Review by Muqtedar Khan, Ph.D.
John L. Esposito, Unholy Wars: Terror in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 196. Hardback, US $25.00.
John Esposito is easily one of the world’s most preeminent scholars of Islam. His voice carries authority not only in the West but also in the Muslim World. In keeping with his stature as an important commentator on Islam, Esposito has responded to the attacks of September 11th, 2001, by writing a very important book. – Unholy Wars: Terror in the Name of Islam.
In Unholy Wars, Esposito systematically addresses the political antecedents to the 9/11 attacks on the US by Al-Qaeda, the international terrorist organization masterminded by Usama Binladen. Esposito examines the recent history of US relations with the Muslim world and explains how a global sentiment of anti-Americanism has emerged in the Muslim World. He shows with great clarity how economic conditions, political underdevelopment, the shadow of Israeli occupation of Palestine and the continued presence of US supported authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have led to the festering of a deep seated resentment and anger towards the US. In a very systematic way Esposito succeeds in unraveling the layered complexity of global politics and explains how the phenomenon of global terrorism articulated in the language of Islam has emerged as a counter hegemonic force to pax Americana.
The book begins with the story of Binladen and his rise from a shy youth to the preeminent ideologue of Jihad International. In Esposito’s narrative this mythical demon is humanized and it becomes easier for even the uninitiated to understand the choices that Binladen made and the historical and geopolitical circumstances that shaped his destiny.
In chapter two Esposito writes a revealing genealogy of Jihad. He shows how and why this very important Islamic concept has now become a central pillar of Muslim consciousness and self-understanding. He also argues that the very understanding jihad is complex as well as contested. Going as far back as the Kharijite movement in early Islam, Esposito traces the different meanings that various Muslim scholars and groups have given to the principle of Jihad. He makes it clear that Jihad has shaped Muslim politics and its meanings have also been shaped by Muslim politics. It becomes clear how different Muslims can have such differing understanding of Jihad. For example Esposito points to how the present grand mufti of Egypt considers suicide bombing as martyrdom while the present grand mufti of Saudi Arabia declares it unIslamic (p. 100). He follows the genealogy of Jihad with a comprehensive survey of global Islamic militancy covering the entire spread of Islam from Indonesia to the US. The survey establishes how the different understanding of Jihad has shaped the various tactics adopted by Islamic movements and Islamic militants.
Esposito also address the loud claims of neoconservatives in America who claim that Islam itself, not just radical Muslims, is inherently incompatible with the cluster of values which some pretentious westerners call Western and liberals call universal. Esposito disabuses the notion that Islam and capitalism, Islam and democracy and Islam and human rights are incompatible. He also examines in great depth the struggle for women’s rights in Muslim societies today.
Finally Esposito focuses on what must be done next. He raises the issue of “root causes” (p. 160) and makes no bones about stating that unless Muslim grievances are addressed wisely and the economic and political conditions that engender terrorism ameliorated, globalism terrorism will continue to plague the West and authoritarian Muslim regimes. He however stops short of making any specific policy recommendations with regards to how the US may specifically deal with Iraq or Hamas or Saudi Arabia’s linkage with Wahhabism. The role of this book is to provide an understanding of the context – political and historical – that motivates Muslims terrorism and how these so called Islamic warriors implicate Islam in their dastardly tactics.
Nevertheless Esposito does not pull any punches in making it clear that Islam is a global force and will remain so for a long time to come. He also seems to suggest that Islamism may well grow rather than ebb. He fears that the shortsighted vision that is guiding the so called war on terrorism that seems to rely on military options more than diplomacy and social change may well prove to be counterproductive. Instead of eliminating terror, he fears, it may engender greater anti-American and anti-Western sentiment and lead to more bloodshed and global instability.
As a student of Islamic revivalism and Muslim politics I cannot but help noticing a subtle shift in Esposito’s position. In the Islamic Threat the major thrust of his argument was that Islamic revivalists movements are responding to modernity and western ideologies from a position that is culturally authentic and are deeply influenced by their faith in the universality and divinity of Islamic values. He concluded that Islamic movements posed a civilizational challenge, in terms of advancing alternate social and political paradigms, and not a threat to the West. But in Unholy War he seems to recognize that Jihad international has benefited from the globalization of Islamic movements and the fervor and consciousness they developed. He now recognizes the threat of radical Islam to the West and to Islam itself.
What has happened between 1992-2002 to Islamic movements who seem to have forgotten about the ijtihadi (intellectual) dimensions of islah (reform) and tajdeed (revival) and have allowed themselves to be consumed by a heretical understanding of Jihad?
Esposito speaks to the West as well as to Muslims. He strongly advocates that Western powers rethink and reassess their foreign policies and their support for authoritarian regimes. He also insists that mainstream Muslims worldwide must also aggressively address the threat to Islam from religious extremists (p. 158). Esposito’s message is clear. It is not Islam; rather it is the plight of contemporary Muslims aggravated by American meddling in Muslim affairs that has made both Islam and America a victim of radical Muslims.
John Esposito’s Unholy Wars is a masterful rendition by a scholar in his prime. It is a definitive response to several of the vexing questions posed by the shocking attacks on the Pentagon and WTC. Journalists, academics, students, policy makers and attentive people who care about the ramifications of 9/11 cannot afford to not pick up this book. Once they pick it up, they will put it down only to reflect on the issues it raises.