War for terror?
A recent US review blamed Russia for the failure to prevent the Boston Marathon bombing, despite its warnings to US authorities. And while the need for a foreign scapegoat is clear, perhaps the blame lies closer to home. What's driving the global Jihad? Is it US foreign policy or Islam itself? Oksana is joined by Robert Spencer, author and investigative journalist, to untangle these issues.
Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart.This week marked the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing which, according to a newly leaked intelligence report, was all Russia's fault.The investigation concluded that with the information at hand, there was nothing the FBI or other agencies could have done to prevent the Tsarnaev brothers from implementing their deadly plot.But it skirts the question of whether or not they should have known more.Well, to try and answer this, I'm now joined by Robert Spencer, an investigative journalist and researcher of Islam-inspired terrorism. Mr Spencer, thank you very much for your time
Robert Spencer: Thank you for having me on.
OB: Now, this latest report by the US Inspector General puts all the blame on Russia for not sharing everything they had on the Tsarnaev brothers, but it does recognise that the Russian, the Russians raised the alarm, and according to the New York Times, Russian authorities described the elder Tsarnaev as: "a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer who was about to join some unspecified underground groups."I wonder, why do you think it didn't sound suspicious enough for the FBI, because the threat is apparently on the surface?
RS: The idea that Russia is responsible for this because they didn't give enough information to the FBI is absolutely ridiculous.The fault lies entirely with the FBI, and the responsibility lies entirely with the FBI.The Russians did tell the FBI all that they needed to know by saying that Tsarnaev was a follower of radical Islam who had tried to join underground groups, and mind you, underground groups in Dagestan. The only underground groups in Dagestan are Islamic Jihad terror groups.So the Russians essentially told the FBI that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an underground jihadist; that ought to have been enough for them to keep him under very close surveillance. It was not. It was their failure.
OB: Well, what is also interesting is that the New York Times also mentions that at the time, American law enforcement officials believed that Mr Tsarnaev posed a far greater danger to Russia than to the United States, as if that was a good enough reason for not investigating him further. For all this talk of the global nature of terrorism, it seems that the American approach still remains very parochial, if it's Russia's problem then, "ok, let it be".
RS: This comes from the American wilful ignorance about the Jihad threat.The American government, the Barack Obama administration, is dedicated to the idea that there is essentially no Jihad threat at all, and that what various nations face are a series of various nationalistic insurgencies.And so it was not, it was against their official dogma to identify Tsarnaev as an Islamic jihadist who would be a threat to anyone but Russia, because in the view of the Obama administration, the Chechen jihadists in Dagestan and Chechnya and the surrounding areas are only interested in Russia; they wouldn't possibly be interested in striking in the United States; this is because of the Obama administration's scrubbing of counter-terror materials of any mention of Islam and Jihad in connection with terrorism, and its absolute unwillingness to face the reality that there is a jihad imperative that involves violence against non-believers, wherever they may be.And because the Obama administration is committed to ignoring that and denying and downplaying it, they had to classify Tamerlan Tsarnaev as only a Chechen insurgent who was involved with Russia; couldn't possiblyconceive of the possibility that he would be wanting to strike the United States.
OB: Well, you just mentioned the American administration's tendency to underestimate the threat posed by jihadists or by terrorists and I remember the times when Chechen or Dagestani terrorists used to referred in the United States as "freedom fighters", but I wonder if one factor contributing to this problem is overestimation of Russia as a threat, essentially seeing Russians as more of an enemy than jihadists themselves.
RS: Yes, well certainly of course there's the whole history of the Cold War, but Barack Obama is no Cold warrior. Barack Obama is somebody who has been embarrassed on the world stage by Vladimir Putin more than once, and he's certainly not going to want to, in that, in that light do the Russians any favours or portray them in a good light. What he's trying to do with the Boston bombing is deflect attention away from the manifest failure of the FBI and the failure of the FBI resulting from its wilful ignorance of the jihadi threat; and so the Russians are an easy and convenient scapegoat for him to blame in their place since, ironically enough, because of the fact that the Russians gave the FBI the initial intelligence about the Tsarnaev brothers, but then declined to give the FBI more information.They didn't need to give the FBI more information, they, the Russians, have no responsibility to do the Americans' intelligence work for them, and the idea that they're responsible for the failures of American intelligence is patently absurd. But, uh, it's, it was a very easy thing for him to do. Barack Obama has a history of trying to deflect responsibility away from all of his many failures and to blame everyone but himself for the fact that his administration is one long train-wreck.
OB: Well, talking about deflecting responsibility, you are a very unpopular figure with some of the Muslim circles both in the United States and in Britain for suggesting that the Koran contains some passages that condone or encourage violence against non-believers and, well, many people can respond to that, that the Bible too has those violent messages, especially the old Testament. Is it really a problem of the book rather than of a small but growing group of readers, who misinterpret it in the way that is not consistent with the teachings as a whole.
RS: If they're misinterpreting it, they're misinterpreting it on a global scale. There are jihad groups mandating and teaching and acting out, carrying out acts of violence against non-believers in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in Thailand, in Burma, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Nigeria, in Chechnya, in Dagestan, as you know, in, all over the world, and they're all misunderstanding Islam in exactly the same way? If I am unpopular with these groups for pointing out with, American and British authorities as well, for pointing out that the Koran contains passages of violence well, all they have to do is open up the book themselves and read it. I didn't write the Koran. But the reality of the situation is this: it is certainly true that the Bible contains violent passages but they are fundamentally different in character from the violent passages in the Koran, the Koran's passages exhorting believers to commit acts of violence are open-ended and universal.
OB: But Mr Spencer, with all due respect, the way people convert to those violent ideologies is not through Koranic scholarship, it is primarily through the feeling of being intimidated or being oppressed or being denied basic fairness. If we look at the reporting of the, on the Tsarnaev brothers, it is clear that they had plenty of grievances against the United States and American policies and many of the countries that you mentioned as home for terrorist attacks, so I wonder if, in placing all the blame on Islam or jihad as a vehicle for facilitating that anger, you are essentially ignoring the root cause of that anger, which is the brutality of American foreign policy?
RS: Well with all due respect to your question, it betrays an ignorance of Islam, because, in reality, the reason why these grievances are retailed, and the reason why the Tsarnaev brothers as well as many other jihadis have pointed to various alleged grievances in order to justify their actions, is because defensive jihad is the only jihad that is legitimate in Islam today in the absence of a Caliphate. In Sunni Islam, every jihad has to be justified as a response to enormities by infidels. The offensive jihad, the jihad that is waged simply as a consequence of the unbelievers being unbelievers, is something that can only be authorised by the Caliph, and there is no Caliph, the Caliphate has been abolished, it was abolished rather, in 1924; and so the question becomes, if these grievances were all satisfied, would the jihad go away?And then obviously the answer is no, because in the experience of the jihadi terrorists themselves, they simply find another one, and when their grievances have been redressed -
OB: - Mr Spencer -
RS: - then they make other demands.
OB: Mr Spencer, I think we are really going into the hypotheticals here, because -
RS: - no, actually not - the - no, not in the hypothetical in the least.The Palestinians had their grievances redressed many times; as a matter of fact, most notably, you, say, you could take the case of Gaza, the Gaza withdrawal, and in Gaza, the idea was that if the Israelis left Gaza and there was no more occupation in Gaza, the Gazans would go back to their normal life and everything would be ok; and I predicted, and some others did as well, that it would become a jihad base for renewed jihad attacks against Israel, and it did. That's exactly what happened.
OB: But, but I don't know when you were in Gaza the last time but it's certainly not a paradise on earth, the living conditions in Gaza are very, very difficult and many would argue that this is exactly what is leading indoctrination. But coming back to American foreign policy, because I think it is an important part of the narrative, isn't America's narrative just as open to interpretation and manipulation? Because you know, all this rhetoric about America's need or obligation to intervene, America's exceptionalism, could be construed as supremacist, while this idea of spreading democracy around the world, that could also be interpreted as a form of jihad, jihad waged by democracy.
RS: Look, you're not going to - I'm not a defender of American foreign policy, I'm not a fan of American foreign policy, I think American foreign policy is outstandingly wrong-headed. But the reality is, when Islamic jihadists are waging jihad warfare against the Filipinos, and against the Thais, and so on, that has nothing to do with American foreign policy.The idea that all jihad is because of American foreign policy is immediately refuted by the fact that so much jihad is being waged in areas where the Americans don't have a presence; and as far as Gaza goes, the idea of conditions in Gaza being terrible, is simply jihadi propaganda, and if you look at the actual images from Gaza, you see luxury hotels and markets overflowing with food and so on. Think about the billions of dollars of aid that go in there. The idea that there's some terrible conditions there and that it's an outdoor concentration camp is belied by the facts. But one of the things that jihadis are very sophisticated at is deceptive propaganda.
OB: Well, Mr Spencer, I visited Gaza just a year ago and I beg to disagree with your description of it, I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't like to live in Gaza, I think many of the people there suffer. But the main point here is Islam, and I think you are using the terms "Islam" and "jihad" somewhat interchangeably, and Islam is, of course, a very large, global religion. One out of every four people on this planet are, is a Muslim, so if all of them wanted to impose some sort of subjugation on non-Muslims, I bet they would have done it in no time. But it is again many Western powers that intervene in the Muslim countries and therefore give jihadis a reason to recruit many, many more youth to their cause.
RS: They do recruit, and they recruit by means of the Koranic teachings that exhort to jihad. This is why one of the most widely-circulated pamphlets about jihad, that you can find readily on the internet, is called "Jihad - the forgotten obligation", because so many Muslims are notwaging jihad, so many Muslims are ignoring it, and jihad groups are exploiting that and saying "look, it's in the Koran, it's in the teachings of Muhammed, and you're not doing it, you need to get with it", and they do make recruits on that basis.
OB: But I wonder when you put the blame squarely on Islam and the Koran, aren't you actually engaging in a form of scapegoating, similar to the one that the FBI is engaged in? You know, blaming Russia for the Boston bombings. Aren't you doing the same thing by blaming Islam for something that people with some twisted minds are doing?
RS: No, actually not. What I'm doing is reporting accurately about what the Islamic jihadis themselves explain as their motives and goals for their attacks. If you look, if you read closely their writings, they do retail a lot of grievances but, when you get past the grievances, it's all theology and it's all based on the fact that they are fighting to obey Koranic imperatives to fight, and so, the onus is on them; and the people who are pointing to Islam as the source of violence are the Islamic jihadis; I'm merely reporting that they do.
OB: Mr Spencer, we have to take a very short break now but when we come back: jihad and the war on terror seem to be a match made in heaven but who is the creator?That's coming up in a few moments on Worlds Apart.
OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart, where we are discussing the origins of jihad with journalist, Robert Spencer.Mr Spencer, in the first part of the programme, I mentioned that you often use the words "Islam" and "jihad" interchangeably, and yet, Islam is a religion of many faces, and Islam of the Gulf is very different to the Islam of Syria, or the Islam of China and people living in those countries. Muslims living in those countries are sometimes more different from one another than Muslims and Christians living side by side, so when you talk about jihad and Islam as synonyms, what strain of Islam are you talking about.
RS: I don't know what you're talking about, this is a ridiculous question. I've never used Islam and jihad as synonyms, ever. Not on this programme and nowhere else.
OB: Well just a couple of minutes ago, you suggested that it is the inherent nature of the Koran that allows it to be interpreted in a way that encourages violence, I think that's the whole argument that you are making here.
RS: That doesn't mean that Islam and jihad are interchangeable; Islam is much bigger than jihad; it's a ridiculous idea, it's a ridiculous assertion.In any case, the jihad doctrine does mandate war against unbelievers, I didn't make this up.This is something that is taught in all the sects and schools of Islamic jurisprudence.There are certainly many Muslims around the world that don't pay any attention to that and that's great, but you cannot name a single major sect of Islam that does not teach that it is part of the responsibility of the Ummah, the Muslim community worldwide, to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers. I challenge you to do so.The Ahmadi Muslims, they sanction, they council peace, but they are considered to be heretics and they are violently persecuted by the other Muslims, in Pakistan and Indonesia, because of this part and because they claim that there's another prophet after Muhammed, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.
OB: Well, Mr Spencer, as you said, Islam is a very, very big religion and there are many scholars who preach tolerance and peace. Mevlana Rumi being one of them, the Sufism. His teaching is all about embracing people of different religions, of different races, of non-believers etc, but I think the strain of Islam that you refer to is the "Takfir" ideology, which is espoused by Wahhabis or Salafists, that recognises that infidels could be, and should be, killed and I wonder if that sort of Islam is actually supported by America's closest ally, Saudi Arabia? And when you talk about fighting jihad, it seems that the United States is trying to fight the war on terror with one hand but at the same time, feed it with another, because again, Saudi Arabia is a very, very influential country and all the money that it has, it often uses it to spread the kind of Islam that you are talking about.
RS: Yeah, once again, if you wanted a guest who was going to defend American foreign policy, you got the wrong guy.I think that the alliance with the Saudis is ridiculous, it is self-defeating and ultimately, it should have been ended long ago, and I hope that ultimately one day, it will be.The idea that the Saudis are even any kind of reliable ally for the United States is ridiculous, but also the idea that only the Takfiris, the Salafis, are preaching that it is part of the responsibility of the Muslims to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers - that is not borne out by the facts.It is not invented by the Wahhabis.
OB: Now, Mr Spencer, there're many examples of predominantly Muslim societies, where Muslims and Christians and people of no faith live side by side. One such country was Syria for example, and nowadays, it is the American government and the American legislators, both on the left and on the right, who seem to be supporting rebel groups who want to impose Sharia law on Syria, so again, when you talk about jihad, I wonder, why aren't you a bit more forthcoming, a bit more vocal about naming the main sponsors of jihad, which are Saudi Arabia and the United States.
RS: When did I ever deny this?I've written many, many times on my website, jihadwatch, there are many posts that denounce the United States' support for the jihadis in Syria, that point out exactly what you point out, that they are essentially aiding Al Qaeda, that the enemy who hit the United States on 9/11 is now being supplied weapons by the United States, by the support of Barack Obama and John McCain, by partisan cluelessness and complicity in evil.You're right that Muslims and Christians lived side by side in harmony in Syria but you contradict yourself, and it's in a very illuminating way, by saying that the jihadis want to impose Sharia, Islamic law in Syria. That is absolutely correct, that iswhat they want to do; but that means that you know that Islamic law has not been enforced in Syria under the Assad regime, and that's why Muslims and Christians have been able to live side by side in peace and harmony, because the Assad regime allowed more rights for Christians than Islamic law does.
OB: But, Mr Spencer, isn't it the case that ordinary people, ordinary Muslims, ordinary Christians, they don't really go into all those theological details? The ordinary, everyday interpretation of Islam is much simpler, and I wonder if this idea of subjugation of non-believers, you know, my sense, from travelling a lot around the Muslim world is that it is predominantly the domain of Islamic scholars, rather than the Islamic community, the Islamic ummah in general.
RS: Of course.People are people everywhere, human nature is everywhere the same.Millions of Muslims, probably tens and hundreds of millions, they don't want to live under Islamic law, they rejected it in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood tried to impose it, and millions of Muslims took to the streets to topple the Muslim Brotherhood regime there just last summer. Islamic law is something that is, denies equality of rights to women, denies equality of rights to non-Muslims, equality of rights to gays, and denies the freedom of speech, mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam and many Muslims don't want to live that way.The reality is that people are people everywhere.The teaching of Islam is one thing and every individual believer is quite another; they may have a very close relationship with Islamic teaching and want to follow it out or they may not pay attention to it or they may not like parts of it; and so, to point to Muslims and say, "you see, so many of them are nice guys, that must mean Islam doesn't have a problem" is merely to stick your head in the sand and to deny that Islam does have these doctrines of violence and supremacy and is in dire need of reform, by these Muslims of goodwill.
OB: I want to ask you something different though, you mentioned Al Qaeda earlier on in the show, and we know Al Qaeda was empowered, initially at least, empowered by the United States in fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and I wonder if this idea of jihad is sometimes being used in foreign policy for achieving goals that have absolutely nothing to do with religion or ideology, simply to, you know, further one country's national interest?
RS: I'm not interested in defending American foreign policy. I opposed from the beginning the incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan and so, I'm just simply not going to take up the point; but the fact is, if you have enough respect for the jihadis, and I do, to read their actual literature, you will find that they are fighting not for any other goal except to impose Islamic law.They have repeatedly stated this in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and everywhere else; and Islamic law is a political as well as a religious system, no doubt about that, but it is obviously inextricable from Islam itself.
OB: Mr Spencer, if we look around the world, if we look at the Middle East, if we look at North Africa, Muslims kill each other more than representatives of any other religion, so on that point alone, it doesn't really seem like they want to subjugate the whole world; they seem to be each other's worst enemies, and many scholars believe that that may be a direct outcome of the fight for the soul of Islam, for the mainstream interpretation of Islam that is going on around the world, you know, this fight between, you know, some of the more radicalised forces and some of the more secular mainstream forces, and I wonder if you agree that we are witnessing this fight and if you believe you have a stake in that fight?
RS: The stake in the fight that Muslims are waging with each other?It's not really moderates against radicals you know, it's mostly Sunnis versus Shi'ites and I don't know if you're aware of the meaning of the word "Takfiri" that you used earlier, but "Takfir" is Islamic excommunication - the declaration by one Islamic group that another Islamic group is not Muslim and can therefore lawfully under Islamic law be killed; these are all parts of Islamic doctrine, and I find your question here, again, inexplicable and borderline ridiculous that because they're killing each other, therefore they don't want to kill us or because they're killing each other, therefore they don't want to subjugate us, I don't see how that follows.
OB: Well, let me explain how that follows- what I mean is that there are different interpretations of Islam: some are more radical, some are more moderate and if there is indeed a fight between more moderate and more radical strains of Islam and the more radical strain is being empowered and supported by you know, some of the great political powers of the world, why isn't that relevant?
RS: Where do you see more moderate Muslims fighting more radical Muslims?Where exactly do you think you see that?
OB: Well, I see it all around the Middle East, I see it in Syria, there are Sunnis fighting against Sunnis, there are Shi'ites fighting against Shi'ites in Iraq, I mean for the Americans, it may be easier to see it as Sunni versus Shi'ite but I think what is really happening is more radical ideology trying to take over the more tolerant and more peaceful meaning of Islam.
RS: You know, for someone who is so critical of American foreign policy, you sound remarkably like John Kerry right now.The idea that the more moderate people in Syria are fighting the radicals sounds to me like the mainstream American analysis, that the Free Syrian army is the good guys, the moderates, and they're fighting against the Al-Nusra Front, and others, that are Al Qaeda in Syria, and it's certainly true, the Free Syrian army is fighting against the Al Qaeda elements, and the Free Syrian army is being supplied with weapons by the United States to do that, but because the Free Syrian army is fighting Al Qaeda, doesn't mean they're not jihadis themselves. It's the Free Syrian army that has gone into churches and ransacked them and terrorised and brutalised Christians in Christian areas of Syria - they're hardly moderates.
OB: Well, Mr Spencer, I think you misconstrued my argument a little bit, I wonder if you’d do the same trick on Islam in general, but unfortunately, this is all we have time for. Unfortunately, we have to leave it there, I really appreciate your candour; and to our viewers, please keep the conversation going on our Twitter, Youtube and Facebook pages and I hope to see you again, same place, same time here on Worlds Apart.