A review of New Political Religions, or an Analysis of Modern Terrorism, by Barry Cooper

In his new book, Barry Cooper draws on his background in political philosophy to produce a rich and revealing study of contemporary religious terrorism and the means of fighting it. The book breaks into three parts. The first two chapters connect the current struggle against Islamic totalitarianism (my term) to the prior wars against political totalitarianism, seeking to explain the phenomenon's spiritual and philosophical roots. This part is extremely insightful, at some points brilliant and compelling. The third and fourth chapters explore Islamic totalitarian ideology in the context of Islamic history; these are extremely astute in some areas but frequently flawed in others. The final chapter, on the proper conduct of the war against Islamic totalitarianism, is useful; the appendix, "History and the Holy Koran," is problematic.

Cooper's title alludes to Eric Voegelin's The Political Religions, a study of Nazism published in 1938. But another of Voegelin's works, "The Mongol Orders of Submission to European Powers, 1245-1255," appears to be the model that Cooper seeks to emulate. This essay brought the political theory of the Mongol empire into sharp focus; writers on this topic either follow Voegelin or produce nonsense. Voegelin could not read the documents in the original languages and had no special knowledge of Mongol history. His understanding of the relationship of cosmology to political theory permitted him to find sense where specialists found only verbiage. Similarly, Cooper has no particular background in Islamic studies, does not read Arabic or Persian, and claims no expertise in the field of terrorism. But his knowledge of political philosophy, especially of Voegelin's and Hannah Arendt's analyses of the 20th-century totalitarians, permits him to identify several central elements of his topic that have eluded other observers.

Cooper does not mince words: "It seems to me that there is nothing deep or philosophical about Sayyid Qutb or any other terrorists who have committed their reflections to print. For the most part, they express a dogmatic certainty that comes from being philosophical and religious ignoramuses." Denying the common assertion that the terrorists are in some way insane, he writes:

The assumption that we make in this study is rather that their disorder is spiritual and that there is accordingly a spiritual dimension to the conflict with terrorists. Of course there is a material dimension as well, as there always is in politics, but it is peripheral. Whatever the genuine grievances terrorists exploit, they are secondary to their self-destructive, self-defeating spiritual perversity.

Cooper interprets the new political religions, by which he means the politico-religious doctrines that motivate contemporary religious terrorism, as the re-emergence of the same spiritual phenomenon that underlay fascism and Communism: the condemnation of "urban, bourgeois, prosperous, egalitarian" Western culture as "decadent, arrogant, weak and depraved." Much of that alleged decadence stems from freedom of conscience and territorial sovereignty, two concepts underlying the modern West's achievements. Not merely Islamic totalitarianism, but all totalitarianism challenges these principles. More broadly, totalitarians reject the world as it is. The observation that totalitarianism is utopian is not new, but Cooper uses two Voegelinian concepts to explain it with clarity and rigor: "pneumopathology" and the idea of a second reality. Pneumopathology means spiritual insanity, the state of spirit which defines violence, specifically the killing of innocents, as "a magic instrument capable of transfiguring reality." The "second reality" refers not to the goal of the terrorist, the reality he seeks to create, but to the mental construct in which the terrorist sees the horrors he perpetrates as an appropriate means to an attainable end. For those who wish to comprehend the origin and dynamics of the political pursuit of utopia, Cooper provides a masterly explanation.

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The master's touch appears only rarely in the second part of New Political Religions. In his diagnosis, Cooper wisely avoids the term fundamentalism in favor of "Salafism." The term Salaf refers to the righteous early generations of Muslims, whose example the modern Muslims who call themselves Salafiyya seek to emulate. Their concept of return, however, encompasses the establishment of a society and polity with the wealth and power of modernity but free of non-Islamic cultural influences. But the use of this term for what Cooper and many others call Islamism (and I call Islamic totalitarianism) skips a step. The Salafi impulse is not in itself totalitarian; it does not involve a denial of reality. Before it could become totalitarian, Salafi Islam had to undergo a further transformation at the hands of Sayyid Qutb, whom Cooper discusses at length, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Pakistani thinker Abu al-`Ala Mawdudi (1903- 1979), whom he mentions only in passing. Cooper's neglect of Mawdudi causes him to miss an important connection. Mawdudi, as Seyyed Reza Vali Nasr explains in The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution (1994), studied the Western totalitarianisms extensively and borrowed from Lenin the concept of the vanguard party. Khomeini and Qutb read Mawdudi. Without that connection, an organization like the Islamic Republican Party, which helped Khomeini gain power in Iran, would never have existed. Salafi Islam developed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, primarily as a result of the internal dynamics of Islam itself. It did not produce a totalitarian ideology until the encounter with Western totalitarianism in the 20th.

This confusion stems from Cooper's lack of expertness in Islamic studies. His unfamiliarity with Arabic and with Muslim names leads to simple mistakes, such as transliterating Riza and Rita. Some of his errors are merely annoying, such as his description of the armies of Mehmet `Ali of Egypt, who crushed the first Wahhabi movement, as Ottoman. Though Mehmet `Ali was nominally an Ottoman governor, he was as much an enemy of the Sultan as he was of the Wahhabis. Other mistakes leave gaps in Cooper's logic, such as his failure to explain that Ibn Taymiyyah needed to justify the continuation of Mamluk hostilities against the Mongols because the Mongol khan had converted to Islam in 1295. Still others, like his repetition of the myth that the Mongols destroyed the irrigation systems of Iraq, are harder to explain. His assertion that "the crisis of the 'decline' of the Ottoman empire motivated the restorative work of al-Wahhab" is dubious. There is little indication that `Abd al-Wahhab responded to the relative weakness of the Ottomans in their confrontation with Europe. He sought to use political force to bring about spiritual renewal, not, like such influential thinkers as Jamal al-Afghani to use spiritual renewal to restore Muslim political power. Although Cooper has used much of the best scholarship on his topic (e.g., Reuven Firestone's Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam, 1999; and Mark Juergensmeyer's Terror in the Mind of God, 2000), he neglects others, such as Vali Nasr's work, and frequently relies on outdated material, like Carl Brockelman'sHistory of the Islamic Peoples, originally published in 1939.

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The final chapter, "Counternet War," at first appears disconnected from the rest of the text. Derived primarily from the works of John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt of the Rand Corporation, it discusses methods rather than ideas. It forms a necessary part of Cooper's presentation because he holds that the European concept of war as a political struggle between states does not fit the confrontation with Islamic totalitarianism. Cooper refers to the European concept of war as Clausewitzian. Cooper's negative evaluation of Clausewitz follows views of Martin van Creveld and John Keegan; unfortunately he has not consulted Michael Handel. One sentence of this chapter summarizes the nature of the so-called war on terrorism superbly: "the al-Qaeda organization has developed a complex religious interpretation of its actions that is at once a pneumopathological fantasy and one that has great resonance among Muslims." Beyond the techniques of counternet war, Cooper sees the need for the development of "a persuasive Islamic story that explains to the Islamic world that terrorist spirituality is perverse, that indicates as clearly as possible. . . that far from being martyrs suicidal terrorists are simply murderers to be condemned, not exalted." His analysis provides a philosophical underpinning for Daniel Pipes's contention that only moderate Islam can defeat Islamic totalitarianism, and reinforces the need for effective public diplomacy to reduce the appeal of Islamic totalitarianism.

In the Appendix, drawing on Leo Strauss's "Jerusalem and Athens" and Voegelin's "The Gospel and Culture," Cooper argues for the need to examine religious scriptures historically and critically. The doctrine of the "uncreated Qur'an" defines any "higher criticism" of the Qur'an an attack on Islam. Though Cooper does not say so explicitly, he apparently believes that the construction of an alternative to Muslim pneumopathology requires critical analysis of the Qur'an and refers to the works of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, John Wansbrough, Günter Lüling, and Christoph Luxenberg (a pseudonym) as the basis for such an examination. Cooper admits that he lacks the scholarly credentials to evaluate these works properly, but refers to them extensively, nonetheless. The controversial nature of this scholarship goes beyond the visceral Muslim response to it. Much of it is explicitly anti-Muslim, intended not to clarify but to destroy; much of it relies on dubious sources, techniques, and assumptions; hence Cooper's use of it is also questionable.

The New Political Religions is not a triumph like Voegelin's "Mongol Orders of Submissions," but is a notable success that deserves serious attention. This book should provoke scholars of Islamic civilization and students of, and participants in, the war on terrorism to read not only Cooper, but also Voegelin and Strauss and even Plato and Aristotle.