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.