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The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global
By Fawaz A. Gerges
Cambridge University Press
HC, 376 pgs. US$27.00
ISBN: 0-5217-9140-5

The mutating virus of militant Islamism

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 17, 2005

The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went GlobalThough we tend to think of it as unified movement, militant Islamism is a fractured and spent movement that is danger of dying. By assaulting the West and casually murdering fellow Muslims, violent Islamism has written its own death certificate. It is a movement of nihilists who have lost nearly every war, whether intellectual or on the field; they have launched and ultimately represent a vision that even jihadists themselves are increasingly rejecting.

That's the argument that Fawaz A. Gerges, international affairs and Middle Eastern studies professor at Sarah Lawrence College, makes in The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, one of those rare books that falls into the category of "must read". Exploring the history of the jihadist movement all the way up to the present, Gerges asserts that it is an ideology that is living on borrowed time. Men like Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Ayman al-Zaraqawi, far from being heroes to most Muslims, are despised as mass murderers. An incredibly tiny minority materially supports the groups they represent and outside of the Iraq theatre, relatively few young Muslims today are drawn to the call of jihad.

That undoubtedly comes as news to many in the West who are treated to a constant stream of news stories proclaiming the vastness of al-Qaida, the incredible rage on the "Arab street" and the uncounted numbers rushing to battle on behalf of the Muslim ummah. If that was ever reality, Gerges says, it hasn't been for a number of years. Jihadism is a spent force largely because of the jihadists themselves.

For most of jihadism's 20th century history, he writes, the movement was local in scope. Jihadists targeted Muslim political leaders who refused to institute the Shariah, were religiously moderate and generally secular in their governing. While the foreign policy of Western nations -- particularly the United States -- was the focus of much anger, jihadists viewed their war as a local one. Only by bringing in authentic Muslim governance to nations like Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia would the Muslim world withstand the economic, political and cultural power of the West.

The governments they were fighting, however, were no less vicious then the jihadists. Eventually thousands of militants found themselves dead or in prisons and the back of the movement was largely broken by the mid-1990s. Realizing that the rifle would likely never bring power, many jihadists turned to working within the system. Not all, however, were seduced by mainstream politics. Seeds sown in Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would eventually result in the rise of a new animal: the transnationalist jihadist as personified by bin Laden. Though a very tiny minority among jihadists, not to mention the Muslim community as a whole, their ability for large deadly strikes made them a threat beyond their size.

Where the jihadist thought local, the transnationalist jihadist acted global. Their logic was simple: Rather than attack the body of the snake -- the corrupt local Muslim governments and communities, or 'the near enemy' -- transnationalist jihadists decided to go for the head: the United States, 'the far enemy' of Gerges refers to in the title of his book. Confident over their victory against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, transnationalist jihadists believed that the United States would flee the battlefield after two or three serious blows. As recent history has proved, however, the movement has been all but smashed with only Iraq proving to be a fertile ground for recruitment.

Gerges argues that while the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has angered many in the worldwide Muslim community, the jihadist movement itself remains largely unpopular for a number of reasons. Most Muslims disagree vehemently with the use of violence to affect political and cultural change. Although terrorist strikes against Western powers make the news, the primary victims of the jihadists have been other Muslims -- including savage battles between the two strains of jihad. Most importantly, however, jihadists -- whether traditional or transnationalist -- have nothing to offer to the ummah.

"The jihadis have conceptually reached a dead end and no longer possess radically original ideas of any consequence. On the whole, jihadis and their follows are subsisting on an old stale diet that provides no intellectual or moral nourishment. ... The only vocabulary left in the jihadist dictionary is paramilitary action. They try to compensate for the paucity of original ideas by marching to war. They seem to be making a last stand against an alien world, including a Muslim reality and society, that does not fit into their narrow textualist reading of the sacred texts, one that is detached and divorced from that of the Muslim community. In the name of applying the Shariah and reclaiming identity and authenticity, the jihadis lost the very people -- those who possess different historical sensibilities and understandings of Islamic law -- whom they had originally struggled to emancipate."

The Far Enemy is one of those rare efforts that delivers far more than it promises. Thanks to extensive research by Gerges, which included interviews with a large number of jihadists in recent years and careful readings of documents and books, no reader can walk away from this effort without gaining a real appreciation of a complex world. Although he doesn't answer all questions -- such as if Muslims are rejecting al-Qaida, what are they embracing? -- any flaws in The Far Enemy are trivial. Thanks to Gerges, Westerners have an accessible view into a world that isn't often explored and more rarely explained properly. The war against transnationalist jihadists has only just begun but thanks to people like Gerges we know who the enemy really is.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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Read an excerpt from The Far Enemy

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  • The endgame for militant Islam by Steve Martinovich (August 5, 2002)
    Steve Martinovich finds Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam to be a remarkable look into the world of militant Islam
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