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THE reek of the twin towers’ rubble still permeated Lower Manhattan when Yaroslav Trofimov’s editor at The Wall Street Journal gave him an assignment that is the stuff of a foreign correspondent’s fantasies: to travel through the lands of Islam and find out how Muslims were reacting to America’s tragedy. Fluent in Arabic and carrying an Italian passport, the Ukrainian-born Trofimov gained access to people who wouldn’t speak to most Westerners, especially Americans. Over three years, he met jihadists in Yemen, politicians in Bosnia, liberals in Tunisia, conservative clerics in Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon, caravaneers in mythic Timbuktu, and now gives us »Faith at War,» part travel book, part political and cultural commentary, part adventure story and altogether superb, gracefully written guide into what he calls »the Islamic universe.»

»Faith at War» serves as a kind of wormhole, through which we can enter that parallel universe and begin to comprehend it. The news it brings will not comfort those who believe that globalization is drawing us closer together. On his first stop, Cairo, undergraduates dining in a McDonald’s a few days after 9/11 demonstrate that it’s possible to delight in a Big Mac and in the fiery deaths of 3,000 Americans at the same time. »Everyone celebrated,» an 18-year-old university student gushes as she dips her fries into ketchup, »cheering that America finally got what it deserved.»

This and similar encounters lead Trofimov to conclude that poverty is not the root cause of Islamic extremism: »Often those with the most bloodthirsty ideas were the well-to-do and the privileged who have had some experience with the West — and not the downtrodden and ignorant ‘masses’ that are usually depicted as the font of anti-Western fury.»

‘Faith at War’: Why They Hate Us