Bin Laden's Islamism may be past its prime
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, April 6, 2002)

In October, 1973, as Egypt and Syria faced humiliation in the war they had declared against Israel, the oil-producing Arab countries came to their defence with a new economic weapon: an embargo on petroleum shipments to the West. As a result, the cost of gasoline rose to a previously unimaginable level, and stayed there for a long time. Even the dullest among us knew this was a world event of great consequence. Everything changed.

Governments looked gravely at debt loads and budgets, and began slowly to explain to the voters that we could not, after all, do everything we wanted to do. Places that had previously lacked influence (Alberta, for instance) acquired new power. As money piled up in the Arab countries, entrepreneurs arrived from across the world in search of whatever profits were available. But no one predicted that oil riches would also transform Islam, and eventually make all of us tremble.

Gilles Kepel, a French sociologist and political scientist, calls this phenomenon Petro-Islam, a theology reshaped by riches. The author of several influential books on Islam, he's spent the last five years writing Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Harvard University Press). Sept. 11 gave him a new framework, but he sees that event in a way that will surprise (and please) many who have lately been trying to comprehend the meaning of Islamic politics.

When money began flowing in, an endless parade of Saudi princelings became notorious for profligate spending. That surprised no one in the West. What we didn't understand was that the Saudis were also pouring huge sums into promoting the austere, conservative (and formerly marginal) Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. As the home of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia began imagining itself as the natural centre of Islam. It set out to make Islam a great force again, this time on the Wahhabite model. Saudi money built hundreds of mosques around the world and subsidized the Islamic clergy and their schools. The Saudis distributed millions of copies of the Koran free, along with Wahhabite texts.

At the same time, more or less by accident, they made possible the rise of extremist Islamism. Radicals developed in Saudi-supported schools turned out to be uncontrollable. They used even the official theology against those who spread it. One historic figure revered by the Saudis, Ibn Taymiyya (1268-1323), became a favourite of the radicals. In 1981 they often quoted him to justify the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt. By the mid-1990s, they were using Taymiyya's arguments in their demands for the overthrow of the Saudi leadership.

Professor Kepel, searching for the events that led to the rise of the Islamists, goes back to Kemal Atatürk's decision to abolish the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. By then the caliphate had lost real power, but the caliph (in theory the successor to Mohammed) still symbolized the unity of the faithful. Atatürk imagined he was promoting modernism and secularism, but the disappearance of the caliph was so traumatic that many Muslim intellectuals began looking elsewhere for a collective identity.

After the Second World War, newly independent Muslim countries appeared to be moving toward quite separate destinies, like other Third World nations. But nationalism delivered neither economic progress nor a common spiritual life. The 1960s brought three Islamic intellectuals of great power: Mawlana Mawdudi in Pakistan, Sayyid Qutb in Egypt, and Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. In different ways they were all against nationalism and in favour of Islamic governments. In the 1970s, these were the thinkers celebrated in many of the new religious schools. Oil money spread a theology tied to revolution.

The Islamists' first great success was the 1979 revolution in Iran, and a decade later their future still looked golden -- they could cite a victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan, the rise of Hamas in the Middle East, the flourishing of the Islamic Front in Algeria, the Islamist coup in the Sudan. In 1989, Khomeini issued a death sentence against a British citizen, Salman Rushdie. Professor Kepel: "He claimed the right to condemn to death a citizen of the United Kingdom in the UK -- and the West took him seriously."

But the Rushdie fatwa, when seen from 2002, looks like an admission of defeat. It was purely symbolic, a consolation prize for radicals whose revolution had failed to produce a decent standard of living. Since then Iran has shifted away from the Islamist ideal and begun inching toward democracy.

An unusual commentator on recent events, Professor Kepel is a messenger carrying good news. He argues that the 1990s were a bad time for Islamists. In Bosnia they were unable to inject Islamism into the civil war. In Algeria their extremism alienated much of society. In Egypt they failed to recruit in significant numbers. They were turned back, in various ways, in both Indonesia and Malaysia.

In Professor Kepel's view, "Muslims no longer view Islamism as the source of utopia." The attacks on New York and Washington reflected "the isolation, fragmentation and decline of the Islamist movement." Osama bin Laden and his followers imagined their atrocity would be the spark to ignite the Muslim world, bring down the established regimes, and create Islamist states. Nothing of the sort happened. Nothing of the sort is likely, in Professor Kepel's view, to happen. It was an idea whose time came, and went.

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