Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam Summary

Gilles Kepel


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel traces the Islamist movement back to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, Sayyid Qutb in Egypt, and Mawlana Mawdudi in Egypt, the theorists who in the 1960’s provided the rationale for the political movement that he terms Islamism. According to Kepel, their writings dominated Islamist thinking after the Israeli-Arab War of 1973. In 1979, the first successful phase of the movement came with the defeat of the shah of Iran, and since that time the Iran of Khomeini and his successors has contended with the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, loosely allied with the West and intent on preserving its control of the Muslim world. This conflict intensified when the Saudis and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intervened in Afghanistan, which was controlled by the Soviets. When a jihad, or holy war, was declared against the Russian occupiers, both the Saudis and the Americans supported the rebel Taliban. The ensuing war produced two results: For the Muslims, jihad became more important than the Palestinian cause, and Islamism replaced the nationalism that had preoccupied the Muslim world. For Kepel, the failure of Islamism was indicated by events in Bosnia, where Islamist efforts were thwarted by the Dayton Accords of 1995, and in Algeria and Egypt, where Islamist terrorism and militancy alienated the movement from the general population. According to Kepel, since 1997 the vast majority of Muslims have favored a clean break with armed struggle and an attempt to reconcile their cultural values with democratic ones.

Part 1 of Kepel’s book concerns the expansion of Islamism throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the Far East. The Muslim world’s allegiance was split between two power blocs: Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, Muammar el- Qaddafi’s Libya, Sukarno’s Indonesia, Ahmed Ben Bella’s Algeria, the Baathist regimes of Syria and Iraq, and Southern Yemen were allied with the Russians; Turkey and Saudi Arabia were tied to the Americans; and Khomeini’s Iran went it alone. Only in Iran did Islamism initially succeed, and then because Khomeini was adept at uniting the disinherited, the middle classes, the intellectuals, and the clerics. In other Muslim countries the radical values of the young urban poor were at odds with those of the bourgeoisie, who became concerned about how the violence would affect their lifestyle and possessions. The other factor that influenced Islamism was the role of the clergy. Nasser and some other political figures were able to coopt the ulemas(clergy) by appointing them to positions of power, which then weakened their credibility with the general population. Pakistan, however, was an exception, for there the madrassahs (religious schools) gave the ulemas an extensive network for revolutionary political ideas—Pakistan’s secular schools were few and available only to the elite. The madrassahs later produced the Taliba (madrassah pupils) and the Deobandi militants active in terrorist activity in Kashmir.

The conflict in the Muslim world was essentially between revolutionary Iran and Saudi Arabia, which had the petro-dollars to aid other Muslim countries and to finance banking in Muslim countries. The Saudis also controlled access to Mecca, the most important pilgrimage site for Muslims. Iranian pilgrims flooded Saudi Arabia, which was concerned about Iranian efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the Saudi throne and which feared that the Iranians would attempt to take control of the Grand Mosque. Fighting broke out between the two sides, and the Saudis finally got the power to limit the number of pilgrims who could make the Mecca pilgrimage from each country. Iran had been operating from a position of strength because Iraq’s invasion on September 22, 1980, elicited the enlistment of thousands of young Iranians from the urban poor; Khomeini then had support from all sectors of Iranian society. However, when the tide of battle turned against Iran at the same time that the Mecca squabble erupted, Iran’s position weakened.

Despite some setbacks, Iran did have a legacy for the Muslim world, particularly in Lebanon and to a lesser extent in...

(The entire section is 1712 words.)