Tuesday, September 28, 2004

GILLES KEPEL, the French Arabist scholar, says in his latest book (The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West), that in spite of the beheadings and the mayhem, the jihadists are not winning, but rather the opposite:
Kepel believes that the United States has stumbled badly in Iraq, and he's sharply critical of U.S. policies there. But that doesn't mean the jihadists are winning. Quite the contrary, their movement has backfired. Rather than bringing Islamic regimes to power, the holy warriors are creating internal strife and discord. Their actions are killing far more Muslims than nonbelievers.

"The principal goal of terrorism -- to seize power in Muslim countries through mobilization of populations galvanized by jihad's sheer audacity -- has not been realized," Kepel writes. In fact, bin Laden's followers are losing ground: The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been toppled; the fence-sitting semi-Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia has taken sides more strongly with the West; Islamists in Sudan and Libya are in retreat; and the plight of the Palestinians has never been more dire. And Baghdad, the traditional seat of the Muslim caliphs, is under foreign occupation. Not what you would call a successful jihad.

Kepel argues that the insurgents' brutal tactics in Iraq -- the kidnappings and beheadings, and the car-bombing massacres of young Iraqi police recruits -- are increasingly alienating the Muslim masses. No sensible Muslim would want to live in Fallujah, which is now controlled by Taliban-style fanatics. Similarly, the Muslim masses can see that most of the dead from post-Sept. 11 al Qaeda bombings in Turkey and Morocco were fellow Muslims.

A perfect example of how the jihadists' efforts have backfired, argues Kepel, was last month's kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq. The kidnappers announced that they would release their hostages only if the French government reversed its new policy banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in French public schools. "They imagined that they would mobilize Muslims with this demand, but French Muslims were aghast and denounced the kidnappers," Kepel explained to a Washington audience. He noted that French Muslims took to the streets to protest against the kidnappers and to proclaim their French citizenship.

Kepel believes that the war for Muslim minds may hinge most of all on these European Muslims. In countries such as France, Britain and Germany, large Muslim populations are living in secular, democratic societies. All the tensions and contradictions of the larger Muslim world are compressed into the lives of these European Muslims, but they're free to let the struggle play out in open debate. Thus, it's in Europe that Islam may finally find its accommodation with modern life.
I'm not so sure that the role of European Muslims is as unequivocal against the jihad as Kepel thinks it is; for example, in the example he provides, the demonstrations against the kidnapping of the two French journalists were not that crowded. And call me cynic if you want, but sometimes it looked as if they were more worried about whether the whole thing would hinder their lobbying against the law banning religious symbols in the French public schools than about the kidnapping itself.

On a related note, the release of the two Italian aid workers by their Iraqi captors is, undoubtedly, good news. My only hope, for the sake of us all, is that the liberation was not the result of the $1 million ransom that some still unconfirmed reports are suggesting. Of course, I can understand that particularly their families would be inclined to pay; I probably would also if someone I love was kidnapped. But as a policy, it's a terrible one: it only encourages the thugs to kidnap more and more people.