There is no doubt that Islam as a religion and Islamic-Western relations as a political problem have captured the attention of everyone in the United States who is tuned into current affairs. September 11th, the worst terrorist attack in American history, and the current international war on terrorism have changed the lives of people around the globe. The search for the accused masterminds behind 9/11 and other recent attacks against Western and Western-allied targets, and the pursuit of those who are the direct perpetrators of terrorist activities, is an ongoing and very expensive enterprise.
Of particular interest are the whereabouts and capture of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, leaders of the terrorist group called Al Qaeda. For the most part, Al Qaeda has been characterized as an Islamist front united in armed struggle, or "jihad," against Western civilization and Western interests. But Fawaz A. Gerges, a noted historian and Middle East expert, has a different take on the matter and has offered his own analysis in "The Far Enemy," a book that is extremely detailed and meticulously researched.
Gerges certainly possesses the credentials needed to write a book such as this. Educated at Oxford University and the London School of Economics, he has previously been a Research Fellow at Harvard and Princeton universities, and he now holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Gerges has written widely on Arab and Muslim politics, Islamist movements, American foreign policy, and relations between the world of Islam and the West. His has authored several books and his articles have appeared in several of the most respected journals and newspapers in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. He is also a senior analyst and regular commentator for ABC television news on Middle Eastern affairs.
The first question that naturally comes to one's mind is: What is meant by the "Far Enemy"? Furthermore, if there is a "far enemy," there should be a "near enemy" and who is that? I have read a great deal about Islam and the Islamic "jihad" during the past few years and never came across these terms before. Now that I am familiar with them, thanks to the author, past and current events regarding Islamic-Western tensions, and some of the events in certain Muslim-dominated nations, are better understood. To put it simply, the "far enemy" refers to the United States and its Western allies; the "near enemy" are the Muslim regimes which have been deemed "unacceptable" either for their secularization of politics and society or because, in the view of some jihadists, the religious authorities and scholars have been "subverted by corrupting Western influences."
Up until the late 1990s, according to the author, jihadists had concentrated their attention on fighting the "near enemy," that is, bringing about political and social change within Muslim nations, returning these nations to their essential Islamic religious foundation. Then, as the twenty-first century approached, some jihadists internationalized the battle and the "far enemy" became the focus of the struggle. This is the situation regarding Al Qaeda. Gerges argues that Al Qaeda is actually a minority within the jihadist movement. Moreover, it has been criticized and opposed by other jihadists, namely the religious nationalists who want to focus on changing the Muslim world rather than internationalizing the battle. These latter want to confront and change the "near enemy" and not fight the "far enemy."
One example of the above will be related here. Referring to Nageh Abdullah Ibrahim, a major theoretician of the jihadist organization called the Islamic Group who is currently serving a life sentence in Egypt, Gerges states: "...Ibrahim and other imprisoned Islamic Group leaders fault Al Qaeda for ignoring reality and living in its own bubble. They go after bin Laden with a vengeance, accusing him of shutting his eyes and ears and blindly plunging forward, bringing the temple down on his own head the ummah's as well."
Gerges continues: "Ibrahim says that had bin Laden paid adequate attention to his humble capabilities, he would have refrained from declaring war on the world, but the issue is bigger than that because bin Laden has lost touch with reality, rationality, and religious precepts. As a result, Ibrahim adds, Al Qaeda caused the downfall of two Muslim regimes -- in Kabul and Baghdad -- and Arab states have faced the brunt of the American armada. In short, Al Qaeda is no longer an intact, cohesive organization because it confuses myth with fact and entertains strange ideas. Ibrahim compares Al Qaeda with the Saddam Hussein regime and implies that bin Laden could bring about the destruction of his network like Hussein did to the Iraqi state."
Those who think that the jihadists constitute a unified movement in complete agreement about who is the real adversary and the strategies to be employed in defeating it are in error, according to Gerges. This whole issue is far more complex than most Western observers think. There has been a rift, largely ignored by the West, between those Islamic jihadists who are interested in promoting global terrorism, going after the "far enemy," and those who want to concentrate on the "near enemy." This rift, says Gerges, led to the events of September 11 and has dominated developments ever since.
According to Gerges, the West must understand this: "...the war against transnationalist jihadis cannot be won on the battlefield in either Afghanistan or Iraq; this is not a conventional war in which two armies confront each other and emerge victorious or vanquished. One of the arguments advanced in the book is that the most effective means to put Al Qaeda out of business is to complete its encirclement and siege internally; there is overwhelming evidence pointing in that direction: bin Laden and his associates have lost the war for Muslim minds."
This is a very complex, detailed work based on firsthand field research, interviews, primary documents, and letters. Not, however, your leisure-time reading.