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     Volume 4 Issue 25 | December 17, 2004 |

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Book Review

The missing peace

William Dalrymple

Reading Gilles Kepel's important book, it is easy to see why al-Qaida should be so enthusiastic about Bush. Bin Laden has always been open about his aims: by unleashing a clash of civilisations between Islam and the "Zionist-Crusaders" of the west, he hopes to provoke an American backlash strong enough to radicalise the Muslim world, topple pro-western governments and so install a new Islamic caliphate.

Bush has fulfilled Bin Laden's every hope. Through the invasion of secular Ba'athist Iraq, the abuses in Abu Ghraib, the mass-murders in Faluja, America, with Britain's obedient assistance, has turned Iraq into a jihadist playground while alienating all moderate Muslim opinion. We may have failed to capture Bin Laden, but we have succeeded in liberating the extremists, radicalising the unaffiliated and making life more difficult than ever for our natural allies: ordinary, decent, moderate Muslims.

Not least of the virtues of Kepel's book is that it provides in translation a huge amount of al-Qaida source material, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri's lengthy text Knights under the Prophet's Banner, which lays out in full al-Qaida's political programme. According to al-Zawahiri, he and Bin Laden agreed that the failure to mobilise the Muslim masses could only be reversed by an attack of the scale of 9/11, so convincing Muslims of the "irresistible power" of their movement.

Kepel argues that al-Qaida is not some structured multi-national. Instead it barely exists: "al-Qaida was less a military base of operations than a database that connected jihadists around the world via the internet." As Kepel shows, this failure to understand the nature of al-Qaida was the reason that the US attempted to counter it with such unsuitable policies - so inadvertently turning itself into al-Qaida's most effective recruiting agency.

Kepel emphasises the centrality of Palestine to this equation. From Bin Laden's first public statement, "A Declaration of War Against the Americans", issued in 1996, he announced he was fighting US foreign policy in the Middle East and in particular American support for the House of Saud and the state of Israel. In Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, al-Zawahiri emphasises that it was the failure of Oslo, the eruption of the second intifada in the autumn of 2000, and the repressive campaign waged by Ariel Sharon that provided the opportunity al-Qaida had been waiting for: here was the rallying cry that could unify the Muslim world. All that was needed was a massive strike, and the US system in the Middle East would begin to unravel.

If Bin Laden was obsessed with Israel, it was no less the central concern of the neocons to whom President Bush turned in the aftermath of 9/11. Kepel lays out very clearly the methods the neocons used to hijack Bush's "war on terror" to pursue their own pre-existing agenda. This consisted of abandoning the Oslo peace accords and instead seeking security for Israel by eliminating the Arab regimes which threatened it - ironically a goal which the neocons shared with al-Qaida.

Ideas originally produced in 1996 for a Likud thinktank by Douglas Feith and Richard Perle under the title "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm", were later adapted in Washington for the neocon's "Project for the New American Century" (about which, alarmingly, Tony Blair recently professed ignorance: "What is it?" he asked James Naughtie). These ideas went on to become official US- and by default British - policies following 9/11.

Kepel also emphasises the central role that Saudi Arabia has played in the nurturing of violent political Islam - and the degree to which the Wahhabi kingdom took in Islamist leaders expelled by the region's secular regimes such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq. It was in Saudi Arabia, and among Saudis engaged in the Afghan jihad, that the fatal fusion took place between ultra-orthodox Salafism and the jihadi ideas of the Muslim Brothers. Yet while Saudi Arabia continues to be regarded as a US ally, it was the Ba'athist regimes that were mainly targeted by the neocons.

The battle is now on for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims - a battle the US is catastrophically losing. The Islamists have proved surprisingly adept at PR and have used the internet and the Arab satellite channels with great skill. In this battle, the way that Europe's million Muslims swing will prove crucial. If suspicion and Islamophobia drives them into the embrace of the militants, we are lost. Yet Kepel ends his book on a note of hope. Across Europe, a new generation of Muslims is becoming active in democratic politics. Kepel hopes that with a fair wind, these European Muslims could yet "present a new face of Islam - reconciled with modernity - to the larger world."

This review was first published in the Guardian

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