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.