Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Apr 1, 2006
The fanatic's mindset
Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror by Mary Habeck

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

In every crime scene, the intelligent detective tries to establish the motive by deciphering the mindset of the assassin. After September 11, 2001, analysts offered a multitude of explanations for the root causes of the terrorist acts of that date. Unfortunately, socio-economic and secular biases in the liberal media ensured that belief-centered understandings of terrorism were trashed as "right-wing obsession".

Resurrecting an obvious cause that has not been given its due, military historian Mary Habeck brings to the overwritten topic of September 11 a remarkably insightful explanation based on the ideology of extremist Islam. "It would be wrong to conclude that the hijackers, al-Qaeda and the other radical groups have nothing to do with Islam. These extremists explicitly appeal to the Koran and the Hadith; find endorsement among respected interpreters of Islam and win disciples by their piety." (p 3) Poverty, oppressive governments, colonization, imperialism, etc may be underlying issues, but the jihadis choose their actions primarily on religious grounds.

A core belief in jihadist lore is that Islam is the only way of life for humanity and that Muslims are "divinely destined to lead mankind" by diffusing the true faith. (p 8) Christian and Jewish domination of world politics, finance and popular culture is a terrible "inversed fact" that is attributed to apostate rulers from the Abbasids to Hosni Mubarak, Pervez Musharraf and the Saudis. Others fault deliberate assaults of unbelief (kufr) and falsehood (batil), such as Mustafa Kamal's abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, for Islam's inferior position. Imperialism, by this theological perspective, is an attempt "to destroy Islam and kill as many Muslims as possible". (p 12)

The jihadist solution to Islam's decline is rejection of "blind imitation of Western ideas and a return to the Koran and Hadith as the only authorities". (p10) Fanatics advocate reopening the doors of ijtihad (interpretation), allowing every Muslim the right to fit the sacred literature to his own reason. September 11 was meant to be a stunning blow "to begin the ultimate destruction of falsehood" and to be a consensus (ijma) mechanism that lines up the entire ummah (Muslim community) behind the jihadist vision of eternal warfare.

Habeck discusses the legacies of prominent Islamist jurists for modern jihadis. Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) argued that Islam required state power and urged "resumption of armed struggle against anyone outside the fold of Islam". (p 20) For him, jihad was a war to convert unbelievers to Islam, a task "even better than the hajj" (pilgrimage). (p 21) Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) prescribed relentless jihad against secular lawmakers who dared to defy God's law (sharia). His "Al Muwahiddun" movement smashed images, tombs and shrines of Sufi and Shi'ite saints.

Rashid Rida (1865-1935) condemned modernizers as heretics and insisted that "Islam does not really exist unless a strong Islamic state is established". (p 28) Hasan al-Banna (1906-49) conceived the West as an intellectual as well as a physical threat that Muslims had to overcome. After unseating unbelievers that occupied Islamic land, jihad had to "invade the Western heartland until all the world shouts by the name of the Prophet". Resort to violence was "to save humankind and illuminate the whole planet with the sun of Islam". (p 33) Banna's Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) produced Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), a giant in the jihadist pantheon who rejected democracy as a "false religion, not just a false political idea". (p 36) Abul A'la Maududi (1903-79) asserted that warfare with infidels was inexorable. His "sovereignty of God" (hakimiyyat Allah) concept heralded totalitarian regulation of Muslim personal and public activities. Today, his followers wage jihad in Kashmir "to free this 'Islamic' land from 'Hindu' domination". (p 37)

Jihadis place much weight on the literal words of scriptures. Citing the principle of abrogation (naskh), they demand that Christians and Jews have to accept Islam and submit to Muslim rule or die. Hindus "have only the choice of conversion or death". (p 44) The pages of the Koran are considered sufficient to understand the plans and intentions of enemies. The story of Moses and his confrontation with the Egyptian king is taken as an infallible prediction of the downfall of the "newest pharaoh", the US, at the hands of Muslims. The archetypal battles of Badr and Ahzab promise victory to Islam against more powerful forces. Koranic descriptions of Jews as betrayers and traitors who incur God's curse and transform into monkeys and pigs are widely quoted in jihadist circles.

In the essentialist fanatic vision, democracy is "the ultimate expression of idolatry". People, legislatures, representatives or nations have no inherent sovereignty, which belongs to God alone. International organizations such as the UN are conspiracies to destroy Islam. International law is a digest of "exclusively Christian norms" that suffocate the ummah. The foreign policy of the Islamic state should be "perpetual jihad because the sacred texts compels it". (p 52)

To jihadis, a true Muslim has to put the sharia into practice or risk being declared an unbeliever. With the expiry of "the real Islamic state", authentic Islam vanished in jihadist estimation. So-called Muslim societies today are actually pagan (jahil) and as illegitimate as the "filth of man-made religions". (p 66) Osama bin Laden describes all Islamic states as mired in ignorance (jahiliyya), thanks to government-appointed clergy (ulama), who are likened to "Pentagon Muslims".

Capitalism, especially charging of interest in finance, is a central focus for jihadist criticism of Jews. Bin Laden often emphasizes the injunction to wage war on usury, be it in the US or Saudi Arabia. Personal freedom and human rights are seen as contradictions to Islam that have been injected as poison by the unbelievers. The jihadist attitude is that liberalism is a satanic influence that should be destroyed.

Habeck characterizes jihadist foreign policy as dictated by the dichotomy between incompatible foes - true Islam (al-Haqq) and kufr. "Islam must expand to fill the entire world or else falsehood will do so." (p 84) The US is to most jihadis the leading spirit of kufr, which has established a bridgehead within the Islamic heartland through the "artificial crusader state of Israel". (p 91) For al-Qaeda, the US and Israel are so intertwined that to talk about one is to talk about the other. Secular Muslim intellectuals are excoriated as implants of the West to ruin Islam deliberately and lead the believers astray. The very notions of "moderate Muslim" and "fundamentalist Muslim" are seen as Western inventions to divide the ummah. Scientific ideas such as evolution, psychology and sociology are limned as "purposely disseminated to sow doubts in the minds of Muslims". (p 100)

Since a majority of Islamic scriptures refer to jihad in the sense of fighting (qital), "the extremists are not outside the bounds of traditional Islam". (p 108) Jihadis interpret warfare as the peak of the religion and compulsory on true Muslims. Justifying "defensive jihad", they envisage aggression as the mere existence of competing ideologies, rather than a physical attack by an enemy state. A country does not have to be majority Muslim to be an Islamic territory - "it need only have a large number of Muslims or have been under an Islamic state at any point in history". (p 114) Therefore, jihadis take it as their duty to "restore" Muslim rule to the Balkans, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Crimea, Poland, Spain, India and Russia. Renouncing "offensive jihad" is a sign to jihadis that "Muslims have surrendered" to defeatism. They advocate retaining the right to spread the rule of Islam even if not attacked by the unbelievers. In Maududi's language, Islam had to spread "through word if possible or through the sword when necessary".

Habeck elucidates distinctive characteristics of jihadist warfare such as deception, ambiguity, misleading the unbelievers and outright lying, all contained in the Prophet's dictum - "war is deceit". The definition of combatant is sufficiently broad to allow intentional killing of women, children and other Muslims if they help the enemy by word or deed. Torture of captives is argued from the Sunnah (the way of the Prophet) as helping the Muslim cause. Terrorism, or "striking fear into the hearts of God's enemies", is also claimed to be permissible, based on one verse in the Koran and a few Hadith collections.

Jihadis count on a massive uprising of the worldwide Muslim ummah and use da'wa (missionary activity) for this end. Until the full-scale mobilization of all Muslims fructifies, jihadis prioritize enemies by learning from the life of the Prophet Mohammed (sira). The sira is an integral part of the jihadi aqida (creed of Islam) and an inspiration to fight for the supremacy of the faith. Mohammed's migration (hijra) to Medina shows jihadis the importance of relocating to a "safe haven", far from the forbidden indulgences and sins of unbelievers. Some true believers can remain behind enemy lines as "subversive cells", but in general, migrating to states or regions within states where the sharia reigns is deemed necessary. This accounts for mass movements of jihadis to Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power in 1996.

The Prophet's raids on caravans of tribes hostile to Islam signals to jihadis the need for offensive warfare on unbelievers. Mohammed's success in Mecca to attract primarily young people to his side informs jihadi targeting of universities in non-Islamic countries for constituting the elite vanguard (jamaa) of future takeovers. The author notes how, lacking detailed plans or programs, jihadis trust the "method of Mohammed" to solve all the problems of the world - economic, political, social and cultural.

Habeck unravels internal differences among jihadis about the triage of enemies. Bin Laden has been trying to persuade other jihadis not to get distracted by smaller tempting targets and aim at the "greater unbelief" of the US first. The Hizb-al-Tahrir group, however, calls for killing "near enemies" (apostate "agent rulers", Shi'ites, Ahmadiyyas et al) before taking on the US, "even if this means the death of millions". (p 158) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's declaration of war on Iraqi Shi'ites reflects this line of thought. Mufti Khubiab Sahib recommends attacks on wealth and worldly possessions of Hindus as the correct strategy, while Maulana Masood Azhar cites the Sunnah to claim that "the most efficacious targets are the wealth and economy of the infidels". (p159)

Jihadis live and enact a literal clash of civilizations in which good, virtuous and true Islam is expected to triumph. Bin Laden's exhortations against the superpower's "most cowardly people" who can be defeated stems from a conviction that, if not the full ummah, a small band of dedicated Islamic warriors are adequate to win in this cosmic clash.

Habeck concludes with recommendations for the world to defeat jihadis. Taking away territory where the jihadi version of Sharia can be applied is a strong blow to their ideological confidence. Expulsion of extremist ulama from mosques can dent jihadist da'wa. Equitably resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict "will not stop the violence from al-Qaeda, but will deprive it of means for winning new recruits". (p174) To concretize the face of the enemy, the author suggests renaming the "war on terrorism" as "war on jihadism" or "war on khawarij" (heterodox Muslims).

In an otherwise brilliant book, Habeck naively labels democratization of Muslim countries a long-term solution to the jihadist threat. One would have expected her to reflect on the empirical reality of democratic lacunae in much of the Islamic world, except occasional outliers. Her projection that a jihad-cleansed Islamic democracy can evolve runs against facts and is a leaf taken straight out of the daft neo-con blueprint of the George W Bush administration.

Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror by Mary Habeck. Yale University Press, January 2006. ISBN: 0-300-11306-4. Price: US$25, 243 pages.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Handing victory to the extremists
(Apr 1, '06)

Talking with the 'terrorists'
(Mar 31, '06)

Another casualty of the 'war on terror'
(Mar 4, '06)

The many faces of political Islam
(Jan 26, '06)

The globalization of terror (Jan 14, '06)



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110