Gilles Kepel, author of Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, says in this Financial Times op-ed (via the LA Times) that the jihadists are losing in the Islamic world. This is actually nothing particularly new for him, as he argued in the above book that the jihadists were basically a spent force already.
And there is some truth to this. Especially now, when the Beslan massacres have disgusted the world, the Islamic world included. But this piece reminds me of a conversation I had several days ago with a young Muslim from Pakistan. He told me: “I am very proud of being a Muslim.” A few minutes later he told me he didn’t know Arabic, and so he could read the words of the Qur’an, but he didn’t know what they meant. (That’s a common phenomenon among Muslims.) He hadn’t read a translation, so he actually had little or no idea what the Qur’an actually said. He was offended by the jihadists’ activities, and he said nothing could make him behead anyone, but he had nothing to say to the jihadists: he knew they could argue from the Qur’an and he couldn’t. He concluded by saying that the problem would take years to solve. Decades.
I couldn’t help but agree — and in light of the continued absence of a convincing form of Islam that definitively repudiates violent jihad, I can’t help but think that Kepel’s optimism is a bit unwarranted. Nonetheless, he is absolutely right that large numbers of Muslims disapprove of what the jihadists are doing. If only they could be mobilized…
Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the hostage-taking in North Ossetia and its horrendous outcome and the capture of two French journalists in Iraq have shed new light on the challenges facing Islamist terrorism.
In his 2001 pamphlet, “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner,” Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s chief ideologue, reminded his readers that the “jihadist vanguard” was always at risk of being isolated from the “Muslim masses.” He wrote that the jihadists needed to find ways of mobilizing those masses toward the supreme political goal: the triumph of the Islamic state and the implementation of Islamic law worldwide.
Zawahiri considered the 1990s a decade of failed opportunities. Jihad had been unsuccessful in Algeria, Bosnia, Egypt and Kashmir because militants had proved unable to galvanize civil society. To reverse this trend, he came up with the idea of using spectacular terrorism to shock the enemy and make the Muslim masses see the jihadists as knights. The Sept. 11 attacks were conceived by Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden as a way of “magnifying” jihad against Israel and “burning the hands of the U.S.,” Islam’s “faraway enemy” and ally of the Jewish state.
But three years on, this ideology has not achieved its goal. Although Al Qaeda has resisted Cold War-inspired U.S. military strategy (Bin Laden and Zawahiri remain on the run) and directed a succession of bloody terrorist attacks from Bali to Madrid, jihad activists have not seized power anywhere. They have lost their Afghan stronghold, and U.S.-led coalition troops have pursued the war on terror to Iraq, occupying Baghdad, erstwhile capital of the Muslim caliphate.
For the ulema, the Islamic scholars, this is a catastrophe. Instead of making inroads into enemy territory, jihad has backfired and led to what they call fitna “” a war within Islam, pitting Shiite against Sunni, Arab against Kurd, Muslim against Muslim “” and brought nothing but chaos. Among Palestinians, jihad has also so far led to fitna: The Palestinian Authority has lost influence while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government has built a fence that blocks most suicide bombers and will choke the Palestinian economy.
Jihadists are at a crossroads: They are looking desperately for new slogans and modes of action to trigger mass mobilization. This is the context for the North Ossetia massacre and the abduction of the French journalists in Iraq….
The abduction of the French journalists by the “Islamic Army in Iraq” provides another opportunity for an alternative approach to fighting terrorism. The group tried to blackmail French President Jacques Chirac into canceling the law banning religious symbols in French schools and met near unanimous condemnation by the Muslim world. Even Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah have been adamant in their denunciation of the hostage-taking, not out of love for impious France but because they believe the kidnapping will provoke fitna.
The Islamic Army thought it had a winning strategy: On Arab television stations, Islamist activists daily portray French secularism as persecution of Muslims. But the strategy backfired. France’s policy in the Middle East, its criticism of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and its view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more important to opinion in the region than its stance on secularism. Scores of French citizens of Muslim descent have appeared on Arab TV since the kidnapping, vehemently opposing the Islamic Army’s claims that it speaks in their name. Jihadists have had to backpedal and are now seeking a ransom rather than a change in the law.
The Muslim reaction to these incidents suggests that Al Qaeda could be beaten at its own hearts-and-minds game. Instead, by concentrating on the military option, Russia and the U.S. are missing an opportunity to mobilize Muslim civil society against Islamist terrorism and dry out the social swamps from which it springs.