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,
Jihadis 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.
This strategy reached fruition, of course, with 9/11—which garnered al-Qaeda more media attention than it could ever have dreamed of. But just as Kepel saw the local Islamist violence of the mid-1990s as a cause—as well as a consequence—of the movement's decline, he saw 9/11 as weakening al-Qaeda even further. By the time Kepel wrote the introduction to the English-language Jihad, America had routed the Taliban, and it was unclear whether bin Laden and al-Zawahiri had survived the assault. "Desperate terrorist attacks," Kepel wrote, "do not translate easily into political victory and legitimate power. And as it happened, bin Laden and Mullah Omar's hopes to ignite in their fellow believers the fire of a worldwide jihad … failed miserably." In 9/11 and its aftermath, he added, "the world witnessed, in a snapshot, the rise and fall of the most extreme version of Islamism."
But between April of 2002, when Jihad came out in English, and September of 2004, when The War for Muslim Minds was published, events challenged Kepel's thesis once again. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, it turned out, were still alive. And although the United States and its allies had captured several key al-Qaeda operatives, the organization seemed far from collapse. In the two and a half years between Kepel's books al-Qaeda had conducted attacks from Bali to Istanbul to Madrid. More important from Kepel's perspective, it had won support in large swaths of the Muslim world. A poll conducted in March of 2004 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that bin Laden was viewed favorably by 45 percent of Moroccans, 55 percent of Jordanians, and 65 percent of Pakistanis. According to newspaper reports, Osama had become the most popular name for newborn boys in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and northern Nigeria. Although al-Qaeda still had not achieved its central goal of bringing Islamists to power in key Muslim countries, it was arguably closer to doing so in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iraq than when Muhammad Atta and his comrades brought down the Twin Towers. Yet again Gilles Kepel's argument faced the stiff headwinds of conventional wisdom.
The War for Muslim Minds is an odd book. It is clearly the product of deep learning; Kepel knows Islamism well enough to see distinctions where most commentators see only uniformity. His discussions of the competing strains in Saudi Islamist thought and the influence of Internet imams on Muslims in France are worth the book's price alone. Yet amid this intricate history and fascinating micro-sociology are bizarre, unsupported assertions—for example, that the largely Jewish neo-cons in the Bush administration identify with Shiites partly because their ayatollahs remind the neo-cons of rabbis.
The book's argument is faint, and submerges during chapter-length digressions. But at its core The War for Muslim Minds tries to explain why al-Qaeda, contrary to the predictions in Jihad, is not fading. Although Kepel concedes that the organization has inherent strengths, he still assumes that if left to its own devices, it would fail to draw a mass following. The problem, he suggests, is that it is not being left to its own devices. Rather, the Bush administration's war on terror—expressed in disastrous policies toward both the Palestinians and Iraq—is gaining for al-Qaeda an appeal it could never win on its own. In contrast to President Bush, who has responded to 9/11 with an audacious effort to redirect the course of Muslim history, Kepel implicitly calls for something far more modest: prudent management of a threat that—if we let it—can be beaten from within. The war for Muslim minds, Kepel suggests, will be won in Riyadh, Cairo, and the suburbs of Paris. In Washington it can't be won—only lost.
Kepel's critique springs not from the anti-imperialist left but from the realist center. In the 1990s a number of left-leaning academics, in both France and the United States, saw Islamism as potentially democratic. Islamism, the argument went, was the Muslim world's version of the democratic movements of Eastern Europe—the language through which Muslims denounced oppression. Kepel, in contrast, had experienced Islamism's ugliness up close. (As he writes in a 2002 memoir-cum-travelogue, Bad Moon Rising, he spent time early in his career in war-torn Beirut, where he was robbed at gunpoint by thugs whom gullible Westerners called "Islamo-progressives." Years later, also in Beirut, a group calling itself Islamic Jihad murdered one of his colleagues. The horror of that event, Kepel writes, is something he will never forget.) In the 1990s, when many scholars and policymakers were urging Western governments to make overtures to the Islamists who seemed destined to seize power in Algeria, Kepel was dubious. He has no problem calling Islamism a threat; indeed, he supported the French government's recent decision to ban the veil in public schools. And in his mind France and the United States are on the same side in the war bin Laden started—a view that in France today places him in the center, if not on the right. But as more than one American Middle East scholar has pointed out to me, the French center-right is not populated by neo-cons. Kepel is suspicious of ideological crusades and intent on seeing the Muslim world as it is—not as either the left or Paul Wolfowitz might wish it to be. And that realism, which led him to urge a hard line against the Islamists in Algeria a decade ago, leads him to denounce the Bush administration's hard line today.
In Kepel's view, the Bush administration has done al-Qaeda two enormous favors. The first was to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Most conservative and centrist American commentators blame the failure of Oslo on Yasir Arafat—who refused Ehud Barak's proposal of a Palestinian state in all of Gaza, most of the West Bank, and part of Jerusalem, and then launched a second intifada supposedly in response to Ariel Sharon's inflammatory walk on Jerusalem's Temple Mount (the Haram al-Sharif to Muslims). Left-leaning observers, in contrast, generally blame Barak for not making a more generous offer. But for Kepel, blame falls first and foremost on the neo-cons in the Bush administration. He argues,
The neocons wanted an alternative to the Oslo process, one that entailed reshuffling the entire Middle East deck … This step required that Oslo be abandoned. Sharon's provocative stroll along the esplanade of Haram Sharif in September 2000 and Arafat's instigation of the Al Aqsa intifada implicated both men in this geo-strategic vision.
For al-Qaeda, Kepel argues, America's tacit acceptance of a new Israeli-Palestinian war was a godsend. Since 1996, when it began its jihad against the United States, al-Qaeda had focused mostly on America's military presence in Saudi Arabia. As al-Zawahiri himself acknowledged in a December 2001 essay, the Islamists who were "the best qualified to lead the umma [Muslim community] in its jihad against Israel" were "the least active in championing the Palestinian cause." But in 2000 the new intifada—and Israel's harsh response to it—was galvanizing the Muslim world. And al-Qaeda saw an opportunity to broaden its appeal. In his first broadcast statement after 9/11, on October 7, bin Laden announced, "America will never sleep in peace as long as Israel oppresses Palestine." On April 17, 2002, al-Jazeera broadcast al-Qaeda's first clear statement of responsibility for 9/11—a statement Kepel claims was timed to coincide with Israel's controversial military operation in Jenin. On November 28, 2002, al-Qaeda targeted Israelis themselves, in an attack on an Israeli charter flight and a Kenyan beach resort populated by Israeli tourists. And when the terrorist group accepted responsibility, several days later, it vowed, "Criminal acts against our people in Palestine will not go unpunished." Even 9/11 itself, Kepel suggests, was a grand homage to the Palestinians' mode of warfare: "The September 11 attacks completed, extended, and fulfilled the suicide bombings that the Palestinians had perpetrated against Israel for many months."
The neo-cons' second gift to al-Qaeda was the invasion of Iraq. In a pamphlet published in London in December of 2002 al-Zawahiri, opportunistic as always, urged Muslims to avenge Baghdad's fall to the Mongols in the thirteenth century—a clear reference to America's impending war against Saddam. In 2004 two letters bearing bin Laden's name urged "Muslim brothers in Iraq" to battle the "incursion of Crusaders and Jews" and sentenced to death Iraqis who cooperated with the American occupiers. Al-Qaeda's adoption of the Palestinian and Iraqi causes helps Kepel answer his own, unstated question: Why did 9/11 not hasten al-Qaeda's decline? Because al-Qaeda linked its potentially alienating violence to the Palestinians' and the Iraqis' widely popular violence. And the Bush administration made that violence possible.
There are serious problems with Kepel's analysis of the Bush administration's foreign policy. He blames the neo-cons for Oslo's collapse when in reality Oslo died on Bill Clinton's watch—on the day Arafat inaugurated his second intifada. That uprising, which Israelis took as Arafat's response to the most expansive peace offer in Israeli history, virtually guaranteed that no similar offer would be forthcoming so long as Arafat remained in power. When the neo-cons entered the White House, Oslo's corpse was already cold. On Iraq, Kepel may be right that the Bush administration's talk of Saddam's unconventional weapons and links with al-Qaeda concealed an ulterior motive: to remake the Middle East. But he also insinuates that top Bush officials knew Iraq had no significant weapons of mass destruction or terrorism ties—a remarkable suggestion to make without supporting evidence. And he says the Bush administration's "most important" rationale for invading Iraq was safeguarding Israel's security—a charge that veers close to Buchananism.
But ultimately Kepel's mistakes and oversimplifications are less interesting than his alternative view of al-Qaeda. Since the 1990s, when Islamist terrorism replaced communism as the primary threat to American security, conservatives have looked for state sponsors—rogue regimes to be toppled in what they imagine as a replay of 1989. Liberals, in contrast, have seen terrorism as the dark by-product of a globalized world that governments no longer dominate. As John Kerry urged in his 1997 book about international organized crime, The New War, the United States must "lead the world in the fight against 'private' criminal enterprises just as we led the world in the fight against 'public' criminal governments." In that crucial—and underappreciated—intellectual divide Kepel is clearly on the liberals' side. He attributes the Iraq War in part to the fact that the "strategic planners" in the Bush administration were "culturally incapable of grasping an actor that was not, in the final analysis, a state." And his description of al-Qaeda as a "database" linked "through satellite phone connections and bank accounts in offshore tax havens" fits well with Kerry's controversial description of the war on terror as "an intelligence gathering, law enforcement, public diplomacy effort"—not a conventional military struggle.
But there is an even deeper divide—between idealists, neo-con and liberal alike, who see America's key effort in the war on terrorism as ideological, and realists who want to battle a finite group of killers, not a broader world view. For neo-cons like William Kristol and liberals like Paul Berman, 9/11 can't be answered merely with technical skill—a well-executed terrorist capture here, the closing of an Islamist charity there. The battle has to occur at the level of ideas. It is because the invasion of Iraq came to represent the fight against totalitarianism in the Muslim world that I-can't-believe-I'm-a-hawk liberals gave their nervous assent. And it is because neo-cons deemed Islamism the new Marxism that they abandoned their traditional suspicion of nation-building.
The War for Muslim Minds gives war-on-terrorism realism the context it has generally lacked. The premise behind the Iraq invasion, after all, was that Islamism was on the march. Unless America forcibly injected liberalism into the Middle East's bloodstream, the theory went, Hosni Mubarak would eventually lose to Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Crown Prince Abdullah would eventually lose to Osama bin Laden. But if Islamism is not on the march—if al-Qaeda lacks inherent appeal and can mobilize followers only by capitalizing on America's blunders—then competence, not ideology, is exactly what America needs. The intellectual fight against Islamism, Kepel implies, is far too intricate to be fought effectively by American policymakers and public intellectuals who lack a deep, rigorous understanding of Islam. In Bad Moon Rising he notes, "In the past ten years or so, American universities have hardly accumulated any knowledge at all about the Middle East."
To idealistic Americans, Kepel offers the classic realist caution that the world is more complex and less malleable than they imagine. And he adds the comforting thought that if left to themselves, Muslim societies may vanquish al-Qaeda on their own. In mosques and Internet chat rooms from Peshawar to Argenteuil, Kepel implies, sheikhs whom Richard Perle has never heard of, employing a vocabulary Dick Cheney can't understand, may eventually create a post-Islamist politics that makes peace with liberalism and the West. He sees a vital role for the young Muslims of Europe, who, if granted economic opportunity by their host societies, could create a model of tolerant, prosperous Islam that reverberates across the globe. But in these intellectual dramas Kepel sees little constructive role for America—which he hopes will content itself with diligent police work and peace-process diplomacy.
Just after 9/11, when American commentators were bursting with exuberance for the next great struggle against totalitarianism, Kepel's vision would have seemed crimped and insulting. But perhaps today, in an America bewildered and exhausted by Iraq, it holds some appeal. If realism is returning to fashion, Gilles Kepel may finally have the intellectual wind at his back.
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