Abdel Rahman well knew, acknowledgment by the court of the scriptural commands he had explicated would have seemingly little practical consequence beyond his own case: The plotters who actually killed Sadat had already been executed; conceding the Blind Sheikh’s logic and erudition would not bring them back.
And so he was acquitted.
The proceedings burnished his legend. He was lionized not for being innocent but because he had staked his life on the unshakable conceit that God approved his actions, and he had been delivered. He had spoken a word of truth to the tyrant. Through all his sightlessness and all his infirmities, he had stared his accusers down through the sheer force of his will. A few years later, he would write a book based largely on his browbeating of the court. He called it A Word of Truth. The phrase thereafter became his insufferable signature, right down to the last will and testament he issued twenty years later from his American prison cell, imploring followers: “Do not have my blood [be] in vain. Seek for me my revenge, the most violent revenge. And remember a brother of yours who said a word of truth and was killed in the sake of God.” A word of truth, the maxim he feigned to personify in all his crafty deceitfulness. Jihad, after all, is war, and “[w]ar,” said the Prophet, “is deceit.”
Most of all, Abdel Rahman’s star blazed in the jihadist firmament precisely because he had been guilty, yet he’d won. The Pharaoh had been slain, the Blind Sheikh had fortified the murderers, and now he would be permitted to move on to the next jihad. Years later, safely out of Egypt and stoking new recruits, he would reflect that, of the “many jihad operations” carried out by his Islamic Group [terrorist organization], the “most famous” one was “killing . . . the atheist, the oppressor and the profligate … Anwar Al-Sadat.”
That, Linda Sarsour will no doubt understand, is a word of truth about jihad.