I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them.

September 3
Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of 9 books, including Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing.​

Iraqi Shiite militia fighters hold the Islamic State flag as they celebrate after breaking the siege of Amerli by Islamic State militants. (Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

The Islamic State just released a gruesome new beheading video, again helmed by a western-bred Jihadist. As often happens, I received messages asking for explanation.

You see, I’m the jihadi who never was.

Twenty years ago, I ditched my Catholic high school in upstate New York to study at a Saudi-funded madrassa in Pakistan. A fresh convert, I jumped at the chance to live at a mosque and study Qur’an all day.

This was in the mid-1990s, during an escalation of the Chechen resistance against Russian rule. After class, we’d turn on the television and watch feeds of destruction and suffering. The videos were upsetting. So upsetting that soon I found myself thinking about abandoning my religious education to pick up a gun and fight for Chechen freedom.

It wasn’t a verse I’d read in our Qur’an study circles that made me want to fight, but rather my American values. I had grown up in the Reagan ’80s. I learned from G.I. Joe cartoons to (in the words of the theme song) “fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble.” I assumed that individuals had the right — and the duty — to intervene anywhere on the planet where they perceived threats to freedom, justice and equality.

For me, wanting to go to Chechnya wasn’t reducible to my “Muslim rage” or “hatred for the West.” This may be hard to believe, but I thought about the war in terms of compassion. Like so many Americans moved by their love of country to serve in the armed forces, I yearned to fight oppression and protect the safety and dignity of others. I believed that this world was in bad shape. I placed my faith in somewhat magical solutions claiming that the world could be fixed by a renewal of authentic Islam and a truly Islamic system of government. But I also believed that working toward justice was more valuable than my own life.

Eventually, I decided to stay in Islamabad. And the people who eventually convinced me not to fight weren’t the kinds of Muslims propped up in the media as liberal, West-friendly reformers. They were deeply conservative; some would call them “intolerant.” In the same learning environment in which I was told that my non-Muslim mother would burn in eternal hellfire, I was also told that I could achieve more good in the world as a scholar than as a soldier, and that I should strive to be more than a body in a ditch. These traditionalists reminded me of Muhammad’s statement that the ink of scholars was holier than the blood of martyrs.

The media often draw a clear line between our imagined categories of “good” and “bad” Muslims. My brothers in Pakistan would have made that division much more complicated than some could imagine.These men whom I perceived as superheroes of piety, speaking to me as the authorized voice of the tradition itself, said that violence was not the best that I could offer.

Some kids in my situation seem to have received different advice.

It’s easy to assume that religious people, particularly Muslims, simply do things because their religions tell them to. But when I think about my impulse at age 17 to run away and become a fighter for the Chechen rebels, I consider more than religious factors. My imagined scenario of liberating Chechnya and turning it into an Islamic state was a purely American fantasy, grounded in American ideals and values. Whenever I hear of an American who flies across the globe to throw himself into freedom struggles that are not his own, I think, What a very, very American thing to do.

And that’s the problem. We are raised to love violence and view military conquest as a benevolent act. The American kid who wants to intervene in another nation’s civil war owes his worldview as much to American exceptionalism as to jihadist interpretations of scripture. I grew up in a country that glorifies military sacrifice and feels entitled to rebuild other societies according to its own vision. I internalized these values before ever thinking about religion. Before I even knew what a Muslim was, let alone concepts such as “jihad” or an “Islamic state,” my American life had taught me that that’s what brave men do.

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Daniel W. Drezner · September 3