There is a well-worn rut of thinking which holds that Islamic doctrines of warfare determine Jihadis’ violent behavior. The doctrine functions like software on a computer: if you can identify the doctrines/software, you can predict behavior.
Raymond Ibrahim has posted a version of this argument at the MESH blog. Ibrahim is right to say that Jihadis of the Salafi stripe take the medieval Islamic teachings on warfare seriously (sometimes to their detriment, as Brynjar Lia has argued in a recent article). But he is wrong to argue that studying these doctrines helps us understand, much less anticipate, the actions of Jihadis. I say this for five reasons:
1. The classical tradition Jihadis draw on is very contradictory. (I see that Bernard Haykel has already made this point in a comment on Ibrahim’s post.) Which of the contradictory rulings is operative?
2. Cost-benefit analysis is an integral part of medieval Islamic thinking about warfare. For example, in medieval discussions of suicidal attacks, the majority says that although they are permissible, they may not be wise in a given circumstance (e.g. they will hurt the Muslim community, they will not result in any benefit to the Muslim armies). If this analysis is built in, then any doctrine of warfare is subject to curtailment.
3. Contemporary Jihadis disagree on tactics. For example, Zarqawi used to reject suicide ops against noncombatants until a mentor in Afghanistan changed his mind. If all Jihadis are running on the same software, why isn’t there consensus on this issue?
4. Academics who have studied specific instances of Jihadi violence have found that organizational imperatives, local politics, etc. strongly shape violent behavior (see, for example, Hafez’s Suicide Bombers in Iraq, or Hegghammer’s dissertation).
5. Most Jihadis accept the idea of “do unto your enemy as he does unto you,” so everything is on the table. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter whether the classical tradition sanctions an act or not.
6. Even if we say the tradition puts constraints on mujahids (which I think it does), its hard to see where these constraints are for Jihadis. They have maximally defined the scope of warfare, all the way out to WMD. With such wide latitude, why would learning the finer points of suicidal attacks help us understand their behavior?
All of this is not to say that doctrine doesn’t matter. Doctrine does play a great role in dehumanizing outsiders (which Ibrahim rightly alludes to), defining end goals (Islamic states), and prolonging violence (see Mike Horowitz’s work). I’m just arguing that it is not determinative in tactical or strategic matters.
Studying medieval Islamic doctrines of warfare does have one massive payoff: If we can identify the rulings that contradict what the Jihadis are saying or doing, we can use them in information operations to paint Jihadis as illegitimate and outside of mainstream Islam. Of course, the Qur’an-is-software types will argue that the Jihadis are behaving like perfectly good Muslims. But this opinion (which I sometimes share) does not help us discredit the Jihadis, which is one of the keys to destroying Jihadism; rather it makes their argument for them and alienates Muslims who might otherwise be well wishers.
One final point: Ibrahim is outraged that deceit and an acceptance of collateral damage are acceptable in medieval Islamic doctrines of warfare. Why is this outrageous?