Category Archives: Book Reviews

– Critical Book Review: Fighting the Ideological War – Winning Strategies from Communism to Islam (eds. Katharine C. Gorka & Patrick Sookhdeo).

(Condensed Version)


Ideological War

Katharine C. Gorka & Patrick Sookhdeo (eds.). Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism.

McLean: Isaac Publishing 2012, 240 pp; ISBN: 978-0985310905; $15.

Reviewed by Zubair Qamar

(© Zubair Qamar, August 2013)


(NOTE: The longer 100+ page version of the Review in PDF format can be read at:




This is a condensed review of Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism, edited by Katharine C. Gorka and Patrick Sookhdeo, with contributions from the editors and authors Stephen Ulph, John H. Moore, John Lenczowski, Robert R. Reilly, Thomas Joscelyn, and Sebastian L. Gorka. This condensed review is to enable readers to begin examining the views of the book’s editors and authors without being burdened with a longer review that is close to completion and can be read here. The longer review is to be considered a draft in progress. To ensure that readers gain maximally from this condensed review, I have hyperlinked related articles that I have written in this blog, as well as other articles that may be of interest. This is an analytical contribution that responds to distorted understandings of militants and Islamophobes and distinguishes traditional Sunni Islam from the the so-called “Islam” of terrorists. It is important to know the differences to enable a more informed and efficient response to counter them and to strengthen the security of peaceful people around the world.

Katharine Gorka, the Westminster Institute, and Isaac Publishing

Katharine C. Gorka, an editor of the book, leads the Westminster Institute in Virginia.  She is described as the “Executive Director” of Westminster Institute on the book’s back cover and Westminster Institute website,[[1]] which was established fairly recently in March, 2009. The Westminster Institute website states that Katharine Gorka “received her M.Sc. in Economics from the London School of Economics (’87).”  Gorka has “traveled extensively throughout Central and Eastern Europe conducting research on the post-communist transition and working for a number of organizations on democracy assistance projects in the region […].” Ms. Gorka also “co-founded with her husband, Dr. Sebastian Gorka, the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security (ITDIS), which focused on issues of economic reform and the problems associated with former communists and secret police in post-communist democracies.” She lived in Hungary for twelve years, returned to the US in 2008, and, as head of the Westminster Institute, is “responsible for helping to define the threat to liberty posed by Islamic terrorism and subversion in the United States.”[[2]]  Gorka is also an “Executive Director” of Barnabas Aid.[[3]]

In addition to Sookhdeo and both Gorkas (Katharine Gorka and Sebastian Gorka), all of the other authors are listed in the events page of the Institute.[[4]] Examples of other past events[[5]] listed in the Institute’s website include:

  • The [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] and the Islamist Agenda, by Stephen Coughlin,
  • The West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy, with Ibn Warraq, and
  • Lord Or Many Gods? Can the God of the Bible and the God of the Koran be the Same?, with The Rt. Rev. Julian Dobbs, Convocation of Anglicans in North America

Discussing the above presenters in brief, Stephen Coughlin was allegedly removed from his post at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2008 due to his anti-Islam views. The lesson from Coughlin’s presentation by an attendee was that “Islam is out to take over the world and there is no such thing as a loyal American Muslim.”[[6]]  Coughlin’s extreme anti-Islam views were noted by Spencer Ackerman. Ibn Warraq is a well-known anti-Islam polemicist criticized by many scholars and writers, including Fred Donner, Asma Afsaruddin, and Alfons Teipen for his lack of scholarship. Retired Reverend Julian Dobbs is an Anglican preacher who served as an “Executive Director” of Barnabas Aid “where he developed awareness of persecuted Christians and the challenges of a resurgent Islam.”[[7]] It is interesting to note that the examples of events noted in the book (pg. 239, 240) do not list the above events. It appears that the Editors have attempted to conceal the anti-Islam and religious involvement of Westminster Institute in the book. Sookhdeo’s biography in the book also did not mention his ardent religious endeavors, in spite of his heavy involvement in Christian missionary activities, as will be explained below.

Isaac Publishing

The book is published by Isaac Publishing. The addresses of the Westminster Institute, Isaac Publishing, and Barnabas Aid are all located on the same street in McLean, Virginia.[[8]] Isaac Publishing mainly publishes books critical of Islam and in favor of Christianity. The authors listed on the site – which seems to require updating – are Patrick Sookhdeo, Rosemary Sookhdeo (Patrick Sookhdeo’s wife), and Yusufu Taraki. Rosemary Sookhdeo is described as being “involved in pastoral/church planting ministry in the East End of London for 23 years” and “was responsible for training and coordinating the church planting and Muslim ministry and leading the outreach missions.” Yusufu Tarkai is described as “a Professor of Theology and Social Ethics at the Jos ECWA Theological Seminary (JETS) and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Church and Society (CRCS),” and other Christian affiliations.[[9]] Patrick Sookhdeo’s religious credentials and affiliations are noted below in his biography. Before elaborating on Sookhdeo, it is important to note that authors view that battle against terrorism through a Cold War lens.

Battling Islamism Through a Cold War Lens?

Most authors in the book directly state or allude to the “ideological” battle between the United States and Soviet Union. Sookhdeo says, “[T]he reality is that Islamism has replaced communism as the most significant ideological opponent of the Western liberal order” (p.16). Sookhdeo acknowledges that, to him, communism was “the most significant ideological opponent” until Islamism came. Ulph compares twentieth century “totalitarian ideologies,” including Communism, with Islamism. A parallel he sees, for example, between such totalitarian systems and the ideology of Islamism is “the promotion of a single, supreme ideology as a universal explanation and filter, through which all phenomena are interpreted and processed” (p.54). Moore says, “The ideological battles of the Cold War may shed light on our present day conflict” with Islamists (p.79). Lenczowski says, “Ideological warfare was an essential part of Soviet foreign policy….In the international arena, this took the form of a ‘struggle between the two social systems’ – socialism and capitalism – and a consequent struggle between two worldviews […] (p.105).” Lenczowski, however, discusses more than just ideology as a cause of Soviet collapse (p.141-147), while still emphasizing the battle of ideas.  Sebastian Gorka says, “[W]e have forgotten most of the lessons of the last ideological war we fought – the Cold War – including some of the cardinal rules of effective information and psychological operations” (p.186). The authors attribute the US “victory” over the Soviet Union mainly to the “victory” of US ideology over Soviet ideology.

The Cold War: Exaggerating Ideology?

The authors appear to predominantly embrace one of many views without informing readers that the ideological dimension and role of superpowers in the Cold War, and its attribution to a US victory, is an issue of scholarly and diplomatic debate.  Their pro-Reaganite leanings, taken to mythical proportions, gloss over the multifarious views of Soviet ideology and its role and use in the Cold War. Best-selling author, James Mann, describes this simplistic understanding: “Among Mr. Reagan’s most devoted followers, an entire mythology has developed. Theirs is what might be called the triumphal school of interpretation: the president spoke, the Soviets quaked, the wall came down.”[[10]]  These authors have constructed their own understanding of history and its application to current threats, which explains why they have a “preference for using a particular and self-serving configuration of cold war history to inform its arguments about the ‘present danger.’”[[11]] The authors, typical of self-perceived Cold War warriors, “focus almost exclusively on the contours of American leadership – particularly its rhetorical intonations – giving little sense of the social, cultural and political nuances of the broader cold war era.” Their approach to Cold War history is “reductive and dramatic,” they “seek to portray a moral universe cleaved between the forces of light and dark,” and their “nostalgia for the cold war is messianic rather than despairing.”[[12]] This mindset and approach of the authors permeate the entire book, which appears to support the perceived struggle of a noble ideology against an evil ideology.

The issues to others, however, are more complex and transcend ideology. For example, Mark Kramer, Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, says,

“Was the Cold War a contest of two ideologies – liberal democracy and Marxism-Leninism – or was it driven mainly by considerations of power and material interests? No definitive answer to this question has yet emerged. Indeed, deep divisions remain among Western analysts about the precise role of ideology in the making of the Cold War[[13]] (italics added).

Some scholars, like the late Kenneth Waltz who was a senior researcher at Columbia University and described by Leslie H. Gelb, emeritus president of the Council on Foreign Relations, as one of the five “giants” in the discipline of international relations, believed that conflicting ideologies had “little to no relevance” and that “rhetoric” was used to mask real intentions and interests. Rather, “structural features” or the “unequal distribution of capabilities” and “anarchic nature of the international system” were key.[[14]] Lou Cannon who has written five books on President Reagan portrays Reagan’s policies as “more pragmatic than ideological” and “not particularly driven by conservative dogma.” [[15]] Realists with a “neoclassical persuasion” generally agree on structural aspects but emphasize “domestic level factors,” including “perceptions of external threats and relative power” to explain the behavior of superpowers. Other scholars, like historian John Gaddis, believe that structural factors in the absence of “clashing ideologies” would not have allowed the US-Soviet rivalry to continue. Similar to the authors of the book, these scholars believe it was a “contest of ideas” in which ideological considerations took precedence over “balance of power” concerns between superpowers. This view, Kramer says, representing “simple binary opposition,” limits attempts to comprehend “historical complexity.”[[16]]

Because the authors’ confident views of the role of ideology in the Cold War is only one, sanitized view in a spectrum of interpretations as discussed earlier, this brings into question how close or far this view corresponds with reality. If the authors’ understanding of Cold War ideological conflict is exaggerated, then any claimed “lessons” they derive from this understanding may be of questionable value. Carrying the analogy to combating Islamists may then also lead to an exaggeration of Islamist ideology over other critical factors. Indeed, the final review confirms the exaggeration by authors of the role of ideology in Islamism.

Notwithstanding the lengthy discussions by authors of US-Soviet policy, there were hardly any specific, actionable lessons proposed to combat Islamists beyond vague mantras to oppose Islamist ideology just as Soviet ideology was opposed. This renders the analogy irrelevant and impractical to the battle against Islamists. Removing the specific chapters and sections on the Cold War from the book would have made the resulting critique against Islamism and its ideology more relevant, even if the critique is beset with its own set of problems, as will be explained in the final review.

Patrick Sookhdeo: A Biography

Patrick Sookhdeo, an editor and contributor to the book, is described as a “leading expert on jihadist ideology and radical Islam” in the book. Sookhdeo “received his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London” (p.237). The book notes that currently Sookhdeo is “Visiting Professor at the Defence Academy of the UK, Adjunct Professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Guest Lecturer at the NATO school, Oberammergau, Germany, and lecturer at ARRC Germany on Islam and Islamic terrorism” (p.237), and has been involved in other related roles.[[17]]

Though curiously unstated in the book, Sookhdeo is described as an “ordained priest in the Church of England,”[[18]] International Director of the Christian charity group, Barnabas Aid, which sends “financial support to projects which help Christians where they suffer discrimination, oppression and persecution as a consequence of their faith,”[[19]] specifically “under Islam,”[[20]] and, according to author Sebastian L. Gorka (husband of Katharine C. Gorka), is the “founder of Westminster Institute” (p.193).

Sookhdeo has authored several books,[[21]] including Global Jihad, which was reviewed by author and freelance journalist, Ben White [[22]], and published on the fulcrum website by a “network of evangelical Anglicans, seeking to renew the centre of the evangelical tradition and the centre of Anglicanism” and “acting as a point of balance within the Church of England.”  Two recent books by Sookhdeo are Islam in Our Midst: The Challenge to Our Christian Heritage (2011), and Is the Muslim Isa the Biblical Jesus? (2012). Sookhdeo in his personal website says he spent some time studying “theology at London Bible College.” After marrying one of his students, they “intended to go to South Asia as missionaries, but their hopes were dashed when they found that no mission society would accept either racially-mixed marriages or national (i.e. non-white) Christians as missionaries.”

In 1970, Sookhdeo was “invited to work for the British Evangelical Alliance,” and was also appointed as the “secretary of one of the first race relations bodies in the British Church.” The book, “All One in Christ, was authored by Sookhdeo and published in 1974. In 1975, the author and his wife, “started a ministry to British inner cities” and in the 1970s and 1980s “taught in various theological institutions including, in the UK, Oak Hill Theological College, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Ridley Hall, Cambridge, as well as others overseas.” Sookhdeo’s website states his “main involvement was to train clergy and missionaries in culture and religion.”

Sookhdeo is affiliated with the International Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity that aims “to study contemporary Islamic movements and their impact on Christian minorities.” Sookhdeo was a guest speaker at the 2007 Counterjihad Conference in Brussels[[23]] that also hosted Bat Ye’or and Andrew Bostom, well known for their anti-Islam polemics. Pamela Geller, another anti-Islam activist, described Sookhdeo’s presentation as the “most compelling presentation”[[24]] and also interviewed Sookhdeo.[[25]] Geller is on record for saying that Israel should “nuke” Tehran, Mecca, and Medina, and is described as a defender of the Serbian mass-murderer Radovan Karadzic.

Sookhdeo was also “quoted approvingly four times in the 1,500-page ‘manifesto’ of the Norwegian killer Anders Breivik,” [[26]]. Breivik is the right-wing militant who bombed government buildings and massacred 77 people in Norway in 2011.  Moreover, Sookhdeo contributed a section to a book edited by Robert Spencer, another well-known anti-Islam author [[27]] who, with Pamela Geller, was banned from entering the UK in June 2013,  and was criticized by Karen Armstrong, Carl Ernst, Robert Dreyfuss, and other well-known writers and scholars. Sookhdeo is also controversial among leaders of the Church of England. Alex Murashko in an October 2011 article of the Christian Post said a

“complaint…filed by a lay leader from the Church of England…challenged whether Barnabas Aid should be allowed to keep its charitable status when engaged in allegedly ‘divisive’ activity, according to a statement from Barnabas. The accusation included the charge that the material passed out by the group could incite racial hatred.”

Barnabas Aid, however, was exonerated by the United Kingdom’s Charity Commission.[[28]] In stark contrast to peaceful Christians, this has not stopped Sookhdeo from continuing his controversial and divisive activities. Most of Sookhdeo’s life can be described as ‘religious’ though unrepresentative of most of the world’s Christians. His role in advising security and government personnel came later and is superseded by his ‘religious’ involvement.

What is Known About the Editors and Authors

From the biographies and background of the authors, and their institutional affiliations, it is known that the authors have lived during and/or have largely been involved in US efforts related to the Cold War. Several authors served as political officials during the Cold War under President Reagan, all can be described as ‘conservative’ or ‘neoconservative,’ and most authors are sufficiently religious to express themselves religiously in their writings and religious positions. Several of the authors have associated with individuals openly critical of Islam, have worked with some of them, contributed to sections in the same books, participated in the same conferences, and, in at least one case (Patrick Sookhdeo), has been quoted by a Norwegian terrorist in his ‘Manifesto.’ While the Westminster Institute is outwardly described as an independent institute that examines the threat of extremism, it appears to substantially be a pro-Christian organization that primarily aims its attention at extremism that targets only Christians. Focus on, for example, the effects of “Islamic extremism” against Hindus and Jews, or the extremism of minority radical groups in Christianity and other religions is absent. The full review will highlight more details of the authors to substantiate this understanding.

Who is the “Enemy” to Patrick Sookhdeo and Other Authors?

Sookhdeo recognizes two basic types of Islamists as the enemy:

(1) “Radical Islamists,” like al-Qa’eda, and

(2) “Gradualist Islamists,” (p.23) like the Muslim Brotherhood that temporarily use non-violent means to attain power through elections and other non-violent means, but are nevertheless allegedly supportive of violent insurgencies when they feel it is appropriate.

To Sookhdeo, both groups are “jihadists” in their differing forms because they collectively exert a “global jihad” to assumingly establish an Islamic caliphate that would subject populations to Shari’ah (Islamic Law). Sookhdeo says that the “border between mainline, gradualist Islamists and the violent radicals is thus not clear-cut and defined, but flexible and permeable in both directions.” He continues, “While there is agreement on ultimate goals, there is constant argument over how best to achieve those goals.” In spite of differences in means of achieving goals, “they do not differ on matters of core religious doctrine and ultimate goals.” Both, therefore, can be seen as “manifestations of single collective ideology, whose aim is the establishment of the global Islamic State, the Caliphate” (p.24).

While the above views are stated explicitly by Sookhdeo and the Gorkas (Sebastian and Katharine), Lenczowski and Moore are less clear about the “enemy” in the book since they focus primarily on the Cold War. However, as stated in the biographies section from other sources, John Lenczowski is concerned about the “growth of Islamic communities in Europe that threaten to erase the distinctiveness of individual European cultures,” as well as Islamists, domestically and abroad. Therefore, Lenczowski also sees Islamists as the enemy, and likely does not hold most mainstream Muslims in high regard. John Moore says, “The conflict with radical Islam is fundamentally a conflict of ideologies – the set of beliefs that underlie Western civilization on one side” and “the interpretation of Muslim beliefs that Islamists preach on the other” (p.79). Therefore, Islamists or those who follow “radical Islam” are the enemies to Moore.

Thomas Joscelyn is critical of Islamists but seems to understand the nuances among various Islamist groups, and appears to believe that violent Islamists are a greater threat. However, Josceyln is “Senior Fellow and Executive Director” of the “Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies” (FDD) — a neoconservative think tank and lobbying organization where author Sebastian Gorka also works. Eli Clifton in July 2011 said the “FDD has a 10-year history of engaging in alarmist rhetoric and fear mongering,” including airing ads “conflating Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein,” and also helping to “promote the ‘Bush doctrine’ which led to the invasion of Iraq.” Moreover, “In recent years, FDD has become one of the…premiere DC organizations promoting more aggressive actions against Iran.” FDD’s Board of Advisers include Richard Perle, former Chair of the Defense Policy Board and well-known neoconservative, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer (quoted by Sebastian Gorka, p.191), and Gary Bauer, President of the neoconservative non-profit, American Values, and Executive Board member of Christians United For Israel. Stephen M. Walt, American Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the FDD is a “fertile source of fear-mongering Islamophobia.”

While Stephen Ulph clearly opposes Islamists and their movements, he is less explicit about his thoughts of Muslims and Islam. However, he does not take issue with the comparison of Islam (not Islamism) with political totalitarianism in his chapter by certain individuals, including Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, and Karl Barth (pp.45,46). This silence by Ulph may be a sign of precaution by him, though he is content with associating with other authors who are openly critical of Islam.

While openly against Islamists, Robert Reilly is also critical of Muslims and Islam, in general, and blames Islam for the perceived predicament of intellectual stagnancy in the Muslim world today that, he claims, paved the way for extremists like Osama bin Laden. Reilly harbors racist, anti-Islamic, and superior undertones when, in The Closing of the Muslim Mind, he says,

“The Middle East is poor because of a dysfunctional culture based upon a deformed theology […]” (p.198).

Overall, the authors are clearer about who they believe is the enemy – mainly Islamists – while, excluding Sookhdeo, they are less clear about which Muslims, if any, they support. As discussed, a number of authors are critical of mainstream Muslims and see them as accomplices to Islamists, while others are silent, but are likely critical of at least some aspects of mainstream Islam.

Are the Islamists the only enemies in Sookhdeo’s view?

The Majority of Classical Sunni Muslims as Accomplices to “Islamists”

Commenting on the 9/11 Commission Report, Sookhdeo and Co-editor Katharine.C. Gorka say,

“The report also states, ‘Most Muslims prefer a peaceful and inclusive vision of their faith, not the violent sectarianism of Bin Laden.’ Is that based on researched and documented fact, or on wishful thinking?” (pg. 5, italics added).

Without explaining how this realization was reached, Sookhdeo and Katharine Gorka insinuate that most Muslims may be supporters of the violent sectarianism of Bin Laden.  This insinuation against “most Muslims” is confirmed in other statements of theirs. For example, Sookhdeo says,

“Most Muslims still accept the traditional doctrine of abrogation that justifies the radical interpretation of the Qur’an” (p.38).

The matter of abrogation will be discussed below. For now, note that Sookhdeo makes this claim without providing any evidence.

Sookhdeo’s view of classical (or traditional) Islam – followed by the Muslim majority – is explicitly stated by him in the book’s first chapter, “The West, Islam, and the Counter-Ideological War” (pp.15-44).  Sookhdeo says Islamists “view Islam as a political ideology and are linked to mainline, traditional Islam[…]” (p.16) and radical Islamist movements are “grounded in the authority of religious texts” (p.17).  Sookhdeo says that “Islamism…adopted the expansionist drive of early Islam” (p.19), and “Islamism utilizes a strand of radicalism and violence inherent in much of traditional Muslim theology and history” (p.20). He asserts that “Islamists and Islamist terrorists are authentically Islamic […]” (p.21), and “Islamists have revived the classical doctrine of jihad as a main plank of their ideology” (p.21).

Sookhdeo is saying that Islamists, including terrorists, follow classical Islam, or the Islam espoused by the Sunni majority who follow one of the four classical Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali). Sookhdeo naively conflates peaceful Muslims and terrorists and impugns the majority of Muslims who follow “traditional Islam” as being silent accomplices or, at least, having dubious or untrustworthy allegiances with both types of Islamists. Sookhdeo has therefore linked violent Islamists (terrorists), non-violent Islamists, and the Muslim majority as promoters, directly or indirectly, willingly or unwillingly, of extremism, including terrorism.  While the majority of Muslims are described as supporters of terrorism by Sookhdeo, he nevertheless claims to support a group of Muslims he describes as “Progressive Reformers.”

Sookhdeo in his article, “The Myth of Moderate Islam,” says,

“While many individual Muslims choose to live their personal lives only by the (now abrogated) peaceable verses of the Qur’an, it is vain to deny the pro-war and pro-terrorism doctrines within their religion. Could it be that the young men who committed suicide were neither on the fringes of Muslim society in Britain, nor following an eccentric and extremist interpretation of their faith, but rather that they came from the very core of the Muslim community motivated by a mainstream interpretation of Islam?”

Sookhdeo’s anti-Muslim bigotry is clear. However, scholar Vincenzo Oliveti — author of Terror’s Source: The Ideology of Wahhabi-Salafism and Its Consequences — takes issue with Sookhdeo’s negative characterization of Muslims and Islam.

Sookhdeo Claims to Support the “Progressive Reformers”

The only Muslims Sookhdeo claims to support is a minority who Sookhdeo describes as “Progressive Reformers” (p.39):

“Progressive reformers aim to liberalize Islamic teaching on jihad, shari’a and the relationship of religion and state. They reject a literal interpretation of the Islamic sources, especially the subjects of jihad, the Caliphate and non-Muslims They weaken the authority of the Hadith, and interpret violent passages in the Qur’an and Hadith as normative only in their immediate historical contexts and therefore not applicable today. They view Muhammad as a fallible human who sinned in the violent episodes of his life, and they reject the classical view that his example is to be emulated in every detail by Muslims in every age. They spiritualize the Islamic teaching on jihad, seeing it as a moral battle against personal sin, and they explicitly deny the validity of military and violent aspects of jihad for today” (p.38).

While Sookhdeo lists examples of “Progressive Reformers” who he claims to support, he nevertheless misrepresents at least a few of them as will be illustrated below.  Before illustrating Sookhdeo’s misrepresentations, is it correct to conclude that Sookhdeo is advocating a war against Islam?

Is Sookhdeo Waging a War on Islam?

Sookhdeo claims that it is “important to clarify that this is not a ‘war on Islam[…]” (p.17), or “Clearly extreme caution should be exercised in order not to give the impression that the West is at war with Islam” (p.29). In view of Sookhdeo’s views above, he means it is not a war against the interpretation of Islam that he believes is the one to support – a minority of “Progressive Reformers.” This means that Sookhdeo’s war is on Muslims worldwide who follow classical Sunni Islam. He oddly conflates Islamists who do not represent the classical Sunni majority in the same group. Sookhdeo’s more explicit statement – “terrorism derives from classical Islam” (p.40) – leaves no uncertainty about his view of Islam, as well as of the majority of Muslims who follow classical Islam. But how true is Sookhdeo’s claim that he supports “Progressive Reformers?”

Sookhdeo Misrepresents “Progressive Reformers” While Claiming to Support Them

Never mind that Sookhdeo gives the wrong year of a terrorism incident in the book: Sookhdeo says that the young Nigerian, Umar Abdulmutallab, “attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit in December 2010” (p.27). Actually, the terrorism attempt was made in December 2009, not 2010, as Sookhdeo alleges.  When examining the “Progressive Reformers” listed by Sookhdeo (p.39), he misrepresents at least some of them. For example, Sookhdeo misrepresents Khaled Abou El Fadl,  Asghar Ali Engineer,  and Farish Noor.

Misrepresentation #1: Sookhdeo Misrepresents Khaled Abou El Fadl

Contrary to Sookhdeo, Khaled Abou El Fadl in his commentary, “Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition”, does not believe that classical Islamic tradition teaches or promotes terrorism. El Fadl, says,

“Ignoring for the time being that Muslims themselves often have been victims of terrorism, I am sure that there are a number of Muslims who do believe that terrorism, at some level, is justified. It is worth noting, however, that, at a minimum, this belief is at odds with Islamic law. The Islamic juristic tradition, which is similar to the Jewish rabbinical tradition, has exhibited unmitigated hostility toward terror as a means of political resistance.”[[29]]

It is curious why Sookhdeo, who has a completely opposite view from Abou El Fadl’s on classical Islam and terrorism, claims to support Abou El Fadl.

Misrepresentation #2: Sookhdeo Misrepresents Asghar Ali Engineer

While Sookhdeo claims that the understanding of Islam by terrorists like Osama bin Laden is rooted in classical Islamic tradition, Ali Engineer, in his article, “The Jihad Most Needed,” defines jihad as “to strive for anything good, including striving for peace and the welfare of humanity”, and says,

“For the likes of Osama bin Laden jihad means a very different thing. They use it for retaliation against the US, and have given rise to what is the totally unacceptable phenomenon of terrorism.”

Ali Engineer further explains Osama bin Laden’s distorted understanding of jihad:

“It is neither an acceptable approach in the contemporary world nor does he belong to the political or the ruling class. No head of an Islamic state has approved of what bin Laden does, nor has any army of a Muslim country invaded a non-Muslim country at his behest. Bin Laden is neither the head of a country nor does he have the backing of any Muslim state`s army. His misguided jihad has neither scriptural nor political backing (or that of the ulema) (italics added).[[30]]

While Sookhdeo roots “Islamic” terrorism in classical Islamic tradition, Ali Engineer states that Osama bin Laden’s actions do not have Qur’anic scriptural support.

Misrepresentation #3: Sookhdeo Misrepresents Farish Noor

Farish Noor is also listed by Sookhdeo as a “Progressive Reformer,” but Noor’s view of jihad is quite different from Sookhdeo’s. Noor says,

“Muslims…cannot engage in acts of terror and indiscriminate violence where civilians are targeted. (In fact, numerous Muslim leaders like the early Caliphs even warned their troops not to burn the fields of their enemies or kill their livestock). A proper Jihad for the sake of self-defence was therefore a complicated and highly regulated matter – and the rulers had to consult the jurists as well as their own populations before such an enterprise was undertaken.”[[31]]

Noor is clear that Muslims “cannot engage in acts of terror and indiscriminate violence” and such discretion was followed by “numerous Muslim leaders like the early Caliphs.” Sookhdeo, however, claims that “terrorism derives from classical Islam” (p.40).

The above demonstrates that not all “Progressive Reformers” support Sookhdeo’s views of Islam as Sookhdeo incorrectly portrays in the book. Therefore, the views of the other listed “Progressive Reformers” by Sookhdeo should be investigated further before assuming that they represent Sookhdeo’s views. It seems that Sookhdeo will not find many supporters among “Progressive Reformers” – the “best hope,” (p.41) as he says, to counter Islamic radicalism. Unfortunately “Progressive Reformers” are not the only ones Sookhdeo misrepresents.

Sookhdeo Misrepresents Olivier Roy

Sookhdeo, claiming to cite from Olivier Roy’s book, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (London: Hurst & Co. 2004), says,

“As Olivier Roy argues, the traditional concepts of the umma, the sovereignty of Islam in the state, and the supremacy of shari’a as revived by Islamists have become a major driving force in contemporary Islam, both in Muslim states and among Muslim minorities elsewhere” (p.27).

Sookhdeo misrepresents Roy who actually said,

“And as I tried to show in Globalized Islam (2004), what is perceived in the West as a return to a traditional and nostalgic Islam is, on the contrary, a profound alteration of traditional Islam, which is now giving way to a more open and diverse religious field.”[[32]]

In addition, In the first page of the Preface of the book, Roy says,

“Globalised Islam refers to the way in which the relationship of Muslims to Islam is reshaped by globalisation, westernisation and the impact of living as a minority. The issue is not the theological content of the Islamic religion, but the way believers refer to this corpus to adapt and explain their behaviors in a context where religion has lost its social authority”[[33]] (italics added).

Contrary to Sookhdeo’s portrayal of contemporary currents as reflections of Sunni tradition, including “the supremacy of shari’a as revived by Islamists,” Roy says these expressions are “a profound alteration of traditional Islam,” and, in his book, says, “The issue is not the theological content of the Islamic religion […].” Sookhdeo says the opposite of what Roy discusses in the same book.

Sookhdeo Misrepresents Bernard Lewis

While using statements of Bernard Lewis in an attempt to support his view that classical Islam promotes violence, including terrorism, Sookhdeo conceals Bernard Lewis’s authentic positions.  Commenting on terrorism and the 9/11 attacks, Lewis says,

“What the classical jurists of Islam never remotely considered is the kind of unprovoked, unannounced mass slaughter of uninvolved civil populations that we saw in New York two weeks ago. For this there is no precedent and no authority in Islam. Indeed it is difficult to find precedents even in the rich annals of human wickedness” (italics included by reviewer).[[34]]

In another article, Lewis comments on suicide bombing:

“Well, a lot of what is being done is certainly a perversion of Islam, simply in the light of their own texts. Take, for example, the suicide bomber. Now, the classical Islamic legal and religious texts are quite clear on the subject of suicide….Even if a man or a woman had lived a life of unremitting virtue, by committing suicide they forfeit paradise and go straight to hell, where, according to the sacred texts, the eternal punishment of the suicide consists of the eternal repetition of the act of suicide. So, if you poison yourself, an eternity of bellyache; if you strangle yourself, an eternity of strangling; and presumably for these people, an eternity of exploding fragments.”

“We ask, well, why do they do it? How does it happen? This is a very recent development.”[[35]]

Contrary to Sookhdeo’s misrepresentation, Lewis is clear in his view that terrorism, including suicide bombing, is not rooted in classical Sunni tradition. Sookhdeo’s method is similar to al-Qa’eda’s: Just as al-Qa’eda cherry-picks from Islamic sources and tradition to support its non-traditional, militant views, Sookhdeo cherry-picks from scholars selectively and misrepresents them to support his anti-Islam views.

Muslims Today and “Abrogation” of Peaceful Qur’anic Verses

Sookhdeo says,

“Most Muslims still accept the traditional doctrine of abrogation that justifies the radical interpretation of the Qur’an” (p.38).

However, Sookhdeo provides no evidence to substantiate this claim, especially when most Muslims in the world today are peaceful and know little more than the basics of religion. The Islamic discipline of abrogation – `Ilm al-nasikh wa al-mansukh, or the Islamic discipline of abrogating and the abrogated – was understood differently by Sunni scholars.

Scholar and author Ahmed Al-Dawoody says, “Muslims disagree over the very existence of abrogation in the Qur’an”[[36]] and “Scholars give considerably different numbers for the occurrences of abrogation in the Qur’an, ranging from 5 to 21, 66, 213, 214, 247, and even 500.”[[37]] Famous Qur’an exegetes are noted to have rejected abrogation of peaceful verses by violent ones. The following are two examples:

Commenting on the Qur’anic verse,

“God does not forbid you, concerning those who have not fought you because of your religion or driven you from your homes that you treat them kindly and justly. God loves those who are just” (60:8),

contemporary Sunni scholar, Zaid Shakir, says, “Imam Qurtubi” – the famous classical Sunni exegete of the Qur’an – “mentions, while explaining this verse, that most of the exegetes consider it to be still operative and reject the idea, posited by some, that it is abrogated.” Shakir further says that “Imam Tabari, the Dean of Sunni exegetes, is much more emphatic than Qurtubi in his rejection of the idea that this verse is abrogated. He states, after mentioning the various interpretations of the verse in question, ‘The most accurate opinion concerning this issue is that of one who says, the people addressed by the verse, “God does not forbid you, concerning those who have not fought you because of your religion…” are members of all ways of life and all religions, that you are kind to them, join relations with them and treat them justly. This is because God, Mighty and Majestic, makes a general statement that includes anyone who fits this description. He does not designate some people to the exclusion of others. The claim that the verse is abrogated is meaningless’”[[38]] (italics added).

Another example, as explained by Shakir, is the following verse:

“If they [your enemies] incline towards peace then you should likewise incline and place your trust in God. Surely, He hears and knows all.” (8:61)

Shakir says,

“This verse is particularly important because it undermines the arguments of those who claim there is no Islamic basis for peaceful relations between Muslims and other communities at a strategic level.”

He continues,

“Again, the vast majority of exegetes consider this latter verse to be operative. Imam Qurtubi, after mentioning the arguments of those who say that this verse is abrogated, engages in a lengthy discussion of his opinion that it is not. Amongst the reasons he gives as the basis for accepting or initiating a treaty of peace with other communities is that it secures benefit for the Muslims. He also mentions an opinion from Imam Malik that the period of any treaty of peace can be indefinite” (italics added).[[39]]

Imams Qurtubi and al-Tabari are luminaries in the field of Sunni exegesis of the Qur’an. It is odd why Sookhdeo failed to mention such scholars and examples in the book, especially when most Muslims today, as explained in recent polls, are peaceful and mirror their understanding over the understanding of scholars who called for abrogation of such verses. Moreover, classical Sunni scholars who called for abrogation of peaceful verses did not condone terrorism, but understood the verses to support combative jihad with its many conditions and limitations in a legitimate war between armies.

Does Islam Teach and Condone Terrorism?

Sookhdeo says,

“[T]raditionalists…are not prepared to tackle the deeper theological legitimacy that terrorism derives from classical Islam” (p.40).

Does Islam provide “theological legitimacy” for terrorism? Citing a scripture to “justify” any action does not necessarily mean the scripture supports the claimed action.  Sookhdeo oddly seem to believe otherwise and ignores the views of scholars who contradict him.  Fred Halliday, the late Irish academic, said, “It is nonsense to seek the causes, as distinct from legitimation, of violence in the texts or traditions of any religion.”[[40]] Similarly, Graham E. Fuller, author of   A World Without Islam, former analyst and operations officer at the CIA, and former RAND political scientist, said, “[T]o examine the vehicle – in this case, Islam – for flaws and problems, as if it were itself somehow the source of the resistance problem, is to utterly miss the point.”[[41]]

When Olivier Roy, the scholar Sookhdeo misrepresented, was asked if the Boston attacks, and other such attacks, were a product of the global spread of Islam, he replied,

“The main motivation is not religious. Most of the guys, they were normal, they were not especially religious…. It is not the process of Islamicization, through going to mosque, through studying the Koran.” Far from being part of the Muslim mainstream, the terrorists “are disconnected…from the Muslim community.”[[42]]

What does the Qur’an say? If one accepts the most basic and commonly understood definition of terrorism to mean the threat or killing of innocent civilians to make a political point, then there is no verse in the Qur’an that supports or agrees with this definition. People who selectively use “violent” verses to wage terrorism are discarding the rich corpus of tradition that explains them in the context of a legitimate war with its limits and conditions, and extracting from scripture to justify what they already believe to be true. In this manner, any meaning can be extracted from the Qur’an, whether the Qur’an teaches it or not. This does not make the scripture at fault, but the person who imaginatively claims to derive support for terrorism from a scripture that does not teach it. Sookhdeo is guilty of agreeing with the distorted interpretations of the Qur’an by militants he claims to speak against. Vincenzo Oliveti rightly says,

“Significantly enough, like extremist interpreters of Islam, Sookhdeo misrepresents Qur’anic verses by citing them out of context.”

Classical Sunni Islam opposes terrorism in all of its forms and combative jihad and terrorism are not synonymous. Contrary to Sookhdeo’s claims, terrorists know very little about Islam.

Al-Qa’eda Recruits Know Little About Islam

Are terrorists knowledgeable and devoted followers of classical Islam? Sunni scholar and author, Abdal-Hakim Murad, says,

“[N]either bin Laden nor his principal associate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are graduates of Islamic universities or seminaries,” so “their proclamations ignore 14 centuries of Muslim scholarship […].”[[43]]

Explaining Current Myths about Al-Qaeda Recruits, Colonel John M. Matt Venhaus in a 2010 US Institute of Peace Report and study, in which 2,032 foreign fighters were interviewed and/or their personal histories were examined, noted the third myth that “[A]l-Qaeda recruits do not become terrorists because they are Muslim.” Contrary to Sookhdeo, terrorists “actually have an inadequate understanding of their own religion, which makes them vulnerable to misinterpretations of the religious doctrines.” Moreover, Venhaus continues, “In general, they do not come from strong religious backgrounds,” and, “Almost universally, they either had an incomplete religious education or were raised in a household where the faith was routinely practiced but was not a dominating force.” Also, “Their teachers and religious leaders valued memorization of key phrases over rigorous analysis of the texts,” and “They were not exposed to the over 1,400 years of Quranic commentary and scholarship, nor were they invited to question their instructors on finer points.” Venhaus concludes by saying, “History is replete with examples of religious arguments being used to justify the violent redress of grievances. Regardless of the primary religion involved, small groups play up selected passages of religious texts into guiding principles to manipulate the uninformed and justify violent behavior. The same was true in these cases.”

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, concluded from a study of 188 cases of Muslim Americans connected to terrorism that none had a “traditional, intensive religious training” in their upbringing and that they “adopted fundamentalist views as they radicalized.”[[44]]

A 2008 study of Muslims by Britain’s MI5 concluded,

“Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes. MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization” (italics added).[[45]]

Instead of blaming the roots of terrorism on Islam, the “sophisticated analysis, based on hundreds of case studies by the security service, says there is no single pathway to violent extremism” (italics added by reviewer).[[46]]

Terrorism expert, Jessica Stern, says,

“Interestingly, terrorists who claim to be motivated by religious ideology are often ignorant about Islam. Our hosts in Riyadh told us the vast majority of ‘beneficiaries,’ as its administrators call participants, did not have much formal education or proper religious instruction and had only a limited and incomplete understanding of Islam.”[[47]]

Contrary to Sookhdeo’s claim, ignorance – not proper knowledge – of Sunni religious tradition, appears to be a hallmark of terrorists. Sookhdeo’s assumptions of a supposed Islam-terrorism connection is an oversimplification of a more complex matter.

Moreover, Sookhdeo completely ignores the lives of well-known terrorists who demonstrated irreligious behavior. For example, when terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was in the Philippines, “he was a frequent visitor to Manila’s red light district, including its karaoke bars and mirrored go-go clubs, where he introduced himself to women as a wealthy businessman from Qatar.”[[48]] Muhammad Atta, the “leader of the September 11 terrorists and four other hijackers made several trips to Las Vegas over the summer to hold meetings, gamble and be entertained by topless dancers.”[[49]] Pornography was also reportedly found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad,[[50]] and also by security forces in Taliban hideouts in Pakistan.[[51]] Militants also embedded coded material in child pornography according to Scotland Yard.[[52]] Nidal Malik Hassan is reported to have had a lap-dance at a strip joint just six days before the Fort Hood massacre.[[53]] How does Sookhdeo reconcile such un-Islamic behavior by terrorists with his claim that terrorist actions are rooted in the religion of Islam?

The “Verse of the Sword”

It is interesting to note the verses of the Qur’an most cited or quoted by extremists. A July 2012 study that examined the most frequently cited or quoted verses in the Qur’an from over 2,000 extremist texts from 1998 to 2011 in the Center for Strategic Communication’s database found that the “analysis revealed only 3 citations of the ‘Verse of the Sword’” – verse 9:5 – “among the over 2,000 coded extremist texts reviewed […].” The authors further say,

“The most frequently cited Qur’anic verses identified in this study suggest that Islamist extremists favor content that falls within three core thematic categories: exhortations (e.g. 12:21, 63:8, 3:102), battle imperatives (9:14, 4:75, 22:39), and affirmations of faith (e.g. 8:17, 4:104, 3:139). These thematic categories correspond with our observation regarding the surprising verse selection from Surat at-Tawbah. Extremists do not favor the “Verse of the Sword,” which encourages all-out war against unbelievers. Instead they appear to invoke specific verses of the Qur’an that support a promise of deliverance”[[54]] (italics added).

The authors of the study conclude that the Verse of ‘the Sword’ “is nearly absent from extremist rhetoric” and

“Members of the target audience, the contested populations of the Muslim world, realize that extremists are not really preaching world conquest. Continued claims to the contrary, by both official and unofficial sources, only play into a ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative that benefits the extremist cause. These claims also undermine the credibility of Western voices, because the audience knows that extremist arguments are really about victimage and deliverance.”

Sookhdeo, the Gorkas, and other authors who spread fear of a world conquest by Islam are not strengthening but undermining counter-terrorism efforts by playing into the terrorist narrative.

Robert Crane, appointed US Ambassador by President Reagan to the United Arab Emirates in 1981, made the distinction well when he said, “There is no such thing as Islamic terrorism, but there have always been Muslim terrorists.”[[55]] The distinction is important, which Sookhdeo needs to be cognizant of.

Division of the World into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufr/Dar al-Harb

Though unstated in the book, Sookhdeo in his website says,

“A basic precept of classical Islamic teaching divides the world into two kinds of territory, Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam or “the house of Islam” consists of those areas under Muslim control. The rest of the world, which is under infidel (non-Muslim) control, is significantly known as Dar al-Harb, “the house of war.” This name is given to infidel-controlled areas because Muslims are obliged to subdue Dar al-Harb and turn it into Dar al-Islam.”[[56]]

It is important to discuss this matter because authors have a bipolar, Muslim-versus-non-Muslim understanding of Islam, and portray Islam in this manner.

Sunni scholar Zaid Shakir explains this simplistic understanding. “[T]he often-cited division of the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb fits well with attempts to explain the inevitability of a clash between Islam and the West.” “However,” he says, “it does not really give us an idea of the nuances and complexities of those terms, nor the diverse ways in which Muslim thinkers, over an extended period of time, defined and actually applied them.” Shakir then provides examples of the various views of classical Sunni scholars. For example, “Abu Yusuf and Muhammad b. al-Hasan ash-Shaybani, the two companions of Imam Abu Hanifah “viewed a land governed by the laws of the nonbelievers as constituting a land of disbelief, even if populated by Muslims.” However, “Imam ash-Shafi’i viewed a land populated by nonbelievers who are not at war with the Muslims as not constituting Dar al-Harb.” Shakir then says, “Therefore, according to these definitions, most of today’s Muslim countries, which are governed by secular law codes, are not Dar al-Islam.”

Regarding most non-Muslim countries today that have peaceful relations with the Muslim world, they are not considered Dar al-Harb. Sookhdeo omits this from his understanding. Shakir says, “To reinforce this point, let us ask…‘[w]ould Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, two conservative nations that waged war against the Muslim nation of Iraq be considered Dar al-Islam or Dar al-Harb?’ Such questions reveal nuances that clearly weigh against the simplistic arguments being advanced by a growing wave of anti-Islamic polemicists and pundits and their Muslim ideological equivalents.”[[57]]

Moreover, Imam Shawkani believed that land not ruled by Muslims can still be called Dar al-Islam provided that Muslims can practice their faith safely.[[58]] Al-Dawoody also says, “Present-day non-Muslim countries would…be classified as dar al-Islam according to Abu Hanifah’s definition […].”[[59]]  Abu Hanifah’s ijtihad, or understanding of the Islamic sources, is followed by most Muslims today. There are also many other divisions that the authors neglect to mention. For example, Dar al-Sulh, Dar al-`Ahd, Dar al-Muwada’ah (house of peace, house of covenant, house of reconciliation)[[60]]

Of `Abd al-Rahman al-Haj, Al-Dawoody explains his view that “classical jurists coined thirty-four conceptual divisions related the word dar, including dar al-muhajirin, dar al-hijrah, dar al-baghy, dar al-da’wah, dar al-dhimmah, dar al-riddah, dar al-shirk, and dar al-`Arab.”[[61]] Al-Dawoody concludes, “It is…unfortunate that all these juridical political concepts are ignored, so that the Islamic worldview is oversimplified as one of perpetual war between Muslims and so-called infidels.”[[62]] Sookhdeo and others who hold this simplistic understanding are guilty of omitting the details of Sunni jurisprudence and misleading readers.

In addition, most Muslims today do not divide the world into two polar opposites. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a “Progressive Reformer” who Sookhdeo deceptively claims to support (p.39), says,

“Many…books written by non-Muslim scholars in the West perpetuate the myth that Islamic law invariably dictates that the world should be divided into two abodes forever locked into conflict. Often the same books falsely assume that most Muslims today adhere to the same bipolar view of the world. This, of course, is not an accurate description of Islamic legal doctrine; moreover, it does not accurately describe the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Muslims today.”[[63]]

Examples of Errors by Other Authors

Sebastian Gorka’s Misrepresentation of Pakistani General S.K. Malik

Sebastian Gorka, an author of one of the chapters, says,

“If you read only one person to understand the enemy, read S.K. Malik’s book, The Quranic Concept of Power” (p.200).

Curiously, Gorka makes this recommendation in spite of the fact that Malik was an army man, and not a religious scholar. While also recognizing that General Zia ul-Haq wrote the forward of the book, and that the book is clearly a work of political propaganda used to rally the Muslims and Afghan combatants to fight against the Soviets, Gorka nevertheless imagines (without evidence) that Malik’s interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah are “a theological strategy of war for Islam.”

Gorka is unable to differentiate theology and Islam from a political propaganda piece relevant to a specific conflict. Seeing Malik as a legitimate interpreter of the Qur’an and Sunnah to explain war is like using a Crusader’s interpretation of the Bible on waging war on Muslims and other ‘infidel’ Christians.

Gorka’s non-sequitur is even more glaring. Gorka says that because Malik believed that “the best weapon in war is terror,” Malik, as well Zia ul-Haq, who endorsed the book,

“thus told the world back in 1979 that 9/11 is the kind of attack one should execute if you want to win a war” (p.201).

It is strange that Gorka concludes that two individuals who lived and died prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks endorsed the attacks. While Malik is not a religious scholar, his own words clearly state that he meant instilling “terror” in the enemy in times of war. Terror in war is different from terrorism perpetrated by al-Qa’eda against civilians. Yet, Gorka seems to believe they are synonymous, and curiously agrees with the 9/11 militants he claims to condemn by describing their terrorism as terror in war.  Illogical extrapolations do not help, but misinform and confuse, and embolden the extremists whom government and military professionals are trying hard to defeat.

Robert Reilly and a Public Diplomacy and Communications Institution and Strategy

A public diplomacy and communications institution and strategy that represents Reilly’s views would be ineffective due to his understanding that morality – and not policy – is the chief concern in the Arab region that would cause positive change as illustrated in recent polls (to be discussed in the full review). While neglecting the bigger concern, little success should be expected in changing hearts and minds in the Arab region. Furthermore, such a strategy would be further undermined by Reilly’s bigoted remarks, as already stated above, “The Middle East is poor because of a dysfunctional culture based upon a deformed theology […].”[[64]]

Reilly also says that “Al-Azhar,” – the famous religious university in Egypt – is an “intellectual backwater retarding Muslims’ ability to enter the modern world […]” (p.154). He also takes issue with John Brennan’s description of jihad as “holy struggle,” and says, “Conceding legitimacy to your enemy in a war of ideas is not a good move” (p.160). Reilly is to be reminded that because most Muslims define jihad as a “holy struggle,” defining the acts of the “enemy” as jihad, as Reilly does, undermines the Arab-Muslim majority while legitimizing the minority of extremists who claim to represent genuine Islam. What is needed is a counter-narrative that distinguishes acts of terrorism from the classical Sunni view of jihad. Reilly’s – and the other authors’ – pejorative words and condescending views about Islam and Arab culture would result in a communications catastrophe, would embolden the extremists, and worsen relations between the United States and the wider Muslim world.

Stephen Ulph Misrepresents Ahmad ibn Hanbal

In explaining the literalist understanding of the Qur’an and hadith by radicals where speculation and metaphor have no place, Ulph says, “Radicals of all stamps seek authority to this priority in the person of Ibn Hanbal who championed the cause of the Text with his claim that

“whoever involves themselves in any theological rhetoric is not to be counted amongst the Ahl us-Sunnah, even if by that he arrives at the Sunnah, until he abandons debating and surrenders to the texts” (p.66).

This is an inaccurate understanding of the literalist approach of radicals, and an incorrect representation of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, the mujtahid founder of the Hanbali school of Sunni jurisprudence. Not being involved in “theological rhetoric” does not translate to accepting the text literally as Ulph erroneously understands. Ironically, this is the same incorrect understanding of Ibn Hanbal’s words that Wahhabis and other Salafis have. Ibn Hanbal spoke on theology – or creed (`aqida) – the correct understanding of the attributes of God as stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Ibn Hanbal said that God’s attributes should be accepted without attributing meaning to them, metaphorically or literally. Contemporary Sunni scholar, Nuh Keller, explains:

“The real (‘aqida) of Imam Ahmad was very simple, and consisted, in the main, of accepting the words of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent meanings’ of the Qur’an and hadith as they have come without saying how they are meant.”[[65]]

Keller continues,

“It should be appreciated how far this position is from understanding the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah as though they were meant literally (‘ala al-dhahir).”[[66]]

Ibn Hanbal’s understanding of Islamic creed is described as the Athari school of creed in Sunni Islam, and is followed by most Hanbalis. The Athari approach, grounded in Sunni tradition, should be differentiated from and not be conflated with the neo-Athari understanding of creed that demonstrated and still demonstrates, the “tendency…towards excessive literalism in beliefs and even towards anthropomorphism (affirmation of human attributes to Allah).”[[67]]  Wahhabis and Salafis follow a neo-Athari understanding of creed that cannot be called Hanbali.

This example illustrates the importance of counter-terrorism analysts and commentators to learn classical Sunni creed and differentiate it from the understanding of creed by minority groups who claim the “Sunni” mantle. Serious mistakes like Ulph’s could unintentionally demonize non-radical Muslims, mainly of the Hanbali school, and compromise mainstream Sunni arguments against extremists.

Katharine Gorka’s and Sookhdeo’s Dubious Approach and Logic on Intelligence and National Security Reports

Sookhdeo and Katharine Gorka in the Introduction illustrate dubious logic in their analysis of national security documents. They say, “The 9/11 Commission Report, released in July 2004, used the word Islam 322 times, Muslim 145 times, jihad 126 times, and jihadist 32 times,” while the “National Intelligence Strategy of the United States, issued in August 2009, used the term Islam 0 times, Muslim 0 times, jihad 0 times.” They say the same of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Analytical Lexicon, which “makes no reference to Islam, Muslims, or jihad” (p.5).

However, is the number of times a word is stated in a strategy or relevant report necessarily a function of the effectiveness and usefulness of that strategy or report? Also, does the absence of words in such reports necessarily indicate poor quality of the meaning, strategy, or approach the document conveys? Absolutely not to both questions.

When the June 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism did state Islam several times, Sookhdeo and Gorka still took issue with the Strategy and said it “states that the preeminent security threat to the United States is ‘al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents,’ not Islamism, radical Islam, or global jihad” (pp.5,6). Actually, al-Qa’eda and its “affiliates and adherents” do represent violent “Islamism,” “radical Islam,” and “global jihad,” as they understand it. It appears that Sookhdeo and Gorka are desperately trying to malign Islam in every manner possible.

John Leczowski’s Anti-Poor and Racist Language

While John Lenczowski’s arguments will be discussed more in the full review, it is important to note what Lenczowski lists as examples of what he believes make civilization “fragile.” Among the examples he notes are “the traditional poor – with its unique and seemingly intractable pathologies” and the “growth of Islamic communities in Europe that threaten to erase the distinctiveness of individual European cultures” (italics added). These, along with other examples he lists, like the rise of “Nazism,” “Communism,” and “Islamic fanaticism,” as well as “welfare states in the West” and “two world wars” were, or are, parts of the “problem” according to Lenczowski.[[68]]


This review focused mainly on Patrick Sookhdeo’s views in the book with some examples of issues by other authors. Contrary to what the editors and authors claim, they do not understand the enemy, conflate peaceful Muslims with violent Islamists, and provide a simplistic view that terrorism is rooted in Islam. The final review will discuss recent polls in the Arab and Muslim world and compare the results with the views of the editors and authors to illustrate their misrepresentation of the Muslim majority. It will be clear, if it is not clear already, that the authors’ views fuel animosity and terrorism and contribute to worsening the security of the American people, the United States, and the world.


[[1]] Westminster Institute, About, accessed May 26, 2013,

[[2]] Ibid.

[[3]] Stoyan, Zaimov, “Christian Families in Syria in Urgent Need of Help, Trapped in Crossfire,“ Christian Post, February 16, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013,

[[4]] Westminster Institute, Past Events, accessed May 26, 2013,

[[5]] Ibid.

[[6]] Spencer, Ackerman, “New Evidence of Anti-Islam Bias Underscores Deep Challenges for FBI’s Reform Pledge,” Wired, September 23, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013,

[[7]] Anglican District of the Northeast, People, accessed May 27, 2013,!people

[[8]] The Westminster Institute and Isaac Publishing are located at 6729 Curran St  McLean, Virginia,  22101

[[9]] Isaac Publishing, About the Authors, accessed May 28, 2013,

[[10]] James, Mann, “Tear Down That Myth,” The New York Times, June 10, 2007, accessed May 24, 2013,

[[11]] David Hoogland Noon, “Cold War Revival: Neoconservatives and Historical Memory in the War on Terror,” American Studies 48(3) (Fall 2007).77.

[[12]] Ibid., pp. 76-77.

[[13]] Mark Kramer, “Ideology and the Cold War,” Review of International Studies 25(4) (October 1999), 539-576, accessed May 23, 2013,

[[14]] Ibid.

[[15]] Matthew, Dallek, “Not Ready for Mt. Rushmore: Reconciling the Myth of Ronald Reagan with the Reality,” The American Scholar, Summer 2009, accessed May 22, 2013,

[[16]] Mark Kramer, “Ideology and the Cold War,” Review of International Studies 25(4) (October 1999), 539-576, accessed May 23, 2013,

[[17]] A biography of Patrick Sookhdeo can be read at Sookhdeo’s personal website: Patrick Sookhdeo, “Biography.” Accessed May 29, 2013,

[[18]] Patrick Sookhdeo. “The Myth of Moderate Islam,” August 1, 2005, accessed May 25, 2013,

[[19]] Barnabas Aid. “Barnabas Ministries: Practical Aid for the Persecuted Church.” Accessed May 29, 2013,

[[20]] Patrick Sookhdeo, “Biography.” Accessed May 29, 2013,

[[21]] Patrick Sookhdeo. “Books.” Accessed May 29, 2013,

[[22]] Ben White, Review of Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam, by Patrick Sookhdeo, Fulcrum, January 2009, accessed June 1, 2013,

[[23]] CounterJihad Europa: Building Networks and Coalitions Against the Islamisation of Europe. “CounterJihad Brussels 2007 Conference.” Accessed June 2, 2013,

[[24]] Pamela Geller. “Atlas Shrugs.” Accessed June 2, 2013,

[[25]] Interview from Atlas Shrugs: Geller, Pamela. Interview with Patrick Sookhdeo, Global Jihad: Interview with Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, October 18, 2007, accessed May 23, 2013,

[[26]] Mehdi, Hasan, “How the Fear of Being Criminalised has Forced Muslims into Silence,” The Guardian, September 8, 2011, accessed May 23, 2013,

[[27]] Spencer, Robert. The myth of Islamic tolerance: how Islamic law treats non-Muslims. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005. Sookhdeo’s contributed a section to the book titled, “Christians in the Muslim World.”

[[28]] Alex, Murashko, “Barnabas Aid Not Spreading Islamophobia in UK, Says Director,” Christian Post, October 24, 2011, accessed May 25, 2013,

[[29]] Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2001, accessed May 19, 2013,

[[30]] Ashgar Ali, Engineer, “The Jihad Most Needed,” Dawn, June 18th, 2010, accessed May 25, 2013,

[[31]] Farish A. Noor, “The Evolution of ‘Jihad’ in the Islamist Political Discourse: How a Plastic Concept Became Harder,” [Ten] Years After September 11, accessed May 23, 2013,

[[32]] Olivier Roy, “Debate: There Will Be No Islamist Revolution,” Journal of Democracy 24:1 (Jan.2013): 14-19, accessed May 23, 2013,

[[33]] Olivier, Roy. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. p.ix.

[[34]] Bernard, Lewis, “Jihad vs. Crusade: A historian’s guide to the new war,” Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2001.

[[35]] “Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, April 27, 2006, accessed May 24, 2013,

[[36]] A. Al-Dawoody, op. cit., p.52.

[[37]] Ibid., p.53.

[[38]] Zaid, Shakir, “Qur’an Defeats Muslim Barbarism,” Emel 75 (December 2010), accessed May 24, 2013,

[[39]] Ibid.

[[40]] Halliday, Fred. Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001: Causes and Consequences. London: Saqi, 2002. p. 78.

[[41]] G. Fuller, op. cit.,p.270

[[42]] John, Judis, “Boston: More Like Sandy Hook Than 9/11 – A Conversation with Olivier Roy on the Nature of the Alleged Marathon Terrorists,” April 22, 2013, accessed May 12, 2013,

[[43]] Tim Winter. “Bin Laden’s Violence is a Heresy Against Islam,” accessed May 25, 2013,

[[44]] David, Gibson, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism? It’s Complicated,” The Huffington Post, updated October 31, 2011, accessed May 28, 2013,

[[45]] Alan, Travis, “MI5 Report Challenges Views on Terrorism in Britain,” The Guardian, August 20, 2008, accessed June 2, 2013,

[[46]] Ibid.

[[47]] Jessica, Stern, “What Motivates Terrorists?” January 21, 2011, accessed May 21, 2013,

[[48]] Rohan, Gunaratna, “Womaniser, Joker, Scuba Diver: The Other Face of al-Qaida’s No 3,” The Guardian, March 2, 2003, accessed May 21, 2013,

[[49]] Toby, Harnden, “Seedy Secrets of Hijackers Who Broke Muslim Laws,” The Telegraph, October 6, 2001, accessed May 18, 2013,

[[50]] Scott, Shane. “Pornography Is Found in Bin Laden Compound Files, U.S. Officials Say,” The New York Times, May 13, 2011, accessed May 19, 2013,

[[51]] “Porn Seized From Taliban Hideouts, Says Malik,” Daily Times, December 12, 2009, accessed May 20, 2013,\12\12\story_12-12-2009_pg7_8

[[52]] Brian, Flynn. “Al-Qaeda’s Paedo Files,” The Sun, October 18, 2008, accessed May 19, 2013,

[[53]] Nick, Allen. “Fort Hood Killer Nidal Malik Hasan Visited Lapdancing Club,” The Telegraph, November 11, 2009, accessed May 20, 2013,

[[54]] Jeffry R. Halverson et al., “How Extremists Quote the Quran.” Center for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University.

[[55]]  Robert Dickson Crane, “‘Creative Destruction’: Exposing the Ideological Roots of Modern Terrorism,” November 20, 2005, accessed June 2, 2013,

[[56]] “Islam and Christianity: Why Muslims Dominate and Christians Suffer,” Patrick Sookhdeo, October 3, 2012, accessed June 2, 2013,

[[57]] Zaid Shakir, “Jihad is not Perpetual Warfare,” New Islamic Directions, 2008, accessed May 27, 2013,

The original article can be read in  Shakir, Zaid. Scattered Pictures: Reflections of an American Muslim: An Anthology of Essays. Hayward, Calif.: Zaytuna Institute, 2005. pp.121-141.

[[58]] A. Al-Dawoody, op. cit.,p.93.

[[59]] Ibid., p.95.

[[60]] Ibid., p.93.

[[61]] Ibid., p.96.

[[62]] Ibid., p.96.

[[63]] Khaled Abou El Fadl. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. pp. 230-231.

[[64]] Robert R. Reilly. The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2010. p.198.

[[65]] Nuh Ha Mim, Keller, Question 5, The Re-Formers of Islam: The Mas’ud Questions, 1995, accessed May 20, 2013,

[[66]] Ibid.

[[67]] Faraz, Rabbani, “The Ash’aris & Maturidis: Standards of Mainstream Sunni Beliefs,” November 19, 2009, accessed May 21, 2013,

[[68]] The Institute of World Politics, Leaving a Legacy for the Defense of Western and American Civilization, accessed May 26, 2013,

– Critical Book Review: The Myth of Martyrdom (by Adam Lankford).

Book Review: The Myth of Martyrdom

See my book review of Adam Lankford’s “The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers” in the Perspectives on Terrorism journal (Vol.7; No.1; 2013). Also see my book review summary on Amazon.

The full review is available below.


Adam Lankford. The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2013, 272 pp; ISBN: 978-0-230-34213-2; $27.00.

(Reviewed by Zubair Qamar, 2013)



Introduction and Overview

In his book, Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, sheds light on an often neglected dimension of suicide terrorists – the psychological/suicidal dimension. He does this by providing specific examples of terrorists who were suicidal and asks for the debate to go beyond religious radicalism and political ideology. Lankford goes through “case studies, suicide notes, love letters, diary entries, and martyrdom videos” (pp. 17, 18) to make his case. The first chapter is an Introduction to the book, which explains how, according to Lankford, the experts did not understand the 9/11 hijackers correctly, and how he embarked on research for his book. Chapter-2 extends the discussion from Chapter-1 on how, according to Lankford, the experts have been wrong on understanding suicide terrorists. Chapter-3 discusses Lankford’s sample of some 130 suicide terrorists and his claim that they exhibit suicidal traits. Chapter-4 illustrates Lankford’s “psychological autopsy” of Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 9/11 attacks. Chapter-5 explores Lankford’s thoughts on differences between genuine heroes and suicide terrorists. Chapter-6 compares suicide terrorists with perpetrators of murder-suicide, including workplace killers and rampage shooters. Chapter-7 discusses Lankford’s four categories of suicide terrorists (conventional, coerced, escapist, and indirect). Finally, Chapter-8 presents recommendations to predict where suicide terrorism is more likely to happen. This book review essay touches upon key aspects of the book, including the intentions of suicide terrorists, the suicide traits to suicide connection, Lankford’s psychological autopsy of Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 suicide terrorists, Lankford’s convenience sample, Lankford’s accusation against certain scholars of being incorrect, demonstration of some of Lankford’s subjective and dubious reasoning, followed by the conclusion.

Words that Mask the Truth

Lankford advises the reader not to listen to what comes out of the mouths of suicide terrorists to understand their true motives, adding, “… you can’t believe everything you hear” (p. 20). Indeed, believing everything you hear from a suicide attacker, or his/her family, can lead to incorrect understandings and conclusions. Lankford tells us that because suicide bombers claim to be self-sacrificing for a claimed cause does not necessarily make it so. However, using Lankford’s approach, one can also ask: Why believe that they are suicidal if they may have the capacity to make rational decisions to kill themselves for non-suicidal, perceived noble causes? Intentions behind actions are difficult to ascertain, and words and actions do not always allow one to be absolutely certain about root causes of one’s self-killing. Moreover, Lankford’s assessment is limited to the psychiatric realm without offering an equally substantial treatment of other possible causes of suicide. The “situational” factors are mentioned in passing by Lankford without seriously considering and elaborating on the influences and effects they have on suicide terrorists. (See, for example, pages 13, 32, 116, 131, and 148). It is surprising that the effects of military occupation, befriending of regimes with poor human rights records, and poor economic growth and prosperity in certain majority Muslim regions have little to no consideration in Lankford’s analysis of suicide terrorism. Neither does religion and ideology. A more detailed analysis of social-cultural factors is also missing. According to Lankford, mental illness seems to be the main driving force that makes suicide terrorists do what they do, which makes his analysis incomplete.

Suicidal Traits to Suicide

In addressing the issue of words by suicide terrorists that may mask the truth, Lankford expresses confidence in the “suicidal traits-to-suicide” link at the level of mainly soft indicators. Yet these are common to millions, if not more, people. Predicting suicide from such an assessment is highly prone to false positives. Lankford appears to approach these complex matters in a simplistic way. James Christopher Fowler (2012) from the Baylor College of Medicine found that

“…despite decades of research, accurate prediction of suicide and suicide attempts remains elusive. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) Guidelines on Suicidal Behavior (APA, 2003) concluded that predicting suicide appears impossible in large part due to the rarity of suicide, even among high-risk individuals such as psychiatric inpatients. Beyond statistical challenges posed by low base rates, longitudinal prediction using relatively distal variables such as psychiatric diagnoses, demographics, and self reported psychological states consistently yield high false-positive prediction rates, limiting their predictive value (Goldsmith et al., 2002; Rudd et al., 2006; Oquendo, Halberstam, & Mann, 2003). Complicating the assessment strategy is the fact that most studies assess single risk factors, leaving clinicians and expert panels to estimate how risk factors interact to influence outcomes.”[1]

Fowler (2012) also states

“Assessment of psychological vulnerabilities…seemed a logical approach, yet a review of empirical literature yielded mixed results for the most consistently studied psychological constructs of impulsivity/aggression, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and self consciousness/social disengagement (Conner, Duberstien, Conwell, Seidlitz & Caine, 2001).”[2]

While no assessment is immune to false positives, a less meticulous assessment like Lankford’s is certainly more prone to false positives, especially when emphasis on psychological vulnerabilities has achieved mixed results in other studies. A more careful risk assessment is therefore necessary to differentiate and target those who are at substantial risk of suicide over the masses who possess similar soft traits. For example, past suicide attempt, which is the “[s]trongest consistent predictor for both suicide attempts and completed suicide across many studies”[3] should be examined. When the reviewer asked Lankford how many individuals in his sample of 130 suicide terrorists attempted suicide in the past, he responded: “That’s a good question, but I don’t have the answer on hand.”[4]

Lankford’s “Psychological Autopsy” of Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 Hijackers

Lankford’s “psychological autopsy” of Mohamed Atta demonstrates the weakness described above. Lankford tells us that the

“psychological autopsy has revealed that Atta’s struggles with social isolation, depression, guilt and shame, and hopelessness were very similar to the struggles of those who commit conventional suicide and murder-suicide” (p.83).

What can be concluded from similarities between Atta and those who commit conventional and murder suicides at the level of such indicators? Not much, especially when Atta, according to Lankford himself, never considered “hanging himself, slitting his wrists, or putting a bullet through his brain” (p.75). In other words, Atta had no known past suicide attempts. The implication from Lankford that those traits led Atta to commit suicide is unsubstantiated. Furthermore, Lankford writes that Atta’s individual psychology, and the traits that form it,

“explain why Atta behaved so differently from the millions of Islamic fundamentalists and tens of thousands of terrorists and terrorist leaders who have not carried out suicide attacks – and never will” (p.85).

On the contrary, it is more convincing to believe that many non-suicidal terrorists do possess such traits because the traits are not necessarily factors required for suicide to take effect, and are traits common to millions of people. In addition, Lankford’s “psychological autopsy” is also based on certain misunderstandings and unverified assumptions, which further compromise its quality. For example, in discussing depression, Lankford zeroes in on the symptom of appetite and/or weight changes. He writes that

“…Atta would complain when other members of his group would bring home delicious food, which seems odd considering the lack of a true religious justification for this stance” (p.74).

While Sunni Islam does not prohibit healthy eating, and while Atta exaggerated in expressing displeasure with the act of eating, Islam does teach Muslims to eat in moderation and avoid gluttony. The Qur’an states, “And eat and drink and be not extravagant; surely He does not love the extravagant” (Al-A`raf 7:31). It is probable that Atta had a twisted understanding of Islam, as extremists do, including with the stated verse of the Qur’an and sayings of Prophet Muhammad on eating. If this is true, then contrary to Lankford’s understanding, Atta was displaying extremist religious behavior and was not necessarily depressed. It is odd that Lankford did not entertain this interpretation as a possibility.

Lankford also fails to explain that depression may not always be an important risk factor for suicide according to certain scholars. For example, Matthew Nock, the same 2011 MacArthur Fellow who Lankford uses for support in Chapter-8 when explaining his computer test with “predictive powers”, had a different understanding. Nock says: “But what our data show is depression isn’t a strong predictor of suicide”…[5]. Lankford should mention that suicide scholars have different conclusions from data on predictors of suicide. His book makes it appear as if his explanation is the only way to understand the matter, which is clearly not the case. Similarly, Lankford’s psychological analyses of a few other 9/11 hijackers were based on cursory details, weak suicide risk assessment, and overly ambitious conclusions that they were mentally impaired. Lankford’s “psychological autopsies” lack the required strength to support his opposition to scholars who held the view that the 9/11 hijackers were by and large normal.

Lankford’s Convenience Sample

On pages 49 to 51, Lankford cites the research of Ariel Merari (an Israeli clinical psychologist) on suicide bombings and supports his sample.[6] However, Merari’s sample was a convenience sample that presents a host of problems. Some problems in a convenience sample include sampling bias and the sample being unrepresentative of the population. In other words, there are limits to making inferences and generalizations of the population from such a sample that can be contradicted by results from a more representative sample. The same problems are associated with Lankford’s convenience sample of 130 suicide terrorists (STs). Lankford said,

“The 130 STs described in Ch3 and Appendix A are probably more of an opportunity sample than a geographically representative sample. I just tried to find every case I could.”[7]

Lankford’s sample of 130 suicide terrorists, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. In footnote-61 in Chapter-3, Lankford writes,

“All efforts have been made to reduce the chances of redundancy. However, since some of these individuals are not identified by name, it is possible that a few cases appear on this list more than once” (emphasis added) (pg.208).

In other words, Lankford admits the possibility that his sample could be different in number than the 130 suicide terrorists. When the reviewer read the list of suicide terrorists in Appendix-A, the following was noted:

Unidentified Males: 10
Unidentified Females: 8
Unidentified sixteen-year-old boy: 1
Multiple unidentified attackers: Stated 5 times, each with multiple attackers
Multiple teenage boys: Stated 1 time
(Appendix-A, p.177)

How does one know if the unidentified individuals really existed or not, or if there could be repeats in counting them, as Lankford considered above? While some researchers wish to keep certain names anonymous to protect the identities of attempted suicide terrorists and their families, it also provides leeway to incorporate manufactured “evidence.” Even if the evidence is genuine, the anonymity of the data makes it less convincing to be taken seriously. (As a side note, it is curious why Lankford lists Mir Aimal Kasi as a suicide terrorist. After killing CIA staff in 1993, he fled to Pakistan, was later found, and legally executed in 2002 by the US government. He never attempted suicide, but committed terrorism. After he fled the crime scene, he was in hiding and still did not attempt suicide in any form (Appendix-A, p.180).

An “opportunity” or convenience sample, as explained above, limits inferences and generalizations of the population. Robert Brym, a Canadian political sociologist, expressed this concern with Lankford’s sample as he did with Merari’s sample:

“Are the thousands of suicide attackers who are not in his sample different from those who are included? Could they perhaps have been driven by political conditions and social factors that have nothing to do with their psychological predispositions? We don’t know, and therefore we don’t know whether any of the inferences Dr. Lankford draws from his sample are valid.”[8]

Lankford’s optimism and expectations give him reason to believe that a more representative sample of suicide terrorists would corroborate his findings. Lankford says,

“The broader question is whether or not my findings are representative of what we’d expect to find in STs around the world, and I think they are” (emphasis added).[9]

But to “think” what further research might (or might not) illustrate is not the same as what it would illustrate. While Lankford’s optimism is admirable, it is based on faith rather than hard data. The results of more research need not support Lankford’s expectations. This can only be known once a representative sample is taken and analyzed. Until then, Lankford’s optimism that most suicide terrorists worldwide are suicidal is premature. Lankford is eager to push the cart before the horse, and seems to use evidence to support what he already assumed to be true.

Did Lankford keep an open mind? The discussion so far appears to indicate that he probably had a biased outlook from the outset. This may partially explain why he used a convenience sample. When this reviewer asked Prof. Lankford why he did not use a random sample, he replied that:

“…random sampling could be valuable. But random sampling also inevitably limits the amount of evidence you’re considering, because you’ll be ignoring certain important cases because a random number generator has not selected them. Given the scarcity of evidence currently available, I am hesitant to take any approach which limits the evidence further. In an ideal world, we’d have evidence on thousands of cases, and could then randomly sample and still be analyzing a sample large enough to be valid.”[10]

But random samples address both the known and unknown variables and are likely to give a less biased and more accurate representation of the population. When the reviewer asked Prof. Brym to comment on Lankford’s thoughts, he responded:

“Of course random sampling ignores some cases – the whole point of random sampling is to be able to generalize reliably from some cases to the relevant population. We don’t have to have data on the entire population to make reliable estimates about its characteristics precisely because the sample has been drawn randomly.”[11]

Adam Lankford may have had fewer cases through a random sample, but his research would have been taken more seriously in the view of this reviewer.

Accusing Experts of Being Wrong

Lankford is also critical with studies and statements of many other scholars in the field. He impugns Robert Brym (pp. 5, 35, 50), Scott Atran (pp. 5, 58),[12] Robert Pape (pp. 5, 6, 29, 30, 65), Jerold Post (pp. 5, 35, 66, 109), Ellen Townsend (pp. 5, 27), Riaz Hassan (pp. 5, 29),[13] Adel Sadeq (p. 5), Larry Pastor (pp. 6, 110), and Mohammed Hafez (pp. 6, 109).

For example, he criticizes Ron Paul who used Robert Pape’s research for saying that 95% of suicide attacks are caused by foreign occupation. Lankford writes, “Paul is confusing an indirect cause with a direct cause” (p.161). When the reviewer asked Prof. Lankford what his evidence was that 95% of suicide attacks in the areas/regions Paul referred to refer to suicidal terrorism, he responded:

“As to what I argue is actually going on, I think that’s pretty clear throughout the book. [Zero]/130 who I’ve examined are motivated purely by ideology, including anti-occupation ideology.”[14]

Lankford uses his sample of 130 suicide terrorists to conclude that Pape’s conclusion is incorrect. However, as stated earlier, nobody can confidently use a small convenience sample and speak for the general population of suicide terrorists. A clear limitation of a convenience sample is that it may not at all be representative of the total population of suicide attackers. Also, even if Pape is incorrect in his conclusion, does it make Lankford correct in his conclusion? No. While accusing Pape of not conducting extensive studies of the biographies of suicide attackers in his (Pape’s) study, Lankford did not either. Therefore, how can Lankford know if Pape is wrong or not? He cannot. It is another example of Lankford’s rush to judge a matter without being fully cognizant of the facts.

While portraying Pape as being oblivious of the psychological/suicidal dimension of suicide attackers, Lankford neglects to mention that, according to Pape’s research,

“the data shows less than 5 percent of suicide attackers experience major depression associated with ordinary suicide.”[15]

This is no superficial study. Robert Pape’s groundbreaking study in Cutting the Fuse “surveys and analyzes over 2,200 suicide attacks and 2,500 suicide attackers around the world since 1980, based on over 10,000 documents in English and native languages and nearly every available martyr video in existence.”[16] Lankford either did not understand Pape’s research results or chose to ignore most of it.

Lankford has also been unable to respond to Pape’s excellent point that

“while mental illness and ordinary suicides occur in every country at fairly constant rates, suicide attacks are highly concentrated in specific areas of foreign occupation – typically starting when the occupation begins and sharply declining when it ends – patterns that strongly refute mental illness as a major cause as they confirm the main findings of Cutting the Fuse.”[17]

When Israel left Lebanon in 2000 and suicide attacks by the Lebanese ceased, was it because their “psychological instability” and “suicidal” tendencies also ceased?[18] Lankford’s views are difficult to square with such facts and with common sense.

Subjective Views and Dubious Reasoning

Adam Lankford also forms his own subjective understandings of terms from which he bases his analyses.[19] Regarding heroism, for example, he writes that

“…some suicide terrorists may have legitimately done heroic things during their lives” (p.106)

He then continues,

“But…carrying out a suicide attack wasn’t one of them. Even if you believe in their God, their cause, and their right to fight, the act of killing itself is not heroic – for any reason” (p.106).

However, Lankford’s statement is controversial in light of other definitions of heroism. For example, David Lester, former President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, said,

“It all depends on your definition of a hero. In my note, I use Zimbardo’s, and I reckon that some suicide bombers could fit his definition” (emphasis added).[20]

Lester further said that

“Restricting the venue to the conflict(s) in the Middle East, it is clear that suicide bombing is part of a war. The acts may, therefore, fit into the military hero category proposed by Zimbardo, but the agents may also be viewed as martyrs since they are working for a clear political and religious cause” (emphasis added).[21]

Lankford fails to mention that being a hero and martyr are not straightforward matters as he portrays. Using the definitions and understandings of other scholars, there would not necessarily be a “myth of martyrdom.” When Lankford is subjective, he sounds more like a propagandist than an objective scholar. Lankford also violates his own approach by using the statements of suicide terrorists arbitrarily. He writes,
“By definition, this…means that their attacks cannot be considered a true ‘sacrifice,’ because the suicide terrorists are not forfeiting ‘something highly valued.’ Even according to their own statements, they are trading something they put low value on (their lives in this transient, unhappy, and corrupt world) for something they value highly (heaven and paradise). There is nothing noble or brave about that kind of bargain” (italics added) (p.8).

Lankford admonishes us not to take the words of suicide terrorists at face value, yet has no problem doing so in their claims of what they attribute high and low value to.  Lankford also classifies “conventional,” “coerced,” “escapist,” and “indirect” people who kill themselves as “suicide terrorists” (p.130). This is a subjective definition of “terrorist” that is not shared by most, or many, terrorism experts who relate such violent acts to mainly political goals. Lankford needs to define these terms before using them. Otherwise, many suicidal people would receive the “terrorist” label.

Lankford’s book includes a discussion of social stigmas associated with suicide, but this is mainly in reference to Arab culture (see, for example, p.26, p.60, p.152, p.160, p.173). However, Lankford exaggerates the link between the social and religious stigmas of suicide with a suicide attack as an escape route. While this is true in some cases, it is not true in most Arab regions. In addition, Lankford fails to consider how family and religion act as social support rather than social pressure. Ziad Kronfol, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, says

“I already mentioned stigma and ignorance and their negative impact on mental health. However, factors such as family and religion could have a positive impact. Family ties are strong in the Middle East and this can play a positive role to the extent that they are used as social support rather than social pressure. Similarly, the impact of religion could be positive to the extent that it induces good deeds and protects the person from harm, including self-inflicted harm. In other words, religion can be a protective factor against suicide” (italics added).[22]

By overlooking the positive potential of family and religion in Arab regions as protective factors against suicide, Lankford portrays Arabs in a distorted and negative manner. He also seems to convey that Arabs who do suicide attacks are doing it solely due to negative social stigma without entertaining other possible causes adequately.

Some of Lankford’s statements are, in this reviewer’s opinion, bordering on the absurd. For example, Lankford writes,

“The raw materials for prolonged suicide terrorism campaigns are virtually all here. In the United States, approximately thirty-four thousand people commit suicide each year. So there is plenty of suicidal intent to harness, along with tens of thousands of people who could be coerced into becoming suicidal” (p.166).

This is unrealistic alarmism. Lankford does not provide any evidence to substantiate his claim that “tens of thousands of people…could be coerced into becoming suicidal” in the United States. Furthermore, while explaining that Mohamed Atta was not fully obedient to Osama bin Laden’s orders, as he had prioritized his own preferences instead, Lankford concludes:

“He was not so blindly committed to the cause, so in awe of bin Laden, or so brainwashed by terrorist teachings that he simply did what he was told” (p.66).

Because Atta differed on key matters with bin Laden does not necessarily mean Atta was not committed to the cause. Two or more people can differ in certain respects and still be committed to the same cause. Even more bizarre is Lankford’s allusion that Atta’s cause stemmed from his supposedly psychologically abnormal mind without any convincing evidence to substantiate the claim:

“No – the truth is that Atta had his own agenda. Like many suicidal people, he was not willing to take his own life until he was ready: he wouldn’t be rushed into it, and it needed to be on his terms. In fact, unlike a professional soldier or ideologically committed Green Beret, he was willing to jeopardize the mission’s success in order to meet his own objectives” (p.67).

As discussed earlier, Lankford’s portrayal of Atta as one who had suicidal tendencies is unconvincing. Lankford also misrepresents his sources. For example, he writes,

“Pew Research Center surveys indicate that more than two hundred thousand Americans believe that suicide attacks are “often” or “sometimes” justified” (p.163).

He means Muslim Americans, not “Americans” in general, as his statement appears to imply. Lankford is also unaware of other polls that illustrate what Americans, in general, think about violence against civilians. When Americans were asked if violence against civilian targets, such as bombings, are justified,

“an astounding 24% said they believe that bomb attacks aimed at civilians are ‘often or sometimes justified’ and 6% feel they are ‘completely justified.’ In other words, American Muslims are between four and six times less likely than other Americans to endorse violent acts against civilians” (italics added).[23]

Being fixated on suicide terrorism over terrorism against civilians in general is to prioritize the lesser threat over the greater threat. Mentioning a poll that illustrates the views of Muslim Americans on violence without explaining the polls of Americans in general is to portray Muslim Americans in a skewed manner.


While Lankford’s recommendations in the end of the book are important, most have already been stated by countless scholars before him, and can be included in recommendations to counter terrorism in general. This includes keeping an eye on the Internet and interviewing family members of suicide terrorists. Lankford could have included more recommendations in his last chapter, including Alex Schmid’s recommendations on countering terrorism.[24] Lankford’s recommendation to authorities to monitor psychologically compromised individuals and deduce the probability of suicide terrorism using “every resource they can” (p.167) seems to be a shot in the dark and a terrible waste of valuable resources considering the very low probability of suicide terrorism in the United States, and the difficulties associated with predicting suicide terrorism. Along similar lines, Lankford places too much hope in Matthew Nock’s five-minute computer test, which can detect individuals who have attempted suicide in the past, and predict which individuals are likely to commit suicide within six months (p.171). While praising this technology, Lankford stretches its utility by saying,

“This could be an incredibly powerful security screening tool for identifying anyone who is contemplating a suicide attack” (p.172).

Yet predicting suicide and predicting suicidal attacks is not the same matter, and the link between suicide and a suicide attack is more complex. Furthermore, Lankford acknowledges that “false positives” are still possible:

“Of course, there would be some false positives. Some suicidal individuals who have no terrorist inclinations whatsoever would also be flagged. But encouraging them to get help wouldn’t be a bad thing either.” (p.172).

Lankford is to be reminded that predicting suicidal individuals is already a very difficult task, predicting suicide attackers is even more challenging, and making our security officials turn into mental health specialists may not be such a great idea.

While focusing on the psychological dimension is urgent, Lankford makes the same mistake as those whom he accuses. While he blames suicide terrorism experts of over-emphasizing the political/ideological dimension, Lankford overemphasizes the psychological/behavior dimension over other variables that are just as, if not more, important. While the book makes some interesting points, understanding suicide terrorists as mainly mentally unstable individuals, if followed, may channel the efforts of national security professionals away from more relevant causes and triggers of suicide terrorism, and terrorism in general. This can be dangerous for a country’s national security.

Lankford’s study does allow readers to understand the lives of some terrorists more fully. While useful, extrapolating premature generalizations from an unrepresentative sample can lead to an incorrect understanding of the motivations of most suicide terrorists, as well as of the effective ways to counter them. Moreover, it can also absolve those terrorists who commit premeditated acts of violence to maim and murder by labeling them psychologically unstable. It may be more important to stop the leaders who motivate both psychologically stable and unstable individuals to commit suicide terrorism, and to focus on the nationalist, political, and extremist religious interpretations, motivations, and triggers that Lankford spends only few words discussing in his book.

Martyrdom by suicide terrorists may be a “myth” according to Lankford, but not to many suicide terrorists themselves. Academic scholars too might recall the Thomas theorem (“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” [25]) and define and understand such attacks differently, based on other criteria and contexts. Overall, the book’s conclusions are based on certain unverified assumptions that require further study alongside the many studies that have already been undertaken beyond the psychological/behavior aspects. It is therefore recommended that Lankford’s conclusions not be accepted at this time until further research determines the way forward.

Acknowledgments: The author thanks Adam Lankford, Robert Brym, David Lester, and Riaz Hassan for their correspondence, thoughts, and clarification on issues related to suicide terrorism.

About the author: Zubair Qamar is a staff member with a US Government contractor based in Washington, DC, with most work experience in the United Nations. His research and interests primarily focus on economic development and countering extremism using traditional Sunni Islam.


[1] James Christopher Fowler (2012). ‘Practice Review: Suicide Risk Assessment in Clinical Practice: Pragmatic Guidelines for Imperfect Assessments.’ Psychotherapy. Vol. 49, No. 1, 81–90. Available:

In this paragraph, Fowler (2012) cites:

American Psychiatric Association. (2003). American Psychiatric Association Practice Guideline for the assessment and treatment of suicidal behaviors. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Goldsmith, S. K., Pellmar, T. C., Kleinman, A. M., & Bunney, W. E. (2002). Reducing suicide: A national imperative (Committee on Patho- physiology and Prevention of Adolescent and Adult Suicide, Board on Neuroscience and Behavioral Health, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Rudd, M. D., Berman, A. L., Joiner, T. E., Nock MK, Silverman MM, Mandrusiak M, . . . Witte T. (2006). Warning signs for suicide: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 36, 255–262. doi:10.1521/suli.2006.36.3.255
Oquendo, M. A., Halberstam, B., & Mann, J. J. (2003). Risk factors for suicidal behavior: Utility and limitations of research instruments. In M. B. First (Ed.), Standardized evaluation in clinical practice (Vol. 22, pp. 103–130). Washington, DC: APPI Press.

[2] Ibid. Fowler. pg. 83. In this paragraph, Fowler (2012) cites:

Conner, K. R., Duberstein, P. R., Conwell, Y., Seidlitz, L., & Caine, E. D. (2001). Psychological vulnerability to completed suicide: A review of empirical studies. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 31, 367–385. doi:10.1521/suli.31.4.367.22048

[3] Ibid. Fowler. p. 83, Table-2.

[4] Adam Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.15, 2013.

[5] Shari Roan (Sept. 20, 2011). ‘MacArthur fellow will focus on suicide prevention.’ Los Angeles Times. Available:

[6] Lankford defends Merari’s sample:

“For instance, sociologists Robert Brym and Bader Araj have claimed that Merari’s sample may not be representative of the larger population of suicide bombers. However, this is a wholly unsubstantiated critique, and Brym and Araj admit that if Merari’s sample is somehow not representative, it is likely in ways that are still ‘unknown’.” (Adam Lankford. The Myth of Martyrdom. pp. 49-50)

Brym comments on Lankford’s criticism of his and Araj’s criticism of Merari’s sample:

“Even Professor Merari acknowledges that he drew a convenience sample (in which cases are chosen based on their accessibility) rather than a representative sample (in which cases are chosen so their characteristics match the characteristics of the population of interest). Our criticism is therefore a matter of fact. To say it is “unsubstantiated” suggests that Dr. Lankford lacks even an elementary understanding of sampling, including the fact that all convenience samples are necessarily unrepresentative in ways that are unknown.’” (Robert Brym. Personal communication, Feb.11, 2013)

Robert Brym says, “Ariel Merari developed the same idea as Lankford in Driven to Death (Oxford University Press, 2010).” (Robert Brym. Personal communication, Feb. 11, 2013)

Even if Merari’s sample was somehow valid, it is interesting to note that Lankford remained silent in his book about the other weaknesses Brym and Bader Araj expressed with regard to Merari’s study:

“First, the interviewers may have sought out signs of depression, leading to overdiagnosis. Overdiagnosis of depression is an increasingly common problem in psychology and psychiatry, and as Merari notes, the view that depression and suicidality lead to suicide bombing in certain contexts has been a pet theory of his for more than 20 years, well before he had any evidence to support the hypothesis….”
“A second potential source of bias resides in the fact that the respondents were political prisoners serving life sentences in Israeli jails. That circumstance may have led them to exhibit a higher rate of depression and suicidality than one would find outside the prison system….”
“Third, it may be relevant that at least six and perhaps more of Merari’s fifteen respondents failed to complete their suicide mission because they lacked the resolve to do so. Some depressive and suicidal tendencies may have resulted not from a preexisting condition so much as the respondents’ failure to execute their plan, thereby disappointing their organizational sponsor, the Palestinian public, and themselves, resulting in a depressed state….”
“Fourth, the interviews and tests were conducted by authority figures who[m] respondents likely viewed as part of the coercive apparatus of an Israeli penal institution. This situation may have led prisoners to respond less than candidly. The present authors find evidence of lack of candour in one of the tests Merari and his associates conducted….” (Robert J. Brym & Bader Araj. (2012). “Are suicide bombers suicidal?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 35:432-443. Available:
See also: Brym and Araj’s Rejoinder to Merari: Robert J. Brym & Bader Araj. (2012). “Suicidality and suicide bombers: a rejoinder to Merari.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 35:733-739. Available: 

[7] Adam Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.13, 2013.

[8] Robert Brym. Personal communication, Feb.11, 2013.

[9] Ibid. Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.13, 2013.

[10] Ibid. Lankford. Personal communication. Feb.13, 2013.

[11] Robert Brym. Personal communication, Feb.17, 2013.

[12] Scott Atran had responded to Lankford in response to his Op-Ed on Dec. 18, 2012:

“Mr. Lankford argues that suicide terrorists like the 9/11 attackers or other jihadis share a triad of psychological peculiarities: mental health problems, sense of personal victimization, desire for glory. I’ve interviewed failed and would-be suicide terrorists, their families, and friends across Eurasia and North Africa. Apart from desire for glory, highly developed among jihadis and their ilk but less so among lone-wolf killers like the Newton murderer, there is little similarity. Field interviews and controlled psychological experiments by my research teams and others indicate that members of violent extremist groups are parochial altruists whose personal identity is fused with that of their primary reference group, often a small network of action-oriented friends. They are motivated by a cause (but so are millions of others who fail to act), yet kill and die for and with their friends and fellow travelers (which is why only a very few act, and always together, even if only via internet). They show no reliable history of psychopathy, suicidal tendencies, sociopathy or any of the other psycho-social problems frequently associated with lone-wolf killers. Our research also shows that personal humiliation and victimization are negative predictors of martyrdom. Rather, moral outrage over perceived threats and injustice by an outgroup toward family, friends and ingroup drives violence. We must make every effort to understand what motivates mass murder in order to stop it, but simple and superficial comparisons will not assist.”
(Scott Atran. Personal communication, Feb.10, 2013).

[13] When this reviewer asked Riaz Hassan for his thoughts on Lankford’s criticism, he responded, “I don’t know much of Dr Lankford’s work. But his contention that suicide bombers are suicidal goes against…the evidence about the phenomenon” (Riaz Hassan. Personal communication, Feb.11, 2013).

[14] Ibid. Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.13, 2013.

[15] Ibid. Pape.

[16] The quote is from Robert Pape’s response to Lankford in the Huffington Post:

“It is unfortunate that Adam Lankford has gone ad hominem in criticizing my work, but readers should not doubt the commitment and credibility of the scholarship behind Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How To Stop It published by the University of Chicago Press. The research represents years of work by a research team at the University of Chicago, was funded by the Department of Defense and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has been endorsed by the both heads of the 9/11 Commission, the current Chief of the U.S. Navy and numerous other prominent policy makers and scholars, and published by one of the leading university presses in the country after a lengthy peer-review process.
“Cutting the Fuse surveys and analyzes over 2,200 suicide attacks and 2,500 suicide attackers around the world since 1980, based on over 10,000 documents in English and native languages and nearly every available martyr video in existence. The analysis examines the data as a whole and conducts detailed studies of every important suicide terrorist campaign and numerous studies of the specific motives of individuals (eg, the 9/11 Hamburg cell, July 2005 London bombers, and Moroccans who carried out suicide attacks in Iraq).
“The overwhelming picture that emerges is that foreign occupation is the main cause of suicide terrorism, accounting for over 95 percent of the thousands of attacks since 1980. Of course, this finding is startling. It would be much easier to come to terms with the phenomenon of suicide terrorism, which produces devastating attacks like 9/11, if it could be explained as the result of psychological illness carried out by emotionally disturbed individuals as Dr. Adam Lankford would have us believe. We do like our villains to be monsters and it may be true that mental illness is responsible for some suicide attacks. However, the percentage is low; the data shows less than 5 percent of suicide attackers experience major depression associated with ordinary suicide. And, while mental illness and ordinary suicides occur in every country at fairly constant rates, suicide attacks are highly concentrated in specific areas of foreign occupation — typically starting when the occupation begins and sharply declining when it ends — patterns that strongly refute mental illness as a major cause as they confirm the main findings of Cutting the Fuse.
“The strength of this scholarship and the transparent basis for its conclusions has led many in Washington and around the world to take the findings seriously. If, as we believe, the evidence shows that foreign occupation is the main cause of suicide terrorism, than Americans and other policy makers should take this seriously into account and pursue future courses of action accordingly.
“Ultimately, readers should judge for themselves, either by turning to Cutting the Fuse or looking at the extensive documentation available at the website of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.”  (Robert Pape. (Sept.23, 2011). ‘Response to Adam Lankford.’ The Huffington Post. Available:

[17] Ibid (Pape).

[18] This question is asked by the author, based on Pape’s following point: “But since Israel withdrew its army from Lebanon in May 2000, there has not been a single Lebanese suicide attack.” Robert Pape. (2010). ‘It’s the Occupation, Stupid.’ Foreign Policy. Available:

[19] Of Chapter-5 of Lankford’s book (What Real Heroes Are Made Of), Lankford says, it “is certainly the most subjective section” of his book. (Ibid. Lankford. Personal communication, Feb.13, 2013).

[20] David Lester. Personal communication, Feb. 8, 2013.

[21] David Lester. (2010). ‘Are Suicide Bombers Heroes?’ Psychological Reports, 106, 2, pp. 499-500.

[22] Mohammed Yahia. (July 24, 2012). ‘Dealing with Mental Illness in the Middle East.’ Nature Middle East. Available:

[23] Doug Saunders. (2012). The Myth of the Muslim Tide. Vintage Books. New York, NY. pp. 86-87.

[24] Alex P. Schmid. (2012). ‘Twelve Rules for Preventing and Countering Terrorism.’ Perspectives on Terrorism. Vol.6. Issue 3. p.77.

[25] W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas. The Child in America. New York: Knopf, 1928, pp.571-572.