Islam, Islamism, and the Just War Tradition

(This essay is based on the talk I gave to the senior class at Portsmouth Abbey School on February 6, 2013.)

The Just War Tradition has evolved over thousands of years from not only Western but also Eastern traditions, with not only religious but also secular roots, reflecting attempts to reduce the incidence of war and, in war, to reduce its severity and atrocities. It is clear from their words, goals, strategies, and tactics, that radical Islamic militants do not recognize these principles, raising difficult political, military and ethical questions for states contending with them.

The Just War Tradition

Hugo Grotius, the “father of international law,” was the individual who in the modern era with his 17th-century work, The Law of War and Peace, was the first to systematize and codify these traditions into a framework for evaluating whether a war was “just.” He arrived at six main criteria. The first is Just Cause: The state must identify the injury incurred from the opposing state, such as a violation of its territory or its rights. It may also be seeking the prevention of humanitarian abuses. The second is Proportionality: The good toward which a war aims must be proportional to the bad effects which the war will inevitably cause. The initiating state must consider the consequences for the whole human race, not just itself. This also implies a specific political end toward which the war is directed, an end determined before the war. The third is Reasonable Chance of Success: The initiating state must possess the necessary means to achieve the ends it seeks. Fourth, the war must be Publicly Declared: The initiating state must announce its intention to begin a war, demonstrating the collective will of its people and also making the gravity of the situation crystal clear to its enemy. The fifth criterion is that the state’s Legitimate Authority must declare the war. Due process by the responsible parties within the state must be followed. Finally, the state must have exhausted all other means before it initiates the war. It must be the Last Resort.

          Once the state is in war, Grotius and the Just War Tradition addresses three main areas for the conduct of the war to be just. First, who can be lawfully attacked and who should not be attacked? Exempted are women (if they are not soldiers), children, old men, merchants, farmers, prisoners, and holders of religious office. Paul Christopher in his book, The Ethics of War and Peace, suggests a rule of thumb for dealing with the enemy’s noncombatants: One should not subject enemy innocents to greater risk than that to which one is willing to submit one’s own population. The second area addresses the means used to fight the war. Prohibited are weapons that cause unnecessary harm and suffering and weapons which do not discriminate between combatants and innocents and continue to cause harm and suffering after the enemy soldier is disabled.  The finally area addressed is the treatment of prisoners of war. POWs have the same protection from harm that is given to other innocents. They also become the responsibility of the opposing force, which is obliged to care for them.


Rigidly fixed on their goals and prepared to use any means to obtain them, terrorists generally disregard these criteria and considerations. Terrorism can be defined as any act that involves the illegal, intentional threat or use of random violence against innocent people to instill fear for a political purpose. For Americans the most vivid example of terrorism is the attack on September 11, 2001, when American civilian planes were commandeered by Muslim terrorists and driven into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and toward the Capitol. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks, including all 227 civilians and 19 hijackers aboard the four planes. However, this act came after nearly 25 years of terrorist attacks against Americans and their interests, starting with the November 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran.

Islam and Islamism

          Turning now to the world of Islam, we must first make the distinction between Islam and Islamism. Islam is a religion, like Christianity or Hinduism, the second largest in the world, practiced by about 21% of the world’s population. Islamism is a religious-political ideology, a set of beliefs, with broad political and social goals, the major ones being:

  • The implementation of the Sharia (Islamic law)
  • The fostering of all-Muslim unity or pan-Islam
  • The elimination of non-Muslim influence and peoples, especially, Western military, economic, political, social, and cultural influence in the Muslim world.

The Quran and Just War Principles

The holy book of Islam, the Quran, does contain guidelines and rules on many of the various issues of the Just War Tradition. For example, on Just Cause, it states: “O you who have believed, when you go forth [to fight] in the cause of Allah, investigate; and do not say to one who gives you [a greeting of] peace ‘You are not a believer,’ aspiring for the goods of worldly life; for with Allah are many acquisitions. You [yourselves] were like that before; then Allah conferred His favor upon you, so investigate.” (Sura 4: Verse 94) Also: “So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory – We will bestow upon him a great reward.” (4:74)

     It speaks to when hostilities must cease: “Except for those who take refuge with a people between yourselves and whom is a treaty or those who come to you, their hearts strained at [the prospect of] fighting you or fighting their own people. And if Allah had willed, He could have given them power over you, and they would have fought you. So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a cause [for fighting] against them.” (4:90)

          The concept of proportionality is in so many words addressed in the Quran. “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors” (2:190); “whoever transgresses against you; respond in kind.”  And also: “[Fighting in] the sacred month is for [aggression committed in] the sacred month, and for [all] violations is legal retribution. So whoever has assaulted you, then assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you. And fear Allah and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.” (2:194) “And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden, except by right. And whoever is killed unjustly – We have given his heir authority, but let him not exceed limits in [the matter of] taking life. Indeed, he has been supported [by the law].” (17:33)

          The Quran also stresses the importance of seeking peace: “If your enemy inclines toward peace then you too should seek peace and put your trust in God.” “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah.” (8:61)

          It gives instruction to avoid the killing of women and children: And when he brought them the truth from Us, they said, “Kill the sons of those who have believed with him and keep their women alive.” (40:25)

Islamism and Islamists

Let us now turn from the Quran to Islamism and the Islamists. Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum has divided them into three categories. First, Salafis, who revere the early era of Islam and try to revive it by their clothing, customs, and mindset, leading to religious-based violence. Second, Muslim Brothers and similar types who envision an Islamic version of modernity; they use violence selectively. Finally, lawful Islamists who are prepared to work within established political systems. They do not advocate violence. Pipes recognizes these real differences; however, he dismisses them as insignificant for Western interests because they “all pull in the same direction, toward full and severe application of Islamic Law.”

The Concept of Jihad

A critical concept and method of the Muslim faith is that of jihad; however, as John L. Esposito maintains in his book, Unholy War, Terror in the Name of Islam, there is no uniform agreement on its meaning. Definitions include:

  • Striving to lead a good life by the individual
  • Striving to spread the message of Islam.
  • Supporting the struggles of oppressed Muslims, for example, in Palestine or Kashmir.
  • For the more radical Islamists: Working and fighting to overthrow oppressive governments and in attacking the West.

Also, the concept may be split into greater and lesser jihad. The “greater” refers to an individual’s personal, spiritual struggle; the “lesser” relates to the warfare of jihad.

          If we look at the beliefs of radical Islamists on their past and their vision for the future, we can see two that are most fundamental. The main causes of Muslim decline in the past few centuries have been, first, the departure of Muslims from genuine and pure Islam, and second, the over-reliance and dependence on the West, beginning in the 19th century. Second, Jihad, personally and collectively, in ideas and in action to implement Islamic reform and revolution, is the way to effect successful Islamization of the society of a Muslim state and the world.

Many modern Muslim reformers, defending Islam against charges of militancy, have emphasized that jihad is only justified in defense. However, they seem to be drowned out by the words and actions of the radical Islamists. The radicals have essentially hijacked Islam and jihad for their broad goals. They emphasize other passages which speak to warfare, for example: “Not equal are those believers remaining [at home] – other than the disabled – and the mujahideen, [who strive and fight] in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has preferred the mujahideen through their wealth and their lives over those who remain [behind], by degrees. And to both Allah has promised the best [reward]. But Allah has preferred the mujahideen over those who remain [behind] with a great reward.” (4: 95)

John Esposito maintains that jihad today has “become the evocative symbol and rallying cry for mobilization in holy and unholy wars, in wars of resistance and liberation as well as in global terrorism.”

Jihads have spread across northern Africa to Asia. Afghanistan and Pakistan became the centers for the globalization of jihad.  The Taliban and al Qaeda have provided refuge and training for militants who came from such countries as Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, Chechnya, and the Xinjiang province of China.

Recent Radical Activity

 The latest radical Islamist militancy has shown itself in North Africa. It has increased especially among poor young men who are unemployed. The most powerful group is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in Algeria and northern Mali. The political goal of AQIM appears to be the establishment of an Islamic state in Algeria.

Also in nearby Mali are Ansar al Din and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). With AQIM, these groups have seized control of northern Mali.

Most members of these groups are Salafis who strictly follow Islam to the letter. These groups obviously advocate violence. Their harsh rule in northern Mali has included amputating of hands of alleged thieves, banning music, and stoning people to death accused of adultery.

In Mali on January 11, after the some 900 militants had taken another town, France intervened with troops and airstrikes. Worried that there was little to stop the militants from storming ever further into Mali, France — for the second time in less than two years — intervened with guns and bombs into a former African colony roiling with turmoil. “French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian Army units to fight against terrorist elements,” President François Hollande of France stated, noting that the operation would “last as long as necessary.” “The terrorists should know that France will always be there,” he added.

On January 16, militants seized an oil refining plant in the Algerian desert. It left at least 37 foreign hostages and 29 militants dead. Their aim seems to have been to blow the entire plant and create a huge fireball and public relations spectacle. They claimed that the action was in retaliation for France’s intervention. In the military’s final assault on January 19, army snipers killed many of the militants. Mr. Sellal, an Algerian official, said at the news conference as he defended the government’s aggressive, uncompromising approach toward the militants. “If you don’t terrorize the terrorists, they will terrorize you,” said a senior Algerian official.

In facing radical Islamists, we are faced with an enemy who has a deep hatred for Westerners with roots in the Middle Ages when Christian crusaders invaded their countries and committed atrocities against them. In their approach to war and in conducting warfare, they do not recognize Just War principles. While their holy book contains many rules and exhortations which echo Just War principles, they choose to interpret them in such a fashion as to justify fighting wars and using strategies and tactics which contradict the western Just War Tradition.

This has implications for Western states strategically, tactically, and morally. We can put ourselves at a distinct disadvantage if we try to follow Just War principles while the radical Islamist do not, leaving us with the vexing Essential Question: When faced with an enemy who does not respect Just War principles, do we continue to?

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6 Responses to Islam, Islamism, and the Just War Tradition

  1. Peter McCall says:

    Good article Fred. I liked the open ended ending.

    Take care.

    Peter McCall (h) 770-641-7632 (c) 770-329-6156

  2. Dave Behrens says:

    Response to Islam, Islamism, and the Just War Tradition

    Is there, or has there ever been, such a thing as a ‘Just War,’ fought strictly according to guidelines primarily formulated by ivory tower, non-participating jurists and academics? Or have all previous conflicts been fought by practical men in search of victory, knowing that the historical justification will be written by the victor, who will be wont to condemn himself as a violator of any moral principles.

    I see Dr. Zilian’s final question, “When faced with an enemy who does not respect Just War principles, do we continue to?” as not only relevant in the current conflict with Islam, but in futuristic conflicts we may have. Ancient conflicts were economic, fought for the most important commodity of the time: arable land, then mineral wealth, then access to markets were progressively contested. Warfare has evolved into a contest with Islam for ideology, with total annihilation or abject obeisance to Islam as a consequence of losing. To put the choice pragmatically, do we choose a moral annihilation or worse under Just War principles, or do we survive?

    Those who believe this posits a false dichotomy, please ask yourself, “Can western civilization win, using strict Just War principles, against a nuclear armed Islam ?” Co-existence as respected equals with Islam is not possible. See the Quran, Surah 9:5 and 9:29.

    Loving frivolity and whimsy, I ask a slightly different question. “Can Homo sapiens win in a war, using Just War principles, against a technologically superior extraterrestrial civilization?” Human scientists have theorized that any extraterrestrial power we may encounter will be predatory, inquisitive, aggressive, and completely ignorant of Just War principles. The principles of Social Darwinism will apply: the technologically superior civilization will prevail. Will they annihilate H. sapiens, or simply use us as clever pets and/or useful slaves, as we use domesticated animals now? Is this question fundamentally different than that posed previously with reference to a nuclear armed Islam?

    Just War principles are now, and have always been, at best a profitable academic exercise, or at worst moral masturbation. They give us something to do, they feel good, but mean absolutely nothing. When one’s very existence is at stake, and no other choice is possible, we will fight to win using all our technology can provide, in every way possible, and write the justification later.

    • Marina says:

      Because men and women are not equal. Islam does not require women to be surrtpoeps for men. Men has to pay all expenses bills, children’s education, women’s daily expenses etc. There’s no binding on women to pay for any expenses. In fact as per Islamic Legal rules, women are not even bound to take care of the family. There’s nothing men can do if women do not take care of the family and wants to engage servants to do all the job. Women is not required to fight, does not have to go to war, do nasty jobs like clean sewerage, become construction workers and so on. Men has to do all those nasty, physically challenging jobs.Men and women have different qualities, role and responsibilities and thus difference in them requires different guidance.The verse 4:128 explains the situation when men is the troublemaker instead of women and what women should do in that situation.

  3. Fred Zilian says:


    Many thanks for reading my essay and for your comment.

    The Just War principles represent over 2,000 years of thought in trying to limit the outbreak of wars and, once begun, to limit their destructiveness. I believe that they are useful guides that I should respect and consider; however, I realize that I may have to set them aside, especially if I am facing an entity that does not respect them. I should not disregard them lightly, however, because, in a democracy rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, it can have negative repercussions on my ability to win the war. For example, the French engaged in torture of their Algerian enemies (1958-62), and it eventually hurt them at home. (See Alistair Cooke’s A Savage War of Peace.)


  4. Dave Behrens says:

    I strongly disagree with Dr. Zilians’ interpretations of his references to Quranic verses in his essay. He ignores an important principle necessary for correct interpretation of the Quran.

    There is a Principle of Abrogation utilized within Islam for the interpretation of Quranic verse. Simply stated, it says that newer verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammed abrogate, or supersede, older verses revealed to the Prophet. For a more comprehensive discussion of abrogation in Islam, please see:
    The Quran is not a chronological presentation of revelations to the Prophet Muhammed. This, because of the Principle of Abrogation, is an important consideration when interpreting exactly what the Quran’s position is on specific matters. A link to the chronological order of revelation presentation to the Prophet Muhammed with respect to the numerical order in the Quran can be found here:

    The Medinan Surah 9, next to last to be revealed, which abrogates all other Surahs in the Quran except the short three verse Surah 110, is also the most violent Surah in the Quran.

    The ‘Verse of the Sword’ Surah 9, Verse 5:
    “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them.”

    Surah 9, Verse 29:
    “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”

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