Why Jihadists can time-travel and we cannot

March 31st, 2015 - The fact that the "Islamic State" is providing English, German, French or even Russian translations of the speeches of the "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani does not mean that these documents are understandable for a Western audience. Sure, most people will get the general meaning. But a lot of the allusion and some of the arguments inherent in them will be lost on readers who have never concerned themselves with Jihadist ideology or Arab history.

One could of course say that that's just fine: Aren't we, after all, talking about an ideology of murderers? Why would I want to understand their speeches? Why waste time to get into their brains?

I disagree with that position. I believe it does make sense to try and understand the IS better. Not least of all, because it helps assessing what they might be up to next. The ideology of Jihadists is brutal and murderous. But it is not entirely illogical or obscure.

A good case in point is the very way in which Jihadists interpret the history of mankind and, in fact, the course and even flow of time. It is here that we find a distinct difference in the way in which Jihadists and Westerners look at the world.

In the West, we are used to agree that there is a thing called the past and it's over; there is a thing called the present and it is now; and there is a thing called the future, which is about to happen. These states don't overlap and there is a particular order in which they occur. This is a linear concept of time.

Jihadists don't fully share this concept. They will agree that time goes by, but they will also maintain that that basically doesn't matter or change anything. It is as if we have a wristwatch and they have a wristwatch, but their's doesn't have numbers on it: Time goes by, but it doesn't mean anything.

If you look at the IS's publications, you can find traces of this all over the place. Take this quote from IS spokesperson al-Adnani from last June, when he said about the IS fighters that they "denounce Nationalism as they denounce the Jahiliyya".

What does that mean?

Jahiliyya, of course, is a term from the Quran and plays a role in Muslim intellectual history. It literally means "ignorance" and has mostly been used in the sense of "era of ignorance", thus describing human history prior to the advent of the prophet Mohammed who ended the state of ignorance when he brought God's word into the world. In the Jahilliya, people had been either heathens or they had followed the distorted and compromised versions of God's message as preserved by Christians and Jews.

But why does al-Adnani use the term as if the Jahiliyya was something that still exists? Because for him, it does. His quote is an echo of the new meaning of the term Jahiliyya that was developed by, among others, Sayyid Qutb, an important figure in the early Islamist movement.

Qutb took the term Jahiliyya out of it's historical context and made it transcendent. For him, there were only two kinds of societies, as he described it in his book "Ma'alim fi al-Tariq": A Muslim society - and Jahilliya.

Qutb thus turned a historical demarcation line into an ideological one. He exchanged "before Mohammed" with "against Mohammed". Jihadists, who have taken many beliefs of Islamism to the extreme, not only share this notion in theory - for them, it is practically real.

And that's not without consequence. Because this allows Jihadists to time-travel between what we consider to be two separate states of past and present. For Jihadists, time may have passed between the 7th century and today, but only in a profane way. Which is why the conflicts of the 7th century are, in their eyes, neither past nor over. What they see in the way of conflict in the world today, is not similar to those conflicts, it is identical - it is the very same fight. Look closely and you will find, e.g., that many IS fighters and supporters don't compare themselves to the companions of the prophet Mohammed - they rather count themselves among them.

So if from time to time we have the feeling that IS authors somewhat oddly jump between times and tenses, it is because their understanding of the way in which human history evolves is different. It is not entirely linear. 

It is, however, partly linear and partly compatible with the Western view of history and time. In March 2015, for example, al-Adnani stated that "if our ancestors fought against the Romans, the Persians and the Unbelievers yesterday, we are proud to fight against them today".

Look at this closely: While al-Adnani accepts that there is a difference between "today" and "yesterday", he doesn't not allow for a distinction between the enemies of then and now. They are the same, they are identical - even if the date on the calendar perhaps is not.

All of this links back to the Jihadist conviction that history is not a chain of events set in motion by mankind but a constant re-play of the ever same battle between believers and unbelievers set in motion by God.

The forces of evil never change, they only change their appearance. A great illustration of that is how Osama Bin Laden liked to call George W. Bush "Hubal" - which is the name of a God from pre-Islamic times (Jahiliyya!). Bin Laden didn't compare Bush to Hubal. He identified him as Hubal. 

Of course this Jihadist view of history and time is not entirely free of contradictions. The IS, e.g., hardly ever speaks of the West, but instead uses the terms Crusaders or Romans a lot. The Romans (of Byzanz) were of course a force that the early Muslims actually fought against - but the Crusaders were not. They appeared centuries later. So the IS terminology does allow for historical invention up to a point.

But be that as it may: No ideology is free of contradictions. And in the context of this post, I believe it is more important to understand that what may appear as obscure to us at first, may be fully logical in the ears of a Jihadist.

There is one last important difference between the Western view and the Jihadist view, of course: We tend to think of history as open-ended. Jihadists don't: There will be an end to the world - the day of resurrection. Only on that day will the eternal battle between Good and Evil end with the triumph of the forces of Good. This notion also features prominently in IS propaganda. And it is another example of an idea that, while many people in the West may perhaps be able to understand it intellectually, is a very real prospect for Jihadists that pertains to their life decisions - like joining the war in Syria, where Dabiq lies, a place believed to be the stage for one of the end of times battles between Good end Evil.

So I guess what I am trying to say is really this: Different ideologies are one thing. But what sets us apart from Jihadists in a very substantial way, too, is the fundamental difference in the interpretation of history and even the concept of time.


PLEASE NOTE: This is an edited and somewhat different version of a German language blog post I published at DIE ZEIT online yesterday

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