Rise of ISIS by Jay Sekulow definitely is not what I expected. At the Itunes page promoting the book, it is described as “the definitive book on ISIS” and is “A must-have for anyone who wants to better understand the conflict that exists in the middle east” (sic). Unfortunately, the book is neither of those things. In fact, it veers so far from ISIS that it does not give any reader what they need to know about ISIS. Readers would be better served reading the work by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan I already reviewed here, despite not being ideal for beginners, because it actually focuses on ISIS.
Why am I being so negative? It’s certainly not for the author’s qualifications. Jay Sekulow clearly has credentials in the field of law and acts as a public voice on legal issues. Very early into the book, I was puzzled about the nature of the material being covered. The foreword describes how Sekulow clarifies “1) the fractured relationship between ISIS, a radical jihadist group that was founded in Iraq and Syria and has directed its efforts toward the creation of the Islamic Caliphate, and Al-Qaeda… 2) the breathtakingly rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq…3) the ideological and visionary links between ISIS and Hamas that combine to threaten Israel’s existence; and 4) substantial evidence revealing how radical jihadist groups like ISIS pose a mounting threat to the American people.” (p.x) The author fails at points one through three and we didn’t need a book to argue for point four. Read next to Hassan and Weiss’ work, no other conclusion is possible.
The book all too briefly digs into the relationship between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but readers without a developed knowledge of the specifics won’t find them here. I barely got to p.4 before Sekulow had jumped to Israel and Hamas describing a harrowing experience with his son narrowly avoiding death by a Hamas rocket. On page 7, after continuing about Hamas, the author states bluntly: “The goal of this book is simple: to understand the horrific jihadist threat to Christians and Jews in the Middle East, a threat that will undoubtedly come to the United States if it is left unchecked abroad. Through ISIS and Hamas, Christians and Jews face a wave of persecution and violence that is, quite simply, genocidal in scope and intent” (emphasis mine). Chapters four through nine are entirely devoted to Hamas and Israel.
This review, to avoid getting as off topic as Mr. Sekulow’s work does, will not engage with his presentations of the history of the conflict between Hamas and Israel in chapters four through nine. Readers can do that for themselves, should they so choose, but instead I will focus on this link he makes between ISIS and Hamas. I have argued elsewhere that no reasonable comparison can be made between ISIS and Hamas, I stand by those arguments, and I won’t rehash them here. Chapter one is so broad it could appear anywhere really, and it adds nothing of substance to the reader’s knowledge. Thus, chapters two and three are the only places a reader will find any specific elaboration on ISIS.
In chapter two, the author covers some useful background history on Islam, especially the split between Sunni and Shi’a. He details how Ataturk dissolved the last Caliphate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. He quotes a speech by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one of the only primary sources related to ISIS this reviewer found. He gives some background, a paragraph’s worth, about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s personal history, then gives a truncated description of the Iraq War that is heavy on sensationalist stories (the veracity of which this reviewer doesn’t doubt) about the experiences of American troops in Iraq. There are no voices of Iraqis here, and the vision that emerges feels as if its through the the rosy night-vision goggles of American soldiers, cleansed of ethical issues like Abu Ghraib, Falluja, or torture. The expanding role of SIGINT intelligence in the surge is absent. He provides an oversimplified account of the surge in Iraq, giving no meaningful account of the Sahwa or its role. Instead, “these gains happened primarily through sheer force of American courage and will.” One of the most important parts of the story, the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011 and its impact on a still fragile Iraq, gets a paragraph of treatment here. For the complicated details of this history, readers will have to look somewhere else.
In Chapter three, Sekulow gets right that ISIS actually does un-Islamic things, namely killing Muslims in a manner not allowed for by Sharia. This is a point he should get credit for. A reader might ask themselves, why is that? Here, Sekulow lapses again, and does not effectively explain why ISIS targets other Muslims, and what interpretation that actually stems from. Equation of jihad with the five pillars of Islam by ISIS and other extremists is the central point here, and explains why ISIS does this. Differently than the vast majority of Muslims, ISIS believe that a Muslim must wage jihad just as that Muslim must pray, fast during Ramadan, visit Mecca, give alms to the poor, and believe fully in the shahada that there is only one God and Muhammad is his messenger. All Muslims agree on the other five pillars, but only a small fraction believe jihad to be obligatory. Thus, ISIS views those Muslims who refuse to engage in violent jihad as shirking one of their basic duties. That is an extreme interpretation, clearly, but one readers of this book do not get explained to them by Sekulow.
Chapter three is where Sekulow has to convince readers that the transition he will make into chapter four, where he leaves ISIS behind and jumps to Hamas, is a legitimate one. The entire structure of the book hinges on this part of the argument, but Sekulow does not give it the attention it deserves. He does not show any proof that the two groups have been in contact, or have coordinated with each other in any way. He does not address the fact that ISIS is, by any rational standard, levels worse than Hamas. He does not acknowledge that Hamas, other issues aside, has won legitimate elections to represent the people of Gaza. ISIS has never won a democratic mandate. Similarly, Sekulow’s presentation of Egypt post-revolution leaves much to be desired, and pushes an all-too-simple line of that the Muslim Brotherhood are bad and the new government under Sisi is good. The much more complex post-revolutionary reality is glossed over. Finally, the fact that Hamas has been doing what it can to stifle, rather than collaborate with, the emergence of ISIS in Gaza proves Sekulow’s position oversimplified and of no value. In reality, these two groups are clashing and Hamas is seen as not Islamic enough by ISIS.
In sum, this book isn’t really about ISIS, and it makes a fundamentally flawed comparison between ISIS and Hamas. Readers looking to learn about ISIS should not waste their time. Indeed, if Sekulow really wanted to make points about Hamas and the laws of war, which comprises the vast majority of the book, he should have made the book explicitly about that topic. That is a worthy topic indeed.