Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: the Future of the Middle East

This article first appeared in the October-December 2009 edition of Terrorism and Political Violence and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Gilles Kepel
Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: the Future of the Middle East
Harvard University Press ; 328 pp ; US $27.95; ISBN 978-0-674-03138-8.

Reviewed by Richard Whelan
Author of Al Qaedaism The Threat to Islam the Threat to the World
Dublin, Ireland.

Kepel is a noted French author and expert on Islamic matters and Professor and Chair of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

His overall thesis is simple: “Bush, Cheney, and the neoconservatives on one side, Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Al Qaeda on the other-both sides staked their claim to power on a vision of global rectification through violent means. But the utopian ends that supposedly justified those means-universal democracy or a universal Islamist state-proved impossible to achieve, and in a few short years the opposing dreams of Bush and Bin Laden had devolved into an endless shared nightmare.”(p.10).

His analysis of the failures of the Bush administration’s policies is familiar, but he covers the usual ground on the war on terror, Afghanistan, Iraq,Guantanamo Bay , and Abu Ghraib well and with many new perspectives.

He then analyses in detail the failures of the architects of global jihad , showing that Bin Laden and Zawahiri have failed to get the Muslim masses to support their vision of a global Islamic empire achieved through all out jihad. He bases much of his analysis and conclusions on the famous Call to Global Islamic Resistance by Abu Musab al-Suri, as during 25 years of intellectual and militant activities al-Suri has passed through three phases of jihad which clearly explains the jihadist movement’s history to date.

The first phase ( the centralised pyramid) covered the losing struggles in Syria and Egypt and elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s and culminated in the success in Afghanistan on the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989. The second phase (the open front) began in the 1990s and culminated in the spectacular martyrdom operation of 9/11. The third and current phase according to al-Suri (individual jihad using small terrorist cells) was built on a critique of the 9/11 attacks and a desire to transcend the strategy of media – based spectacular martyrdom operations espoused by Bin Laden. The debate still rages — “between advocates of the second phase, led by Zawahiri, and those of the third phase, led by Suri and his disciples” (p.171) mirroring much of the debate on the Western side.

Kepel interestingly shows how Al Jazeera has been a huge asset in this jihad , acting as a cheerleader for the activities of the Jihadists and helping them spread their message of hate and barbarism far and wide. He also analyses critically Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, the pro–Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian preacher , well-known for his sermons on Al Jazeera.

In seeking solutions for the Middle East and Muslim/Western relations, Kepel first looks to Europe, analysing the failures of multiculturalism in the UK, Holland and Denmark which he contrasts with what he sees as the successful model of cultural integration in France. Although many will initially disagree with his assessment here , he makes a strong case.

His broader solution, staggering in its boldness, is the economic integration of the Middle East/Gulf area and Europe “creating a fertile space where entrepreneurial classes can grow and democratic processes can take root.”(p.269).

There is much else covered in this tour de force, including the differing views of Sunnis and Shi’ites on martyrdom operations and the historical development of that tactic, the role of Iran (particularly its challenge to the Sunni regimes and its relationship with Hezbollah and Hamas), and the propaganda battle in Europe as he puts it.

This is a very well written, easily read book, by a man who knows his topic very well. While most will find his overall solution unrealistic its boldness must be admired. Kepel’s detailed analysis will be enjoyed by scholars, students and the general reader.

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