Ten years ago, on the road in AfPak before and after 9/11, the volume of choice in my backpack was a French edition of Gilles Kepel’s Jihad. Night after night, in many a mud brick house and amid endless cups of green tea, I slowly came to embrace its key thesis: that political Islam was in fact going down, not up.
On one side, we had outfits like al-Qaeda, self-designated vanguards bent on waking the Muslim masses from their slumber to unleash a global Islamic revolution; they were in fact Muslim versions of the Italian Brigate Rosse and the German Rote Armee Fraktion.
On the other side, we had Islamists like the ones from the Turkish Justice and Development Party, ready to immerse themselves into Western-style parliamentary democracy, betting on the sovereignty of the people, not Allah’s.
At the height of the “war on terror” – with those B-52s bombing Tora Bora without knowing that Osama bin Laden had already escaped to Pakistan – the tendency in the West was to lump most, if not all Muslims as deranged jihadis.
I agreed with Kepel that “clash of civilizations” was nothing more than a silly, shoddily researched concept instrumentalized by the neo-conservatives to legitimize their “crusade”. But that needed some corroboration from history.
Ten years later, one may finally say that Kepel’s analysis was spot on. Hardcore Islamism, al-Qaeda-style, is a Muslim box-office disaster. For all its myriad declinations – in Iraq, in the Maghreb, in the Arabian Peninsula – al-Qaeda is no more than a desperate sect, destined to the dustbin of history as much as those Western-backed dictators a la toppled Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak who used to be the pillars of the Western struggle against radical Islam.
Kepel today directs the program of studies on the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the legendary Political Sciences school in Paris. In an article for Italian daily La Repubblica, he seals for good the victory of Islam as democracy over Islam as “revolutionary” vanguard. The money quote:
“Today the Arab peoples have emerged from that dilemma – squeezed between Ben Ali or bin Laden. They have now re-entered a universal history that has seen the fall of dictatorships in Latin America, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and also the military regimes in non-Arab Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Turkey.”
The local meets the universal
And this is the crucial point; Arab peoples are now starting to build their own, hesitant, modernity. Kepel wonders why the first revolution happened in Tunisia, and he finds out that its key slogan was in French: “Ben Ali, degage“. (“Ben Ali, go away.”) The slogan was faithfully adopted – ipsis litteris – by the Egyptians, in a country where very few people speak French. They adopted this revolutionary call because they heard it on al-Jazeera. This allows Kepel to conclude that these current revolutions are rooted as much in local culture as in universal aspirations.
And yes, although the symptoms are the same – unemployment, poverty, corruption, total absence of freedom – these are diverse revolutions, and fought by the powers that be with diverse strategies. Some add fuel to the fire of confessional or tribal trouble, others bet on their large pockets or immunization to Western interference.
The problem is that the diversity of methods employed by tyrants to smash these revolutions is being misread by hagiographers of empire – so they can better legitimize the aura of selected repressive “good guys”. Thus we have Pentagon-linked Robert D Kaplan trying to con public opinion into believing there are enlightened despots (the al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, both King Abdullahs, in Saudi Arabia and Jordan) as opposed to unredeemable evil dictators (Muammar Gaddafi).
As if the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain needed the Sunni al-Khalifas to foster the formation of a middle class – the essential pre-condition to the establishment of democracy. The al-Khalifas never gave a damn about fostering a middle class, as only a small Sunni oligarchy profits from their autocratic “business-friendly” system.
And if the reasoning to defend selected tyrants is that some countries have no institutional base for a transition towards democracy, then tribal Libya led by “evil” Gaddafi is in the same package as the Gulf sheikhdoms led by “acceptable” kings and emirs.
Take it to the bridge
As much as Western modernity is in crisis, this does not mean the world is being assailed by a modern religious war. The belief that Islam and the West are antipodes is the stuff of Fox News-style morons. The world is witnessing a re-Christianization of Europe as much as a re-Evangelization of the US. This proves that modernity and religion are compatible – in the West as well as the Middle East.
They may be coming from different cultural latitudes – the West from the decline of modernity, the Middle East from the decline of religious fundamentalism, just to converge at the same place; a bridge of dialogue between East and West.
So essentially what Kepel is trying to prove is that Europe and the Arab world have no alternative other than to try to build a hybrid civilization – not only in terms of movement of capital, goods and services but as in solid investments in culture and education – from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf, with the Mediterranean as a hub. This implies Fortress Europe re-examining its place in the world, and a Mediterranean dialogue not conditioned by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
It’s a long and treacherous road – with some many Gaddafis and al-Khalifas and Abdullahs that must be chased away. The Arab world has been traumatized for too long – almost a century since colonial powers Britain and France betrayed the Arab nation and carved up its land. The real test of the West’s self-appointed “civilizing mission” is now; to welcome, and to help, with all its heart, the Arab world to the realm of modernity.