Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The best laid plans of imps and men

St. Augustine's "mousetrap" theory held that the crucifixion of Christ was actually a clever trap into which Satan blundered, forever sealing his doom, when he overreached and shed the Savior's innocent blood. Osama and Bush both thought they were advancing God's work, but French critic and analyst of Islamic affairs Gilles Kepel argues that both repeated the tactical error of the Evil One. In Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East, reviewed in the current Economist, he makes the argument that the policies of each would-be destroyer of evil has been chastised with a vengeance by the law of unintended consequences:

In Gilles Kepel’s telling, it is not only Mr Bush whose strategy failed after September 11th. Osama bin Laden’s strategy failed too. The Bush administration’s “global war on terror” encompassed not only the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq but also a project to spread democracy to the Arabs and remake the dysfunctional Middle East in America’s image. It was, in Mr Kepel’s phrase, “a vision of global rectification through violent means”. That was precisely al-Qaeda’s project as well. Mr bin Laden did not intend only to inflict pain on America and force its armies out of the Middle East. Martyrdom was also supposed to lead the Muslim masses to identify with al-Qaeda, to hasten a general uprising against “apostate” governments like Saudi Arabia’s, to precipitate the establishment of an Islamic state and destroy Israel.

In the event, as Mr Kepel demonstrates, both of these grand, transformative narratives “crashed against a wall of reality within the Muslim world”. Instead of throttling jihadism, the American occupation of Iraq recruited an army of new martyrs to the cause. But far from rallying the Muslim world at large to its banner, the murderous jihad in Iraq—and al-Qaeda’s killing of many Muslims in other Muslim lands—ended up repelling the very audience this epic struggle was intended to attract. Indeed, to the extent that radical Islam grew stronger during this encounter, it was not the Sunni zealots of al-Qaeda who benefited but their rival pretenders to leadership of the Muslim world: notably the Shia leaders of Iran and, after the 33-day war with Israel in 2006, Iran’s Hizbullah co-religionists in Lebanon.

So far, so good, but then, Kepel shows that no one can be so wrong as an expert, when he goes on to argue that Europe is the one place where experiments in cultural integration are working(!) and that its countries are an ideal venue in which to develop a unique deterrent against terrorism. I'm aware of the reputation of the French for sophistication and subtle wit, but this argument, as James I once said about a philosophical treatise by Bacon, is like the peace of God—it passeth understanding. (Of course I have to take the word of The Economist that this is what his book actually says; in any case, the reviewer politely comments that Kepel's ideas on this point seem "more wishful than professorial." Indeed.)

Kepel claims that polling data reveal that the Paris banlieue riots of 2005 had more to do with disgruntlement over poverty than an urge to wage jihad—yes, and...? Can Kepel really be unaware that the poverty and despair of the marginalized in any society are the very elements most likely to result in religious extremism and violence? One of the reasons that Europe is precisely not as successful in integrating Muslims as it ought to be is its lack of success in providing sufficient economic opportunity for unskilled Muslim immigrants. Americans may be reading Tim LaHaye and watching John Hagee on television, but anyone of any faith or national origin willing to put in his time at the cash register of a Circle K can have the same chance as anyone else to earn his flat screen TV. On the other hand, if he tried to knife a critic or stone an apostate, he would learn that this is not Europe after all, an aspect of life in which Europe is learning, to its sorrow, that "I'm OK, you're OK," is a maxim not universally applicable.

I'm not sure what Continental savants are reading, but if Kepel will check the website for Time, he can find an excellent article on India's Muslims, exploring the volatile relationship between poverty and extremism. In that regard, a Hindu colleague at my office insists that western media are exercising far too little skepticism toward Indian Muslim claims of oppression and failing to hold them accountable for their own shortcomings; see this article for a jaded view of Islam by 94-year-old Kushwant Singh, in the Hindustan Times. Similarly, Dr. Subhash Kapila of the South Asia Analysis Group argues that India's Muslims cannot progress until they free themselves of the burden of backward-looking leadership. Soutik Biswas, on the other hand, writing for BBC News, while duly noting the lack of credible middle-class leadership among India's Muslims is also willing to attribute part of their plight to the "apathy and ineptitude" of the government.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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