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07 November 2008

‘Between Terror and Martyrdom’

Middle East Strategy at Harvard

Link to Middle East Strategy at Harvard

‘Between Terror and Martyrdom’

Posted: 07 Nov 2008 12:13 AM CST

MESH invites selected authors to offer original first-person statements on their new books—why and how they wrote them, and what impact they hope and expect to achieve. Gilles Kepel is Professor and Chair of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. His new book is Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East.

From Gilles Kepel

Beyond Terror and Martyrdom is the English-language revised and updated version of Terreur et Martyre: Relever le défi de civilisation, which came out in French in the spring of 2008. That book is the third part of a trilogy that began with Jihad (French 2000, English 2001) and continued with Fitna (2004, English as The War for Muslim Minds)—all three published in English by Harvard University Press. The trilogy is an attempt to decipher the present state of the Middle East in its relation to the globalized world, through the lenses of its Islamist movements. Jihad dealt with a broader historical perspective, tracing the beginnings of radical Islamist ideology back to the mid-1960s with the seminal works of Sayyid Qutb, and questioning the rise and shortcomings of Islamist movements up to 2000. The latter two books dealt with a much shorter span: 2001 to 2004 for Fitna; the period from 2004 to the present for Beyond Terror and Martyrdom. (Click here for more on the trilogy, and other books mentioned below.)

When 9/11 occurred, Jihad was widely mocked: if, as the author had explained, radical Islamist movements had failed politically, how were they able to organize an attack of the magnitude of the ghazwatayn mubarakatayn (”two blessed raids”) on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? He surely had underestimated the “Islamist peril,” probably for politically correct reasons, and was no longer worthy of any academic standing. Some demanded that he be fired from his university job—but (hamdullah) the poor guy had tenure. This was not easy to swallow, and I tried to respond with a short and ironical travelogue, Chronique d’une guerre d’Orient (English as Bad Moon Rising, Saqi, UK, both 2002).

But none other than Ayman al-Zawahiri finally came to my rescue, with his Fursan taht rayat an-nabi (”Knights under the Prophet’s Banner”), where the number-one ideologue of Al Qaeda explained that 9/11 was but an attempt to reverse the failure of the 1990s, when Islamist radicals couldn’t mobilize the masses. Attacking the “faraway enemy” was the true means to show that the United States was a giant with feet of clay. The masses, too afraid to respond to the call of the Islamist radicals in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, etc. would now stop being afraid and mobilize against their “apostate” regimes.

But 9/11 paved the way instead to the American-led “War on Terror” and the invasion of Iraq. Bin Laden & Co. saw it as their golden opportunity for a global jihad-win-all against impious invaders of the abode of Islam, something they were sure would re-enact, on Arab land, the Afghan jihad of the 1980s against the Red Army. (That had proved in retrospect to have been the cradle of Salafi-Jihadism, the ideological construct that led to Al Qaeda. The first book in my trilogy was entitled Jihad as a tribute to the central place of the Afghan “jihad” in the shaping of Islamist movements post-1980s.)

Beyond Terror and Martyrdom focuses on two main issues: first, the rise of “martyrdom” (or suicide) operations, which I believe actually led to the political suicide of Sunni Islamist radicalism, ripe with betrayals such as the so-called Sahwa (”awakening”) movement in Iraq and disputes on whether the shedding of “Muslim blood” was a major political failure; and second, the renewal of Shi’a radicalism in Iran under Ahmadinejad, who made the best possible use of the U.S. quagmire in Iraq.

Now I believe Zawahiri & Co. are not faring well, and I devote a long chapter in the book to an in-depth analysis of his cyber-proclamations; while in Iran, the radical rhetoric of Ahmadinejad, who had promised to put “oil money” on every Iranian dinner table, fell short of its populist promise. Just as Barack Obama’s victory is a typical “post-Bush” phenomenon, which doesn’t relate only to the sorry state of the economy but has to do with the cardinal sin at the core of the Gitmo-centred “GWOT,” I expect we’ll see in 2009 a “post-Ahmadinejad” political phenomenon in Iran—provided the West makes an offer to the new Iranian post-Islamist (though staunchly nationalist) elites, to reintegrate the Gulf security system.

Last, but by no means least, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom deals at length with issues of Muslims in Europe, which had been of particular interest to me since I published Les Banlieues de l’Islam (”The peripheries of Islam,” in 1987, no English translation). To cut a long story short, successful politics of integration are contrasted to failed politics of multi-culturalism—a taste of French schadenfreude and Fox News-bashing… which you may imagine I did relish!

Writing this book involved a lot of suffering—I believed wrongly that aging would make writing easier; well, quite the contrary—but reading it in English, in Pascale Ghazaleh’s great translation, is a pleasure! I wish I could write in English like that—though in the multipolar world, might there be some room left for obsolete dialects such as French or Arabic? I hope you’ll enjoy reading it too, and please send me your reactions, negative, critical or positive, here. I promise I’ll answer the relevant ones! A bientôt sur le web!

Excerpt | Order from Publisher | Amazon

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