A Clash of Ideologies
The War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy

By Walid Phares
266 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by Yehudit Barsky
Director, Division on Middle East
and International Terrorism,
American Jewish Committee

THEQUESTION that has resonated most among Americans since September 11, 2001 is "Why do they hate us?" Many reasons for the global jihadist terrorism afflicting the 21st century have been advanced, ranging from resentment over poor economic conditions as the "root cause" to Samuel P. Huntington's "clash of civilizations." Now Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born professor of political science who is also a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, persuasively presents a new one in The War of Ideas. For him, the question of "Why do they hate us?" is answered by asking, "What do they believe?" This leads him to demonstrate the importance of ideological motivation within the Muslim world.

Phares' unique focus on ideology derives from his having spent the early part of his life and academic career in Beirut, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1990. At once an analyst, observer and participant in Middle Eastern and Western
cultures, he deploys each of those perspectives as he takes the reader on a sweeping survey of political theory coupled with world history. 
 To provide the context for his approach, the author outlines the development of Western civilization from its beginnings through modern times. In ancient societies, the state and religion were one. Until the Enlightenment, the kingdoms that would become the present- day Western countries allied themselves with other Christian nations. As Phares points out, the "logic of international religious solidarity, mobilizing the military and political resources of a power to support or enhance the position of religious kin . . . was about the identity of the assistant community, not the issue at hand."

However, he adds: "This religiously based international solidarity has been slowly but systematically removed from the world political agenda. By the second half of the 20th century, it was almost nonexistent. The right to intervene in a remote conflict is now confined under international law to assisting a population in self-determination, rescuing oppressed minorities or endangered civilians, giving humanitarian aid in the wake of disasters, and other related issues."

In other words, the Western world has come to define itself in terms of pluralism, international law and national interests. The same, though, cannot be said of the Muslim world. Tracing its history from Muhammad's establishment of a Muslim empire through modern times, the author shows that the dominant Muslims lament their lost empire, and criticism of this has only become amplified in recent years.

Rhetoric invoking the caliphate is used by Islamists as well as self-declared Socialist parties, such as the Baathists and followers of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Pan-Arab movement. Authoritarian Muslim regimes in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, promote jihadism; others tolerate its spreading; still others are intimidated by the power jihadists have garnered during the past several decades: Thus the gradual and inexorable ascendancy of the jihadists in the Muslim world. 

Phares details their arguments:

"History is a linear progression in the view of the Wahabis, Salafis and Khumeinists. All that has happened, or that they believe has happened, since the rise of Islam in Arabia in the seventh century to today, is a single march toward a single goal - regardless of diverse historical experiences, political change, mutations, modernity, or new ideas. In the teachings of jihadism, today's battles - terrorism, by international standards - are a continuation of past battles stretching over 13 centuries. Today's jihadists operate in the 21st century with the same mindset of the seventh, 12th, and 15th centuries, as if no evolution has taken place in the Muslim world or in the international community. . . . From this perspective, the jihadi wars are aimed not only at defeating democracies and infidels, but also at dismantling centuries of human advancement in bringing the world back to what Salafists believe was their golden age - and their model for the future."

There follows a comprehensive account of the jihadists' ideology, distilled from the author's 20-odd years of studying it. Having declared Islam superior to all other religions, the ideologues maintain that their coreligionists must live under Muslim rule. Essentially, jihadism is a transnational totalitarian movement whose central tenets mandate a total rejection of pluralism and international principles.

IT IS NOT surprising, therefore, to read about the unleashing of jihadist tactics in Western countries. An example was the response to the September 2005 publication in Denmark of blasphemous cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The massive, often violent demonstrations triggered by Islamists throughout the world soon gave rise to Islamist organizations in the West demanding legislation that would make the "insult of religion" illegal. 

As Phares observes: "Stunningly, jihadi sympathizers in Western Europe and North America, self-described as 'civil rights' groups, are mobilizing to force democracies to make a concession on their main principle of freedom of thought: that is, to ban any criticism of Islam under the pretext of stopping offenses against religious values. The move, which is designed to put the definition of criticism and offense in the hands of Islamist lobbies, is very daring. It allows the jihadists to take the War of Ideas inside the West and use its laws to further shield the penetration of Islamist radicals within Western systems. This intertwined web of ideological thrusts shows clearly that jihadism and democracies are now battling in each other's 'zones.' "

In his dissection of recent history, Phares posits that the late 20th century and early 21st are significant for wars of competing ideologies, or what he calls the War of Ideas: "The last decade of the 20th century witnessed two parallel intellectual debates: one within the West, over which path to follow for the future, and another in the East, about which path to bring into the future - secular nationalism or Islamic fundamentalism."

He delineates three Wars of Ideas that have manifested themselves since World War II. The first took place during the Cold War, from 1945 to 1990, when jihadist movements were not in the ascendancy. But it was during this period that Saudi Arabia, working together with the Muslim Brotherhood, spread the ideology of Wahabism throughout the Muslim world, including in Western countries.

The second, from 1990 to 2001, was a crucial turning point for Muslims. The collapse of the former Soviet Union raised questions about opportunities for democratization: 

"We had to wonder, 'If it happened there, under Marxist dictatorships, why can't it happen here, under these totalitarian regimes and radical organizations?' The elites dominating the Arab world and Greater Middle East weren't as powerful as those behind them who had armed their militaries and trained their secret police. But what escaped many observers worldwide was the deeply rooted radicalism inside the region's political establishments." The authoritarian regimes quickly crushed any moves toward democratization. And the Islamist movements saw this as an opportune time to nourish the spread of their network throughout the world. Leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Phares cites the parallel development of "projihadist lobbies" in the West that were funded by oil revenues from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. "The Islamists rose in the East," he says, "and the apologists covered up for them in the West." Only since the attacks, Phares asserts, have Americans become aware that they are fighting the Third War of Ideas: the war between jihadism and democracy. As a Middle Easterner, the author opens a door ”albeit too briefly” to reveal the growing number of pro-democracy Muslim dissidents and reformers eager to end jihadist totalitarianism. As an American, Phares illuminatingly provides us with the understanding that jihadism is a remnant of the Cold War yet to be defeated.

March/April, 2007


To obtain a signed copy of the War of Ideas, as soon as it is released, go to
To schedule an interview and receive a copy, please contact Phares@walidphares.com