The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Second Edition)
Fawaz A. Gerges
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 400 pp.

Reviewed by Mark Silinsky, Ph.D. Candidate in International Development at Tulane University

The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global by Fawaz Gerges, is a book that begins with the promise of fresh analysis on the origins and status of jihadism, or militant Islam, but ultimately, that promise is overcome by the book’s shortcomings. The book, first published in 2005 and re‐released this year in a new edition, is strongest in the first several chapters that explore the internal struggle between rival jihadist factions. Gerges answers the questions about when and how the jihadists metastasized from local bands of rag‐tag, unemployed locals to the well‐financed paramilitary global apparatus that shook America’s sense of security to its core. He paints rich portraits of the players in this jihadist drama, documenting Ayman Al‐Zawahiri’s and Usama bin Laden’s origins and rise to prominence in detail. But even the stronger chapters of The Far Enemy are flawed.

Gerges fails to place enough emphasis on the origins of today’s jihadism, which has become one of the three dominant totalitarian philosophies of the early‐mid 20th Century. He does a good job explaining the hold of personalities in the Jihadist mindset‐‐especially the influence of Sayyid Qutb. However, as with much of the book, Gerges uses selective analysis that fails to underscore the distorted prism through which Qutb and his followers see America. Qutb may have scored some points on race relations in post‐war America, but his florid hatred of all things American that has been transmitted to successive and vulnerable generations of Muslim youth that must be underscored.

Similarly, Gerges misses the mark when discussing the impact and prestige of bin Laden. He writes “By declaring war on bin Laden the United States has invested him with the legitimacy he had desperately craved.” (p. 93) In truth, Bin Laden became legitimate because he meted‐out the worst one‐day defeat America has ever suffered. If his legitimacy has waned in recent years it is because the U.S, military keeps him hidden in a cave. And instead of sufficiently answering the question of what other options the United States might have pursued vis via bin Laden, Gerges takes the U.S. to task for their response to the 9/11 attacks. Would bin Laden’s legitimacy has declined if U.S. representatives entered into negotiations, of some kind, with him, in late September 2001? Gerges offers no insight to change that skepticism.

The professor also rails against U.S. “hypermilitarism,” claiming it is among the main causes of terrorism. He writes, “[U.S.] Moral condemnation and hypermilitarism will not remove the sociopolitical and international conditions that fuel terrorism” (p. 279)In fact, American troops have done more than just quash out dictators and root out terrorists in Islamic lands. They have also worked to build the economies of Muslim countries, provide basic healthcare and education, and even trained indigenous military and police officers to establish security and ensure the rule of law. Human development, not killing, is the core of the U.S. strategy to defeat jihadis. If Gerges understands this, he doesn’t make it clear in the book.

The quality of The Far Enemy takes a final turn for the worse in that last few chapters, which amount to mere politicized commentary on the author’s part. Gerges tosses scorn on a “cottage industry” of “fast‐food‐like books” that are “designed to quench the thirst of a frightened American mass audience.” (p. 77) Of whom is he speaking, and to what books does he refer? To be sure, lightweight books on Islamic terror have been published by authors who lack credibility on both ends of the political spectrum. And certainly, when such books are void of analytic rigor or substance, they should be discredited. But, to cast a large net as Gerges’ does in this work is merely to continue the Academy’s effort to discredit works on the threat that militant Islam poses to free men and women around the world. Unfortunately, his approach is routinely echoed on campus, which speaks volumes about the state of the Academy and does little to elucidate about the nature of the threat.

In addition, Gerges hints at conspiracies that do not exist. For instance, he writes, “A few brave scholars challenged the ‘evildoers’ notion, which had taken hold of the American imagination. Few dare to raise critical questions about why bin Laden and his cohorts…attacked their former ally.” (p. 279) There is nothing brave, however, about repeating what has become the accepted wisdom of the Ivory Tower. The real cottage industry that has thrived for years on US campuses has been the one that habitually demonizes those who challenge this line of reasoning, which forms the crux of the scholarship touted by the late Edward Said and his followers. If Gerges has a case to make, he should give verifiable examples of credible scholars who posed such “critical questions” and suffered professionally as a consequence.

The Far Enemy provides a good history of militant Islam, but the book cannot overcome Gerges’ view that both Americans and jihadis are extremists. This line becomes the central flaw of the The Far Enemy—the inability to distinguish clearly between the victims and the victimizers in the jihadi‐American drama. For this reason alone the book should be read with skepticism, if it at all.