Book Review: Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam

I finished reading Gilles Kepel’s Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam recently. The author is French with a number of previous works in the area. This book was originally written in French in 2000 and was translated after the September 11 terrorist attacks with small changes incorporating them. The main thesis of Kepel is that the rise of political Islam was the result of the failure of the nationalist, post-colonial governments as well as of changing demographics (a huge increase in the number of urban educated poor youth, for example). He divides the book into two parts: Expansion until the end of the 1980s; and Decline in the 1990s. He considers the September 11 attacks as the acts of desperation of a failing extremist movement.

In spite of what many hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath, the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might. The jihadist-salfists who belonged to bin Laden’s mysterious Al Qaeda network imagined themselves as the spark that would ignite the volatile frustration of the disenchanted ones in the Muslim world and stoke a firestorm. They had no patience for the slow building of a movement that would reach out to the masses, mobilize them, and guide them on the path for power.

I think he is mostly right in his opinion, though it is still too early to tell what the effect of Al Qaeda combined with the general anti-Americanism around the world will be.

Kepel discusses political Islam in a class framework: urban poor, devout middle class and the intellectuals. Though it is sometimes a valid way to look at the picture, I don’t think it applies generally to all the cases he discusses. He also describes the repressive measures of the governments, like in Algeria and Egypt, with not even a hint of disapproval. I am a bit disturbed by that.

Regarding the decline of the Islamists, he notices the appeals to democracy and civil and economic rights of political Islamic parties (see, for example, this post of mine).

We should bear all this in mind when we attempt to analyze the new directions taken by those militants and former militants who now, in the name of democracy and human rights, are looking for common ground with the secular middle class. They have put aside the radical ideology of Qutb, Mawdudi, and Khomeini; they consider the jihadist-salafist doctrines developed in the camps of Afghanistan a source of horror, and they celebrate the “democratic essense” of Islam. Islamists defending the tights of the individual stand shoulder to shoulder with secular democrats in confronting repressive and authoritarian governments. Choosing to wear the veil is no longer trumpeted as a sign of respect for an injunction of the sharia but is viewed as an exercise of the human right of individuals to freedom of expression.

[…]Some people viewed this development as a cynical maneuver, like that of the modern communist parties, which used the parlance of democracy now and then, the better to dupe the “useful idiots” they needed to enlarge their baseand their political networks, especially among the intelligentsia. When the Soviet Bloc was still relatively powerful, this stratey produced excellent results, attracting many sincere democrats who were seduced by the messianic aura of the workers’ movement. On the other hand, with the coming of the crisis that was to sweep away the Eastern Bloc and its confederates, these currents of exchange began to favor the defection of communist militants, notably the managers and agents whose democratic contacts offered possibilities of re-conversion in various civil institutions and associations outside party circles.

This was one — but not the only one — of the possible outcomes of a dialogue between the Islamists (now less sure of themselves) and the secular democrats of the Muslim world.

One topic which I might discuss in detail later is Islamic feminism which is becoming quite common among young educated urban religious Muslim women in a number of countries. These women wear the veil of their own accord and consider equal rights for women an important part of their ideas (Al-Muhajabah, have you written anything on the topic?). Here’s what Kepel says:

Paradoxically, the Islamist experience itself has produced some of the conditions that have led to its own obsolescence. In the ranks of veiled female militants demanding the application of the sharia, we see, in many cases, the first generation of women to speak in public outside their homes and beyond their domestic role. In doing this, they have collided with male militants bent on confining these women to a subordinate role in Muslim society. Some women, most notably in Turkey and Iran, have reacted by creating a form of “Islamist feminism” to counter the machismo that prevails in the movement. These protests may represent the first stirrings of tomorrow’s Muslim democracy.

Kepel thinks that democracy is the only solution and I agree.

All this goes against the blinkered vision of those who make the doctrine of Islam itself an obstacle to the implantation of democracy in any of the countries where it is the dominant religion, and also to those who attribute to that doctrine a “democratic essence.” Islam, like any other religion, is a way of life, one that is given its shape and form by Muslim men and women.

[…]Today, as Muslim societies emerge from the Islamist era, it is through openness to the world and to democracy that they will construct their future. There is no longer any real alternative.

[…]But this march to democracy must face an obstacle that has nothing religious about it: the various sovereign states, as well as the elites that rule them, must also be prepared to make their modes of government democratic. […]If these leaders neglected reform and drew immediate, selfish profit from Islamism’s decline, then the Muslim world would very soon face a new crisis — expressed as either Islamist, ethnic, racial, religious, or populist.

And that is one of the reasons I am very happy at the fall of Saddam.

UPDATE: Also see my post about what Kepel has to say about Maudoodi.

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. I don’t think I’ve ever written on the topic of Islamic feminism per se, but I’ve written articles and blog entries about women’s issues in Islam, criticized what I consider to be harmful interpretations of Islam (such as saying that women can’t speak to non-mahram men), and offered woman-positive interpretations of Islam. I recently had an excellent discussion in my comments section about marriage dynamics in Islam and the wife’s rights.

    In a way, you could say that I write in Islamic feminism, not about it

  2. Islam, like any religion, is dependant on the interpretations of the interpreter. Usually, the personal experiences of an Islamic leader (and their grievances about colonialism, support for nationalism, merger with communism, etc. often affect their views.

    Now, much of the Islamic laws and guidelines are right. Without a doubt, Sharia’s tough stance on crime is the only way to deal with what has become a major problem. Also, the world would be better off without gambling, so they’re right there too.

    On alcohol, there is a lot of truth, too. However, I do not believe that Allah minds the moderate or light drinker but does come down heavily on those who are drunkards and especially violent drunkards (who beat up their wives, get into crime, etc.).

    Islam’s views on women are (at best) overprotective but mean well. However, some chauvinist, paranoid men often use it to repress women (in fact, it is often the only Islamic attribute many such men practice!). On the positive side, it does stop women dressing in tart-like miniskirts and also curbs the lap-dancing trade.

    For reasons too strange to get into, many Mullahs do not seem to enjoy music and singing very much. I think that this must stem from Arabic/Turkish/Iranian bellydancing culture and that songs and singing were associated with that. While filthy songs and obscene dancing are right to be banned, more neutral forms of music do not imo interfere in any way with Islam. God is no monster and he understands that good people are entitled to enjoy themselves as long as it does not affect others’ lives.

    More like it is the fact that music is banned because of anti-western feeling and paranoid of western music having messages that may not be in sync with some dictators’ views.

    For example, many Islamists in the 1950s tolerated Jerry Lee Lewis (US blues/country/Christian singer) because he was spurned by the British! He became a hero for them, whereas Elvis Presley was ‘evil and against Islam’. Why? Because one was vilified in the West and the other was loved in the west.

    This was also common in the USSR and in Nazi Germany, so the Taliban were not unique in this way. It is easy to say music, TV, newspapers, etc. all are anti-Islamic when it covers up some political regime. Truth is: the regimes are often more anti-Islamic than the people they are supposed to represent.

    The future of Islam is like Christianity: It will evolve from feudalism, through turmoil, through division and eventually will settle into a new role. However, Islam has more of a bright future than Christianity.

    What is wrong with the West? The West is immoral and lacks religion, which means that peoples’ friendliness, compassion, mercy, etc. is dead. All relationships are based on alcoholic sex and not love. All social events mean getting drunk. It is the antithesis of the Taliban but just as bad. The world does not want an overzealous version of Islam like the Taliban or of Christianity like the Puritans in 1600s England anymore than it needs immorality and decadence. The happy medium is required. Islam and Christianity are the leading religions in the world and should (if managed properly) overcome all the problems. If religion is mismanaged, decadence will take its place.

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