Small Wars Journal

Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism

Book Review

Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism

by Jeffrey Halverson, H. L. Goodall, and Steven Corman.

Published by Palgrave-MacMillan, New York. 2011.

Reviewed by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein

Militant Islamist ideology represents fragments of Islam weaved together into a modernist violent narrative. It represents a pseudo-intellectual and post-modern reductionism of the complex and diverse set of beliefs inherent of 1.5 billion Muslims. Jeffrey Halverson is an Islamic Studies Scholar and his two co-authors, Goodall and Corman, are communications professors at Arizona State. They explore these narratives while immersing readers in the language, symbols, and reductionism of Islamist extremism.

Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism opens with a discussion defining a narrative as a "coherent system of interrelated and sequentially organized stories that share a common rhetorical desire to resolve a conflict by establishing audience expectations". A master narrative is trans-historical and is deeply embedded in a culture, expanding over time. Among Islamist extremists, an example of a master narrative is the pharaoh master narrative which mirrors their own struggles against rulers and state regimes reinforcing the divine's sovereignty over its creations (to include humankind). The pharaoh master narrative represents the conflict between the immortal (the afterlife) and mortal (pleasures of this life).

The book conducts an excellent intellectual analysis of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), considered the most important theoretician of militant Islamist ideology. A chapter is devoted to deconstructing Qutb's notion of hukm, translated in modern times as "to govern" but meaning "to adjudicate" in Prophet Muhammad's Arabic. This subtle change in translation is a powerful example of the Islamist post-modern reductionism in reinterpreting Prophet Muhammad's legacy and meaning. Additionally, the authors do an excellent job discussing such imagery as jahiliyah, an Islamic concept that condemns pre-Islamic customs that were unjust and abhorrent. Pre-Islamic customs of female infanticide is an infamous example of jahiliyah (pre-Islamic ignorance). Islamist extremist ideologues like Sayyid Qutb have redefined jahiliyah to condemn all of modern Muslim society inferring that because modern Muslim society does not strictly adhere to his vision of what constitutes Islamic law, they are no better than those who did not follow the law due to ignorance.

The book continues with a chapter on the Battle of Badr (624 AD), which is the Islamic David and Goliath parable. The Battle of Badr is weaved into such imagery as current conflicts, most notably, the Soviet-Afghan War. The term munafiqun (hypocrites) is used by Islamist extremists to condemn and sanction the killing of fellow Muslims. Of note, the author cites violent examples of scripture from the Quran and makes comparisons to New Testament to cultivate empathy not sympathy. For instance, he compares the select sword verses in the Quran with violent images in Numbers, Samuel and Deuteronomy.

Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism is a much needed volume that will enhance discourse on ways to counter violent Islamist ideology. It also provides a higher level of situational awareness by immersing oneself in the language and vocabulary of militant Islamists who are a threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein is author of "Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat," (Naval Institute Press, 2010). He is Adjunct Islamic Studies Chair at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Commander Aboul-Enein wishes to thank LCDR Margaret Read, MSC, USN who recently returned from a deployment to Kuwait for her edits and discussion that enhanced this review.