When Yale associate professor of history Mary Habeck strayed from her field of specialization to begin a study of Islam and terrorism, the reward for her efforts was the denial of tenure. She was welcomed instead at Johns Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., where she now educates students, policymakers, and military officers on the subject. She is proof that a good mind doing years of serious research will find an audience.
It also helps if she produces a well written, useful, and concise book on an unexplored topic of tremendous urgency. In Knowing the Enemy, Habeck's purpose is to take seriously the ideas of the jihadists, especially what she terms their "acutely religious sensibility." This is essential to understanding September 11 and its aftermath, she writes, and most writers have heretofore ignored it. By spelling out the beliefs of the terrorists—who, after all, live, fight, and die by them—she not only enriches our understanding of the enemy, but perhaps more importantly, suggests how we may use the extremists' ideology against them.
Knowing the Enemy helpfully unpacks concepts unfamiliar to non-Muslims—everything from the meanings of "jihad," "jihadi," and "jihadism," to the jihadist's understanding of Islam and the Qur'an, ‘Aqida (interpreted by jihadists as any political or religious doctrine), the hadith (traditions about the life of Muhammad), and tawhid (the absolute unity of God). A chapter on jihadism's theorists spans from Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) to Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979). She argues that these men, and others like Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) and Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), deserve to be as familiar to non-Muslims as Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the best-known Islamist ideologue.
Osama bin Laden, for one, sees himself as part of this long line. Reading history through an ideological-religious lens, he believes the world is already 90 years into a long war. It began when the 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty allegedly attacked the "House of Islam," even before Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. And it is a war that could last 200 years, the amount of time it took for Muslims to drive out the Crusaders. The new aggressors are the leaders of the liberal West (the "Zionist-Crusaders") and the homegrown Pharaohs of the Middle East.
The extremists construe jihad almost exclusively as an external struggle, which requires war and all manifestations of deception, terrorism, and torture. Habeck says this belief is rejected by moderate Muslims, who stress the view of jihad as an individual, internal struggle. These moderates, according to Habeck, are the heirs to Islamic jurisprudence that used the Qur'an, hadith, and life of Muhammad to "determine the Islamically correct way to conduct war." Centuries before Western nations codified international laws of war, "Islamic law a thousand years ago was, in effect, beginning a process of distinguishing between military targets and civilians, protecting the rights of prisoners of war, and thinking about shielding the environment from the effects of war." Muslim nations were also signatories to the various international conventions on warfare during the 20th century, she writes, and the "vast majority of Muslims today accept modern norms of behavior in wartime." The jihadists, by contrast, are conducting a "continuous offensive" to conquer territories either with large Muslim populations or that "have been under an Islamic state at any point in history." For the extremists there is a total failure to distinguish between history and the present.
Habeck effectively explains how the jihadists have absorbed radical non-Muslim, often Marxist-Leninist, thought. Bin Laden, for example, adapted the idea of a party vanguard. They also believe that the Islamic movement must follow Muhammad through Marx-like stages of history. Although the prescription to attack the "near enemy" within the Islamic world before taking on the "far enemy" abroad comes from the Qur'an, bin Laden has persuaded many jihadists to assail the United States first, as the main enemy of unbelief, in the expectation that destroying the puppet master will unstring the tyrants of the region. Habeck persuasively concludes that al-Qaeda is "but the latest in a long line of jihadist groups that believes it understands how to revive the Islamic Umma and return their community to greatness."
Some will quibble with Habeck's concentration-suggesting, for example, that she should have included analysis of the history of colonization, pan-Arabism, and decolonization, or oil politics—but her single-minded focus on the inner logic of jihadism is the book's virtue. Others may disagree with Habeck's firm distinction between moderate and radical Islam; the implication of her view is that radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution. Knowing the Enemy is short on policy recommendations, but among her proposals she urges expelling extremists in the West, as has been done in France, Spain, and Britain, and working with moderate and liberal Muslims in the Islamic world, the U.S., and Europe.
Habeck stresses that the jihadists' goal of territorial aggrandizement is inseparable from the ideological struggle; they want land and this is why the fate of northern Pakistan, now controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, should be as important to the U.S. as Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East. Habeck plans to write two more books on jihadism and the war on terror, one treating the strategic goals and actions of the jihadists and another setting out an appropriate grand strategy for the U.S. and its allies. These books are eagerly awaited. In the meantime, we are fortunate to have this one.