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Looking across the Mediterranean

16Radical Islamic politics and the West’s response

by John Richards

Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West.
Translated by Pascale Ghazaleh.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 336 pages.
(translation of: Fitna: Guerre au cœur de l’islam. Paris: Gallimard, 2004. 380 pages.)

Walter Russell Mead, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: 
America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk.
New York: Knopf, 2004. 226 pages.

Like it or not, since the end of World War II American foreign policy has been far more important than that of any other nation in determining the evolution of the international order. And in the immediate future, radical Islamic politics is the force most likely to upset that order. A torrent of books on both subjects is inundating the world’s libraries. Among those published in 2004, these two are among the most important syntheses. Both these writers – one French, the other American – write within a tradition of political realism, interpreting the term broadly. Reading them is a useful antidote to a certain parochial naiveté that surrounds Canadian thinking about international relations – whether the thinking be in academe, journalism or the offices of Foreign Affairs and CIDA.

I was in Dhaka in August 2004, on a day that Sheikh Hasina, former Prime Minister of Bangladesh and now Leader of the Opposition, addressed a large rally of her supporters. As she ended her speech, men on the rooftop of a nearby building threw a dozen grenades. They missed Hasina but killed two dozen people including several of her senior aides, injured another 200 and created panic among the crowd, estimated at up to 20,000. Panic led to riots, confrontations with police and the burning of many shops, cars and buses as well as a train in the Dhaka central station. Earlier in the year, as he left a mosque in his home district in the northeast of the country, the recently appointed British High Commissioner became the target of some other grenade thrower. For the first time, Britain had appointed a Bangladeshi-born naturalized U.K. citizen to this senior posting. The High Commissioner was lucky. He was injured; several others were killed.

Bangladesh may seem an out-of-the-way place from which to launch this review, but bear with me.

In the case of the attack on Hasina, a hitherto unknown group of self-defined jihadists subsequently claimed responsibility via an email sent to a newspaper. Having missed their mark this time, they promised to kill her next time. Sheikh Hasina called on the government to resign, claiming that elements of the governing coalition had organized or indirectly sanctioned the attack. Hasina’s explanation is an example of the extraordinary animosity between leaders of the country’s two major parties. Admittedly, the governing party engages shadowy figures who intimidate via force – as does Hasina’s party. And no arrests have been made, either for the attack against her or for the one against the British diplomat. So perhaps Hasina is right, but she produced no evidence.

Almost certainly, the explanation for both attacks is the obvious one. Many devout Muslims are intensely frustrated by the corruption endemic in Bangladeshi public life. For four years running, Transparency International has designated Bangladesh as the country with the world’s most corrupt public sector. A small minority among the devout believe the appropriate response to be the waging of jihad against those they consider apostates.

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About the Author

John Richards
John Richards is co-publisher of Inroads and an economist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.


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