Radical Islamic politics and the West’s response

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.

In the case of the diplomat, he is presumably being punished for collaborating with the government of a country that supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In the case of the former Prime Minister, she has been targeted due probably to her political record. As Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001, Hasina led a deeply corrupt government that did not apply shari‘a law. To jihadists, corruption is an inevitable byproduct of the secular.

Gilles Kepel’s pessimism

Gilles Kepel is a senior member of the faculty at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris. The War for Muslim Minds is the most recent of several important books he has written or edited over the last 15 years on Islamic politics and religious thought. Nowhere, to my knowledge, has he written about Bangladesh – but his thesis fits the country well enough.

The first generation of postcolonial Arab elites – leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – were secular and enamoured of central planning. In general, they failed to realize reasonable social progress. They produced a small and fragile middle class dependent on the patronage of an unwieldy and overly centralized state. Instead of reasonably prosperous workers in expanding industrial sectors, they perpetuated rural poverty and presided over the growth of vast slums within their capital cities. The most coherent opposition to these elites has proved to be imams. In Arab countries, politicized Islam has become the dominant political ideology among those dissatisfied with the status quo. Cleansing politics by a return to the fundamentals of the Holy Qur’an appeals to the pious among the middle class and to many among the poor. However, intense conflicts have emerged among various prophets of politicized Islam, and this is creating “une guerre au cœur de l’islam” (a war in the heart of Islam), something Kepel labels as fitna, an Arabic word meaning anarchy.

The strength of Kepel’s book is that it provides those in the lands of unbelievers with insight into major Islamic ideologies and their relation to politics. In his discussion of Al Qaeda, for example, he stresses the role of Osama Bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian born into the country’s intellectual aristocracy. The fortunes of the family collapsed in the wake of Nasser’s 1952 coup. Zawahiri’s intellectual development was much influenced by Sayyid Qotb, chief theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was tortured and assassinated by Nasser in the 1960s. Zawahiri came to accept Qotb’s belief in the essential unity of the Muslim world, and the necessity of jihad to realize just Islamic states. Zawahiri concluded that the waging of jihad was required not only against nonbelievers but against Muslim leaders who rejected the teachings of the Qur’an. On the fringe of the Islamist group that assassinated President Sadat, Zawahiri was arrested and imprisoned. On his release in the mid-1980s, he left Egypt for Saudi Arabia where he befriended Bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia is, to use Kepel’s image, in the eye of the Islamic theological hurricane. The Bedouin elites that rule the country have made two contracts that are proving impossible to reconcile. First with the British and since World War II with the Americans, they have contracted to use their vast oil reserves as “swing provider” and thereby ensure that the industrial world obtains sufficient oil at reasonable prices. (Determining a reasonable price is an ill-defined dimension of the contract.) To retain legitimacy among the world’s Muslims for their dynastic government, they have entered into a second contract: to rule Saudi Arabia as a uniquely devout state worthy of hosting the two most sacred sites of Islam. Both domestically and abroad – via subsidies to madrassa schools, for example – the Saudi government promotes a particularly rigid version of Islam (Wahhabism). Provided they do not preach jihad against the Saud family, many religious refugees – such as Zawahiri – have been granted asylum.

To Bin Laden and other radical Islamic leaders, the success of the mujahideen in driving the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s proved the power of jihad. If the faithful could humble the mighty Soviet army, then they could do the same to the Zionist beachhead in Palestine and to the Americans whose presence in Muslim lands has corrupted governing elites and prevented realization of just Islamic states. Bin Laden’s final break with his extended family occurred at the time of the first Gulf War, when Saudi Arabia allowed infidel soldiers to be stationed in the country to wage war against Iraq. Whatever Saddam’s errors, Iraq was a Muslim country. It was unpardonable to abet armies of “Christian crusaders” come to wage war against a Muslim state. First from bases in Sudan, then from Afghanistan and now from an unknown address, Bin Laden and his wealth have enabled Zawahiri’s ideas to pass from rhetoric to reality.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is for Kepel but a small battleground in a conflict of civilizations. What makes it unique is its provision to jihadists of their most persuasive rallying cry. Defeating Zionism has served as the most successful pretext for waging jihad against the West. In Kepel’s words, “The bloody duel … between , … both in their seventies, has offered Islamic jihadists the rationalization for launching their ‘great blow’ … Thanks to the transformation of the Palestinian struggle into jihad, the political language of suicide attacks for the love of Allah has now acquired a certain legitimacy in the eyes of the Islamic faithful.”

In his assessment of Iraq and America, Kepel surveys the major forces in play. It is a crowded field: Saddam’s tactical evolution from secular pan-Arab socialist to nominally devout Sunni Muslim; the more or less secular ideas of the Kurds (who, with the protection of the no-fly zone imposed by the United States and Britain, have prospered since the first Gulf War); American neoconservatism (see the excerpt on p. 110); the “quietist” Shiite tradition represented by Ali Sistani that advocates a separation of church and state; the militant Shiite tradition of Moqtada al Sadr that does not; the ideas of the shadowy Abu al Zarqawi, a Jordanian who allegedly is the senior Al Qaeda operative in Iraq.

It is unclear what Kepel would have the Western world do about Iraq. On the one hand, he describes the dangers to the region of Saddam Hussein, an ambitious and tactically astute dictator. Given the brutality of his internal rule and the ethnic and religious cleavages among Iraqis themselves, a successful internal revolt was always unlikely. To that extent, he is sympathetic to the neoconservative position: the Western world should use armed force to topple Saddam.

On the other hand, Kepel is scathing in his critique of the naiveté within the U.S. Defense Department. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had inordinate faith in the efficacy of the U.S. arsenal of technologically sophisticated weapons, and the rapid victory over Saddam’s army provided short-term confirmation. But when the battle shifted to the complex problem of managing the occupation, high-tech gadgets were no substitute for large numbers of troops able to impose order. The Bush entourage expected Iraqis to treat the advancing GIs as liberators – which by and large they did – but they also expected Iraqis to forget the inglorious history of Western accommodation of Saddam’s atrocities over the previous three decades, and to forget the Islamic interpretation of what that history meant. Whatever else divided them, the mullahs concurred in their critique of the West – Europe and Japan as much as the United States – for having displayed a much greater interest in access to oil than in the collective suffering of the Iraqis.

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In his final chapter, Kepel turns to the Muslim populations of Europe. The Muslim diaspora extends from the midlands of England through neighbourhoods of Rotterdam and Hamburg and the Maghreb “zones” of Paris and Marseille to the majority of citizens of Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania. In total, the population of this diaspora is about 15 million. Kepel accords a privileged role to European Muslims. Relative to their coreligionists on the south bank of the Mediterranean, European Muslims have far more intimate contact with Western values such as equality between men and women, the importance of free political debate and the privileged place for independent scientific enquiry.

With mounting anxiety, the political leaders of Europe have set aside romantic elements of their multicultural policies and are now actively pursuing assimilation of Muslim immigrants to a core set of “Western” values. France has symbolically asserted the secular nature of its public school system by banning the wearing of religious symbols – girls wearing the hijab being the intended target. Britain, the country that historically has been the most tolerant of imams preaching as they wish, is embarrassed by the epithet “Londonistan” and has gagged the most radical. All European countries are keen to restrict legal and illegal Muslim immigration and to encourage existing Muslim immigrants to move from their ethnically homogenous enclaves into the mainstream. On the other hand, many imams oppose this agenda. Their goal remains as before: to build citadels of believers separate and apart from the impious majority.

Will these new assimilationist policies succeed where the old failed? The answer is far from certain. A useful analogy for North Americans contemplating Europe is to think of the Mediterranean as the equivalent of the Rio Grande. The huge economic disparity between incomes north and south of the Rio Grande and the massive immigration it induces has obliged U.S. politicians to concern themselves with the economic fate of their southern neighbour. The United States has rebuffed its protectionist lobbies in order to negotiate NAFTA. The immediate European analogue is the debate over inclusion of Turkey in the European Union. U.S. per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power, not exchange rates) is roughly four times that of Mexico; that of France or Britain is five times that of Algeria and seven times that in Egypt.

A dramatic means to illustrate the economic failure of most Muslim states over the last half century is to compare per capita GDP in a sample of them with that of China. Set aside the feudal oil sheikdoms whose prosperity depends largely on Allah’s placement of oil deposits and the voracious appetite for oil among the world’s industrialized countries, and look at China in relation to 18 majority-Muslim states with a cumulative 2002 population of more than 800 million. In the middle of the 20th century, China was exhausted from decades of war and desperately poor. The economic prospects of Arab states were a good deal brighter. However, per capita GDP in China is now higher than in 11 of the 18 states.

At US$4,400, per capita Chinese GDP in 2002 was roughly 15 per cent of Canada’s. By far the most successful of the 18 majority-Muslim states is Malaysia, with a 2002 per capita GDP nearly twice that of China. Other relatively prosperous Muslim countries are Turkey, Tunisia, Kazakhstan and Algeria. Per capita GDP in Turkey and Tunisia was about 40 per cent above China’s; in Kazakhstan and Algeria, about 25 per cent higher. The per capita GDP of four countries – Turkmenistan, Lebanon, Jordan and Albania – was within 10 per cent of China’s. In Morocco and Egypt, per capita GDP was about 15 per cent less than in China. The per capita GDP of Syria, Indonesia and Azerbaijan was between two thirds and three quarters of China’s. In the four remaining countries in this sample – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – per capita GDP was less than half of China’s.

The War for Muslim Minds is ultimately a pessimistic book. Kepel hopes that European Muslims will form the vanguard of a modern, liberal Islam. But he is expecting a great deal from a small number. Both the pan-Arab nominally socialist regimes and the feudal petromonarchies have failed to bring reasonable social progress to their citizens. Why? There is a hurricane of conflicting Islamic interpretations. This hurricane is not about to abate quickly.

Walter Russell Mead’s optimism

Given 20th-century history, many European intellectuals tend to pessimism. Throughout Kepel’s books lurks the possibility that jihad may – hopefully it will not, but it may – engulf the Middle East and those in contact with it. Walter Russell Mead, the Henry Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, is American. Americans are optimists. U.S. leadership within international institutions – and independent of such institutions – is basically a good thing. (See the excerpt on p. 114 with his assessment of the alternatives: the “party of heaven” and the “party of hell.”)

To read Mead is to realize the continuity in Anglo-American thinking about international relations. From Drake to Wolfe, the British Empire was as ruthless as that of its European rivals. But by the time of Victoria’s reign, the British diplomatic elite came to appreciate the key elements for civilized international relations and economic progress: a market economy and free trade, universal education (for girls as well as boys) and professionalism in public administration. The imperial reality rarely lived up to the ideal, but Pax Britannica provided a framework for impressive world economic growth until the chaos of World War I. Over the first half of the 20th century, British hegemony waned and, exhausted by World War II, it collapsed. Reluctantly, in Mead’s interpretation, “we took Britain’s place and built our own version of the British world system, and took on Britain’s old job of acting as not quite the policeman of the world, but at least the gyroscope of world order.”

Mead is drawn to lists. The famous distinction drawn by the international relations professor Joseph Nye between soft and hard power becomes, with Mead, a list of four kinds of power:

Nye’s hard power includes two quite different types of power: military and economic power … Economic power is sticky power; it seduces as much as it compels. Nye’s concept of soft power can also usefully be split into two elements: the sweet power of American values, culture, and policy for different foreign audiences, and what, following the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Nye refers to as ‘the power that comes from setting the agenda and determining the framework of a debate.”

Mead has a quasi-Marxist sensibility in his explanation of underlying events over the late 20th century. Following the Great Depression and World War II, American New Deal Democrats and European social democrats set about building an administrative state, entailing generous social programs and closely regulated markets. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the flaws of this “Fordist” regime became apparent: an economic and political rigidity imposed by narrow rent-seeking interest groups. At this point, Mead and Kepel converge. Nowhere were the flaws of Fordism more apparent than in the Middle East. Mead characterizes the first generation of postcolonial Arab regimes as “failed Fordism”:

The hidden and direct costs of Fordist subsidies climb as years go by. Every old and outmoded subsidy has a constituency fiercely fighting to save it; the costs of industrial protection and isolation proliferate in ways that are hard to measure but easy to see as national firms grow increasingly shoddy and costly by world standards … Control over credit allocation and economic activity has been used to cement a political machine so powerful that opposition withers, and sloth and corruption reign largely unchecked … Because most Arab countries now offer very limited political options, these dissatisfied citizens are unable to express their resentment through conventional political channels. This population has been a prime source for the alternative Islamicist establishment: a nonstate alternative source of employment built on frustration and, in part, rage.

16 Star final colourRonald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are the tip of the iceberg that sank Fordism; at least they sank the version that sailed in Anglo-American waters. Their iceberg has also ripped a large hole in the post–World War II diplomatic consensus among Western industrial countries. Mead labels the rise of neoconservative thinking in international relations as “American Revivalism” – the religious overtone of the phrase is intentional.

In another of his lists, Mead summarizes two centuries of U.S. foreign policy as emanating from four parties: the nationalist Hamiltonians, the idealistic internationalist Wilsonians, the isolationist Jeffersonians and the populist-nationalist Jacksonians. All four are present, he insists, in this American Revival. The Hamiltonian element can be seen in the growth of the new high-tech military industrial complex, of which Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is the most ardent spokesman. Revival Wilsonians claim to have captured the moral high ground from U.S. liberals. Of particular relevance here, Paul Wolfowitz and colleagues accuse liberals of having accommodated “failed Fordism” in the Middle East. The United States should be prepared to intervene aggressively in an attempt to catalyze political reform in the region. The obvious place to start, Wolfowitz argues, is in Iraq, the most egregiously “failed” among Arab states.

Mead has little to say about Revival Jeffersonians. Anti-immigrant politicians on the right such as Pat Buchanan are those he has in mind. Finally, he considers evangelical Christians the new Jacksonians. The desire of God-fearing middle-class Americans to insert morality into the conduct of foreign policy should not be ignored. In “old” European countries (France par excellence), the middle class has negligible influence on the direction of the country’s foreign policy. In France, foreign policy is determined by a handful of graduates from the grandes écoles, some in the Quai d’Orsay and others at the summit of French politics. By contrast, Mead insists, what the U.S. middle class believes matters in determining U.S. foreign policy.

An example that Mead could have used – but does not – is the fate of Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. So long as Dean was campaigning among Democratic militants, as he was in 2003, his root-and-branch opposition to any preemptive U.S. exercise of force in Iraq was popular, and he led the pack of Democratic aspirants. When confronted with the Iowa caucuses, he stumbled and fell.

At this point the skeptic’s retort is to ask: if American Revivalism is as important as Mead contends, why is Bush so unpopular internationally? Mead concludes that Bush got more things right than wrong, but that the tactical blunders have been major. In point form, here is what Mead thinks Bush got right:

  • During the 1990s, Washington basked in an optimistic “end of history” glow: the United States had won the cold war, and unquestionably the values of democratic capitalism would prevail around the world. Clinton’s administration was slow to pick up on the significance of jihadist politics – as was Bush’s prior to the attack on the World Trade Center. After 9/11, Bush undertook a more comprehensive reappraisal of Middle East politics than did most of his Democratic opponents.
  • Bush has made an appropriate reallocation of America’s strategic attention – away from Europe and toward east and south Asia. The important international events this century will probably turn around the vast economic and hence political power of Asia.
  • Bush’s rejection of various projects, such as the International Criminal Court, made clear that the United States would not indulge illusions to the effect that multilateral institutions were an adequate substitute for the occasional preemptive exercise of U.S. power in international affairs. Institutions such as the United Nations and NATO, born from the chaos of mid-20th-century Europe, successfully managed the end of European empires and containment of the Soviet Empire. But they have proved of limited relevance to the conduct of international relations in an age of international Islamic terrorism and of tyranny exercised on people by their own governments, in places as diverse as Cambodia, Congo, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.
And here is what Bush got wrong:
  • In terms of alienating international opinion, the worst blunder is to have made the case against Saddam almost exclusively in terms of his alleged weapons of mass destruction. Prior to the invasion, neither Bush nor Blair indicated the uncertainties surrounding the intelligence, and the absence of WMDs has severely eroded their credibility.
  • Mead’s harshest critique is of the post-invasion administration of Iraq: “The neoconservative wing of the Bush administration … is the group who put the most importance on the struggle in Iraq as the beginning of a democratic transformation of the entire Middle East … That people holding these views should then fail so abysmally to understand the challenges before them, and to take proper steps to meet them, is extraordinary.”
  • Bush underrated the seriousness with which the French aspire to lead a second “pole” in what should, in the French view of these things, be a multipolar world: “The contempt that many Americans feel for France is so deep that it often blinds them to the extraordinary intelligence and flair that the French at their best can bring to international relations.” Here is grudging admiration from a diplomatic foe.
  • While the neoconservatives developed a rigorous assessment of a hegemon’s responsibilities in the post–Cold War age, they belittled the accommodations required to preserve and build alliances.
  • And finally, following collapse of Clinton’s diplomatic initiative, Bush abandoned the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He uncritically allied himself with Likud and against the PLO, and failed to restrain Sharon’s belligerent tactics.

Europeans frequently blame the United States for the debilitating conflict between Israel and its neighbours. Mead has little patience for this criticism: it is they, the Europeans, who were there at the creation of this tragedy. Zionism is the result of centuries of European anti-Semitism “climaxing with the orgiastic horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.” And some part of the region’s tragic history is attributable to European imperialists who carved the Arab world into protectorates.

Should the Americans define some reasonable Israel-Palestine compromise and then impose it by sending in peacekeepers? Mead is dubious given the extent of mutual mistrust. At this point, any settlement deemed fair by a neutral observer is likely one that both Israeli and Palestinian terrorists would find intolerable. Were American soldiers to attempt to impose it, then they, like the British in the 1940s, might well find themselves targets for jihad waged by both Jews and Muslims.

If not U.S. intervention, then what? Try money, he suggests – money devoted to compensate individual Palestinians dispossessed by creation of the state of Israel. What Barak offered Arafat in late 2000 is about as far as any democratically elected Israeli politician can go in offering territory to a future Palestinian state. Maybe money can induce Palestinians to accept such a treaty. The amount required would need to be very large – US$50 to US$100 billion, in the order of US$10,000 to US$20,000 per Palestinian man, woman and child. Whatever the amount, if it enables the signing of a treaty, it would be worth paying. The United States should be prepared to pay a large share. Given their responsibility for the tragedy, so too should European states. And since peace in Palestine increases the probability of petromonarchies’ survival, they too should contribute generously.

An inadequate response

The weakness of both Kepel and Mead is in their prescriptions. Kepel affords a privileged role to European Muslims. Mead offers a few suggestions pertaining to Israel and Palestine, and a few others on reform of the UN and the conduct of foreign aid. Neither agenda is an adequate response to the dominant options at hand – radical politicized Islam and “failed Fordism.”

If Muslims are to transcend the dominant options, it behooves us “Christian crusaders” to think much harder than we have to date about means to improve economic fortunes among Muslims, whether they live in the “Arab street” on the wrong side of the Mediterranean or farther afield.