Looking at the gruesome images of beheadings and suicide bombings in Iraq, it's easy to think that the Islamic holy warriors are winning. But a new book by a distinguished French Arabist named Gilles Kepel argues the opposite case. For all the mayhem the jihadists have caused, he contends, their movement is failing.
Rather than waging a successful jihad against the West, the followers of Osama bin Laden have created chaos and destruction in the house of Islam. This internal crisis is known in Arabic as fitna: "It has an opposite and negative connotation from jihad," explains Kepel. "It signifies sedition, war in the heart of Islam, a centrifugal force that threatens the faithful with community fragmentation, disintegration and ruin."
Kepel was in Washington last week promoting his book, and his comments provided a useful antidote to the political debate surrounding the visit by Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi. The struggle against Islamist terrorism is neither the rosy success story painted by Allawi and President Bush nor the disastrous free-fall described by John Kerry. Instead, it is one unresolved battle in the long-term struggle summarized by the title of Kepel's new book, "The War for Muslim Minds."
The French scholar argues that the West has been misreading the aftermath of bin Laden's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He cites a December 2001 pamphlet, "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner," written by al Qaeda's key strategist, the Egyptian doctor Ayman Zawahiri. The jihadists should attack the "faraway enemy" in the United States, Zawahiri urged, because it would help mobilize the Muslim masses to overthrow their rulers in the "nearby enemy."
Kepel believes that the United States has stumbled badly in Iraq, and he's sharply critical of U.S. policies there. But that doesn't mean the jihadists are winning. Quite the contrary, their movement has backfired. Rather than bringing Islamic regimes to power, the holy warriors are creating internal strife and discord. Their actions are killing far more Muslims than nonbelievers.
"The principal goal of terrorism -- to seize power in Muslim countries through mobilization of populations galvanized by jihad's sheer audacity -- has not been realized," Kepel writes. In fact, bin Laden's followers are losing ground: The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been toppled; the fence-sitting semi-Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia has taken sides more strongly with the West; Islamists in Sudan and Libya are in retreat; and the plight of the Palestinians has never been more dire. And Baghdad, the traditional seat of the Muslim caliphs, is under foreign occupation. Not what you would call a successful jihad.
Kepel argues that the insurgents' brutal tactics in Iraq -- the kidnappings and beheadings, and the car-bombing massacres of young Iraqi police recruits -- are increasingly alienating the Muslim masses. No sensible Muslim would want to live in Fallujah, which is now controlled by Taliban-style fanatics. Similarly, the Muslim masses can see that most of the dead from post-Sept. 11 al Qaeda bombings in Turkey and Morocco were fellow Muslims.
A perfect example of how the jihadists' efforts have backfired, argues Kepel, was last month's kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq. The kidnappers announced that they would release their hostages only if the French government reversed its new policy banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in French public schools. "They imagined that they would mobilize Muslims with this demand, but French Muslims were aghast and denounced the kidnappers," Kepel explained to a Washington audience. He noted that French Muslims took to the streets to protest against the kidnappers and to proclaim their French citizenship.
Kepel believes that the war for Muslim minds may hinge most of all on these European Muslims. In countries such as France, Britain and Germany, large Muslim populations are living in secular, democratic societies. All the tensions and contradictions of the larger Muslim world are compressed into the lives of these European Muslims, but they're free to let the struggle play out in open debate. Thus, it's in Europe that Islam may finally find its accommodation with modern life.
Perhaps it takes an outsider -- a Frenchman, even -- to help Americans see the war on terrorism in perspective. Saturated in terrorism alerts and images of violence from Iraq, Americans may miss the essential fact that the terrorists are losing. And because we see this as a war against America, rather than one within Islam, we may miss the real dynamics.
When Americans ponder the right strategy for Iraq, they need to ask, with Kepel, whether U.S. policies will help those seeking to modernize Islam or hurt them. A precipitous withdrawal, leaving the field to the jihadists, would be a disaster. But so would a bloody and unending occupation. Kepel reminds us, too, that the best counterattack against the jihadists would be to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.