Books March 2005

Backfire

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

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.

It was there, Kepel argues, that al-Qaeda hatched a new strategy. Instead of going country by country, painstakingly trying to build local movements capable of overthrowing individual regimes, it would attack the "faraway enemy"—the United States—in the hope that by humiliating the superpower that guaranteed political order in the Middle East, it would embolden the Muslim masses against their governments. As Kepel writes in The War for Muslim Minds, al-Zawahiri was the first al-Qaeda leader "to switch gears and give priority to the international struggle." He continues, "In an age of satellite television, Zawahiri reasoned, international media attention must replace the patient, close work of recruitment through Islamic charity associations that in the past had targeted potential sympathizers and militants."

The first sign of this new offensive came in June of 1996, only a month after bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, when a truck bomb exploded outside of Khobar Towers, a U.S. Army barracks in Saudi Arabia. Two months later bin Laden issued a "declaration of jihad against Americans occupying the land of the two holy sites [Mecca and Medina]." In February of 1998 bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and other Islamist leaders broadened the new jihad, calling for "the killing of Americans and Jews wherever they may be." Six months later al-Qaeda destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The date of the attack, August 7, was no accident: it was the eighth anniversary of Riyadh's decision to allow U.S. troops on Saudi soil. Two years later, in October of 2000, al-Qaeda operatives detonated an explosive-laden dinghy alongside the USS Cole, docked at a port in Yemen, killing seventeen Marines.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Shifting Our Moral Compass?

"The experience of taking another human life becomes much more trivial."


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In