Tuesday, October 01, 2002
Today, Gideon's Blog is officially boondoggle blog. I'm blogging from a conference center, taking a break from incredibly boring discussions of ratings agency behavior and such.
Since that's so boring, I'm going to talk about a book I just finished: Gilles Kepel's Jihad: On the Trail of Political Islam. It was not what I expected. First off, Kepel is French, and I assumed that would mean he was even less clued in to the reality of the region than American Near East specialists. Turns out that ain't so. Kepel certainly comes at certain topics from a particular angle. For one thing, his analysis is heavily class-oriented (though not at all Marxist; he seems to be a liberal). For another, his treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian situation leaves out enough of the Israeli side to seem, not biased exactly but one-sided. It's not that he has an axe to grind so much as he seems to naturally assume that the perpective on the situation is the Arab perspective (or, rather, perspectives). In any event, these are side-comments. The main point is that Kepel looks straight-on at the phenomenon of Islamist political violence and wants to understand where it is going. So he's already way ahead of the American academy, which largely still refuses to acknowledge the existence of Islamic terrorism. (And yes, Kepel calls terrorism terrorism.)
But his conclusions are not what you'd expect. Specifically, his thesis is that Islamist political violence peaked about 10 years ago and has been going downhill since. He traces the explosive growth of Islamism to the death of Nasser, Black September, the peace between Israel and Egypt, and the Iranian revolution. These events of the 1970s led to the rise of Islamism as an alternative anti-Western ideology to rival and eclipse Arab nationalism. But he claims that all this began to peter out in the 1990s. Kepel claims that, contrary to what seems to be the case, Islamism has been on a decline for a decade, losing popular support and losing political and military battles. He doesn't deny that there has been explosive Islamist violence in the 1990s, but he calls this both a cause and a consequence of the decline in Islamism, not of its strength. He makes an analogy to Communist and related far-left atrocities in the 1970s: the terrorism of the Bader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Fraction, the Weathermen and related groups was not a sign of the growing strength of the radical left in the West, but both a sign of and a cause of its decline. Similarly, he argues, Islamism's extraordinary violence in the 1990s alienated many potential supporters in the Islamic world and is a sign of that alienation, a desperation gambit by a movement that time has passed.
So, if he's right, why doesn't it feel that way? I do think he is on to something - there's something very suggestive about the analogy between 1990s Islamism and 1970s leftist terrorism. In particular, the Taliban seem like a perfect updating of the Khmer Rouge, probably the most insane of the Communist groups ever to take power anywhere. But there are some crucial flaws in his argument. First, a distinction needs to be made between the West and the world at large with respect to the 1970s, and in the same way between his favored class - the devout bourgoisie of the Islamic world - and the Muslim masses. While the terrorism of the Weathermen may have been a sign of the left's decline, the advance of Communism into Nicaragua, Cambodia, Afghanistan and so forth in the 1970s was no such sign; rather, it was a sign of the West's weakness of will. There was nothing inevitable about the fall of Communism; it fell because it could not defeat a determined West, but the West might not have been determined to defeat it. Similarly, there's nothing inevitable about the failure of radical Islam just because the devout bourgoisie have turned against it (assuming he's right that they have); even if they hold the balance of power, they need to be willing to use it.
Second, and relatedly, Kepel wants to believe that the inevitable historical progression is that the devout bourgoisie will, after rejecting Islamic dictatorship, turn to democracy as the best protector of their interests, and that the consequent liberalization of the Muslim world will brnig the ultimate resolution of the worst pathologies of that civilization. I'd like to agree with him. But his own narrative belies his argument. Specifically, the core proofs of the decline in Islamism come from the cases of Egypt, Algeria and Turkey. In each case, it appeared that an Islamic movement was rising through the 1980s, and in each case that movement failed to take power in the 1990s, to the point where now, in 2002, no noe is that worried about an Islamist takeover in any of these states short-term. (Our fears, rather, are focused on Pakistan, a country he discusses only by way of providing background on the rise of Islamism, but that he does not discuss with respect to Islamism supposed decline - a telling omission). And in each of these cases - Algeria, Egypt and Turkey - the risnig Islamic movement was defeated by a ruling military elite determined to crush it. In Algeria's case, where Islamism had already won mass support, this cost over one hundred thousand lives; in Egypt, it cost a few thousand; in Turkey, none. But in all cases, the military leadership of the country decided to use force to destroy the Islamic parties that threatened their power, and without this element it is not obvious that they would have succeeded in eliminating the Islamist threat (assuming they have). His brief for liberalization, then, inadvertantly makes the opposite point: that before you can liberalize, you must go through something like a Pinochet period, a period when a patriotic military uses brutal force to eliminate a political movement that it sees as a threat to the nation.
Kepel would not like this conclusion. I don't like it either. And he could rightly point out that no such brutality was necessary in Turkey, and that Algeria was an outlier case. But I could argue in response that what distinguishes Turkey is the patriotism of its military, and what distinguished Algeria was its venality and alienation from society. The Turkish military always had more popular support than the Islamic political parties, and for that reason could disarm the Islamists without violence. And it had that popular support because it was accurately perceived as serving the national interest. This brings me back to my perennial conclusion about the Arab world in particular (and Pakistan as a non Arab instance): that its failures are largely due to these societies' failure to nurture a patriotic elite - in other words, to develop an authentic nationalism.
The book is very worth a read if only for its considerable detail of history. I certainly know more about the origins of Islamism and its varieties than I did before. And I think Kepel is on to something important with his class analysis of Islamism's growth and possible decline. But he is far too optimistic, I think. We'd best not drop our swords just yet.