The trail of political Islam


Gilles Kepel


The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts 


…Islam exhibited many more contrasts than conventional wisdom has allowed.  Traditional Islam, though challenged by the emergence of intellectuals who had freed themselves from its customs and teachings and who based their worldview on knowledge acquired in the West, had otherwise come through unscathed.  It maintained its appeal among the urban and rural poor, whose lives were barely affected by the changes.  The real beneficiaries of the independence had been the middle and lower-middle class of the cities, who identified with the nationalist rulers.  In contrast, prior to 1970, the poorer elements of Muslim society seldom appeared on the political scene and were remarkably quite and weak by comparison with the decade that followed.  …until the 1970s, when an impatient new generation came of age …This generation was wide open to ideas that transformed the familiar language of Islam, as the region tried to grapple with population explosion, rural exodus, and unprecedented wealth from oil exports.  These ideas came from the Islamist ideologist and formed initially around the catalytic thinking of Qutb, Mawdudi, or Khomeini.  But they took shape in different ways in different milieus, according to the political, social, and religious structure of each country.  (p. 60)


Between 1955 and 1970, population growth in the Muslim world approached 50%—a demographic change of spectacular proportions.  By 1975, with urbanization and literacy advancing apace, the cohort under 24 years old represented over 60 percent of the total population.  The world of Islam, which had always been predominantly rural and governed by a small urban elite with exclusive access to reading and writing, now underwent a radical transformation with the arrival of this mass of literate young city dwellers.  The newcomers were confronted with challenges of every kind, for which the traditional knowledge passed on them by their uneducated parents was largely useless.  Their situation was in stark contrast with that of their parents and ancestors, who had had no choice but to remain in the roles to which they had been born, having known only the narrow confines of their village.  The social and cultural chasm between the two generations was wide and deep, and there had been nothing like it since the dawn of Islam. 

            The young urbanites of the 1970s were far from prosperous, however.  They crowded together under precarious conditions on the edges of cities…But secondary schooling and, to a lesser extent, higher education in the cities had given this new generation not only access to newspapers and books but also great expectations of upward mobility.  Young people were now able to select and compare information sources, to express themselves formally in public, and to confidently oppose the ruling national elites, by drawing on their own intellectual resources.  This was a cultural leap forward, but it was not matched by the expected social progress.  The result was frustration that quickly turned to resentment of the elites, who were accused of monopolizing state power and depriving the young of the influence and wealth that was their due. 

            Social and political discontent was most commonly expressed in the cultural sphere, through a rejection of the nationalist ideologies of the ruling cliques in favor of Islamist ideology. 

            By the early 1970s the Islamist intelligentcia taking shape on the campuses of Egypt, Malaysia, and Pakistan began to spread throughout the Muslim world, courtesy of the networks and financial clout of the Saudi Wahhabites following the 1973 war. 

            Among the new recruits, two social groups were particularly susceptible to Islamist persuasion.  One was the huge mass of young urban poor from deprived background, whose parents had come in from the country.  The other was the devout bourgeoisie, a class excluded from political power and economically hemmed in by military and monarchical regimes.  These two groups were both committed to the sharia and to the idea of an Islam state, but they did not view that state in quite the same way.  The former imbued it with a social-revolutionary content, while the latter saw it as a vehicle for wresting power for themselves from the incumbent elites, without fundamentally disturbing the existing social hierarchies. 

            This divergence of interests lies at the very heart of contemporary Islamism.  (p. 66-67)


The essential contradiction between the radical goals of the young urban poor and the conservative goals of the bourgeoisie that lurked behind the apparently united front of Islamism explains how the movement could be outflanked by forces and interest groups…(p. 68)


…after 1973, the oil-rich Wahhabites found themselves in a different economic position, being able to mount a wide-ranging campaign of proselytizing among the Sunnies.  (The Shiites, whom the Sunnis considered to be heretics, remained outside the movement.)  Te objective was to bring Islam to the forefront of the international scene, to substitute it for the various discredited nationalist movements, and to refine the multitude of voices within the religion down to the single creed of the masters of Mecca.  The Saudi’e zeal now embraced the entire world, extending beyond the traditional frontiers of Islam to the heart of the west, where immigrant Muslim populations were their special interest. 

            The propagation of the faith was not the only issue for the leaders in Riyadh.  Religious obedience on the part of the Saudi population became the key to winning government subsidies, the kingdom’s justification for its financial pre-eminence, and the best way to allay envy among impoverished co-religionists in Africa and Asia.  By becoming the managers of a huge empire of charity and good works, the Saudi government sought to legitimize a prosperity it claimed was manna from heaven, blessing the peninsula where the Prophet Mohammed had received his Revelation.  Thus, an otherwise fragile Saudi monarchy buttressed its power by projecting its obedient and charitable dimension internationally.  This religious policy also helped people forget that American military might was the ultimate guarantor of the kingdom and that the Saudi regime whose ulemas vilified the West for its impiety actually depended very heavily on the United States and its allies for survival.  It was a ploy that protected the House of Saud throughout the years of abundant oil revenues, until the 1990-91 Gulf war finally exposed its essential weakness. 

            Through its network of proselytism, its subsidies, and the flow of immigrant labor that it attracted, the transnational Saudi system insinuated itself into the relationship between state and society in the majority of Muslim countries, by attracting immigrants to the oil-rich states.  Around 1975, young men with college degrees, along with experienced professors, artisans, and country people, began to move en mass from the Sudan, Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria to the Gulf states.  These states harbored 1.2 million immigrants in 1975, of whom 60.5 percent were Arabs; this increased to 5.15 million by 1985, with 30.1 percent being Arabs and 43 percent (mostly Muslims) coming from the Indian subcontinent. 

            The social and economic impact of these migrations to the Gulf states was enormous.    The elites in the home countries viewed these oil revenues as a windfall, offering temporary relief for regimes threatened by fast-growing populations.  Moreover, immigration lightened the burden of unemployment back home, notably among high school and college graduates, at a crucial moment when the first generation after independence—the offspring of the baby boom, the rural exodus, and mass literacy—were entering the job market, a generation that was otherwise prone to social discontent.  … immigration ensured rapid upward social mobility for most migrants…

            For many of those returning from the El Dorado of oil, social ascent went hand in hand with an intensification of religious practice.  In contrast to the bourgeois ladies of the preceding generation, who liked to hear their servant address them as Madame, in the French style, a respectable spouse would now wear a fashionable hijab (veil) and her maid would call her hajja (the title given to those who perform the pilgrimage to Mecca).  Many who had lived in the oil-rich monarchies of the peninsula had grown rich in this Wahhabite milieu—and not surprisingly it was to this milieu that they attributed the spiritual source of their material prosperity.  (p. 70-71). 


            Alongside these social changes, inexhaustible funds were now available to promote the dawwa, or call to Islam, through Wahhabite preaching.  …For the first time in fourteen centuries, same books (as well as cassettes) could be found from one end of the Umma to the other; all came from the same Saudi distribution circuits, as part of an identical corpus.  Its very limited number of titles hewed to the same doctrinal line and excluded other currents of thought that had formerly been part of a more pluralistic Islam. 

            This mass distribution by the conservative Riyadh regime did not always prevent more radical elements from using the texts of the faith to further their own objectives.  The author most respected by the Wahhabites, Ibn Taymiyya (1268-1323)—a primary reference for the Sunni Islamist movement—would be abundantly quoted to justify the assassination of Sadat in 1981, foe example, and even to condemn the Saudi leadership and call for its overthtow in the mid-1990s.  (p. 72) 




During the decade following the 1969 riots, a ruling coalition of the three groups dominated by the native Malay party, UMNO (United Malay National Organization), set out to promote Islamization.  The idea was to give symbolic retribution to Malaysian Muslims and make them proud of their religion, without alienating the other 40 percent fo the population, which included the industrious Chinese.  The state was careful to reaffirm its secular nature at regular intervals; the Islamic laws it promulgated did not concern non-Muslim citizens, who were protected by the state from persecution by radical preachers.  The framing of Islamization was one of the most delicate and crucial tasks facing the Malaysian state.  (p. 92)


…In 1986 a book by the group’s founder, Ashaari Muhammad, was singled out for condemnation:  its author claimed to have met the prophet in person and now exhorted his disciples to prepare for the coming of the Mahdi, or Messiah, with whom some had identified Ashaari himself.  In the summer of 1994, a judgment of the National Council of Fatwas of Malaysia finally declared the sect to be “deviant” and its activities illegal.  Having been extradited from his refuge in Thailand, the founder apologized on television and the police set about dismantling the group’s educational, charitable, and commercial institutions and closing down its communes.  (p. 94) 


The Malaysian experience showed how an authoritarian regime, by co-opting Islamist intellectuals, could check unrest despite ethnic difficulties, while at the same time projecting local capitalism into the global economy and maintaining the social status quo.  The Paksiatni situation was similar in many ways, except that the Islamization policies of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq led to more violence, lasting well beyond his years in power.  (p. 98) 


The Islamist victory was made possible by Khomeini’s extraordinary ability to unify the various components, religious and secular, of a movements whose single point of eparture was hatred of the shah and his government.  Khomini allowed each group to invest the movement with its own particular political dreams, which were not dispelled until the purges began in the aftermath of victory.  The fusion of the revolutionary clerics with the young Islamist intellectuals mobilized the bazaars and ordinary working people to unite in the common expectation of an Islamic republic and the implementation of the sharia—without calling attention to the very different aspirations projected upon this nation by their respective class interests.  This alliance also caught the imagination of the secular urban middle class.  Incapable of asserting a cultural identity of their own, they felt obliged to go along with the dominant Islamist philosophy so that any benefits of revolution would not pass them by.  (p. 112-113) 


            By the end of 1979, the only surviving players on the Iranian political stage were the Islamist intellectuals, the young urban poor, and the devout bourgeoisie.  The revolution accelerated following the hostage crisis, as bands of working-class youths went into action, led by fanatical clerics and left-wing Islamists militants who had been galvanized by the takeover of the American “nest of spies”.  Publications of the embassy’s secret files brought to light U.S. contracts with a number of middle-class liberals.  These revelations were promptly used as a pretext for new trials, executions, and confiscations of property.  A sequence of events had begun to unfold that might lead to a total overthrow of the social hierarchy, going well beyond a mere change of regime.  If this process was allowed to go too far, and if the young urban poor were permitted to win their autonomy and perhaps even free themselves from Islamist ideology (as they were encouraged to do by the Marxist groups and People’s Mujahedden that had infiltrated the komitehs), then intolerable pressure would be brought to bear on the clerics.  It would also adversely affect the interests of the devout bourgeoisie in the bazaar, who were regaining the economic position they had lost in the years of the shah, by recovering the market share formerly held by capitalist “devils” who had been exiled, jailed, or shot. 

            Thus, the islamist left, and the Shiite socialists who depended on poor urban youth for their support, now posed the primary threat to Khomeini’s power.  The strategy he used to eliminate them was the same one that had crushed Bazargan and the liberals.  Khomeini first exposed them to power, then sapped it away through the komitehs, pasdarans (Guardians of the Islamic revolution), and other organs controlled by his networks.  …In early 1983 the leaders of the Tudeh pary, who were the last to be arrested in Khomeini’s campaign to annihilate the Iranian l;eft, confessed Soviet-style on television to the charge of spying for Moscow, before acknowledging Islam’s superiority over communism.  (p. 114-115) 


The killing of so many young men brought about the symbolic death of their class as a collective political protagonist in Iran.  From that point on, the political significance of Shiism changed completely.  Earlier, under the influence of Shariati and then during the revolution, the commemoration of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala and become a pretext for the struggle against the modern incarnation of the oppressor-caliph of old, namely the shah.  Religious energy was externalized, and its goal was to change the world.  This contrasted sharply with the dominant Shiite tradition, which and always foregone activism in favor of grief and lamentation, culminating with the self-flagellation of the ashura ritual.  The appalling butchery of the eight-year war against Iraq gave the younger generation of poor Iranians an incentive to return to the former tradition of martyrdom, pushing the ritual of self-flagellation to the point of self-immolation—the ultimate sacrifice.  No longer at issue was the transformation of the world, for the revolution had clearly failed to satisfy that expectation; rather, the young men developed a new desire—a longing for death—as a response to the failure of Iran’s revolutionary utopia and the pressures of war with Iraq.  The Shiite death wish took on massive dimensions with the sacrifice of the bassidjis at the front.  The volunteers wrote letters and last testaments to their families, asserting their longing for death in the crudest, most detailed vocabulary of Shiite martyrology.  What these tragic documents describe in religious terms is no less than the political suicide of the young urban poor of Iran in the 1980s.  (p. 116-117) 


…despite the slaughter on the front, the numbers of those who stayed behind continued to grow at an unprecedented rate; and with time the regime was obliged to take initiatives that would win the support of these tens of millions of young men.  What it did was to combine both moral and economic considerations. 

            First, the wearing of the veil nad full Islamic dress was made compulsory in April 1983, just after the last leftist movement had been crushed.  The komitehs members, finding themselves with no atheist leftists to harass, turned to policing their neighbors’ morals, hunting down and prosecuting ill-veiled women (bad hejabi) according to srict criteria of garment lengths, shapes, and colors that still remain in force and are posted in all public places in Iran.  The women most likely to be ill-veiled belonged to the secularized cultured middle class, whereas the komitehs found their recruits mostly among ordinary working people.  These recruits began to see themselves as the guardians to the values of the Islamic republic whose duty it was to persecute the remaining members of the middle class who had somehow managed to hang on to their social status and cultural capital.  The poor were able to exercise moral retribution in the name of God, and this seems to have compensated them for their own exclusion from the political arena.  (p. 177) 


At first, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was able to draw on deep reserves of sympathy among opponents of the authoritarian regimes throughout the Muslim world.  Before purges, executions, and atrocities tarnished its image, the revolution demonstrated that a movement springing from a broad spectrum of society could bring down a powerful government, even one closely connected to the united States.  This victory was enough to make world leaders who had hitherto paid little heed to Islam begin to take its revolutionary potential much more seriously.  Through Khomeini, the example of the Iranian revolution convinced many observers that Islam had supplanted nationalism as the principal factor in the political, social, and cultural identity of certain countries. 

            Regimes in Muslim countries viewed the shah’s fate as an object lesson, and many of them became ostentatiously religious, in the hope of avoiding what and befallen the Persian monarch, who had never bothered to hide his contempt for the “men in black”.  (p. 118)


The Muslim world as such had been under Saudi religious domination since the creation of the Islamic conference in 1969 and the triumph of petro-Islam in the war of October 1973.  But after 1979 the new masters in Iran considered themselves the true standard-brearers of Islam, despite their minority status as Shiites.  As far as they were concerned, the leaders in Riyadh were usurpers who sold oil to the West in exchange for military protection—a retrograde, conservative monarchy with a façade of ostentatious piety.    (p. 119) 


Thus, after 1979 two conflicting strategies for dominating the Muslim world were in play.  Iran’s strategy sought to replace the supremacy of the Saudis throughout the Community of the Faithful with that of Khomeini.  It took care to play down Shiism, since more than 80 percent of all Muslims were Sunni.  Its target constituency was younger Islamist intellectuals belonging to the radical fringes of society.  Saudi Arabia’s strategy sought to mobilize its decade-old system for the propagation of Islam worldwide in order to counter the Khomeinist threat.  The Saudis took care, first, to emphasize the Shiite nature of the revolution, thereby making it less easy for Sunni Muslims to swallow, and, second, to denounce the revolution as a vehicle for Persian nationalism. 

The threat of Persian nationalism served as an excuse for Sadam Hussein’s attack against the Islamic Republic in September 1980. 

Saddam was encouraged to act by those who feared that events in Iran would spill over into other countries.  The rich Arab monarchies of the peninsula felt especially threatened and were eager to supply financial and moral backing for a war that would mobilize modern Arab nationalism against non-Arab Iran.  With the exception of Syria, Iraq’s traditional rival, the Arab states staunchly supported Baghdad against Tehran.  (p. 120-121) 




Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, less than four months after enjoining the world’s Muslims to execute Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses.  This stunning fatwa was the true political legacy of the ayatollah, and it brought to a close the decade-long ascendancy of Islamic movements which began with the mullahs’ seizure of power in Tehran in 1979. 

            Iran had been forced to abandon its long war against Iraq, which had been dragging on since 1980, and to relinquish its hope of bringing down Sadam Hussein.  Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia still maintained its grip on the direction of Islam worldwide, despite Tehran’s attempts to destabilize the Saudi regime.  The fatwa was above all a move to regain the initiative.  With it, Khomeini gave expression to the deep outrage of many Muslims over a book that they viewed as an affront to their honor, religion, and culture.  His bold action contrasted strongly with the powerless of Riyadh and its international networks to prevent the book’s publication.  A further effect of the fatwa of February 14 was to shift the focus of Islamic opposition away from southwest Asia and into the heart of Western Europe—which was outside the traditional borders of the faith—where Salman Rushdie lived as a British subject.  (p. 185) 


Added to the rivals of the 1980s—the Wahhabite Saudis, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and the Iranians on the other—was a third competitor, the Pakistani ulemas.  The ulemas were dominated by the Deobandi faction, whose influence on international Islam was to grow steadily throughout the 1990s and to eventually spawn the Taliban.  (p. 187) 


…people were not greatly concerned about a book written in English, whose themes were well outside their customary sphere of interest; nor were they guided by geopolitical considerations.  Theirs was merely a gut reaction to something they perceived as an affront to Islam, or rather to the strict rules of behavior prescribed to the faithful by the madrassas.  For the leaders of these groups, whose authority hinged on absolute acceptance of immutable, untouchable Muslim dogma, any text that might instill doubt—especially in the young, who were more susceptible to the blandishments of Western culture—constituted a grave threat.     The “blasphemy” perpetrated by The Satanic verses, if not nipped in the bud, might embolden young Muslim Indians and Pakistanis to imitate Rushdie’s heroes; that is, they might break with traditional patterns of thought and even cease to obey their religious instructors.  Thus, the campaign of the mullahs was conducted in defense of their own vital interests—hence, the Bradford book-burning and the rioting at the American Cultural Center in Islamabad.  Even so, the real or symbolic violence of these demonstrations of large crowds of ordinary people had no direct political sequel.   

            By issuing his fatwa immediately after the Islamabad riots, Khomeini gave the cause a political dimension it had previously lacked and made it an instant worldwide phenomenon.  Until that moment, the campaign has focused on banning the novel, and in that strategy the Saudi network had failed.  Now, Khomeini’s campaign called for the execution of the author himself—a British subject with no connection to Iran.  The guide of Tehran became the unchallenged champion of those Muslims disgusted by what they perceived as Riyadh’s spinelessness.  Furthermore, the symbolic dividends the Saudi kingdom had expected from its Afghan jihad, whose success was confirmed by the Soviet withdrawal on February 15, vanished.  Finally, and above all, Khomeini appeared to have transcended the traditional frontiers of Islam.  According to Islamic law, no fatwa could be valid outside those areas governed by a Muslim prince and in which the laws of the sharia were applied.  Now, at a stroke, the ayatollah had placed the entire world under his jurisdiction.  Not only did he symbolically impose his will upon both Sunnis and Shiites outside Iran, he also contrived to rally the immigrant Muslim peoples of Europe to the banner of Islam.  This double upheaval was to have dramatic effects on the balance of forces existing within the Muslim world, on the way that world perceived the West, and on the way Islam itself was perceived by Westerners.  (p. 189-190)


…He [Khomeini] appealed to the disappointed and deprived multitudes of the faith, offering a new moral and religious “crusade” to distract them from the social discontent of a nation in which the deepening poverty of the masses contrasted with the substantial enrichment of a pious commercial bourgeoisie with links to the mullahs.  Abroad, he sowed confusion among the Saudis and their allies, dividing them and weakening them.  Saddam Hussein interpreted this political disarray as a military opportunity, and the result was his invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gull war of 1990.  Finally, a number of militants who had taken part in the Afghan jihad and were considered by Riyadh to be well out of the extreme anti-American, Iranian orbit now gave their support to Khomeini—among them the Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who would later become famous in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.  (p. 190) 




On August 7 [1990], King Fahd, the Custodian of the two Holy Places (Mecca and Medina), appealed to the United States for military assistance.  In Operation Desert Shield, several hundred thousand non-Muslim soldiers, all of them part of an international coalition with a mandate from the United Nations, landed in Saudi Arabia.  They saved the monarchy, but in the process they ruined the entire edifice the Al-Saud family had so patiently erected since the 1960s to dominate the Islamic world.  (p. 205) 


…But despite this appearance of growing influence [of Islam] worldwide, the deeper reality was that the two opposing camps within the Islamist movement were no longer able to provoke social upheaval on a scale that could lead to a lasting success like that of the Iranian revolution.  The recurrence violence of the decade was above all a reflection of the movement’s structural weakness, not its growing strength.  No ideologist worthy of the name had come forward to take the place of Mawdudi, Qutb, and Khomeini, and their imitators were unable to offer an overall vision that transcended social antagonisms.  (p. 207) 


Saddam’s justification for the invasion of Kuwait (p. 208-209): 

He [Saddam Hussein] claimed that the royal family of the emirate, the Al Sabahs, reigned over an artificial state created by the British; they were no more than pawns of the West, using their oil revenues to enrich themselves rather than their people.  By annexing Kuwait, the argument ran, Iraq was recovering a “natural” province stolen from it in the nineteenth century and broadening its access to the sea.  Saddam maintained that he was working for the unity of Arabs and Muslims, and he swore to place at the disposal of the “disinherited” the revenues that the emirs would otherwise have squandered on palaces and casinos.  He stripped Islamic dogma of its subtleties, appealed directly to the yearning for justice that has always inspired Islam (in common with most other religions), and blended it with Third World ideology and Arab nationalism.  Thanks to Kuwait’s black gold, Iraq would, according to Saddam, become a great Arab power and the shining defender of the poor nations of earth against the new American world order. 


For the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Afghan and Pakistani causes had lost much of their strategic importance following the rout of the Soviets, the enfeeblement of Iran, and the death of Khomeini.  Thereafter, all the Arab jihadists who were still on the spot adopted the same attitude as the local Islamists parties, freeing themselves from Saudi tutelage and then rising up against it. 

            The international brigade of jihad veterans, being outside the control of any state, was suddenly available to serve radical Islamists causes anywhere in the world.  Since they were no longer bound by local political contingencies, they had no responsibilities to any social group either.    They became the free electrons of jihad, professional Islamists trained to fight and to train others to do likewise…

            This milieu was cut off from social reality; its inhabitants perceived the world in the light of religious doctrine and armed violence.  It bred a new, hybrid Islamist ideology whose first doctrinal principle was to rationalize the existence and behavior of militants.  This was jihadist-salafism.  In academic parlance, the term salafism denotes a school of thought which surfaced in the second half of the nineteenth century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas.  It advocated a return to the traditions of the devout ancestors (salaf in Arabic).    it sought to expose the roots of modernity within Muslim civilization—and in the process resorted to a somewhat freewheeling interpretation of the sacred texts.  In the eyes of the militants, the definition of the term was quite different:  salafists were those who understood the injunctions of the sacred texts in their most literal, traditional sense.  Their most notable exponent was the great fourteen-century ulema Ibn Taymiyya, whose work served as a primary reference for the Wahhabites.  The salafists were the real fundamentalists of Islam; they were hostile to any and all innovation, which they condemned as mere human interpretation.  (p. 219-220) 

            According to the militants, there were, however, two kinds of salafists, as they defined them.  The “sheikists” had replaced the adoration of Allah with the idolatry of the oil sheiks of the Arabian peninsula, with the Al Saud family at their head.  … Their [Al Saud] ostentatious salafism was no more than a badge of their hypocrisy, their submission to the non-Muslim United State, and their public and private vices, in the view of the militants.  They had to be striven against and eliminated. 

            Hostile as they were to the “sheiks”, the jihadist-salafists were even angrier with the Muslim Brothers, whose excessive moderation they denounced on the grounds that it led the Brothers to take liberties with the letter of the holy texts.  Even the Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual father of the radical element among the Brothers, was held in suspicion…  As to the moderate Brothers who participated in the political games of the impious states, created [arties, and stood at elections, they were branded as deceivers of the faithful because they gave bogus religious legitimacy to regimes that only deserved to be annihilated.  (p. 220-1) 


…Unlike the Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Mawdudi, which in general remained an elitist party of devout middle-class people with no grassroots support, the Deobandis embraced impovereshied young people with no hope of climbing the social ladder, for whom violence was the main form of expression within a society that was profoundly non-egalitarian and obstructionist.  The madrassas sheltered their pupils—their Taliban—from all the tensions for as long as their education lasted; they were also able to rationalize their charges’ potential for violence by transforming it into a jihad against anyone designated kafir by the master—whether he was a Shiite neighbor, an “impious” Indian soldier, or anyone else—even a Sunni Muslim who was held to be a “miscreant”.  Taliban became extremely devoted to their ulemas, after many years of education by them under conditions of intense intimacy.  They had little or no contact with the outside world; much of their time was spent mumbling texts that they were taught to revere and apply even though they did not understand their meaning, and this experience left them with an esprit de corps that extinguished even the smallest expression of free thought or individual will.  In the doctrinaire madrassas, it was a simple matter to turn pupils conditioned in this way into full-blown fanatics.  (p. 225) 


Once the Taliban had taken control of the capital, order was established and insecurity no longer stalked the ruins left by four years of internecine struggle among the mujahedeen.  The new rulers immediately applied the Deobandi concepts taught to them in their madrassas not only to their own community of disciples but to the whole of Afghan society.  Pashtun-speaking, country-bred people as they were, the Taliban saw the Dari-speaking Kabulis, who had been accustomed to a modern urban lifestyle since the 1950s, as a corrupt mob who must be subjugated to the rules of sharia.  Women were compelled to wear burqas in public and were forbidden to take their jobs, with the result that many of those women who had lost their husbands, fathers, and brothers in the war were forced to beg in the streets surrounded by their starving children.  (p. 229) 


… In Kabul, the Taliban did not so much take control of Afghan institutions as completely eviscerate them, erecting in their stead only three functions:  morality, commerce, and war. 

            Morality, which is no more than the strict imposition of Deobandi norms on all citizens, was implemented by … bearded young men from poor backgrounds who went around with truncheons enforcing the hours of prayer, the wearing of the veil, and Wahhabite rules of behavior in general.  … Afghanistan had extended the notion of hunting down all manner of evil to include whipping clean-shaven men, or even men with short beards.  Televisions, video recorders, and music were also forbidden.  The mental environment of a madrassa was re-created in the villages and cities of Afghanistan.  Road blocks set up by the Taliban always included a pole around which were wrapped, like trophies, the tapes ripped from audiocassettes that had been seized from motorists.  The only public spectacles that could be viewed were those the Taliban considered edifying:  on Fridays, the enormous stadium built by the Soviet Union to celebrate the triumph of proletarian internationalism was enlivened by the flagellation of drinkers, the amputation of their limbs of thieves, and the execution of murderers by the families of their victims, who were lent machine guns for the purpose.  The state took no responsibility for the punishment of miscreants, a fact that reflected its own virtual nonexistence; instead, it consigned the task to the moral community of the faithful, urged on by populace that had been steadily migrating to the outskirts of the capital since 1996 and which was gradually “Pashtunizing” it at the expense of those wretched remnants of the middle class (educated in Persian) who had been unable to escape.  (p. 229-230) 


The summary exercise of these three functions [morality, commerce, and war] did not make the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan anything like a modern state:  in fact it was more a community organized according to Deobandi norms but merely “swollen” to the dimensions of a country subjected to moral coercion on the inside and jihad on the edges.  It was entirely financed by tolls levied on the flow of the (largely illegal) commerce that transited across its territory.  In this sense the Afghanistan of the Taliban was not comparable to the Islamic Republic of Iran or to Hassan al-Turabi’s Sudan.  Iran and the Sudan relied on efficient administrative machines…  This was far from the case with the Taliban:  their effect on the world was not made through a state, and they had no diplomatic relations with any country except their Pakistani sponsor and their principle commercial partner, the United Arab Emirates, since breaking with their former benefactor, the United Arabia.  … In Deobandi ideology there was no edifice of virtue; only the community itself, the sum of the faithful, duly constrained by body of fatwas that allowed each to live in conformity with the sharia, could claim to be moral.  The absence of state or political legitimacy negated any notion of citizenship and freedom, concepts that were entirely supplanted by belief and obedience.  (p. 231-232). 




            The failure to transplant jihad [in Bosnia] was an early indication of two entirely new phenomena that characterized political Islam in the 1990s.  The first was the gradual opening of a gulf between the ideas of Islamist radicals and the needs of ordinary Muslims, in whose eyes utopian ideals were progressively losing their attraction.  Second, there began to emerge among those same ordinary Muslims a blueprint for a Muslim democratic society that went beyond the Islamist model.  It was suggested that traditional Islamic culture could find a way to allow Muslims to embrace the modern world without betraying themselves.  This occurred at the conclusion of a war filled with atrocities that had been perpetrated in the name of a closed, exclusive interpretation of identity.  (p. 241) 


The Islamic specificity of this humanitarian cause prevented the dilution of funds by more nebulous, universal associations.  The common European identity of the Bosnian Muslims and the descendants of Pakistanis, Moors, and Turks in England, France, and Germany, transcending the gulf between autochthonous people and immigrants, was a powerful motivating factor of which these associations made full use.  Certain militants took the view that the atrocities visited on the native European, fair-haired, blue-eyed Bosnians who spoke the same language and belonged to the same race as their persecutors and who were generally secularized showed that it was futile for immigrant Muslims to try to assimilate into the dominant societies of Western Europe.  The process had not helped the Bosnian Muslims one iota; the only real security, they preached, resided in a strengthening of the bonds of religion and community.  (p. 249) 


Yet neither the clumsiness of the humanitarian organizations, which identified charity and dawa too closely, nor the rigidity of the jihadist-salafists who confused Zenica and Jalalabad, nor even the Western schemes that they denounced were entirely responsible for the radical Islamist failure in Bosnia.  The main cause was the emergence, in ordinary society, of a democratic attitude toward religion, which in many ways resembled the post-Islamist logic that has been gaining ground ever since the 1990s in other Muslim societies, including Iran… (p. 251) 





…since 1989 the various Islamist movements based in France itself had pursued a very different course.  The Union des Organizations Islamiques de France (UOIF) and groups resembling it had been in the forefront of the squabble over veils in French schools:  they viewed the growing number of young French Muslims as a sign that France had become a part of the “land of Islam” (dar el-Islam).  According to the UOIF, young Muslims ought to be able to apply the sharia to their personal lives without interference from the state.  Guided by Islamist militants and their behest, the UOIF saw its role as being a necessary intermediary between this new Muslim community in France and the French administration.  Once France was viewed as an Islamic land, radicalization or violence over foreign issues was unwelcome, and jihad on French territory was expressly forbidden.  France, like Britain, was a sanctuary.  At stake was the Islamist movement’s credibility of their crucial role as community mediators who could keep the social peace.  (p. 306) 


Thus, the events in France in 1995 played a major role in the transformation of the Islamist movement, and the same was the case (though on a much larger scale) in Algeria and Egypt.  The drift into terrorism cut off the most radical groups from the young urban poor whom they aspired to represent, and this also affected the alliance between poor youths and devout middle-class intellectuals.  At the same time, the middle class, through the organizations they ran, had no choice but to adopt a more and more democratic and liberal stance in order to negotiate (from a position of weakness) their own participation in political life following the evaporation of the radical base.  There was no more talk over the wearing of the veil at the beginning of the decade.  (p. 313) 




Such was the context in which the cataclysm of September 11 took place.  In spite of what many hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath, the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might.  (p. 375)