Living with Islam

La Peur des barbares: Au-delà du choc des civilisations [Fear of the Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations]

by Tzvetan Todorov
Paris: Robert Laffont, 312 pp., €20.00 (paper)

Two French scholars, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, have done more than most writers to open the minds of Western readers to the world of Islam. Both have written learned and stimulating books on the politics of the Middle East, as well as on the Islamic presence in contemporary Europe. They agree on many things, but on one big thing in particular: that there is no reason why Muslims should not be loyal democratic European citizens. Where they disagree is on the best way to bring this about. Roy is the more liberal, in that he views attempts by the state to impose cultural values on individual citizens with distrust, while Kepel tends toward the more conventionally French belief that imposing common values is what a state must do.

Kepel’s latest book to appear in English, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, is a strong critique of what he calls the two “grand narratives” that have created so much havoc in the Middle East, and by extension in Europe too. He uses the word “narrative” not so much in the manner of modish academic theory but more concretely, as a vision projected by modern mass media.

The first grand narrative is that of global jihad, espoused by the likes of Osama bin Laden: a holy war of Muslim martyrs against all infidels. By staging spectacular acts of suicidal mass murder against “Zionists,” “crusaders,” and all their decadent allies, a religious revolution will take place and Islam will rule the world. As Kepel explains very well, this grand narrative soon splintered into several rival narratives. Shiites pitted their version of martyrdom against that of Sunnis. When bin Laden’s murderous spectacles failed to lead to world revolution, other holy warriors, such as Abu Musab al-Suri, also known as “the engineer,” began to favor global acts of terror on a smaller scale: a war of attrition rather than propaganda by violent action.

What all the revolutionary narrators have in common, however, is a deft understanding of information technology and mass media. The roles played by al-Jazeera, for example, in the global inflammation of Muslim resentments and by the Internet in creating a vast network of more or less autonomous jihadis are important enough for Kepel to conclude that much of the current holy war is actually taking place in cyberspace. But the Islamist grand narrative, however fractured, is also having a terrible effect on the ground, as it encourages such disparate forces as Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and populist leaders in Iran to compete as players in the suicidal struggle for Islamic supremacy. So far, brutal as it is, the holy war has not brought that supremacy any nearer, not in New York, or Bali, or Madrid, or London, or Bombay.

But what about the other grand narrative laid out in Kepel’s book: the neoconservative dream of using American force to defeat the holy warriors of Islam by spreading democracy in the Middle East? A show of US power, according …

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