The War for Muslim Minds

Three years after the terrorist attacks on American soil, many of us continue to wonder at the mindset of the perpetrators. In the past six months, the Council's Merrill House Programs provided an opportunity to hear from two leading European thinkers on the issue of what motivates jihad-one a scholar of the Middle East and the other a prominent expert on Asia.

At a Merrill House breakfast in September, French Arabist Gilles Kepel said that Americans have committed a fundamental error in assuming that the followers of Osama bin Laden were waging a war on the American state when in fact their goal in attacking a "faraway enemy" was to demonstrate their power to moderate Muslims and enlist their support in waging a war to establish a supreme Islamic state.

Moreover, the "holy warriors" have been losing ground with the Muslim mainstream, Kepel said. Muslims with less extremist views are objecting to the jihadists' terrorist methods. The upshot is fitna, the Arabic word for a splintering of the faithful.

A prime example of fitna, he added, occurred in late August when two French journalists were kidnapped in Iraq. A group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq threatened to kill them unless the French government reversed its new policy banning conspicuous displays of religious symbols in state schools, including the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women.

Far from echoing the jihadists' demands, French Muslims took to the streets to protest against the kidnappers and to proclaim their French citizenship. In Kepel's view, this was not because "they have any love lost for impious, secular, veil-chasing France" but because they think that the radicals' tactics are "totally counterproductive."

Kepel believes that the war for Muslim minds may ultimately hinge on these European Muslims. "Our European citizens of Muslim descent are the first to take part in a pluralistic society, and if they succeed, then they may be able to wipe out those radical groups."

For Ian Buruma, however, it is unrealistic to imagine that the jihadist instinct can ever be eliminated altogether. Visiting Merrill House last April to discuss his new work, Occidentalism, Buruma pointed out that the hatred animating the Islamic radicals conforms to the classic counter-Enlightenment vision of Western society as "rootless, timid, and soulless." He added that such feelings are hardly unique to al-Qaeda; on the contrary, they crop up quite frequently in Middle and Far Eastern thought. For instance, al-Qaeda's condemnations of the West are powerfully reminiscent of the backlash against Western ideals that occurred in Japan after the Meiji reformation and that can still be observed today. "Al-Qaeda's vision reminds me of the Japanese cult group, Aum Shinrikyo, made up of [well-educated] people who felt that modern Japanese society was empty-and who wanted to foment a religious revolution to create a purer society," Buruma said. "They would create this Armageddon by, first of all, feeding sarin gas into the Tokyo subway."

Thus, while Buruma would agree with Kepel that "the fiercest battles will be fought inside the Muslim world," he does not think that Muslim youth will necessarily embrace the model provided by Europe. "The religious reaction of many young Muslims in Europe is precisely against secularism, openness, and liberalism," he said.

Read More: Islam and the West

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