Commentary Magazine

The War for Muslim Minds by Gilles Kepel

The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West
by Gilles Kepel
Harvard. 336 pp. $23.95

Gilles Kepel heads the postgraduate program on the Arab and Muslim worlds at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, where he was educated—in the heart of the French political and intellectual establishment. He has also made himself known to the American and English-speaking worlds, in part through visiting professorships at New York University and Columbia in the mid-1990’s. His studies and books have focused on the development of “Islamism” in both practice and ideology, both in the Middle East and among immigrants to the West.

Kepel’s 1992 book, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World, has been translated into twenty languages and was among the volumes exhumed as teaching texts immediately after 9/11. Choosing Jerusalem as his narrative epicenter, Kepel examined what he considered to be a widespread rebellion against enlightenment and secular rationalism in all “four” living Abrahamic faiths (he wrote as if Catholicism and Protestantism were separate religions). In his reading of this phenomenon, Islamists murdering nuns in Algeria, the lone Baruch Goldstein shooting Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and violence at abortion clinics in the United States emerge as different aspects of the same broad phenomenon: a radical religious pessimism likely to spread with the collapse of the rival materialist ideology of Communism and with the failure of secular governments to meet human aspirations for a peaceful, prosperous, and egalitarian world.

Kepel might thus almost be considered the author of the cliché that would put Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Jim Bakker on the same plane as Sayyid Qutb, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden. But in that and subsequent books, he did more than identify and dismiss opposition to modernity stemming from various undifferentiated fundamentalisms. He was, for instance, among the first to notice that wealthy, well-placed, and quite literate people were in the vanguard of each reactionary movement—“true children of our time” who were adapting ancient religious commandments to modern situations with creative flair. And he suggested that, far from being irrelevant, these figures had diagnosed real problems and failures in modern society. He was proposing to take them as seriously as previous generations of intellectuals took socialism and the workers’ movements. One can see immediately how such a book, written in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism, would seem prophetic after 9/11.

Two more antecedents of Kepel’s newest book need to be mentioned. One of them, to my mind Kepel’s best work, was also his most specialized: Muslim Extremism in Egypt (1986). Here, entering not only as a scholar and historian but as a journalist into the fevered environment of students, professors, workers, and idlers plotting radical Islamic action in contemporary Cairo, he offered a detailed corrective to the notion that Islamism was a product solely of the Arabian peninsula. The other, written in a more “told-you-so” spirit after 9/11, was Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (English translation, 2002). In a kind of tour of the “new evil empire,” Kepel again used his skills as an academic journalist, this time to advance the thesis that Islamism had reached its height, and was now in decline. The recent explosion of terrorism, he wrote, was actually an indication of the failure of the Islamists to present a plausible Qur’anic vision that would unite Islam in a post-modern caliphate. Kepel confidently expected Islamism to join Arab nationalism on the trash heap of history.



This brings us to The War for Muslim Minds, which goes further in seeking to show that the Islamic masses have already rejected the jihadists’ vision of a universal “return” to the veil and strict shari’a law. From bin Laden to the Middle East’s authoritarian rulers, Kepel maintains, the real debate today is not between Islam and the West, but within Islam itself. The United States, in its disastrous response to 9/11, has managed to retard the progress of this internal debate.

In striking at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Kepel writes, al Qaeda was in fact trying to tease the Americans into striking back, thereby exciting intense anti-American and anti-Israel passions that the Islamists could exploit for their own ends. And, luckily for them, their planes hit at a moment when a new class of American “neo-conservatives,” themselves persuaded that some violence would be necessary to push the Middle East out of the groove of backwardness and fanaticism, had been elevated to power and were able to get the President’s ear.

Although it is amusing to read this French outsider’s account of the academic battles of Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol (Strauss being wrongly taken as Kristol’s guru), Kepel, unlike other foreign observers, does not portray the neocons either as malicious idiots or as hypocrites. He is at pains to stipulate that they are perfectly sincere in wishing democracy upon Afghanistan and Iraq. He has read their books, interviewed several of their “leading spokesmen,” most notably Paul Wolfowitz, and acknowledges that they are not unfamiliar with circumstances on the ground in the region. He also recognizes the legitimacy of their worries about the security of Israel, and of the world’s oil supply.

Nevertheless, in Kepel’s view, the neoconservatives have totally blown it, playing right into the hands of their worst enemies and delivering the region they were trying to save into another authoritarian cul-de-sac, alienating and immobilizing the very middle classes that are aspiring to democracy, liberty, and apple pie (with Muslim spicing). If he remains optimistic, that is only because he sees a hopeful intra-Muslim path that might yet emerge.

His scenario goes like this. Bin Laden and company have dangled before the Arab masses the utopian dream of recovering “Andalusia lost.” They have asked Muslims to choose between jihad (united struggle against the enemy, however conceived) and fitna (a collapse into internal dissension). Given that choice, most Muslims have clearly opted for fitna. It follows that some new ideal must arise to provide a standard around which to rally.

What will that standard be? Kepel reminds us of another pair of traditional Islamic antinomies that Islamists are particularly fond of citing: dar al-Islam (the realm that already belongs to Islam) and dar alharb (the realm of war, or of the lands still to be conquered). As against these, he points to a “third way” in the Islamic concept of a dar al-sulh, or land of truce. The Europe that is being settled by millions of Muslim immigrants, he writes, and that is contemptuously dismissed in Islamist propaganda as the domain of unbelievers, is in actuality a place where Muslims, and Islam itself, may yet come peacefully to terms with the achievements, liberties, and secular values of the modern West. This he presents as an alternative way for Muslims to imagine “Andalusia lost”—a crossroads (as Kepel fancies medieval Islamic Spain to have been) between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim civilizations and a place where intellectual transactions can be conducted to the benefit of all three.

To the outside observer, it might appear that what the Muslim presence in Europe is currently creating is a great deal of (often terroristic) storm and stress. Kepel sees things otherwise. In the end, he writes, “the Islamists themselves, once they are actors in the European political arena, [will] find their own rigid principles giving way to the compromises of democracy.” Tamed and enlightened by their encounter with Europe, these émigré Muslims will then be in a position to conduct a new and improved Islam back to the Arabian heartland.



This rather giddy vision of a future of moderation and reconciliation occupies only Kepel’s last few pages. On his way to them, he supplies both background and foreground in a compelling eagle’s-eye survey of the state of the Muslim world between 9/11 and the June 2004 handover of nominal power in Iraq from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government of Iyad Allawi. Kepel’s freedom from romantic illusion—about, for example, the corruption and malice of the Palestinian Authority under Yasir Arafat—makes him an uncommonly useful summarizer. By any Western standard, he is genuinely well informed about the developments in the various regimes that he surveys in his smoothly written chapters.

He is also, irredeemably, French. His presentation of American policy as the work of sincere though pushy and overconfident neoconservative boobs is not exactly calculated to play as well here as there. And his own overconfident use of such comically repetitive neo-Gallicisms as “the logic of war,” “the logic of peace,” “the logic of forbidding entry,” “the logic of massacre” can climb a long way up American nostrils. But the condescension is skin-deep, and it is balanced by crisp observations that could only come from someone placed a long cultural distance outside the Beltway.

The real problem lies elsewhere. Although Kepel’s book is remarkably free of mistakes, many of the most elementary facts about what is going on in Iraq and elsewhere are, given the pace of events, hard to discern, and his take on things will soon be hopelessly out of date. In post-publication interviews, Kepel has already had to do subtle backtracking to allow for such unforeseen possibilities as U.S. success in clearing Falluja or in finessing Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite revolt. It tends not to occur to well-educated Europeans that the U.S. might sometimes actually manage to pull off its immediate objectives, which in this case have included such improbable aspirations as holding free elections in Afghanistan and Iraq.



There is another, related problem. Kepel writes in the high tradition of French Orientalism, as he reminds us in the touching dedication of his book to Maxime Rodinson, the late Marxist student “not of Islam, but of Muslims,” as Rodinson himself once put it. To such scholars, the religion of the Muslims is interesting only as it influences Muslim behavior. They are learned enough; the texts are open to them, and they can recite chapter and verse from Bible, Torah, or Qur’an, often in the original languages; but there is hardly a religious bone in their bodies. It is their strength, and their weakness.

This is especially so in the case of Kepel. He has a rational aloofness about him that goes some way toward explaining the almost unthinking moral equivalence with which he can flip from the supposed motives and mistakes of Arab jihadists to the supposed motives and mistakes of Pentagon planners. What he holds against both of them, it seems almost equally, is their resort to violence. This, to put it mildly, is a coarse standard of analysis.

It may be, of course, that Kepel at heart believes that violence is always counterproductive, and that this belief alone is what blinds him to the value of the American incursion into the Middle East. That a sword is sometimes necessary to cut a Gordian knot; that the Marines have at least succeeded in putting decades of potential Iraqi history on fast-forward—such ideas seem foreign to him. Nor does he appear to have fully taken on board the idea that terrorists could gain access to such consequential things as nuclear bombs, as well as biological and chemical agents that can kill millions of people—and that therefore they have to be stopped.

But in the end it is Kepel’s lack of any sense of religion that, for all his learned and sophisticated Orientalism, dooms his optimistic and enlightened thesis to failure. A gun-toting Bible-belt redneck might be incapable of understanding Osama bin Laden’s interpretation of the Qu’ran; but he instinctively understands the power of belief, and he would therefore understand that when a Muslim fanatic says he wants to repossess Andalusia, he does not mean it in a figurative sense, any more than Hamas wants to repossess Jerusalem figuratively. The political ideas that animate Islam, however they may be adapted from generation to generation, do not ultimately admit of other-worldly interpretations. The expansion of dar al-Islam is meant to happen not up there in heaven but down here on earth, and it has always required physical conquest.

It makes sense to predict that more intimate contact with the West will deeply influence the practice of Islam; but it is never safe to predict how. For one thing, a faith can continue to be influenced even more deeply by its own scriptures and tenets. For another, it is a mistake to think that the religious impulse itself will quietly go away—even in Europe. One could as easily predict that the Muslim presence will trigger a Christian revival in Europe as that it will bring about a fine secular meeting of minds of the sort Kepel dreams about.

Kepel cannot see that the secular Europe for which he speaks is itself a competitor for the allegiance of hearts and minds. He does not conceive his secular rationalism to be an alternative faith; yet it is. He simply assumes that a secular Europe can ghettoize both Muslims and Christians as Andalusia once ghettoized Christians and Jews. Many Muslims, at least, have other ideas, and they will not cease to be essentially Muslim until they are essentially converted to something else.


About the Author

David Warren, a columnist and commentator for the Ottawa Citizen, reviewed Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi in the October 2006 COMMENTARY.

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