Deciphering Islamism and Terrorism

By Bale, Jeffrey M. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Deciphering Islamism and Terrorism

Bale, Jeffrey M., The Middle East Journal

From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism, by Adnan A. Musallam. Westport, CT, and London, UK: Westview Press, 2005. xiii + 204 pages. Notes to p. 234. Bibl. to p. 250. Index to p. 261. $44.95.

Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity, by Faisal Devji. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. xvi + 164 pages. Notes to p. 175. Index to p. 184. $25.

Coalitions between Terrorist Organizations: Revolutionaries, Nationalists and Islamiste, by Ely Karmon. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston, MA: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2005. xiii + 391 pages. Abbrevs. to p. 396. Bibl. to p. 425. $179.

Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges, by Gabriel Weimann. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2006. xv + 242 pages. Appendix to p. 247. Notes to p. 280. Index to p. 308. $24.95.

Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xx + 320 pages. Bibl to p. 323. Index to p. 343. $30.

As specialists are painfully aware, since the 9/11 tragedy there has been a flood of academic and journalistic publications that focus on aspects of Islamism and terrorism. Regrettably, however, many of these publications were produced by authors who have little or no background in either field and/or have an obvious ideological axe to grind. Fortunately, the books discussed below all offer new interpretive wrinkles, present valuable information, or provide useful overviews of the topics they address. Since no single underlying theme or red thread tying them all together is apparent, they have been grouped together under either the "ideological" heading or the "organizational/operational" heading.


In From Secularism to Jihad Adnan A. Musallam, a professor at Bethlehem University, provides a "historical reading and inquiry into the life and thought" (p. vii) of Sayyid Qutb, whose controversial writings have become "a basic part of the Islamic revival in the last forty years" (p. ix) and nowadays serve as "a manifesto for...revolutionary Islamists" (p. viii). The author's main aim is to explain the evolution of Qutb's thought from secularized poet and literary critic in the 1930s to Islamist ideologue in the 1960s, on the basis of his "published books and articles dealing with politics, literature, religion, and society" (p. ix), unpublished materials, and secondary studies. An introductory chapter on historical developments in Egypt between 1919 and 1952 is followed by eight chapters, each of which examines (according the Musallam) a distinct phase in Qutb's life and posthumous influence.

There are other scholarly treatments of the ideas of Sayyid Qutb available, in both Western languages and Arabic.1 However, Musallam rightly points out that many of them are exceedingly partisan and filled with inaccuracies - shortcomings that he explicitly aims to avoid. He proceeds in a fairly strict chronological fashion, relating the external changes and developments taking place in Egypt and the broader Muslim world to Qutb's own evolution as a thinker. Perhaps the best way to sum up the reasons behind Qutb's intellectual trajectory is that he was "the product of two worlds, traditional and modern, which eventually merged into one unstable world with two conflicting worldviews..." (p. 28).

Qutb was born in a village in Upper Egypt into a middle class family whose economic situation was gradually declining, and was deeply influenced by the popular Islamic culture there. His father was a nationalist and his mother a devout Muslim who insisted that Qutb memorize the Qur'an, which he did at an early age. Yet he was sent to attend a secular school (madrasa) rather than a parochial Islamic school (kuttab). Although he was something of a teachers' pet and wore relatively nice clothes, from an early age he developed a strong sympathy for the poor. …

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