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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

March 01, 2003

The Importance of Being Lucid

A review by Yehudah Mirsky of two books dealing withpolitical jihad and though Informative you are not going to like what the second writer, John Esposito, has to say about Israel

Political Islam is all the rage. But is the rage all of political Islam? Since bursting into Western consciousness with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the cluster of movements and figures of Islamism and political Islam have been variously an inspiration and a terror-and regularly both to many-a political football in sundry regional conflicts, a challenge to their governments, a vexation to Western policymakers, and last and least, a boon to academics. The Islamists' potential for wreaking massive havoc and suffering well beyond their accustomed frontiers was made clear to all, or should have been, by the events of September 11, 2001.

One may discern several streams in the rivers of ink flowing around political Islam: the argument that political Islam, and its terrorism in particular, represent a backlash against globalization, an argument put together most intelligently and presciently in Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld and burlesqued today by the pseudo-analyses of Noam Chomsky; the clash of civilizations thesis, famously, or infamously, associated with Samuel Huntington; those who see Islamist organizations as the stirrings of a nascent civil society akin to that which developed in Central and Eastern Europe under the Soviets; those, chief among them Bernard Lewis and his students, who see Islamists as dangerous and unreformable authoritarians; students of comparative religion, among them many contributors to the University of Chicago's outstanding multi-volume Fundamentalisms Project, understandably fascinated by the ironies and complexities of thoroughgoingly modern movements claiming the mantle of tradition; and of course, the now-hegemonic postmodern academic discourse founded by Edward Said's Orientalism, perhaps best understood as an academic Gnostic eschatology, which, like other Gnostic messianisms, easily becomes an apologetics of violence.

The life or death significance of these discussions has never been clearer to the United States and its allies since September 11. And so Gilles Kepel's powerful study of political Islam is all the more welcome. A professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, Kepel's synthesis of sociological understanding, historical explanation, and journalistic immediacy recalls that of Raymond Aron, along with the latter's lucid distinctions between pseudo-democratic progressive rhetoric, and the real thing. Though not without its flaws, his is likely the single most valuable and helpful volume on political Islam today, made all the more so by his ability to make adroit use of sociological analysis and yet elude the thrall of theory.
His story begins with the various nationalist and postcolonial regimes that emerged in the postwar years and their inability to fashion coherent national identities or viable economies. Scarcely legitimate in the eyes of their people, yet for the most part stubbornly impervious to change, these regimes have confounded conventional notions, which, Kepel writes: "have tended to equate . . . modernization with secularization. But nowhere in the Muslim world of the late 1960s did religion vanish from popular culture, social life or day-to-day politics. Islam was merely handled in different ways by different regimes, and was combined with nationalism in ways that varied according to the social class of those who had seized power at the moment of independence."

Since the end of the nineteenth century, various Muslim intellectuals and organizations, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, had attempted to articulate an alternative to Western-style modernity, through a reassertion of a reinvigorated Islam as the guiding principle of a new social order. These ideas gained renewed attraction as the regimes stagnated.

The reviwer, fortunately, catches John Esposito, author of the second work under review, in a number of mistaken facts and heavy-handed anti-Israel biases. [more]