By Youssef H. Aboul-Enein
"Today's war will not be fought on the Clausewitzian model," argues Youssed Aboul-Enien; "it will be fought by analyzing the fantasy ideology of Islamist militancy and making it unappealing to a greater segment of the Muslim population by staying on message with key Islamic laws, histories, and precedents that discredit [militant Islamists such as] Azzam, Ibn Taymiyyah, bin Laden, and Zawahiri" (p.151). This sentence summarizes both the value and the folly of the book.
First the value. Aboul-Enien, who "is a US Navy Medical Service Corps officer and Middle East Foreign Area Officer" (p.251), argues that to combat al Qaeda and similar movements, the West needs to distinguish among Islam (the religion), Islamists (groups or individuals who advocate "Islam as a political as well as a religious system," p.2), and militant Islamists (who advocate "Islamist ideological goals, principally by violent means," p.1). Islamists can be difficult to deal with, but the real danger is militant Islamists, including al Qaeda. Aboul-Enien argues that we in the West must understand how militant Islamists diverge from the other two groups, specifically in how they interpret Islam, if we are to effectively combat it. To do this, Aboul-Enien provides a historical perspective of Islam's development, starting with Muhammad's life and the history of his successors, then focusing on key thinkers who developed militant Islamist ideology. If you've wondered about the life of Muhammad, or Islam's relationship to Judaism and Christianity, or the difference between Shia and Sunni, this book does a nice job of laying these out.
Aboul-Enien also does a nice job of demonstrating how militant Islamists diverge from the text of the Quran, ignoring swathes of it and taking statements out of context. To combat militant Islamist ideology, he argues, we must confront that ideology with the actual Quran and point out the differences. And here, we get to what I think is the folly of the book.
A nice Episcopalian seminarian might naively hope that he can persuade members of Christian Identity that their ideology is wrong, sola scriptura, but most of us wouldn't expect him to make much headway. Religious interpretation is heavily influenced by the complex semiotic system of a given community. (To give a less pejorative example, atheists who nitpick the Bible's math rarely find converts because their targets tend to have a more flexible or layered expectation of the Bible than they expect.) Religious interpretation isn't a math problem or a syllogistic exercise. So although Aboul-Enien provides what sounds like a perfectly reasonable critique of militant Islamist ideology, he seems to put too much faith in the power of orderly exigesis.
Nevertheless, I recommend the book as a good way for Westerners to understand the background of Islam and of militant Islamist ideology. It's a fascinating story, generally well told.