Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam 
by Gilles Kepel, translated by Anthony F. Roberts.
Tauris, 454 pp., £25, June 2002, 1 86064 685 9
Show More
Show More

In 1989, an earthquake in Tipasa, just west of Algiers, left thousands of people homeless. Three years later, another shook the densely packed outskirts of Cairo. In both cases, the state’s response was no better than it might have been in any developing country with high population concentrations and feeble services. The way was open for well-funded, efficient organisations to step in. The initiative in Algeria was taken by the FIS – the Islamic Salvation Front – and in Egypt by the Muslim Brothers. When the earthquake struck in Tipasa, the FIS had only been in existence for about six months. It arrived on site with its own teams of rescue workers, nurses and doctors, in ambulances carrying the party insignia. It was widely praised for its efforts. The Muslim Brothers in Egypt, too, were widely praised. After years of uncertainty and persecution dating back to the 1950s, the Brothers were on the rise. They had made gains in the professional associations: they controlled the Bar, the hospitals and the guild of engineers. At the time of the earthquake they had already put together a consignment of tents for displaced Muslims in Bosnia. In the event, these were diverted. The dedication and dispatch of the Brothers in the wake of the Cairo earthquake won them an impressive haul of donations (the Mubarak Administration duly froze the bank accounts).

In his extraordinary survey of militant Islam during the 20th century, Gilles Kepel contrasts the high profile of the FIS at Tipasa and the Muslim Brothers in Cairo with the marked absence of Islamist organisations from the relief effort during the terrible earthquakes in Turkey in 1999. It’s shorthand evidence in support of his thesis, painstakingly tested elsewhere in the book, that Islamism has run out of steam: that its great advances were made in the 1970s and 1980s, and that by the early 1990s, the project was in decline. Kepel, a professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques and a CNRS luminary, has been criticised for his upbeat view that Islam is destined for a fresh encounter with modernity. In France, where he’s now the best known of several experts on ‘Arab and Muslim worlds’, this was thought premature in the light of 11 September. The same has been said in the US. But since the book’s original publication more than two years ago, Kepel has simply incorporated the al-Qaida attacks into his ambitious thesis, where they are presented as a last, terrible gasp that proves the point. In themselves, he believes, they cannot hold back the spread of post-Islamicist culture – indeed they’ve probably encouraged it – and in any case they have a very tenuous connection with the ideal of an Islamic state which brought together millions of radical and conservative Muslims before it lost its way.

Kepel’s study of Algeria shows how this ideal can take hold among large numbers of Muslims, how the project might unfold and where it’s likely to run aground. The long and sterile tenure of the Front de Libération National, which fought the French out of Algeria and assumed power on Independence in 1962, is an important part of the story. By the 1980s, the FLN was the object of widespread hostility. Its role in an anti-colonial struggle which, as the demography changed, fewer and fewer Algerians actually remembered was no longer a source of legitimacy. By the end of the decade, following a steep rise in the birth rate, 40 per cent of the country’s 24 million inhabitants were under 15. More than half the population was living in cities and unemployment was around 20 per cent. In 1989, nearly two-thirds of Algeria’s young people were in secondary school, preparing for jobs that didn’t exist.

High birth rates in the latter part of the century; unmanageable levels of movement off the land; a post-Independence nationalist model that has failed more or less badly; a dispossessed urban poor with high expectations nourished by education: these factors, which accounted for the rise of the Islamist ideal in Algeria during the 1980s, are at work in almost all of Kepel’s countries, through the Maghreb, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon and Palestine, to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Malaysia.

Ten years or so after Algerian Independence, when I first visited, you’d often see groups of young men in the capital hanging gloomily about with nothing to do. Girls were off limits, as far as one could tell, and there was no sense in those days – before the commercial success of rai music – of any respectable Western-style alternative, such as conspicuous drunkenness, vandalism or the soft-porn industry. The FLN was ploughing a sandy furrow (Algeria has sand in abundance): it ran the country on oil revenues which were then used to pay for imports from Europe, the Eastern Bloc and the US. There was no import substitution to speak of. Despite the existence of a moderately prosperous middle class, it was the political elite, senior bureaucrats and the various managerial strata of state enterprises who tended to benefit most from this situation. The FLN’s control of the export-import process, and its self-serving ways, eventually became known as the ‘import-import’ scam. By the middle of the 1980s, the groups of young men in the cities were larger, dowdier, a touch more intimidating – and by 1986, with the collapse of oil prices, there was even less for them than there’d been a decade earlier.

Under socialism, the joke ran, there is no unemployment. Algeria was a socialist state, from which it followed that these apparently aimless youngsters must surely be engaged in work of a kind. It was said that they were propping up walls. The Arabic word for ‘wall’ is hit, and so the young urban dispossessed male in Algeria became known as a ‘hittiste’. In October 1988, the hittistes stopped kicking their heels and ran riot, smashing up the shopping mall where the ‘tchi-tchi’, the country’s gilded youth, used to muster and consume. To drive home the extremity of their situation, they tore down the national flag and raised an empty couscous sack. Before the month was out, there were big stand-offs with the police, in which hundreds of hittistes were killed. In Kepel’s words, the riots of 1988 ‘marked the emergence of the young urban poor as a force to be reckoned with’. On their own, however, they could not mount a coherent political challenge to the FLN.

That was the task of militant Islam, and there were plenty of militant Islamists in place, many of them teachers and students who were already active, preaching and ministering in working-class – and hittiste – neighbourhoods. Their faith had been nurtured, as it happened, by an influx of Muslim Brothers on the run from Nasser. The Brothers were recruited by the FLN to help implement its policy of Arabisation (or ‘de-Frenchification’) in schools. ‘The Egyptian contingent,’ Kepel tells us, ‘trained a whole generation of strictly Arabophone teachers who agreed with their ideas and later formed the basis for the broadly Islamist intelligentsia who made up the FIS.’

The path of violent confrontation which Algerian Islamists were about to take was not new, but so far it had been confined to the countryside. By the time of the riots, an Islamist maquis had been operating for six years. Originally a group of highly contentious zealots, led by a former anti-colonial hero and driven underground by FLN harassment, it had coalesced in 1982 as the Armed Islamic Movement. The MIA launched its sporadic operations from those parts of the country that the FLN had used during the war against the French. In doing so, it claimed a moral continuity between the national liberation struggle and its own jihad against an ‘impious’ regime. (Kepel’s sense is that there was also a political parallel with Afghanistan in the minds of the MIA, for after the Soviet invasion the Afghan mujahideen were ‘the heroes of the Islamic world’, and Moscow was a good friend to the FLN. ‘For the radical Algerian Islamists,’ he writes, ‘the struggle against the former was a prelude to the struggle against the latter.’) While Mubarak could call on the conservative clergy to weigh in against the seditions of younger holy warriors, the FLN had no religious establishment to come to its aid. On the contrary, many of the ‘beard-people’, the Barbèfèlène, it had co-opted into the Party would shortly be siding with the FIS.

The FIS cleaned up in the municipal and regional elections of 1990 and began installing its ardent young cadres as mayors and councillors, alongside sympathisers drawn from the devout middle class of shopkeepers and small businessmen. All this was hugely popular among the poor and the faithful. Unlike the majority of their predecessors, FIS officials were on the whole rather fair. They were not tempted by corruption; they raised money for charitable work and channelled it without too many spillages and percentages; they organised a version of the soup kitchen for the most destitute citizens. The alliance between Islamist intellectuals, hittistes and the pious bourgeoisie was sealed.

So what went wrong? For Kepel, the measure of radical Islamist ‘success’ is the Iranian Revolution. By this yardstick, the leaders of the FIS are wanting in several respects. In order to turf out the Shah in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini won the broad support of the urban poor, the clergy and the bourgeoisie – not just the faithful middle classes, but unbelievers and even dialectical materialists. Khomeini was careful to hold the alliance together until he was firmly in power; then he moved against all opposition, fledgling or potential, and – surely a gift from God – found a way to eliminate tens of thousands of loyal militants from the urban underclass for whom the Supreme Guide could, in the end, deliver nothing, by hurling them into Saddam’s minefields. The FIS’s mistake, as Kepel sees it, was to fall back, in the heady days of success, on its ‘natural’ support base, and alienate the secular, francophone middle class:

In Iran, the secularised bourgeoisie had backed Khomeini because he professed openness and the inclusion of every element of society in his revolutionary project . . . In Algeria, by contrast, as soon as the FIS was in control of local power . . . the preachers who harangued the young urban poor took issue not only with the regime but with a whole sector of society for its ‘francisation’. This imprecise notion, with which the FIS exposed a substantial sector of the urban middle class to the wrath of the hittistes, was – not unreasonably – construed as a threat.

The usual deplorable Western practices came under scrutiny. The FIS introduced separate bathing in the resorts it controlled and put pressure on video kiosks and alcohol traders to close down. Such were the disagreeable trade-offs for an increase in justice and decent provision in the municipalities. In the words of Kepel, whose realism runs deep, the barrage of anti-libertarian, anti-liberal prohibitions ‘allowed impoverished young men, humiliated and forced into abstinence or sexual misery by the crowded family conditions in which they lived, to become heroes of chastity who sternly condemned the pleasures of which they had been so wretchedly deprived’.

The FIS had also fallen into the trap of attacking two targets simultaneously: the Government and the non-chauvinist, non-religious sectors of Algerian society. Khomeini had avoided any such foolishness. To compound its problems, the FIS leadership could not quite envisage a clean break with the regime – the only option for Iranians in the last days of the Shah – even though their followers were busy lambasting the FLN. Indeed, the movement’s leaders were sometimes at pains to compromise with the ruling party, depicting the FLN’s anti-colonial struggle as a kind of jihad – contaminated, alas, by ‘francophone communists’.

When the Gulf War began in 1991, there were big demonstrations in support of Saddam. Ali Benhadj, the more charismatic of the two FIS leaders – a young firebrand who travelled by moped from one enthralled congregation of hittistes to the next – called for the formation of Algerian volunteer brigades to fight alongside the Iraqis. This was an embarrassment for Abassi Madani, the FIS’s other, more conservative figurehead. Benhadj’s appeal set the FIS against the Saudis, now the lynchpin of the anti-Saddam coalition: Madani and his own recruits to the FIS, carefully wooed from the middle class, were indebted to the Saudis for money and ideological support. In the end, the more radical Benhadj carried the day. For anyone in Algeria who felt that the hittistes couldn’t wait to get at them, it was a frightening moment.

The Army, in the meantime, had been so incensed by Benhadj, who made his appeal in front of the Ministry of Defence, that the Chiefs of Staff resolved to call a halt to the demonstrations, and no doubt to the FIS itself. Kepel argues that this, rather than the cancellation of the legislative elections, in which the FIS would have won a handsome majority, marked the turning point. A state of emergency came into effect, Benhadj and Madani were thrown in jail, the hittistes were cleared off the streets and the FIS logo was torn down in the municipalities of virtue. Seven months later, under a replacement leadership, the FIS contested elections to the Algerian Parliament. In the first round, it polled a million votes fewer than it had won in the local elections, but it was still on course for 118 seats, with the FLN at around twenty. Again, the Army did the business. The second round was cancelled, the FIS was dissolved and, a few months later, its officials and thousands of its grass-roots supporters were sent to prison camps in the Sahara.

The FIS, Kepel believes, had shown itself ‘incapable of taking power’. What he means is that there might not have been a putsch had the FIS cultivated the secular middle class and reined in the hittistes. That’s debatable: it could be that the democratic road to theocratic rule was never an option and that the second round of the legislative elections would have been cancelled whatever the feelings of Algeria’s secular bourgeoisie; that the FIS, in other words, was unable to break the state’s monopoly on violence (that’s surely how it seemed to them in retrospect).

Kepel prefers to take the broad schematic view, whence his constant reference, country by country, to the young urban poor and the disenchanted middle class, the wary partners who must dance at the same fire if government according to the will of God is to come about. He is also a master of narrative, a political bloodhound who can follow a trail back to its source, drawing dutiful attention to the vehement little detail that confirms his overarching thesis or sets one or another of his accounts at odds with it. At the same time, he is extremely helpful on the big shifts in thinking across the Muslim world, the crushing disappointments and the relentless jockeying for supremacy that encouraged the rise of the holy warriors.

The recurring motifs in all this are the failure of the nationalist project and the shifting fortunes of Saudi Arabia, a regime with missionary pretensions in the Muslim world which had been challenged from the 1950s onwards by developments in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Most of the robust secular ideas that once circulated in the post-colonial Arab states were exhausted by the middle of the Cold War era. After the Arab defeat in 1967 and Black September – the defeat of the Palestinians in Jordan in 1970 (also the year of Nasser’s death) – nationalism became a hollow shell. There was ferment in the universities, but the Left in Egypt, and its imitators in other Muslim-majority states, couldn’t achieve the same momentum as their counterparts in Europe: their positions were too radical, Kepel thinks, for the middle class, and too rarefied for the masses. By the 1970s the tide was turning in favour of theocratic ideas. When Sadat released the Muslim Brothers from jail, they promptly set out their wares in the universities and began to take on the Left. Sadat, meanwhile, was bearing down on the secular opposition and tightening his grip on the press. Before long, the mosques had become the only real debating chambers in the country.

The Saudis were relieved to see the back of Nasser. They had tried to shore up their own conservative worldview against his charismatic vision of an Islam firmly in harness to socialism, pan-Arabism, Third-Worldism and other uncongenial creeds. The Kingdom had launched a number of counter-offensives during the 1960s, including the creation of the Muslim World League, which proselytised and cozened and doled out funds, thereby ensuring that the Saudi case against progressive nationalism had an airing. With the war of October 1973 and the oil embargo, however, the balance of power shifted naturally in favour of Riyadh. The decision to hold the West to ransom immensely enhanced Saudi prestige and, in the vacuum left by pan-Arabism, ensured a far greater hearing for the Kingdom’s Wahhabite tradition of Islam, with its preference for the monolithic, the doctrinaire, the ultra-conservative, its contempt for local graftings and syncretisms and its hatred of saints and shrines.

International prestige was accompanied by a surge in oil revenues. Wahhabite good works redoubled at home and abroad: mosques, madrassas, charities, hand-outs to correct or compliant tendencies, an endless production and distribution of free Korans and gloomy Wahhabite tracts throughout the Sunni Muslim world. At the same time, remittances began to flow back to sender-countries from migrant workers in the Kingdom. And during the rest of the decade, when the expatriate workers themselves went home, to Cairo, or Amman, or Rabat, or Khartoum, or Karachi, they were equipped not only with a Wahhabite perspective on the world but with a generous wad of earnings that vouched for its earthly rewards.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a blow to the Saudis’ hard-won hegemony – the greatest threat since Nasser. (There would eventually be demonstrations by radicalised Iranian pilgrims in Mecca.) The fall of the Shah terrified most of the regimes in Muslim countries, for it gave Khomeini an extraordinary status in and beyond the lands of Islam. He had seen off the Americans and now he was inciting Muslims everywhere to rise up against their impious leaders. The Saudis had spent the last few years, and billions of petrodollars, trying to forestall precisely this kind of challenge. They made much of the fact that Iranian Muslims were Shi’ites, and strictly speaking heretics in the eyes of the international Sunni majority; and against the tremendous political success of the Revolution, which seemed for a time to eclipse the question of orthodoxy and heresy, they advanced the idea that the new order in Tehran was a vehicle for ‘Persian nationalism’.

Yet the long counter-thrust of the Wahhabite mission, first against Nasser and his kind, and now against Khomeini, did not have the effect that Riyadh had hoped for. The young men around the world who were exposed to Wahhabite ideology, Kepel remarks, ‘duly absorbed the moral and conservative message . . . the trouble was, they also paid close attention to its destabilising subtext.’ This subtext went back a long way. The writings of Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th-century anti-intellectual and puritan revered by the Wahhabites, were widely distributed during the 1970s and 1980s. The trouble was that Ibn Taymiyya could quite easily be dragooned into the late 20th-century radical camp, inasmuch as he’d contrived a ruling, six centuries earlier, that it was not enough to profess Islam if one fell short of true observance. If one’s Muslim enemies were demonstrably – or even arguably – unIslamic, then it was fair to wage war on them. How many of the royals, presidents-for-life, commanders-in-chief and hommes d’état in the post-colonial Muslim-majority countries could be said to observe the way of Islam to the letter? – and anyhow, whose letter? The ruling of a learned, highly political medieval scholar was rapidly becoming a point of reference in the ragbag of justifications for the violent overthrow of ‘impious’ 20th-century regimes. So it was that the Egyptian electrical engineer Abdessalam Faraj, whose writings inspired the assassination of Sadat in 1981, was able to call the President a ‘pharaoh’ and ‘an apostate of Islam fed at the tables of imperialism and Zionism’ in a work that quoted freely from Ibn Taymiyya – a source he had probably encountered in a Saudi-sponsored hand-out.

As the word of Ibn Taymiyya circulated through the not-quite-modern Muslim world and worked its way back to Riyadh, it acquired an aggressive, anti-Saudi spin by virtue of the growing enthusiasm for the writings of another (much later) canonical figure, Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brother who had been hanged by Nasser in 1966. Qutb, too, had invoked Ibn Taymiyya’s judgment, to call for the overthrow of the godless regimes he saw all around him, whether they were secular or – as in Arabia – wallowing in bogus piety. He was morosely, unimaginatively anti-Western and, in his later writings, specifically anti-Christian and anti-Jewish, though as with almost all Islamist radicals, his deepest enmity was reserved for fellow Muslims. It’s surely an ominous sign for Riyadh that Qutb’s work is much in vogue in Saudi Arabia today. The works of Ibn Taymiyya and Sayyid Qutb crop up again and again in radical jihadist texts, including the 1996 tract ‘Expel the Polytheists from the Holy Places’, author: Osama bin Laden.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was good for the Saudi regime. It allowed the Kingdom to identify itself both morally and financially with the Afghan resistance and thus to counter the threat posed by the Ayatollah. It ran a kind of brigade organisation for volunteers, from the Gulf states, North Africa and elsewhere, presided over the creation of Afghan factions in need of rials, and endowed the madrassas in Pakistan (the seedbeds of the Taliban). When the war in Afghanistan ended, however, the zealotry that was so dear to the Wahhabites and their princes once again rebounded on them, as the Arab veterans of the Afghan campaign milled about in Peshawar with nothing to do, and the CIA decided to turn off the tap. It was at this point, Kepel writes, that ‘jihadist-salafism’ was born, a new ‘hybrid Islamist ideology whose first doctrinal principle was to rationalise the existence and behaviour of militants’. Salaf means ‘ancestor’, and ‘salafism’ denotes a strict adherence to the unwavering pedantry of a man like Ibn Taymiyya.

The jihadist-salafists are, in Kepel’s definition, a rootless warrior coterie, who have the support neither of the urban poor nor of any segment of the middle class, the ‘free electrons of jihad’, as he calls them, released by a series of events in the Muslim world which include the population explosion in the post-colonial states, relative poverty among a majority of Muslims – this notwithstanding the ‘Asian miracle’ of the 1990s – several wars with Israel, a war in Lebanon, a revolution in Iran, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Gulf War and the continuous chain of violent microevents in Israeli-occupied territory.

Kepel tells us that the veterans in Peshawar were careful to distinguish a correct kind of salafism – theirs – from an incorrect kind: a ‘sheikhist’ variety, touted by ‘court ulemas’, or Islamic scholars whose thinking was tailored to the vanities of the House of Saud. The anger of these veterans, whom Washington had at last abandoned, expressed itself in their support for Saddam before and during Desert Storm, which they and plenty of others in Pakistan who had once been the Saudis’ grateful clients, took to be a plot by the US and Israel to dominate the whole of the Middle East. The arrogance of Nasser and Khomeini was nothing compared to this new show of hostility. Meanwhile, inside the country, the presence of coalition troops had polarised public opinion. When liberal Saudis – the ‘communist whores’, for instance, who staged a motor-protest in Riyadh against the laws forbidding women to drive – tried to take advantage of the situation, they were howled down or sacked from their jobs. (The divisions in Saudi society persist, largely unnoticed by Western eyes.) As the jihadist-salafists surveyed the world in narrow focus from Peshawar – a milieu, in Kepel’s words, ‘cut off from social reality’ – they could see nothing but jaliyya: the state of barbarity that pertained before the truths of God were revealed. Not least in Saudi Arabia, where the Holy Places were now seething with unbelievers.

How interesting, then, that at the moment of the great unleashing, as the jihadists-salafists began to disperse, to Pakistan, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, the United Kingdom and Bosnia, and at the point at which the Gulf War had discredited the conservative Islamist option in the eyes of so many believers, Kepel should conclude with some relief that the whole business of jihad lay in ruins. What he means is that the bid to seize power by force and govern by the laws of God had failed everywhere except in Iran, and that it would not succeed anywhere in the foreseeable future: nowhere was there evidence of the class alliances that Khomeini had forged. To Kepel, the high-tide mark of Islamism was reached in 1989, with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, an Islamist regime taking power in Sudan, the fatwa against Rushdie, the FIS poised for government and the emergence of the Palestinian Muslim Brothers (Hamas) from the first Intifada to challenge the PLO’s nationalist agenda. It even shook France’s ‘deep-rooted secularism’: ‘the year when all parties were supposed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in a spirit of consensus’ became a year of bitter recrimination over the wearing of veils in schools.

A decade of reverses followed. The FIS was about to be dismantled. Mubarak would use the Army and the establishment clergy to marginalise the bearded engineers, computer-scientists and physicians who had been so active in Egypt’s various Islamist movements, while the tourist-killing sprees of 1993 to 1997 put far too many Egyptians out of pocket to win support. Hamas and others in the Occupied Territories would be outflanked by the PLO (the PLO is Kepel’s only surviving ‘progressive nationalist’ project), as Arafat recovered some semblance of control. In Bosnia the Arab detachments around Zenica would leave barely a trace of their presence after the Dayton Agreement. In Turkey, the Refah Party, which won the legislative elections of 1995, was jostled down the secular road by coalition government the following year: the premiership of Necmettin Erbakan, its leader, lasted less than twelve months. Its successor-party, Fazilet, would win less than 15 per cent of the vote in the 1999 general elections. The Islamists in Malaysia who forged the student/worker alliance of the 1970s and consolidated in the 1980s would be courted by the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and then neutralised in 1998 as he crushed their figurehead in government, Anwar Ibrahim. In 1999, Hasan al-Turabi, the driving force of Islamist rule in Sudan, was cast into the wilderness. Most recently, the Taliban, a kind of non-government installed by Pakistan, would be bombed out of business in Afghanistan.

So if the story really was about to end in 1989, how is it that the fury of the Arab veterans in Afghanistan – a fury brought on by the CIA funding cut-off and the Gulf War – became a megalomaniac elation? It was partly triumphalism. The victory against godless communism gave rise to the feeling that anything was possible: something many fellow-travellers had not felt since the defeat of the Shah (and, by extension, the US). It was also to do with a sense of the traitor in the midst of the faithful: more often than not, the effete, hypocritical Saudis, who had let the demon American, and his ally the Jew, into the sacred places. By the time some of these knights errant began to link up with the Islamist remnants – in Algeria, for instance – the potential for a mass movement in any of the countries concerned had ceased to exist. For jihadists, who are never alone, this was not an issue. In a sense the rest of the story is about how they, and their comrades who remained in Afghanistan, chose to press home their disadvantage. And to take as many enemies with them – spectral enemies included – as they could. Whence 11 September, which Kepel sees as ‘an attempt to reverse a process in decline with a paroxysm of destructive violence’.

Whence, too, the mayhem that followed the cancellation of the Algerian elections in 1992 and the abolition of the FIS – vastly more destructive, vastly more pathological than the al-Qaida attacks on the US. Kepel deals with this period at length, plotting the rise of the Groupe Islamique Armée from the hittiste tendency of the FIS and, not long afterwards, the creation of another armed group including less steely elements of the movement, to challenge the GIA and to put in place some sort of negotiating counter should the Government ever want to cut a deal. The GIA rejected all compromise. One of its several leaders, or amirs – they were killed in fairly quick succession – declared soon after its formation that the GIA’s objective was not to set up a ‘moderate Islamic regime favoured by the West, but to purge the land of the ungodly’. This involved much shedding of blood. The Army was lustily engaged in pursuit of both groups and a three-cornered conflict ensued, with ordinary citizens in the middle. Before long, any number of factional, doctrinal and personal rivalries had been settled in the name of jihad or anti-obscurantism. One hundred thousand dead is the rough count for the worst period of the war, from 1993 to 1997. Kepel plays down the murderous role of the Army, masquerading as jihadists when it went on killing sprees, in order to cause confusion and to alienate Islamist support, but he does point out that one GIA amir was so divisive in his fanaticism that he was widely held to be a Special Services agent.

This is dark terrain, encrusted with violence, but Kepel deals with it coldly and carefully. He feels that the reform agenda in Algeria never quite took off, and that the conditions which encouraged Islamism in the first place are still present. Yet he doubts whether the Islamists can recover from a war in which their ambitions were ‘literally drowned in blood’, and perhaps the results of the Algerian elections in May bear him out. Despite the fact that it won only 15 per cent of the registered vote, the FLN now has over half the seats in the National Assembly. But as Kepel would be the first to acknowledge, the violence, though less frenzied than it was five years ago, has not gone away; he might well argue, with his usual eloquence, that there is no such thing as a clean ending.

Altogether, the book is so persuasive, so impeccably handled, that one longs to raise the occasional query. If Islamism is really finished, for example, what will it be that finally rocks the House of Saud to its foundations? A secular democratic movement? That would be a relief. Why for that matter should Hamas, whose leaders sat back cultivating the nails of their little fingers and biding their time until the Israelis had crushed Islamic Jihad early in 1988, be condemned to eternal failure if Arafat goes to the wall, as Bush and Sharon would like – and with him, all the secular Palestinians who rally to Fatah by default? And if the struggles of the last thirty years are failures only in the sense that government by men of God is not a possibility right now, are we to regard the spectacular violence of the jihadists as a coda, as Kepel has it, or as a foretaste of some new, attritional campaign of holy misrule? Why should there not still be killings sanctioned by the ancestors, and sporadic threats of large-scale destruction, triggering the usual round of ‘vigilant’ counter-measures – not only in the West, but in the Muslim-majority countries?

Kepel’s assurance that the search is on, among former Islamists and fellow-travellers, for a democratic way forward doesn’t preclude these possibilities. Or the continued existence of sectarian communities that slink away into their own rectitude, like al-Takfir wa-l Hijra, the marginal movement in Egypt which decided to excommunicate everybody – that’s the meaning of takfir – and took to living in caves; or bands of long-shot proselytisers, such as al-Muhajiroun in the UK, who are fairly scrupulous in their observance of sharia. (Both types, unfortunately, tend to have a grand plan: al-Muhajiroun cadres will explain to you at length why the Home Secretary should introduce the death penalty for homosexuality, and when Shukri Mustafa took charge of al-Takfir in the late 1970s, he prepared his little sect for the conquest of Egypt.) Then there are the gifted, energetic individuals, mini-Islamic states in themselves, in whom intolerance and human rights seem to reach a perfect accommodation. This is the case with Muhammad al-Masari, an Amnesty International ‘prisoner of conscience’, big on freedom of one thing and another, who excommunicated all Muslims obeying the laws of Riyadh, and whose fantastic volleys of communiqués faxed from exile in London were only curtailed, according to Kepel, by his still more fantastic debts to British Telecom.

However sizable the groundswell in the Muslim world for a serious rethink, some of these one-man-bands and groupuscules are bound to hang on – in the UK and elsewhere. And Kepel is careful not to say that jihadist terrorism is about to disappear for ever. In the meantime, it’s hard to know whether waging war on complicit regimes like the Taliban – or regimes one is against in any case, for instance the dictatorship in Iraq – can stem the residual tide of violent Islamism, or whether, given the extraordinary lengths to which Kepel has gone to show the link between moral and material misery, on the one hand, and the wish for a godly state, on the other, there is anything more imaginative the non-Islamic world might do to abridge that misery and ensure that there are fewer and fewer ‘free electrons’ entering into circulation: not many of the jihadists who’ve sprung up in the last thirty years have been as rich and influential as Osama bin Laden. Yet one of the lessons of this book is that wealthy, conservative Islamism of the kind that puts its oil revenues about, along with its theology, can do as much as a Shah or an entrenched party of independence to inspire its radical counterpart. As we scan the horizon for al-Qaida’s next move, we might reflect that our enemy’s enemy in the Gulf is also one of our biggest liabilities.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences