Book Review: Faith at War (2005)

Anyone who holds out hope about the near term in Iraq or the future of America’s relations with the Islamic world in general will find Faith at War depressing.

The book details the travels of Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov to a dozen countries with large Muslim populations in the three years after September 11, 2001. These include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Bosnia and Timbuktu in Mali. Through a wide range of interviews, Trofimov provides insight into attitudes in those countries. It is not a pretty picture.

Much of today’s Islamic fundamentalism stems from Wahhabism, a movement that not only arose in Saudi Arabia but helped bring the Saud family to power. Therefore, Trofimov’s book begins there, exploring the history of that movement, the Sunni-Shiite divide and the political issues boiling under the surface in that country and how it could become the source for much anti-American feeling.

As Trofimov travels to Yemen, Kuwait and other countries, we begin to see just how widespread anti-Americanism is and the equally widespread support for violent jihad. The depth of and pride in violence of some of the Islamic movements is shown in almost exaggerated style in Trofimov’s visit to Lebanon. Leaving Beirut and heading toward a former Israeli security zone, the view borders on unbelievable, with huge billboards along the road carrying the pictures of Hezbollah suicide bombers and praising their actions.

Just as Hezbollah trumpets the suicide missions it engaged in to fight Israeli occupation of part of Lebanon, Faith at War gives an indication of why we are seeing such missions in Iraq. Trofimov followed the U.S. and British troops into Iraq during the 2003 invasion and spent time there later that year and the next. He interviews clerics and ordinary citizens in what were or would become insurgent hot spots. They show that, even among mainstream Iraqis, what is now called the insurgency is not a surprise. One Iraqi analogizes it to a Texan fighting if a foreign country occupied that state, even if for good reason.

When read with Trofimov’s accounts of time he spent with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, this political travelogue reveals a lack of cultural awareness may also be causing great damage. Some of our actions not only pour salt into open wounds, they help generate even more opposition to U.S. presence and, hence, anti-Americanism.

Trofimov’s background gives him a unique perspective. He was born in the Ukraine, spent part of his childhood in Madagascar and lived much of his adult life in New York City, before being based in France, Israel and Italy while working for the Wall Street Journal. He currently resides in Italy and, thus, while employed by an epitome of capitalist America, did not have a US passport and had the ability, if asked, to simply say he was a newspaper reporter from Italy.

Whether that also meant interviewees were more open with him, he just hit a streak of rabid Islamists or his interviewees are a fair representation of sentiment in the Muslim world is unclear. Yet the ultimate learning of this book is that, whether self-inflicted or not, Muslim views of America are bad and getting worse. And what makes Trofimov’s work depressing — if not frightening — is that it gives no reason to hope that relations with the Islamic world will improve enough to ease or quell the insurgency in Iraq or that we are likely to see meaningful detente with Islamic fundamentalists in our lifetime.

In an ideology that sees America as the enemy of mankind, killing Americans can be easily described as humanitarian work.

Yaroslav Trofimov, Faith at War

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