May 12, 2002

Review of Esposito’s “Unholy War”

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has managed to do what Osama bin Laden could only dream of doing: uniting the umma, the global community of Muslims, behind the Palestinian cause -- and, to a lesser degree, against the United States. E -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Unfaithful A book review of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam by John L. Esposito By Peter Bergen The Washington Post May 12, 2002 Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has managed to do what Osama bin Laden could only dream of doing: uniting the umma, the global community of Muslims, behind the Palestinian cause -- and, to a lesser degree, against the United States. Enormous rallies have swept the Muslim world in past weeks, protesting Israel's military operations against the Palestinians, protests that easily dwarfed the pro-Osama demonstrations that followed the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On April 11, al Qaeda launched its first successful attack since the assaults on Washington and New York, blowing up a truck outside a synagogue in Tunisia, killing 17 people, including 12 German tourists. This is the first time that al Qaeda has attacked a Jewish target -- even though it's been four years since bin Laden declared his holy war against the Jews and the Crusaders. So now the war on terrorism is entering a thorny new phase, complicated by the all-too-real battles raging between the Israelis and Palestinians. The simple moral clarity that characterized the American response to Sept. 11 has been replaced by a murky reality best demonstrated by President Bush's mid-April statement that Sharon is "a man of peace" -- a demonstrable falsehood. John L. Esposito's Unholy War could therefore not come at a more timely moment. The author, a professor and director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, expertly outlines the complex, often conflicting history of Islamic thought about what is a just and holy war. Bin Laden has used this history to justify the murders of thousands of civilians, even as a very different version of it is invoked by leading Muslim clerics such as Mohammed Tantawi of Cairo's al-Azhar University, who very publicly condemned the events of Sept. 11. Unholy War kicks off with a slight and derivative chapter about bin Laden that betrays its lack of authority by making obvious errors -- such as dating bin Laden's founding of his World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders to the year 2000, when in fact it was established in 1998, the same year that al Qaeda blew up two American embassies in Africa. After this uncertain start, however, Esposito moves on to terrain that he knows well, and the rest of the book is a model of direct, jargon-free prose that takes its readers on a tour d'horizon of the history of Islamic thought about the West, modernity and jihad. Esposito's book will save readers the effort of reading a shelf of books that address the same issues in a less succinct manner. In a previous book, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Esposito doused some appropriate cold water on Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis, which held, in part, that conflict between Islam and the West would be one of the motors of post-Cold War history. In his reply, Esposito pointed out that in reality, national interests continue to be the best predictor of both conflicts and alliances -- e.g., the long-term marriage of convenience between the world's most conservative Muslim state, Saudi Arabia, and the Great Satan itself, the United States. This basic view that conflict between the West and Islam is far from inevitable also informs Unholy War. Here Esposito details the long history of Muslim thinkers who tried to grapple with the modernizing influence of the West and determine how best to integrate modernity with Muslim forms: "To ask whether Islam is compatible with Western civilization is to ignore past and present exchanges and cross-fertilizations." Readers of Unholy War will find many interpretations of Islam divergent from bin Laden's, beginning with the well-known Koranic injunction that "there is no compulsion in religion" and taking in such latter-day case studies as Egyptian society, which has become more Islamicized at the grassroots level. "Physicians, journalists, lawyers, political scientists, men and women speak out on issues of Islamic reform such as pluralism, women's rights, and social justice." This gathering of voices underlines a vital point that is little understood by many Westerners who conflate bin Laden and Islam: In reality, bin Laden's credentials as a religious scholar are zero, and in several countries in the Middle East -- not only Egypt, but also Iran, Yemen and Jordan -- there is an emerging Islamism that is nonviolent, politically influential, does not reject democracy, and is not necessarily anti-Western. Unfortunately, like any of the world's great religions, Islam can be used to justify practically anything. Much of bin Laden's reasoning is drawn from the medieval Muslim scholar ibn Taymiyya, who later influenced Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. Qutb's mid-1960s book Signposts became a blueprint for the jihadist movement, a movement that is as much focused on overthrowing existing governments around the Middle East as it is on attacking the West. Esposito expertly traces this militant strain of Islam, but readers of Unholy War will quickly come to understand that it is only one strand of a multitude in the rich history of Muslim thought. Copyright: 2002 The Washington Post