Jihad and the West: Black Flag Over Babylon, is a brave — although at times patchy — collection of disparate threads of jihadi history, attacks, and radicalizing agents.
The military and intelligence analyst Sebastian Gorka, author of the Foreword, highlights that the book allows us to achieve the most important goal that any nation can do in a war: understand the enemy as they understand themselves. This is a crucial in order to comprehend the enemy’s narratives and — ideally — develop effective counter-narratives.
Another central quality of Dr. Silinsky’s work that Gorka underlines is the author’s decision to “brave the political correctness that has so infected and distorted Western threat-assessment in recent years.”
This is positive and rare quality, as long as it does not lead — as unfortunately happens at times in the book — to oversimplifying perspectives and over-generalization with respect to both Muslims and Islam.
This is an increasingly common trend: writers, intellectuals, and politicians confuse the ability to overcome political correctness with the inclination for openly hostile statements towards the object of discussion.
This is notably the case when Silinsky defines Islamophobia as “the Muslim side of the story” or when he gives a remarkably wide space — although without overtly embracing the content — to the theory of the Danish psychologist Nicholas Sennels, who has said:
“[V]iolence is much more accepted in European Muslims households than in European non-Muslim households. He argues that exposure to violence and the inculcation of hate, particularly at very young ages, increases the risk of psychiatric disorders. He concludes that Islamic culture is more likely than Western ethos to create criminal and antisocial behavior.
Ostentatious displays of anger in the West are signs of weakness and of brittle personalities. In Muslim culture, he argues, anger is much more accepted, and being able to intimidate people is seen as strength and a source of social status. It is seen as ‘holy anger’.”
As far as the book structure is concerned, the work opens with a glossary, a significant part of which is dedicated to the controversial notion of “Eurabia”:
“[‘Eurabia’ is] a term coined by Switzerland-based scholar Bat Ye’or to refer to a set of agreements, contracts, treaties, and unspoken assumptions between European governments, corporations, universities, and media outlets that promote the positive image and general interests of Islam and Islamic [countries], particularly petrol-exporting states. More recently, the term has been used to refer to the growth of the Muslim demographic and political influence in Europe.”
After the Glossary, the author illustrates the three wars the Islamic State (ISIS) fought: a revolutionary war because combatants intended to eradicate the existing, largely secular governments in Syria and Iraq; a civil war because ancient and enduring Shia-Sunni rivalries have pitted sects against each other in battle; and a world war, given the intervention of regional and world power.
The first chapter, Black Flag Over Babylon, provides a historical overview of the genesis and developments of ISIS.
This section is punctual and exhaustive, but we soon meet one of the many challenging comparisons that will characterize the book:
“The Baath party, which espoused Pan-Arabism, socialism, and elements of Islam, was founded by three French-educated intellectuals (…) Michel Aflaq, the party’s philosopher, like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, wanted to abolish Arab nation-states and forge a single state.”
Was comparing al-Baghdadi with Michel Aflaq really necessary and appropriate? Does opposing this comparison mean being too politically correct? We do not think so.
The second chapter, titled Eurabia and Beyond: The Caliphate’s Breeding Ground provides some interesting data and statistics on Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq and the growth of Muslim population in Europe.
The author takes this opportunity to claim:
- “Many Europeans were, initially, nonchalant about the cultural shift, but some later regretted this indifference.”
- “Many are emigrating to escape what they see as the unremitting buzz saw of Muslim immigration.”
- “Some Europeans have left the cities for the non-Muslim suburbs, and others have emigrated to the United States or Israel.”
He takes for granted that a cultural shift is happening, and that it is negative.
The following chapters give informative analyses on the Western approach to the Caliphate, both among the intellectual elite and in the popular culture, and provide frank insights on the weaknesses of a not-so-paltry component of decision-makers and intellectuals.
Indeed, Dr. Silinsky draws readers’ attention to the undeniable fact that Western discussion of the caliphate is often bounded by implicit and explicit rules of speech and unspoken assumption of religious sensitivities and that these assumptions lead to self-censorship.
In the last pages, Silinsky goes a step further, saying that the approach of many Westerners to Islamism is characterized by a form of omertà. In fact, omertà is an Italian word and a key notion of the mafia Weltanschauung. It is a code of silence and describes the silence of the community before mafia actions and the rejection of the status of snitch at all costs. It has nothing to do with political correctness.
The next two chapters focus on the so-called blue-eyed jihad, with reference to the Westerners who have been recruited by the caliphate or attracted by its propaganda.
According to the author, like other genocidal utopias such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, today’s Islamic State adherents see their utopia as void of significant political or social faults.
In this vein, Silinsky covers several crucial issues that are worth researching further. One is the so-called “groupie effect” that attracted a number of young Western women to ISIS’s banner. The interlinked notions of hyper-masculinity, virility, and sense of self-worth and belonging that attracted men from across the globe are also in need of study unto themselves.
In the second part of Blue-Eyed Jihad, the work deals with the possible roles that families might play in individuals’ radicalization and recruitment and provides a meaningful classification that divides them into promoters, unaware, and active dissuaders. As done throughout the other chapters, Silinsky substantiates his classifications with dozens of interesting case studies.
The chapters after that address the stories of multiple Western fighters from the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the United States, and beyond, at the same time providing an overview of a number of violent attacks in the West and the subsequent reactions of the population at large.
The Epilogue is titled A Taste of Vengeance from the words of Omar Mateen, the attacker who killed 49 people on June 12, 2016 in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando and declared that he did so to give the West “a taste of vengeance”.
Interestingly, this section is the most personal of the entire book and, instead of hinting at his opinions, the author finally, forthrightly addresses some of the issues he skirted around in the previous chapters of the book.
The first part of the epilogue revisits some of the personalities and events of earlier chapters, whereas the second part is a commentary containing the author’s views on some of the key phenomena and trends discussed in the work. In order to do so, Dr. Silinsky adopts a question and answer format.
One Q&A Silinsky poses is:
“Is the Islamic State Islamic?”
“Yes, it is, because its statement of principles is driven entirely by Islamic sacred texts, its legal system is sharia, and it defines its enemy in terms of those opposed to Islam.”
“Can the West partner with non-jihadi Muslims to defeat the State?”
“Perhaps, but the goals would be very limited, because sometimes activists use a mask of moderation, while their true goals is to replace Western liberalism with Sharia.”
As can be seen, this format promotes simplification to a point of misleading.
The notion of partnering with Muslims is increasingly recognised as one of the most successful Countering Violent Radicalization (CVE) approaches. This is not to say it is always the answer. An increasingly wide consensus also acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for what leads to extremism. But there have been excellent results at some times and in some contexts by working with mainstream members of the faith against the jihadists, so Silinsky’s blanket inclination against this method is unfortunate.
As Sebastian Gorka says in the Foreword, Dr. Silisky’s style, born of decades of practical experience inside the “machine” that is the US intelligence community, is to only write of that which is relevant. The disadvantage of this is that it makes the book appear a little chaotic and shallow in some passages.
Overall, however, in spite of the above-mentioned weaknesses, the book is highly readable and packed with interesting case studies, revealing the author’s longstanding experience in actively monitoring the radicals and the radicalizing agents all over the macro-regions he terms “the West”.