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The Fundamental Things

JIHAD: The Trail of Political Islam, By Gilles Kepel, Translated from the French by Anthony F. Roberts, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press: 416 pp., $29.95 * THE CLASH OF FUNDAMENTALISMS: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, By Tariq Ali Verso: 342 pp., $22 * UNHOLY WAR: Terror in the Name of Islam, By John L. Esposito, Oxford University Press: 196 pp., $25

June 23, 2002|FRED HALLIDAY | Fred Halliday is the author of numerous books, including "Nation and Religion in the Middle East," "The World at 2000" and "Two Hours That Shook the World: 11 September 2001, Causes and Consequences."

The last nine months have been a time of questions in the West: Who carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, what were their motives, ideologies and expectations, and what may the future bring? "Terrorism," a convenient term for identifying some of the issues involved, is one answer. But something else--history, social and political analysis, an understanding of the uses and misuses of texts, symbols, traditions--is also needed that moves the discussion beyond Manhattan and into the countries where anger and violence have been maturing for several decades.

To that task Gilles Kepel, Tariq Ali and John L. Esposito make their informative contributions. Each writes in a particular register: Kepel as a French specialist on fundamentalism in many countries; Ali as a Pakistani critic of fundamentalism and the United States; and Esposito as an American committed to the better understanding of faiths. What their books provide is an analysis of a religion and culture that is diverse and in conflict with itself.

Kepel has followed the development of political Islam for 20 years, beginning with a study of the Egyptian militants who assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and on through the spread of Islamic radicalism in the 1980s and 1990s to Algeria, Afghanistan and Turkey. The terror attacks of last year, he believes, are not the result of a rising Islamic force but are the desperate act of a radical Islam that is in decline.

Kepel has a fine eye for the ways in which appeals to a radical Islam identity and to the solidarity of a broad community, or Umma, embracing all Muslims are offset by more mundane forces. Thus it was the rivalry of two states, Iran and Saudi Arabia, that dominated politicized Islam, or "Islamism," in the 1980s. In the 1990s, for all the rhetoric and fighting, it was the existing regimes that prevailed over religious protest: The radical movements failed to achieve their goals.

Similarly in Egypt and Algeria, militant groups were contained; in Turkey, where Islamism took an electoral form, the government of Necmettin Erbakan was dismissed by the military; in Iran, 20 years of the mullahs in power has led to widespread disillusionment with the appeals of political Islam; in Sudan, the Islamist regime became another military dictatorship; in its main European venture, Bosnia, fundamentalism failed to capture the embattled new republic.

And then came last year's tragic events. In Afghanistan the population, far from embracing the jihadi internationalists who had provoked a confrontation with America, turned on them, denouncing Arabs and Pakistanis for ruining their country. In the Muslim world at large, Islamic internationalism and appeals to the Umma to rise up yielded little despite considerable sympathy for the attacks on America, as there was in the non-Muslim Third World, and little substantial or organized support for Al Qaeda.

Far from being a wave of the future, Kepel concludes political Islam is on the retreat; the resort to violence by extremist groups is a sign of desperation and frustration, not of some victorious, mobilizing advance. "In spite of what many hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath," Kepel writes, "the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might."

Kepel, Ali and Esposito describe the diversity of Muslim traditions and interpretations; it is a far cry from the perception of Islam as monolithic, something that fundamentalists also claim. Ali, for example, through his reading of early Islamic history and philosophy, locates the flexible, skeptical, hedonistic traditions within Islamic thinking, ones picked up by liberals such as Muhammad Iqbal in India and Arab liberal thinkers, whom the fundamentalists wish to silence.

Ali too puts considerable emphasis on the fact that, in contemporary Islamic culture, the great power is not religious solidarity, as the West might believe, but nationalism, most evident in the massacre of East Pakistani Bengalis by West Pakistani Punjabis and Sindhis in 1971.

Esposito traces the origins of fundamentalism to medieval Islamic thinkers such as the champion of Sunni orthodoxy, Ibn Taimiya (1268-1328). He also shows how text and tradition allow for different, more liberal, interpretations in contemporary times: The Malayan Anwar Ibrahim, Mohammad Khatami in Iran and the former president of Indonesia Abdurrahman Wahid are three examples of voices calling for reform and recognizing, as Esposito says, "the strengths and weaknesses of Western-style modernity."

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