Courtesy Reuters

The Turmoil Within

In This Review

Jihad: Expansion and Decline of the Islamist Movement

By Gilles Kepel
Belknap Press, 2001
464 pp. $29.95
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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.

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