The war for Muslim minds: an interview with Gilles Kepel

About the authors

Gilles Kepel is a Professor at the Institut d'Ìätudes Politiques (IEP) in Paris and an expert on Muslim and Middle East affairs.

openDemocracy brings you this special feature.

From Fallujah and Peshawar to Amsterdam and Paris, is radical, militant Islam winning or losing its political battle for the support of the world's Muslims? Gilles Kepel, leading analyst of post–9/11 global fractures, talks to openDemocracy’s Rosemary Bechler.

openDemocracy: The first section of your book The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West explores the curious convergence at the crossroads of 9/11 between two diametrically opposed ways of thinking: those of the American neo–conservatives and the jihadis of the middle east – the subject also of Adam Curtis’s documentary The Power of Nightmares, which you advised and which tracks the thinking of Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss from 1940s America onwards.

How far would you push this “fatal symmetry”?

Gilles Kepel: No absolute equivalence can be drawn between Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss, between Ayman al–Zawahiri and Paul Wolfowitz. Whatever criticisms might be made of the neocons, there is no reason to be suspicious of their stated goal – a democratic middle east. Leo Strauss was convinced that communism and Nazism, as he suffered them under the Weimar republic in his native Germany, were the main enemies of democracy, and that the ultimate struggle was for democracy – not a conviction shared by al–Zawahiri, for whom democracy is the antithesis of Islam.

The problem lies in the means that they use to achieve their aims. Both, in their sombre diagnosis of the middle east, see violence as the only way to change the present state of affairs. For the neo–conservatives, this means military intervention. The demise of the Saddam Hussein regime was already deemed desirable in the mid–1990s, as we learn from a text bearing the signature of some of the most prominent of today’s neo–conservatives in President Bush’s team and the Washington think–tanks.

In the 1990s, the jihadis meanwhile favoured the sort of guerrilla warfare which mimicked what they thought had secured their victory in the Afghan jihad. But with the failure of successive operations in Algeria, Egypt, and Bosnia, al–Zawahiri’s circle turned their attention to what they called “martyrdom operations” – in short, to terrorism.

But the defining moment, shared by what we might call the “pre–neocons” and the jihadis, was engineered in the 1980s in Afghanistan under Ronald Reagan, when Richard Perle (the “prince of darkness”) was – like Paul Wolfowitz today – under–secretary for defense. At the time, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al–Zawahiri were in training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan after their makeover turning them into freedom fighters against the Soviet army.

This, I would say – to reverse the title of Richard Perle’s book (with David Frum) An End to Evil: how to win the war on terror – was the beginning of evil: salafi jihadism born out of jihad in Afghanistan. The neocons and jihadis are equally in denial over this episode.

Neocons do not want to be reminded that help from Reagan’s administration made jihadism possible, then and now; United States backing alone made possible this breeding–ground where Qutbist thinking and salafi indoctrination coalesced.

The jihadis, claiming that they alone won the war against the evil empire of kufr (impiety) and its Red Army, also dismiss what they owe to American policy. But without the smart, ground–to–air, shoulder–borne Stinger missiles – brainchild of Albert Wohlstetter’s military thinking – the Soviet forces would never have been defeated. In this respect, the Afghan–bred mujaheddin is the metonymy or synecdoche – the best image of the geopolitical crossroads represented by 9/11.

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openDemocracy: Is it significant that both traditions value the “noble lie”?

Gilles Kepel: In a way there is some sort of parallelism – though this is rather a general phenomenon in politics. I guess I would say it is not peculiar to them.

Much has been made of Paul Wolfowitz’s interview with Sam Tannenhaus in Vanity Fair (May 2003) when he said that the dossier about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was a “winner” when it came to expediting the crucial prewar Congressional vote.

Wolfowitz’s formulation was defended at the time as a Straussian, Machiavellian, or even Platonist lie: the masses do not know what is good for them, but their leaders do, and moreover need to find some slogan with which to mobilise them – a slogan which, in Plato’s words, may always have more to do with rhetoric than truth.

Ayman al–Zawahiri’s pamphlet, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, considers jihad against Israel such a rhetorical device, one that will mobilise non–believers as well as the umma.

The Iraqi crucible

openDemocracy: Does the neocons’ commitment to such rhetorical devices help explain why their professed commitment to democracy is so distrusted?

Gilles Kepel: The neocons are indeed commonly considered a bunch of hypocrites. I don’t agree: I may be naïve, but I have seen many of them at work and read their texts intensively, and I think that they are indeed firm proponents of democracy.

Most of them, however, have a peculiar agenda in relation to the middle east, where all criteria except Israel’s security pale into insignificance. They do not understand or wish to see the contradiction between preaching the necessity of democratic regimes in the area and refusing to engage seriously in the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. Instead, they choose to believe that no requirement for democracy should be allowed to put the slightest pressure on Ariel Sharon. As long as this continues, the neocons have no chance to win the support of Muslims or middle–east civil societies against radicals and terrorists.

In recent discussions in Washington with US administration officials and agencies dealing with middle–east policy, I tried to persuade them of the centrality of the “war for Muslim hearts and minds” – and the fact that in this war, weapons cannot be an end in themselves, only a means. What Ayman al–Zawahiri calls “the Muslim masses” are ultimately the only group able to eradicate terrorism, to dry up the pond where people like him thrive. To tackle this, you must engage civil society.

This issue is decisive in Iraq today because the jihadis believe that Iraq is their new terrain. They believe that Iraq will follow 9/11 in setting an example for the Muslim world – exposing the weakness of the west, then mobilising and galvanising the masses, who will become fearless in the face of the enemy.

In cyberspace at least, they have already largely succeeded. The jihadis may have failed miserably in inspiring the masses to replace existing regimes with Islamic, sharia–driven states. But they have created a constituency of internet activists dedicated to spreading terrorism around the globe.

The crucial issue now is whether Iraq is the new land of jihad or of fitna – a war in the heart of Islam that threatens the faithful with community fragmentation, disintegration and ruin (my book takes its French title from the term).

The example of Algeria in the 1990s is relevant here. Until 1996, militant Armed Islamic Group (GIA) or Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)movements controlled large parts of Algeria, and the regime seemed doomed; then, for disputed reasons – military security operations, infiltration activities and other provocations, the internal dynamics of the GIA – the Islamists suddenly seemed to have alienated the bulk of the Algerian population. They even lost support among those who had previously voted for them.

Today in Iraq, there are daily images of hostages being beheaded as traitors, of corpses of policemen in the rivers – a spectacle of horror designed to convince that jihad is on the rise and that the US will never prevail. Yet jihadi Islamism in Iraq can draw on only the 17% of the population who are Sunni Arabs. The Iraqi Kurds and Shi’a are beyond their reach.

The US, particularly its neocon element, is still committed to playing the Shi’a card – not just for Iraq itself, but because it is convinced that a secular, pro–western, Shi’a–majority–governed Iraq, would act as a magnet for neighbouring Iran.

In Iran, sentiment against the clerical regime is running high within the general population, but people are too afraid to organise themselves. The regime has been shrewd enough to redistribute some wealth to the middle classes, many of whom (like my Czech relatives under communism) live comfortable private lives but are reluctant to act publicly – because they know what they might lose, and are not sure of what they could gain. In this circumstance, a secular, Shi’a–dominated Iraq would boost the morale of the anti–regime sectors of Iranian civil society.

The Iranian regime has understood this – to it – dangerous prospect. In my view, it backed Muqtada al–Sadr in hopes that he might help avert it. The attempt failed: the Sadrists’ feeble insurgency collapsed when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani made a remarkable political move – mobilising all the clerical resources of Shi’ism, and returning to Najaf and Karbala, to compel al–Sadr’s young school dropouts to pay their respects instead to him. As a result, Iraqi Shi’a representatives – Sistani and al–Sadr alike – have now agreed to take part in Iraq’s elections in January 2005.

Why have they agreed – and in a way that runs counter to the wishes of the insurgents in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Samarra? Because a large majority of Iraqis killed by car–bombings and assassinations each week are Shi’a, and the perpetrators radical Sunni.

This confirms the fact that the Sunni insurgents can rely only on a limited band of support in Iraq. The daily media diet of beheadings can so easily and wrongly suggest that the American army is being defeated. Terrorism, in order to win, has to gain momentum over time, by making an investment. It is the return on that investment that counts. In Iraq, it may not be in their favour.

Jihad or fitna in Iraq? We are approaching a watershed. If the majority of Iraqis decide that this is fitna and rejects the Iraqi radicals – then they have lost, as they lost in Algeria. But for this to happen, the concerns of the Iraqi population must be heard.

From the Arab perspective, fitna is a huge contemporary issue. Arabs have a real fear that they are being trapped between the neo–conservatives and the followers of Osama bin Laden. The victory of either, they are convinced, would be to the detriment of Arab civil society.

openDemocracy: Even if this assessment of internal Shi’a politics holds, it surely doesn’t address a deformity of neocon thinking in relation to establishing democracy in Iraq: namely, Muqtada al–Sadr’s significant support among many impoverished and dispossessed Iraqi Shi’a?

Gilles Kepel: The United States troops could, I imagine, have eliminated Muqtada al–Sadr with a smart missile had they really wanted to; but I guess that they perceive him as someone who can ultimately be coopted and inserted into the lower ranks of the Shi’a hierarchy. Like his distant cousin Musa al–Sadr in Lebanon, leader of the anti–communist Movement of the Dispossessed, the calculation is probably that Muqtada can act as a mediator between any future government and the large disenfranchised groups in Baghdad’s Sadr City and equivalent areas.

More from Gilles Kepel in openDemocracy:
- The trail of political Islam” (July 2002)
- Tightrope walks and chessboards: an interview with Gilles Kepel” (April 2003)

The main shortcoming of the neocon understanding of democracy, and indeed their whole vision of the world, lies deeper: in its strategic assessment that all it needed to accomplish in Iraq was to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime and thus free Iraqi society. The neocons completely failed to grasp what had happened during the previous sanctions regime – a colossal blindspot equivalent to that over jihad in Afghanistan. Over Iraq, as in Afghanistan, the neocons turned to the “war on terror” as a kind of forward flight rather than confront themselves.

Iraq under sanctions was governed by a welfare–state system of a fascist or communist type, where the ruler bought social peace by limited redistribution of oil wealth. This was of course built on tremendous coercion and violence, including genocide against the Kurds in the late 1980s and the massacre of the Shi’a in 1991.

This welfare system and what remained of Iraqi society was smashed under the decade–long embargo of the 1990s. As Saddam Hussein, his family and cronies controlled access to scarce goods, people became organised via competitive tribal and religious affiliation. This, not the romanticised civil society of neocon imagination, is what was lurking within Iraqi society when the Saddam lid was removed.

Here is the challenge of democracy in Iraq. First, how do the forces of occupation come to terms with complex Iraqi social realities? Second, how can they find a place for Sunni Arabs in tomorrow’s Iraq? Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, made a huge mistake in demobilising the Iraqi army, thus bitterly antagonising their Ba’athist and Tikriti officers. They had nothing to lose – so they went to Fallujah, with their ammunition, their weapons, their expertise, and their intelligence files.

As a result, Fallujah is a cocktail where disenfranchised Ba’ath army officers provide weaponry and intelligence; jihadi foreigners are able (thanks also to the army’s dissolution) freely to carry their ideology across national borders, coalescing with some Iraqi militants; and Sunni Arabs fleeing the Kurdistan they settled after the genocide of the Kurds (to secure the areas close to the Kirkuk and Hanikin oilfields) provide the suicide bombers.

openDemocracy: How should those who support the Iraqi government handle the situation in Fallujah and elsewhere?

Gilles Kepel: There are two options: to call all the insurgents jihadis and consider that crushing military force is the only solution; or to think through the reason why they have received support among many Sunni Iraqis.

Sunni Arabs can expect to be big losers in tomorrow’s Iraq. Even five million Iraqi barrels of oil a day at $55 per barrel (in today’s market), a tremendous amount of money, will not be so for the Sunni if revenues are shared according to the proportion of the different groups in the population. The Kurds, for example, have learned bitter lesson from the Lausanne treaty (1923) onwards: they are stockpiling weapons, so far with the tacit acquiescence of the “community of civilised nations”, as the only way to ensure that they will be taken seriously as oil partners and not discarded this time around. This issue is a crucible for democracy in Iraq.

Islam in Europe’s heart

openDemocracy: But you also see the “war for Muslim minds” as being fought in Europe as much as in Iraq – and the communities of believers on the periphery of cities like London and Paris as the main battlefield in this war for the next decade?

Gilles Kepel: Yes. This is a major issue which is not yet properly understood. In the United States, my main aim was to explain as well as I could to our American friends the implications of the fact that they are “far” and we are “near”.

We in Europe – especially those of us in the Mediterranean countries, but also in Britain – are in a certain sense an integral part of the middle east and its debates. The significant proportion of people in Europe of Muslim origin, many of them longstanding or would–be European citizens, underlines this. Everybody in north Africa, for example, has a cousin, a brother, or an uncle in Brussels, Marseilles or Madrid.

The people at home see those family members as role models – the first generation ever to belong to and take part in a democratic society. This has a tremendous force of attraction in relation to people’s self–definition. Democracy comes within the psychological reach of such people. They cannot see it implemented in their own societies, but they observe very carefully what is happening to people of Muslim descent in European countries. Their experience has a great cumulative impact, a kind of snowball effect, in the middle east.

openDemocracy: How does the condition of civil society in the middle east, essential to the possibility of a future beyond jihad, relate to the battle over Europe?

Gilles Kepel: There is a battle, and it can be won, but a successful outcome requires some very particular preconditions.

The response to the kidnapping of two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, in Iraq on 20 August 2004 is an illustration of this. A so–called “Islamist army”, after buying them from the group of thugs responsible for their seizure, announced they would behead the journalists unless France rescinded its secular ban on the wearing of the hijab (and other religious apparel) in French schools. The “army” was convinced that this would mobilise the masses of the umma in their favour, and were supported in this expectation by various French Islamists on Arabic–speaking satellite TV.

Much to their dismay, French people of Muslim descent – regardless of the degree of their devotion – adamantly denied the kidnappers the right to speak in their name, and affirmed a primary solidarity with the journalists, not to whoever claimed to speak in the name of Islam.

This had the immediate effect of compelling the Muslim Brothers, and even Hamas and Hizbollah, to put pressure on the abductors. This was not out of any love for the France they call “Islamophobic”. They hate France and its laïcité, which – rightly I think – they see as a true bulwark against their jihadism. French Muslims acted thus because of the damage the incident might otherwise do to jihad – in breaking the ranks of the community, in sowing the seeds of fitna.

openDemocracy: Were those Muslims who came out onto the streets of France to say “not in my name” not also making a crucial decision about their identities as individuals living in Europe, in a much wider argument?

Gilles Kepel: Yes. They were saying that their Muslim descent must not be hijacked to jeopardise what to them was most important in this whole episode, which was their being French and European. This defence of their identity was so forceful that the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) were obliged to stop campaigning on the issue; a leader of the UOIF even said that she would readily replace one of the journalists rather than have her veil “tainted with the hostages’ blood”.

Meanwhile, the UOIF president Lhaj Thami Breze has more recently said: “We are not going to be intimidated any more by this hostage business. We said nothing till now, but now we must restart the campaign against the veil.”

openDemocracy: In your analysis of the hijab issue, you see the large majority of cases where it is worn not as a set of decisions by individuals, but very much as an instance of unacceptable communalist or communitarian pressure?

Gilles Kepel: It can of course be both at the same time. If you want to wear a veil, you are free to choose that option, as long as it is somewhere that is not a public space, such as a state school.

The larger point is that personal identity is not a given, but something in the continual process of being built. In the case of the hijab, the state affirmed the right of young women of Muslim origin in France not to be under pressure in state schools or projects from thugs who – in the name of Islamism or salafism – compelled them to wear the veil or be abused as “prostitutes” or even physically attacked.

This combination of the French hostage crisis in Iraq with the national debate over the hijab is clearly a very significant event, not just for people of Muslim descent in Europe, but for the Muslim world in general.

A trap of distrust

openDemocracy: Some European policy–makers seek to make a division within political Islam, between those recuperable for democracy and the rest. Your book describes how, in 2002, the French state created an official representative body, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM); and how the then interior minister and rising political star Nicolas Sarkozy sought the inclusion of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) in the new organisation because it was usefully attuned to a young, popular social base, yet excluded Tariq Ramadan’s “faction”.

This incident, and the wider survey of the European battle for Muslim hearts and minds in your book, suggests to me that the battlefield is strewn with landmines whose detonator I would like to call a “dissimulation trope” – a process whereby congenital suspicion is invoked to describe any possible European Muslim interlocutor.

Tariq Ramadan himself – the “brilliant young philosophy lecturer…or undercover heir to the Muslim Brotherhood”, “the arch dissimulator”, as Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur have sought to define him – is a good example of this. You too seem to place Ramadan on one side of this imaginary line, and comment:

“As was the case with Western communism, it is hard to know whether changes in Islamist vocabulary accurately track structural transformations in ideology or are merely rhetorical artifices to mask a hidden agenda. This is an important point of contention, not just for the Muslim Brothers’ descendants in Europe and the US today, but for those betting for and against them.”

If we, European non–Muslims and Muslims (whether devotional or by inheritance) alike, are really intent on winning hearts and minds, and on challenging all the tightrope–walkers between Europe and Islam to do their best rather than their worst – then don’t we have to move beyond this “dissimulation trope”?

Gilles Kepel: The battle for Europe can go two ways. Its outcome can be a continent whose millions of citizens of Muslim descent represent a paragon of enlightened modernity, and in turn spread visions of democracy to north Africa and the middle east; or it can become a place where Islamists and salafists will manipulate significant numbers of Muslims in Europe to help advance their aim of creating strongholds of uncompromising Islamist identity capable of sustaining political campaigns (as over the hijab) or creating jihadi cells capable of inflicting attacks on the scale of Madrid.

The scale of radical Islamist ambition can be seen by examining the thinking of Abdallah Azzam, the Palestinian who was the chief exponent of jihad in Afghanistan. Azzam considered that one of the objectives of jihad was to reconquer Andalusia (alongside Afghanistan, Palestine and Bosnia, among other lands) – because once Muslim, a country must remain Muslim for eternity.

In such territories – Israel is the clearest example – it is legitimate to kill men and women, because formerly this was Muslim land seized by illicit occupiers. The same applies to Spain, formerly Muslim al–Andalus; spilling the blood of non–Muslim Spaniards is legitimate. This is one strand of the ideology that conceived and executed the Madrid bombings.

The pamphlets of Abu Musab al–Zarqawi, now circulating in Iraq, similarly view the Ottoman failure to capture Vienna in the siege of 1683 as a crucial setback in the Muslim effort to Islamicise Europe – one they attribute to contemporaneous Shi’a betrayal of the Ottomans in Iraq. For such people, the reconquest of Europe is the completion of a centuries–long task.

For a third Muslim figure, Sheikh Yusuf al–Qaradawi – head of the Dublin–based European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) – the aim is to expand the call to Islam in Europe in a non–confrontational way; and meanwhile to develop by every means the spreading of the word (dawa) in various ways: websites, preaching in mosques, converting indigenous Europeans to Islam, and political participation. Muslim Brotherhood organisations like the Muslim Association of Britain (Mab) and the UOIF seek to become pressure groups campaigning on the veil and related issues in order to expand their political influence.

Islam and the left: an unholy alliance

Gilles Kepel: An interesting new development here is the way Islamists are hijacking the political agenda of the anti–globalisation left, which lacks any political compass of its own. Tariq Ramadan has attended the last two European Social Forums in Paris and London, and has formed an alliance with the far left, in hope of becoming the public voice not only of French Muslim communities but of a “universalist” political agenda. For him, Islam is the destination not the starting–point, and the vehicle is created by a fusion of radical “pro–hijab” elements within the European Social Forum with the more deluded anti–globalisation activists.

This “entryist” approach is evident in several social coalitions in France, for example a project in the Lyon suburbs (Diverscités) organised by leftists and communists which later included Islamists as representatives of the “exploited Muslim masses”. The founders trained the newcomers in public speaking and debate (the same way I was taught as a young Trotskyist thirty years ago); but when the organisation launched a campaign in defence of prisoners in Guantanamo who came from the Lyon area, the Islamists hijacked the organisation, and the leftists were sidelined.

In the face of such attempt to seize the anti–globalisation movement or its offshoots and local initiatives, greens and ex–leftists look at Islamists the way European fellow–travellers of the Soviet Union viewed the communist parties in France, Italy, Spain or Britain during the cold war. As they once believed the communists to be true representatives of the suffering proletariat, they now see Islamists as spokespersons for the suffering of Muslims, on the bottom rung of European society.

The Islamist claim of victim status for Muslims worldwide thus has a ready political echo on the left, and helps to blur distinct political agendas and flatten political complexities in the name of a generalised suffering.

Here, “multiculturalism” is one of the key terms in the battle for Europe, because it offers a perfect opportunity for all shades of Islamism to demonstrate that European culture or its traditions are only relative, and that their own worldview is ultimately absolute. European values and perspectives are particular, but at the end of the day if not at the starting–point, theirs are universal.

This is a long way from answering your question about dissimulation. In my view, the question of whether someone like Tariq Ramadan is two–faced is not the real issue. I see nothing particularly wrong in someone who is in politics using all the means at his disposal. The more relevant point is about the kind of alliance he seeks to form with the extreme left, calculating that it is unlikely to long resist the Islamists’ much more potent and organised ideology.

openDemocracy: Does this mean that the United States was justified in refusing Tariq Ramadan a visa to enter the country in order to teach in the University of Notre Dame?

Gilles Kepel: No. Tariq Ramadan has a right to express his ideas where there is freedom of expression. As far as I know, he is not a terrorist. But then every country has the right to deny access to whomever they wish.

From his point of view, this was a major setback – because just as it was European media attention which catapulted him into the limelight in 2003, the lack of such attention has sidelined him, and he needs something like a university base. In this instance, he is the victim of the heavy politicisation of middle–east studies in the United States, with endowed chairs on either side paid for by Arab sheikhs and pro–Israelis.

Ramadan was a pawn in a game that has other, far other more serious consequences. The US now has tens of thousands of its boys in Iraq and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars there; but it finds itself devoid of relevant knowledge of the middle east because partisanship has replaced scholarship. The predominant influence has veered from the John Esposito people to (since 9/11) the Richard Pipes people. This, in my view, is to the detriment of scholarship.

European Muslims and world democracy

openDemocracy: You talk about the “magnet” of democracy in Europe. Yet in your closing chapter you warn that the Arabic word for the democratic process, damakrata, “is frequently used pejoratively, signifying a change imposed from without”. Does not the attempt to introduce “democracy by force” in Iraq appear to many Muslims in Europe, the middle east, and worldwide as a further discrediting of the notion?

Gilles Kepel: The removal of Saddam Hussein in the name of democracy was perfectly legitimate to my mind. What is so problematic is the way it was done. The American dressing of Iraq in supposedly democratic garb, while absolutely nothing is done to put pressure on Ariel Sharon, has had a tremendously negative effect on the discussion of democracy in the Muslim world.

Europe has the best chance to provide a counter–current of evidence that people of Muslim descent themselves – like those demonstrating against Iraqi hostage–takers – can implement and practice democracy. But what is happening in Iraq is a liability.