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Which Way to Mecca? Part II


Since the end of the cold war, when a lot more collapsed than walls and regimes, many of the large-scale concepts by means of which we had been accustomed to sorting out the world have begun to come apart. East and West, Communist and free world, liberal and totalitarian, Arab, Oriental, underdeveloped, third world, nonaligned, and now apparently even Europe have lost much of their edge and definition, and we are left to find our way through vast collections of strange and inconsonant particulars without much in the way of assistance from finely drawn, culturally ratified natural kinds.

After the bolt-from-the-blue attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001 further disturbed our sense that we understood what was going on in the world and could handle it, “Islam,” about which we had, in any case, only the most general of notions, began to undergo the same sort of decomposition for us. It, too, has rather fallen apart as a settled and integral object of knowledge about which it is possible to have a view and a theory. Introductions to Islam, and bottom-line evaluations of it as a religion, a culture, a society, a weltanschauung, or a civilization, continue to be written and continue to be consumed.1 But they seem to be of declining force, relics of a time when things were, so we thought, more of a piece and better arranged.

More than any other single thing, it has been the rising tendency to ideologize faith in so much of the Mus-lim world that has made it increasingly hard to arrive at summary accounts of what is happening there. The movement from religion to religious-mindedness, from Islam to Islamism, from a rather quietist, withdrawn, and scholastic immersion in the fine details of law and worship, the ordinary piety of everyday life, to an activist, reformist, increasingly determined struggle to capture secular power and turn it to spiritual ends, has transformed what once was, or seemed to be, a historical macro-entity to be set beside Christianity, the West, science, or modernity, into a disorderly field of entangled differences about which it is difficult to say anything at all except that it seems at once various and volatile. “The militant Islamic movement,” the French political scientist Gilles Kepel writes in his Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam,2 perhaps the most detailed, and certainly the most comprehensive, examination of it that has thus far appeared, “[is] a phenomenon whose emergence was as spectacular as it was unforeseen”:

At a time when the decay of religion in the private sphere appeared to be an irreversible trend of modern life, the sudden expansion of political groups proclaiming the Islamic state, swearing by the Koran alone, calling for jihad, and drawing their activists from the world’s great cities was an event that cast into doubt a host of previous certainties. Worldwide, the initial reaction was dismay. To leftist intellectuals, Islamist groups represented a religious variant of fascism. To middle-of-the-road liberals, they were no more than born-again medieval fanatics.

But gradually, as Islamist numbers increased, the left discovered that Islamism had a popular base and, casting about for the mass support so critical to their ideology, Marxist thinkers of every stripe began to credit Islamist activists with socialist virtues, while, on the right, it began to dawn on people that Islamists were preaching moral order, obedience to God, and hostility to the “impious” materialists—that is, to the communists and the socialists. More and more people, both within the Middle East and without began to view Islamism as the authentic creed of modern Muslims, to see in it the outline of an Islamic civilization within the multicultural world of the coming twenty-first century.

Kepel sees this new Islamism as stemming from a “cultural revolution,” from a collective change of mind inspired and given direction by the teachings of a handful of religious intellectuals, and driven forward by the foundering of secular, modernizing nationalism everywhere from Algiers and Tehran to Karachi and Jakarta. Scarcely a generation after many Muslim nations gained their independence from colonial rule, “the Islamic world entered a religious era that largely canceled out the nationalist period which preceded it.” From the 1960s and 1970s and on into this century,

petro-Islam [was built] on the ruins of Arab [and third-world] nationalism…. What had previously been viewed [by Western observers, by secular intellectuals, by reforming elites] as a conservative, somewhat retrograde religion, whose social and political relevance was declining in the face of progress and modernization, suddenly became the focus of intense interest, hope, and dread.

Kepel traces the founding impulse, the originating, cultural-revolution phase of all this, to the writings and agitations of three men during the very years, the 1960s and 1970s, when state-led, nation-building development reached its highest peak, with Nasser, Boumedienne, Z.A. Bhutto, Sukarno, and the nonaligned, tiers mondiste rest. There was the incendiary Egyptian dogmatist Sayyid Qutb, whom Nasser finally hanged in 1966, arguing from his prison cell that the contemporary leaders of the Muslim world, including “the Pharaoh” who had put him there, were not in fact Muslims at all, but modernized pagans, faithless products of the “new ignorance” now sweeping the world.

There was as well the mercurial Pakistani publicist Mawlana Mawdudi, who died in 1979 after a half-century career as a religious politician alleging plots and counterplots and pressing for the creation of “an Islamic state”—a country governed directly by God via a literalist application of koranic law. And, most consequentially, there was Ruhollah Khomeini, the long-in-exile Shiite cleric concocting the crabbed and intricate theocratical conceptions that led to the Iranian revolution. Taken together, the ideas of these men inspired, between approximately the toppling of the Shah in 1979 and the triumph of the Taliban in 1996, a series of separate and independent, but yet somehow connected, local explosions—the Armed Islamic Movement in Algeria, the civil war in the Sudan, the Iran–Iraq war, Luxor, Kashmir, the storming of the Meccan mosque, the disintegration of Lebanon, the al-Aqsa intifada, as well as the eruptions in Chechnya, Bosnia, and the Moro Liberation Front. Many thousands died—in Iraq and the Sudan, perhaps a million each. It was not just the borders of Islam that turned out to be bloody.

Oddly, Kepel’s own conclusion, after reviewing all this storm and disorder in fine detail, is that “political Islam,” stalled in Algeria, factionalized in Sudan, defeated in Afghanistan, derailed in Malaysia, diluted in Iran, and put on the defensive everywhere by a world aroused against it after 9/11, is now in full decline:

Violence…has proven to be a deathtrap for Islamists as a whole, precluding any capacity to mobilize the…constituencies they need to seize political power…. The Islamist movement will have much difficulty reversing its trail of decline as it confronts [the] twenty-first century.

Aside from the fact that things don’t exactly look that way in Palestine, Aceh in Indonesia, Kashmir, or northern Nigeria (or, just yesterday, in Saudi Arabia or Morocco), this would seem to be a conclusion in some danger of instant and definitive disconfirmation. Kepel may, in fact, be suffering from the written-just-before, published-just-after 9/11 syndrome I noted earlier3 as afflicting a number of recent works on Islam and Islamism. The change in subtitle in the English edition, with its hurried, postscript efforts to sustain the neat, two-part structure of expansion and decline—a structure built too deeply into the original narrative to be revised very easily in the translated one—suggests as much.

In any case, those who have followed the interpretation of jihad and militant Islam “from tradition to terror,” most of whom owe a great deal, acknowledged and unacknowledged, to Kepel and his intellectualist, war-of-ideas view of what has been going on, have not taken so relaxed a position. Indeed, they have beaten the drums of alarm with a rising sense of desperation. “Unnoticed by most Westerners,” Daniel Pipes, the tireless neoconservative polemicist, has written in the latest of his long series of fire-bell-in-the-night outcries, Militant Islam Reaches America, “war has been unilaterally declared [by the Islamists] on Europe and the United States.” “The war against [Islamic terrorism],” the one-time beat poet-become-Sufi- devotee Stephen Schwartz writes in his all-out onslaught on the Saudis and everything about them, The Two Faces of Islam, “is…a war to the death, as the second world war was a war to the death against fascism.” “To read is to glide toward death,” says the intense and hyperpolitical “new radical” Paul Berman, recruiting Sayyid Qutb to his attack upon Western complacency in the face of the Islamicist threat, Terror and Liberalism, “and gliding toward death means you have understood what you have read.”


Taken together, and for all their differences, which are more of focus than they are of thought, Pipes, Schwartz, and Berman represent a particular, and particularly well-defined, approach to constructing “Islam” (and “Islamism”) as a formed idea in the American mind: they regard it not as a product of events and processes foreign to Western history and culture, most especially modern Western history and culture, but as extensions of that history and that culture—old wine in only slightly new, awkwardly relabeled bottles. The apparently exotic is in fact the familiar with a different accent. The twenty-first century, so far anyway, is just a rerun of the twentieth with the names changed. It is quite clear what it is we are faced with in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or the southern Philippines—or, for that matter, in Jersey City and along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn: “totalitarianism.” All we need is the wit to recognize the fact and the courage to act upon it.

Pipes’s version of this it-is-later-than-you-think approach to political Islam is the simplest of the three, the least burdened with complexities and reservations. His chapter titles give a clear-enough sense of both tone and temper, where he is coming from, where he is going: “Battling for the Soul of Islam,” “Do Moderate Islamists Exist?,” “The Western Mind of Militant Islam,” “Echoes of the Cold War Debate,” “‘We Are Going to Conquer America,’” “‘Who is the Enemy?’” All the way down, it is a Manichaean world, divided everywhere, as much among Muslims as among ourselves, between good and evil, perilously balanced:

A battle is now taking place for the soul of Islam. On one side stand the moderates, those Muslims eager to accept Western ways,…ready to integrate in the world. On the other stand the Islamists—fearful, seeking strong rule, hoping to push the outside world away.

And so on and on. Moderate, secularist Turkey faces off against immoderate, sectarian Iran. (But the West is hardly helping the situation.) “Infected by the twentieth-century disease, Islamists make politics ‘the heart of’ their program.” (But Western liberals dismiss their threats as mere rhetoric.) At a moment when “the European-derived extremes of the Communist left and fascist right are tired and on the whole ineffectual, militant Islam has proved itself to be the only truly vital totalitarian movement in the world today.” (But a number of wrongheaded Western observers have declared it to be a dying creed.) It is perhaps not altogether surprising that when President Bush recently nominated Pipes, who runs an activist think tank in Philadelphia and writes columns for The New York Post and The Jerusalem Post, to be a director of the Congress-founded “US Institute of Peace,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a D.C.–based action group, suggested he lacked detachment and called on the White House to withdraw his name.

  1. 1

    See the discussions of the books by Bernard Lewis, Thomas W. Simons Jr., M.J. Akbar, and Karen Armstrong in the first part of this commentary, “Which Way to Mecca?The New York Review, June 12, 2003. For other examples of this synoptic approach to things, see John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know About Is-lam (Oxford University Press, 2002); Charles Lindholm, The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change (Blackwell, 2002); Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003); Bassam Tibi, Islam between Culture and Politics (Palgrave, 2001); F.E. Peters, Islam: A Guide for Jews and Christians (Princeton University Press, 2003).

  2. 2

    Originally published as Jihad: Expansion et décline de l’islamisme (Paris: Gallimard, 2000). I have slightly reordered the wording and altered the punctuation of the following paragraph, without benefit of indication, in an effort to restore at least some of the readability an unusually leaden translation has, here as throughout, destroyed.

  3. 3

    See “Which Way to Mecca?” As Kepel himself notes, his own work follows upon that of his mentor, Olivier Roy, whose The Failure of Political Islam (Harvard University Press, 1998; first published in Paris in 1992), “a book full of ideas that went against current opinion and forged the way for a new approach to the problem of Islamism,” first advanced the view that political Islam had entered into a period of more or less final decline. In his most recent work, L’Islam Mondialisé (Paris: Seuil, 2002), not yet translated into Eng-lish, Roy reasserts and extends this notion, which rests, in the first instance, on a sharp distinction between “Islam as a Religion” and “the concrete practices of Muslims,” considered as an assemblage of social, not cultural, facts. The first may be left, along with the Koran, “to the theologians”; the second is “a world-wide phenomenon, which supports [subit] and accompanies globalization.” As “all explanations [of social and political matters] by religion are tautological…the Huntingtonian notion of a civilization founded on religion explains nothing.” The present tensions “associated today with Islam are symptoms of its distorted [mal vécu] Westernization and the cascading crises this has provoked,” not of some intrinsic “clash of cultures.” “It was not St. Peter’s in Rome that bin Laden attacked. It was not even the Wailing Wall. It was Wall Street.”

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