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September 2008

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The Last Crusade

Reviewed by Ambassador (ret.) Edward Marks

LastCrusadeMichael A. Palmer, The Last Crusade, Potomac Books, 2008, 273 pp., $17.95.

Since 9/11 and Iraq we have all become Arabists, more or less. “Sunni,” “Shia,” “Jihad,” “Umma,” “Salafist,” and similar words now fall trippingly from our tongues, even though many of us can only claim brief touristic visits to the relevant region. All of us who conscientiously avoided these subjects not too long ago, except for the occasional article on the “Middle East Problem” of Israel and the Palestinians, now devour books and articles on Islam and the Middle East. To meet this demand, academics, journalists, and others have found a market for their expertise and opinions and rushed into print. The new publications shelf at my local library is rarely without a book on some aspect of the subject. Professor Michael A. Palmer of the history department of East Carolina University is one of these authors.

He has published before on U.S. policies in the Middle East, and in The Last Crusade he addresses the wider subject of the West and Islam in conflict. He does so from a very clear perspective: There is a clear-cut “War of Civilization” underway between the West and Islam; this war has been underway — more or less continuously — since the first Islamic raids of 633 AD; the competition is of a global character and about global sovereignty; and the appropriate response is an “American Crusade.”

Much of Professor Palmer's book is about history and how and why we — both Muslims and Americans — got to where we are today. His basic historical lesson is that the contest is Islamic-originated, as expressed in the concept of the conflict between dar al Islam (the house of Islam) and dar al Harb (the house of War) for global sovereignty. The conflict is fueled by two completely different world views, and by the history of the two cultures as the Islamic world decayed from its early centuries of power and progress.

The comparison between the two cultures increasingly ran against the Islamic world in the past four or five centuries. “Why did Islam not progress the same way as the West? Both Islam and Christianity had access to the same pool of ideas, and while the West built upon these ideas, Islam did not.” According to the author, Islam deteriorated as a result of self-inflicted wounds, the most crucial of which was its intolerance of those who were not Muslims: “At the heart of Islam's failure as a world system was its treatment, as mandated by the Qur'an, of nonbelievers.” In addition was the Islamic intolerance towards differing and new ideas: “Islam has always struggled with the concepts of rationalism and open inquiry…”

Professor Palmer quotes bin Laden as agreeing with Professor Huntington's thesis that one of civilization's main fault lines runs between the West and Islam. And it is in that context that the ideal of jihad as armed conflict has been reinvigorated — not invented — by al Qaeda and the other jihadists and put to use to reestablish the caliphate so the Muslim ummah can recover its past glory and demonstrate its faithfulness to Allah.

This explanation of jihadist goals is fairly common, but Professor Palmer gives it an innovative twist with his discussion of Reformation, as in the Protestant Reformation that was so influential making the West the West we know. He notes that many current commentators hope and look for an Islamic version that would bring Islam up to date, so to speak, and make it a more comfortable partner in today's world. The journalist Thomas Friedman explained it as the need for an Islamic 3.0 to match Christianity and Judaism's 3.0 versions. However, according to Professor Palmer they miss the point, as the Islamic Reformation has already arrived, and “its face is that of Osama bin Laden,” who is to the Islamic Reformation what Martin Luther was to the Protestant.

The goal of this religious reformation, regardless of the tactical differences between the Jihadists as to whether to focus on the Near or the Far Enemy, is “to establish Allah's sovereignty worldwide.”

To Professor Palmer, this is an existential threat to the West and to the United States, and the problem facing us is “the difficulty Americans had, and continue to have, coming to grips with the real threat al-Qaeda poses.” With that view in mind, the author's penultimate chapter is entitled “The American Crusade,” which is reasonably self-explanatory. As he put its, “Whether people in the West like it or not, the Bush Administration has embarked on a campaign that, now joined, cannot be lost.” (Author's emphasis.) He goes on to state that “An American failure in Iraq — a victory for the Jihadists — would be an unmitigated disaster.” In his view it would be akin in its consequences to the failure to stop Hitler in the Rhineland in 1936.

Professor Palmer's analysis is motivated, as he says, by his references, including the book's dedication to Robert Dean Stethem, who was murdered by terrorists during the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985.

This non-Arabist reviewer leaves it to more knowledgeable readers to evaluate Professor Palmer's analysis and thesis and in particular his affirmation that Islamist extremism and jihadism is today a mainstream movement involving a significant number of Muslims worldwide and not just a fringe (if prominent) phenomenon. The author clearly states his support for Bush Administration GWOT policies, even though the Administration at least publicly tried very hard to avoid any hint of a clash of civilizations, and more specifically any hint of a war against Islam. Whether or not Professor Palmer's views actually reflect those of the Administration, they are not uncommon — in or out of the Administration. But whether one agrees or not, the question is central to how we deal with the challenge.


Edward Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a senior fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board.

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