The Mind of Jihad

June 11, 2009

Anyone who has been to a bookshop in the past seven years can testify to the enormous growth in the literature on terrorism and jihadism. The literature has also become increasingly specialised, with many books focusing on a particular militant group, individual ideologue or even a single terrorist tactic. Few are the works that address the big question that ordinary people ask, namely, "Why do they do it"?

Of the books that do address this question, nearly all come from the "primordialist" school of Islamism studies, which sees contemporary jihadism as the manifestation of a deep force or cultural anomaly that goes back many centuries. There are three sub-currents of this genre. One focuses on Islamic doctrine and argues that the core Islamic texts lend themselves to violent interpretation. Another says that the problem is not Islam but Muslim society, which took a wrong turn at some point in history and suffered intellectual sclerosis as a result. A third variant of the primordialist school links jihadism to a culturally unspecific ideological force of evil, the same that produced Nazism, fascism and other bad things.

The Mind of Jihad sits squarely in this last tradition. It argues that jihadism is a cult of violence whose intellectual genealogy does not go back to the Koran but rather to the Gnostic ideology of Europe's medieval millenarians. The Gnostic inspiration, defined as the belief that one is among a select few to know God's will, was adapted to Muslim societies by incorporating the Islamic discourse on the Mahdi as well as elements of tribal culture. In the 20th century, radical Islam adopted doctrines of terror from Soviet Communism and morphed into the militant anti-Western phenomenon we know today. Jihadism thus represents an amalgam of Gnostic cult, tribal outlook, Islamic jihad and Bolshevik terror.

The book is likely to impress many readers. Laurent Murawiec presents a somewhat counterintuitive argument with a deft pen and a seemingly good grasp of European history. Unfortunately, however, there are two problems with the book.

The first problem is that the argument is scientifically completely unconvincing. The book is based on a pure constructivist approach that relies on identifying ideological similarities between intellectual traditions. The problem is, of course, that if the "links" and "channels of communication" are left sufficiently vague, you can connect pretty much any two intellectual currents in human history. The book presents little, if any, evidence of direct influence of these early European currents on contemporary jihadi history.

Confirmation bias permeates the text, which never considers competing hypotheses or attempts to falsify the argument. Key analytical concepts are left undefined. We are never told what the "mind of jihad" is or who exactly the radical Islamists are. Despite its academic-looking footnotes, the analysis is actually removed from the empirical evidence; it cites very few primary sources and has almost no references to post-1980 jihadist literature. The secondary literature is used selectively: on points substantial to his argument (such as the 1914 Ottoman fatwa on jihad), Murawiec does not alert the reader to conflicting interpretations by other scholars (such as David Cook, who argued that nobody paid attention to the fatwa). There are errors of substance ("Much of al-Qaeda is organised along familial, clan and tribal lines", for example) and of form (his reference to al-sharaf al-muslimi).

The second problem is that, in my opinion, the book is racist - or at least as close to racism as you can get in writing without breaking the law. The first two chapters constitute a long emotional outpouring of anger against Arab-Muslim terrorists, whose bloodlust and barbarism in the author's view surpasses anything previously seen in history. They are worse than the Nazis, believes Murawiec, because the latter needed "booze and drugs" to carry out their crimes.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with blasting al-Qaeda. But the book uses a language so vague and a range of examples so wide that it unquestionably refers to Arab-Muslim societies as a whole. Why else cite many examples of violence committed by secular militants such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Algeria's National Liberation Front? Why else write that "a society that needs blood in such a fundamental a way is a society whose mind is set on human sacrifice"? In these two chapters we are served the populist stereotype of the violent Arab - nothing more, nothing less.

In few other fields of study could a book such as this have been sponsored by the US Government and published by a respected university press. The Mind of Jihad is a sad reminder of the failure of scholars outside of the primordial school, this reviewer included, to offer alternative and accessible accounts of the rise of jihadism.

The Mind of Jihad

By Laurent Murawiec
Cambridge University Press
£40.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780521883931 and 730631
Published 16 October 2008

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