A deadly discord beneath the Prophet's banner

The War for Muslim Minds
March 25, 2005

Gilles Kepel is a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, but this work, like his last title written in English, Bad Moon Rising , is by no means a normal academic book. Gone are the burden of proof, in-depth argumentation and explicit methodology. In their stead is a brisk narrative in which structured analysis is replaced with authorial statement offering itself as fact. And, unlike most academics, Kepel has the gall to write of contemporary Islamism, the radical wing of Islam today, as a story .

He traces this story from the salons of disaffected early 20th-century Cairene intellectuals and the 18th-century political compromises of the al-Saud dynasty, through the mountains of Mujahidin-controlled Afghanistan and the failure of political process in the Maghreb, to 9/11 and the beheading of Kenneth Bigley. Although he covers much of the same ground as others working on the rise of extremist political Islam in the Muslim world, he highlights certain areas.

There is a notion cherished by the conventional European Left and by most of the Arab world that if the Arab-Israeli conflict were fixed in ways equitable to the Palestinians, it would eradicate Islamists such as Osama bin Laden. Kepel, like most serious scholars of Islamism, does not agree, although Palestine plays a central role in his argument for historical and current political reasons. He sees Palestine as the place where the Arab world was forced to improvise asymmetric warfare, and he writes of the propaganda use to which Palestine has been put by men such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's mentor. Although the rise of political Islam is generally seen as politics instrumentalising religion, Kepel reminds us that religion is adept at instrumentalising politics.

Ideology figures prominently in Kepel's analysis of Islamism, in contrast to most Western scholars. To those on the far Right in the West, Muslims such as Mohammed Atta, bin Laden and Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi are the true face of Islam. On the Left, 9/11 was interpreted as a sign that the politically disenfranchised of the world had had enough of Western political hegemony. Neither side took the trouble to analyse the belief systems (and political calculations arising from them) that had justified those attacks in the minds of the attackers.

Kepel's earlier Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam showed how Islamism failed to acquire power in its home countries. That analysis - correct, of course - allowed some in the West to breathe a sigh of relief. The new book explains why their relief was misguided. Using al-Zawahiri's famous text, Knights under the Prophet's Banner , Kepel shows how the dream of radical Islam, which was once yoked to the concept of the nation-state, reprogrammed itself as a battle for the umma (community of believers), a notion that had all but disappeared after the demise of the Ottoman empire.

But it is not just the Islamists whose pamphlets and manifestos receive close textual criticism. Kepel applies the same analysis to the Leo Strauss-inspired neoconservatives, Paul Wolfowitz foremost among them.

Although Kepel may appear to be respectful of some neocon ideals (like many others, including a brace of rebel Marxists from across the Arab world), he implicitly renders their position as the counterpart of bin Ladenism.

Without going as far as to state it, he suggests that these juggernaut ideologies in Washington DC and in the Arab world somehow fuel each other's engines; they are mutually enhancing, together polarising still further the bipolar world they have themselves concocted.

The book deals in concise and convincing ways with Saudi Arabia's Muslim Brotherhood and the deadly influence of Wahhabi Islam. This is one of the best short analyses of that country's past and future available. And the chapter on the war in Iraq allows Kepel to look, unsparingly and in depth, at the global political fallout of the issues he has described in the preceding pages. Indeed, as of now, The War for Muslim Minds can be regarded as a standard, perhaps even definitive, layman's guide to the current state of Islamism, and a work that deserves to be read widely.

But there is more. The French edition of this book is titled Fitna: Guerre au Coeur de l'Islam . Fitna means anarchy or discord, and the Prophet Muhammad used the word in reference to the umma, railing against its discord with the same force as he advocated jihad. Kepel implicitly sets fitna and jihad against each other throughout The War for Muslim Minds .

The chief narrative is about jihad and the Islamists, but the back-story is of the Islamic world as a whole staring terrified into the abyss of fitna.

Here we see Islam amputated from its social and cultural roots, up for grabs to the highest (or perhaps loudest) bidder. The book addresses Muslims first and foremost, and particularly European Muslims. For it is through them that Kepel sees the only hope of ending this clash of civilisations.

Turi Munthe is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West

Author - Gilles Kepel
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 3
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 0 674 01575 4

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