Thinking of modern jihad as simply a cultural extension of Islam is a common, and unfortunate, mistake. Two new books by Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy offer better historical and sociological explanations, but they are only a start.

The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West. By Gilles Kepel. Cambridge: Belknap, 2004, 336 pp. $23.95.

Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. By Olivier Roy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, 320 pp. $29.50.

The debate over why the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred has been dominated by different versions of “culture talk,” the notion that culture is the most reliable clue to people’s politics. Their differences notwithstanding, public intellectuals such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis agree that religion drives both Islamic culture and politics and that the motivation for Islamist violence is religious fundamentalism. Ascribing the violence of one’s adversaries to their culture is self-serving: it goes a long way toward absolving oneself of any responsibility.

The singular merit of two new books by Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy is that they take the debate about the rise of political Islam beyond culture talk. Kepel seeks to understand the intellectual history of political Islam, Roy the social conditions under which Muslims think and act. Of the two, Roy makes the most forceful break from culture talk. He dismisses “the culturalist approach” that treats Islam as “the issue” and that assumes it bears a relation to every preoccupation of the moment, from suicide bombings and jihad to democracy and secularism. Not only does culturalism treat Islam “as a discrete entity” and “a coherent and closed set of beliefs,” Roy explains, but it turns Islam into “an explanatory concept for almost everything involving Muslims.”

Roy argues that the Koran’s most important feature is not what it actually says, but what Muslims say about it. “Not surprisingly,” Roy observes, “they disagree, while all stressing that the Koran is unambiguous and clear-cut.” Like culturalists, Roy and Kepel examine very carefully the Islamist discourse about both the Koran and the rest of the world. But they understand it as the product of many forces, rather than as the necessary development of its religious origin. In doing so, they provide a more nuanced understanding of doctrinal and political Islam than do the culturalists.


In a historical account that is both careful and user-friendly, Kepel tracks two radically different strands of Islamic thought: the ultra-strict, quietist Salafist, or Wahhabi, school and the more political thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood. These two schools later merged, producing the more hybrid ideology now identified with Osama bin Laden.

Kepel traces the origins of Salafism to Saudi Arabia and the ideas of the radical theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In the opening decade of the nineteenth century, the Wahhabis and the House of Saud formed an alliance, commencing a state-building project that was completed a century later. Wahhab agreed to glorify the Saudi tribal raids on neighboring oases by treating them as jihads, in return for King Muhammad bin Saud’s promise to elevate Wahhabism to a state ideology. The project did not survive the Ottoman invasion in 1818, however, and had to be renewed with a series of Wahhabi-anointed jihads in the 1910s and 1920s. By that time, the jihad was no longer a stand-alone affair: Wahhabi blessings for the Ikhwan, the religious militia of King Saud, were doled out along with bombs dropped by the British, who by then were occupying the Arabian Peninsula. After World War II, the Americans replaced the British as the kingdom’s main patrons. And under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was eager to use the Saudis as foils for the Soviet Union, “Wahhabism was elevated to the status of a liberation theology—one that would free the region of communism.”

According to Kepel, a second, more autonomous and activist strand of political Islam originated in Egypt in the 1920s when the Muslim Brotherhood resolved to go beyond observing sharia (Islamic law) to establish a full-fledged Islamic state. Their slogan was “The Quran is our constitution.” The Brothers joined Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Free Officers’ Revolution that toppled King Farouk in 1952, but the alliance soon dissolved. Repression, at first in Egypt and then in Baathist Iraq and Syria, forced them to decamp to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, where they joined forces with religious Palestinians who were uncomfortable with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s secular nationalism. Gradually, the brotherhood took control of Saudi intellectual life, positioning itself to shape the country’s religious and political awakening after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Its power grew with the attack on the Great Mosque in Mecca on November 20 of that year, which brought the Wahhabists under official suspicion. The religious “awakening” of “a plethora of young radicals” followed; like the Iranian revolutionaries who combined traditional Shiite rhetoric with Third World anti-imperialism (portraying Saudi officials as American lackeys, for example), they mixed the activism of the brotherhood with quietist Salafism, creating “an explosive blend that would detonate throughout the region and the whole world.”

The effect was to be momentous. As Kepel points out, after Afghanistan in the 1980s, the jihad went global. The move was not just an expansion in scale; it was also a critical shift in strategy and tactics. Consider, for example, the seminal work by the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s right-hand man: Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, the most politically grounded and comprehensive manifesto on global jihad. Its text is not yet available in English, but Kepel has translated important sections of it. Zawahiri begins with a call to shift the jihad’s target from the “nearby enemy” to the “faraway enemy.” To succeed, he says, the jihad needs a new leadership that is sufficiently “scientific, confrontational, [and] rational” to rethink relations between “the elite” and “the masses” and to wield inspirational slogans. (He finds that there is no cause more mobilizing than Palestine, which is “a rallying point for all Arabs, whether or not they are believers.”) To those who are ambivalent about the use of political terrorism, Zawahiri explains that it is legitimate to strike Western populations, not just their governments and institutions, because they “only know the language of self-interest, backed by brute military force.” “In consequence,” he adds, “if we want to hold a dialogue with them and cause them to become aware of our rights, we must speak to them in the language they understand.” Zawahiri defends suicide attacks as “the most efficient means of inflicting losses on adversaries and the least costly, in human terms, for the mujahedeen.”

The global jihad’s radically different goals could warrant only radically different methods and spawn radically different organizations. So instead of seeking out recruits through patient face-to-face encounters as the Afghan jihadists did in the 1980s, the leadership of the global jihad reversed the approach: tapping the potential of the Internet and the global media, it arranged for recruits to come find it. Predictably, the strategy has produced an organization that defies conventional understandings. Al Qaeda, a “terrorist NGO,” or nongovernmental organization, is not, Kepel explains, “a nation with real estate to be occupied, military hardware to be destroyed, and a regime to be overthrown.” As a result, Washington has ended up reifying the group—to little effect. According to Kepel, with its “Internet websites, satellite television links, clandestine financial transfers, international air travel, and a proliferation of activists ranging from the suburbs of Jersey City to the rice paddies of Indonesia,” al Qaeda is resolutely modern and innovative. Unlike culturalists who portray bin Laden and his associates as linear descendants of an esoteric Saudi Wahhabism—or as premoderns with access to contemporary technology—Kepel understands them as hybrid products of multiple intellectual traditions. That insight is the great virtue of his book.


Yet even Kepel’s work is not entirely free of culture talk. He tends to associate “reason” with “the West” and “metaphysics” with Islamic homelands. Of the September 11 suicide bombers, he says, “These militants, educated in the West, must have [had] the discipline, intelligence and training to carry out complex operations” and “[been] able to shift back and forth between the rational mindset they had cultivated during their studies of engineering, urban planning, medicine, or administration and an alternate mindset that infused suicide attacks with metaphysical meaning and value.” In search of this alternate mindset, he scans “Mohammed Atta’s testament,” where he finds evidence of “fanatical faith” in the promise of “gardens of paradise” and of houris—the virgins with which the martyrs will sleep, Kepel explains—”wearing their finest clothes.”

Here Kepel’s logic fails. Roy wonders, quite rightly, how the promise of houris in heaven could motivate female suicide bombers. More to the point, Kepel need not have looked so deep into a martyr’s heart to find a contemporary example of how interest and ideology can mix: neoconservatives in the West are as apt an illustration. Kepel does have an inkling that the neoconservatives are a twin of al Qaeda—both came out of the Cold War on the winning side—and he devotes an entire chapter to them. But his occasional reliance on culturalist assumptions blind him to important parallels between the two.

The neoconservatives, Kepel rightly notes, were convinced that the Oslo accords were a trap; some even thought that the entire “[Middle East] peace process posed a potentially fatal risk to the Jewish state.” Their alternative to negotiation was to redraw the map of the entire region through occupation, assuming, in a simple-minded analogy with Eastern Europe, that if they blew up the government apparatus of rogue states, the newly liberated peoples would embrace their occupation with gratitude. But Kepel misses the implications of his own observation, largely because he presumes a linear development from U.S. conservatives to neoconservatives that prevents him from understanding what distinguishes the two groups. Is it not precisely the potent mix of cold-blooded interest and hot-blooded ideology that distinguishes neoconservatives who link George W. Bush to Reagan from the conservatives who drove foreign policy under George H.W. Bush?

As a result, Kepel misses key parallels between neoconservatives and jihadists. In addition to the mix of interest and ideology, the two groups share global ambitions and a deep faith in the efficacy of politically motivated violence, and both count among their ranks cadres whose biographies are often tainted by early stints in the Trotskyist or the Maoist left. Both jihadists and neoconservatives are products of the Cold War, when ideologically driven violence was embraced by all sides, secular and religious. Kepel’s failure to see this commonality ultimately limits his understanding of jihadist politics, heir not only to the traditions of the quietist Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood, but perhaps even more so to recent secular traditions, such as Third World anti-imperialism and the Reaganite determination to win “by any means necessary.”

Kepel’s lapse may explain why he frames this book with a claim that he cannot ultimately sustain: “The most important battle in the war for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought not in Palestine or Iraq but in these communities of believers in the outskirts of London, Paris, and other European cities, where Islam is already a growing part of the West.” Although he points to their vast numbers—there are more than ten million Muslims living in contemporary Europe—Kepel cannot explain their significance except as so many conveyor belts between the East and the West. He does not see the Muslims of Europe as active subjects struggling to establish a new citizenship in adverse circumstances—some of which, such as racism and unemployment, were familiar to earlier immigrants; others, such as the stigma of a terrorist culture, are new. As a result, Kepel presents only stale visions of the future, redolent of culturalism: Will these Muslims bring European modernity to their homelands or religiosity to Europe? Will they be able to forge a democratic Islamic ideology by recognizing that in these times “intellectual creativity and innovation come from the West” and by building appropriate relations with “non-Muslim allies”?

Although Kepel carefully renders the history of Islam’s internal debates, he treats them as if they were taking place inside a contained “civilization.” Casting contemporary Islam as the product of a linear tradition, he is unable to understand Muslims as fully historical and global. On this point, Kepel’s historical analysis is overtaken by Roy’s sociological argument.


In Globalized Islam, Roy tries to explain why jihadist Islam resonates in the communities in which it does. He sees the spread of jihadist Islam today as “a consequence of and [a] reaction to sociological changes,” rather than as “evidence of the permanence of unchanging values” (the culturalist view) or as a direct historical consequence of the Saudis’ and Reagan’s support for the Wahhabi project (Kepel’s view). Roy distinguishes contemporary neofundamentalists from traditional fundamentalists, such as Wahhabis who have tried “to delink Islam from ethnic cultures” for centuries and have everywhere “fought against local Islams”—”Sufism in South Asia, marabouts in North Africa, specific music and rituals everywhere,” and even Shafism, Hanafism, and other historical schools of sharia.

For Roy, neofundamentalist Islam is “born-again Islam” and strictly a product of the diaspora. Islamic religious debate is no longer monopolized by the learned ulema (teachers); as they have turned to the Internet, the neofundamentalists have also become tulaab (students). As a result, “religion has been secularized, not in the sense that it is under the scrutiny of modern sciences, but to the extent that it is debated outside any specific institutions or corporations.” With the traditional ethnic community left behind, “the disappearance of traditional values … [has laid] the groundwork for re-Islamisation,” which has largely become an individual project. “Islamic revivalism goes hand in hand” with a modern trend: the “culture of the self.”

The growing individualization of religious practices has prompted believers to create a new community that transcends strict geography. The consequences of these changes have been contradictory. Those who have succeeded in reconciling the self with religion have tended to embrace a “liberal” or “ethical” version of Islam; those who have not have been prone to embrace “neofundamentalist Salafism.” Meanwhile, the quest “to build a universal religious identity, de-linked from any specific culture,” has come at a price, because such an Islam is “by definition an Islam oblivious to its own history.” As a result, “the quest for a pure Islam [has] entail[ed] also an impoverishment of its content,” Roy writes, and the ironic consequence of this quest is “secularization, but in the name of fundamentalism.”

This transformation has had particularly radical consequences for the Muslims of Europe, setting them apart from their cousins in the Middle East. According to Roy, political Islam is bifurcated between Islamist parties in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Islamists in the diaspora. Because in the Middle East, Islamist parties have mobilized in response to particular state policies, by the end of the 1990s, most Islamist movements had become “more nationalist than Islamist.” As a consequence of their political integration, “violence related to Islam has been decreasing in the Middle East since 1996.”

Islamist violence has increased outside the Middle East, however. The question is why, and why specifically in the West? The answer, Roy ventures, is that the violence of al Qaeda is politically, not religiously, inspired. After all, “al Qaeda did not target St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It targeted modern imperialism, as the ultra-leftists of the late 1960s and 1970s did with less success.” Furthermore, the cliche “that in Islam there is no difference between politics and religion … works in favor of the political,” making it easier to redefine the core content of religion and subordinate it to a political project, as the jihadists have done.

Even the contemporary notion of jihad is a marked departure—perhaps even a rupture—from its traditional forerunner. It too has been reinvented according to neofundamentalist principles: personalized, secularized, and turned into a political tool. Roy points out that, contrary to Western popular belief, traditional jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam and that it has long been understood as a defensive, collective duty. But modern radicals now hail jihad as “a permanent and individual duty” to fight the West to the death.

This modern understanding of jihad goes hand in hand with a revamped notion of community, or umma: no longer bound by traditional solidarity, the umma is the “reconstructed” product of the “free association of militants committed to the same ideal.” The umma now plays the same role as did the proletariat for Trotskyist and leftist groups in the 1960s: it is “an imaginary and therefore silent community that gives legitimacy to the small group pretending to speak in its name.”

Roy observes, moreover, that most contemporary Islamist ideologues are neither clerics nor ulema but former leftists, yet he offers no explanation for this fact. These politicos were able to move into the religious domain despite poor theological credentials, partly because, unlike Christianity, mainstream Islam has no institutional backbone. Catholicism is organized on the model of Rome, the empire state. But Sunni Islam has no organized hierarchy, only a prayer leader. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s creation of velayat-e faqih (The state of the jurist), with the clergy as constitutional guardians, is a relatively recent development that goes against the thrust of Shiite tradition. And judging by events in Iraq, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s insistence that the ulema are a moral force outside, not within, the state, it does not seem to be taking well in non-Iranian Shiite milieus.

Roy’s analysis has important implications. If secularism—the subordination of the church to the state—is mainly of institutional significance, then it would appear to be a given where Islam is not organized as an institutional power. But even where Islam is institutionalized, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia, Roy observes, “conservative Islam, without reformation, could be as compatible with democracy as Catholicism has been since it was defeated in its face-to-face confrontation with modern secularism at the end of the nineteenth century in France.” In contrast to culturalist views, Roy’s account can explain why a religious or cultural world-view (fundamentalism) does not necessarily have a political corollary (terrorism).


Still, if Roy’s sociological analysis is always insightful, it is, in the end, limited. His account of neofundamentalism, a religious tendency, cannot fully explain the nature of Islamism, a political construct; the first seeks salvation, the second liberation. Curiously, although Roy traces the transformation of Islamist parties in Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries to political rather than sociological conditions, he attributes the rise of jihadist Islam in the Muslim diaspora in the West only to sociological causes. Ultimately, Roy’s argument cannot explain why jihadist Islam, an ideology of marginal political significance in the late 1970s, has come to dominate Islamist politics any more than can Kepel’s skillful intellectual history. And although both Roy and Kepel (the former perhaps more so than the latter) have begun to part from the premises of culture talk, the break is still incomplete.

They share a common failing: Kepel’s history refuses to relate Islam to non-Islam, and Roy avoids studying encounters between Muslims and non-Muslims. Yet in fact, the birth of jihadist Islam, which embraces violence as central to political action, cannot be fully explained without reference to the Afghan jihad and the Western influences that shaped it. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and set aside the then-common secular model of national liberation in favor of an international Islamic jihad. Thanks to that approach the Afghan rebels used charities to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers and created the militarized madrassas (Islamic schools) that turned these volunteers into cadres. Without the rallying cause of the jihad, the Afghan mujahideen would have had neither the numbers, the training, the organization, nor the coherence or sense of mission that has since turned jihadist Islam into a global political force.

The influence of the Afghan jihad cannot be overstated. It is evidence that the growth of political Islam has been less linear and more hybrid than is often acknowledged and that it has been driven largely by distinct political projects, such as the “global jihad” or “the West.” And properly understanding the development of political Islam is the only way to gauge its prospects. According to Roy’s account, political Islam will continue to bifurcate between an indigenous strand and an immigrant strand. According to Kepel’s, the two strands will become more connected, but with the diaspora playing a more dynamic role, perhaps much like the African diaspora of a century ago, which later brought home notions of black consciousness and pan-Africanism developed in the West. But a full understanding of the political nature of the jihadist project, which neither Kepel’s nor Roy’s book quite achieves, begs a radically new question: Will political Islam follow the example of Marxism, which spread from the West to fuse with various local nationalisms and create hybrids potent enough to topple regimes?

It is too soon to tell, but anyone who wants to venture a guess should first turn to Iraq, where, more than anywhere else today, the future of political Islam is being cast. Every Middle Eastern movement that opposes the American empire—secular or religious, state or nonstate—is being drawn to Iraq, as if to a magnet, to test out its convictions. More than a year after the U.S. invasion, it has become clear that, by blowing the top off one of the region’s most efficient dictatorships, the United States has created a free-for-all for fighters of every hue—Islamist and nationalist, from the homeland and the diaspora—sparking a contest that will influence the course of political Islam for years to come.

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University and the author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror.

Source: From Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005