Sunday, December 05, 2010

Reading :: Militant Islamic Ideology

Militant Islamist Ideology
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.


I've been reading lately, but I haven't been blogging because my writing time has been soaked up in other ways. But the semester is over, so I'll try to pop out several reviews over the next couple of weeks, including Susanne Bodker's Through the Interface, Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, and Denise Schmandt-Besserat's How Writing Came About.

Reading :: Shopping for Bombs

Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network
By Gordon Corera

Last week, Wikileaks dumped a large number of classified US cables, including the revelation that Iran has bought advanced missiles from North Korea, missiles that could carry payloads from Iran to European and Russian cities. According to the New York Times, "The missile intelligence also suggests far deeper military — and perhaps nuclear — cooperation between North Korea and Iran than was previously known."

Disturbing? Sure. But I wasn't surprised. The week before, I had read Shopping for Bombs, in which Gordon Corera details what is known about the A.Q. Khan network. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, built a supplier and distribution network - which was 90% legal - to acquire components for developing nuclear weapons, and eventually, to sell nuclear components and secrets. It's not easy to build a nuclear bomb - it takes tremendous knowledge, resources, and patience. For instance, it takes thousands of finely calibrated centrifuges to refine uranium to the appropriate level, and it's not easy to design and machine these centrifuges or acquire the uranium. Khan figured out how to do this, largely through plans he stole in the early 1970s. And then he began to export it: to Iran, to Libya, and to other possible customers.

Of course, nuclear weapons aren't much use without missile technology to deliver it, and missiles are another tough nut to crack. Khan did not know how to develop missiles. North Korea had developed No Dong missiles, but hadn't successfully developed the bomb. So the two states transferred technology to each other. Although conclusive evidence is lacking, Corera cites circumstantial evidence that the two states, both of which were short on cash, traded secrets and technology as well as selling them. (With this precedent, it hardly seems surprising that North Korea would find it worthwhile to provide missile technology to Khan's former customer Iran.)

Corera emphasizes that although Khan had the resources of Pakistan behind him, he did not necessarily represent the State in his dealings. Khan had an extraordinary amount of leeway, so much that he could keep his dealings secret from, and untouchable by, Pakistan's prime minister.

Ultimately, what brought down the AQ Khan network was overreach. Libya decided to order the whole package - an entire nuclear program, soup to nuts, rather than ordering plans and components and making it work on their own, as Iran and North Korea had. This meant that the network had to make extraordinarily large purchases, purchases that were easier to track. At the same time, Libya (perhaps with an eye to the results of Gulf War II) decided to come in from the cold and give up its nuclear program, and its secret talks with the US provided some clues that allowed the US to intercept shipments.

Corera pens a gripping story here, one that I wish were fiction. It's well worth reading, especially in light of the Wikileaks document dumps.