For centuries Muslims have been making pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj is an extremely important part of a Muslim’s religious life and it leads to a growth in societal status when one returns. Upon return, those who have successfully made the pilgrimage are accorded the title of Hajji, which denotes an enhanced respect for the person in question. This practice of according enhanced respect to pilgrims has existed for centuries and continues to do so.
However, there today appears to be another method to acquire respect based upon a different type of pilgrimage, that of jihad. While less formalized than the Hajj system of societal ascendancy (no new titles are necessarily bestowed) those leaving for jihad very often do find a newfound respect from their home societies upon return from warfighting. Jihad is very clearly an important element of Islamic tradition, including both its internal and external variants. Internal jihad refers to the attempt to continually improve oneself and external typically refers to efforts to defend or expand (depending on your interpretation of the relevant religious texts) the ummah, or community of believers.
In the 1980s Afghanistan offered prime jihadi real estate. Not only was there an opportunity for jihad, there was also significant funding and state support. Saudi Arabia in particular was known to encourage its militants to go to Afghanistan to fight, partly out of religious duty, but also out of a desire to export religious militants who were worrying the political establishment (especially after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca). Fighting was “openly celebrated and did not require concealment…many activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity.” On return many jihadis found a newfound respect from their compatriots.
As a side note one could make an argument that jihad is significantly more respected when the jihad takes place in a foreign land. Local efforts and attacks often have very different effects – as returning Saudi (and other) militants found when they attempted to bring the fight back home.
The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for jihad. Syria, Libya, and maybe Egypt provide opportunities for jihad. There is a lot of material coming out discussing states’ worries that returning jihadis will come back and attempt to pursue jihad in their own countries, but there is another, more subtle, effect as respected jihadis return from their ‘pilgrimages.’ Most of these ‘Jihajjis’ aren’t going to turn towards militancy in their home countries, but they may, as a result of their enhanced societal prestige, be able to influence public opinion and public policy in unexpected ways.
That effect may be much harder to gauge than that of more militant, violent actors, but it could push societies into a mindset more open to fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and duties.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.