Saturday, September 16, 2006
By Thomas D'Evelyn
Reading Gilles Kepel's new book, "The War for Muslim Minds," challenges one's sense of scale. Crucial, irreversible steps such as George W. Bush's early decision not to pursue the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and the neoconservatives' justification for the Iraq war, take on new meaning when seen in context of the enormous geopolitical scope of Islam today.
In short, while the US administration believes that Western values will appeal to the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, the Muslim world is consumed with its own internal debates that dwarf those of the West. In this sense, 9/11 was only incidentally about "us."
Kepel, a professor of Middle East studies at the Institutde of Political Studies in Paris, gathers his early themes in the following statement: "The attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon were not a thunderbolt out of the blue. They were part of a precise, carefully considered program that combined the logic of jihad, the operational tactics of guerrilla warfare, the opportunistic advantages offered by the Arab-Israeli conflict during the second intifada, and the political influence of neoconservative ideology on US foreign policy - all of which worked to the advantage of radical Islamism."
While Kepel's book helps us to see how American strategies influence debates within the Islamic world, we also begin to understand the "war on terror" not as "Bush's war" but as a war waged by militant Islamists for the minds of Muslims. Osama bin Laden, he argues, has not won that war yet, but both Russia, with its war in Chechnya, and the US, with its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have inadvertently fueled the cause of radical Islam.
In later chapters on "Saudi Arabia in the eye of the storm," "the calamity of nation building in Iraq," and "the battle for Europe," Kepel describes the crosscurrents and conflicts that characterize the Muslim world today.
Easy to read (no footnotes but a good bibliography for each chapter), this persuasive book challenges the American perspective on the war on terror and, more important reveals the rich complexity of contemporary Islam.
What's more, Kepel's final pages on the integration of young progressive Muslims in Europe hold out a promise for a better world.
• Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.