Book Review - New York Times
The New York Times
February 6, 2005
CHRONICLE / POLITICAL ISLAM; Global Warning
By Noah Feldman
The Search for a New Ummah.
By Olivier Roy.
Columbia University, $29.50.
THE WAR FOR MUSLIM MINDS
Islam and the West.
By Gilles Kepel.
Harvard University, $23.95.
Radical Islam and the American Left.
By David Horowitz.
AT THE HEART OF TERROR
Islam, Jihadists, and
America's War on Terrorism.
By Monte Palmer and Princess Palmer.
Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95.
Allah, the Army, and
America's War on Terror.
By Hassan Abbas.
M. E. Sharpe, cloth, $69.95; paper, $25.95.
The globalization of Islam is nothing new. The Prophet Muhammad himself confronted Jews, Christians and pagans in his Arabian milieu -- and within a couple of generations, Islam, spread by conquest and conversion alike, came into fruitful contact with the legacies of Persian, Greek and Roman civilizations.
Nevertheless, since 9/11, the pace of the engagement between global Islam and other, mostly Western, forces and ideas has quickened, and the stakes have grown. The latest round of books on Islam and the West attempts to make sense of this most recent and intense episode of global interaction and conflict. Mostly, these books reveal a powerful undercurrent of concern -- ripening into panic -- about the unintended consequences of civilizational encounters played out in an environment of violence. They offer diagnoses, but few prescriptions.
In an influential pre-9/11 book, ''The Failure of Political Islam,'' Olivier Roy, a French student of contemporary Islam, argued that utopian Islamic revolutions in Muslim countries failed during the 1980's and 90's. Now, in ''Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah,'' he pushes the point farther, suggesting that the important events in the world of Islam are taking place not in the regions we ordinarily think of as Islamic but in Europe. As Exhibit A, Roy points to today's global terrorists, who, he says, are overwhelmingly likely to have studied and lived in Europe (or occasionally the United States) and to have embraced radical Islamic ideas there, not in the Muslim countries where they were born.
Indeed, he traces contemporary Islamic terrorism itself to the European terror of the Baader-Meinhof gang and other leftist movements of the 1960's and 70's. Global Islamic terror, for Roy, is not only born of the interaction between Islam and the West, but also reflects the aspiration of displaced Muslims living in Europe to create a transnational Islamic identity, forged in revolution.
Roy is right to focus on the ways that both the techniques and ideologies of terror have crossed borders and grafted themselves onto an Islam that, in the past, was largely unfamiliar with them. (He points out, for instance, that suicide bombing was popularized not by Muslims, but by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and adopted by Al Qaeda only after it had been borrowed, to devastating effect, by Palestinian radicals as part of their intifada.) It is also true that the small number of Muslim terrorists who have committed acts of terror in Europe or the United States includes several who were radicalized in Europe. (As Roy notes, however, this was not true of the 15 Saudis who were the muscle, not the pilots, on 9/11.)
Roy's Eurocentric focus and his impulse to link Islamic terror to Marxist-inspired radicalism obscure the extent to which satellite television and the Internet have spread Western ideas into the Islamic world. Utopian violence may arguably be on the decline in most majority Muslim countries (although Saudi Arabia is a notable exception, and the Iraqi insurgency includes its share of jihadis); but ideas from free speech to text messaging to brand-name consumerism are affecting the daily lives of larger and larger numbers of non-Western people, who remain fully comfortable with their own national as well as religious identities. Surely the future of global Islam is to be found where most Muslims live, and where today's ideologies of both radical and moderate Islamism are developed, even if they are adopted by émigrés abroad.
If the United States seems missing from Roy's story at times, Gilles Kepel puts America's reaction to 9/11 front and center in ''The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West.'' Kepel's central thesis can be summed up simply: the United States is losing the war, and badly. Instead of encouraging resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration has played directly into Al Qaeda's hands by invading Iraq. It failed to recognize that the war would further inflame the Muslim world, convincing more Muslims than ever before that the United States was their enemy. Now, Kepel says, Europe will inherit the whirlwind, in the form of growing Islamic extremism and terrorist acts like the Madrid bombings.
Kepel and Roy are frequently mentioned in the same breath -- because of their French nationality and their tendency to publish books at the same time -- but their approaches are starkly different. Kepel, one senses, is addressing an American audience, in order to show us the error of our ways through an outsider's critical evaluation. One chapter is devoted to an analysis of the neoconservatives, and another of comparable length to what he considers ''the calamity of nation-building in Iraq.''
But Kepel is best when on familiar ground, as when he analyzes the growing skill of European Muslim leaders like the controversial Tariq Ramadan, who defend religious freedom while demanding special recognition for their religious community as a distinct group within Europe. Kepel barely suppresses his frustration with this two-sided political strategy, or with the French government's willingness to play along by recognizing quasi-official clerical spokesmen for Muslims in France.
Forbidding Muslim girls to wear headscarves in French schools while simultaneously trying to control French Muslims through officially recognized Islamic organizations gets matters exactly backward, as most Americans will easily see. Our constitutional combination of freedom to practice one's religion, coupled with the strong separation of church and state, has worked far better in accommodating religious diversity than anything Europe has yet dreamed up. The United States may be alienating Muslims worldwide with its foreign policy; but at home a new generation of Muslim-Americans is demonstrating the ability to criticize American policy while maintaining steadfast loyalty to the democratic values they share with other American citizens from different backgrounds.
It would be nice if the extremes of the American right and left showed some of the same measured ability to argue against mistaken American policies without impugning the integrity of the other side; but perhaps this is asking too much of ideologues caught up in the past. David Horowitz is one such relic of traditional left-right struggles (and like many of the toughest grapplers, he has been on both sides). In ''Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left,'' this leftist-turned-conservative provocateur aims to discredit his old allies by arguing that the left is in bed with Osama bin Laden because of their shared anti-Americanism. He writes that ''self-described progressives'' have formed ''inexplicable alliances . . . with Arab fascists and Islamic fanatics in their war against America and the West.''
Horowitz's book would be little more than a tiresome exercise in quote-gathering and guilt by association were it not for the fact, noted by Roy, that the Islamic extremists have indeed drunk from the well of old-fashioned Marxist anti-Americanism. Militant Islamists do in fact share some common themes and language with homegrown radicals, especially in their condemnations of American imperialism. What is interesting about this is not that it demonstrates some alliance between the old (once the new) left and Islamic terror, but that it shows how ideas lose their provenance as they travel across time. The worldwide critics of American empire today are no more likely to think of themselves as Marxists than the antiwar critics of the 1960's thought of themselves as belonging to the American anti-imperialist movements of 1900 or 1790.
A more sensible and productive set of proposals for understanding Muslim extremism comes to us from two Americans who have considerable experience in the Middle East. An academic and a World Bank consultant respectively, Monte Palmer and Princess Palmer are particularly good at describing the Lebanese and Palestinian jihad movements. In ''At the Heart of Terror: Islam, Jihadists, and America's War on Terrorism,'' they analyze jihadi strategies with a nuanced common sense all too hard to come by in the sometimes sensationalist literature on the topic. They provide, for example, a detailed chapter on Israeli counterterrorism efforts that identifies both its successes (large numbers of suicide bombings thwarted) and its shortcomings (no significant reduction in Palestinians prepared to undertake terrorist acts).
These authors pose an increasingly tough question for United States policy: Will we, can we ''accept rule by Islamic parties dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state''? In Lebanon, for example, Hezbollah has made itself into a political party without abandoning its violent stance toward Israel or its willingness to use terror; in Palestine, Hamas may well follow a similar course. The Palmers call such groups ''radical-moderates.'' Unlike the Shiite Islamic democrats poised to take power in Iraq, or Turkey's thoroughly Islamic-democratic Justice and Development Party, Hezbollah has been prepared to pursue simultaneous strategies of violence and political participation.
The Palmers opt for engagement with Hezbollah -- not because they trust them, but on the realist grounds that ''efforts to eliminate them will only increase terrorism and push the United States into a war with Islam.'' In fact, it may be possible to negotiate with the radical-moderates on the condition that they abandon any active involvement in terror. This approach would require us to distinguish true Islamic democrats, who reject violence as a mechanism of political change, from fellow travelers like Moktada al-Sadr, who haunt the edges of participatory politics. But, as the Palmers note, Muslim support for jihad against enemies perceived as oppressing Muslims is ubiquitous, even among moderate-moderates.
Even more specific is an engaging, quirky book on terrorism's largest growth market: Pakistan. Hassan Abbas, the author of ''Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America's War on Terror,'' served in the Pakistani police in the still-wild North-West Frontier Province, and did stints in the governments of both Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf. He therefore has an insider's angle on the story of the gradual infiltration of Islamic ideology into the government over the last several decades.
What's most significant about this book, however, is its insight into the Pakistan military's perspective on the country's politics and history. Each time we are introduced to a new character from the military, we hear the opinion of the officer class. And every officer has a precisely calibrated reputation: this one a drunkard, this one an honorable man, this one a brave soldier with a weakness for women. Increasingly, after the ruling general, Zia ul-Haq, died in an airplane crash in 1988, the newly promoted senior officers had reputations as Islamist sympathizers or activists. These reputations matter crucially for questions ranging from promotion to coup d'état. For Abbas, the Pakistani Army is political Pakistan itself.
The picture that emerges from the details of Pakistan's military politics is one of the transformation of a traditional, British-trained and British-inflected professional army into a more complex institution that both permeates politics and, in turn, falls under the influence of political movements like Islamism. This, too, is an instance of globalization -- the kind that comes after the empire has folded itself up and gone home.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company