home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted July 21, 2010

Why the War on Terrorism Is Likely to Be a Long One

by Fr. William Byron, S.J.

From the book, Faith-Based Reflections on American Life
[Book review is on our website already]

If you’re wondering if the war on terrorism is likely to be a long one, take a look at Caryle Murphy’s book, Passion for Islam — Shaping the Modern Middle East.

Murphy, a 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner for her reporting during Desert Storm, spent five years in Cairo, as bureau chief for the Washington Post. Passion for Islam — the title is drawn from a post-sentencing statement made in 1995 by a moderate Egyptian Islamist found guilty of “practicing democracy” — provides a useful interpretative framework for puzzled observers like myself who need help in understanding the Muslim world. The “passion” for Islam that Murphy observed up close in several Muslim countries is driving an attempt “to fuse two powerful desires, one for democratic government and the other for Islam to be their society’s main reference point.” This drive is being felt throughout an anything-but-unified Muslim world.

Ever since the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned home to lead Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, Americans have been at a loss to understand clergy-turned-politicians claiming to rule in the name of God while encouraging aging mobs of Muslims in their fist-shaking threats to the “Great Satan.” That started Caryle Murphy thinking about the need to gain a better understanding of the Islamic revival that all of us realize is happening and too few of us can even begin to figure out.

Her book provides a four-layer model for examination of the Islamic revival. It is presented in the context of three historical forces. The first is the evident reawakening and subsequent turmoil within Islam. The second historical force is the enduring presence of authoritarian Arab governments. The third is the shared failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These forces, says Murphy, “have combined to create a combustible environment in the Middle East.”

She then points to “four separate but overlapping levels” of Islam’s ongoing revival since the 1970s. First she identifies “Pious Islam,” an upsurge or “grassroots groundswell” of “women donning head headscarves, more men shunning alcohol, and everyone more observant of religious rituals.” Next come “Political Islam,” wherein “Islamist activists are seeking to wrest power from secular-oriented governments in order to implement a religious-based vision of an Islamic state and society.” Third is “Cultural Islam,” a resistance movement against Western values. The fourth layer of Islamic renewal is theological – a “Thinking Islam” that is moving toward more enlightened and scientific interpretations of the Qur’an.

There is no Vatican for Islam and hence no possibility of an Islamist “Vatican Council” to produce a workable doctrine of religious freedom. Nor is there an Islamist John Courtney Murray to work out a theology of separation of mosque and state.

Muslims, as Caryle Murphy explains, “are in the throes of a historical resurgence of their faith.” Islam, which is certainly not a single reality, “has become a template for the culturally confused, a language of protest for the politically frustrated, and a vision for nations adrift in a competitive world.”

This author doesn’t claim to understand the mind of Osama bin Ladin, but she does understand the historical forces that helped shape today’s Muslim radicals who are willing to kill and be killed in the name of Islam.

This rewarding read leaves no doubt that what we are calling a war on terrorism is going to last a long, long time.