must realize: Jihadism is an ideology, not a theology
by Walid Phares, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Jihadi terrorism is one of the largest threats Europe
and the international community are facing in this era.
Hence studying Jihadi terrorism beyond the formation and
the dismantling of cells is highly relevant to Europeans
because of the impact of its actions on security,
politics, and economy.
Jihadism is putting significant pressure on European
foreign policy regarding where and when Europe can
intervene in an international crisis such as those in
Afghanistan, Lebanon and Darfur. It is also putting
pressure on the European economy through the choices
made in foreign policies. But the inability to explain
these pressures is a major reason behind the strategic
failure in containing and reversing the threat which
continues to expand and grow across the continent.
As one of the European Parliament (EPP) leaders,
Jaime Major-Oreja said, the issue is about
identification of that threat. We need to "ID" it so
that we can address it properly. Western democracies
have had a failure in perception of the threat; for the
countries that have been fighting this movement are
still debating it seven years after 9/11 and several
years after Madrid and London attacks. World War II took
five years to win, and, in this confrontation, the
identification of the menace is still not completed
properly after seven years. Hence, we will offer a few
suggestions of strategic guidelines to address this
First: The Identification Problem
1. Self Identification: The Jihadists talk about
themselves, their agenda and their views. Let's not
ignore this literature, but let's analyze it and learn
from it. These movements certainly use theology in their
discourse, but they have developed an ideology. They do
define themselves as Jihadis, Islamists, Takfiris, and
others, but the most accurate term to identify them is "Jihadists."
2. European Debate: Today's debate in Europe about
the origin and nature of the Jihadist movement is still
struggling with the so-called "root causes" of this
terror phenomenon. In my discussions across the
continent, including my sessions with many of the 27
counter-terrorism teams at the European Union level, one
can summarize the Euro-debate on this matter as follow.
Four points and counter-points are made:
a. Many in the EU claim that Jihadism is a response
to European (and Western) foreign policy. The
counter-arguments are that Jihadism as an ideology and
as a movement has preceded all relevant European
policies in modern times. The Salafists rose in the
1920s long before the UN and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Foreign policy impacts these movements but does not
b. Others have stated that economic
disenfranchisement is at the root of these movements.
But there are many counter arguments: First, the
Jihadi agenda does not talk about economic justice.
Second, there are multiple layers of social classes
among Jihadists from the lower social class, the
middle class and the upper class as well. In addition,
the Jihadi ideology creates takfeer which is a
display of hatred between segments of societies. The
Jihadists in Sudan, for example, have clearly
displayed racism in Darfur.
c. New theories are claiming that the root causes
are socio-psychological stresses such as racism. But
the counter-argument is that racism is a phenomenon
linked to immigration and exists for all immigrants
not just the Arab Muslim communities.
d. From the other side of the debate, some
intellectuals are charging that the roots of terrorism
are found in Islamic religious texts. But the
counter-argument is that texts alone cannot mobilize
and organize movements. There need to be ideological
forces that create the movement while using references
to theological texts.
Thus in the final analysis Jihadism is an ideology
not a theology.
Second: The Strategies of the Jihadists
If Europe and the West are facing an ideology, and
thus a movement, one has to learn about their war room,
their policies and strategies. We need to understand
these so that governments and societies are able to
The Jihadists have had great debates about their
strategies. Al Qaeda, the "hot headed," wants to target
the United States and Europe with terror so that they
can rise in the Arab and Muslim world. But you have the
other "long-term" Jihadists who are creating the pools
of indoctrination. With their large, funded mechanism
they produce the young minds from among which al Qaeda
recruits. I am not only concerned about those who have
already became Jihadists between ages 15 and 25, but
more so about those who are between ages 8 and 13. What
we need today is strategic law enforcement in addition
to the local one.
Why were we (governments and NGOs) not aware of this
The answer is simply because the Jihadists are good
in the war of ideas; good at deceiving their foes by
raising other issues, using our system against us. Hence
between 1945 and 1990, as the West was engaged in the
cold war, they infiltrated the Arab Muslim. They have
produced four generations with the support of oil
production revenues. In a second war of ideas they put
additional efforts inside the West and Europe. They have
seized the microphone inside the Muslim communities and
had an impact on a segment of these societies
marginalizing the democracy seekers.
Since 2001, in a third war of ideas, the Jihadis have
put pressure on our democracies in Europe to affect
foreign policies that could help democracies in the
Middle East and oppose the radicals. The various
violences in Europe are aimed at changing foreign
policies so that Europe (and the West), instead of
helping the weak as in Darfur and Lebanon, and instead
of supporting women and minorities, would abandon them.
Three: Strategic Advice
Some strategic advice to address the challenge:
1. A European priority should be to define the
ideology. Advance work has been done over the past years.
The largest party at the European Parliament has
produced a document clearly identifying the Jihadi
terrorists as being at the root of the crisis. More has
to be done at the level of other groups and the European
2. Another priority should be to educate the European
public about the ideology, movement and strategies of
the Jihadists. The advantages of such massive public
information are numerous. One, it will give direction to
national communities to get to the root of the problem.
It would reduce racism as it would separate radical
ideology from religious communities. It would also help
Muslim communities make that separation between the
radical militants and the mainstream in their societies.
3. Last, but not least, a European priority should be
to support pro-democracy forces inside the Muslim
communities so that these communities are better
protected against racism and back-clashes on the one
hand, and are freed from control by the Jihadists on the
— Dr. Walid Phares is Director of the Future
Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C., and a visiting
scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy in
Brussels. He is the author of the recently released book,
The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad;
and of Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against
the West (2006) and The War of Ideas: Terrorist
Strategies against the West (2007), available at
Dr. Phares holds degrees in law and political
science from Saint Joseph University and the Lebanese
University in Beirut, a Masters in international law
from the Universite de Lyons in France and a Ph.D. in
international relations and strategic studies from the
University of Miami.
He has taught and lectured at numerous
universities worldwide, practiced law in Beirut, and
served as publisher of Sawt el-Mashreq and Mashrek
International. He has taught Middle East political
issues, ethnic and religious conflict, and comparative
politics at Florida Atlantic University until 2006. He
has been teaching Jihadi strategies at the National
Defense University since 2007.
Dr. Phares has written eight books on the Middle
East and published hundreds of articles in newspapers
and scholarly publications such as Global Affairs,
Middle East Quarterly, the Journal of South Asian and
Middle East Studies and the Journal of
International Security. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC,
Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, BBC, al Jazeera, al Hurra,
al Arabiya, as well as on many radio broadcasts.
Aside from serving on the boards of several
national and international think tanks and human rights
associations, Dr. Phares has testified before the US
Senate Subcommittees on the Middle East and South East
Asia, the House Committees on International Relations
and Homeland Security and regularly conducts
congressional and State Department as well as European
Parliament and UN Security Council briefings.
Visit Dr. Phares on the web at
© 2008 Walid Phares