The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 15, 2002

Placing Laden phenomenon in perspective
Parshotam Mehra

Jihad: the Trail of Political Islam
by Gilles Kepel. I. B. Tauris, London. Page IX + 454. £ 40.

Jihad: the Trail of Political IslamNOT unexpectedly, the upshot of the 9/11 strikes against the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington has been a spate of books on Islamic fundamentalism. And its most heinous manifestations, the now nearly-defunct Taliban of the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar and the yet alive, and kicking, Al-Qaeda network of the Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden. A few have been noticed in these columns, Abdul Rashid’s Taliban and Peter Bergen’s Holy War Inc; Gilles Kepel’s impressive tome under review belongs to the same genre and merits attention.

Apart from the brief customary introduction and conclusion, the book falls into two parts. The first part, "Expansion," surveys the period from the late 1960s with the birth of "Petro-Islam" through Islamism in Egypt, Malaysia and Pakistan as well as Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution. There are brief chapters too on jihad in Afghanistan, the intifada in Israel and Islamisation in Algeria and Sudan. It has a round-up of "the fatwa and the veil" in Europe.

The second part, "Decline," offers a detailed study of the last decade of the 20th century. Starting with the Gulf War (1990), it winds its way through the grim tragedy of the Bosnian civil strife, the threat of terrorism in Egypt, Osama’ s relentless unending war against the West, Hamas and Israel, and the forced secularisation of Turkish Islamists. It is a grim, if grisly-and-gory, tale that needs to be widely known if the ramifications of political Islam are to be grasped in any intelligent manner.


The burden of Kepel’s song is that the Islamists scored striking political successes in the 1970s and 1980s, including the rout of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the conspicuous gains of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian movement in the Israeli-held territory. And not in the Muslim world alone, for Europe, the heart of Christendom itself faced a burgeoning Islamist "threat" with a sizeable chunk of the population insisting on separateness and its own distinct ethnic identity. The above notwithstanding, by the end of the twentieth century, Kepel argues, the Islamist movement had "signally failed" to retain political power in the Muslim world, and this despite the "hopes" of its supporters and the "forebodings" of its enemies.

The spectacular and devastating new forms of terrorism such as the 11 September strikes—and the more recent mindless bombing of Bali (early October) with its tragic loss in human life and limb and the latest outrage (November-end) in Kenya—are not an "insignia" of triumph but a "waning" of movement’s capacity for political mobilisation. In Kepel’ s considered judgment, 9/11 was an attempt "to reverse a process in decline" with its compulsive if shameless paroxysm of destructive violence.

The major objective of the book under review is to shed light on the principal goals that Osama bin Laden and his close ally Mohammad Omar have set by themselves. The 9/11 assaults were designed to arouse emotional sympathy and enthusiasm among the Muslims and galvanise them with an example of victory by violence. The agenda of the US anti-terrorist coalition the assaults provoked was just the opposite: to isolate and wipe out Osama’s Al-Qaeda and its Afghan protectors while minimising civilian losses. The terrorist vanguard’s cherished objective was to mobilise the masses and thereby permanently alter the present world order; replacing it by an Islamic state. Was it any whit different from the communist goal of arousing the revolutionary consciousness of toiling humanity and mobilise it through a cycle of provocation, repression and solidarity? The million-dollar question Kepel poses is whether the terrorist strategy of bin Laden’s Islamist militants will come to the same sorry end to which Stalin’s Russia did. His own tentative conclusion, that in the wake of 9/11 the militants have "lost" the game, that the event itself was the cumulative result of the Islamist movement’s long expansion—and decline—in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The Director of Research at the CNRS in Paris and Professor at the Institute for Political

Studies at the Sorbonne, Gilles Kepel is rated one of the world’s foremost experts on West Asia and has authored a number of books, including Muslim Extremism in Egypt, The Revenge of God and Allah in the West. The present study, translated from its original in French, is the end-product of five years of intensive research and extensive travel in most Muslim lands, including Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Senegal and Sudan. Apart from copious notes, there is a short but useful glossary and nine sketch maps showing Central and West Asia as well as East and North West Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Bosnia as well as Malaysia and Indonesia, lands dominated by Islam. Sadly, there is no bibliographic note.