Detail from book cover
Detail from book cover

The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West

Sep 22, 2004

Kepel argues that Americans have committed a fundamental error in assuming that the followers of Osama bin Laden are waging a war on the American state.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Merrill House Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome our members and guests to our Books for Breakfast program. This morning we are very pleased to have with us Gilles Kepel, who will be discussing his latest work, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West.

Like every great religion that tries to adapt to the changes in the modern world, Islam has shown signs of being a varied — and, at times, even a fractious—face. Although Muslims may not differ on the essential tenets of their beliefs, in recent years some Islamic extremists to further their own convictions have distorted the words of Islam’s religious texts and channeled them into ghastly deeds.

For Islamic extremists, whose supreme political ambition has been to restructure the Middle East and create Islamic states throughout the region, their goals have been elusive. And even though some of these extremists have relocated the arena of terrorist action from Muslim lands to the West, they still have been unable to restore the reigns of their glorious and historic past. In fact, recent terrorist acts have only served to bring about more turmoil, more condemnation, and Western intervention, as neo-cons in Washington advocate even more strongly for a reshuffling of the deck in the Middle East, and this too has added to the struggle within the Muslim faith.

For those of us who seek a clearer understanding of Islamic politics, and for others hoping that Muslims will embrace democracy and pluralism rather than resorting to radical solutions, Professor Kepel is a messenger carrying sobering, but cautiously good, news. In The War for Muslim Minds he focuses on recent developments in the Middle East and attempts to sort out the complex strands of ideology and resistance that have influenced the thinking of both Islamist and Western nations. In the end, he offers some hope for accommodation between Muslims and the West, but only if we are willing to engage moderate European Muslims.

Professor Kepel is one of the most cited experts on Islam in the United States and Europe. In the early 1970s, he began doing his field work among Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East and has remained attuned to their world ever since.

In researching his latest work, our guest traveled to both the Middle East and the West, stopping at the very places where militant Islam was born. He spoke with leaders all across the Islamic spectrum, as well as with key Bush advisors and European diplomats. He confronted them and asked about the rising tide and disaffection of Muslim populations in their cities, as well as the terrorist threat. He used his findings to craft a compelling argument for why he believes that the most important battle in the war for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought in the Western communities of believers, many who live in the outskirts of Paris or in London, where Islam has already taken hold.

Professor Kepel holds degrees in Arabic, English, and philosophy, a diploma from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, and doctorates in sociology and political science. He is Chair of the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies Department and heads the post-graduate program in Arab and Muslim minds. He is the author of several influential books on Islam, including the critically acclaimed and definitive work on militant Islam, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. The transcript can be found on our website,

At a time when there is a fierce struggle underway for Islam’s religious soul, we are delighted to welcome back to the Carnegie Council a person who is able to offer a fresh and original way of looking at this current dilemma, Professor Gilles Kepel. Thank you for joining us.


GILLES KEPEL:Thank you very much, Joanne. It’s embarrassing for me to speak after such nice words, and the challenge is to live up to the expectations you have raised. I would like to start with a foray into the minds of the people who organized 9/11. Many thought that 9/11 was a thunderstorm in a blue sky, or that it was related to what has been called by Samuel Huntington, among others, a clash of civilizations. The reality is much more complex than that, and now that we have new elements to try to understand why 9/11 took place, who performed it, and with what aim, we can try to assess to what extent those who implemented 9/11 achieved their goals or, on the contrary, failed; and what response we in the West can bring to this challenge.

In December 2001, an Arabic-language newspaper in London, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat [The Middle East], funded by one of the branches of the Saudi royal family, but which gives some free space to opposition, carried a series of excerpts from a book by Al-Qaeda’s chief idealogue, who is not Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden is the man with charisma, who’s okay on TV, who foots the bills, but doesn’t really have the brains. The brains are Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom you saw on TV recently, which may be a sign also that Osama is not in the front line anymore.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, born in 1951 in Egypt, is a medical doctor. I was already interested in what he was doing when I did my Ph.D., because my dissertation was on the radical Islamic movement in Egypt in the early 1980s. Zawahiri made his first public appearance when he was arrested after Sadat’s assassination. He was the one who spoke some English among the jailed militants, so he was chosen by his comrades to address the foreign press.

I have a vivid image of him in a cage. He would say, “Who are we? We are the Muslims. What do we want? We want an Islamic state.” Nobody would have imagined at the time that twenty or twenty-five years later he would be the mastermind of the most major terrorist event that ever took place.

What does Zawahiri write in this book, which was serialized in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat? It was also available thereafter on a number of Islamic websites—because without the Internet, there would be no al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda in Arabic means “the base.” But this can be understood in two ways. One, as an autonomy, the physical base where they have the training camps in Afghanistan. This is what the U.S. military administration thought it meant, and they thought that by destroying the actual base they would destroy the network, which did not prove true.

But it also has a metaphorical meaning. Al-Qaeda in Arabic means “the database,” and al-Qaeda is a database. It is the place where militants who were once physically together in training camps keep in touch via the Internet.

9/11 is a product of the Internet. And I could even go further to develop this metaphor and say that maybe we should think of bin Laden as the super-hacker of terrorism; he is the man who invents viruses. The hacker is a creative person—destructive, but creative in his destruction. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, is a critical assessment of the trials and failures of Islamist movements of the 1990s—doom, nothing but doom. It failed everywhere—Egypt, failure; Algeria, failure; Bosnia, failure; Chechnya, failure; Kashmir, failure.

Why is that? Those jihad guerrillas that were launched from 1990 onwards all failed because, as he says, “we, the vanguard of the ummah (community of believers) failed to mobilize the masses.” It doesn’t sound very Islamist, almost neo-Marxist, or post, but this is how it is. “We failed to mobilize the masses because the nearby enemy—i.e., the Egyptian state, the Algerian state—proved resilient, proved too strong. So we have to find a new device in order to mobilize the masses and to bypass this grassroots work that we have proven incapable of doing.”

“How should we do that? One, we should change strategy. Two, we should focus on the right slogan at the right time—momentum, change strategy. Instead of focusing on the nearby enemy, we should shift back to the faraway enemy.” This traces back to a debate within the Islamist movements as to whether militants should focus their energy against the local tyrant—Hosni Mubarak, the Shah of Iran—or, on the contrary, join forces temporarily with the local government against the other—Israel, the West—and then, when the faraway enemy is destroyed, turn against local rule.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, when Islamists were on the rise, they decided that they would deal with the faraway enemy later, because if they didn’t destroy the nearby enemy now, they would be wiped out. So throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they focused on the nearby enemy. Hence, the failures of jihad in Algeria, Bosnia, and Egypt.

Because this nearby enemy proved too strong, they focused on the faraway enemy. But in order to strike at the faraway enemy you have to invent a new type of weapon, a new type of action. Instead of trying to recruit people through grassroots work, which doesn’t work—the spies of the Muhabarat, the secret services, the enemy, are vigilant—then focus on a small group of dedicated militants who are, on the one hand, extremely sophisticated, who have education, who if possible have been trained in European or American universities; and who are, on the other hand, indoctrinated, brainwashed, by Salafism or by a very restrictive understanding of Islam which favors mimicking, which favors the letter and not the spirit, and use such a group to strike at a target which would be in the faraway enemy’s territory, and which at the same time would be extremely spectacular. The media would then be the medium to bypass the failure of the grassroots work.

That led to 9/11—a dedicated group, a cluster of fanatics, who would be very sophisticated and, at the same time, would be ready to commit suicide.

If you take a character like Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian-born, German-educated leader of the group of 9/11 hijackers, you have the characteristic of schizophrenia: Atta wrote his M.A. thesis in Hamburg on the benefits of cohabitation between Christians and Muslims in the Syrian city of Aleppo, to keep its multi-cultural dimension, and how to develop solutions for Christians not to flee Aleppo. But this is the same man who, while he was with his group hijacking planes, had one of his Saudi acolytes write “the will of Mohamed Atta” which said “if any one of your victims is trying to rebel, slit his throat like the Prophet said and plunder him, but be careful when you plunder that you are not stabbed in the back,” using a very narrow interpretation of Qu’ranic verses, which puts you back in the 7th century A.D.

This unbelievable blend—the super-educated, Western, German-speaking Atta, who is at the same time the person who is following the injunctions contained in such wills or texts—creates the schizophrenic character that leads to your nineteen hijackers of 9/11.

9/11 was also built up in such a way that it would be extremely spectacular terrorism. Zawahiri calls it “martyrdom operations.” He also has a cost/profit operation in mind. He says that it doesn’t cost much and the faraway enemy can be destroyed or can suffer tremendous blows at a very low cost. Anyone, he says, can kill an American or an Israeli or a Jew, and a lead pipe is enough.

When we look at Iraq today in terms of return of investment politically—taking two or three hostages, beheading them in public and what cost it has on the American presidential election—these are all developments of Zawahiri’s thinking and ideology.

So it had to be spectacular, and spectacular to the point that 9/11 was staged in the globalized parlance of emotions—i.e., Hollywood. None of us who saw the twin towers falling will ever forget, because it speaks to the way we perceive emotions, the way Hollywood has shaped our emotions.

As a contrast, the slaughter of the innocents in Beslan in northern Ossetia recently, where hundreds of children were assassinated, is something that we intellectually remember and definitely condemn, but nevertheless, because the images were not there, we shall forget it much more readily than 9/11.

This was all staged so that it would bypass the failure to mobilize the masses. Zawahiri was hopeful that, one, it would send awe and shock amongst the West, the faraway enemy—“We shall burn the hands that set fire in our countries,” he writes—and also that it would galvanize, mobilize, the masses of the ummah, so that they would not be frightened and would join the vanguard and topple the powers that be. There again, striking at a faraway enemy is a means to strike at the nearby enemy through a detour.

Two, a slogan. Zawahiri explains that what has to be done is to find the right slogan to mobilize the masses. The masses do not spontaneously understand the Islamic state; it’s complicated. What they are receptive to, writes Zawahiri, is “jihad against Israel,” even for Muslims or Arabs who are amongst the non-believers. We have to remember that September 11, 2001 comes after August 2001, which is the moment at which Intifada al-Aqsa changed.

Arafat launched Intifada in late September 2000, after Ariel Sharon took his cakewalk on the Temple Mount of the Esplanade of the Mosques, and Arafat was convinced that if he could exert enough pressure on the Israelis—just as Hezbollah had exerted pressure on Israel in southern Lebanon and compelled, so he thought, Barak to pull the troops—then he could have a better deal in the negotiations, because the Oslo peace process was not favorable and he was challenged internally.

What happened was that he would out-jihad the radicals, Hamas and the others. But it did not work. From late spring 2001, Hamas and Islamic jihad were again at the center, and they were setting the agenda, an agenda of suicide bombings and attacks on Israeli bus stops, which was condoned largely by TV preachers on Al-Jazeera. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, for instance, epitomizes the moderate Muslim Brother preacher, and Al-Jazeera who said it was perfectly licit to kill women or civilians in Israel because this part of Dar Islam had been occupied by infidels.

So, in a way, what we call al-Qaeda, was eager to pull the carpet out from under those people and capture this condoning of Intifada that was so widespread in the Muslim world at the time. This is very explicit when you remember that bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Abu Ghaith, a former Kuwaiti football player who was number three in al-Qaeda, appeared on TV on October 7, 2001, the day President Bush launched the operation against Afghanistan. And so al-Qaeda’s answer was in front of a cave, which was a remake of the Prophet’s holy flight, or hajira, from impious Mecca to Medina where he would regroup his forces and then later return victorious to Mecca. So there you had bin Laden, who had fled impious, hypocritical Saudi Arabia; Zawahiri, who had fled Babylonian Egypt,not to mention rotten America; and Abu Ghaith, who had fled Kuwait.

Bin Laden spoke first, and he made a declaration, which made him extremely popular in the Muslim world. He said, “I swear by Allah, who created the skies without columns, that as long as children in Palestine are killed by Israeli SUVs, as long as Iraqi, etc., etc., America will never sleep peacefully.”

This was the device that was Part Two after 9/11: how to recuperate the operation for the sake of converting terrorism into political action, for the sake of triggering political mobilization.

Three years after, how can we assess this issue? Have they won? Have they lost? What are the assets and the liabilities? Let’s put ourselves in the shoes or in the babush, or in the djellaba of bin Laden.

In terms of liabilities first, have they managed to capitalize politically on terrorism? Have they seen in the last three years Muslim states becoming Islamic states in the way bin Laden wants to see them? Not really. On the contrary, Afghanistan, which was the only state that was dear to their hearts and where they had taken shelter, has been wiped out. Even more so, the American and allied forces are in Iraq and the erstwhile capital of the Abbasid caliphates, Baghdad, is under American occupation, foreign occupation, non-Muslim occupation. The land of Islam is controlled by the infidels.

Let’s have a look at Palestine. Palestine is probably in the worst state since 1948. Intifada backfired and Ariel Sharon built his wall, or his fence, in earnest and could eliminate Yassin and Rantissi. And now Hamas and jihad Islam are fighting against Arafat, who is fighting against Darlan, who is fighting against Arafat, who is fighting against—and the political fate of the Palestinians as a people, or an entity, has never been worse than it is today.

Also, significant blows have been inflicted on al-Qaeda as an organization, even though Zawahiri and bin Laden are still on the run as far as we know—or dead—but not in Guantanamo. Nevertheless, significant blows have been dealt to them, and particularly the arrest of Khalid Shakh Mohammed, who was the engineer of 9/11. Zawahiri was the architect, but Khalid Shakh Mohammed was the engineer.

But what are the assets from their point of view, and which are liabilities for us?

The first asset is that they have made terrorism a central and crucial issue on the world agenda, not only in international issues but also in domestic affairs. We [the French] had two journalists taken hostage, and their abductors claimed that they would kill them unless the French government suppresses the law banning the wearing of religious signs or garments in schools, i.e., veils. This shows you a very new and strange interaction, because what does the occupation of Iraq have to do with the law in France? In our globalized post-al-Qaeda web world, this is interrelated. It did not work as far as the French nation is concerned, but this is clearly on their agenda.

Even worse, you have had tens of bombings which are derived from and franchised by bin Laden groups or operatives since 9/11. Madrid, 3/11 could have been even more damaging in terms of casualties than New York and Washington, had the Spanish trains arrived on time in Atocha Station, and had they all exploded when they were in the station. This was a means to interfere within domestic European political issues, because it sent Aznar packing and facilitated Zapatero’s election.

Aznar did not handle this issue very carefully. He pointed an accusing finger at ETA, which was perceived as a lie. Aznar thought of ETA, not only for political expediency, but because the bureaucratic culture of counter-terrorism in Spain is solely focused on countering ETA. They found the people very quickly and efficiently, and stormed their building, just as they would have stormed a place where ETArista were hiding. They couldn’t imagine that the Islamist terrorists would blow themselves up and blow up the whole area.

The same can be said about tracking al-Qaeda by American forces. They thought of al-Qaeda as a USSR-sponsored terrorist network of yesteryear. They were still looking through the prism of the Cold War. In the neo-con view, the fall of Baghdad was seen to an extent as the fall of East Berlin or of Japan.

Military victory is provided for by intelligent weapons. You remember those fascinating images on TV of the bombing of Baghdad with CNN reporting, and in the background you had cars in the streets in the bombed cities, and even on bridges. Normally when a city is bombed, you don’t take your car out and you don’t go on bridges. But they were so confident in Albert Wohlstetter and Paul Wolfowitz’s intelligent weapons that they thought they risked nothing and went out. And actually what was targeted was presidential palace number three, republican guards barracks number four with tremendous efficiency and minimal collateral damage.

But then the Administration expected that this military victory, because it had no civil society casualties, would translate immediately into political apotheosis and that civil society would be mobilized—just like Zawahiri in reverse—and join the big project for democracy in the Middle East, and Iraq would be the paragon for democracy, which so far has not occurred.

So in terms of assets of terrorism from the terrorists’ point of view, we have all these franchised al-Qaeda groups which have mushroomed.

Let’s take the least sophisticated incident, the bombing in Casablanca, Morocco on May 16, 2003. What happened there? You had Moroccans living in shantytowns. None of them had ever gone to Afghanistan. The only thing they tried to do to flee their country was to get on fishermen’s boats that cross the Straits of Gibraltar to bring immigrants into Spain. They were repelled by Spanish coast guards, so they never went anywhere.

They read Zawahiri’s text on the Internet. They were galvanized by Imams who were disciples of the Londonistan imams, Abu Qatada and the like, and they watched videos and DVDs on jihad in Bosnia or Chechnya, where the Saudi jihadists are smiling and holding the chopped heads of Russian soldiers, and they decided they would ape them. So what is the thing to do? Kill Jews and foreigners. So they attacked the Jewish community center on a Friday evening, something that showed that they were not very well versed in Isra’ilyat because there was no one there except the Muslim janitor, whom they slaughtered, according to the text they followed without thinking.

And then they bombed a restaurant, which was called Casa d’Espana, a name tracing back to the Spanish protectorate in Morocco, but where no Spaniard had eaten for fifty years. And so they killed fifty or so people, all of them Moroccan Muslims—i.e., precisely the sons and daughters of the civil society they hoped to mobilize via terrorism.

A last example is one of the bombings in Istanbul against the Jewish community. One local Islamist newspaper ran a sorrowful title: “Seventy-two dead and only six Jews.”

They have been incapable of accomplishing a political mobilization, but nevertheless terrorism is still in their hearts, and it is at the heart of their political agenda. It is dangerously unsettling.

The war for Muslim minds is not a war between East and West, West and West, or Huntington and Fukuyama, but a war that has to be focused on civil societies of the Muslim world. Terrorism will be eradicated in the long run only if Muslim societies mobilize against it, whether it be in traditional countries of Muslim origin or in the countries where Muslims have now settled.

Before I started to speak this morning, the person next to me said, “In America no one has ever seen a Muslim. The only Muslims we see in New York are cab drivers.” This is perhaps a major difference between Europe and the States. We all know Muslims in France, wherever we are, at the workplace, at the dinner table, in our bed at times. France is a bed culture. In France, the vast majority of young Algerian women live with Frenchmen and vice versa. A blending is taking place, which is creating a new generation of hybridization. You Americans always see us with our berets and baguettes. This is not at all what France is like.

My last chapter is entitled “The Battle for Europe.” Our European citizens of Muslim descent can show their brothers, and cousins at home in the bled [native country] that they are the first generation of Muslims worldwide who may not want to define themselves as Muslims. They can be atheists or football players; they may not want to define themselves particularly as Muslims. They are the ones who are taking part for the first time in a pluralistic society and they may be able to wipe out those radical groups.

Or, on the contrary, they can join these communal citadel buildings that we have in Europe, for both Salafis and Islamists, who are stealing the minds of those young people and turning them into jihadists.

Maybe there is a difference of appreciation on either side of the Atlantic on this issue, because we are near, we are intermingled. In a way, we are part of the Muslim world and the Muslim world is part of us. Because of that, we have different responsibilities, challenges, stakes.

But we can be slightly optimistic. This is a battle that we shall win. For example , the reaction to the abduction of the two French journalists in France was quite staggering. Suddenly, we saw the whole of the French population—not only the French population, but in general the French population of Muslim descent as well—becoming vocal, and sending delegations to the Middle East saying to the abductors, “Who are you? Not only do we deny you the right to speak in the name of Islam but also to speak in our name. We loathe you. We have nothing to do with you”, to the point that the abductors were compelled to backpedal and to drop these claims. The hostages have not been freed, but at least they have not yet been beheaded.

Questions and Answers

JOANNE MYERS:I’d like to open the floor to questions. QUESTION: You talked about the criticism of Muslim terrorists by Muslims in France. In the U.S., I hear no criticism of Islamic or Muslim terrorists from any Muslim leaders in this country. Any comment on that?

GILLES KEPEL: When someone is of Muslim descent and does not necessarily want to identify politically first and foremost with Islam, then he may not be willing to work in the community organizations which are dominated by religious issues. He may rather want to be even a small fish in the big pond of politics and be a member of the Cleveland Association of Businessmen, and not a board member in the Cleveland Al Fatah Mosque.

The same is true in France in terms of Muslims and Jews. A month before there was a call from the Islamic army in Iraq to pull back the "secularity law" [la loi sur la laïcité], Ariel Sharon made a passionate call to French Jews telling them that they were in danger in France, which as everyone knows, particularly in America, is an anti-Semitic country, and that they had to flee France immediately and take shelter and live a happy and peaceful life in Ghaza where they would be safe. This met with furious reactions from the overwhelming majority of French citizens of Jewish descent.

But most Jewish communal or community organizations in France now are controlled either by the ultra-Orthodox or by the pro-Likud people, or by the Lubavitch. Why is that? Not that the majority of French Jews are of this persuasion, but those who are not are not interested in investing their time in controlling those organizations. That gives you a very distorted view of the population in question.

The same is true for Muslims and for people of Muslim descent in France. There was a review of my book in The Wall Street Journal last week, and they mentioned in passing that France now has a Muslim population of 10 percent. I don’t know whether this is a nightmare, or a fantasy. But what does it mean? It means that you know how to define someone politically as Muslim. I was a member of the committee for the law banning veils and the like in France. We had all the ministers come in for grilling.

One Minister said, “There are 5 million Muslims in France.”

I asked, “Mr. Minister, how did you arrive at that figure when we don’t inquire about people’s religion?”

He said, “I took an average. The Imams say 6 million; the ones who are against them say 3.5 million.”

I said, “With all due respect, Mr. Sarcozy, the average between two phony numbers does not makes a real number.” I don’t think this made me very popular.

There are a number of people who feel that they are not concerned.“It’s not because my name is Ahmed that I should stand up every time someone called Ahmed steals a car or beheads an American hostage.” It’s a very complicated way of blackmailing people who would not necessarily want to identify politically as Muslims and who don’t feel that they have to. Nevertheless, when the issue was a core problem in Parliament, and whatever decision in France had to be reversed because a bunch of cranks in Iraq had taken two hostages, suddenly there was a “we are part of this nation,” just as our Jewish compatriots did the month before, answering Sharon’s call.

QUESTION: You said that you were optimistic that terrorism would be eradicated, and that it would come from the Muslim communities rejecting it. The New Republic had a story about Israel winning the war against terrorism, and I heard yesterday from the Foreign Minister in Egypt that there has been some rejection in Haifa of the methods of Hamas. They cause crackdowns and it’s making their lives even more miserable.

Do you think that change may come quickly because people will reject violence by saying, “it doesn’t work; it just makes our lives worse”?

GILLES KEPEL: The French title of the book is Fitna, guerre au coeur de l’Islam. Fitna is the Arabic antonym of jihad. It is jihad turning against those who have launched it. It is the nightmare of the doctors of the law, of the holy men, who since the inception of Islam in the 7th century A.D. considered that the worst thing that could happen to the community of believers was internal strife, sedition, chaos, something that would lead to the destruction of Islam and make it an easy prey for its enemies.

What is happening in Iraq, for instance, is it jihad or is it fitna? For the radicals it is jihad because Iraq is an occupied part of the land of Islam, so we can mobilize the rank and file of Muslim masses to fight against the enemy and then send them packing and build an Islamist state on the ruins of the occupied land. That is scenario number one.

Scenario number two is that, on the contrary, what have a bin Laden and the like been up to? They gave the U.S. Administration a chance to invade Iraq, to topple Saddam Hussein, in order to further democracy, but actually to invade and control a rich oil-producing Muslim country. That is the sign of strife inside Islam. It leads to fitna.

When the French hostage crisis occurred in August, such groups as Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah lambasted those hostage-taking groups, saying, “No, no, no,” not because they have any love lost for impious, secular, veil-chasing France persecuting innocent Muslim pupils, attacking their honor, but because they thought that what they were doing was totally counterproductive, even from jihad’s point of view, that it was fitna, it was going to lead to the opposite.

There is currently a reaction which is finally tentatively organizing itself against that in the Muslim world. The reaction of those of Muslim descent was a trigger, because it was widely seen on Al-Jazeera. Nevertheless, we should never forget the reason why Muslim civil society has remained at least passive over the last few years. It is that the way the Palestinian-Israeli dispute is being dealt with and the way the Iraqi scenario is unfolding are not perceived as meeting their claims and demands.

If President Bush is reelected, as everyone seems to believe in this city today, or if his opponent is elected, which everyone may believe tomorrow—in political science you never know about the elections until they have taken place, and in America even a number of days after they have taken place — this is something that must be taken into consideration.

One can dispute endlessly whether the use of military force is efficient, and this is a legitimate debate. But then the bottom line is that military force is not enough; you have to deal with civil society.

QUESTION: I have participated in a number of discussions and seminars on Islam. There has been much talk among Muslims about the need for a religious reformation, that Islam is frozen in time in the 7th century, and that, in much the same way that Christianity went through a reformation, that is what is needed in Islam. Is this a possibility? It would certainly change how they live and it would have an impact on us too in the West.

GILLES KEPEL: This was a debate that was raging in the 1930s, at the time when Muslim countries were under colonial occupation and when many in the Muslim world thought that the reasons for colonial occupation had to do with the shortcomings of Islamic civilization.

The paradox is that from the 1970s onwards it has turned the other way around, and that, largely because of the failure and shortcomings of nationalist states. After World War II, most states that had been previously under colonial yoke became independent. It was a moment of enthusiasm and everybody believed that once Nassar had nationalized the Suez Canal, happiness would be the next step in Egypt. It has never been worse.

Then Islamist radicals took up the situation in the late 1970s to offer a alternative world view, saying that what occidentalization or reform (because those movements were Western-minded in a way) had done in the name of socialism, of liberalism, was but a fig leaf concealing the true nature of their despotism. But the language in which this was carved or molded was Western.

They concluded that whatever ideology is not born out of the sacred text is bound to be manipulated by despots, bad rulers and unjust rulers, so we have to cling to the literal meaning of the text because this is what God gave to mankind in order to lead to good.

This must also be put into perspective because this is the time when you have a huge demographic explosion in those countries, with a mass of young people coming out of the countryside, rushing to the outskirts of the big cities, having some education—what you call the three R’s—and having some superficial access to written culture, and then being easy prey for idealogues who would tell them, “See what the state has done to you. You have no lodging, no wife, no car, no job, no dignity, and we are going to use these three R’s that you have acquired to make you read the real holy text and implement it.” Maybe this has led to the state of a fitna which will be the trigger to reverse the trend.

QUESTION: Is it useful to make a distinction between Arab Islam and non-Arab Islam? For example, the Bosnian Muslims are genuinely European, non-Arab Muslims, and it is, in part, because of Bosnian Muslims that the head of the Austrian Muslim community was able to sign a peace agreement with the head of the Jewish community in Austria after the second Intifada in April of 2002. Do you see that differentiation?

GILLES KEPEL: Yes and no. Iran is not an Arab country, and there is not much peace between Iran and the U.S. But as far as the Turkish world is concerned—and Bosnia was Islamized by Turkey, by the Ottoman Empire—a debate is raging, where the “moderate” Islamist movement has made significant forays.

In the conclusion of my other book, Jihad, I argued that the movement failed to remain united in the 1990s. The radicals have gone their way, which led them to 9/11. If you take the Turkish Islamists, they have put a lot of water not in their wine, but in their tea, and they are now trying for rapprochement with the European Union, much more so than the secular military people in the past.

We have a number of people who, because they are attracted by the European model, see an alternative to radicalism. What your Bosnian mufti did, and what a number even of the religious Turks do, and what the European citizens of Muslim descent are doing in their vast majority, is going in this direction.

It is not necessarily because Turks are closer to this or Malaysians to that, but because they see that there is an alternative, and in my view this alternative is Europe. Europe offers an alternative model which is near. America is the model, but it is far away, and you don’t give visas anymore.

The challenge is that either they modify, they reform, and they get the benefits from what it is to be a European today, and they are part and parcel of the European experience and experiment—because Europe is something which is in progress—or they are led into fitna and terror. Europe in a way is a litmus test.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for being with us today.

You may also like

A Dangerous Master book cover. CREDIT: Sentient Publications.

APR 18, 2024 Article

A Dangerous Master: Welcome to the World of Emerging Technologies

In this preface to the paperback edition of his book "A Dangerous Master," Wendell Wallach discusses breakthroughs and ethical issues in AI and emerging technologies.

APR 11, 2024 Podcast

The Ubiquity of An Aging Global Elite, with Jon Emont

"Wall Street Journal" reporter Jon Emont joins "The Doorstep" to discuss the systems and structures that keep aging leaders in power in autocracies and democracies.

APR 9, 2024 Video

Algorithms of War: The Use of AI in Armed Conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the military applications of AI are fundamentally reshaping the ethics of war. How should policymakers navigate AI’s inherent trade-offs?

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation