Books March 2005


A leading observer of militant Islam argues that the movement will undermine itself—if only the United States will let it

Four years ago Gilles Kepel, a scholar of Islam at the Institute of Political Studies, in Paris, published a very good book at a very awkward time. The book, written in French, was titled Jihad: Expansion et Déclin de l'Islamisme. Its thesis, illustrated in impressive detail, was that Islamism—the movement to replace existing Muslim governments with ones that rule according to sharia, or Islamic law—was falling apart. Islamism, Kepel argued, was the creation of the generation of Muslim intellectuals who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the first generation with no real memory of colonial rule. Viewing independence as a fact rather than a heroic accomplishment, these intellectuals felt little of their parents' gratitude toward the nationalist, largely secular movements that had liberated their countries. Instead they saw those movements—now hardened into regimes—as brutal, hypocritical, and corrupt. Independence had brought the expansion of literacy and higher education—an expansion that produced many of the Islamist intellectuals themselves. But because it had provided neither widespread political participation nor economic opportunity, these intellectuals found themselves locked out of a narrow, self-interested nationalist elite.

In their effort to build a counter-movement, they turned to Islam—the most potent mobilizing ideology in their societies, and one that highlighted the discrepancy between secular, Westernized governing classes and the populations they ruled. But the Islamist intellectuals couldn't take power alone. They needed the support of two other constituencies: the poor masses flooding into the cities, who would be their foot soldiers, and the pious bourgeoisie, who would be their benefactors. This alliance, Kepel argued, proved impossible to assemble. Except in Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, every Islamist movement lacked one of the necessary elements.

At first these deficiencies were not widely apparent, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s Islamists seemed to be on the march everywhere. In 1987 the intifada against Israel produced Hamas, which challenged the secular Palestine Liberation Organization's long-running dominance of Palestinian politics. In 1989 a coup brought the cleric Hassan al-Turabi to power in Sudan, giving Islamists their first triumph in a Sunni country. That same year the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan, allowing the Arab Islamists who had fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen to claim victory over a superpower. Then, in December of 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front swept the first free national elections in Algerian history. Algeria's ruling socialists canceled the second round of balloting, and the country plunged into civil war—a war that many assumed the Islamists would eventually win. Six months later violence broke out in Egypt, as well—another country where Islamism seemed to be growing inexorably stronger.

But whereas many commentators saw this violence as evidence of the Islamists' increasing power, Kepel saw it as evidence of their hidden weakness. The turn to violence, he argued, was a desperate attempt to create across class lines the widespread revolutionary fervor that years of peaceful organizing had failed to arouse. And it backfired. Not only did it provoke ferocious government counterattacks but it horrified the very people it was supposed to inspire. In November of 1997, after a massacre in Luxor that killed fifty-eight tourists and provoked overwhelming revulsion, Egypt's Gamaa al-Islamiya halted its armed struggle. That same year—having alienated their former supporters with six years of terrifying bloodshed—Algeria's Islamists also laid down their arms. Even where the Islamists held power they seemed to be losing steam. In 1997 voters elected the reformist cleric Muhammad Khatami as Iran's president, and by 1999 Hassan al-Turabi was out of power in Khartoum. Violence, Kepel argued, had "proven to be a death trap for Islamists as a whole, precluding any capacity to hold and mobilize the range of constituencies they need to seize political power."

Jihad would have dwelled in academic obscurity but for an accident of timing. The book was sitting at Harvard University Press, awaiting publication in English, when terrorists slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Suddenly Americans were desperate to understand the phenomenon Kepel had spent his career investigating. But with close to 3,000 Americans dead at Islamist hands, Kepel's contrarian thesis seemed almost offensive. When Jihad finally came out in English, the following spring, it received respectful reviews. But many reviewers said that events had dealt its argument a serious blow. In the March 2002 edition of this magazine Walter Laqueur wrote,

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.

For the English edition Kepel substituted a less controversial subtitle: The Trail of Political Islam. But despite that concession, his new introduction and conclusion clung to the original argument—and incorporated 9/11 within it. That updated argument, which Kepel extends in his latest work, The War for Muslim Minds, offers a stark challenge to the assumptions that have guided America's war on terrorism for the past three years.

For Kepel, 9/11 was an epic, intercontinental version of the violence Islamists visited upon Algeria and Egypt in the mid-1990s. In other words, it was the culmination of years of failure. From 1992 to 1996, while Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were based in al-Turabi's Sudan, they—like other veterans of the Afghan jihad—focused on overthrowing "apostate" Muslim regimes. Bin Laden's primary foe was the Saudi monarchy, which had incurred his wrath by inviting in U.S. troops after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait for protection against Saddam Hussein. Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, was particularly concerned with Hosni Mubarak, whom he had unsuccessfully plotted to assassinate in 1995. Al-Qaeda tried to help Islamists take power in Chechnya, where they had modest success, and Bosnia, where they had none. Gradually, according to Kepel, al-Qaeda's leaders realized that Islamism was losing its struggle against the regimes of the Muslim world. As if to underscore the point, in 1996 Khartoum began mending fences with the West—and bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were shipped off to backward Afghanistan.

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Peter Beinart is the editor of The New Republic.

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