Skip to main content

Islam and Europe's Future: Book Review of "The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West" by Gilles Kepel and "Globalized Islam: the Search for a New Ummah" by Olivier Roy

Paul Marshall

Gilles Kepel is a professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, a member of the research faculty of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, a prominent French public intellectual, and is consulted by French President Jacques Chirac. His The War for Muslim Minds seems to be the fusion of three books. The middle section is chaotic but insightful, the beginning and end are chaotic and incoherent.

He begins by ruminating over events around Israel and the Palestinians in 2000 and 2001, including Ariel Sharon’s stroll on the Temple Mount and the outbreak of the “second intifada,” and juxtaposes this with al-Qaeda, particularly Ayman al-Zawahiri, rethinking its propaganda strategy and deciding that, if it was to get more support in the Muslim world, it needed to focus more attention on the Palestinians, whose situation it had hitherto largely ignored. Then, as a counterpoint to al-Qaeda, he draws parallels with another “underlying cause of unrest in the region” that “went much deeper.” This “underlying cause” is, wait for it, “a worldview—neoconservatism—that acquired influence in Washington long before the election of President George W. Bush. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it would become predominant.” The neocons were Likud sympathizers and “self-declared champions of Israel as a predominantly ‘Jewish state’…”

Hence, Wolfowitz, Perle and Bill Kristol get time in the sun once more, while Leo Strauss, who helped “inspire” all this, makes his obligatory walk-on. In practical terms, neocons apparently understood his philosophy to be a warning against “any attempt at ‘convergence,’ in the name of realpolitik, between the United States and the USSR” and “moral equivalency between democracy and totalitarianism, good and evil.” Furthermore, “when necessary, democratic societies must be willing to use force against evil in order to survive.” This anodyne summary is supplemented by imputations that Strauss, as “an interpreter of Machiavelli,” rationalized “the prince’s lying to the people ….” No references are given for this but, then, the book gives no references for anything.

The neocons have almost supernatural influence. Kepel says that Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq in 1980 with Ronald Reagan’s neocon inspired support. One problem with this theory is that Reagan did not become president until 1981. Amir Taheri points to other confused time lines. According to Kepel, neocons apparently got the U.S. involved in Afghanistan, a project launched by Jimmy Carter, and were a major cause of the second Palestinian intifada, begun while Bill Clinton was president.

By this point the usually reliable simile “as crazy as French intellectual” came to mind. But, then, slowly, another, more interesting book began to appear. Kepel’s more developed descriptions of imputed neocon beliefs are frequently charitable and not always negative. His chief criticism, a defensible one, is that they are insufficiently cognizant of the intractability of political affairs. Then, in Chapter 3, he gives a good overview of the life and thinking of bin Laden’s reputed deputy, Zawahiri. He follows this with an analysis of al-Qaeda’s structure, stressing both its resilience and its propaganda aims, emphasizing that its terrorism is focused on media and propaganda effects, particularly a successful strategy of demoralizing the West and fostering political dissent in its ranks. Meanwhile, its “martyrs” are meant to provide exemplars of courage and morality to inspire other Muslims to join them: the result has been an increase of Islamist activity throughout the globe, an increase that, according to Kepel, has been helped inadvertently by the neocons confrontational stance.

There is an analysis of Saudi Arabia, especially its convergence with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s that produced jihadist ideology and movements, as well as the ambiguities of U.S. Saudi policy. His chapter on “the Calamity of Nation-Building in Iraq” says little new and, in the aftermath of that country’s January 2005 elections, seems dated. He then turns to the rise of Islamist militancy in Europe, reviewing the problems and questions, but concluding very little.

The overall effect of this central portion is akin to spending the evening with an engaging, well educated and well informed person who dips into the Pernod too much. Insights and illuminating juxtapositions abound, but he wanders all over and never really seems to finish a thought or reach a conclusion. You might want to phone him in the morning, thank him for a wonderful evening, and suggest that he put some of his thoughts in order and write a book.

But then we return to a focus on Israel and the Palestinians, even though Kepel admits that before December 2001 the issue had never been central for al-Qaeda, and to forced parallels between Islamist and neocon worldviews. He appears determined, despite his own statements elsewhere, to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of the Islamofascist worldview and its appeal in the Muslim world. But bin Laden and Zawahiri have for years voiced their grievances not over the Palestinians per se, but over infidel presence at the al-Aqsa mosque, a holy site that bin Laden claims is in fact part of the Arabian Peninsula and so is, presumably, out of bounds to all infidels. He has placed greater emphasis on grievances in, especially Saudi Arabia, and Iraq and Afghanistan than on the Palestinians, and repeatedly detailed purported infidel atrocities in Lebanon, Tajikistan, Egypt, Burma, Turkey, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, “Fatani,” “Ogadin,” Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, Bosnia, “Bokhara,” Bangladesh, Turkey, Chad, Mauritania, south Sudan, Darfur, Algeria, the Philippines, Yemen, “Tashkent,” Thailand, Indonesia, East Timor and Andalusia, to name a few. In battles over radical Islam this last year, more people have died in Thailand than west of the Jordan.

Certainly, in their statements in English, though not in Arabic, bin Laden and Zawahiri did for a period after 2001 give up lengthy references to Taymiyya and others of their medieval exemplars and instead played to Western Enlightenment preconceptions by alluding to the Kyoto Accord, environmental problems, the Patriot Act, and campaign finance. But this did not wash in most of the West since it was manifest that these matters had never bothered the jihadists in previous decades. Hence bin Laden reverted to his primary agenda and condemned the American Constitution for assigning sovereignty to the people and not enshrining Islamic sharia law, adding that the “confrontation and conflict will continue because the conflict between right and falsehood will continue until Judgment Day.” In December 2004 he forbade voting in Palestinian Authority elections since “the constitution of the land is a Jahili made by man… and the candidate Mahmoud Abbas is a Bahai …”

Kepel’s ending is equally peculiar. After ruminating on Islam in Europe, he portrays a “seemingly bottomless chaos of war—both the United States’ war on terror and the Islamist jihad …” and asserts that “the most notable development in the aftermath of September 11 is the breakdown of social and political projects throughout the Middle East.” This was published in November 2004 before the Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese elections, the withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon, and growing democracy pressures in Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. These may of course come to naught, but are hardly indicative of breakdown.

With failure in the Middle East, future “directions must now be sought elsewhere—in the quest for ‘Andalusia Lost’ that pervades Muslim consciousness.” In shades of what Bat Ye’or has described as a European plan for ‘Eurabia,’ this “Andalusia must be reconceived in a new way… to symbolize a place where the hybridization and flowering of two distinct cultures can produce extraordinary progress in civilization.” While Kepel acknowledges that the outcome is uncertain, and he gives plenty of evidence to the contrary, he believes this hybridization is already “in gestation in Europe’s outer cities, inhabited by young people of Muslim background from the south and east of the Mediterranean.” Meanwhile “the democratic political system that emerged from the European enlightenment is starting to absorb men and women born in a Muslim tradition, for he first time in history.”

It is, to be polite, not clear how such a hybridization might quell the jihadists, who would regard it as a supreme act of apostasy and provocation on a par with Ataturk’s secularization of Turkey, but that is the least of its problems. As is illustrated starkly by the July 7 London bombings, the children of Muslim immigrants throughout much of Europe are more radicalized than their parents. A Nixon Center study of 373 mujahideen in Western Europe and North America between 1993 and 2004 found more than twice as many Frenchmen as Saudis, and more Britons than Sudanese, Yemenites, Emiratis, Lebanese, or Libyans. European hybridization seems to be failing at quelling a jihadi impulse. As for the first Andalusia, it was the site of an eight hundred year conquest and reconquista whose northern boundary in Poitiers lies a few hours drive from Kepel’s office.

Certainly, there are problems enough with the current U.S. Administration’s own “war for Muslim minds.” It seems uncertain about what ideas it is fighting for and against, not least in its current penchant for cultivating ostensibly non-violent Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as a counter to jihadists. But, if Kepel truly represents a swathe of European opinion, it is America that seems sophisticated.

Fortunately, apart from Kepel, France has Olivier Roy. Roy is the Research Director of the Humanities and Social Sciences sector of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, and a long time consultant to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His focus is not Islam or Muslims per se, but on “globalized Islam,” by which he means “the way in which the relationship of Muslims to Islam is reshaped by globalization, westernization and the impact of living as a minority.” “Global Muslims” are those who live “permanently in non-Muslim countries (mainly in the west), or Muslims who try to distance themselves from a given Muslim culture and to stress their belonging to a universal ummah, whether in a purely quietist way or through political action.”

His major thesis is that much of the mindset of contemporary Islam is becoming increasingly disconnected from the notion of a particular Islamic territory or culture and, instead, under the impact of modernity, is being becoming rather more like Protestantism, individualized and voluntaristic. Islam then becomes something you join, or not join, rather than the tradition or system in which you, and your parents, live unless, of course, you choose to have it that way. For such Muslims, connections are more likely to be via the internet or transnational Muslim organizations than the local Imam. The result is often a “neofundamentalism,” eschewing state politics but often seeking to live locally under sharia, Islamic law. In justifying these contentions he gives an extensive and lively overview of the situation of Muslims in the west and elsewhere. His comments are often debatable, but usually insightful, vastly informed, and frequently jovial. He tells us more than we can absorb about the varieties of Muslim life and organization in the west and elsewhere.

He counters Kepel by arguing that the roots of Islamic radicalism and terrorism are not to be found per se in the Middle East, but is one of the responses within Islam to modernity. He also suggests usefully that western governments should encourage this modernizing process without trying to push for some type of liberal Islam. They should also stop viewing Islam through the prisms of immigration, ethnicity and race, and instead treat it as a religion in a free market of religions, with no more or less status or privilege than any other.

But, as Roy well knows, some form of globalized Islam is not that new, since there have been globalizing movements before, Islam itself being one of them. The notion of living among the ummah, in the Dar-ul-Islam, under the rule of a Caliph, was in theory the norm until 1924, however much it was divorced from the fragmented, conflicting and subjugated situation on the ground. As he also points out that living as a minority is not new to Muslims. The Arab invasions in the century following Mohammed’s death resulted in their control of territory stretching from France to China, with Muslims a minority in most of the empire. The difference is that they were a ruling minority and so could impose their version of Islam.

Roy emphasizes, correctly, that the current situation is different: “what is new is the choice made by individual Muslims to migrate to a country knowing that they will live there as a minority.” But, even so, why should not current Muslim minorities begin to see their goal as expanding the territorial Dar-ul-Islam rather than transcending it? As he points out at length, Islamist global terrorists are drawn disproportionately from the west, not Muslim countries. Furthermore, the places with the largest Muslim minorities, though often with local majorities, are not in the west but Asia, notably India and China, including Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, and Africa. The Balkans is another notable site. These are also areas of widespread, often violent, religious conflict about the future of Islam and Muslims. Europe’s future may be different, but Roy does not show that it will be

Related Articles

China’s People of Faith: Canaries in Xi Jinping’s Coal Mine

Lela Gilbert

Thanks to the coronavirus, a sickened world is taking a second look at China’s extreme despotism, typified by its policies on religious freedom....

Continue Reading

2019 ASMEA Keynote Address: The Future of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Samuel Tadros

In a speech for the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa conference, Samuel Tadros discusses the future of Egypt’s Muslim brotherho...

Continue Reading

This Sukkot, Remembering the Jewish and Christian Roots in Jerusalem

Lela Gilbert

Three years ago, I was living in Jerusalem, and along with both Christians and Jews, celebrating the annual Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot...

Continue Reading