Books March 2002

A Failure of Intelligence

Gilles Kepel's obituary of Islamism was written before September 11
  • Jihad

    By Gilles Kepel
    Harvard University Press, 416 pages, $29.95

Islamism is the most widely discussed -ism of our time, and also the most controversial. It has appeared under various headings, including fundamentalism, radical Islam, political Islam, and integrisme (in France). It has been in existence in one form or another for a few decades, but it became a political force only after the death, in 1970, of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which also marked the demise of Nasserism, the most recent phase of Arab nationalism. Nine years later the Shah's regime fell and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran from his Paris exile.

By that time, at the very latest, there could have been no doubt that a new movement had appeared on the international scene, claiming to be (and believed by many to be) the wave of the future. It preached a return to the strictest observation of the Koran and the shari'a (as it interpreted them) and the destruction of all its enemies, foreign and domestic. If Khomeini was the prophet of the Shi'ite brand of Islam, Sayyid Qutb had been the inspiration of the far more numerous Sunni radicals. Qutb, a secular Egyptian writer, returned to the religion of his forefathers following a two-year stay in the United States in the late 1940s (a confrontation with a civilization he loathed). Like some other converts, he became a zealot thirsting for martyrdom. A man of mediocre intelligence who did not produce a single new idea, he preached a fanatic obscurantism. Similar figures can be found in the history of other religions, but Qutb also advocated violence—not only against Christians and Jews (something that would not have caused him any trouble in Nasser's Egypt) but also against fellow Muslims who did not accept his version of Islam. Thus he was on a collision course with the government of the day, and in 1966 Nasser had him hanged.

But the radicalism of Qutb's message and in particular his appeal to violence attracted a variety of Muslims— students who could not find jobs; the religiously observant lower middle class, distrustful of modernity; and, generally speaking, all those disaffected by the state of affairs in the Muslim world who had become intellectually homeless after the failure of Arab nationalist ideology and of Marxism. Marxism, to paraphrase Stalin's inelegant saying, had fitted Arab society as a saddle fitted a cow, but it had a certain influence on intellectuals in North Africa and Egypt. Broadly speaking, many intellectual followers of Nasserism and Marxism came to embrace Islamism.

The rise of Islamism was observed with interest and sometimes with sympathy in the West. Influential circles in the State Department and the CIA regarded its adherents as potential allies against the Soviet Union in the Cold War—though not in Iran, of course. This flirtation continued even after the Cold War; when the archives are opened, they will probably reveal that the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs regarded Algerian Islamists with at least some benevolence. American academics were intrigued by Islam, believing that it had a "democratic essence." They regarded Islamism overall as a progressive force, despite such blemishes as its treatment of women and its other shortcomings.

An early and a most perceptive student of this movement was Gilles Kepel, a French political scientist who has traveled widely through the Muslim world and has written about fundamentalism in both the East and the West. He is also the best-known commentator on Islamic affairs on French television, and he has advised international leaders at the Davos conferences. In short, Kepel is not only a leading scholar but also a man of the world. Jihad was published in France in 2000 (the American edition has a preface written after September 11). The book is probably the best introduction to Islamism currently available. Nevertheless it shows that even some of the best-informed students of the subject published obituaries too early. Kepel certainly failed to foresee recent developments. In other words, Jihad is also a study in intelligence failure—a fact that has provoked an interesting debate in France.

The heyday of Islamism, as Kepel sees it, was in the 1980s and early 1990s. The rule of the fundamentalists seemed unchallenged in Iran; power had fallen into their hands in Sudan; Islamists in Algeria and Egypt were trying to overthrow local governments. Furthermore, an international Islamist brigade in Afghanistan resisted and eventually defeated the Red Army. (That Islam caused the downfall of the Soviet empire has become something of a myth among Islamic radicals. In fact the Afghan war was merely one of several reasons, and by no means the most important one, for the collapse of the USSR. It may well be that in the end the Taliban's leaders came to believe their own propaganda and were thus induced to defy the United States, which they thought was much weaker than the Soviet Union had been.)

By the mid-1990s Kepel had reached the conclusion that Islamic radicalism was on the decline. In Algeria, Islamists had been militarily defeated; worse, they had alienated the local population and done great harm to their cause all over the Muslim world by indiscriminately slaughtering tens of thousands of their fellow Algerians. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak had weakened the terrorist movement through mass arrests; but quarrels among the militants contributed to the movement's perceived decline as well. (Part of this story is told in a verbose, repetitive, and not very modest but very revealing autobiography—Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, by Ayman al-Zawahiri, also known as Dr. Death, Osama bin Laden's closest associate.) Sudan, too, turned against the Islamists, in an effort to escape the international isolation into which it had maneuvered itself. It handed over Carlos the Jackal, who had found asylum in Sudan, to the French, who put him on trial. (Khartoum seems also to have been willing to pass on intelligence about bin Laden and his gang.) In Iran there were signs that the regime was mellowing: the moderate Mohammad Khatami was elected head of the government. And in Saudi Arabia some women demonstrated for the right to drive a car unaccompanied by a husband or a male relative.

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