Gen­e­sis of the ji­hadi mind­set

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Paul Monk

he lit­er­a­ture on the chaos in the Mid­dle East, on Is­lam, ji­had and ter­ror­ism, is vast. The re­crim­i­na­tion, con­spir­acy the­ory and an­gry rhetoric that swirl around it threaten to spi­ral out of con­trol. It is vi­tal, there­fore, that we find a way through with­out los­ing our bear­ings. Robert Manne has pro­duced a beau­ti­fully crafted and lu­cid book on this prob­lem. It de­serves a wide read­er­ship.

I read The Mind of the Is­lamic State over two days. In be­tween, I at­tended a con­cert by Fred Smith, a re­mark­able man who had sev­eral tours of duty with the Aus­tralian De­fence Force in Afghanistan and emerged from it both sane and full of wry, touch­ing, some­times hi­lar­i­ous songs. He has not only writ­ten a deeply hu­mane book about the ex­pe­ri­ence, The Dust of Uruz­gan (Allen & Un­win), but re­leased an al­bum un­der the same ti­tle. I rec­om­mend read­ing Manne and Smith to­gether and also lis­ten­ing to Smith’s won­der­ful CD.

Of other re­cent books on Is­lamic State, sev­eral are sound and in­struc­tive: Fawaz Gerges’s ISIS: A His­tory, Joby War­rick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Jes­sica Stern and JM Berger’s ISIS: The State of Ter­ror, Daniel By­man’s Al Qaeda, the Is­lamic State and the Global Ji­hadist Move­ment: What Ev­ery­one Needs to Know and Jay Seku­low’s Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ig­nore.

The up­heaval in Syria is so com­plex and aw­ful that it is a co­nun­drum all on its own. Two re­cent books by in­sight­ful first-hand ob­servers throw its tra­vail into a hu­man­ised per­spec­tive: Francesca Borri’s Syr­ian Dust: Re­port­ing from the Heart of the Bat­tle for Aleppo and Marwa alSabouni’s The Bat­tle for Home: The Mem­oir of a Syr­ian Ar­chi­tect, which has a fore­word by Roger Scru­ton.

Fi­nally, Aus­tralia’s spe­cial­ist on counter-in­sur­gency and the pitfalls of the length­en­ing war against Is­lamic ji­had, David Kil­cullen, has con­trib­uted two sub­stan­tial books in three years: Out of the Moun­tains: The Com­ing Age of the Ur­ban Guer­rilla (Scribe) and Blood Year: Is­lamic State and the Fail­ures of the War on Ter­ror (Black Inc). Kil­cullen is a rare rap­por­teur on th­ese mat­ters. He is a for­mer highly re­garded mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who left the army and went to the US to spe­cialise in the the­ory of counter-in­sur­gency and counter-ter­ror­ism. He worked in both Iraq and Wash­ing­ton, DC.

Manne’s con­tri­bu­tion is among the best of th­ese books. It is, al­most cer­tainly, the most chal­leng­ing and im­por­tant work he has done in a long ca­reer as a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual. Uniquely, it traces the de­vel­op­ment of rad­i­cal Is­lamist doc­trine step by step through its key tex­tual out­puts, from Sayyid Qutb half a cen­tury ago to Dabiq, the or­gan of the hor­ri­fy­ing, apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sion of the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria, which we have come to call ISIS.

Along­side this list of thought­ful and use­ful books, there are oth­ers that are abysmal. One of th­ese is Mal­colm Nance’s re­cent De­feat­ing ISIS: Who They Are, How They Fight, What They Be­lieve. His piv­otal claim is that the rai­son d’etre of ISIS is noth­ing less than ‘‘to de­stroy Is­lam’’.

It is im­por­tant this para­dox­i­cal claim be re­futed, lest it add to the al­ready en­demic con­fu­sion about Is­lamic State. Not the least merit of Manne’s book is it shows in de­tail the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Is­lamic State and tra­di­tional Mus­lim teach­ing on ji­had, in­fi­dels and the apoca­lypse. His close anal­y­sis of th­ese mat­ters con­trasts with Nance’s sloppy apolo­get­ics and tex­tual vacu­ity. Sev­eral pas­sages give away the poor un­der­stand­ing of his­tory un­der­ly­ing Nance’s flimsy as­ser­tion that the mis­sion of Is­lamic State is to de­stroy Is­lam. Here are two of them, from the heart of the book: ISIS be­lieves that it is car­ry­ing out a chain of events as proph­e­sied by the Prophet Mo­hammed. All com­po­nents of their be­lief sys­tem en­joins the words in the Qur’an, but in­stead of in­ter­pret­ing it the way that it has been for the past four­teen cen­turies, they took an­other di­rec­tion … The Cult of Ji­had now led by ISIS and a close sec­ond al-Qaeda seek noth­ing less than the seizure, dis­man­tling and de­struc­tion of the en­tirety of Is­lamic thought, cul­ture, ju­rispru­dence and tra­di­tion since 632 [when Mo­hammed died]. All of those cen­turies of tol­er­ance, dis­cov­ery and com­pro­mise with the rest of the world are weak­nesses to be ruth­lessly elim­i­nated. To them, lit­tle of Is­lam can be sal­vaged — the Mus­lim world is go­ing to have to be burned to the ground to be saved for God.

He makes th­ese as­ser­tions with­out at any point at­tempt­ing to sub­stan­ti­ate them. The beauty of Manne’s book is that he takes us through the de­bates over ji­had and the end times within the Sunni ji­hadist move­ment through­out the past half cen­tury and de­lin­eates, with of­ten ex­quis­ite pre­ci­sion, the cleav­ages in doc­trine and scrip­tural in­ter­pre­ta­tion that have pro­duced the geno­ci­dal pro­pa­ganda and cruel bar­bar­i­ties of Is­lamic State. Very early in the book, Manne re­marks: Like all Jews of my gen­er­a­tion, I grew up un­der the shadow of the Holo­caust. As an un­der­grad­u­ate, I had been in­vited to re­view Nor­man Cohn’s War­rant for Geno­cide, a his­tory of The Pro­to­cols of the El­ders of Zion, a sup­pos­edly au­then­tic doc­u­ment that pur­ported to re­veal the se­cret Jewish war plan for world dom­i­na­tion.

In the seven chap­ters of his book, Manne re­views, as it were, a set of works that, each in its own way, urged that true Is­lam re­quires that Mus­lims col­lec­tively and in­di­vid­u­ally have a moral duty to en­gage in ji­had against both ‘‘apos­tate’’ Mus­lim regimes and against all in­fi­dels, un­til all the world is Is­lamic.

Th­ese works are Sayyid Qutb’s Mile­stones (1964); Mo­hammed Abd al-Salam Faraj’s The Ne­glected Duty (1980); Ab­dul­lah Az­zam’s Join the Car­a­van (1987); Ay­man al-Zawahiri’s Knights Un­der the Prophet’s Ban­ner (2001); Abu Bakr Naji’s The Man­age­ment of Sav­agery (2004); and the se­rial pub­li­ca­tion, from 2014, of the ISIS jour­nal Dabiq, which Manne de­scribes as ‘‘an el­e­gant and glossy of­fi­cial on­line mag­a­zine in sev­eral lan­guages … self-ev­i­dently writ­ten by in­tel­lec­tu­als steeped in the the­o­log­i­cal tra­di­tion of Is­lam, with a deep knowl­edge of the Qur’an, the ha­dith and ma­jor Is­lamic schol­ars’’.

The lu­cid­ity, his­tor­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity and tex­tual in­ter­pre­ta­tion that Manne lays be­fore us across this dark evo­lu­tion of in­sur­gent Mus­lim thought are im­pres­sive. They lead us, as he him­self con­cludes, from the sys­tem­atic and so­phis­ti­cated dog­ma­tism of Sayyid Qutb — a kind of Is­lamic John Calvin — to ‘‘the Gates of Hell’’. Any­one seek­ing to en­gage thought­fully, rather than merely fear­fully or an­grily, with this body of work will ben­e­fit from read­ing The Mind of the Is­lamic State.

Given that Manne is Jewish and lives, as he writes, in the shadow of the Holo­caust, his re­straint in this piece of work, the care with which he picks his way through the dark­en­ing land­scape, is ad­mirable. The book is not a polemic; not even against the Is­lamic State. It is a work of moral and in­tel­lec­tual dis­tinc­tion, be­cause it parses grim de­bates with close read­ing, fine dis­crim­i­na­tion and nuanced eval­u­a­tion.

There is a la­cuna, how­ever, in Manne’s re­flec­tions. Be­tween the lines, we can see how those whose books of the past half cen­tury he has read and thought­fully an­a­lysed, point back to the deep roots of ji­had in Mo­hammed’s own prac­tice, in the Ko­ran and in the ear­li­est epoch of Is­lam, as well as in the 14th cen­tury, after the Mon­gol de­struc­tion of the Ab­basid caliphate. As he ob­serves, Sayyid Qutb un­der­stood that ‘‘the Qur’an de­liv­ers its se­crets only to those whose frame of mind has been shaped in bat­tle’’.

In short, the one God of Is­lam is not the God of Abra­ham, of Micah, of Isa­iah — or of Je­sus. Mo­hammed’s de­ity is a god of war and con­quest and the Sun­nah, the ex­am­ple of the prophet, is one of ji­had and the killing of one’s en­e­mies and crit­ics. Manne does not ad­dress this fun­da­men­tal prob­lem.

Is­lam did not arise or spread by peace or per­sua­sion, nor did Mo­hammed preach that it should do so. It arose as a re­li­gion call­ing for the vi­o­lent over­throw of all non-Mus­lim re­li­gions and prin­ci­pal­i­ties, in or­der that the ‘‘truth’’ might pre­vail. For sev­eral cen­turies, its ad­her­ents strove by all means at their dis­posal to con­quer the whole of Europe and Asia. The much crit­i­cised Cru­sades were a be­lated and rel­a­tively small-scale re­sponse to th­ese wars of con­quest.

The Ot­tomans re­newed those wars of con­quest and took Con­stantino­ple, Greece and the Balkans. Mod­ern ji­hadists, in­clud­ing Has­san alBanna, founder of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, decades be­fore Sayyid Qutb wrote Mile­stones, sought to re­vive this tra­di­tion of Mus­lim mil­i­tancy. It is very ac­tive now in many parts of the Mus­lim world and by no means con­fined to that vi­cious en­clave that calls it­self the Is­lamic State.

This is the larger prob­lem. Sayyid Qutb’s mas­ter­work was In the Shade of the Qur’an (1954). Those who in­sist that Is­lamic State is an aber­rant form of Is­lam and its rise the fault of the West must reckon with the fact ‘‘the shade of the Qur’an’’ is the com­pla­cent but dan­ger­ous as­sump­tion that Is­lam is the ‘‘fi­nal rev­e­la­tion’’ and that sooner or later the world must and will be­come Mus­lim — through ji­had and as the ‘‘will of Al­lah’’. If you are read­ing Manne’s book closely, you will per­ceive this be­tween the lines — but it is not di­rectly stated or ad­dressed. It needs to be.

is a for­mer se­nior in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst and au­thor of The West in a Nut­shell: Foun­da­tions, Fragili­ties, Fu­tures.

An Iraqi boy plays near an oil­field set alight by re­treat­ing Is­lamic State fight­ers ahead of the re­cent Mo­sul of­fen­sive

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