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Holy Warriors of Extreme Islam

Holy Warriors : A Fresh look at the face of the extreme Islam.  Frog and Amy Orr-Ewing.  cialis Authentic Lifestyle, Milton Keynes, 2002, paperback, 117 pages.

I thoroughly recommend this brief book for anyone wanting to gain a basic understanding of the  issues surrounding the nature and history of both Islam and extreme Islam and Islamic-Christian relations.    The introduction gives a brief account of how and why the authors visited Afghanistan in 96 to interview Taliban leaders in the city of Herat, and of what happened when they got there.

Chapter 1 is an excellent (brief) guide to Islam and its history, covering the life and times of Mohammed, Islamic beliefs about Allah, the nature and interpretation of the Quran, specifically focussing on the end times teachings of the Quran, plus it’s teaching on other holy books and on Christ; the chapter also covers the five pillars of Islam, and the rituals and practices of Islam, including Sharia law, the Friday sermon, finances, and also a very brief summary of the three main Islamic sects.

Chapter 2 goes on to deal with extreme Islam.   This starts with a rather technical discussion of the origins of the word fundamentalism in US evangelical circles, and how it has come to be used much more broadly since (what do you expect, the authors are Oxford graduates!).  The authors, like many people who study Islam, prefer to use the term Islamisms, because despite the similarities, there is a wide range of views and groups that come under the umbrella of ‘extreme Islam’.  They deal with the core intentions of the movement (for instance, opposition to the Sufi sect of Islam, a rather mystical, new-agey group), along the way debunking some common myths (like the idea that it is poverty that drives support for extreme Islam).   They cover the terms Jihad and Shahid (martyr) and how the latter can be so attractive to Muslim minds.  They cover how Muhammed used violence and war, and extreme groups through history who continued that usage, up until the modern day movements, whose roots and development they explore.  They note that the Taliban is a special case as originally they were relatively un-impacted by other Islamic groups and got their ideas from their own Pashtun tribal culture and the Quran, and in fact are seen as a lot less intellectually sophisticated than other extreme Islamic groups.

Chapter 3 deals with the Taliban in detail, showing how they arose out of the Madrassah’s in Pakistan, and were supported by a movement known as deobandi, which in turn received considerable backing from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s secret service.  Some of the motivations for the formation of the Taliban were good – they wanted to restore peace and stability to the war-torn Afghan nation and disarm the population, along with the more questionable aspects of imposing Shariah law, etc.  It recounts how the secretive Taliban leader initially formed the Taliban as a kind of ‘Robin hood’ band who rescued Afghans from the effects of brutal warlords at their request, restoring law and order by clearing bandits from the roads.  However their reputation became that of another warring faction after several setbacks in their campaign to take over the whole of the country.  Where they ruled, they closed down all or nearly all schools, and banned girls from being educated or holding jobs, devastating the civil service and medical professions in the process.   They started to kill people from other ethnic groups and Islamic sects, including Shi-ite Muslims.  The book notes reasons for the Pakistani support for the Taliban, and that surrounding countries seemed to encourage war in Afghanistan.  The Taliban had brand new jeeps and sophisticated and expensive communication systems.  It also notes that for a while it is likely that the US supported the Taliban as part of their attempt to build a new oil pipeline to loosen dependence on the Middle East for Oil.  In addition, they deal with the settlement of al-Qaida there, and with the Taliban’s hypocrisy over the drugs trade.  They quote a terrified Herat citizen who noted that the drug traffickers had by 1996 already infiltrated the Taliban, and international Mafia groups supported the Taliban.

Chapter 4 deals with Women and Islam.  They note that Islamic interpretation was strongly influenced by the rather misogynistic newly-conquered Middle-Eastern cultures, and this explains why Islamic practice is rather more strict than the Quranic texts on the subject require.  Even in Mohammed’s lifetime he faced a revolt in the Islamic community over this issue, and was forced to amend his relatively egalitarian stance somewhat.   They note that Saudi Arabia in some ways is more restrictive than the Taliban, and of the way that initially the Iranian revolutions restrictions on what had, up until then under the Shah been liberal, where met with such a strong resistance from women that the Mullah’s backpedalled for a while and only forced their views when they had stronger control .  Interestingly, in Mohammed’s time, his wives influenced him, one rebuking him for just talking about ‘men’ when he meant men and women, and this is reflected by sections of the Quran which carefully refer to men and women equally.  However, the Quran is the source of the idea that women’s testimony in court is worth half that of a man, and the huge discrepancy in power between the sexes in relation to divorce.  Also the Hadith (stories about Mohammed by his followers) show he believed that more women will end up in hell than men.  The authors also cover Islamic feminists, who show that Mohammed often received counsel from his wives in difficult strategic situations and argue that the Quranic passages that speak about the veil were in part in response to the revolt over the issue mentioned earlier, in part because in Arabic culture noble women were veiled, and slaves weren’t, so the wives were being treated as slaves by non-Muslims.  However, there is no suggestion that the face was meant to be covered.  However, as we all know, the verses have been taken in a very different way in Islam.  Today though, many Muslim women voluntarily take up covering as a reaction to Western sexual decadence.  However, with groups like the Taliban, it was brutally enforced.  The Taliban went much further than the Quran and banned women from work and education, as well as going outside unaccompanied, although to be fair, part of this was concern for women’s protection, since rape was regularly used by different factions in Afghanistan.

Chapter 5 deals with the clash of civilizations.  The authors note that there is not a monolithic Islam, and very often the divisions between Muslim nations and sects are at least as deep as the opposition of Islam to the West.  Some muslim governments deliberately make alliance with the west because they see a clash of civilizations as dangerous.  However, al-Qaeda and other groups that appeal to the need for Muslim unity resonate powerfully in the Islamic world.  In the Islamic world, a sense of victim mentality, combined with cultural rage against past colonialism and it’s lingering effects make it easy for extreme Islamic groups to gain support against less militant Islamic governments.  Such groups preach against corruption by Western concepts and a return to ‘pure’ Islam.  The issues on clash of civilizations is compounded by the fact that Islam is by very nature inherently political, aiming at state control, in a way that Christianity, for instance is not (although it has veered in that direction on many occasions).  In the west, state and religion are usually separated, which is the opposite of Islamic practice.   Thus in practice, in a state where Shariah law is in force, even non-Muslim citizens have to obey and has led to victimization (for instance, one male Muslim witness is enough to convict a non-Muslim, which leads to a lot of abuse of non-Muslim women).  There are two case studies of the different approaches of Muslim nations (Jordan and Algeria) to the issue of government control of religion (and vice versa).  They then cover how and why Islamic extremism may be a threat to the West (things have come on a long way since 2002!).

The final chapter is called ‘Avenues for a Christian response’.  Here the authors take a rather surprising approach after a normal start noting the damage the crusades have done to Muslim perceptions of Christianity and the relations of the two faiths.  They describe the run up to the first crusade from an Islamic / middle eastern perspective.  The area where Christians went on pilgrimage to were under Muslim control, but the area had become a huge war zone between different Muslim factions (and there was still a considerable church presence, both Orthodox, and more importantly the little known but hugely effective Nestorian church which had archdioceses all the way from Egypt through Afghanistan to Beijing!).  So Christian pilgrims were in danger, but the real cause was an invitation from a Byzantinian emperor to Western fellow Christians to aid him after significant defeats.  When the Westerners took Jerusalem, some Islamic factions saw it as a relief and come-uppance.  But even then some Western Christians, most notable St Francis of Assisi and his followers, opposed the use of force as un-Christian and in a stunning move crossed the battle lines to preach to the Muslim leader.  The authors then, in another surprise move (to me at least) turn to Wycliffe ‘morning-star of the reformation’ who translated the bible into English so lay people could read it for themselves.  He was also one of the originators of the concept of the pope and the Vatican as ‘antiChrist’, even though he remained a devout Roman Catholic (the reformation only happened after his death).  The reason for this view was that the Vatican practice of worldly power, waging war to maintain their power and appointing lords and rulers was the total opposite of Christ’s teaching, hence Wycliffe and others called the Vatican and the pope ‘antiChrist’.  Of the two great threats to true Christianity, Islam and Papal power, they held that Papal power and the use of force falsely in the name of Christ was the greater threat, even though Islamic empires were seeking to invade.   Given some of the current trends in international affairs, that is a position that has great resonance for us today.

A couple of minor quibbles – a footnote incorrectly referring to the Appendix when the appendix is about something totally different (a list of the 99 names of Allah and their translations) was annoying, plus the odd typo, but nothing majorly detracting from the overall quality of the book.