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Jihad: The Trail
of Political Islam
The endgame for militant Islam
By Steven Martinovich
A veritable deluge of books have appeared in bookstores after September 11, 2001 purporting to lay bare the background of militant Islam but perhaps the most definitive is Gilles Kepel's Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Kepel is well placed to tell its story given his extensive travels in the very places where militant Islam was born and nurtured and he's used that experience to craft a compelling account of the movements that make it up.
Although the Wahabbi faction of Islam of which Osama bin Laden belongs to is centuries old, militant Islam's birth really took place in the 20th century with the writings of men like Sayyid Qutb and Mawlana Mawdudi. They were put into practice by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a man that Kepel describes as the only truly successful militant Islamic given that he was able to unite a cross section of Iranians to bring to fruition a militant theocratic state.
Islam is a religion that remains a mystery to many in the West and as Kepel illustrates, it is not the homogenous force that many believe it to be. Its hatred of the West is well established but the victims of militant Islam are often other Muslims. It's no secret that Sunni and Shiite Muslims have often battled each other - as the continuing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran illustrate - but other groups have also come under fire, such as the mystical Sufi sect.
Kepel has an interesting primary thesis that many will find surprising. Although many have taken the September 11 terrorist attacks to mean that political Islam is as strong as ever, Kepel theorizes that the movement is in fact a dying one. The beginning of its end, he writes, was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, an action that effectively "wrecked the inner equilibrium" of the Islamist movement because it pitted Saudi Arabia against many of the militants that it funded. Kepel argues that Iran remains the only successful example of uniting the different classes into a common purpose. Other nations have managed to limit the influence of Islamists by either co-opting their energy and diverting it into government sanctioned avenues or, as in the case of Algeria's government, attempting to destroy it through outright force.
In order to prove his thesis, Kepel surveys the international Islamist movement in nations stretching from Egypt, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. With the lone exception of Iran, he finds, each nation's militant Islamic movement utilized terrorist attacks as part of a power struggle between factions. At times it seems that terrorist attacks against the West, notably the United States, are almost an aside to the main conflicts that motivate these groups.
Of course, a movement can wither away while its antagonisms continue to live on. Although political Islam has been all but a failure, even Iran is showing signs that the populace has had enough of its religious leaders and its social order, the anti-Americanism that exists only shows signs of worsening. Several thousand veterans of the war in Afghanistan, who often comprise the militant cells that exist in dozens of countries across the world, likely remain in wait to launch further attacks against the United States, a country which they view as the greatest outside threat to their religious values.
Although Kepel makes no overt prescriptions for ending the Islamist threat, Jihad remains a study of the worldwide movement foremost, it's fairly obvious that people are motivated to join these groups for many of the same reasons any disaffected group tries to overthrow an established order. Political power depends on being able to meet the needs of a populace and in many Muslim nations that simply means food, jobs and education. The failure of many governments in the Islamic world to limit corruption and poverty has allowed militant Islamic leaders their inroads into society.
September 11, Kepel says, proved the Islamism is a spent as a political force. Bin Laden's call to jihad against the United States was roundly ignored by the Muslim world. It was, in essence, the last gasp of a movement that hasn't been able to capture power in Islamic nations. Kepel's survey of that world is a remarkably useful tool in placing in context the various groups that appear in our newspapers but remain little more than shadowy cells with vague agendas. The end of their story has yet to be told but Kepel's Jihad does a remarkable job detailing the figures and groups that grabbed our attention in the West in the most unforgettable fashion.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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