Reviewed by Steve Coll
Sunday, May 29, 2005
FAITH AT WAR
A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam,
From Baghdad to Timbuktu
By Yaroslav Trofimov. Henry Holt. 312 pp. $26
America's struggles against militant Islam and Iraqi nationalism since Sept. 11 have been overburdened by theory and interpretation and undernourished by reliable facts. Seeking to assess several interlocking wars, U.S. intelligence analysts continue to offer tentative and sometimes wildly varying estimates about such basic questions as who is the enemy, how many of them are afoot and why some commit suicide in battle. In the political sphere, policy debate in Washington is rich with abstract argument about democratic reform in the Arab world but often barren of detail about prospective candidates, their ideologies, their sources of funding and other messy particulars.
Yaroslav Trofimov's political travelogue, Faith at War , is an illuminating arrival in this season of fog. The book is essentially a series of independent-minded letters from the frontlines of the Middle East's shooting wars, as well as its wars over ideas. Trofimov is an intrepid, Arabic-speaking traveler who moves in landscapes few other Westerners traverse. As a roving foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, he has often produced newspaper stories rich in detail and nuance, and he has established himself as one of the best in the business. Now he has taken his sweat-stained notebooks and pulled together what he describes as "a personal account of what's happening on the ground" in the Islamic world. His dispatches from a zigzagging three-year tour after Sept. 2001, across nearly a dozen countries, describe "some bright spots . . . some reasons not to lose hope," as he puts it, but also "numerous signs that the battle isn't going as planned" for the United States.
At his best, Trofimov is a master of microcosm. He is drawn to graffiti and found objects, signifiers of time and place, as in the tattered documents he discovered in the rubble of Uday Hussein's former Baghdad playpen, the Iraqi Yacht Club. One circular issued by Saddam Hussein himself banned the placement of "any nylon tablecloths on the tables in the palaces, unless specifically ordered otherwise." Trofimov observes dryly: "Like most files in the shed, it was marked 'top secret.' A regime's paranoia can be measured by what it chooses to classify." His voice is arch and skeptical -- an itinerant Dashiell Hammett of the Middle East -- and some of his darker analyses, written last year, today feel a bit dated or overly pessimistic. He describes "many Iraqis," for example, as "growing nostalgic for Saddam Hussein's sadistic dictatorship," and he labels Afghanistan "a war zone, with the Taliban once again controlling large parts of the country" -- assessments that seem to run ahead of the evidence, or at least choose to emphasize a glass half-empty. Yet the region he knows so well has long rewarded doubters, and its latest turmoil -- far from finished -- may ultimately confirm his instincts.
Somewhat more frustrating for a book that describes itself as being about "faith," he presents little empathetic reporting about ordinary Muslim religiosity and its connection to politics and violence. Trofimov offers few accounts of individual faith, daily ritual, symbolic rites or the complex ways in which some preachers and militants have converted -- or perverted -- an enduring and diverse religion into an ideology of suicidal attack. Instead, Muslim belief often appears here as an oppressive, irrational and abstract force, not as intimate personal experience or a basis for the sort of subtle politics practiced by the dominant Iraqi Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, or the notionally peaceful wings of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.
Still, this distance from the lived experience of Islam does not matter much from page to page. Trofimov is an entertaining, serious, surprising reporter; it is a pleasure to go with him. In Yemen shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he searches audaciously for genuine jihadists, attracting angry mobs and secret police in equal measure. After the Treasury Department in Washington designates a honey shop in central Sanaa as part of Osama bin Laden's supposed global business empire, Trofimov rushes over for "a spoonful of jihadi honey . . . with a slight whiff of ginger." As he listens to the shopkeeper rant against the United States, he notices that the store has blotted out all the faces on its cosmetics boxes, in keeping with an austere interpretation of Islam.
In one of the book's most original chapters, titled "Teaching Freud to the Mullahs," Trofimov illustrates Tunisia's struggle between top-down secularism and bottom-up Islamic activism by exploring the manipulated history of Zeitouna, a famed citadel of Islamic scholarship lately used by the country's authoritarian government to promote peaceful, compliant religious thought. He presents an unusual, sophisticated study of how state-managed Islam, constructed in a relatively progressive alliance with the West, can struggle for convincing success.
At the center of Trofimov's book -- literally and thematically -- are four chapters that describe his travels in wartime Iraq, where he entered as a risk-taking "unilateral," as those journalists who did not accept Pentagon embedding were called. He snuck across the border from Kuwait when the invasion began, dodged death for several weeks and returned at intervals as the war's initial images of toppled statues yielded to bloody insurgency and political frustration.
He tours a haunted landscape, often angry and despairing. Again and again he records the voices of Iraqis who feel betrayed by the United States. "Even if you turn this country into heaven, we don't want it from you," declares a tribal chief whom Trofimov quotes with emphasis. "We've had enough of you and can't stand it no more." Trofimov finds it "disheartening to see how America was reduced . . . to a confused caricature of a soul-less vampire state. But I could see why such paranoia was flourishing. The only Americans most Iraqis have met were young, nervous soldiers in full battle rattle who usually expressed themselves with gestures and expletives and, above all, shot without paperwork." Such has been the receiving end of prolonged military occupation in many corners of the world, Trofimov observes.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, he sketches sympathetically American officials who seem in touch with local conditions, including the former ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently appointed as U.S. envoy to Baghdad. But in Trofimov's reading, even those U.S. officials with the right instincts are unable to master the challenges they encounter. In his view, the United States cannot overcome the antipathy it faces in most Islamic lands, at least for now. The American approach in Afghanistan -- a relatively light military presence, international partners, the rapid promotion of stable Afghan leadership in the form of President Hamid Karzai -- was less troubled than in Iraq, he writes, in part because the presence of European allies kept American soldiers off the streets. In Kabul, "Nobody feared Bulgarian imperialism," he quips. He is doubtful even about Afghanistan, however. He presents last fall's election not as any sort of potential turning point in Afghan history but as a flawed exercise that bordered on illegitimate. Surely there are reasons to worry about Afghanistan's future, but Trofimov's account of the present feels too heavily located on one side of the ledger. The election that ratified Karzai's presidency has not been undermined by any enduring doubts about its legitimacy, and Trofimov attributes greater strength to the Taliban than they have yet demonstrated.
Some readers may argue similarly about his assessments of Iraq. "By 2004 the very word 'democratization' had become something of a slur in Arab political discourse, denoting obedience to Washington's agenda and a betrayal of the nationalist cause," Trofimov writes. "Islamists, of course, long held that Western-style democracy, rule according to man-made laws adopted by the people, is inherently incompatible with an Islamic society." Perhaps. Yet when more than half of eligible Iraqis voted in the midst of violence early in 2005 -- many of them, at least among the Shiites, urged on by conservative Islamic clerics -- they seemed to show it was not necessary to be secular or to love America in order to aspire to democratic self-government. And in much of the Arab world, strident Islamic activists today often lead the charge for democratic reform, hoping to use the West's ideals to wrest power from secular or despotic rulers. The contradictions of a militant yet also partly democratic Islamic politics are emerging as one new phase of the tumult Trofimov chronicled immediately after Sept. 11.
By their vocation, war correspondents are witnesses to deep suffering and the anger that attends it. In his riveting chapters on Iraq, Trofimov offers a searing record of his wartime experiences and the sullen, violent occupation that followed -- accounts that will not become less true or compelling even if the appalling episodes he describes are eventually surrounded at least in part by narratives of progress.
Trofimov closes his journey with two unexpected, well-rendered tours of Muslim-majority democracies, Mali and Bosnia. He is drawn to Mali when he reads a Freedom House report and notices that the country is one of only two Muslim-majority nations rated fully "free" by the Washington-based human rights and advocacy group (the other being Senegal). He describes Mali's relative success as a product of mainly local factors but emphasizes the importance of its constitutional and cultural separation of Islam and politics. His book ends in Bosnia, a more ambiguous democratic experiment, underdeveloped and menaced by radical Islam. It offers an appropriate coda -- played in a minor key -- to his extraordinary journeys.
In Islamic nations and especially in the Middle East, Trofimov writes, "the law of unforeseen consequences is, once again, proving to be the law of the land." About this there can be no doubt. The succession of nasty surprises endured by the United States during the past two years, particularly in Iraq, has had at least one positive effect in Washington: The blind rage and grand transformational visions that coursed through the capital after Sept. 11 have yielded gradually to a more pragmatic, problem-solving mindset -- on both sides of the partisan divide, and even among committed idealists.
The difficulty, of course, is that, in the meantime, in Iraq and the wider Muslim world, the problems facing the United States have grown thick with complexity and remain maddeningly opaque, as Trofimov's travels show. To break them down and attempt to solve them will require, among other things, more reliable facts and more analytical confidence than either citizens or policymakers currently possess. Even where I found myself quarrelling with some of Trofimov's analysis, I felt grateful for his detailed eyewitness accounts and independent point of view. Wherever the road twists next, American readers can only hope that its journalistic travelers include more like Trofimov, who has the language and courage to climb over daunting barriers, to report plainly on what he sees and hears and feels on the other side. ·
Steve Coll is an associate editor at The Washington Post and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001."