Friday, September 18, 2009

Knowing the Enemy (Book Review)

I hope my readers aren’t tired of book reviews because today I want to talk about what I regard as a very important book, one that could help us understand and face one of our biggest enemies in the world today. So here it is, another review.

Knowing the Enemy, Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror by Mary Habeck. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2006. 177 pp plus notes, glossary and index.

Mary Habeck is an associate professor, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. She has produced here a book which I think should be required reading for anyone who wants to seriously discuss the problem of Islamic terror. I thought that I knew and more or less understood the motivations behind the attacks on embassies in Africa, the USS Cole, the 9-11 attacks etc. However this book showed me that my previous knowledge only scratched the surface.

First, Habeck is careful to distinguish between most of Islam and the small group of fanatics who carry out terrorist activities. She shows that people like Osama bin Laden draw on out-of-mainstream understandings of Islam to create a version of the religion that sees violence as a positive good. Their ultimate objective is a caliphate imposing Islamic rule (Shari'a) on the entire world, beginning with Islamic lands. And their definition of an Islamic land is any land ever ruled by or paying tribute to an Islamic ruler. That includes Spain, the Balkans, even Russia.

In those people's belief, the very existence of any system of government other than the caliphate is an assault on Islam because it tempts people to not join the “true” religion and government. Liberalism (not the US leftists but liberalism in the sense of self-rule) is a positive evil in their view. It is no wonder that they hate every country on earth, even countries most would regard as Islamic.

In the view of these extremists, true Islam does not exist in the world today since it requires a land ruled by the caliph strictly by Shari'a, God's rule. It must be understood that this viewpoint antedates the establishment of Israel and the oil states. It cannot be blamed on Israel, though that country is today regarded as the start of western colonization in Islamic lands.

In the beliefs of those fanatics, Shari'a must become the law of the land. That is their definition of freedom and nothing else will do. They believe that democracy, kings, and all other non-Islamic forms of government will eventually be replaced as people see how wonderful life is under the caliphate.

Also, in the view of the jihadis, any western presence in Islamic land is an assault. That is why Bin Laden considered the US aid to Somalia in the early 1990's as an attack. We were there only to help the people but to the jihadis it was an invasion. This may be difficult for the western mind to understand, but understand it we must if we are to protect ourselves from the fanatics.

There is also a lot of what I would term groupthink and wishful thinking among the jihadis. For example, bin Laden believed that the 9-11 attacks would cause Muslims world-wide to rise up and join the “true” Islam and that the US would fold and leave Arabic and other Islamic lands. When his predictions did not materialize he had to change his tune but that has not changed the minds of the fanatics.

“Because history is dominated by the struggle between good and evil, jihadis assert that all Muslims are called by God to participate in the fight – physically if possible, or at least by word or financially – acting as God's sword on earth to deal with the evildoers and their wicked way of life.” This becomes a duty even if such a fight makes no actual progress toward the caliphate. They also believe if a jihadist dies while killing the enemy, he gets a reward beyond comprehension in this world. That facilitates the recruitment of operatives, even those willing to commit suicide if by so doing they can kill their enemies.

With the jihadis having the described mindset, it is easy to see why they are such a danger. We cannot reason with them, nor can we gain by negotiation (except for brief time periods while they re-arm). They consider treaties useful only to advance their cause and they believe they can break them pretty much whenever it suits their purpose to do so.

Habeck briefly suggests some things we can do to effectively fight the jihadis, though she is clear that a complete plan is beyond the scope of her book. She believes (and I agree) that we must deny them a land to rule as we did in Afghanistan. We must intercept their finances in order to deny them the more potent weapons they crave. And we must counter their preaching and recruitment by showing what a marginal part of Islam they are.

I strongly recommend this book

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