August 7, 2008 | Op-ed

Europe Must Realize: Jihadism is an Ideology, Not a Theology

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 issue.

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 create them.

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 confront them.

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 ideological warfare?

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 Union.

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 other hand.

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 and