My book review which just appeared in the Weekly Standard, January 17:
The Mind of Jihad
by Laurent Murawiec
Cambridge, 350 pp., $80
reviewed by Raymond Ibrahim
For some time now there has been a raging debate regarding what fuels Islamic terrorism–whether grievances against the West have caused frustrated Muslims to articulate their rage through an Islamist paradigm, or whether (all grievances aside) Islam itself leads to aggression toward non-Muslims, or “infidels.”
Laurent Murawiec’s The Mind of Jihad offers a different perspective. Discounting both the grievance and Islam-as-innately-violent models, Murawiec explores certain untapped areas of research in order to show correlations between radical Islam and any number of uniquely Western concepts and patterns, both philosophical and historical.
While this approach is admirable, it also proves to be overly ambitious, and thus problematic, specifically in its insistence that radical Islam is merely the latest manifestation of phenomena rooted in the Western experience. Murawiec is no apologist; neither, however, is he interested in examining Islam’s own peculiar Weltanschauung–as outlined by the Koran and hadith, articulated by the ulema (theologian-scholars), and codified in sharia law–in order to better understand the jihad.
Instead, according to Murawiec, radical Islam is an ideological heir to Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Nazism, Marxism, and nihilism; jihadists are duplicates of otherwise arcane characters from Christian history, such as the Millenarians. Indeed, any number of European concepts and personages permeate The Mind of Jihad, often presented as prominent factors contributing to the rise of radical Islam–betraying, perhaps, the author’s vast erudition concerning Western, not Islamic, paradigms.
Again, while these are interesting observations and worthy of exploration, Murawiec goes too far: The words “Gnosticism” and “Millenarianism” appear prefixed to Islamic terminology and figures repeatedly; this does not help and can distract–especially the lay reader who is trying to understand jihad within a strictly Islamic milieu.
Consider Murawiec’s millenarian thesis. He argues that jihadists are Islamic versions of heretical Christians who, driven by “superman”/Gnostic impulses, wrought havoc in Europe at the turn of the first millennium, often murdering and pillaging indiscriminately. Yet the dissimilarities would appear greater. The Millenarians were a product of an already lawless age. Modern-day jihadists are not; they live in the modern era which, while managing to appease violent “millenarian” tendencies in Christians, has evidently not managed to sate Muslim impulses.
If all things are equal, why aren’t modern Christians behaving like their predecessors, whereas modern Muslims are? The response cannot be that the modern Muslim world is in a state of dislocation and disarray: Today’s Islamic world is much more prosperous and structured than the Dark Ages in Europe, which directly influenced the savagery of the Millenarians. Moreover, whereas the Millenarians were anathematized as heretics, often persecuted by the Church, modern jihadists have yet to be condemned by any serious Islamic authority. Indeed, they are often validated by them.
After describing the jihadists’ “bloodlust” and disregard for innocents as representative of a chaotic and heretical millenarian spirit, Murawiec reveals that Sheikh Al Azhar, the equivalent of the pope in Sunni Islam, “demanded that the Palestinian people, of all factions, intensify the martyrdom operations [i.e., suicide attacks] against the Zionist enemy. . . . [H]e emphasized that every martyrdom operation against any Israelis, including children, women, and teenagers, is a legitimate act according to [Islamic] religious law, and an Islamic commandment.” This alone is enough to dismantle the millenarian thesis since, unlike millenarian violence, which had no scriptural/church support, modern day jihadist violence (including “suicidal bloodlust”) is backed by Islamic law and is a commandment.
For that matter, why does Murawiec insist on examining jihad(ists) through Christian paradigms and precedents, when Islam itself affords plenty of both–and centuries before the Millenarian movement? Moderate Muslims often portray al Qaeda as duplicates of the Kharijites. Breaking away from mainstream Islam in the 7th century and slaying not infidels, but fellow Muslims accused of apostasy, the jihadist Kharijites present a much more useful paradigm to understanding radical Islam than anything Christian.
This, then, is the ultimate problem with The Mind of Jihad: It tries to explain jihad by largely ignoring or minimizing Muslim precedents and doctrines in favor of Western precedents and philosophies. This is further evident in the latter half of the study, where the case is made that radical Islam is heavily influenced by Nazism, communism, and the “Western” concept of revolution.
While it would be folly to deny that such concepts influenced 19th- and 20th-century Islam, overemphasizing them also implies that Islam is a passive receptacle to the West, that it only reacts, never creates. At any rate, only those Western ideologies comporting with Islam ever found acceptance, indicating that the former were subsumed to the purposes of the latter, not vice versa. Murawiec agrees: “What borrowing took place almost exclusively concerned the authoritarian, dictatorial, and totalitarian ideologies”–aspects innate to Islam.
But even the concepts of revolution and revolutionaries are not imports to the Islamic world, semantic quibbling aside. Consider the life of the Islamist leader Maududi, who was out to “re-create Islam,” “politicize religion,” and whom Murawiec paints as Lenin:
A dÃ©classÃ© semi-intellectual with a powerful, charismatic personality sets himself up as a figure of messianic qualities whose cosmic mission is to establish perfection on earth on behalf of and according to the prescriptions of God. He is the quasi-peer of the great prophetic figures, and is possessed of extraordinary abilities. He is also possessed of a complete knowledge of how to move the world from its present, desolate nadir to the zenith of perfection: He is a man with a plan . . . which encompasses all aspects of life. . . . He is in charge of the immense bloodshed God requires for the Plan to be implemented.
While this is meant to portray Maududi as an Islamic aberration, it perfectly describes the prophet of Islam: Muhammad. Yet if Muhammad was a “revolutionary” who brought a “plan . . . which encompasses all aspects of life” (sharia law) and which requires “immense bloodshed” (jihad), is the behavior of Maududi or any other radical–all of whom are commanded to emulate the sunna (example) of their prophet, including by revolting against infidelity–unprecedented within the Islamic paradigm? Modern radicals are not so much out to “re-create” Islam as to reassert it. As for “politicizing religion,” Muhammad is responsible for that.
Muhammad was a “revolutionary” who violently overthrew the “oppressive” Meccans. His successors, the caliphs, reshaped the world through the Islamic conquests. Even the Shia and Kharijites, who revolted against the last righteous caliph, were “revolutionaries.” Today’s radicals see themselves as following in their prophet’s footsteps, trying to create the society he created through blood and conquest, as he did.
At one point, Murawiec stresses that, according to sharia, Muslims are forbidden from revolting against their rulers, even if the rulers are tyrannical. While true, there is one caveat: Rulers must fully implement sharia law; if they fail, even in part, they become infidel; and the same sharia that commands Muslims to obey tyrants also commands them to revolt against secular rule. This is precisely the justification jihadists use to attack “apostate” governments in the Islamic world.
The bottom line is that “Gnostic bloodlust” finds a precedent in Muhammad, who had 800 men decapitated after they had capitulated to him; who had no compunction about besieging infidel cities with fire and catapults, even if women and children were sheltered there; and who had poets, including women, assassinated for offending him. “Suicidal nihilism” finds precedent in the Koran and the deeds of the earliest jihadists, who actively sought martyrdom, as well as the words of Muhammad, who said he wished to be “martyred and resurrected” in perpetuity. Islam’s “Manichean” worldview, which splits the world between good and evil, is a product of Islamic law and jurisprudence. We need look no further than to Islam itself to understand jihad.
That said, it cannot be denied that parallels exist between Muslims and non-Muslims: Such is human nature, which reacts similarly to similar stimuli, irrespective of race or creed. But this raises the question: If Christian Millenarians, without scriptural/churchly support, behaved atrociously, how much more can be expected of jihadists who, while sharing the same violent tendencies inherent to all men, are further goaded by direct commandments from God and his prophet to kill or subjugate infidels to Islam?
Short of examining how jihadists understand jihad, short of examining its juridical and doctrinal origins, short of studying the sunna and biography of Muhammad, short of appreciating jihad as a distinctive element in Islam; in other words short of doing what Muslims past and present do–that is, go to Islam’s sources–we can never hope to understand “the mind of jihad.”
For those readers, however, who are firmly aware of the above, Murawiec’s book, especially its detailed historical accounts, can serve to augment their knowledge.
[Raymond Ibrahim is the associate director of the Middle East Forum and the author of The Al Qaeda Reader.]