Transnational Political Islam: Religion, Ideology and Power, ed. Azza Karam. London, Pluto Press, 2004. 143 pages with a foreword by John Esposito. $69.95, hardcover; $19.95, paperback.
Soon after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Arundhati Roy wrote an article sharing Americans’ “immense grief” but also suggesting that they reflect on “why 11 September happened.” She received a torrent of letters calling her “a black bitch,” an “anti-American whore,” a “Communist,” and a “coon.” One of her detractors demanded that “you go back” to India from where the writer had immigrated to America (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, “Who’d Be a Muslim Writer at a Time Like This,” Independent, London, October 16, 2001). Two months later, British columnist Madeleine Bunting wrote in London’s Guardian newspaper that the United States ought to reexamine its Middle East policy in light of 9/11. Americans, reading her column online, fired off “a stream of e-mail” ordering her to “get laid,” “shut your fat legs,” “shut up,” and so on. An apparently religious soul promised to pray for her because she didn’t “have a molecule of shame within your entire being” (“This Raging Colossus,” November 19, 2001).
For the U.S. political establishment any inquiry about a possible linkage between American policy and anti-American terrorism is downright blasphemous. Under public pressure, President Bush has let a bipartisan commission, led by former New Jersey Republican governor Tom Kean, look into whether 9/11 could have been prevented, but not why 9/11 happened.
The president knows, of course, all there is to know about why it did: “[T]hey hate our freedom.” Some patriotic intellectuals also know the source of their hatred: “[H]ating the United States,” explains Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “is a basic item of their faith” (Dean E. Murphy, “The World: A War Fought Without Guns,” The New York Times, October 14, 2002).
Some researchers have, however, been exploring more mundane sources of Muslim anti-Americanism, and quite a few titles have appeared on the subject. They are a mixed bag and include Larry Pintak’s Seeds of Hate and Azza Karam’s Transnational Political Islam. Pintak, in Seeds of Hate, traces the Muslim terrorist “jihad” against America to U.S. support for Israel and for pro-Israeli Lebanese Christians during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s. Azzam’s book is a collection of essays on political Islam, some of which examine the Muslim grievances against the United States that fueled anti-Americanism.
Pintak covered Israel’s Lebanon war as a CBS correspondent, and his book shows his considerable grasp of Middle Eastern political trends. He says America’s misadventure in Lebanon was a precursor to its current war on terror. The United States withdrew its Marines from Lebanon after 241 of them were killed in a suicide attack, but U.S. support of Israel and anti-Muslim Phalangist militia left Muslims in the region embittered. Today’s worldwide terror against the United States was “born in the slums of Lebanon” (p. XII). Muslim animosity toward America that was brewed there nurtured a host of terrorist networks, especially Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda.
The Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah expelled Israeli invaders, marking the “first [Arab] victory in 50 years of Arab-Israeli conflict” (p. 296). It became a source of inspiration for Muslim militants around the world. Inspired by Hezbollah’s success, Palestinian cleric Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (whom Israel assassinated in March 2004) copied its guerrilla strategy and methods, and the Israelis played into his hands. The Israeli government helped strengthen Hamas, hoping it would undercut Yasser Arafat’s nationalist PLO. Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak released Yassin from jail and let him tour the Arab world and Iran, where he built support for his group and collected “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Unconcerned by all this, Barak predicted that “when Yassin returned to the West Bank, he would serve as a ‘ticking time bomb at Arafat’s doorstep’” (p. 312). Instead, Hamas turned out to be the most formidable of anti-Israeli guerrilla groups.
Osama bin Laden, the author recalls, was recruited by the CIA and Saudi intelligence in the 1980s to join the anti-Soviet resistance struggle in Afghanistan. Later he, too, was “inspired in part by Hezbollah’s brand of terrorism” to wage his anti-American jihad. Pintak catalogues Hezbollah’s help in the formation or operation of other anti-American militant groups in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The author says that U.S. support for Israel has been the main source of anti-Americanism in the Arab Muslim world. Muslim ire at America was heightened when President Reagan was pushed into the Lebanon conflict by his staunchly pro-Israeli secretary of state, George Shultz. Now the Bush administration is ignoring, to its peril, Muslim leaders’ warnings that it cannot win its war against terrorism without stopping, in the words of then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, the Israeli “oppression against Palestine and its people” (p. 332).
The book has major shortcomings, however. One, it is much longer than necessary, and several chapters are not germane to the writer’s main argument. Second, the author’s investigation of the causes of Muslim anti-Americanism is inadequate. U.S. support for Israel is indeed a key source of Muslim discontent toward America, but it is not the only one. Neither was Muslim hostility to America “born in the slums of Lebanon.”
Transnational Political Islam explores some of the other reasons that many Muslims resent the United States. The book is a compilation of six essays dealing with different aspects of Islam’s political dimension and its encounter with the United States and the West. In her article entitled “Transnational Political Islam and the USA,” editor Azza Karam points out that many Muslims are rankled by American policy toward the Muslim world (not just toward the Palestinians). U.S. bases and troops in several Muslim countries and hostility with others have riled Muslims everywhere. Osama bin Laden lists U.S. belligerency against Iraq and hegemony over the “Prophet Muhammad’s land” of Saudi Arabia (p. 4) as among the causes of his jihad against America. The essence of radical Islamist antagonism toward the United States lies in the perception of American injustice, embodied in U.S. hegemony over Muslim societies. Justice is the core Islamic value, and nothing works Muslims up as quickly as the call to redress injustice.
Nederveen Pieterse’s essay, “Islam: An Alternative Globalism and Reflections on the Netherlands,” focuses on Islam’s sociopolitical ideology, which provides an alternative to the Western sociocultural model. After the Cold War it was natural for Islam to “step into the ideological void left open by the waning appeal of the ideologies of nationalism and socialism.” The United States, instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the Islamic system, is bent on imposing its sociopolitical model on Islamic and other societies. Americans’ determination to preserve their military supremacy in the world is meant to accomplish this goal. Furthermore, America is using its military forces against not only terrorists but also Muslim groups struggling for justice and freedom. In his Foreword, John Esposito echoes this assessment. “[T]he war against global terrorism,” he writes, “is not seen as a war against extremists and terrorists but one against Islam and the Muslim world” (p. xiii). The use of brute force to suppress legitimate struggle is bolstering anti-U.S. terrorism instead of quelling it.
Several essays in the book explore issues that do not relate directly to terrorism or extremism. Valerie Amiraux writes that European Islam is linked to the “religious agendas in Muslim countries” (p. 29). Jan Hjarpe says Muslims in Sweden are becoming accustomed to a secular lifestyle and that they are reinterpreting Islam to fit their new environment. Frederick C. Abrahams lauds Albanian Muslims’ pragmatism in keeping their country aligned when the West and supportive of the U.S. war on terror.
In his concluding essay, Amr Hamzawy returns to the question of Muslim extremism, while discussing critiques of Islamic reformist movements in the journal Al-Manar Al-Jadid. He says the rationale for the use of violence against unjust authorities originated in the writings of Ibn Taimiyya and Sayyid Qutb. The best-known victim of this thesis was pro-American Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Some Muslim intellectuals, including Yousuf al-Qaradawi and Rashid el-Ghannouchi, are arguing that “militant struggle” is unlikely to succeed and calling for the “rejection of violence” as a principle of political struggle (p. 134). They emphasize the need for Muslims’ “moral re-education” and pursuit of an agenda to rebuild Islamic civilization. On the question of Muslim extremism, Hamzawy says most Muslim intellectuals’ “intellectual isolation” keeps them from making a meaningful contribution to the discourse. The essays in Transnational Political Islam are of uneven quality, though some of them, as noted, illuminate important sources of Muslim hostility toward the United States.
The literature on Muslim militancy that has poured out since 9/11 is voluminous. Some of it, however, is sketchy or one-dimensional, and most of the rest is tendentious or polemical. The subject awaits greater attention by writers grounded in Muslim culture and epistemology. The keen interest that Americans have shown in the Kean commission’s work indicates that sooner or later they will want to know not only how America could have prevented 9/11 but also why 9/11 happened. Arundhati Roy may have coined the title for a book they would want to read!