A Failure of Intelligence

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

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.

How to explain the ebbing of a movement that only a few years earlier had seemed invincible? Kepel cites the breakup of the coalition of disparate elements that had constituted the Islamist alliance. In Egypt, for example, the terrorists' excesses—such as the killing of foreign tourists, along with more than a thousand Egyptians—not only offended the sensibilities of the devout middle class but also achieved the desired goal of devastating the economy by destroying the tourist industry. Islamism had initially promised not only spiritual salvation but also a solution to the social, political, and economic problems besetting the Muslim countries. But after a decade of fundamentalist rule in Iran and Afghanistan the young unemployed were still unemployed, and there was no more hope than before.

Kepel, writing before September 11, sees Islamism as both politically and spiritually bankrupt, which leads him to speculations about the post-Islamist age. Like some of his academic colleagues in America (of the Third Worldist school), he pins his hopes on certain reformist Islamic thinkers who not only rejected terrorist violence but looked for a synthesis between Islamic values and modernity—above all for democracy and a civil society. He refers, for instance, to Tariq Ramadan (the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt back in the 1920s), who through his speeches and books exercised a positive influence on Muslims in France by advocating their integration into French society.

But then came the shock of September 11, which makes it more difficult to look ahead with optimism. Had bin Laden perhaps reversed the decline of the Islamist movement? Kepel still believes after 9/11, as demonstrated by his preface, that the future of Islam can be secured only by reconciling the cultural and religious heritage of a great civilization with the requirements of democratic societies in a world that has become ever more interdependent. And so say all of us. But if a handful of terrorists could upset the great historical transformation he envisaged earlier on, there may have been something doubtful about the basic assumptions underlying his optimism.

Soon after the attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon, Kepel and some like-minded Orientalists came under fire in France. Earlier there had been a debate, in the Paris journal Esprit, between French scholars of Islam and political scientists, with the former arguing that the latter were too secular and Eurocentric and thus had underrated the staying power of fundamentalist religion. But this was a family quarrel, of which the wider public hardly took notice, whereas the attacks on Kepel and his friends after last September were more basic: How could one talk about a post-Islamist age, as Kepel had, at a time when Islam was the one great world religion that was still expanding? Why had the message of bin Laden and other fanatics been treated as something akin to the Catholic theology of liberation? Even Tariq Ramadan, of whom Kepel expected so much, was a conservative, closed in his views to the fundamentalists. If he favored a modest opening to modernity, was this not because he was a citizen of Switzerland, teaching at a Swiss university? How relevant was such a thinker to what went on in the Muslim world? Little more relevant than the publications of relatively liberal journalists in "Londonistan," the world's center of both fundamentalist and nonfundamentalist Arab immigration.

Because Kepel and his fellows must have been aware of the facts, perhaps their misjudgment had something to do with their ideology—their belief that in a conflict between the West and the East the former must be guilty more often than not, just as the Israelis were always bound to be guiltier than the Palestinians, and Christianity guiltier than Islam. Kepel's friends at the Sorbonne, in Aix-en-Provence, and at Sciences Po—France's centers for the study of Islam and Islamism—rushed to his defense. The debate was on the whole less heated and poisonous than similar exchanges between American scholars of the Muslim world and their critics. (This is not surprising, because the misjudgment of Kepel and his friends was minute compared with the misjudgments of American academics, many of whom considered any publication about terrorism in the Muslim world not just politically incorrect but mere propaganda, inventing a nonexistent threat.)

Although it would be ridiculous to have expected from Kepel or from his American counterparts knowledge about the planning of bin Laden's attacks, about targets and weapons, it was perhaps not too much to expect some information about al Qaeda's ambitions and planning. After all, Kepel had for many years been a leading student of the radical Islamist groups in Egypt, the very groups that produced the ideological inspiration and many of the fighters for bin Laden. (It is probably no exaggeration to say that "it all started in Egypt." The Saudis and the North Africans who joined al Qaeda were inspired by the Egyptians—but then, Egypt had always taken the lead in the Arab world.) And it was precisely in the illegal booklets of Egyptian terrorists that the keys to al Qaeda strategy could be found. But Kepel, who once followed their publications closely, apparently lost interest in the topic too early. One such document, "The Strategy of Conflict With the West," makes it clear that the terrorists were bent on more than just ushering the Americans from the Arabian Peninsula or destroying the state of Israel or righting other perceived wrongs from the Balkans to the Philippines; they aimed at no less than the worldwide defeat of the West and the triumph of radical Islam.

Where to find these texts? It would not have been necessary to penetrate bin Laden's inner sanctum. They could be found, for instance, in the book Im Namen Allahs (2000), by Eberhard Serauky, an expert from the former East Germany who, from his vantage point in a Cairo university, diligently followed and analyzed the publications of these groups. Serauky's book is not on the shelves of the Library of Congress, and I doubt that it can be found in any American library. But this document and similar ones could have been obtained by Western Orientalists. The trouble is that Kepel and his fellows would have dismissed these documents as the fantasies of marginal groups of little or no political interest to the outside world. September 11 proved that this bias was a great mistake.

It is to be hoped that reality catches up with Kepel's dream of a new dawn of freedom and democracy rooted in the great tradition of Muslim civilization. But it certainly won't happen soon. One of the most common mistakes committed by intellectuals in politics is to assume that certain recognized evolving trends will culminate in the near future. These thinkers underrate the enormous obstacles and ignore the retarding factors that inevitably prolong such evolutions.

Has Islamism, desperately clinging to old doctrines, really lost most of its support? In Iran, perhaps, and in Afghanistan—that is to say, in the societies that were directly exposed to Taliban rule or something similar. But even in Afghanistan the rulers would probably have hung on to power for a long time absent foreign intervention. And will the mullahs in Iran ever voluntarily surrender power? The end of Islamism will come only as the result of a long, drawn-out process or, more likely, as the result of a violent internal conflict. Meanwhile, the prediction by some nervous observers that a giant firestorm would engulf the whole world if America went after bin Laden has not been realized. (Robert Fisk, a British journalist who made this prediction more vociferously than anyone else, was beaten up by some irate Afghans.)

However, the same conditions that gave birth to Islamism thirty years ago persist: economic stagnation or even negative growth, the unemployment of the young. So do resentment and free-floating rage. If Islamism is bankrupt, where is the ideology to replace it? A nationalist-socialist doctrine could emerge, perhaps with the same ingredients as before but in a different admixture—a populism more Islamic but also in some ways more secular, overseen by regimes headed by leaders with military backgrounds. But it is difficult to see how such regimes would promote the civil society and lead to the new enlightenment that Kepel forecasts. And in the meantime, the temptation remains to regain dignity and power not through real change but through the shortcuts of terrorism.

Furthermore, which segments of the population could be the agents of the renaissance Kepel foresees? The intelligentsia are as confused as before, and their main preoccupation is finding culprits abroad, such as the Elders of Zion and the Western imperialists, for the misery of their society. The precondition for any real change is self-criticism, an honest and pitiless search for the deeper reasons why things went wrong in the Islamic world, why others are strong and Islam is weak, why its societies have become cultural deserts. Such critics have existed in the Muslim world, but so far they have been voices calling in the wilderness.

Considering the continuing fatal Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the various crises forming on the Middle Eastern horizon—the uncertain future of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—one can only hope that the changes Kepel envisages will take place soon. A number of clocks are ticking away, and for all we know, there is not much time left.