The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West
by Gilles Kepel
A review by Peter Beinart
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
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
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, Jihad is also a study in intelligence
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
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
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
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.
Special Atlantic Monthly
subscription price for Powell's shoppers subscribe today for only $19.95.
Atlantic Monthly places you at the leading edge of contemporary issues plus the very best in fiction, poetry, travel, food and humor. Subscribe today and get 8 issues of the magazine delivered to you for only $19.95 that's a savings of over $19 off the newsstand price.
To order at this special
Powell's price click here.