This book review was published on Amazon in September 2016.
There is unfortunately little to gain from Sebastian Gorka’s book, “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War,” on countering terrorism. With invented “facts,” a distorted understanding of Islamic history, little or no understanding of Sunni Islam’s jurisprudence of jihad/war/rebellion, sharing the same manipulated interpretations of combative jihad as terrorists, among other problems, Gorka’s book can be counted as one of the worst on countering terrorism.
While errors in Gorka’s book are too numerous to explain, below are some examples of major errors followed by a discussion of other problems.
Gorka claims: Before Ibn Taymiyya’s “redefinition” of combative jihad,
“Islam had previously prohibited revolution against Muslim rulers” (pp. 61-62).
Gorka has his “facts” wrong. There were Sunni scholars before Ibn Taymiyya’s time who advocated rebellion against rulers in specific circumstances. Imam Zaid Shakir, a contemporary Sunni Muslim scholar, explains:
“There are those who claim that any rebellion against a Muslim ruler is unsanctioned. However, we do not find this opinion in the writings of the traditional scholars…. However, even the Sunni view is conditional, and rebellion is sanctioned in the case of the ruler openly rejecting Islam or sanctioning laws or practices that violate accepted Islamic laws or principles, and it is not feared that a greater tribulation will befall the believers should they rise up” (1).
Khaled Abou El Fadl who wrote an entire book on the law of rebellion (ahkam al-bughah) in Islam – “Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law” – says:
“…[T]he… quite dogmatic view is that Sunni jurists by the fourth/tenth century had become political quietists. But in light of the discourses on ahkam al-bughah, this view becomes untenable. It is not possible to describe the juridical positions as either quietist or activist….Sunni, Zaydi, and Ibadi jurists argued that a rebellion could be justified if the anticipated benefits of such a rebellion outweigh the perceived evils” (2).
In his book, “The Islamic Law of War: Justifications and Regulations,” author and scholar Ahmed Al-Dawoody gives several case studies explaining when rebellion against a ruler was permitted and not permitted under specific circumstances (3).
In other words, rebellion against a ruler was not a clear cut matter among Sunni jurists. Some permitted rebellion in specific circumstances while others did not. Gorka’s lack of due diligence in this matter is astonishing. He is unaware of Islamic history, the views of jurists on the law of rebellion, and the sources and scholars cited above.
Gorka wrongly portrays Ibn Taymiyya’s call to rebellion against Mongols as Ibn Taymiyya’s standard position on rebellion against rulers. He then somehow concludes:
“In the Middle Ages, therefore, jihad came to convey on the people a right to denounce their rulers as un-Islamic and wage a legitimate religious revolution” (p.63).
Several major factual errors: First, contrary to Gorka’s claim, Ibn Taymiyya’s call for rebellion against the Mongols was not his official position against unjust rulers. Second, this logically means it was not because of Ibn Taymiyya that in the Middle Ages “jihad came to convey on the people a right to denounce their rulers as un-Islamic and wage a legitimate religious revolution.” This brings us to Gorka’s third inaccuracy: Jihad – with or without Ibn Taymiyya’s influence – did not come to “convey on the people a right to denounce their rulers as un-Islamic and wage a legitimate revolution.” Proclaiming a jihad in Sunni Islam has always been the prerogative of the ruler – not any civilian, soldier, or even Muslim scholar.
While Ibn Taymiyya is a controversial scholar to Sunnis, mainly in matters of creed but also in jurisprudence, the norm for Ibn Taymiyya was to not rebel even against an unjust ruler provided that harm to Islam/Muslims did not exceed the benefit – an unsurprising position similar to many orthodox Sunni scholars.
That is why Ibn Taymiyya did not call for rebellion against Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir ibn Qalawun when he ruled, even when Mamluk rulers were imperfect from a Shari’ah standpoint. Authors Banan Malkawi and Tamara Sonn in the chapter “Ibn Taymiyya on Islamic Governance” (4) explain that Ibn Taymiyya’s:
“fatwas on obedience and non-rebellion against Muslim rulers facilitated the maintenance of order within the Mamluk realm. Despite the fact that Mamluk rulers occasionally violated the Shari’a, Ibn Taymiyya denounced rebellion against them because he held that the harm that would result from their overthrow would outweigh the benefit” (p.124).
Ibn Taymiyya’s call to rebellion against the Mongols was a “special case” that deviated from his standard position according to the authors. “But short of such an extreme case,” they say, “patience and forbearance in the face of unjust rule is required” according to Ibn Taymiyya (p.120). Gorka completely misrepresents Ibn Taymiyya’s view on rebellion and uses his inaccurate understanding to contrive fallacious conclusions.
Gorka also misses the crucial point that Mongols were invaders. Ibn Taymiyya specialist Yahya Michot, commenting on Jamaat al-Jihad’s twisted justification for using Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Mongol fatwas to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, says:
“To legitimize armed uprising and the assassination of Muslim rulers by identifying them with the invaders attacked in the anti-Mongol fatwas of Ibn Taymiyya is indeed, quite simply, a hijacking of the test that transforms his writings calling to resist an incoming foreign invader into pamphlets challenging a power in situ. It is shocking that such a ‘Mongolization’ of Sadat and other Muslim rulers could be conceived as faithful to the thought of the Damascene Shaykh al-Islam” (5).
Instead of correcting what militants misinterpret and bastardize from Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Mongol edicts, Gorka goes to bed with them and bolsters their extremist justifications. Ibn Taymiyya was hardly controversial in his views of jihad. Rather, militants made Ibn Taymiyya a father of jihad after manipulating his views.
Gorka wrongly deduces that the doctrine of “takfirism” comes from Ibn Taymiyya as if Ibn Taymiyya is the progenitor of takfirism. After misinterpreting Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Mongol edict as a pass to people to rebel against unjust rulers, Gorka then oddly says:
“Unilaterally excommunicating another Muslim, declaring him an apostate from the religion of Islam, came to be labeled takfirism, an ideological tool that is a primary weapon of today’s global jihadists such as al-Qaeda and ISIS” (p 63).
Gorka repeats his point more explicitly on pg.64 where he says takfirism is “his doctrine,” meaning Ibn Taymiyya’s doctrine.
No, ‘takfirism’ is not Ibn Taymiyya’s doctrine. As discussed, Ibn Taymiyya did not advocate rebellion against rulers as his official position – so he did not promote takfir against them – and his call to fight the Mongols was a special case that deviated from this position.
Rather, the Kharijites are the first known takfiris who made takfir on Prophet Muhammad’s Companions in Islam’s early days. The Kharijites were the earliest group of fanatics who separated themselves from the Muslim community due to their extremist positions. They arose in opposition to Ali — Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law — because of his willingness to arbitrate with Mu’awiyah, the governor of Damascus at the time, over the issue of the caliphate. Kharijites did takfir on Ali, Mu’awiyah, and their followers, accusing them of blasphemy. That is why ISIS and al-Qa’eda who do takfir of Muslims are described as the Kharijites of today.
To Gorka, takfir started with and became popularized to the public by Ibn Taymiyya because of his anti-Mongol edict. Gorka parrots these myths out of whole cloth without any evidence.
On p.19, Gorka says,
“…we have been at war with the jihadists since at least the Barbary Wars of the eighteenth century.”
Portraying Barbary Wars as “jihadist” or religious in nature is misleading. Louis Jacobson of Pulitzer Prize Winning Politifact says “historians of the period…say that religion was not a significant factor in the Barbary Wars.” Jacobson then quotes scholars grounded in the subject:
“Very little of this had to do with Islam….It has much more to do with…trading opportunities and economics” (6)
(Adrian Tinniswood, author of “Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean”)
Similarly, Lance Janda, military historian at Cameron University says,
“We didn’t attack them out of matters of faith….The wars were all about freedom of the sea and protecting the U.S. flag” (6).
Gorka twists facts to support his distorted interpretation of history. Had Gorka been serious, he would have consulted historians about the matter.
Gorka exaggerates the ‘jihadist’ threat in the U.S. when he says,
“The year 2015 saw the highest number of jihadi plots on American soil since September 11, 2001” (p.111)
while withholding other important details from the same source.
What Gorka failed to mention were details from the same source by Charles Kurzman who said:
“Five plots engaged in violence in the United States in 2015, killed 19 people and raising the total since 9/11 to 69 fatalities. Over the same period, more than 220,000 Americans were murdered. In 2015 alone, 134 Americans were killed in mass shootings”(7).
Gorka conceals the fact that in 2015 many more civilians in the U.S. died not from “Muslim jihadist” terror, but from murder and mass shootings perpetrated almost exclusively by non-Muslims. Kurzman in a 2015 op ed echoed similar words in more explicit terms:
“The numbers suggest that ideological violence — by Muslims, Christians or others — is not a leading threat to public safety in the United States. Out of 14,000 murders that the country experiences each year, a few dozen per year — less than 1 percent — are caused by political or religious ideologies” (8).
While Gorka attempts to portray jihadist terrorism as the bigger threat, Kurzman in a February 2016 article says,
“Each year since 2010 when I began doing this report” — the same report used by Gorka above — “I try to remind readers … that among the threats to public safety that Americans face year in and year out, Islamic terrorism has played a very small role” (9).
Kurzman’s conclusion that “Islamic terrorism has played a very small role” is the opposite of what Gorka illustrates. Gorka ignores the bigger threat, portrays the smaller threat as the bigger threat, and cherry picks from Kurzman’s source to misrepresent what he said.
Gorka claims jihad was “repeatedly reinterpreted and redefined” (p.61) over the centuries and attempts to wrongly convey that such acts of violence from Muslims, whether by Prophet Muhammad’s companions or al-Qae’da, were within the permitted parameters of what constituted a legally valid jihad.
Gorka’s great failure to acknowledge and explain the majority Sunni view of jihad from scholars in the four major Sunni schools of law — the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali schools — alone renders Gorka incompetent in the field of counter-terrorism.
Like the terrorists he claims to oppose, Gorka’s understandings and conclusions are based on a cursory and fragmented understanding of Islamic history. This patchwork knowledge led Gorka to weave a portrait of Islamic history that conflates jihad in Sunni Islam with the un-Islamic acts of terrorists.
While Gorka is correct that jihad was “repeatedly reinterpreted and redefined,” Gorka is oblivious of or conceals that, according to Sunni jurisprudence, certain reinterpretations and redefinitions contradicted mainstream Sunni Islam’s understandings of jihad. Their actions, therefore, were not understood to be valid combative jihads but rather irreligious vigilantism that was condemned and punished. For example, killing civilians, “jihad” being proclaimed by individual vigilantes (not governments), destroying places of worship, killing diplomats/ambassadors, making jihad a ‘pillar’ of Islam, and violating contracts/agreements — in other words, what terrorists do — are acts antithetical to Sunni jihad.
This is the reason why Islamic Law reserved severe punishments for criminals and extremists, including brigands who terrorized and harmed innocent civilians, and why Sunni scholars made it obligatory to fight the Kharijites. Gorka conflates terrorism with jihad as the terrorists do instead of explaining how orthodox Sunni jurists differentiated proper combative jihad from un-Islamic acts of violence.
Gorka also ignores the many refutations of terrorists by Sunni Muslim scholars, including but not limited to:
- The fairly recent letter by more than a 100 Muslims against ISIS
- Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi’s articles (i) and lectures (i) against ISIS and other extremists (and his fascinating book, “Refuting ISIS”)
- Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s sermon against ISIS
- Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti’s fatwa against terrorists
- Pakistani Shaykh Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri’s Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings
- Many other refutations (i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii, viii, ix, x, xi, xii, xiii, xiv, xv, xvi)
A gap as glaring as this is truly astounding knowing that the security community has used knowledgeable Muslims to defuse terrorist plots on US soil, and are among the best weapons against terrorism. Ignoring them and, worse, conflating them with the terrorist threat as Gorka seems to do, is a blunder that certainly jeopardizes our national security.
While portraying himself as an objective counter-terrorism expert, Gorka cannot help but inject his personal religious biases that compromise his integrity as a sincere scholar. Gorka, a Christian, indulges the reader that Christianity is better than Islam (pp.73-75). Gorka even conceals his religious education to readers, including his BA in Philosophy and Theology from London University.
Gorka and his wife, Katharine Gorka, are also associated with the now disgraced “ordained priest in the Church of England,” Patrick Sookhdeo, who was recently convicted of sexual harassment for inappropriately touching a female follower. Sookhdeo’s anti-Islam views are well known, including to the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik who quoted him four times in his 1,500 page manifesto before killing 69 civilians, mostly children. Sookhdeo founded the Westminster Institute in Virginia where Gorka’s wife was director. To the Westminster Institute, mainstream Sunni Islam is just as much to blame as the terrorists who kill innocent Christians. So much for Gorka’s objective analysis.
–POOR KNOWLEDGE OF MODERN HISTORY:
Gorka on pg.40 says Saddam Hussein is the second leader to use WMD after Hitler. He curiously forgets that it was the U.S. that used WMD against Japan before Saddam did.
–DISCUSSING IRRELEVANT TOPICS:
Gorka’s discussion of his and his father’s history and forcing an understanding of today’s terrorist threat through a ‘Cold War’ lens is misplaced and irrelevant to discussing how so-called “Muslim” terrorism should be addressed. Gorka senselessly mixes apples with oranges.
–DUBIOUS DESCRIPTIONS / TERMINOLOGY:
On pg. 17, Gorka mentions “Judeo-Christian heritage of Western civilization.” Such a heritage is a myth, including to the late American Jewish theologian and scholar Arthur Allen Cohen who, in his 1969 book, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition,” said:
“I regard all attempts to define a Judeo-Christian tradition as essentially barren and meaningless” (10).
The same article states,
“US Rabbi and author Jacob Neusner in his 2001 Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition have pointed out at great length that the idea of historic Judeo-Christian harmony ignores, amongst other matters, a 2000-year narrative of theological antipathy and a millennium long narrative of violent persecution of Jews in the name of Christianity.”
Another example is Gorka’s description of the current threat as “hybrid totalitarianism” (pg. 18) In another book, Gorka calls radical Islamists “kinetic terrorists” or “violent jihadists” (11). These nonsensical jumble of words confuse more than clarify.
–EXAGGERATING THE ROLE OF RELIGION / IDEOLOGY IN TERRORISM:
While religion/ideology can have a role in the formation of terrorist groups, Gorka neglects other factors. Terrorism expert, Jessica Stern, says,
“Terrorist movements often arise in reaction to a perceived injustice, as a means to right some terrible wrong, real or imagined. Yet ideology is not the only, or even the most important, factor in an individual’s decision to join a terrorist group.”
“In interviewing terrorists, I have found that operatives are often more interested in the expression of a collective identity than they are in the group’s stated goals.”
“This understanding – that ideology is not the only, or even the principal, reason that individuals are drawn to terrorist groups – needs to be incorporated into our counter-terrorism efforts, especially when we consider counter-radicalization.”
Many other scholars share the same views. For example, in the recently published book, “ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate,” coauthors and terrorism specialists Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, illustrate that money, cars, food, women, and other temptations have served as recruitment drivers — not always or only ideology.
Gorka lacks the required expertise needed to counter terrorism. In the book he concocts a narrative composed of fallacies and deception, including a distorted knowledge of history, current events, and Islamic jurisprudence, as well as his ignorance of refutations of terrorists by knowledgeable Muslims. His religious bias is clear, including his association with dubious anti-Muslim individuals.
Lastly, what absolutely confirms Gorka as untrustworthy and unreliable is his ability to be bought. The Federal Election Commission reports that Gorka was paid $8,000 by the Trump campaign in October 2015 (12). This absolutely compromises his efforts as a sincere scholar and counter-terrorism expert. Readers are recommended not to waste time with Gorka’s unscholarly book, and instead read the books, articles, and Muslim refutations of terrorists mentioned in this review.
(1) Emel. Zaid Shakir. “Imam Zaid Shakir on Muslim Revolutions,” Issue 29, April 2011. Available online.
(2) Khaled Abou El Fadl. “Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law.” NY: Cambridge University Press. pp. 232-233.
(3) Ahmed Al-Dawoody. “The Islamic Law of War: Justifications and Regulations.” NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 153-155.
(4) Asma Afsaruddin (Ed.). “Islam, the State, and Political Authority: Medieval Issues and Modern Concerns.” Chapter 6: ‘Ibn Taymiyya on Islamic Governance’ (Banan Malkawi and Tamara Sonn), NY, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. pg.124.
(5) Yayha Michot. “Ibn Taymiyya Against Extremists.” Dar Albouraq, Beirut, Lebanon. 2012. pg. XXVI.
(6) Louis Jacobson. “In Barbary wars, did U.S. declare ‘war on Islam’?”, Politifact.
(7) Charles Kurzman. “Muslim-American Involvement with Violent Extremism, 2015.” February 2, 2016. Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
(8) Charles Kurzman, “Ideological Violence is Terrorism,” New York Times. 2015.
(9) Cathy Lynn Grossman. “Muslim Americans involved in terrorism ‘rose dramatically’ in 2015,” Religion News Service (RNS). February 2, 2016.
(10) Tony Taylor, “Australia’s ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ doesn’t exist.” The Guardian.
(11) Katharine C. Gorka & Patrick Sookhdeo (eds.). Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism. McLean: Isaac Publishing 2012. pg. 203.
(12) Federal Election Commission report. Sebastian Gorka’s $8,000 payment by Trump campaign.