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We hear more about Muslim extremists than ever before, but Kepel argues that the terrorism seen today throughout the world results from the failure of Islamic fundamentalism and not its success… Fascinating despite its copious detail, Kepel's history has a wider focus than Ahmed Rashid's Jihad and more analytical depth than Robin Wright's Sacred Rage. The first in-depth history of political Islam appropriate for newcomers to Islamic history.
— John Green
In Jihad Gilles Kepel offers a masterly display of scholarship that describes how a radical idea spread through large segments of the Islamic world in the 1970s and 1980s… Mr. Kepel leads us on a breathtaking excursion. He trails the Islamist movements that have traversed Europe in recent years, founding radical communities in France, Britain, Germany and Belgium.
— Adrian Karatnycky
An early and most perceptive student of [Islamism] 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] is probably the best introduction to Islamism currently available.
— Walter Laqueur
[Kepel] is one of the world's leading experts on the Islamic resurgence: [He] began doing fieldwork among fundamentalists in the Middle East in the 1970s, and he has remained attuned to their world ever since. Only a handful of scholars can command as much authority, and none of these is as bold as Kepel… Kepel's willingness to investigate the entire Muslim world in a single volume helps us greatly in our attempt to understand al Qaeda, whose tentacles extend into almost every Islamic country. The combination of scope and expertise puts this book in a league of its own. Kepel grounds his argument in a sophisticated analysis of inter-Muslim relations. Given all the stale talk of a clash of civilizations, there is a freshness to Kepel's focus on the international Muslim debate. We have never been sufficiently aware that the primary architects of the Islamic revolt against the West have regarded their struggle as a tool for gaining power over fellow Muslims.
— Michael Scott Doran
Jihad…will be a welcome respite for anyone who fears the fury associated with militant Islam. Despite the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, Gilles Kepel argues that the trend is, in fact, now on its last legs. The violence is merely a reflection of the movement's failure, not its success… [Kepel] comes to this conclusion in a thoughtful and expansive chronicle of the contemporary Islamist movement from Cairo to Kabul, from Kuala Lumpur all the way to 'Londonistan'… [This book] is a compelling read that makes an appealing case.
— Robin Wright
Gilles Kepel's Jihad…makes an ideal companion to morning newspapers filled with frustratingly context-free briefs from the war on terrorism… This is a decidedly grounded book; it's political in the most elemental sense of the word. Although Kepel clearly believes in the Western ideal of civil society, he puts himself in the place of ordinary Muslims in the nations he writes about, rather than viewing their problems from a Western perspective.
— Laura Miller
The author of several influential books on Islam, [Gilles Kepel has] spent the last five years writing Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. September 11 gave him a new framework, but he sees that event in a way that will surprise (and please) many who have lately been trying to comprehend the meaning of Islamic politics… An usual commentator on recent events, Professor Kepel is a messenger carrying good news.
— Robert Fulford
The French scholar Gilles Kepel, who documents the failure of political Islam in [this] excellent book…makes a comparison to communism. It was in the 1960s, after communism had lost any possible appeal to ordinary people—after the revelations about Stalin's brutality, after the invasion of Hungary, as its economic model was decaying—that communist radicals turned to terror. They became members of the Red Brigades, the Stern Gang, the Naxalites, the Shining Path. Having given up on winning the hearts of people, they hoped that violence would intimidate people into fearing them. That is where radical political Islam is today.
— Fareed Zakaria
Kepel's timely volume is the first in-depth attempt to follow the history and geography of this political–religious phenomenon… Kepel concludes that the movement will have great difficulty reversing its decline in the 21st century. Written lucidly, this excellent study fills a gap in the literature.
— S. Ayubi
A veritable deluge of books has appeared in bookstores since Sept. 11, 2001, purporting to lay bare the background of militant Islam. Perhaps the most definitive is Gilles Kepel's Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Kepel is well-placed to tell its story given his extensive travels in the very places where militant Islam was born and nurtured. He has used that experience to craft a compelling account of the movements that make it up… Kepel's survey of that world is a remarkably useful tool in placing in context the various groups that appear in our newspapers but remain little more than shadowy cells with vague agendas.
— Steven Martinovich
Copyright © 2002 HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved.
On September 11, 2001, within the space of twenty minutes, two American airliners struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. The towers subsequently collapsed, with the loss of almost three thousand lives. At the same time, another hijacked jet crashed into the Pentagon, while a fourth, probably aimed at the White House, failed to reach its target and plummeted into a field in Pennsylvania. Never in its history had the mainland United States been the target of so massive an attack. The surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan was the only precedent in living memory—and this had been an assault against a military base on a distant Pacific island. The carnage of September 11 was deliberately aimed at civilians and struck at the principal symbols of American hegemony: commercial and financial power, military supremacy, and—missing its target in this third case only—political power. This was a seismic event with incalculable consequences. It exposed the fragility of the United States' empire, exploded the myth of its invincibility, and called into question all the certainties and beliefs that had ensured the triumph of American civilization in the twentieth century.Many feared that it was only the first in a series of planned atrocities.
Quite apart from the infamy of the massacre, the agony of the victims and their families, the grief of America, the precipitous drop in the nation's stock markets, the threat of bankruptcy among several airlines, and a more general upheaval in the world's economy, the cataclysm of September 11 was visually shattering. The sight of the jetliners flying headlong into the skyscrapers, followed by the buildings' awesome collapse, will remain deeply engraved on the collective memory of humankind for generations. The images, broadcast all over the planet by television, instantly sent shock waves rolling outward, magnifying the original impact.
The exactness of the terrorists' synchronization had two powerful and immediate effects. The first, clearly, was to terrorize and appall by the sheer numbers of innocent victims, with whom everyone could identify. The second was to mobilize the support of Muslims whom the authors of the attack wished to win over to their cause—to arouse emotional sympathy and enthusiasm and to galvanize with an example of victory won by violence. The purpose of this book is to shed light on this second effect of September 11, by placing these recent events within a historical perspective that covers the unfolding of the Islamist movement over the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century.
After a few days of hesitation, the leaders of the United States laid the blame for the massacre squarely on the shoulders of former Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden and on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that had given him sanctuary. On October 7 bin Laden responded with a televised message in which he exulted that "Allah had blessed a vanguard group of Muslims, the spearhead of Islam, to destroy America." Though he stopped short of personally claiming credit for the attack in that broadcast, the cumulative evidence seemed conclusive enough to provoke a massive retaliation. By the end of September, American and British forces were deployed around Afghanistan, and the Taliban was ordered to surrender bin Laden or face destruction. From his base in Kandahar, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Commander of the Faithful of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, responded by calling the world's Muslims to join him in a jihad, or holy war, against the United States and its allies, should they attack his country.
The United States also sought to build alliances and isolate the other side before the opening of hostilities in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates was persuaded to break off diplomatic and commercial relations with the Kabul regime—which was vitally important, given that the Taliban's economic and financial access to the outside world was mainly directed through this channel. American troops were prepositioned in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, an unprecedented event for which the quid pro quo would be giving the Kremlin a free hand in dealing with the Chechen uprising.
The president of Pakistan, where the Taliban's strongest contingent of supporters reside, also gave his support to the United States. Taliban members were mostly drawn from Palistani madrassas affiliated with the Deoband School of India—a movement theoretically capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of students who, in blind obedience to their teachers, would pass on Mullah Omar's call to jihad. World television relayed the images of orchestrated demonstrations in Pakistan, in which bearded, turbaned men burned American flags and brandished portraits of bin Laden; these are Deobandis, as are the paramilitary groups who specialize in butchering Pakistani Shiites and waging guerrilla warfare against the Indian army in eastern Kashmir. However, the Deobandis' capacity for mass mobilization was very much open to question in a country of 160 million people exhausted by internal struggles, whose very cohesion would be imperiled by a fresh plunge into religious radicalism. For many years, U.S. support has been vital to the survival of Pakistan, a nation barely fifty years old with a history of persistent unrest. This was the reasoning behind its president's decision to throw in his lot with the Americans. Besides, Pakistani realpolitik needed the "strategic depth" of a friendly Afghanistan in a region where India, Shiite Iran, Russia, and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia are all viewed with mistrust by Islamabad.
By late October, American planes had carpet-bombed military targets in Kabul and other strongholds of the adversary. Like chess players, the terrorists behind the September 11 attacks seem to have anticipated well in advance that the United States would seek military revenge against Afghanistan. Three days before the passenger jets struck New York and Washington, Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan opposition to the Taliban regime, was assassinated in his fief in the Panshir Valley by two North Africans carrying Belgian passports. The men were purportedly there to interview him and were carrying journalists' cards issued by a radical Islamist news organization based in London.1 The two killers died with Massoud when their booby-trapped camera exploded. Massoud was far and away the most credible figure around whom the United States might have united opposition to the Taliban regime, when they launched their offensive after September 11. The assassination of Massoud was clearly a prelude to the attack on American soil. It was meant to preclude the unification of Afghan opposition to the Taliban. The murder slowed this unification somewhat, but soon Northern Alliance forces, many of them true to Massoud's legacy, if trained and equipped by the United States, would spearhead the ground offensive against the Taliban regime.
The terrorism of September 11 was above all a provocation—albeit a provocation of gigantic proportions. Its purpose was to provoke a similarly gigantic repression of the Afghan civilian population and to build universal solidarity among Muslims in reaction to the victimization and suffering of their Afghan brothers. In this second act of the terrorists' drama, the roles are reversed: the attacker becomes passive, and he himself is attacked, while the original victim of terrorism becomes the prime mover. Should the United States and its allies succeed in identifying their target with precision and thereby limiting the ravages of war among the civilian population, which the terrorists would undoubtedly use as a human shield, then there would be no third act. On the other hand, had the repression gotten out of control and caused huge numbers of civilian casualties—what military spokesmen bloodlessly describe as "collateral damage"—the trap would have closed and the third act, that of solidarity, would have begun. The terrorist actor would then have attempted to become the catalyst of a mass movement of outrage, driven by the language of jihad against the "impious" invaders of Islamic land who massacre innocent Muslims.
Thus, for the anti-terrorist coalition, the objective was to isolate and wipe out bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda, and its Afghan protectors while minimizing civilian losses. For bin Laden and the Taliban, the goal was to rouse the Muslim world in solidarity against the American offensive and sweep Islamists to power in Muslim countries throughout the world.
For all its political successes in the 1970s and 1980s, by the end of the twentieth century the Islamist movement had signally failed to retain political power in the Muslim world, in spite of the hopes of supporters and the forebodings of enemies. The waning of the movement's capacity for political mobilization explains why such spectacular and devastating new forms of terrorism have now been visited on the American homeland. As we will see in the chapters that follow, September 11 was an attempt to reverse a process in decline, with a paroxysm of destructive violence.
The last twenty-five years have witnessed both the waxing and waning of the militant Islamist movement—a phenomenon whose emergence was as spectacular as it was unforeseen. In the 1970s, at a time when the decay of religion in the private sphere appeared to be an irreversible trend of modern life, the sudden expansion of political groups proclaiming the Islamic state, swearing by the Koran alone, calling for jihad, and drawing their activists from the world's great cities was an event that cast into doubt a host of previous certainties. Worldwide, the initial reaction was dismay: in the eyes of leftist intellectuals, both among Muslims and in the West, Islamist groups represented a religious variant of fascism, while for middle-of-the-road liberals their members were no more than born-again medieval fanatics.
But gradually, as Islamist numbers increased, critics of the movement began to pay closer attention. The left discovered that Islamism had a popular base; consequently, Marxist thinkers of every stripe, casting about for the mass support so critical to their ideology, began to credit Islamist activists with socialist virtues. Some sought to open a political dialogue; others even converted to the creed. Meanwhile, it began to dawn on people further to the right that Islamists were preaching moral order, obedience to God, and hostility to the "impious" materialists—meaning communists and socialists. This was reason enough to generate approval among conservatives, and ample funds when necessary. Even though the popular attitude remained generally hostile, more and more people began to view Islamism as the authentic creed of modern Muslims—and to see in it perhaps the outline of an Islamic civilization within the multicultural world of the coming twenty-first century.
Thus, barely a generation after many Muslim nations won their independence, the Islamic world entered a religious era that largely canceled out the nationalist period which preceded it. The theoretical basis for the Islamist movement was devised in the late 1960s by the ideologists Mawdudi in Pakistan, Qutb in Egypt, and Khomeini in Iran. But it did not emerge as a potent political force until after the Israeli-Arab war of 1973. The overall winners of that conflict were Saudi Arabia and the other oil-exporting nations, who saw the price of oil soar beyond all expectation, making the Persian Gulf states unconscionably rich. The first phase of Islamism—upheaval—was sealed by the 1979 Islamist Revolution in Iran. Khomeini's radical regime galvanized the masses and mobilized the deprived against injustice. The Saudi royal family, by contrast, as Custodians of the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina, threw their fabulous wealth behind a more conservative approach. The Saudis exalted moral rigor above all else and were ready to fund the growth of any group or party that preached their creed, anywhere in the world.
So from the outset the Islamist movement was two-pronged. First, it embraced the younger generation in the cities, a class created by the postwar demographic explosion in the Third World and the resultant mass exodus from the countryside. Though poverty-stricken, these young urbanites had access to literacy and some education. Second, it included the traditional God-fearing bourgeoisie, the descendants of mercantile families from the bazaars and souks who had been thrust aside during the process of decolonization. In addition to this devout middle class, there were also doctors, engineers, and businessmen who had gone away to work in the conservative oil-exporting nations and had rapidly become wealthy while being kept outside the traditional circles of political power. All these social groups, with their different ambitions and worldviews, for the space of a generation found in the political ideals of Islamism an echo of their frustrations and a reflection of their hopes and dreams. Not surprisingly, the most enthusiastic propagandists were young intellectuals, freshly graduated from technical and science departments, who had themselves been inspired by the ideologues of the 1960s.
The equivocal nature of Islamism's message, within which the devout Muslim capitalist could make common cause with the slumdweller, allowed the movement to spread rapidly in the early 1980s. Its religious cast, which effectively made militants accountable to God alone, provided a grace period before they were required to show concrete political results in the real world. By promising to re-establish social justice on the model of the first state of Islam set up by the Prophet Mohammed in Medina, the Islamists held out a vision of utopia. They also gave expression to the populace's visceral hostility toward regimes gnawed by corruption, bankruptcy (both economic and moral), and authoritarianism—for, broadly speaking, such was the order of things throughout the Muslim world at that time.
But contradictions at Islamism's core sharpened as well during this second phase. The question of who would control this potent new religious and political force was a matter of growing concern to the various powers in the region. Some tried to stifle it, others to encourage it; all interfered with it in one way or another. The Iranian revolution had given other established regimes much food for thought; it was only too clear that by alienating the mullahs, the shah had isolated himself, losing support within Iranian society. By contrast, Khomeini triumphed because he was able to unite, in a single irresistible dynamic, the merchants, the poor, and even the secular middle classes, who believed that, in the aftermath, they could easily outflank this charismatic but impotent old man—or so they thought.
The entire decade of the 1980s was overshadowed by a power struggle between the Saudi monarchy and Khomeini's Iran. Tehran sought to export its revolution, just as the Russians had once exported theirs. Riyadh set out to contain this ploy, just as the Americans had contained the Soviets during the Cold War. Countries between these two poles, such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Malaysia, encouraged their homegrown Islamist militants, whom they perceived as allies against the enduring threat of socialism. But they were not always able to control the genies of social change once released, as was proven in 1981 when the Al-Jihad group assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
With the exception of Iran, all the regimes in power in Muslim countries during the 1980s concentrated their efforts on strategically dividing the various components of the Islamist movement. The guarantees they gave to the devout middle class were designed to detach them from the poor. Political leaders feared that the constant but ineffectual rioting of the Muslim masses would eventually grow into fullblown revolution and sweep more radical elements into power. By making concession after concession in the moral and cultural domains, governments gradually created a reactionary climate of "re-Islamization." They sacrificed secularist intellectuals, writers, and other "Westernized elites" to the tender mercies of bigoted clerics, in the hope that the latter, in return, would endorse their own stranglehold on the organs of state. Saudi Arabia in particular distributed largesse, fostered allegiances, and cultivated the loyalty of the devout middle class by giving it access to the financial benefits offered by a new Islamic banking system.
In 1980, with the blessing of the Gulf oil-producing states and the West, Iraq's Saddam Hussein declared war on revolutionary Iran. Though himself once the head of a secularist party, the Baath, he now mobilized the forces of religion in his own country in order to keep them out of Khomeini's control. Tehran retaliated with terrorism, taking Western hostages through the Hezballah in Lebanon and disrupting the pilgrimage to Mecca to tip the balance of power in its favor. But in the end, the decisive battlefield proved to be Afghanistan, where a successful jihad was financed by the oil monarchies of the Gulf and the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.
As far as the United States was concerned, this holy war in Afghanistan had one explicit goal: to set a Vietnam-like deathtrap for the Soviet forces that had invaded Kabul in December 1979 and thus to precipitate the collapse of the Soviet empire. As far as the Gulf oil states were concerned, Afghanistan's function was to divert the attention of the world's radical militants away from the Saudis' lucrative partnership with the American "Great Satan" by focusing their loathing on the Soviet invader.
The Afghan jihad against the Soviets became the great cause with which Islamists worldwide identified, moderates and radicals alike. In the minds of many Arabs, jihad supplanted the Palestinian cause and symbolized the shift from nationalism to Islamism. In addition to the local mujahedeen, or holy warriors, the international brigades in Afghanistan hailed from all over the Muslim world—Egypt, Algeria, the Arabian peninsula, and Southeast Asia. They lived in closed communities, where they received intensive training in guerrilla warfare techniques and built up a variant of Islamist ideology based on armed struggle and extreme religious rigor.
Up to 1989, the intelligence agencies of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States were convinced that the bearded freedom fighters who had come to do battle with the Soviet Evil Empire on the hilly Afghan terrain were firmly under control and were demonstrating a pro-West Islamist alternative to the road taken by the Iranian revolution. In that year, Islamism reached its peak of intensity as a political force. During the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the hegemony of the Palestine Liberation Organization came under threat from the Islamist Resistance Movement (Hamas). In Algeria, the Front Islamique du Salut won decisively in the first free elections since independence. And in the Sudan, a military coup d'tat catapulted the Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi to power. When the Soviet Army finally evacuated Afghanistan in 1989, the triumph of jihad and its Saudi sponsors was sealed.
In 1989, Khomeini, whose losses had forced him to sign an armistice with Iraq, more than made up for his failure to export revolution by issuing his famous fatwa (or legal opinion—in this case, a death sentence) against Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses. With this gesture, the Iranian ayatollah symbolically expanded the Umma, the world, ruled by the laws of Islam straight into Europe and the West. He claimed the right to condemn to death a citizen of the United Kingdom in the UK—and the West took him seriously. In the same year, the wearing of the veil by Muslim schoolgirls in France sparked a nationwide debate that demonstrated the extent to which the Islamist movement had penetrated second-generation immigrants. And while all this was going on, the sudden collapse of the Berlin wall, signaling a more general implosion of the Communist system, opened the way for the Umma to extend its political reach beyond the Iron Curtain and gradually to embrace the new Muslim states of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and finally Bosnia, in the heart of Europe. The evaporation of militant socialism created a vacuum that Islamism seemed ideally qualified to fill.
But the movement's veneer of invincibility was misleading. For one thing, Islamism's popular base was far from secure. The fragile alliance between the young urban poor and the devout middle class, which was held together by intellectuals preaching the doctrines of Islamism, was ill-prepared for any kind of protracted confrontation with entrenched state authorities. With increasing success, governments figured out ways to pit the two camps against one another, exposing the underlying conflict between their true social agendas and their shared but vague desire to set up an Islamic state and implement the sharia—the code of law based on the Koran.
Excerpted from Jihad by Gilles Kepel. Copyright © 2002 by HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted October 18, 2007
Excellent book with insight into the formation of many of the islamic political groups at the forefront of todays news. Excellent background for those interested in how the political landscape was formed in the Middle East today.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.