The Mountebanks & The Apostates

The Mountebanks & The Apostates

by Author(s): Fawaz A. Gerges

Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror (New York: Random House, 2009), 256 pp., $26.00.

Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 288 pp., $26.95.

Emile Nakhleh, A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 184 pp., $26.95.


AMERICA'S BLOODY encounter with Islam is a failure. At heart there is an inability to understand the context and dynamics of Arab and Muslim politics; the conceptual differences and boundaries between moderate Islamists, nonviolent radical activists, local jihadists and global jihadists like al-Qaeda. For eight years, the dominant U.S. narrative blurred the lines between "Islamist," "radical," "militant," "extremist," "jihadist" and "terrorist." The United States equated Islamists' offensive speech with jihadists' violent action. But there are stark differences between locally and regionally based political groups like Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah and borderless, transnational and globalized jihadist groups like al-Qaeda that have been waging war against the United States and its close allies since the mid-1990s.

Scholars of the Greater Middle East like Georgetown's John Esposito and Michael Hudson, Harvard's Roger Owen, Richard Norton at Boston University, Richard Bulliet and Rashid Khalidi at Columbia, along with Mohammed Ayoob of Michigan State and many others were systematically marginalized from decision making, replaced by a motley gang of irresponsible ideologues, security types and other mountebanks.

Terrorism experts and crusading commentators-including Rohan Gunaratna, best-selling author of Inside Al Qaeda; counterterrorism consultant Evan F. Kohlmann; investigative journalist Steven Emerson; academic Daniel Pipes and others-are partly to blame. Instead of adopting a more constructive approach-one that draws distinctions between the many faces of political Islam-they took the easier, reductionist approach of lumping all Islamists together. They looked backward and pigeonholed mainstream and militant Islamists through the prism of al-Qaeda. These observers, wittingly or unwittingly, endorsed the official agenda by portraying Islamism not just as jihadism, a borderless, transnational violent fringe, but also as a mortal threat to the West, an aggressive and totalitarian ideology dedicated to random destruction and global subjugation. Still others advocated an all-out war against any manifestations of political Islam.

Building on this consensus of uninformed pundits and social engineers, President Bush ratcheted up the rhetoric, grouping all mainstream and militant Islamists together under the phrase "Islamofascists." He called on Americans to be prepared for a global war on terror, the "inescapable calling of our generation."

The global war on terror, Bush said, would eradicate the threat of Islamic-radical terrorism (again, a loose and incoherent term) and target rogue states that sponsored terrorism or offered lodging to terrorists. With sweeping, ideological language, Bush and Cheney's crusade set the stage for the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was costly in blood and treasure and damaging to America's moral standing in the world.

According to multiple surveys and studies, the expansion of the war on terror outside Afghanistan alienated Muslims and provided ideological motivation to al-Qaeda and global jihadists. They portray their fight against the United States as a defense of the Muslim ummah, or community, worldwide. And so, in the eyes of many Muslims, America's war on terror is a war against their religion. A war designed to subjugate their countries. Few buy the Washington narrative regarding the promotion of democracy and liberty in the Middle East, viewing it instead as a mask to perpetuate U.S. dominance.


[amazon 0691135258 full] THERE IS no denying that America's global war on terror has been a disaster and that there is an urgent need to rethink the country's relations with the Muslim world. In an informative and revealing book, A Necessary Engagement, Emile Nakhleh, a former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program in the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, says that although midlevel U.S. officials knew better than to frame the war in black-and-white terms, ever-expanding the territory of the enemy, they had little say and input in decision making. A disconnect existed between the first and second tiers of the Bush foreign-policy team in terms of access to intelligence and scholarly knowledge. Nakhleh's insider account puts to rest the claim by Bush and Cheney that they, like the policy establishment, were misled and misinformed by the intelligence community.1

Nakhleh paints a grim and stark portrait of the failures of U.S. policy makers to understand the most basic attitudes that Muslims have of themselves, each other and the West. He is bitter about the resistance of senior Bush officials to learning about the complexity and diversity of religiously based movements in the Muslim world, despite the numerous efforts he and top CIA analysts undertook to better guide them.

One of Nakhleh's central arguments is that there are qualitative, dramatic differences and distinctions between bin Laden's violent global jihadists and mainstream political-Islamist parties with a huge social base, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Nakhleh argues that while the former should be confronted and excluded, the latter "should be welcomed as potentially credible partners in the political transformation of their societies."

Instead, the Bush team viewed the Muslim world with its 1.4 billion citizens through "the prism of terrorism," lumping al-Qaeda terrorists with religious activists who have shown "their commitment to the democratic process and their pragmatic approach to politics and political change." According to Nakhleh, this was the worst thing the United States could do. Conflating all those religiously oriented actors, as the Bush administration did, and declaring all-out war against them is a recipe for failure and perpetual conflict with important segments of Muslim societies.

In a revealing interview with an Arabic newspaper, Al Hayat, Nakhleh says he tried but failed to convince his superiors in the Bush administration to engage Hamas after it won the 2006 parliamentary elections. The dominant official view opposed talking to Hamas leaders unless they radically shifted their stance on Israel.

The alternative, notes Nakhleh, is for the Obama administration to rethink the Bush approach, because there can be no stability or real political reform in the region without engaging Hamas, Hezbollah and like-minded organizations. These influential social movements have evolved politically and gained public legitimacy at home at the expense of secular parties and extremist groups alike.


[amazon 0812978307 full] AL-QAEDA, however, is a different beast. Understanding the nature of the beast-al-Qaeda's global jihad-is the focus of How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan, a gifted young author who teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Like Nakhleh, Aslan draws distinctions between religious nationalists (mainstream religious activists) and transnational jihadists (the bin Laden types), situating the rise of the latter in the context of fundamental societal shifts within Muslim societies in conjunction with globalization.

Jihadism, writes Aslan, is the "child of globalization" because it "relies for its very existence on a world without borders, a world in which no barrier exists between religion and politics, between the sacred and the secular." Globalization has accelerated the erosion of nationalism as the principal indicator of collective identity, and no force exerts greater pull than religion when it comes to the power of transnational identities to challenge nationalist ones.

According to Aslan, the global jihadist movement cannot be fully understood without focusing on globalization and how that has changed the way people define themselves as individuals and as part of society: "Old demarcations . . . are slowly starting to give way, [and] religion can no longer be viewed as simply a set of myths and rituals to be experienced in the private realm. Religion is identity."

In this vein, the goal of bin Laden and his cohorts is to bring their adherents under a banner of one single, collective identity irrespective of race, culture or gender. They seek to do so by using a popular cause or injustice that resonates widely among Muslims-whether it be the plight of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation; the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam; or the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Jihadists, Aslan argues, fully exploit local and global grievances and resentments in an effort to portray the conflicts between Muslims and Westerners "as part of a cosmic battle between the forces of Truth and Falsehood, Belief and Unbelief, Good and Evil that all Muslims," regardless of where they live, "must join."

Aslan's "cosmic war" is an eternal, absolute struggle, not a winnable war, but a war of the jihadist imagination-a conflict over identity. Unfortunately today, the United States and the jihadists are actively engaged in that war, concludes Aslan soberly. He counsels U.S. policy makers against falling into the trap that jihadists dug for them-waging a senseless, costly and counterproductive conflict. For "in the end, there is only one way to win a cosmic war: refuse to fight in it."

In Aslan's opinion, a more constructive way to confront al-Qaeda's global jihadists is to strip their organization of public appeal and deny them their principal argument that the war on terror is in fact a "war against Islam."

Essay Types: Book Review