Jihad, Then and Now

By Geneive Abdo,
a fellow at the Century Foundation and the author most recently of "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11"
Wednesday, January 30, 2008


The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror

By Dina Temple-Raston

PublicAffairs. 288 pp. $26


History and Memory

By Asma Afsaruddin

One World/Ballantine. 254 pp. Paperback, $19.95

Policymakers, pundits and scholars have long puzzled over what inspires young Muslims to take the great leap toward radicalization. If Muslims living in dramatically different societies, in vastly different circumstances and conditions in the East and West, are similarly drawn to extremism, does this mean there is something inherently violent in the Islamic tradition? Do modern Muslims interpret the tenets of their faith depending upon the political and social context in which they live, or are they trapped in the Dark Ages?

Two new books attempt answers, both historical and contemporary, to these pressing questions. "The Jihad Next Door," by Dina Temple-Raston, is a detailed account of Yemeni Americans in Lackawanna in Upstate New York, whose only desire was to become more devout. Now, most are serving jail time for convictions on various terrorism-related crimes. The American-born Muslims admitted to having visited an al-Qaeda training camp in the spring of 2001, their confessions a dream come true for the U.S. government, according to Temple-Raston. The FBI and the Justice Department cast them as the first sleeper cell on U.S. soil. They were evidence, according to the government, that the so-called war on terror was real, and more important, that jihad had moved next door.

In this breezy, well-written detective story, Temple-Raston, the FBI reporter for National Public Radio, chronicles their journey from Lackawanna to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Once the men reach the al-Qaeda training camp, they become frightened and return to New York. Temple-Raston's main point is that the Lackawanna six were victims. The jihad, she argues, existed only in their imaginations. When faced with the harsh reality of living in the camp, and ultimately engaging in violence against the United States, they abandoned their mission.

Temple-Raston outlines how easily young men practicing their faith at a local mosque and leading mundane lives can be convinced, however briefly, that taking their faith to the next level could be achieved by becoming warriors for al-Qaeda. A Muslim mentor in Lackawanna convinced the men through his teachings and regular study sessions that they lacked an understanding of true Islam. He coached them by analyzing verses in the Koran, and then lured them into believing that the ultimate test of their piety was a commitment to fight the United States on the battlefield a world away, just as Muslims had fought their invaders centuries ago.

But Temple-Raston fails to analyze why young Muslims -- not only in Lackawanna but around the world -- are vulnerable to religious interpretations that lead them toward violence. Do the Islamic sources advocate violence in certain circumstances, and if so, how have these texts been interpreted throughout history and how are they being interpreted in the modern world?

In "The First Muslims," Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, offers an eloquent and cogent explanation of the historical roots and meanings of many key concepts relevant to today's discussion of contemporary Islam, including the role of jihad in the Islamic tradition. Through an exhaustive examination of medieval Arabic texts, Afsaruddin explains that from the time the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammad during what is known as the Meccan period, Muslims were forbidden to retaliate against their pagan foes.

Only after Mohammad established the first Muslim polity, Afsaruddin explains, was this Koranic verse revealed: "Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged. . . . For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques -- in all of which God's name is abundantly glorified -- would surely have been destroyed." Afsaruddin also notes that the Koran forbids Muslims to initiate hostilities but permits self-defense when necessary.

Years later, as Islam spread, Islamic jurists held differing views about applying jihad to non-Muslim states. Afsaruddin concludes that the interpretations of terms such as jihad differed depending upon the juristic thinking of the time, which was highly influenced by current events. By the 12th century, for example, jurists considered jihad to be in abeyance, to be revived only in times of crisis. Quoting the Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Afsaruddin writes that he characterized the changing notions of jihad as due to "a change in the character of the [Islamic] nation from warlike to the civilized stage."

Afsaruddin's goal in taking the reader through historical interpretations of jihad is that Islam, contrary to contemporary criticism, has never been frozen in time -- and should not be. Muslims have interpreted their faith through the ages based upon the social and political context in which they lived. She reiterates this point throughout "The First Muslims" in her discussion of other concepts, such as how Muslims define infidels and how they distinguish between political and religious authority, and what constitutes an Islamic state. Her book should be required reading for any Muslim or non-Muslim who mistakenly believes the faith is immutable.

Understanding how Muslims view their lives and their faith today is now critical to the relationship between the Islamic world and the West. Educated Americans across the country are organizing salons and reading groups and compiling book lists in hope of enlightening themselves about a faith that was completely alien to them six years ago. But the greater challenge is to find sources as well-researched and measured as this book.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company