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