French political scientist Gilles Kepel is a world-leading academic expert on political Islam (or Islamism). In his 2010 lecture at the London School of Economics he explains how from the midpoint of the 1970s political Islam became a prominent actor in the world system, and the consequences of this. My blog post summarises his analysis.
First generation jihadism in 1980s Afghanistan: a “Vietnam in reverse”
Kepel states that the Islamic political system plugged into the world system in the 1970s and 1980s, with jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s the watershed event. The promotors of this Afghan jihad – the petro-monarchies of the Arabian peninsula and the United States – considered this struggle central to undermining the USSR; in other words, jihad in Afghanistan was a proxy war (of the Cold War) against the USSR. This war ended on 15th February 1989 with the withdrawal of the Red Army from Kabul. Kepel claims that while many consider the significant event of 1989 as the fall of the Berlin Wall, in actual fact the defeat in Afghanistan was decisive for the end of the Cold War, since it exposed the fragility of the USSR. What’s more, he asserts, jihad in Afghanistan was a “Vietnam in reverse” that “opened the Pandora’s box of radical Islam that led to 9/11”: the “freedom fighter’s chicken that came home to roost” (Kepel, 2010).
Changing geography of the 1970s Muslim world
Kepel traces the upsurge of political Islam to when the first generation of young people who had not experienced direct colonial rule came of age in the Muslim world. Such a generation, he observes, held the rulers of the Muslim world responsible for what was not being delivered.
During the 1970s, Kepel expands, there was massive demographic change in this part of the world: more children were surviving due to improvements in nutrition and medicine, and there was large-scale migration from the countryside to the urban peripheries (or slums) of the big cities. With this relocation, people were no longer following rural Sufi orders, i.e. spiritual Islam, since it offered no answers to people’s new immediate concerns, notably, urban developers, the police, and the mafia. Kepel points out that this young generation became the first generation to be massively literate in the language of the country, specifically, in post-colonial, national languages used by the ruling elites to assert their own power.
Kepel describes how this new literate and hopeless generation, unhappy with their situation and their rulers, used their literacy to read, understand, and put into practice the revolutionary ideas of the most radical ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Sayyid Qutb. This Islamist ideology saw the world as not really Muslim anymore, even in Muslim countries (whose rulers had betrayed Islam), and positioned this generation as living amid the age of ignorance (jahiliyyah) and whose duty was to destroy this old world and create a new Islamic world.
1973 Ramadan War and Saudi Arabia
The upsurge of Islam on the political scene from the 1970s had a dual dimension, Kepel discerns: a radical side and a conservative side. The conservative side, the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia, was much closer to Western and, in particular, American interests.
Kepel expounds that the October war of 1973 was a very significant event vis-à-vis political Islam. Following the defeat of the Arab states in the Six-day war of 1967 with Israel, Nasser of Egypt had lost political legitimacy; the governments of Egypt and Syria launched an offensive against Israel in 1973 to ‘save face’. The October war was known in the Muslim world as the Ramadan War. But for soldiers to be able to fight (not fast) during Ramadan, jihad had to be declared. This was declared by the Grand Mufti of the Republic of Egypt (an appointee of Sadat). This was, Kepel states, a social and political jihad translated into military action. It was not a jihad of expansion but a compulsory defence jihad (since Israel was deemed to be a land occupied by infidels) to be fought by sword, money, and/or prayer. During this jihad, there was major pressure from oil-exporting countries for an embargo on all allies of Israel, which steeply drove up oil prices. Kepel makes plain the consequence of this: Saudi Arabia (the biggest oil producer and the one who had taken the initiative) became the key player in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a very strong, conservative Islamic kingdom, which was staunchly anti-Communist, used its oil weapon against the United States because it considered the United States to have gone too far in its support of Israel. Simultaneously, Kepel reveals, radical political Islam was developing in Egypt. The conservative Islamists of Saudi Arabia were worried about this, hoping that by flooding this Islamist movement with its money it would become more conservative.
1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran
Kepel observes that the big shock came not from the Sunni world but from the Shia world: the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution of Iran, which had (and continues to have) revolutionary and third wordlist overtones, and an anti-Americanism (unlike Saudi Arabia). Islamist Iran was also anti-Saudi Arabia and considered the petro-monarchies as lapdogs of the West. Also in 1979, with huge money from the United States as an incentive, Sadat of Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel. By 1980, Saddam Hussein of Iraq (with Gulf states backing ) attacked Iran with the aim of exploiting its internal political turmoil. In sum, Kepel identifies, the whole Western system of alliances looked in danger.
Back to Afghanistan and The Satanic Versus
During the Christmas of 1979 the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Kepel remarks that this was not an expansionist mission on part of the USSR, but was intended to replace the existing Communist Party officials who had come in during an earlier coup with a new set. The United States government considered this as a golden opportunity to do two things, Kepel contends: 1) to get rid of the USSR via a proxy war led by the Afghan mujahedeen or jihad fighters (who were called freedom fighters by the United States at this time) and 2) to get rid of or to minimise the influence of Iran. Thus, Kepel claims, it is very significant that on the 14th February 1989 (the day before the Red Army withdrew from Kabul) Iran’s Ayatollah issued his famous fatwa to kill British citizen Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah understood, Kepel spells out, that the Sunni radicals with their Saudi-Kuwaiti-American godfathers stood to benefit from the withdrawal of the Red Army, and so he aimed to demonstrate that Iran was the defender of Muslims worldwide.
Second generation jihadism from the 1990s
It was not well understood at the time, Kepel explains, that international brigades of jihadists came to Afghanistan to fight jihad, specifically, people who considered the call for jihad as universal. These people had a different agenda: liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet yoke was only the first step in the restoration of Islam. Within these Islamist circles an idea developed that the Afghan jihad should be duplicated in the countries from where these people came from. After the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan, the United States and the petro-monarchies started to worry about the so-called freedom fighters (now called terrorists and whose funding had ceased); they assumed that without the funding and without a country, the threat would disappear. But what transpired in the 1990s were attempts by many of the veterans of the Afghan war to re-enact the Afghan jihad in their own countries: notably, Egypt, Algeria, and Bosnia (all deemed Muslim lands governed by impious rulers). Civil wars consequently ignited in these countries, but, Kepel concludes, the radical Islamists ultimately failed because they were unable to mobilise the masses.
Significantly, Kepel argues, this failure led Ayam al-Zawahiri – a supremo thinker of al-Qaeda – to conclude that it was useless to waste one’s time fighting one’s near-by enemies, rather the focus should be on the far-away enemy: to strike at America. The attack on the Twin Towers was intended as a symbolic strike that would provide courage and mobilisation of a vast movement. This didn’t happen. The radical Islamists expected Iraq to be the place that would re-enact Afghan jihad. Instead Iraq became “the cemetery of their illusions” (Kepel, 2010): an intra-Muslim battle (Sunni-Shiite) in which jihad turned into internal strife (fitna).
Third generation jihadism
In two more recent interviews on France24 (Kepel, 2015) and Al Jazeera (Kepel, 2017), Gilles Kepel defines the present era as one of third generation jihadism. After the first generation jihadism of 1980s Afghanistan and the second generation jihadism of al-Qaeda and 9/11, Kepel expounds that third generation jihadism is a system and a network not an organisation, and is bottom-up. It was born from a critique of the failure of the top-down al-Qaeda strategy to mobilise the Muslim masses, which was ultimately lost in Iraq. Kepel points out that a former aide to Bin Laden and PR man to al-Qaeda, a Syrian engineer called Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, posted an online book in 2005 called ‘The Global Islamic Resistance Call’. This text sees Europe as “the soft underbelly of the West” (Kepel, 2017) and advances a grassroots jihadism in which its soldiers will come from amongst the one million disenfranchised young Muslims living in Europe. Kepel recognises that the core dimension of this third generation of jihadists is both the internet, with videos posted from Iraq and Syria (whereas previously propaganda came through the mosques), and budget airlines and cheap airfares to, for instance, Istanbul. This, he says, is the new proximity of the battlefield. And these internet indoctrinated, military-trained individuals choose targets from within a wide framework: 1) secularist, ‘anti-Islamist’ intellectuals; 2) Jews, but not in synagogues; and 3) so-called apostate Muslims. The basic idea of third generation jihadism, Kepel surmises, is to find the fault lines and start a war.
Afterword: Olivier Roy and ‘Islamophobia’
In Gilles Kepel’s 2017 interview on Al Jazeera he is asked his opinion of Olivier Roy’s thesis that there hasn’t been a radicalisation of Islam but instead an Islamisation of radicalism: with angry, alienated young men, who in the past might have turned to Marxism or anarchism or joined a gang, signing up today to jihadism because it is the most fashionable radicalism going. Kepel strongly disagrees with Roy’s thesis. He insists that the radicalisation of many young French Muslims (especially in the deprived French suburbs) is related to the Islam that they follow, Salafi Islam. While Roy sees radicalism as the essence and the phenomenon changes, Kepel asserts that if you don’t study the blend of the social issues and the ideology then you miss the point.
Kepel is also questioned on his reference to ‘Islamophobia’ as a buzzword and a propaganda term used by Islamists. The problem with Islamophobia, he argues, is that it mixes criticism of a doctrine (which is permissible) with attacking someone as a person because of, for example, what she wears, her faith, et cetera (which is not permissible). The latter, Kepel states, is racism.