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Mediterranean Quarterly 14.2 (2003) 132-137
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John L. Esposito: Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002. 196 pages. ISBN 0-19-515435-5. $25.
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shocked and outraged Americans. It was only the second time that America had experienced a sneak attack on its soil; Americans have been accustomed to fighting in foreign lands, their own cities and towns shielded from the destructive nature of war. The 11 September 2001 attacks brought tragedy closer to home, causing Americans to try to find answers to many questions and to learn more about the perpetrators, their background, and their religion. As a result, there has been a surge in interest in Islam, which Americans had known little about prior to September 2001. Many books, varying in quality and depth, were hastily published in a hurry to meet the public demand for information.
John Esposito's Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam is different from other recent books because it was written by a scholar, an expert on the subject who has several previous books on Islam to his credit. He also is the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World and editor of the Oxford History of Islam. His latest book is highly informative and enlightening. He skillfully has put together a study dealing with complex issues and presents the materials in a format that is easily readable and understood. Esposito has successfully addressed many questions raised by Americans after the attacks and has presented a strong scholarly analysis of the teachings of Islam on such issues as jihad, violence, and terrorism. It seems that one of his goals was to help Americans understand Islam so that they will not judge it by the actions of the few who hijacked the religion and attacked the United States.
Esposito's greatest contribution is placing political Islam into a broader historical and cultural context, a necessary step to understand the turn of events on 11 September. [End Page 132] The book chronicles the rise of extreme Islamic movements and analyzes the works of key Muslim thinkers in the Middle Ages and modern times, whose writings have influenced political activism in the Muslim world over the years. After a preface, the book is divided into four chapters, with a glossary at the end that is helpful to those who are unfamiliar with Islamic terminology. The first chapter discusses the making of a terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The second deals with the concept of jihad and the struggle for Islam, while the third examines the extreme groups whom Esposito calls the "armies of god." The final chapter asks the question, where do we go from here? Esposito's analyses and discussions are succinct and lucid.
He begins with a biographical sketch of bin Laden. His contribution here is to discuss the major events that had a profound impact on bin Laden's politicization and propelled him onto the world scene. First, his involvement in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which had the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United States, brought him in touch with other Muslims who were committed to the cause of Islam. Second, his attempt to work within the system to reform Saudi Arabia was initially ignored by the government. Third, the Persian Gulf War was perhaps the most important event that led to his radicalization.
The arrival of non-Muslim troops in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islamic holy shrines, angered bin Laden and led him to criticize Saudi leadership. When the government of Saudi Arabia restricted his movement, he fled the country and eventually lost his citizenship. Finally, his partnership with Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, led to the merger of their movements, giving al Qaeda the foundation to expand its activities beyond the region. The author stresses that bin Laden's religious views were shaped by the conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and...