Review: The War for Muslim Minds

The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West
By Gilles Kepel Harvard University Press, 327pp

Published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, November 2004.

Although Gilles Kepel is a professor of politics in Paris, this book, like his last work written in English, Bad Moon Rising, is not by any means a normal academic book. Gone are burden of proof, in-depth argumentation, explicit methodology. In their stead, we have a briskly paced narrative, in which structured analysis is replaced with authorial statement offering itself as fact. Unlike most academics, Kepel has the gall to tell the story of contemporary Islamism, the radical wing of Islam today.

He traces the story of radical Islamism 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 Mujahideen-controlled Afghanistan and the failure of political process in the Maghreb, to 9/11 and the beheading of Ken Bigley. Though 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.

Most serious scholars of Islamism reject the 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 like Osama bin Laden. Kepel, refreshingly, does not agree, though Palestine plays a central role in his argument for both historical and currently 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 such men as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's mentor. 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 like Mohammed Atta, Osama 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 manifestoes receive close textual criticism. Kepel applies the same analysis to the Leo Strauss-inspired neo-conservatives, Paul Wolfowitz foremost among them. Though Kepel may appear to be respectful of some neo-con 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 so far as to state it, he suggests that these juggernaut ideologies in Washington DC and in the Arab world somehow fuel each others' engines; they are mutually enhancing, together polarising still further the bi-polar world they have themselves concocted.

The book deals in very 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 in depth and unsparingly at the global political fall-out 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 which deserves to be read widely.
But there is more. The French edition was entitled 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 sets fitna and jihad against each other implicitly 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.

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