Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism


Mohammad Hassan Khalil is coming to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where I teach, to give a talk on his latest book, Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism. I wanted to have a very brief interview with Dr. Khalil about his book before his talk in Omaha. I hope to have an extended interview with him in the future about this book and his other scholarly works.

Dr. Khalil is an associate professor of Religious Studies, an adjunct professor of Law, and Director of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University. He specializes in Islamic thought and is author of Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism (Cambridge University Press, 2018); and editor of Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others(Oxford University Press, 2013).

In his book, Dr. Khalil discusses the responses of the New Atheists to the question, “Is Islam fundamentally violent and exclusivist?” For New Atheists such as Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Richard Dawkins, the Islamic doctrine of jihad makes Islam fundamentally violent. Dr. Khalil scrutinizes this claim by comparing the conflicting interpretations of jihad offered by mainstream Muslim scholars, violent Muslim radicals, and New Atheists. While Dr. Khalil, considers contemporary Muslim terrorism to be a significant problem that needs to be confronted, he finds the explanations offered for this phenomenon by the New Atheists highly problematic.

Ramazan Kılınç: What was your motivation to write this book?

Mohammad Hassan Khalil: I have long been interested in the study of jihad, violent radicalism, and the New Atheism. My book examines the intersection of the three.

RK: Can you briefly explain what you mean by jihad, radicalism, and the new atheism in your book?

MHK: A “jihad” is a “struggle” or exertion of effort for what is perceived to be a noble cause. This may include nonviolent struggles; however, in the specific context of Islamic jurisprudence, a jihad is a regulated armed struggle against outsiders.

The violent radicals I look at include terrorists belonging to, among other entities, al-Qaeda and ISIS.

“New Atheists” is a label commonly used to describe certain popular anti-theistic writers, such as Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

RK: What do you aim to show in the book?

MHK: I aim to show how mainstream Muslim scholars, violent radicals, and writers commonly known as New Atheists conceptualize and describe jihad in profoundly dissimilar ways.

RK: Why is this book important for the broader American audience at this particular point in time?

MHK: Most people have not taken the time to study the intricacies of Islam, including the concept of jihad. And there are many polemicists and apologists who either oversimplify the matter or outright misrepresent it. I hope this book demystifies and clarifies things.

RK: What did you enjoy the most in writing this book?

MHK: This was a dark project. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the various ways violent radicals and New Atheist authors approach and utilize Islamic scripture when attempting to explain the purpose and rules of jihad. Their respective approaches were, again, profoundly dissimilar from those of mainstream Muslim scholars.

RK: Can you briefly talk about your other research?

MHK: My first book, Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question (Oxford University Press, 2012), examines how prominent Muslim scholars imagined the fate of non-Muslims in the afterlife, the purpose and duration of hell, and the nature of God. I have an edited volume — Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others (Oxford University Press, 2013) — that looks at other aspects of the “salvation question.” I’m currently working on a couple projects that focus on US Muslims, past and present.

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Ramazan Kılınç is an associate professor of political science and director of Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. @KilincRamazan

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