Just War on Terror? A Christian and Muslim Response

Conor Gearty enjoys a balanced analysis of the 'War on Terror' from both sides of the fence

November 18, 2010

This book is like a themed restaurant with a strong central menu, but also plenty of opportunity to construct pleasing meals of quite a different shape from the offer that tempted you in the first place.

The main draw is the idea of reviewing the "War on Terror" from a Christian and also a Muslim perspective. The chapters with which the book rightly starts, by Tim Winter ("Terrorism and Islamic theologies of religiously-sanctioned war") and Ahmad Achtar ("Challenging Al-Qa'ida's justification of terror"), are convincing on how important it is to decouple Islam from the claims made on its behalf by determined militants. This being a balanced book, the editors then give Richard Lock-Pullan 16 pages to show how barmy was the religious reasoning behind President George W. Bush's "disastrous and unjust foreign policy".

The just war theme is maintained in further chapters by Brian Wicker, David Fisher and (together) Shenaz Bunglawala, Rosemary Durward and Paul Schulte, and contributions on counterinsurgency (Hugh Beach) and fourth-generation warfare (Schulte) consider ideas of justice in general and just war in particular. Only occasionally do you get the feeling that the authors have added a paragraph here or there to persuade themselves and the editors that they are sticking to the intellectual meal they have been asked to cook.

Although it is sometimes a bit vague, especially on the connection between just war and principles of legality and on proposals for the future, the book is good on its core message: religion is on the whole decent and the distorted religion that gives rise to political violence is not the sole prerogative of any one religion in particular. Hardly news to the people likely to read this volume, but then again, in a field dominated by repetitive lying it is surely not such a bad thing to say sensible things over and over again.

The chief pleasure of the volume lies in its frolics into other fields. Nick Ritchie's survey of the threat of nuclear terrorism and how it should be countered is as good an analysis of this highly politicised topic as you are likely to read anywhere. Michael Howard's pitiless "brief critique" of Philip Bobbitt's vast recent work Terror and Consent: Why Laws Must Trump Wars is a particular highlight, made all the more piquant by Bobbitt's lavish praise of Howard in a later chapter in this volume in which (rather hilariously) he gives the distinct impression that he believes the whole book to have been about his ideas. But it is not, alas, the "last word" that Bobbitt believes it to be ("As any lawyer knows...a priceless rhetorical position"), because his penultimate contribution is followed by a gem of a concluding chapter, a quite terrific reflection by the two editors on the weaknesses of al-Qaeda and of US-led responses to them.

Finally, mention must be made of what I think is the best contribution of all, because most challenging to those whose sceptical instincts have led them to this book, namely the chapter by the UK's former security and intelligence coordinator and permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Omand. Entitled "How much of our liberties and privacy do we need to give up for public security?", this is the best treatment I have read of the problem of counterterrorism from the security perspective. Of course Omand is an insider through and through and the chapter oozes authority, but it is also humane, unpompous and challengingly intelligent. His concluding pages contain principles of ethical conduct and ideas for a grand understanding in relation to terrorism that I hope are taken up and debated further. The editors have done very well to have obtained such good stuff, and not only from Omand but from the others as well. It is a satisfying volume; manageable, readable and liberal without being smug.

Just War on Terror? A Christian and Muslim Response

Edited by David Fisher and Brian Wicker Ashgate, 243pp, £55.00 and £16.99 ISBN 9781409408079 and 08086. Published 1 July 2010

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