Wars Of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation, and Power in the Muslim World

  • Published

Wars Of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation, and Power in the Muslim World edited by Ilan Berman. Rowman & Littlefield, 2021, 172 pp.

After nearly 22 years since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States now finds itself with a military force and workforce with individuals born after the attacks occurred, including those just joining the service or already serving for a handful of years, and recent college graduates starting careers in national security and foreign policy. At the same time, a large portion of current and soon-to-be senior military leaders have spent all or a majority of their careers fighting the war on terror. But as Ilan Berman argues in his introduction to his edited work Wars Of Ideas, despite “an explosion of academic and professional interest in counter-terrorism since 9/11,” the United States has yet to adequately address the “struggle for salience” within the Muslim world that motivated the attacks, having instead focused “extensively on militarily defeating malign extremist actors” (1–2). Berman sees the “wars of ideas” as the struggle between extreme radical and moderate Islam that constitutes the “intellectual battlefield” the United States confronts today (2).

Berman is the senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and a Middle East regional security expert who has consulted for the CIA, Department of Defense, and State Department. In Wars of Ideas, Berman has edited a collection of six essays, with two of his own bookending the collection with an opening essay on the Islamic State and a closing essay on learning from Allies. Contributions discussing Central Asia, Morocco, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia fill the space between. Berman’s assembled authors are experts in their areas—religious scholars, professors, security analysts, and think tank fellows.

Like the book as a whole, each section is relatively brief and provides an overview and history, followed by an analysis and assessment of the modern situation. Svante Cornell’s Central Asia chapter is of interest in the current geopolitical environment, as it touches on the evolution of Islam in the region, then the rediscovering of its ties with the rest of the Muslim world after the fall of the Soviet Union. For a time, this movement sought secular statehood and government, something changing in Turkey under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogăn.

Another interesting section is Azyumardi Azra’s essay on Indonesia, a vital discussion given its status as the world’s largest Muslim nation and the third-largest democracy. An analysis of Indonesia’s “Third Way” Islam—“which is distinct from, and more inclusive than, its Arabic counterpart”—fits nicely into a book seeking to break down a war of ideas (77).

As the discussion of the world’s largest Muslim population being a democracy is noteworthy, so is one on the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites and its post-Salafist trajectory. Kamran Bokhari states in his section, “No country in contemporary history has played as significant a role in the struggle for the soul of Islam as has Saudi Arabia” (123). This section is the strongest of the book, providing a history of the initial two failed attempts and the third and final successful attempt that created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. It offers as thorough a history as possible in a few pages. Growing cooperation with America and the West is focused on the first Gulf War and the reaction and fallout from 9/11. A good deal of writing centers on attempts at reform, modernization, and the conflicting priorities of the kingdom’s religion along with its push toward Vision 2030, its masterplan to transform the state through broad social and economic reforms. While the book is a few years old, the writing provides a solid background for those seeking to understand the stories currently in the news.

Berman has edited a work that does what it sets out to do to bring a better understanding of modern Islam and its struggles with extremism beyond discussions of terror tactics and military responses. Wars of Ideas also demonstrates well that while Islam, specifically Sunni Islam, is one faith, different states and regions are impacted by the issue of extremism and handle it differently. Many points of the book, especially Berman’s closing chapter, discuss the need to learn from and work with partners to understand Islam and its approach to its radical adherents. The focus on cooperation is essential and commendable in the current world.

An area for improvement is one that Berman himself acknowledges and addresses on the very first page of content. Berman points out that Islam is the world’s fastest-growing faith, with over 1.8 billion followers—an overwhelming 85 percent that is Sunni. While Berman identifies that there is indeed extremism that comes from Islam’s Shia, he states that Iran’s role in Islamic radicalism “is unique . . . and beyond the scope of this work” (iii). While Berman is quite correct in this assessment of Iran’s role, the chapters discussing the Islamic State and the Gulf countries—specifically Saudi Arabia—may have benefited from a brief discussion regarding the relationship between Shia beliefs and extremism. Or, more simply, how do reactions to Shia beliefs and actions affect the issue at hand?

Wars of Ideas is well worth the read for those seeking to understand better the battlefield of ideas regarding the struggle against radical Islam. At only 172 pages, including references, acknowledgments, and contributor biographies, the book is a quick and highly accessible read for those seeking to gain understanding beyond the kinetic struggles that occur. The work is also highly beneficial as a primer for those wishing to learn more about what specific countries and regions are doing to address the issue.

Lieutenant Colonel Jason Baker

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."