An interesting review of the book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror by Mary Habeck, published by Yale University Press (243 pp. $25). Mary Habeck is a military historian and associate professor in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Here’s an excerpt from the review by Tim Rutten from the Los Angeles Times:

Habeck contends that Western analysts err when they insist on attributing the rise of jihadism to secular causes — economic deprivation of the Muslim masses, the legacy of European imperialism, American sympathy for the state of Israel. Taking the 9/11 terrorists as her examples, she convincingly argues that they did what they did because of what they believed as Muslims:

“Muhammad Atta and the other 18 men who took part in the September 11 attacks were middle-class and well-educated and had bright futures ahead of them,” she writes. “They participated in the hijackings not because they were forced to do so through sudden economic or social deprivation, but because they chose to deal with the problems of their community — for religious/ideological reasons — by killing as many Americans as they could.” Similarly, “If the entire purpose of jihadism is to break an imperial stranglehold on the Islamic world symbolized by U.S. support for Israel, why did the U.S. become the focus of [jihadi theorist] Sayyid Qutb’s anger in the early 1950s (more than a decade before the United States became associated with Israel)? Moreover, how do the effects of colonization account for the fact that one of the earliest jihadist thinkers, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, developed his version of radical and violent Islam long before the West colonized Islamic lands? … The consistent need to find explanations other than religious ones for the attacks says, in fact, more about the West than it does about the jihadis. Western scholars have generally failed to take religion seriously.”

(It’s worth recalling that Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam is Saudi Arabia’s official orthodoxy and that Riyadh’s petrodollars are financing its missionary work around the world at this very moment.)

Because Habeck is deadly serious about the jihadis’ religiosity, she is scrupulous about their relationship to contemporary Islam. It would be “evil,” she argues, to contend that a billion-plus Muslims supported or desired the mass murder that occurred on 9/11. Nor is it correct to conflate jihadi ideology with Islamist politics, such as those of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. On the other hand, she writes, it “would be just as wrong to conclude that the hijackers, Al Qaeda and the other radical groups have nothing to do with Islam.”

Nor can the jihadis’ key beliefs be dismissed as “the marginal opinions of a few fanatics. The principal dogmas that they assert … have roots in discussions about Islamic law and theology that began soon after the death of Muhammad and that are supported by important segments of the clergy today.”

Here an American reader confronts the necessity of reaching beyond the undergraduate impulse that equates a facile acceptance with tolerance. It’s a step that requires the recognition, as the philosopher Richard Rorty once put it, that some ideas, like some people, are just “no damn good.”

Habeck does an efficient job of demonstrating how the jihadis pick and choose texts from the Koran and the hadith (traditions concerning the life of the prophet) and insist on their right to interpret them for their ideological convenience. The texts and traditions, however, are there to pick.

She locates the origins of contemporary jihadism first in the writings of Wahhab and the 13th century Koranic commentator Ahmad ibn Abd al Halim ibn Taymiyya. Then came the crucial contributions of the 20th century Egyptians Hasan Banna — founder of the Muslim Brotherhood — and Qutb, who lived for a time in the United States, as well as a Pakistani, Sayyid abu al-ala Mawdudi.

Banna contributed the notion that every aspect of Western thought was as much a threat to Islam as any imperial occupation. Mawdudi argued that since God’s sovereignty is absolute, no law but that of Islam is valid. Qutb held, among other things, that Muslims who do not conform to the jihadi interpretations of the Koran are unbelievers, which makes it permissible to kill them at will, and that the whole notion of separating church and state in any way was “hideous schizophrenia.”

The entire review is available on the LA Times website.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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