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 The movement from religion to religious-mindedness, from Islam to Islamism, from a rather quietist, withdrawn, and scholastic immersion in the fine details of law and worship, the ordinary piety of everyday life, to an activist, reformist, increasingly determined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.
Stephen Schwartz, who has also run into political difficulties in the capital, and stirred thereby a teacup-storm on the right, is a strange and outland-ish figure.4 He grew up in San Francisco as part of the City Lights literary crowd around Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whom his father had published; he became a so-far-left-he’s-right Trotskyist- anarchist under the nom de guerre “Comrade Sandallo,” worked for a while as an obituary writer and street reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, shifted his affections and his energies to Reagan during the micro-war in Grenada, and ultimately made his way as a freelance journalist to Sarajevo in the 1990s, where he converted to Islam and joined a Naqshabandi Sufi order. He changed his name again, at least for some purposes, to Suleyman Abmad, and found the Medusa’s head every conspiratorialist needs: “Wahabism.”
Wahhabism (so called after an eighteenth-century legist, Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who wrote and preached in northwest Arabia, largely, it seems, to an empty desert) is the name generally given to the radically puritanical version of Islam dominant to the point of absolutism in present-day Saudi Arabia—the sort that stones adulterers, decapitates apostates, forbids female car-driving, and, apparently, breeds such people as Osama bin Laden. Rather little is known about Wahhab, whose scholarly output seems to have been both small and unoriginal. But he has become, since the petroleum rise of the House of Saud, which has taken him on as its spiritual totem, the exemplary figure just about everywhere of severe, ultra-orthodox, totalistic Islam—what Schwartz, whose rhetoric has survived his allegiances, calls “Islamofascism.”5
His book consists in a monomaniacal tracing out, laborious and repetitive (the word “wahhabi” or “wahabbism” appears in almost every paragraph), of the thousands of ways, ingenious, insidious, and implacably relentless, in which the machinations of the House of Saud in the service of this mad creed reaches out to poison the souls of Muslims, turn them against one another, against us, against everybody. Mobilizing their petro-dollars to found religious schools all over the world, set up popular-front-type propaganda foundations, finance lobbying efforts, bribe the powerful, infiltrate legitimate organizations, recruit supporters, eliminate enemies, and most especially to finance jihad, terrorism, and the destruction of Israel, the Saudis work tirelessly to turn Islam, in its essence a peaceful, mystical, unifying force “preaching love and healing,” into a world-dividing, world-destroying “two-faced” one.
There is, of course, more than a grain of truth in this, as there is in any comprehensive indictment of faction-ridden politics, and the Saudi factions, like the Ayatollahs, Hamas, Syria, and Mubarak are, surely, playing for keeps. But Schwartz’s discussion (he has virtually nothing to say about the concrete details of intra-Islamic conflict and, except for the Koran, he does without source references) is a prime example of how to transform an arguable argument into an obsessional fantasy:
With the collapse of the Soviet State, Wahhabism effectively replaced the Communist movement as the main sponsor of ideological aggression against the democratic West…. The ideological division of humanity into “two worlds” has been promulgated on different bases: Wahhabism applied a religious distinction, Communism a class standard, and Nazism a rac-ial criterion…. Wahhabism, like the other totalitarian ideologies… compelled members of the new middle classes in the Saudi kingdom and the Gulf states to eagerly kill and die, rather than to procreate and live…. The conduct of the Saudis was devious. They assured the West of profound affection, while fomenting worldwide adventurism and seeking to bring every Sunni Muslim on the face of the earth under their control…. The Wahhabi-Saudi regime…embodies a program for the ruthless conquest of power and a war of extermination…. [Its] face…is a great deal uglier than that of a general Islamism, or radical Arab nationalism,…or even of Soviet Communism, and its threat to the peace of the world is immensely greater.
Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism, which is a rambling, one-thing-and-another discourse on what he takes to be the general direction of liberal political thought since the 1930s, differs from those of Pipes and Schwartz only in being somewhat better written and coming, ostensibly, from “the left”—another of those seemingly natural categories that appear to have lost, along with its mirroring twin, a certain amount of force and definition.6 Carrying forward political ideas developed on the non-Communist, “vital center” left in Europe and America just before and just after World War II—Camus, Orwell, Arendt, Koestler, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Leon Blum, André Glucksmann—Berman sees Islamism as a continuation of anti-rational ideologies arising all over the Continent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ideologies that led on to Italian, Spanish, and German fascism, as well as Russian Bolshevism. Drawing on Dostoevsky and Baudelaire, Luigi Galleani and Martin Heidegger, modern terrorism was born in the salons of Europe. The Muslim version is a mere derivative.
In extending this dark genealogy to the Near and Middle East, Berman relies mainly on a deep reading of Sayyid Qutb, whom he regards as a major, if malefic, thinker, a figure comparable, he says, to “the greatest of mod-ern authors.” In Qutb, born seven years before Camus, “his fellow North African,” can be found, transformed into a koranic idiom and turned toward the regeneration of a fallen world, all the great themes of European irrationalism: the hatred for capitalist culture, the integralist view of society, the purificatory function of death, the conception of a moral vanguard, the call to direct action, the dream of a purified world. The terror war is neither new nor unprecedented: “It is the same battle that tore apart Europe during most of the twentieth century—the battle between liberalism and its totalitarian enemies.”
Perhaps. It would be comforting to think so. Better, surely, a devil you know. But the thought arises, as it does with Pipes and Schwartz, that what is going on here is less an attempt to “understand Islam” than an effort to describe it in such a way that an approach to dealing with it, moral, necessary, clear, and proven, emerges of itself—one which, now that we are the only Supergrand and the Force is really with us, should prove quicker, less costly, and altogether more effective than it was the first time around. Berman writes:
The point [has] to be made clear to everyone around the world that, no, you cannot fight the United States; no, you will be clobbered; no, you won’t survive; no, crowds of adoring people on the street will not chant your name—you will lose, and lose again, and lose still more.
So much for the warriors, cold and colder. Beyond this sort of aggressive judgmentalism—terror, jihad, “why do they hate us?”—there are also now appearing a number of more empirical and policy-oriented diagnostical works, less concerned with announcing what “Islam” and “Islamism” essentially are than with discerning what, conceivably, they might in time become, and how we ought, from our side of things, to react. Studies of the views and aspirations of contemporary Muslim intellectuals, of political processes and governmental institutions in existing Is- lamized states, of differences in social attitudes from one region or section of the Islamic world to the next, and of the changing roles of religious scholars and clerics, the schoolmen of Islam, in secular, everyday politics, all direct themselves toward describing a religion that is more an evolving collection of contrasts, an array of possible ways of living and believing, than it is a closed and permanently settled transcendental ideal.
Two just-published books in this general, what’s-happening, where-are- things-going tradition, one by Graham E. Fuller, a retired vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council of the CIA with twenty years of “experience” in the Middle East (he has “visited,” he says, virtually every Muslim country in the world), and one by Noah Feldman, a thirty-two-year-old NYU law professor and former clerk to both David Souter on the Supreme Court and Harry Edwards on the D.C. Court of Appeals, address the question: “Is Islam capable of democratization?” And both come up, surprisingly, with positive responses.
In The Future of Political Islam, Fuller says he doubts his views reflect those of today’s CIA, although they seem more than a little reminiscent of “the Company” during its cold war heyday when it was home to so many of Berman’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, Quiet American–type, “hearts-and-minds” liberals. He places his hopes mainly on younger, educated, at least semi-secularized Muslim intellectuals—scholars, teachers, professionals, literary figures, journalists, civil servants, technicians—a rapidly growing class of independent thinkers who show both a useful dissatisfaction with received ideas and a refreshing hunger for new ones, which we ought to be in the business of providing. The real issue, he says, is not whether such people fit our received notions of liberal democrats or not; the real issue is what it is they really want. And what it is they really want, according to the summary accompanying Fuller’s book, is a voice in their own political order, a voice they do not have under the present reign of monarchies, autocracies, claques, and theocracies:
Islamists…represent the largest, and often the sole alternative to most entrenched authoritarian regimes today. They continue to flourish, grow, evolve, and diversify. [They are] violent and peaceful, radical and moderate, ideological and pragmatic, political and apolitical [and] they are not going away anytime soon…. They are the vehicle for numerous Muslim aspirations: a desire to restore Muslim dignity and voice in the world, to create a new Islamic identity, to remove present dictators, to achieve democracy and greater social justice, to restore a moral compass to Muslim society, to achieve greater power for the Muslim world, to reject foreign domination, and [to defend] the rights of oppressed Muslim minorities everywhere.
When they come to power via free elections, as they so very nearly did in Algeria in 1990–1991, and as they actually did in Turkey, first in 1996 and again in 2003, and, at least temporarily, in 1999 in Indonesia, such people will doubtless be “prickly and suspicious of the US—at least at the outset.” Muslim populations, “long pent up and suppressed and silenced…will initially burst out of the pen like a Brahmin bull, and it might take some time for them to calm down and get over their accumulated anger.” But, given patience, delicacy, and the ability to listen on our part, and “the abandonment by Washington of relentlessly harsh, peremptory, and unilateralist polices toward the Muslim world in the context of the War Against Terrorism,” genuine progress toward democracy is possible. “Islamists have embarked on a notable odyssey”—the effort to mobilize their religion and culture in the service of modernization and social development. “We [must] hope [they] will persevere to work toward renewed understanding of Islam in the modern age,…find allies in the process, and move toward the changes and reforms so desperately needed.”
If all this seems a bit Jimmy Carter– ish, Noah Feldman, who has just been commissioned by some part or other of the Bush administration to help the Iraqis write a new constitution (he worked earlier, while at Yale, helping the Eritreans write theirs), is even more optimistic. In After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, he traces the “democratic idea” through the sacred texts of Islam, the Koran, the Traditions, the “Law,” looks for harbingers of civil society in existing political arrangements, and, all the glasses half-full, finds reason for hope virtually everywhere.
Picture, he says, “a state recognizably Islamic, populated by Muslims and committed to the political principles of democracy.” How might such a state arise? It might, he thinks, grow out of the constitutional monarchies of Jordan and Morocco, which, under their new young kings, are already less autocratically governed. It might emerge in Turkey, where democracy is rooted and now needs only to overcome its hostility, inherited from Ataturk and maintained by the secularist army, to Muslim religious expression. It might even come about in a future Palestine, “where the very newness of the enterprise, the scrutiny and assistance of the world, and the political experience of self-realization” could produce “democracy inflected by Islam.” It might, somehow, develop in autocracies like Egypt or Algeria, where the shell of democracy exists in the form of elections and parliaments “and needs to be filled by its spirit.” Even Pakistan could be an Islamic democracy if its experiment with federalism pays dividends and “its latest military leader proves better than those who came before.” The oil monarchies of the Gulf may “surprise the world” and make good on their promises to empower their already elected legislatures and become “mini-democracies to inspire Saudi Arabia.”
At this point, the impulse, surely, is to cry “lotsa luck.” But there exists, in fact, at least some evidence that such changes, however difficult and however slow they may be coming, are nonetheless far from simply out of the question. Two just-published empirical studies, both carried out by believing Muslims trained and working in modern institutions of learning and within modern scholarly traditions—attitude research in the one case, social history in the other—look at “really existing Islam,” rather that some schematized and tendentious image of it. One, called Faithlines: Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society, by Riaz Hassan, a young sociologist trained at the Punjab and Ohio State Universities and now teaching at Flinders University in Australia, rests on a large-scale survey of attitudes carried out in four quite different, widely separated countries—Egypt, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, and Pakistan. The other, called The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change, by Muhammad Qasim Zaman, an intellectual historian who teaches in the humanities and religion departments at Brown, is a study of the activities over more than a century of a powerful clerically led social movement in India, Pakistan, and now, latterly, Afghanistan. Together they not only demonstrate that Fuller’s new Muslim intellectuals exist; they show what the world they describe looks like to someone who inhabits it.
Hassan organized and directed teams of local and foreign interviewers, all of them Muslims, in his four countries (which account, as he points out, for about half the population of Muslim majority countries) and conducted 4,500 extensive schedule-interviews inquiring into everything from the subject’s belief in miracles or the devil to his (or her—about a quarter of his respondents were women) attitudes toward gender roles, Christianity and Judaism, Darwinian evolution, the role koranic law should play in government, how women should dress in public, or whether they agree with such statements as “human nature is unchanging” (in Pakistan, 86 percent did, in Kazakhstan, 41 percent).
The details of the findings are endlessly fascinating (for example, that 98 percent of Indonesians have experienced “a sense of being afraid of Allah,” but only 65 percent of Egyptians—and apparently hardly any Kazakhs; and that in Indonesia only 14 percent of men and 8 percent of women think higher education is more important for men than women, while in Pakistan the figures are 57 percent and 31 percent). But what is most striking about the results overall is how widely particular religious conceptions and attitudes vary among the four countries—from orthodox intensity in Pakistan, still suffering under its sense of being a minority with respect to the Hindus on the subcontinent, through popular street-preacher revivalism in Egypt’s exploding, disheveled urban slums, to the complex syncretic pluralism—“many are the ways”—that has characterized multi-ethnic Indonesia for centuries and is now taking on semi-denominational form, and on to the relaxed tolerance amounting almost to indifferentism in Kazakhstan, just out from under the absolute secularist domination of the Soviet Union. Any notion of Islam as a bloc universe, everywhere the same in content and outlook, can hardly survive such findings. The sense that everywhere Islam is moving on, if in varying directions, and not just setting its face against “modernity,” the West, and internal change, comes out very strongly.
Zaman’s book is a different sort of work altogether, but presents a similar image. It is a detailed, carefully researched monographic study of the development of the Deobandi brotherhood, which, starting out in British India in the late nineteenth century as a Sufi-driven reformist reaction against colonial rule, moved on to become central in the intense “mosque-and-state” debates surrounding the formation of Pakistan, and finally provided much of the impetus and many of the leaders—that is, the talib students—for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Among other things, it demonstrates that the received image of Muslim clerics—ulamas, ayatollahs, mullahs, faqihs—as passive, unworldly reactionaries bound to an atemporal, socially withdrawn Islam is thoroughly misconceived. In many places, by now perhaps most, they are seen as members of vanguard groups in the renovation of traditional Islamic society and belief:
Even as they strive to demarcate and defend their own religious sphere, the ulama…continue to enlarge their audiences, to shape debates of the meaning and place of Islam in public life, to lead activist movements in pursuit of their ideals. For them, there is no single way of defending their ideals or of making them practical or relevant in the world. There are different paths to adopt.
The US is, by now, it will have been noticed, a Middle Eastern power. What we will do as such, especially in the midst of Shiite factional struggles in Baghdad, terror bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca, the continuing vitality of al-Qaeda, and all sorts of street conflicts throughout the region and beyond, remains to be seen. But certainly the conception of “Islam” being so desperately built up before our eyes by professors, politicians, journalists, polemicists, and others professionally concerned with making up our minds will be of great importance in determining what we do. Here, for once, the line between writing and the world is direct, explicit, substantial, and observable. And, we shall doubtless soon see, consequential.
—This is the second of two articles on Islam.
July 3, 2003
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). ↩
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. ↩
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.” ↩
After completing his book (but before publishing it), Schwartz, by then Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Forward, went to work for the Voice of America, but was soon fired by its news director for attacking the Voice for airing interviews with Muslim militants in the interest of balance. A public controversy, initiated by a William Safire column in The New York Times and continued by a good part of the neoconservative press, then broke out, in which the firing was attributed to pressure from Colin Powell’s “dovish” State Department in its struggle against Vice President Richard Cheney and the Pentagon “hawks.” See William Safire, “State Out of Step,” The New York Times, July 1, 2002; Ronald Radosh, “State Department Outrage: The Firing of Stephen Schwartz,” Front Page Magazine, July 2, 2002; Timothy Noah, “The Weekly Standard‘s House Muslim,” Slate, July 3, 2002; Justin Raimondo, “The VOA Follies—’Voice of America’ Loses a Writer—and the War Party Gains a Martyr,” Antiwar.com, February 18, 2003. ↩
For a clearer, shorter, more scholarly, and more nuanced (though hardly less hostile) account of Wahhab and Wahhabism, see Hamid Algar, Wahabbism: A Critical Essay (Islamic Publications International, 2002). Algar, who is a translator and admirer of both Qutb and Khomeini, is mainly concerned to question the conflation of Wahhabism with Islamism generally, a conflation upon which Schwartz’s book (which Algar doesn’t, at least directly, discuss) is founded. ↩
Terror and Liberalism, which has pretensions to broad philosophical significance, has already been reviewed—and tellingly, in my view—by Ian Buruma in The New York Review, May 1, 2003. Here, I am concerned, and very much en passant, with its place in the “constructing Islam” literature. ↩