Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Unmasking the Faces of Jihad

It would be impossible to be taken seriously as a reporter or expert on Russia, France, Germany, Latin America, or perhaps even China or Japan without knowing the requisite languages but for "Islam" no linguistic knowledge seems to be necessary since what one is dealing with is considered to be a psychological deformation, not a "real" culture or religion.
—Edward Said, Covering Islam

The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global by Fawaz Gerges is essential reading for anyone interested in the story behind Al Qaeda and the events that led up to the spectacular terrorist attacks on America in 2001. Gerges, an Egyptian Christian who teaches international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, gives an intimate portrait of the events and personalities that caused radical Islamists to abandon their traditional fight against al-Adou al-Qareeb, or the near enemy (autocratic Muslim regimes such as Egypt), and take on the far more dangerous foe, al-Adou al-Baeed, or the far enemy (the United States and the West).

In the process, Gerges offers a penetrating critique of the way terrorism and terrorists are portrayed in the Western media and, more generally, the shallow manner in which Muslim societies are seen through Western eyes. Through voluminous interviews with jihadis themselves, a close reading of Al Qaeda bigwig Ayman al-Zawahiri's self-serving memoirs and a careful examination of countless documents culled from captured Al Qaeda hard drives in Afghanistan, Gerges provides a detailed look into the inner workings of the jihad world—and acts as a counterweight to the sloppy scholarship that informs the prevailing ideas about the threats we face from Islamic terrorism. This book is a challenge to the U.S and the West in general to rise above platitudes and delve into real history with all of its complexity. It couldn't come at a more critical time.

The jihadist movement was born in the early 1970s as a reaction against the authoritarian regime in Egypt and was inspired by Sayyid Qutb, a radical Islamist who was executed by the Egyptian state in 1966 for opposing the Nasser government. Qutb and the jihadis who followed in his wake elevated the importance of jihad, or armed struggle, believing it to be equal with the five pillars of Islam. None other than Osama bin Laden himself believes that jihad is second only to faith as a Muslim ideal—a notion rejected by virtually every religious authority in the Islamic world.

Gerges points out that since the time of Mohammad, jihad has been seen as fard kifaya, or a collective duty, the agenda of which can only be determined by the whole community. Jihadis, on the other hand, consider it to be fard 'ayn, or a permanent and personal obligation. As such, jihadis believe that they are justified in taking up arms and carrying out terrorist attacks on their own authority.

Fawaz corrects several misconceptions regarding jihad and its place in Islam. The first is to note that while all jihadis share this conception of jihad, they represent "a tiny ... minority," even among Islamists. Theirs is far from the dominant view. The second misconception—and the crux of this book's argument—is that the jihadist movement has always seen the United States and the West as its primary enemy. Quite the contrary, Al Qaeda's attack on America was the result of a "civil war within the jihadist movement" and "represented a monstrous mutation, an implosion from within, not just another historical phase in the movement's evolution."

Jihadis always saw the near enemy—particularly the secular Egyptian regime—as their main foe. Apostate Muslim rulers stood in the way of their goal of establishing an Islamic government based upon Shariah, or Islamic law. It was to this end that al-Jama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group), one of the largest jihadist organizations in the world, and Tanzim al-Jihad (Islamic Jihad), led by current Al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, collaborated on the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. (Jama'a al-Islamiya is not associated with the Indonesian group of the same name who recently immolated Bali for a second time.) Even as late as 1995, Zawahiri was preaching jihad against the near enemy exclusively. Despite his subsequent alliance with Osama bin Laden and his conversion to transnational terrorism, "the overwhelming majority of jihadis have been religious nationalists whose fundamental goal was to effect change in their own society."

Gerges goes into minute detail to lay bare the fissures with the jihadist movement which led to the rupture that created Al Qaeda and the transnational terrorists. Years of clashes with government troops in Egypt and Algeria—home to the vast majority of active jihadis in the Muslim world—left traditional jihadist groups in tatters and on the run. By the mid-1990s, most of the leaders of these groups were dead or behind bars. The only fertile ground remaining for the jihadis was Afghanistan, home to highly trained and battle-seasoned mujahedeen who had served American foreign policy for a decade as a buffer against the Soviets. And while the American hand in creating Afghanistan's jihadis cannot be denied, Gerges points out that Muslim states themselves were at least as guilty because they aggressively encouraged local jihadis to travel to Afghanistan in order to deflate the jihadist threat at home.

Zawahiri, whose story forms the backbone of The Far Enemy is portrayed as an excessively vain man who made the radical choice to join Bin Laden in the 1990s and subsume Tanzim al-Jihad into Al Qaeda—without the knowledge and against the wishes of his top lieutenants—because he was broke and joining up with Al Qaeda would allow him to keep some of his influence in the jihadist universe. The fight was dying down on the home front and the only choices left to him were to join forces with a new breed of terrorists whose ideas he had never before championed, or to fade away into obscurity—a fate worse than death for Zawahiri.

The eclipse of the traditional jihadis had much to do with military defeat, but it was also the inevitable result of intellectual poverty. Far from being a vanguard, the jihadis "have conceptually reached a dead end and no longer possess radically original ideas of any consequence." Al Qaeda striking out at the United States was not the pinnacle of the jihadist movement as some might imagine. Rather, it was an act of desperation that aimed to save the sinking ship by precipitating a "clash of civilizations" with the West that would bring the ummah, or world-wide Muslim community (often disparagingly referred to as the "Arab Street"), into the battle on the jihadists' side.

When measured by this standard, the 9/11 attacks were an utter failure. While many in the Muslim world feel a deep enmity towards the United States, Islamic opinion after the attacks on New York and Washington was almost universally critical of Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. If for no other reason, this revelation makes The Far Enemy a critically important book for Westerners to digest. While debate and criticism of the attacks raged in Muslim lands, it was barely mentioned at all in the Western media, who prefer to give voice to firebrands and provocateurs to the exclusion of moderate voices.

Gerges attempts to correct this tremendous imbalance by meticulously delineating prevailing public opinion following the 9/11 attacks. While members of the intelligentsia and the religious leadership throughout Muslim lands were united in their opposition to Al Qaeda, the most vehement criticism came from members of al-Jama'a al-Islamiya itself, who hold Bin Laden and Zawahiri responsible not only for sullying the name of jihad, but for recklessly endangering the ummah as well.

There has been no room for such complexities in the Western media, however. The schism within the jihadist movement—sparked by a momentous religious and philosophical debate—simply does not fit the template of terrorism as it is regarded in the West. Much more common is an acceptance of Osama bin Laden's own terms: a clash of civilizations and the inevitability of conflict between Islam and the West. "Both camps," says Gerges, "overlook and neglect history and substitute ideology and propaganda for critical analysis and reflection on a highly complex subject."

The Edward Said quote at the top of this review, even though it was written over a decade ago, still applies. A journalist who cannot speak Arabic and has not been immersed in the culture about which he or she is reporting could never have written a document as revealing—and important—as The Far Enemy. The primary target of Said's derision was Judith Miller of the New York Times, who didn't speak Arabic but felt qualified to write stacks of articles and books about the Islamic world nonetheless. Up until her role as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration's WMD claims was exposed, she was a well-regarded expert in the field. The problem is that sloppy, shallow reporting leads to shallow thinking and half-baked ideas. More often than not, when seen through the lens of the Western media, the multiplicity of cultures in the Islamic world merges into an undifferentiated soup of anger and discontent. As Gerges points out, nothing could be further than the truth.

One of the reasons that people tend to conflate Al Qaeda's nihilistic vision with general Muslim sentiment is that too much Al Qaeda propaganda has been taken at face value. Gerges takes the governmental 9/11 Commission to task for their heavy reliance on Al Qaeda sources who are likely to be self-serving and misleading. The transnational jihadis, who represent a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction, would very much like people to believe that they carry more weight than they do or that their decisions were the result of years of careful thought. We shouldn't bolster their cause by taking their word for it.

The Far Enemy makes a very convincing case that Al Qaeda, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was highly degraded and on the verge of collapse. It was Bush's decision to invade Iraq that breathed new life into the organization. The Bush administration has, both through their rhetoric and their actions, played into Al Qaeda's hands by uniting a substantial portion of the ummah in opposition to what they perceive as America's imperialist aims.

Unfortunately, you can't unring the bell, and to withdraw from Iraq now would plunge the entire region into misery and bloodshed (more so, that is). A more nuanced understanding of the complexities of Islamic societies and the unique problems they face would go a long way toward ensuring that the American intervention in Iraq ends up being a force for good. As such, Gerges gives a shadow of a warning to the prison keepers of Baghdad, Bagram and beyond: "Arab/Muslim prisons, particularly their torture chambers, have served as incubators for generations of jihadis." It should go without saying that it is a grave error for the Bush administration to follow the Muslim autocracies down the dangerous path of torture and degradation. No good can possibly come of it.

Of course, even though we have forcibly taken it upon ourselves, the task of transforming Muslim societies is not up to us. Gerges writes that the role of Western powers should be to pressure their Muslim allies to change. But, in the end, lasting and positive changes in these societies must be built from the ground up. A truly better life can only be created by those destined to live it.
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