Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam

Apr 17, 2002

Today, Islamist movements in the Middle East are fragmented, according to Gilles Kepel, and no longer have the capacity to mobilize different social groups simultaneously as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet they remain dangerous because they believe jihad is "the other superpower."


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome members and guests to our Books for Breakfast Program.

Today we have the pleasure of listening to an internationally renowned expert on Middle East studies and one of the world's leading specialists on Middle Eastern society, Dr. Gilles Kepel. He will be discussing his book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam.

Since September 11, politicians, academics, journalists, and ordinary citizens throughout the world have struggled to come to terms with the horrific events of that day. While some have interpreted this fanaticism and brutality as perhaps the arrival of a new and mysterious phenomenon which had somehow gone undetected by both academia and government officials, there are others who have been studying this disturbing evolution of radical Islam for quite some time, and they have arrived at a very different conclusion.

In Jihad, our guest this morning succeeds in placing the events of that fateful day within a broad historical and sociopolitical context that covers the unfolding of the Islamic movements over the last quarter of the 20th century. It is Dr. Kepel's premise that, in spite of what many commentators contend, the attack on the United States was not a sign of the movement's strength and irrepressible might, but a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamic movement.

His thorough account guides us through the emergence of political Islam and the spread of its passion and menace, from Iran to Afghanistan, from Algeria to Egypt, Turkey to Indonesia, and even into Bosnia. He asserts that Islam reached its apogee in the late 1980s. It was during this time when the Iranian fundamentalist revolution was ascendant, when Algeria's Islamists stood on the threshold of victory, and even in Sudan Islamists dominated the governing coalition.

But those heady days are over. Iran's theocracy has alienated the young, who favor a more open society. In Algeria, Islamists in the mid-1990s estranged the population with their waves of terror. And it was during the same period that fundamentalists in Turkey failed to implement their radical program and thereby disenchanted the country's have-not's.

As we confront the threats of terrorism today and attempt to understand the ominous reality of Islamic movements, we all can learn something by not only reading Dr. Kepel's latest book, Jihad, but two additional books of his, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh, and The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World. This latter work is a compelling account of the resurgence of religious beliefs in modern Christian, Jewish, and Muslim societies, and is now considered a classic.

Currently Professor Kepel is Professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris and heads the post-graduate program on the Arab and Muslim world. He holds degrees in Arabic, English, and philosophy, and two doctorates in sociology and political science. He was a Visiting Professor at NYU in 1994 and returned the following year, this time to teach at Columbia.

Dr. Kepel, we are delighted to have you with us this morning.


GILLES KEPEL: Thank you very much.

When we suddenly saw this earthquake of what happened in New York and in Washington on September 11, many of us had heard more or less about Osama bin Laden, had known that some things had happened in Iran or in Afghanistan, but it was quite difficult to put all of the events into perspective.

My book, which was completed before September 11, the original French edition was published in June of 2000, was to provide this perspective. The American edition has been edited and upgraded after September 11 with an analysis, but it does not change the fundamental tenets of the book.

By "Islamist movements" I refer to political-religious movements that aim to establish an Islamic state. What is an Islamic state? It is a state that is ruled according not to positive law, but to the law derived from the sacred text of Islam, which is called in Arabic Shari'ah.

Those movements, in their more contemporary form, took shape in the early 1970s after the demise of nationalism in the Arab world, or other nationalisms in other parts of the world, and they replaced them as utopias, as ideologies that would both pass a negative judgment on the state of things at the time and then promise a better future.

Those movements have undergone a change along the last three decades of the 20th century and up to September of 2001 as the final point.

In the first phase, which deals mainly with the 1970s and leads up to the triumph of the Iranian revolution in 1979, you will see the coming into existence of the movement, mainly on university campuses, and the shaping of the different groups that would coalesce into this cluster which is the Islamist movement.

In 1979, those movements become center stage, and during the following decade, from the Islamic revolution in 1979 to February 15, 1989, when the Red Army pulled out from Afghanistan, they became the main axis of political life in Muslim countries and a source of either concern or hopes for their enemies or friends.

This decade of the 1980s is very important, because it witnesses the tremendous expansion, the skyrocketing of the movement; but, at the same time, its inner contradictions.

The contradictions are made public by the antagonism for the hegemony of the movement by two competing factions or poles: on the one hand, Iran, or the Islamic Republic, which is trying to turn militant and political Islam into an anti-Western tool; and, on the other hand, the Saudis, backed by the U.S., who will use the jihad in Afghanistan against the Red Army, as the means to defuse that threat and to catalyze the energy of militant Islam against the USSR and not against the West.

This very strange phenomenon led to the victory of the U.S.-backed jihad in Afghanistan and Saudi-backed jihad in Afghanistan, and the failure of Khomeini's desire to export the Islamic revolution. 1989 was the peak of the phenomenon. This is the year when the Berlin Wall fell, but the Berlin Wall would probably not have fallen had the Red Army not been forced to pull out in shame from Afghanistan in late-February. No one feared it anymore.

This was the year also when Turabi seized power in Sudan, not as a revolutionary movement but as a military coup; when the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) was created in Algeria; and when we had the Rushdie affair worldwide, the "veil of fears" in French schools; when a number of new Muslim republics would mushroom out of the fall of the Soviet empire.

Many people thought that a new messianism had taken place that could replace, particularly in the developing world, the old secular communist messianism that was fading away. We had a very general agreement until then, and from now on there are competing schools of interpretation.

Has the movement been gaining on its strength? Following 1989 were the events of 1990 when Saddam Hussein attacked and swallowed Kuwait on August 2. Then, on August 7 , King Fahd, the custodian of the two Holy places, called for American troops and Allied troops to come to the rescue and to set foot on the Holy land of Saudi Arabia. From then on, the coalition of interests, of social classes, of different movements that coalesced and created this cluster of Islamist movements which led them to victory in Afghanistan and other places, suddenly began to fall apart.

On the one hand, you had people who remained faithful to the Saudis and whom I could define within the Islamist movement as the pious middle classes or bourgeoisie. These are professionals, who had made money in the oil circles, who had gone to Saudi Arabia, to Kuwait, and had had significant upward social mobility, thanks to the access to oil money; all those people who had a rather conservative world view, and who were nevertheless comfortable with the Islamist movement because they felt that they did not play the role that they could play in Muslim countries after independence. Why was that so? Because power had been seized by tiny elites; think of Algeria, socialist top brass and Eastern Algerian Arabic-speakers; think of Syria, socialist, secular, top brass, and based in the Alawi sect; think of Iraq, socialist, top brass, and belonging to the Sunni minority of the Tikrit area.

On the other hand, as far as the regimes that were allied to the West were concerned, it was more or less the same; you had monarchies in the Gulf, in Jordan, in Morocco, in a number of other countries, where not only was political power concentrated in the hands of a few, but also economic power. If you are a non-royal in one of the Gulf countries or in Morocco and if you want to deal with a big foreign firm for an option, you'd better save the ink, the paper, and the physical stamp for the bid, because you have absolutely no chance to get anything if you are not connected by blood to the ruling elite.

Thus, a pious middle class emerged after independence, that traced back in some cases to the pre-independence social relation system, or that developed after independence from the access to oil, that was not pleased with the state of things.

Those were one of the elements that gathered together with other groups in this Islamist movement. They were the ones who financed the movement. When they heard this issue of Islamist states, they did not understand the slogan as a means to destroy society, or they didn't understand it in terms of the general upheaval; but, rather, as a means to repaint the social order green—to oust the incumbents, the royals, or the top brass, so that they would seize power. In order to get to power, they thought that the religious language would bring with them in the same movement the mass of the underclass, of the young urban poor. This is the second component of the movement: on the one hand, the pious bourgeoisie; on the other, the young urban poor. They are, clearly, the core demographic segment of the developing world and, in our case, Muslim societies.

The 1970s was a watershed decade in those areas. Why was that? Because this is the time when the first generation that comes out of the demographic explosion of the rural exodus from the countryside to the cities or to the outskirts of the big cities, and the generation that also had for the first time access to mass education in the independent states comes of adult age. These are the people you see between the airport and your hotel through the tinted windows of the limousine. These are the shantytowns. Nowadays they are more and more turned into projects, but until recently it was squalid shantytowns.

This is the place where the majority of the younger generation has set foot, and this younger generation, which is much more educated than their parents' is not pleased at all with the status quo. For this underclass, that Khomeini called "the disinherited," this issue of an Islamic state and of implementation of Shari'ah proved to be a very powerful slogan because it meant that in the name of God, in the name of justice, unjust and corrupt authoritarian rules could be ousted and that this would be replaced by a state of things where they would have their place, where they could have respect, where they could find a job, a wife, an apartment.

But to them this very slogan had much more of a revolutionary appeal than it had for the pious middle classes. And so the difficulty for the Islamist movements was to keep those two elements together, have each mobilized to coalesce the pious middle classes and the young urban poor, though their social agendas were quite different.

This led into the hands of a third component: the yeast, the Islamist intelligentsia, people who had to develop the Islamic discourse for mobilization, people like Ayatollah Khomeini. The challenge for this intelligentsia was how to produce a discourse that would unify the popular and the bourgeois components of the movement until the actual seizure of power.

Khomeini was the only one who managed to do so. When he claimed the mantle of the disinherited, the mostazafin, not only did he mention the real disinherited, the riffraff from the southern and lower ends of Teheran, but he also had in mind the bazaar class, the social class from which he himself had risen. His discourse was sufficiently ambiguous socially so that everybody would identify with it. He was very clear, not to be too revolutionary socially, because that would frighten the bazaar class away. At the same time, he was adamant politically so that it would galvanize the masses, but he would pay them with words.

That led to the mass mobilization against the Shah that even drew into its movement the non-religious groups and the secular middle classes in Iran finally. And even the Communist Party of Iran paid allegiance to Khomeini while he was in exile close to Paris. Then the Shah was isolated and the revolution seized power.

But in a number of different countries this movement did not live up to its promises. Let's think of Algeria, for instance, which is a rather comparable situation, because in Algeria, after major riots in the fall of 1988, then an Islamist mass party was created in 1989, the Front Islamique du Salut. This party managed to draw the votes both of the have-nots and of the highest middle classes in the first free elections in Algeria, which took place in June 1990. It was a landslide victory for the FIS. There were municipal and regional elections.

From then on, these leaders thought that they had already won. Unlike Khomeini, who had a very open language until he seized power, and then would liquidate the different elements in the coalition that he no longer wanted, the FIS leaders had a very closed vocabulary. They immediately threw stones at the "sons of France" or people who were intoxicated with French culture, who had "suckled France's poisoned milk." That, to a large extent, cut them off from the wider constituency they needed to gather to seize power and topple the military.

In 1991, even though the FIS had a majority in the first round of the parliamentary elections, nevertheless the army was able to stage a coup, to stop the electoral process, and then to seize power, which led to a civil war from 1992 to 1998. This cruel war cost about 100,000 lives, but the Islamists have not won, and the military are still in power in Algeria. And why is that?

In order to give us a clue, let's go back to 1990. In 1990, when the "custodian of the 200 places," King Fahd, calls for Western troops to come to the rescue, he breaks the consensus that he had created around his name and around American interests in the 1990s during the jihad in Afghanistan.

You remember that the jihad in Afghanistan was a means for the United States to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, it was a means to inflict a Vietnam on the Soviet Union and to "trap the bear," and actually, the Red Army was trapped there. At the same time, there were no American casualties. No boys from Iowa were sent there, and no mothers of soldiers would demonstrate on the Mall. The people who would do the job were dubbed "freedom fighters" at the time. They were Islamists with beards from the Afghan mountains or other places in the Muslim world. They may have had mothers, but their mothers were not to be heard.

On the other hand, this war was for nothing. If I remember correctly details of the budget of the jihad, it cost the American Treasury approximately $600 million a year. There was a dollar-for-dollar matching policy; that is to say, the Gulf countries doubled the amount. So a billion-something a year for about eight years to topple the "Empire of Evil," the Soviet Union. That was not much. This goal was definitely achieved.

The other goal was that revolutionary Islam, instead of being used as a weapon in the hands of Khomeini against the West, was being used not only against the East or the Communists, but at the same time it was giving extra legitimacy to Saudi Arabia, the ally of the United States since the days when President Roosevelt went to meet with King Ibn Saud on the USS Quincy in the wake of Yalta in Suez. That was something that the Saudis were very keen on, because they always are in need of a strong Islamic legitimacy to ensure that their alliance with the United States escapes too much criticism in the social and political environment of the region.

Now, the jihad in Afghanistan was a very strange phenomenon. Why was that? Because not only did you have those Afghanis, the mujahideen, who actually fought against the Soviet Union and the Soviet troops, but you also had the international brigades, people coming from Algeria, from Egypt, from the Gulf Peninsula, from Pakistan, who were intoxicated with the ideology of jihad. The jihad- efforts in Arabic-in Afghanistan is the axis, the pivotal element in what unfolded over those last 30 years. It means a Holy war to repel the infidel armies from the Muslim land.

This led to training in Pakistani camps in the border region of a generation of Salafist jihadists, people who were brainwashed, with a very strict, rigorous Islamist ideology, which is quite close to the Wahabi understanding of Islam prevailing in Saudi Arabia. But, at the same time, the Wahabi ideology does not necessarily lead to any form of violence, but rather to a conservative world view.

That was coupled with this fascination with jihad, that the only solution to set up an Islamic state is military violence. That jihad against the Soviet Union had proved successful. The Soviet Union was the other superpower. So if a bunch of militants had the faith and training provided by the Pakistani ISI under the supervision of the CIA, they could win the world.

We do not know exactly how many jihadists went through the training camps. Common wisdom puts it at approximately 30,000. Even though they left, they had been shaped mentally by their stay in the camps with a very strong ideological training in the Wahabi fashion.

And it was a very modern or post-modern, or "macro world,"; it's not "jihad v. macro," it's "jihad cum macro" movement because they were all put on a database. There is at least one word in Arabic which everybody knows now, which is the Qaeda. Al-Qaeda in Arabic means "the base." But what base in that circumstance? The database. It was the nickname for the loose organization that bin Laden, who was there at the time, had put forward to keep track of everybody who had been in the camps. They had an e-mail address. So this was both an old-time movement, very rigorous ideologically, very sectarian, and very modern in the way it dealt with the militants, with electronic e-mailing and e-terrorism.

After the expulsion of the Soviet troops on February15, they had to do something with those people, who knew nothing except to fight. After the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Osama bin Laden, who already had some troubles with the Saudi regime and had been kept in Saudi Arabia deprived of his passport, offered King Fahd his soldiers to man the border against Saddam Hussein. Of course, King Fahd did not accept. He would rather have American troops.

Then you have a whole movement biting the hands that had fed it, the Saudi and the American hands. You had dissidents within Saudi Arabia, and this desire to duplicate the jihad experience in Afghanistan, because it had proved so successful. It just forgot that without American-provided Stingers, the fate of the world would have been different.

They tried to duplicate this experience in their countries of origin, in Algeria, in Egypt, in Bosnia, this was not a country of origin, but a place where many young Saudis went for another jihad. There was this a fascination, an intoxication with jihad.

It started against the Saudi regime itself. When the American troops came, you had those radical imams who would preach sermons against the American female soldiers in shorts coming with their military chaplains and rabbis to desecrate the holy land of Saudi Arabia. This was a feeling that matched the expectations of a number of young Saudis.

You must remember that Saudi Arabia is a country with a massive demographic explosion. We have many educated young Saudis here in the United States, Britain and some other European countries, but the majority of the young Saudis are educated in Saudi Arabia in mainly religious schools which cater to that kind of ideology. That led to this dissent movement in Saudi Arabia of which Mohammed Al-Masari from London and a few others, and Osama bin Laden, became the icons.

On the other hand, during the 1990s you had those movements in Algeria, in Egypt, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Kashmir, where it was no longer the kind of Islamic revolution that you had witnessed in Iran, where someone could gather different social components with an agenda to seize power and then to routinize a revolution, gathering different social groups.

What happened in the 1990s was that the most radical elements in the movement, most of them coming out of the young urban poor and the ones who had fought in Afghanistan as a symbol and as leaders, decided that they did not need to engineer a revolution, that it was too long and costly, that the Afghan-style military solution would be enough, a Che Guevara way, and that striking a blow at the enemy, exposing its weakness, would immediately help civil society or the mass of the faithful to an upheaval that would oust the regimes.

Hence, this fascination with violence, which in Egypt, in Algeria, for instance, started in earnest because the regimes were unpopular. In Algeria, remember that the military had stolen the show by interrupting the elections. In both cases, civil war began with some popular backing.

But in the course of the war, the radicals became increasingly radical and started to alienate the middle classes. People were afraid and left the movement. This took place in Algeria, in Egypt, where the movement was shattered. On the one hand, you had the most radical young urban poor component that was fascinated with violence, that thought that the Afghan experience could be repeated; and, on the other, the middle classes that suddenly felt that they would become prey to the riffraff.

They were frightened away from the movement. Islamist movements are very present in the Muslim world still, but they are fragmented. You no longer have the same capacity to mobilize simultaneously different social groups that you had in the 1970s and particularly in the 1980s.

One last word: terrorism. The kind of terrorism that we witnessed, and the outburst of which was September 11, how does it get into the picture?

In the mid-1990s, those guerrilla jihad types had not succeeded. The turning point is 1995-1996, where the military regimes managed to win militarily. And then terrorism comes as a surrogate, a substitution to the failure of those guerrillas.

1997 is the year when you have the last mass atrocity in Luxor, Egypt, with 60 casualties. The very same fall of 1997 leads to an explosion of violence in Algeria. These are the swan songs of the guerrilla movements. After that, they will not be able to mobilize any support to conduct significant mass violence action.

But that is the time when you witness the Daharan Khobar blasts in Saudi Arabia against American Marines in June 1996. Then you have the explosions of the two embassies on August 7, 1998, which is not just any date, because it is on August 7, 1990 that King Fahd, custodian of the two holy places, called the American and allied forces to step in on the holy land of Saudi Arabia. Then you had the USS Cole in the port of Aden in the fall of 2000. Then September 11.

Now, how does that fit into the picture? It is an attempt by this ultra-militant wing of the movement to reconcile with the fact that they have lost their mass following and that they want to use very spectacular actions to show that the enemy is weak and that the masses should not be afraid, but rather mobilize. Out of the shock wave that results from the attacks comes a general jihad against America and the West.

This has been achieved to a large extent at the emotional level. I traveled extensively in the Middle East after September 11. I met a number of young people and imams. The amount of enthusiasm for bin Laden was striking, but this enthusiasm did not translate into any mobilization because the go-betweens, the instruments of mobilization—the imams, the religious leaders, the Islamic association—would not follow because they felt that the balance of power was detrimental to them.

So this is where we are now. We have an Islamist movement which is still in existence, but is heavily fragmented. This fragmentation leads to its incapacity to engineer revolutionary movements like the one in Iran that would manage to seize power and to put into shape Islamist regimes in the near future.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: You used a very important word at least twice during your presentation, fragmentation. What has happened, like the fear of Communism in the Western world, and particularly in the United States, is that this Islamic movement is really fragmented, and the fragmentation you can couple to the difference in the Shiite, in the Sunnis, and in each of the countries where there are these so-called revolutionary movements, they have the contradiction of others that are against them—Iran, Iraq, the Wahabis and the Saudis. There is more of a defeat than what is being admitted. The fragmentation within the concept of Islam will further deplete it.

QUESTION: Since you are coming from France and Europe, help us to understand the impact of jihad in France now, with the elections and the important North African immigration in France, and also in Germany, where there are cells—they may be small cells, they may be fragmented, but they mobilized enough people to take down two towers in New York City.

GILLES KEPEL: To go back to the previous comment for a minute, definitely there is fragmentation anywhere, whether it be in Christianity, Islam, Judaism. But the big issue is where do you find people or movements who are able to move beyond this fragmentation and use the different fragmented elements, and mobilize them into something that works? This is the historical perspective I was trying to give.

France and a number of other European countries have become part of the Muslim world. Five percent of the French population today is either nationals or residents of Muslim descent.

Does that mean that we have an Islamic community which thinks only along the straight path of Islam, that constitutes a bloc of homogeneous voters who behave exactly the same on whatever issues? I don't think so.

The French have had a very long tradition of immigration, and this is one thing in common between France and the United States, that they are nations of immigrants, the difference being that the United States knows it and the French pretend they are not.

French society was able to culturally assimilate the waves of immigrants, traditionally from eastern, southern, and northern Europe, and then now from the south Mediterranean, into the cluster that was French society.

Now, we have a new generation of young people of North African origin who are coming of adult age. They are to a large extent becoming active socially, politically, in the labor force. There have been a number of incidents recently linked to the war in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine. Some synagogues have been attacked, more as a provocative gesture. We have no Kristallnacht in France. The state is not anti-Semitic, contrary to what Mr. Sharon seems to allude to.

Then, you have a two-fold phenomenon: on the one hand, an identification with the Palestinians and with what is perceived as their suffering; and, on the other hand, a means to express social deprivation and to find any language at their disposal to show that they exist socially, that they feel downtrodden, they have difficulties finding jobs.

We shouldn't compare it entirely, but when you think of the difficulties that took place even in the civil rights movement in America in the later days between, for instance, the Black Muslim components and the Jewish organizations, this is something that is not totally different from the situation in France.

QUESTION: Do you see any significant elements in the Islamic world that would be in favor of democratic political institutions?

Given the fragmentation that is taking place now in your analysis, what should the policy be of the United States and the European Union towards the regimes, such as in Iran or in Saudi Arabia? Do you see us just sitting back because of the fragmentation and not worrying?

GILLES KEPEL: That is a nice combination of questions. Among the segment which I call the pious bourgeoisie, a number who at first had been fascinated with the alliance with the poor, to oust the incumbents, are now trying to find ways to get out of this political impasse—i.e., their alliance with the young urban poor—and either to find ways for a cooption or cooptation by the regimes; or an alliance with the non-Islamic secular opposition forces.

Some of the Egyptian former Muslim brothers have created a party which is called al-Wasat, the Center Party. They are keen to reconcile their Islamic credentials with democracy, considering that the issue is democracy and that the problem is the authoritarian nature of the regime. That is why the regimes are interested in maintaining a rather vibrant Islamist position, because this is the way they gain legitimacy vis-à-vis the West, and particularly after September 11. Authoritarian regimes in the area saw that it was their best insurance policy—they said, "You know, it's either us or them, and they blow up your towers."

The difference between the 1970s, which was the starting period on which I elaborated, and the year 2000 is that now you have a new generation in the Muslim world, different from the generation of the 1970s. The 1970s were the first mass-educated generation that left the countryside, came to the cities; it was the big change in the demographic balance. In 14 centuries of existence, the Muslim world had been a predominantly rural world. Suddenly, it became a predominantly urban and peri-urban world. There was a huge gap—families with nine children, thanks to antibiotics and dehydrated milk.

Nowadays it is different. Children who are born in the cities are born in much smaller families. In North Africa, for instance, urban families have an average of two to three children, whereas in the previous generation it was eight, nine, ten.

Plus, the utopian character of the Islamist ideology has to a large extent faded away because they had 30 years to see what it produced . It produced Iran, Sudan, civil war. There is a renewal in the Muslim world among intellectuals as to how to rethink the Islamic legacy in its plurality and how to make it democracy-compatible, because the Wahabites and the Islamists usually tended to de-historicize the history of Muslim societies.

This is taking shape now. The problem is that with what we have now in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, there is not much room in the Muslim world for relaxed thinking. Most energies are focused on hostility to Israel and, to a large extent, the West.

Should we go to Iraq or shouldn't we? I am not the one to answer.

The Administration believes that unseating Saddam Hussein would allow for a general reshuffling of cards in the area, and that a pro-American regime would be in place in Iraq that would at first flood the gas market with Iraqi oil, that would belittle the position of the Saudis, then the Saudi monarchy would be at pains to regain control of its doctrine, and that would create a virtuous movement that would favor secular elites in the area and flush down the drain the bloc which is the alliance between authoritarian regimes and fundamentalism.

It is quite a gamble. What else can I say to remain in diplomatic terms? The world being what it is now, it is for America to decide and for the Europeans to commend.

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