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by John L. Esposito. Published by Oxford University Press.
Why is it that Islam seems to be the only world religion which consistently produces large-scale terrorism and suicide bombers who kill and die explicitly in the name of their faith? Who are the people who commit such terrorism in the name of Islam? What do they want to achieve through their violent actions, and why?
In the wake of the September 11th suicide attacks, John L. Esposito - one of the world's foremost scholars of political Islam - has written a book in an attempt to answer just such questions. The current struggle against terrorism won't accomplish a great deal unless people understand just what it is they are fighting against. It simply is not enough to label terrorists "evil people" because few, if any, consciously set out to commit acts they regard as evil. On the contrary, they believe they are doing something justified and righteous - and if that is the case, then no military victory alone can last long. An ideological victory must quickly follow in an effort to change people's minds.
It also is not enough to understand Islam as a religion, because these events are not solely religious. Although religion plays an important role, so do a variety of cultural, political and historical factors - and all of these must be taken into account. In this book, Esposito spends a great deal of time covering the history of Islamic extremism. This is important because Osama bin Laden did not simply appear out of nowhere to capture the hearts and minds of millions of devout Muslims.
Bin Laden is a product of a long history of religious and political ideas, a convergence which may not have been predictable, but it has certainly been destructive. This highlights an important issue which people in the West must learn to understand: the degree to which past and present are deeply intertwined for the Muslim world.
For Muslims, the past is not so much a subject of academic study as it is a reality which is lived and experienced on a daily basis. Thus, European Crusades and colonialism are not parts of the past but rather current events. This is why, for example, there were such negative reactions across the Middle East when President Bush originally described the campaign against terrorism as a "Crusade."
Muslims today see the existence of Israel and most Western foreign policy as simply continuations of the Crusades and colonialism, a fact which Osama bin Laden has exploited regularly. A person like bin Laden can make vague references to historical events which occurred as part of the Crusades and colonialism and expect that the average Muslim listener will immediately know what he is talking about - it is in this context where his widespread appeal can be found and understood. Thus, understanding Muslims' reactions to the West are key to understanding bin Laden's appeal and current events.
Esposito explains the history and influence of people and organizations like Ibn Taymiyyah, Wahhabism, the Kharijites, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, and many more. In addition to explaining who they were, he also explains what they reacted against and what sort of religious and political goals they had. Although there are other books which cover political Islam and Muslim extremists, few cover such a broad sweep of Islamic history and in such a quick and understandable manner. Esposito may not always provide a tremendous amount of depth in every area, but he does provide the necessary background without which it simply isn't possible to comprehend events in the Middle East.
An important aspect to the extremist ideologies which Esposito discusses is the manner in which they define and use the concept of jihad. Westerners are accustomed to various scholars and moderate Muslims arguing that jihad is not really the aggressive and violent idea which is often depicted in popular media. Instead, these moderates claim that it is a relatively benign and peaceful concept of struggle, particularly a personal struggle against temptation and immorality. However, such arguments are disingenuous in their portrayal of jihad:
The fact of the matter is, jihad has both offensive and defensive meanings in the Qur'an and in other early Islamic writings. Moreover, much of the rhetoric from Islamic extremists use the defensive understanding in order to justify their aggressive and terroristic tactics. As far as they are concerned, Islam is under attack from the West, and this justifies a violent response. In the end, neither moderates nor extremists have an exclusive claim to the use of the term and the manner in which is expressed. Violent jihad is just as much a part of Muslim tradition as is peaceful jihad - by denying this, moderates fail to do what is necessary to help solve the problem.
Esposito believes that Islam can have a democratic future but that it must first undergo important political and economic developments. People tend to forget that Muslim countries have not had as much time and opportunity to deal with the various changes which have occurred in the past couple of centuries. However, it should also be added that significant religious changes are also necessary.
Christianity in the West has developed in many ways since the Middle Ages, and one of the most important changes has been the development of a secular culture which allows greater freedom from the churches and from religion. A separation between clerical and political power has played an important role in the West's growth, and without this it is unlikely that Muslim nations will be able to compete on the same economic, social and political playing fields.
Helping Islam develop greater tolerance for an independent, secular culture will, therefore, be necessary for the development of a more democratic future. This cannot be done through any sort of imposition from the West - it is exactly this against which the extremists are fighting. Instead, it must come from within, from moderate Muslims who recognize that such a distinction is necessary.
Anyone interested in learning what sorts of political, religious and social factors have led to the current state of Islam, and perhaps what sorts of changes may be necessary for a long-term improvement to be achieved, would be hard-pressed to find a better starting point than Esposito's book.
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