- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

If you ask a 10th Mountain Division member, just down from fighting in the snow at 8,000 feet or higher, what the future of militant Islam is, he will tell you bleak, very bleak. If you pose the same question to Gilles Kepel, a French academic who has spent the last five years writing "Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam," he will give you, surprisingly, the same answer. There are still many Islamic militants, they still believe in violence, but they are losing popular support. They reached their ascendancy about five years past but have lost ground ever since.
In his broad and detailed account, Mr. Kepel describes the rise of political Islam and the reasons for its quick success. When the colonial powers withdrew from the Muslim world ,they were replaced by nationalists, men who appealed to ethnic rather than religious loyalties. Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Achmad Sukarno in Indonesia, are outstanding examples. Both men were practicing Muslims, but their worldview was molded by nationalist aspirations. Both men were hugely popular in their countries but they succumbed, if slowly, to the temptations of dictatorial rule.
As the years rolled by, despite the grand speeches and the passionate rhetoric, the common man found his lot to be no better than before. The great expectations of the early years were never fulfilled as the area sank into corruption and ineptitude. In the Arab lands, the nationalist leaders led their countries into one disastrous military defeat after another.
Disillusion inevitably followed. As nationalism failed, as socialism failed, Islamic reformers stepped into the ideological void. Mr. Kepel speaks of the urban poor, usually over-educated and under-employed, and the devout middle class, the shopkeepers and small businessmen who were repelled by the perceived licentiousness of the encroaching West and embittered by the corruption and economic limitations surrounding them. These are the people who make up the ranks of political Islam.
The fundamentalists secured their first and greatest triumph when they overthrew an unpopular shah in Iran. But Iranian Shia fundamentalism could not make much headway in the rest of the Muslim world, which was mainly Sunni. Local fundamentalists were able to seize power in the Sudan and in Afghanistan. Both countries were in the throes of civil war, and the populations, weary of bloodshed, despotic rule and corruption, welcomed the religious reformers with new hope.
But the fundamentalists, after gaining power, seemed more concerned with properly modest headdress for women than with basic economic reform. Corruption after a brief drop rose to even more virulent levels, economic hope flickered, and with it the popularity of the Islamists dropped. In the Sudan, a coup established a military government rather easily, and in Afghanistan the ousting of the Taliban, as television has shown us, brought about a general celebration.
In Turkey, where the Islamists had become sufficiently strong to assume the prime ministership, their brief run of power worked against them and the secularists re-established themselves. In Iran, the younger generation, which has never known anything other than theocratic rule, now cheers the United States whenever possible. Clearly, the popularity of Islamic fundamentalism is on the decline; Mr. Kepel feels that the most recent examples of horrific violence were actually a last desperate attempt to promulgate a true jihad against the West.
The bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, no matter how many lives they took and how much treasure they destroyed, were political failures since no political action came from them. The organizers of the bombings had taken great care and used much ingenuity to commit these acts of violence, but their minds were blank as to the next step. This blindness illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy that prevents them from ever being anything other than a marginal if deadly political force.
What then lies ahead for the Muslim world? Mr. Kepel once again points to Turkey, which though far from being an ideal democracy, still has democratic attributes that other states could emulate. There, the devout middle class has become integrated into society and though still devout is no longer Islamist. He feels the other Muslim states must also open up both politically and economically.
A free market economy can offer options to the crowded urban poor that do not exist in the current statist regimes. Democracy is the hope and solution. Without it the Muslim states will be frozen in an economic stasis that breeds chaos and violence. Unfortunately, there are two instances when Mr. Kepel refers to the carpet bombing of Kabul and Afghanistan, which is the exact opposite of how we bombed. This slip could have been an error in translation, but no matter how it came about, it should not deter us from appreciating this welcome addition to Middle East scholarship.

Sol Schindler is a retired foreign service officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.


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