Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism

Interview with MOHAMMAD HASSAN KHALIL, AUGUST 26, 2019

Mohammad Hassan Khalil recently wrote a well-received book, Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism. Having invited Dr. Khalil to Omaha to give a talk about his book and seen the great interest in my community about it, I wanted to have an extended interview with him about the book.

First a brief background. 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).

Ramazan Kılınç: Hello, Mohammad, thanks for agreeing to interview with me. It is a pleasure to discuss your book on my blog.

Mohammad Hassan Khalil: Hello, Ramazan. Many thanks for doing this. The pleasure is all mine.

RK: What is the book about?

MHK: In this book, I discuss the responses of prominent New Atheists to the question, “Is Islam fundamentally violent?” For New Atheists such as Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Richard Dawkins, the answer is “yes” precisely because of the Islamic doctrine of jihad. I scrutinize this claim by comparing the conflicting interpretations of jihad offered by mainstream Muslim scholars, violent Muslim radicals, and New Atheists. Needless to say, contemporary Muslim terrorism is a significant problem that needs to be confronted; however, I find the explanations offered for this phenomenon by New Atheists (and many others) to be simplistic and problematic.

RK: What was your motivation to write this book?

MHK: I have long been interested in the study of jihad, violent radicalism, and the New Atheism. My book examines the intersection of the three. But what finally moved me to write this book was probably a 2014 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher in which Sam Harris debated actor Ben Affleck on the nature of Islam. In what became a viral clip, Harris declared that the centuries-old religion was the “mother lode of bad ideas.”

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: Many Muslims are very apologetic about defining “jihad.” Many overestimates the violent part of it and present it as a “struggle” in general terms. But you are candid on this in the book and give a detailed analysis of how classical and modern Muslim scholars understood its violent and non-violent meanings. How do you see yourself different from the more apologetic approaches embraced by several Muslim activists?

MHK: Most people—including Muslims—detest Muslim terrorists. And because these terrorists invoke jihad to justify their heinous acts, it is not surprising that some other Muslims would want to distance themselves from the violent interpretations of jihad. But it is precisely in the study of the rules of armed jihad that one can see how Muslim terrorists stray from historical and mainstream interpretations. For instance, one of the claims put forward by Osama bin Laden to justify the 9/11 attacks was that Muslim scholars such as al-Qurtubi had permitted the targeting of civilians in response to an enemy’s targeting of civilians; however, as I show in my book, al-Qurtubi actually held the exact opposite view: civilians should never be targeted as a form of retribution.

RK: Can you briefly explain your argument about how Sam Harris sees Islam and jihad? What is wrong with his characterization?

MHK: As Harris sees it, what makes “Muslim extremists” extreme is “their devotion to the literal word of the Koran and the hadith.” As I show in my book, however, Osama bin Laden and the leadership of ISIS could hardly be described as true literalists. In fact, their justifications for terrorism typically require the abandonment of literal readings of the Qur’an and hadith corpus. One glaring problem with Harris’s approach is that his engagement with Muslim sources seems very limited, and he relies a bit too much on translations and secondary sources.

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 wrapping up a couple projects that focus on US Muslims, past and present. One of these projects is a forthcoming edited volume called Muslims and US Politics Today: A Defining Moment (Harvard University Press and ILEX).

RK: Thanks a lot!

Ramazan Kılınç is an associate professor of political science and director of Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. @KilincRamazan. He is the author of Alien Citizens: State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France and co-author of Generating Generosity in Catholicism and Islam: Beliefs, Institutions and Public Goods.

Mohammad Hassan Khalil is an associate professor of religious studies and director of Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University. He is author of Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question and Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism  and editor of Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others.

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