Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam

Posted By: tallist

Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam

Hardcover: 196 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press (March, 2002)
Language: English
ISBN: 0195154355

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John Esposito is the author of one of the very best introductions to Islam currently available, ISLAM: THE STRAIGHT PATH, and is one of the most respected Islamic scholars currently working in the US. It was with enormous excitement that I discovered that Esposito had written a book that addresses the concerns that most Americans and Europeans have in the wake of 9-11.
This book is invaluable for understanding both the variety of traditions in Islam concerning Jihad, a term which means, simply, "struggle", and not, as many in the US imagine, something akin to "war". This "struggle" is most often, as Esposito explains, spiritual than military, and he is outstanding at showing the wide variety of views concerning the forms "jihad" can take. Even for those who believe in a military "jihad" Esposito demonstrates that there are many viewpoints. He is also superb at integrating these varying understandings with the origins of Islam. One of his great achievements is in showing that just as there is enormous diversity in Christianity (just compare the beliefs of Anglicans, Southern Baptists, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodoxy, Pentecostals, Unitarians, Jehovah Witnesses, and Presbyterians, to take merely a few Christian traditions, and the point is grasped), so also there is a vast amount of diversity in Islamic belief. He points out that the vast majority of Muslims do not countenance violence against innocent civilians. The focus, however, of this book is on that minority that embraces violence.

Esposito discusses not only traditional Islamic teachings on Jihad and the relations of Islam with non-Islamic individuals and countries, but also 20th century thinkers and activists. This was the part of the book I found most helpful. Esposito shows how the terrorists are frequently driven by a set of ideas derived from specific writers or schools of thought. The have been inculcated in specific ways of conceiving the state of Islam's relation with the rest. These thinkers have argued for a purer form of Islam, for the establishment of genuine Islamic governments in primarily Islamic countries, for the severing of cultural and economic ties with the West (even to the extent of ceasing to export oil), for the elimination of an American and European presence and influence in these countries, and for the establishment of a homeland for the Palestinian people. And, unfortunately, many--though by no means all--of these thinkers conceive it as legitimate to employ terrorist acts of violence to achieve these goals.

While UNHOLY WAR has many virtues, it does have couple of weaknesses. The weaknesses consist in the fact that for most of us, the situation with terrorism is an immensely practical issue: we want to know what can be done, what solutions exist for resolving this situation, how Muslims and Westerners can peacefully coexist on this planet. Esposito does offer a final chapter that addresses some causes for hope, primarily in the shape of paradigms within Islam itself that offer alternatives to those espoused by Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. This was the weakest part of the book, by far. The individuals that Esposito mentions have not, unfortunately, captured the imaginations of many Muslims who are engaged in the struggle to right what they see to be the wrongs inflicted on Islam by the US and European civilization. I would love for Americans and Middle Eastern Muslims to understand each other; for now, I would be content with extremists ceasing acts of terrorism and for Americans to begin addressing in concrete the Muslims very real complaints about US military presence in Saudi Arabia and the failure to respond to needs for a Palestinian homeland.

Stylistically, the book is not as well written as one might hope. The first chapter especially is sometimes a bit flat. Perhaps the desire to get this book published quickly is partly at fault for that. Nonetheless, this is a book that can be read with enormous profit. Like me, perhaps a reader will be left feeling actually less hopeful afterwards, especially after learning how widespread ultraconservative Hammadi Islam has become. But anyone reading this will definitely have a greater understanding of the intellectual underpinnings of the more radical elements of contemporary Islam.

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