Philosophy, Religion, & Science: Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam

By Yavuz, M. Hakan | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Philosophy, Religion, & Science: Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam


Yavuz, M. Hakan, The Middle East Journal


Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, by John L. Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xii + 160 pages. Notes to p. 168. Gloss. to p. 172. Index to p. 196. $25.

Reviewed by M. Hakan Yavuz

John Esposito is one of the most prominent American scholars who has been fully engaged in the interpretation of Muslim texts and practices. The Janus face of religion has been Esposito's main area of study. His previous works have examined the moderate and progressive faces of religion, in general, and Islam, in particular. In Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, like in his other books, Esposito makes a powerful argument about the role of ideas in modern societies and the importance of context in converting these ideas into actions - including actions of the perniciously violent kind, such as the September 11th terrorist attacks. In this work, Esposito examines the authoritarian and conservative faces of Islam. Thus, he argues, that "of all the books I have written this has been the most difficult" to write, for it covers the intellectual layers of the authoritarian aspect of a rich and multifaceted Islamic tradition.

Why do they hate the West, especially the United States? Is there a direct link between Islam, anti-Americanism, and global terrorism? Does the Qur'an condone violence and terrorism? Is there a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West? Are Islam and modernity compatible? The debate over these questions has given rise to two alternative perspectives. The first view holds that they hate us because of what we stand for or what we are (i.e., a democratic, liberal, and secular society). The second view holds that this hatred is mainly a reaction to US Middle East policy.

Esposito's book very much takes the middle ground. He neither ignores the role of armed radical ideas nor the context within which these ideas are put into practice. In this book, the September 11 attacks are held out as graphic and tragic illustrations of "armed ideas" translated into deadly action. Esposito shows that these attacks not only "resurrected old questions" but also "[marked] a turning point" in the evolution of contemporary Islamic radicalism (p. x).

Esposito's book consists of four chapters. The first and most penetrating chapter offers a psychological and personal biography of the "Master terrorist Osama bin Laden." He identifies three layers in the constitution of bin Ladin: (a) his "strict moral family upbringing" and his father's sympathy for the sufferings of Palestinians, (b) the dominant and internalized "Wahhabi interpretation of Islam," and (c) revolutionary radical Islamism that became dominant in the 1970s. The strength of this chapter is that it reveals how armed ideas are internalized, disseminated, and translated into action. Bin Ladin studied under Muhammad Qutb, the brother of Seyyid Qutb, who could be considered the "Godfather of Islamic radicalism" (p. 8). By examining the history of these radical ideas and their role in Saudi society, Esposito offers a first-rate sociological story of the layers of ideas and the context of their translation into action. This chapter is about the mix of ideas and the context in which a terrorist personality is constructed. Since terrorism is not the ultimate end itself, but merely a means to promote politics, terrorists represent a political ideology.

The second chapter engages with diverse sources to educate the public about the concept of jihad and its practices in the Muslim world. …

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