The Back Page

A WAR FOR MUSLIM MINDS

What’s the right way to counter Islamic terrorists? Ask Gilles Kepel.

PAUL WELLS January 24 2005
The Back Page

A WAR FOR MUSLIM MINDS

What’s the right way to counter Islamic terrorists? Ask Gilles Kepel.

PAUL WELLS January 24 2005

A WAR FOR MUSLIM MINDS

The Back Page

What’s the right way to counter Islamic terrorists? Ask Gilles Kepel.

PAUL WELLS

GILLES KEPEL doesn’t look like a provocative man. Compact, neatly dressed, apologetic about his jam-packed schedule ("I must make a quick telephone call to Saudi Arabia"), France’s foremost expert on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism found a half-hour to spare for a reporter the other day in his office at Paris’s venerable Institut d’études politiques.

Kepel is visiting Canada to deliver three lectures: onjan. 18 at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Jan. 19 at the University of Ottawa and Jan. 20 at the University of Toronto. As he discussed recent events in the continuing clash between Western nations and

Islamic fundamentalism, it was easy to imagine he’ll intrigue and outrage his audiences in equal measure.

Kepel first appeared on North American radar screens with a book called Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. It argued that fundamentalist terrorists were losing their big game—a war for the allegiance of the entire Muslim world. He described Islamist extremists as history’s losers. The book was published, in English translation, shortly after 9/11. Kepel’s timing seemed a little off.

Yet he persists. His latest book,

The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, rejects the simplistic idea of a clash of civilizations. Instead, he describes a clash within civilizations: a fitna, an Arabic word he defines as “war in the heart of Islam, a centrifugal force that threatens the faithful with community fragmentation, disintegration and ruin.”

The question posed by the international post-9/11 conflict, Kepel says, is whether the populations tempted by jihad will grow or shrink: whether the terrorists will gain converts or lose them. He is no fan of the U.S. invasion to depose Saddam Hussein, which he sees as a poor deployment of scarce resources. “At bottom, our western weakness—the Americans’ as well as ours— is that we think of these groups as emanations of states. The American army and American intelligence are very sophisticated and are quite capable of destroying a state. But against the network that is

al-Qaeda, smart bombs aren’t much help.” But Canadians who might welcome an opponent of the Iraq war may have more difficulty with the other half of Kepel’s thesis: that the ranks of the jihad movement also swell when Muslim populations in European capitals are left to the control of radical imams instead of integrating into the larger population.

“The Muslims of Europe are between the rock of assimilation and the hard place of multiculturalism,” he told me. “They’ll have to find a middle path, which I suspect will more closely resemble a truly integrationist policy of shared rights and privileges.”

A path much like France’s, in fact. Kepel sat on the commission that recommended a law forbidding French students from wearing the Islamic veil or other religious insignia in school. He was skeptical of the policy at first. “But as we heard testimony about the pressure the Islamist movement was

putting on girls to wear the veil—calling them bad Muslims, burning them in working-class neighbourhoods because they weren’t dressed as one should—it seemed very important to us that the state defend these most fragile of young citizens. It would have been a completely racist attitude to say that, because a girl is named Yasmina, she mustn’t be defended by the laws of the republic.”

Kepel believes France’s policy of integration has passed its recent tests better than the multicultural policies of a neighbouring country, the Netherlands.

The law banning religious headgear came into effect in time for the current school year, in September. French Muslims, in the main, disliked the policy. But they protested, Kepel said, as members of French society, not as outsiders—so much so that some girls marched in the streets wearing veils in the red, white and blue of the French flag. When French reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were kidnapped in Iraq last year, “there was quite a remarkable mobilization of French citizens of Muslim origin or culture to deny the Iraqi Islamists the right to speak in their name.”

This unexpected solidarity across religious lines contrasts with the violent uproar in Holland after Theo van Gogh, a provocative documentary filmmaker, was murdered in broad daylight by a young man of Moroccan origin.

“In the multiculturalist system, the frame of common reference is very fragmented. It’s a logic of‘other,’ not of‘same,’ ” Kepel said. “Suddenly, with the stabbing, the Dutch had the impression they had nothing in common with these Muslims whose lives were juxtaposed with theirs.”

Kepel paused, then concluded: “I consider multiculturalism to be a chic word for apartheid.” Another apologetic smile. “That’s rather provocative, isn’t it?” Rl

To comment: backpage@macleans.ca Read Paul Wells’s weblog, “Inkless Wells,” at www.macleans.ca/paulwells