Current Page: Opinion | Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Understanding Modern Jihad

Understanding Modern Jihad

Today Sightings will pass over the much-sighted Pat Robertson, Cindy Sheehan, and Supreme Court issues to appraise the mind-set of jihadists. Max Rodenbeck, who covers the Middle East for the not-leftist British Economist, evaluates six new books (for the record, by Jonathan Randal, Olivier Roy, Gilles Kepel, Marc Sageman, and Faisal Devji) in the New York Review of Books ("The Truth About Jihad," August 11).

For starters: "America has fallen into precisely the trap that the September 11 attackers believed they were setting. It has created new enemies. It has alienated old friends. Arguably, it has not made the world a safer place." Crucial was "the failure of America's giant intelligence apparatus to perform its primary function, that of knowing the enemy." Questions like the following do and should concern us: "Was the danger 'terror' in general, or rather a particular strain of Muslim fundamentalism," or "some flaw in the Near Eastern body politic"?

Rodenbeck discerns that while "something of a consensus seems to be emerging about the causes, effects, and best means of dealing with violent Islamic radicalism," sadly the wisest counsel comes from outside the U.S. policymaking circles. Listen and read carefully, he says, citing Jonathan Randal, and you will see a key jihadist theme: "winning back what had been previously lost." Hence the obsession with the land of Israel and the rallying against American presence in Iraq, which the radicals portray as alien invasion of historic Islamic territory. The attacks on New York and Washington were paybacks that paid off: The U.S. reacted as the attackers hoped they would.

Modern jihadists borrow classic revolutionary ideas, for example, that the way to rouse the masses is to "goad their masters into acting rashly, so revealing the supposedly true, exploitative nature of their relationship." Bin Ladenites view Israel's Menachem Begin, in the Irgun organization in the 1940s, to have been an advocate of "using terror to jump-start politics." They also think "they have bared the true face of Western Crusader imperialism." Does bin Laden agree with Samuel Huntington's thesis that there is a "clash of civilizations?" Answer: "Absolutely."

Ironically, the "deterritorialized," "alienated" "drifters" among radical Islamists have not recognized that they are the product of the globalization against which they rebel; Olivier Roy claims that these "neofundamentalists" believe they represent Islamic tradition, whereas they express "a negative form of Westernization." The Islamic concept of martyrdom, Koranic style, has been replaced by "a Western tradition of individual and pessimistic revolt for an elusive ideal world." Roy is right: "Most societies in which Muslims live are already, in effect, largely secularized, which is to say modern enough to produce dangerous conditions of anomie and free-floating anger." Religion is replaced by religiosity.

Roy's analysis is "a welcome relief from both the neoconservative refrain that the DNA of Islamist violence is somehow embedded in the Koran and from the popular liberal notion that terrorism is purely a response to Western encroachment." To avoid America's flailing its way into "martyrdom," says Faisal Devji, it needs new perspectives, tactics, and ethos.

Randal argues against both sets of blusterers: Against terrorism we need "time-consuming, patient, dull, professional accumulation of detail" -- what he calls "needlework." Advice? Start sewing.

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 29, 2005.]


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.