Military History

Review of “Knowing the Enemy” by Mary Habeck

Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on TerrorThe world over seems to be in a miserable state at the moment. Watch the news for any given amount of time and you will most certainly hear about Islamic extremists instilling chaos in some part of the world.   One could even argue that Jihad and terror have become buzzwords in the media, but with little wonder considering how groups like Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or al-Qaeda openly claim responsibility for attacks in the name of their religion, attacks such as those in Tunesia, Nigeria or Yemen, for example.  In fact, Tunesia could be considered a place that is volatile to extremism, given the March attacks made toward the Bardo national museum in the capital city of Tunis, to which responsibility is now being claimed by ISIS-inspired militants; Yemen is another hot spot for such activities, what with al-Qaeda fighters freeing hundreds of inmates in an attack on a prison in the port city of Al Mukalla, one New York Times article recently reports; and let us not forget the recent deadly attack made toward a university in Kenya by al-Shabab islamists, where at least 150 people were killed. All of these recent events are but a small fraction when considering the majority of terror-related news that seems to be streamlining the “front pages” of many news outlets in the west.  What does all of this mean, though?  What is a simple man, living a simple life, suppose to make of all this turmoil and carnage?  What is the point to the bloodshed and beheadings that act as trademarks to their systematic design?  It is with questions like these in mind that I take to the book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, by Mary Habeck.

Habeck, an associate professor at John Hopkins University, writes an analysis on fundamentalist Islam in her 2006 Yale University Press book, in an effort to make sense of the attacks led by al-Qaeda extremists on the World Trade Center in September, 2001. Her research about jihadist ideology reveals an archaic form of right-wing thinking, where the word of three texts — the Qur’an, the hadith, and sira, which are a series of “sacralized biographies” about the life of the prophet Muhammad, which give insight into his “calling” as a political and spiritual leader — serve as the basis for their fundamentalism. In many ways, the life of Muhammad serves as the “model for the acquisition and use of power,” deeming these sacred texts as the guidelines for “defensive and offensive strategies of Islam at every stage of this global confrontation [known otherwise as jihad] over a very long time” (qtd. in Habeck 138). For example, one way of thinking derived from these texts lies in the concept of jahiliyya (ignorance), in that everyone is ignorant and blind in the world until they become enlightened by Islam, as the state of the Arab world was before Muhammad brought his message unto the people (Habeck 65).

Not everyone agrees with the interpretations these jihadists make of the sacred texts. As a matter of discourse, Habeck makes several references to this, reiterating throughout the book such assurances as:

the jihadist commitment to offensive warfare, their belief in terrorizing entire populations, their views on prisoners of war and booty, and their deliberate targeting of innocents have not found widespread support among the vast majority of the Islamic world (133).

This could be as much as to prevent any liabilities or offense for her scholarship and thesis, as it is to convey the truth of the matter.  For example, many scholars believe that jihadists never give “full interpretive weight” to the circumstances relating to the past, but instead pull loosely from the texts to meet and satisfy their own agenda. This blatant show of abuse towards interpreting these texts implies their desire to manipulate and control their followers, which Habeck believes is “one of the most important aspects of the current conflict, for the struggle over who controls the Qur’an and hadith is, in many ways, the key to the upheaval in the Islamic world” (53). She furthers her argument for this point when she writes, ” For many Muslims who take their religion seriously, the willingness of the jihadis to selectively ignore a thousand years of interpretive work and the traditional exegesis of the people of knowledge is a serious affront to their understanding of Islam” (55). This is creating an internal conflict within the Islamic world, where both fundamentalists and liberally-oriented modernists are claiming the sacred texts to be the “true voice of Islam” (42). The result has turned out to be a bloody conflict, with tensions and animosities running high from every direction.

Regardless the religion, this is generally the reaction made toward fundamentalism by more moderate and intellectually-oriented people in a given society.   Christian fundamentalism has a tendency to have a similar effect — picking and choosing– on many of its believers.  As one blogger from the Huffington Post puts it, “Few [Christian] fundamentalists care about the early church, the Gospels, the Catholic traditions, Augustine, Arian heresies, encyclicals and councils. Rather, they blend Southern Conservatism, bastardized Protestantism, some Pauline doctrine, gross nationalism and a heavy dose of naive anti-intellectualism for a peculiar American strain of bullshit” (McElwee). Whether it is preaching a right-wing agenda through sermon or picketing in protest over gay-rights, Christian fundamentalists seem to only listen to themselves.  As Habeck reminds us in her book, jihadists are no different: they pick and choose what they want to believe, which tends to be the more militant side of Islam (43).

Her argument toward jihadist ideology in a modern sense is not entirely clear, though.  As would be expected of a book covering a topic such as this, her argument attracts a lot of criticism. One reviewer from the website The American Thinker bluntly states that “Habeck’s scholarship is half-baked, meaning literally half done.” He goes on to justify his case: “After making it clear to us that jihadism has deep and historical roots in Islam, Habeck feels compelled to proclaim that jihadists have perverted ‘traditional Islam’ to suit their purposes, have moved contrary to the flow of ‘modern Islam’, and are heterodox in their condemnation of all of those who oppose… But repeating these statements time and again in conclusory fashion does not make it so, and she provides almost no source material or analysis of how the jihadists are in fact heterodox” (Yerushalmi). The book does maintain a repetitive feel at times, especially when considering some of the facts used in several of the chapters to discuss the historical roots of Islam fundamentalism. While the interpretations from such revolutionary thinkers like Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) and Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966), to name a few (Habeck 18), are made clear early on in the book, she continually adds these thinkers’ ideals back into her dialogue, drowning out any discourse about the differences existing between modern jihadist groups.  Nevertheless, her book provides many insights into the topic, and I can see how parallels to what is happening in the Middle East exist with the fundamentalism she discusses. In fact, I noticed passages all throughout (see pages 64, 145, 148-149) that seemed to hint at the beginnings of such groups like ISIS, a fundamentalist group that did not rise to power until several years after her book was written.

Given her expertise on the subject, I was curious to know what her take is on the current volatile condition in the Arabian peninsula due to ISIS, so I pulled up an article she co-authored with Thomas Donnelly, a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. There, they analyzed the current administration’s means of dealing with the Middle East thus far (as of January, 2014). They write that given the actions of the administration in their handling of the Benghazi attacks, the enemy is still largely misunderstood. “We still don’t understand the enemy,” she goes on to add, “more fatally… we do not understand the nature of the war.” That we don’t understand the enemy; that these al-Qaeda linked groups only reorganize and start anew once western intervention has packed up and gone home; that the terror network is more globally connected now than it was in the 80s and 90s; that, despite our “ebbing interest” in the region, the Middle East still maintains an interest in the United States, for better or worse: all of these facts weigh heavily on the decisions being made by the Obama administration during this political conundrum. Habeck and Donnelly make an interesting observation that has relevance to today’s understanding for the situation in the Middle East: “In sum, the state system — illegitimate and brittle as it has been — that largely defined the balance of power in the Middle East since World War II is in flux” (Habeck and Donnelly). It would seem that the writing is on the wall, as the proverbial saying goes, but with the Obama administration taking a passive approach to Middle Eastern affairs — furthermore, partnering with nuclear-ambitious Iran to negotiate settlements when America’s most influential ally, Israel, fears for such an act to happen and may take matters into their own hands — there is little that could be done to thwart the shifting balance of power that seems to be happening at the moment. The United States has always acted in some way to keep “the worst from happening in the Middle East” (Habeck and Donnelly), but the restraint shown by the current administration leaves the mildly complacent international community to ponder, “what are we to do now?” Many nations have an interest in the Middle East, for whatever reasons there may be, political or economic, so these nations are left to “reshape the international system to [their] liking” (Habeck and Donnelly).   Whether this is a good move for America and her interests in global affairs, especially since many Middle Eastern players like Saudi Arabia, are at risk of finding more compliant bedmates, only time will tell.

For all my purposes, this book has done a thorough job in answering many of the questions that I have had about the Islamic conflicts that seem to be growing in scale in the Middle East. One thing stands for certain, these jihadists have many enemies and their agenda is grandiose in every means, but it is a real one, a threat to any who think differently from them. They are more than just a small band of violent people who have murdered innocent people, rather they believe that they are “honored participants in a cosmic drama” where the fate of the world will be played out to its ultimate end, victoriously or not (Habeck 163). Habeck, along with many other western scholars (see Samuel Huntington’s article) see a “clash of civilizations” taking place around the world, where an either-or mentality motivates jihadist groups like al-Qaeda to lash out at non-believers and to destroy them (162). How long this will last is hard to say, but if history has shown us anything, it is that totalitarianism seldom lasts for long. The only problem is that history has a tendency of repeating itself.

Works Cited

Habeck, Mary and Thomas Donnelly. “The Unmaking of the Middle East.” the weekly Standard 19.18 (20 Jan. 2014). Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Habeck, Mary. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

McElwee, Sean. “Five Things Christian Fundamentalists Just Don’t Get.” [Blog]. The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post.com, Inc., 08 Jun. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

Yerushalmi, David. “Knowing the Enemy: A Book Review.” The American Thinker. American Thinker, 9 Sep. 2006. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Further Reading

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (Summer 1993): 22-49. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

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Review of “On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman [Audio]

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyThere’s something primal about the act of killing another animal. An instinct set deep within the psyche, killing an animal takes a considerable toll on a person who may not be hardened by experience to the act, as if one is ever prepared for such a thing. Not long ago, I came across a pigeon in our backyard that had been mauled by a cat, but had lived through the experience. I’d say I scared the cat away while it was playing with its prey; otherwise, I think the cat would’ve finished what it had started. So, here I was watching this bird. The pigeon could not fly, nor could it really walk; it simply flapped frantically on the ground, afraid of anything and everything that came within its line of vision. I fetched my neighbor who was in his driveway, and we watched it, contemplating what to do about the bird. We decided it best to put the poor animal down. He fetched his air-rifle, while I put on garden gloves and picked the injured bird up. I was mesmerized by the rapidity of this bird’s pulse, its rigid body anticipating the next move to come. I watched on, as my neighbor returned, aimed his rifle, looked at me to see if I was ready and pulled the trigger. I have never felt worse about a single moment like the killing of that bird. I was miserable the whole day, as I tried to rationalize what my neighbor and I did to the bird. It was in pain, for sure. The cat did a number on its wing, almost severing it from its body, and the bird’s eye had been clawed. The cat was toying with its food; I didn’t cause this, yet I couldn’t help but wonder about what I had done that afternoon. Was I wrong for having put the bird out of the misery it had endured from the cat that ravaged its body?

I hunted when I was younger. Born and raised in a small rural community in the Midwest, I have known from an early age what it is like to shot guns for recreation and survival. Like my father taught us, a deer tag in one season was lucrative for us, as it beat the prices for the meat we would pay to buy beef from the local butcher, had we not hunt for ourselves. A deer tag meant filling the freezer with venison that would last the whole winter, and that alone saved my family a lot of money to be spent on other things. Hunting literally fed the family for us. It wasn’t a sport done to collect trophies; my father made sure that I understood that. This was where meat came from. This was his life lesson parted onto me. So, why did I feel remorse for this pigeon?

I vividly remember the pace of the bird’s pulse, even to this very moment as I type out these words, and that was what affected me the most. Quite literally, I felt the life of this bird fade away. I watched the glean of its eyes vanish into lifelessness, and the experience touched a nerve. It was the closest moment I have ever had with death. It was physical, and I felt it. I don’t feel ashamed for having ended this bird’s suffering. The cat would have killed it, had I not interrupted its playful banter. I recall feeling after the shot, though, that this animal deserved every right to live and breath as the next animal, as myself, and I played a part in taking that right away, albeit for what my neighbor and I rationalized to be a good cause — to end its suffering. Nevertheless, it bothered me, because living is a powerful thing, a thing we can easily take for granted, getting caught up in our daily affairs. Working to earn money to buy things and goods to make our lives easier, to occupy our time:  all of these seem only as mere distractions from what really matters — to simply live for the sake of living.

Understanding the Act

For this reason, the book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, published by Back Bay Books in 2003 (first published in 1995), is an instrumental lesson on the psychological costs of killing another animal, moreover another human being. This one-of-a-kind book, a study about killing, written from the expertise of a trained psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, reveals several narratives from veterans who were forced into situations in Vietnam and other conflicts that have left them struggling to come to terms with their deeds ever since. Not only does the book seek to expose the effects that militaristic and behavioral conditioning have played on soldiers as they trained to become something their conscience would not willingly allow them to become, it also recognizes how killing became more efficient as a result of psychological conditioning, where soldiers often didn’t even realize it was happening, thus overstepping the moral dilemmas that often set in.  As combat situations have escalated throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, so too have the reparations for becoming more effective in killing taken a major toll on veterans in such conflicts, more-so than veterans from wars like World War II and Korea. The author argues that military conditioning comes with a price; the more hardened the soldier is made to killing, the more likely they are to suffer for their deeds later in life.

In On Killing, Grossman tells us that the military has made their rate of fire against enemies more accurate and efficient, upwards to a 93 percent kill-ratio, in comparison to times before when posturing, or firing over the enemies’ heads to scare them away, was more typical of the battlefield. Each modern battlefield became more proficient, as behavioral studies revealed more ways to refine, reward and hone conditional aspects to learning. Killing becomes muscle-memory to a soldier who repeatedly drills the process of shooting human-shaped targets over and over again on a range. But, this is an important point in his book. This military training is controlled, highly regulated and with severe consequences to anyone who breaks the rules of engagement. This reward/punishment system, he argues, is what keeps veterans who learned to kill and who may have had to kill in a time of conflict from doing so outside of the line of duty. The same principles can be found in law enforcement.  The responsibility to keep these trained skills at bay is a testament to this type of positive and negative reinforcement.

The premise of the book is welcoming, as it seeks to explain that killing and death are integral to life, a natural part of it, and our understanding of this back in the ol’ days was all the better for it. While reproduction and sexual relations, all of which pertain to creating life, have been studied extensively for several decades, this book’s author argues that death is seen moreso as a taboo subject, one that is often coveted in ritual, a process not openly discussed. Therefore, it is a subject that scholars have yet to fully recognize and understand. It is important to remember the olden ways of living, he argues, where families were readily open to slaughtering their own livestock, teaching and instilling the lesson of respect through the ritual of the slaughter, while showing children where their food came from. Now, we hide the process of the slaughter behind the façade of super markets, shopping centers that shrink wrap slabs of meat within little Styrofoam trays, neatly trimmed and blood-free. The process has been taken out of our daily lives, and no one is made to feel uncomfortable or squeamish by the acting of killing another living thing. This comes with a price.

Dealing with the Consequences

Grossman warns the reader that by recognizing the act of killing as a shameful process, a taboo to be avoided, we are thus instilling and harboring a morbid fascination for it. As Hollywood and the video game industry produce violent media outlets that encourage and reinforce in similar ways what the military has taught its soldiers, young people look on with a deep sense of intrigue, innately recognizing the power that comes with taking a life. Going to the movies to see desensitizing violence on the big-screen only reinforces the act. Here, we bring our families with us, buy popcorn and candies, and laugh or cringe often at the folly of the weak protagonists who allow themselves to be victimized. The sensation for more extreme and brutal violence is only made worse, building on what previous films had done in order to heighten the experience. Compounded by this association with our loved ones being near watching with us, violence on the big screen emboldens us, makes us crave the rush that comes from the horror of it all.  While the soldier on the range learning to shot targets that appear human in form is conditioned through discipline and punishment, no one reprimands us for cheering as a head is severed from the body of an evil-doer on the big screen.

The interactive nature of video games is much worse. Most people screen what their children see at the movies, with enforced rating systems in place to keep inappropriate content away from impressionable minds. The accessibility to video games, however, remains an issue. While most retailers only sell age-appropriate games to children, there are still parents who buy the latest games, not knowing that those games are violent and aggressive in nature. I remember watching a woman buy God of War III for her son, no more than 10 years old, in the checkout line in front of me once while at the store. If you know anything about this game, you would have had the same reaction I did at the moment, watching this unsuspecting mother buy this game for her boy and his friend. They were giggling with excitement about playing it when they got home. Games like these reinforce acts of violence through achievements — the more head shots in a first-person-shooter, for example, the more prestige. Combine this principle with leadership boards linked to social-networking websites, and the behavior is further reinforced. Grossman goes on to cite some very fascinating studies about the impact incarceration has on keeping extreme violence at bay, the prison system serving as a deterrent to some degree, much in the same way the military instills discipline in its own soldiers. But, this is a problem of considerable degree, not a solution to it. The point should be to keep people out of prison, not placing them there for having committed an act of violence to begin with.

I feel this is an important book, because it reveals what the psychological consequences of killing are. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a major theme throughout the book, and it describes many situations from the perspective of interviewed veterans who suffer from PTSD, offering insight into a disorder and its severe consequences over a person’s psyche. The problems addressed in this book are very real, and Grossman handles the topic maturely, even engaging the families of people who know someone who’s been placed in a position to kill. Returning soldiers from Iraq or Afghanistan often faced such situations, and this book is devoted to helping family members and spouses understand and attempt to relate to what their soldiers went through when faced against their enemy. Taking a life, regardless of whether it is a pigeon or a human being, is a serious matter and should be regarded and taught as such, not as some estranged act that we should downgrade and shun. By doing so, we only enlarge the gap to understanding what killing does to a person, the consequences of which our society would do well to acknowledge, to help with understanding the repercussions for such acts. This book is well worth the time.