James Piscatori is University Lecturer in Islamic Politics and Fellow at Wadham College, Oxford University, and author of Muslim Politics.

Long before the shattering events of September 11, two academic views -- represented by Bernard Lewis and Gilles Kepel -- had crystallized on the future of politicized Islam, or "Islamism." Lewis, a historian, argued that the movement's deep roots in Islamic history and thought guaranteed its potency and staying power; Kepel, a political sociologist, concluded that the Islamist moment had largely passed. Now two new books by these scholars, although mainly written before September, make it clear that recent events have not changed their contrary views.

In What Went Wrong?, Lewis' well-established argument that something has gone seriously awry with Islam has acquired new urgency. This prolific author draws on his profound knowledge of Middle Eastern and Islamic history to ask how a civilization that was once so materially successful and communally tolerant could have declined to the point where its economies are in free fall and political authoritarianism and violence have grown endemic. Where once great scientists, philosophers, and artists held sway, now thrive closed-minded didacts and "consecrated assassins." Lewis' history reveals an uneasy Muslim coexistence with unconquered infidels and an unwillingness to come to terms with the long-term dangers of fusing religion and politics.

Lewis' argument is nothing if not controversial. But he also defies some of his critics. He is more generous toward Islam than his detractors would acknowledge, for instance, seeing a greater indulgence in the medieval treatment of Muslim dissidents than was accorded supposed Christian heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. Moreover, contrary to the often-heard charge that he freezes Islamic history and fails to appreciate the extent of radical change in the twentieth century, Lewis is all too aware of powerful revisionist forces in Islam. These led, on the one hand, to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's "secularizing" reforms in Turkey and, on the other, to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamizing revolution in Iran.

The picture may be even more complex, however. As Kepel persuasively shows, the Turkey of today, with entrenched grassroots Islamic sentiment and an organized Islamist movement that can be repressed but not ignored, is scarcely what AtatŸrk envisioned. By the same token, the twists and turns of the Iranian Revolution have led, if not to the emergence of a fully operative civil society, then at least to portentous challenges to the monopoly of clerical rule in Iran. The Muslim world has not been isolated from the troublesome processes of modernization, class and ethnic differentiation, and the advent of mass education that, among other factors, have influenced the development of modern political societies throughout the world. New inequalities, identities, and opportunities have resulted.

More importantly, however, these social and political changes have also contributed to a fragmentation of religious authority whereby, to put it crudely, the meaning of scripture no longer needs to be interpreted by a religious establishment but, rather, lies in the eye of the beholder. Many Muslims would vehemently insist that the centuries-long development of Islamic jurisprudence and Koranic exegesis provides definitive guidance to the faithful. But this tradition now confronts the proliferation of modern-educated individuals, who have direct access to the basic religious texts and question why they should automatically defer to the religious class. It has thus become difficult to say with reassuring finality what is Islamic and what is not. This shifting of goal posts and the ease with which individuals can presume to invoke and defend Muslim tradition have allowed Osama bin Laden to claim to speak on behalf of Islam. Radicalization, therefore, appears to have emerged as much from distinctly modern conditions as from the prior experience of inauspicious Muslim-Western encounters.


Lewis cannot be accused of taking his subjects lightly. On the contrary, by urging Muslims to ask themselves what they have done wrong, he seeks to rouse them from passive and self-defeating victimhood -- "the West has done this to us" -- to an active and honest re-examination of their predicament that would locate the problem closer to home. First incurious of the distant West, then pointing an accusatory finger at the imperialist West, Muslims, through their insularity, have done themselves a singular disservice. They have fallen prey to "predatory authority" in their own societies: governments that, in the name of modernization or Islam (or both), intimidate their people in order to maintain their narrow rule.

If Muslims are being asked to take destiny into their own hands, however, the consequences will not be entirely what was anticipated. Many Muslims, in fact, have already been asking just the question Lewis poses to them. Terrorists and radicals have not answered it in the way he would like, of course, nor have they evinced the faltering cultural self-confidence that he suggests is a hallmark of the Muslim modern age. On the contrary, Islamist extremists unflinchingly seek to return to what the Koran calls the "straight path" of Islam through overthrow of their rulers, whom they consider impious, as well as confrontation with outsiders, whom they regard as infidels. From bin Laden's perspective, states such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan may proclaim themselves to be Islamic but are actually "allies of Satan."

But other Muslim voices offer a different prescription for their societies' ills. Muslim reformers are formulating -- tentatively and, thus far, inconclusively -- a Muslim position on pluralism and political participation. Some may automatically assume that these reformers would eventually replace what Lewis calls one "shabby" tyranny with another, but noteworthy are the groups advocating for women, human rights, and other special interests that are increasingly making their views known and heard. Many Muslims now argue that Islam and democracy are indeed compatible -- taking the debate away from those who consider democracy an alien system at variance with obedience to divine rather than popular sovereignty and a complete, revealed law that makes a legislative body superfluous. An increasing number of Muslim intellectuals in societies as diverse as Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia are now concerned with how what they regard as the intrinsically Islamic values of pluralism, tolerance, and civic participation can be implemented.

Taken together, these agents of radical and moderate opinion give us a picture of roiling Muslim societies, preoccupied with their own unfaithfulness or inefficiency and uncertain how to reconcile the contradictory prescriptions, but in some cases intent on creating an Islamic state or Islamizing their societies. With the images of the destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon freshly in mind, we may be forgiven for failing to see the full complexities of the internal Islamic situation. As Lewis elegantly explains, intercivilizational contacts have often been difficult. Yet to view the intricate problems and prospects of modern Muslims through the framework of a clash between Islam and the West (or even more generally of East versus West), as What Went Wrong? occasionally does, is to become preoccupied with a balance sheet that tells, at best, only part of today's story. "Imbalance" and "painful asymmetry" may well have characterized the Muslim-Western relationship since the seventeenth century. But there has also been a turning inward by Muslims that challenges the status quo -- political, economic, social, gendered. And these challenges lie beyond and, in many ways, take precedence over relations with any outside world.

Moreover, the Islamic realm is itself in the process of redefinition as Muslim minorities become a permanent and indigenous presence in the Western societies of Europe, North America, and Australia. And these Muslim minorities, who live with the daily demands of an open society, are especially important to the work of the reformers in shifting the terms of the debate away from the radicals.


Should we conclude that the Islamist challenge, or what some refer to as the Islamist revolt, is bound to fail? Prior to September 11, Kepel and others, notably Olivier Roy in The Failure of Political Islam, argued that a combination of state power and Islamist intellectual incoherence was fatally wounding Islamist movements before they could bring their vision to fruition. A prime example is post-1979 Iran, where the policy of exporting the revolution dismally failed and a domestic "clerisocracy," to use the word coined by the late political scientist P. J. Vatikiotis, has remained on top of a fairly secular society through sheer authoritarianism, not moral worthiness.

Kepel's Jihad builds on an impressively extensive investigation of Islamist movements across the world to document this relative decline in their effect and appeal. Like Lewis, Kepel constructs an expansive and forceful argument but keeps his eyes on events since the late 1960s. Setting out to chart the rise and fall of a utopian movement, Kepel capably points to the combination of actors that provided both its strength and its ultimate weakness. The discontents unleashed by the modernizing, nationalist regimes of the 1950s and 1960s mobilized the urban young, elements of the middle classes -- the pious bourgeois of the suqs (bazaars) and the professionals -- and Islamist intellectuals. With all the certainty that a vaguely defined but symbolically charged religious agenda can provide, these Muslim visionaries grew in influence and number throughout the 1970s. The Iranian Revolution, however, sharpened intra-Muslim conflict and raised the question of whether the Iranian regime or the Saudi monarchy should lead the Islamic cause. The subsequent decade seemed to settle the matter, however: the Iran-Iraq War diverted and sapped Iranian power while the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union cast Saudi Arabia and Pakistan into the role of defenders of the umma (pan-Islamic community). The conservative forces became dominant.

In the 1990s, the situation changed again, but the trend of radical Islamist decline continued. The introduction of U.S. forces into Saudi Arabia split the Islamist base; the urban poor and radical intellectuals vehemently opposed the Saudis now, whereas the middle class was torn but conscious of the side on which its bread was buttered. Into this gap stepped the state -- whether Egyptian, Saudi, Turkish, Algerian, Tunisian, or other -- deliberately seeking to split the movement further, co-opting those it could and repressing those it could not. Suicide bombings, hostage-taking, and other terrorist actions continued, but (actions against Israel aside) they increasingly seemed acts of desperation. By the end of the century, the signs of jihad's failure seemed everywhere.

Broadly persuasive as it is, Kepel's analysis comes up hard against turn-of-the-century events. The Taliban were certainly "puffed up" by Pakistan and the United States, as he says, but the life they acquired in league with bin Laden's al Qaeda network suggests something other than a collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. As we know, it took the United States and its allies to bring down the Taliban's so-called Islamic emirate, and some of the Taliban's ideas about a politicized Islam are bound to live on. Still, attacks such as those of September 11, in Kepel's view, are a rapidly depreciating resource, destined to backfire and increasingly isolate the radicals.

This is a utilitarian account -- states using movements, movements using hapless members, strategies that in the end reflect a tactical, radical Islamism beyond its sell-by date. As much truth as there is in these observations, they give only a partial picture. And Lewis' study provides the cautionary complement: mindless violence has roots in politicized versions of history that carry social weight of their own. The implication to draw from Lewis' account is that it is not the history presented by eminent historians that counts. Rather, as historian R. Stephen Humphreys points out in Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age, it is the local memory, how Muslim ideologues package and present history, that is galvanizing.


Whether we regard bin Laden as the final cry of a whimpering revolution or as a disconcertingly representative voice for the future, Kepel's Jihad is compelling in identifying another important trend. The radicals may have come unstuck, he argues, but the moderates have not. Here he goes beyond what Lewis would allow and finds the struggle for integrating democratic ideas with Muslim values a defining aspect of modern Muslim experience. Yet it is not entirely clear whom he means by the "democrats."

The problem is partly one of terminology: Is there such a thing as a moderate Islamist? At times Kepel seems to suggest the answer is no, straightforwardly equating Islamism with radicalism. Yet he also refers to a particular kind of belief -- "radical," "militant," or "jihadist" Islamism -- thereby, more usefully, implying a range of opinion within the category. If valid, this more expansive characterization implies that evolution of thought is possible among those Muslims who are expressly committed to political action. Moreover, it colors our view of what exactly is supposed to be in decline.

There are several ways of looking at this. One way is to assume that ideological rigidity or perhaps incoherence renders Islamism incapable of real development; it is, therefore, destined to fail. Another possibility, however, is that the very ambiguity of Islamist thought, in addition to providing the practical advantage of attracting a broad constituency, allows space for the flexible development of talismanic ideas such as the "Islamic state." If this view is taken, then, far from being destined to decline, Islamism is capable of adaptation and growth. Indeed, Kepel's own analysis points to an "equivocal" set of ideas that just might evolve into a "Muslim form of democracy." This hybrid would be true to its heritage but would also be the modern, pragmatic product of a series of compromises and conflicts with regimes reluctant, but impelled, to share power. In this sense, then, Islamism may have a future, even if militancy, in Kepel's optimistic view, does not make long-term sense.

What is clear, at least, is that Kepel does not mean to endorse the secular solution to the Muslim political quandary. Yet other observers of Islam have invested much faith in its healing powers, and its attraction has only grown in the past eight months. Lewis speaks tantalizingly of a "Christian remedy" to Muslim (and Jewish) ills -- that is, separation of religious and political functions. Salman Rushdie can be forgiven for having a definite view on the subject. In the British Guardian newspaper, he lamented the rise of tit-for-tat communal murders in India but pointed to a larger perspective: "Something we don't want to look at in the face: namely, that in India, as elsewhere in our darkening world, religion is the poison in the blood. ... What happened in India happened in God's name. The problem's name is God." For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, however, this view is neither theologically nor culturally acceptable. Many would object that it makes little political sense as well. For them, Turkey's putative secularism has been nothing more than the subjugation of religious institutions to the overweening power of the state.

A politically charged Islam, which automatically rejects the secular option, does not necessarily have to degenerate into the obscurantist beliefs, priestly tyrannies, and sacred violence that secular ideologues anticipate. Yet there is no guarantee that these pitfalls will be avoided, or that radicalism's force is spent. Muslim societies are in uncertain transition, and internal preoccupations are arguably more significant in the long run than anti-Westernism. Neither Lewis' Islamist "rage and self-pity" nor Kepel's "trail of decline" seems inevitable. The struggle over who speaks for Islam is far from over.

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  • James P. Piscatori is University Lecturer in Islamic Politics and Fellow at Wadham College, Oxford University, and author of Muslim Politics.
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