Gordian Knots

Beyond Terror and Martyrdom
The Future of the Middle East
Gilles Kepel, translated by Pascale Ghazaleh
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 336 pp.

The Arab Center
The Promise of Moderation
Marwan Muasher
Yale University Press, $30, 336 pp.


Extremism in the Middle East, while lamented by most, offers advantages to many. Peace activists and diplomats deplore the violence but welcome the political side effects of fanaticism, including the revulsion it inspires in everyone else. Military officers and security specialists count on the self-destructive tendencies of their radical adversaries, whose insistence on absolute conformity to a narrow vision of truth leads to internal fissures and the splintering of movements and resources. And if you happen to govern an autocratic and corrupt Arab state, the threat posed by fundamentalists provides a handy excuse to postpone the advent of a vital civil society and genuine democracy.

Exploring the flaws of Middle East extremism is the burden of the two books under review. Both authors hope for the eventual triumph of moderation in the Middle East, and each charts a path to peace and economic development. Yet in these books, like virtually all the best treatments of the bedeviled region, the diagnosis may be sound and the prescriptions sensible, but the prognosis remains uncertain at best. This patient does not want to get well.

Gilles Kepel’s Beyond Terror and Martyrdom is a crisply written indictment that portrays the Bush administration and Al Qaeda as equally immoderate ideological doppelgängers. A French journalist who has tracked radical Islam since the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Kepel argues that two encompassing and competing narratives—“the global war on terror” and the jihadist myth of “martyrdom” in a holy war—have both dominated and impoverished international politics in the post-9/11 era.

In Kepel’s view, both Bush’s “war on terror” and the global jihad engineered by the preening Sunnis of Al Qaeda were badly conceived and executed. The war on terror, waged initially against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, quickly expanded to include every militant Islamist group, even Hezbollah and Hamas, organizations boasting significant popular support and victories in democratic elections—“the kinds of elections,” Kepel writes, “in whose name the war on terror was being fought.” In terms of concrete policy objectives, he notes, U.S. rhetoric proclaiming a global crusade for freedom amounted to little more than renewed stridency on behalf of Israel’s security and an invasion of Iraq designed to protect the unimpeded flow of Persian Gulf oil.

For its part, Al Qaeda matched the Bush administration in double talk and self-delusion. It boasted that holy war against the West would unite the worldwide Islamic community, then panicked when other Sunni militants pursued their own sectarian and nationalist objectives. Its supposed global jihad against the “infidels” foundered on the ironies of Iraq, where the victims of insurgent martyrdom operations tended to be fellow Muslims. In December 2004, the Syrian jihadist Abu Musab al-Suri published Global Islamic Resistance, a manifesto declaring the end of the second phase of jihad, led by Al Qaeda, and the arrival of a de-centered, leaderless, cyberspace phase marked by random assassinations and suicide bombings run by underground networks ranging from Baghdad to London. Bin Laden and buddies, in short, were already passé.

Kepel charts the unintended consequences of the chaos unleashed in the Middle East, such as the re-emergence of Iran as a regional power, now with nuclear pretensions and a trigger-happy president spouting apocalyptic threats and arming extremists from Iraq to Lebanon to Gaza—a development greeted with wariness not only by the United States, but by Al Qaeda and its Sunni allies, and by vulnerable Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And neither Bin Laden nor Bush could have anticipated the backlash and erosion of support from their respective constituencies when the airwaves were flooded with gruesome images of the Iraqi insurgent Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi beheading helpless victims, or of the sufferings of detainees at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

Beyond Terror and Martyrdom neatly deconstructs the twin narratives of the “war on terror” and jihadist martyrdom, both of which Kepel considers essentially bankrupt. But the book is less convincing when it attempts to translate astute analysis into policy prescriptions. The author believes that the European Union, with France (surprise!) occupying its moral and intellectual center, holds the key to a way forward. As he sees it, France’s “cultural fascination with the integration of individuals into modern French life” and its historic “civilizing mission” enable the country’s leaders to articulate “the cultural values shared by the host society and its Muslim immigrant population” more explicitly than European countries with a “multiculturalist agenda.” Accordingly, France is poised to lead a “post-American world” (one imagines Kepel rubbing his hands gleefully) toward “the economic integration of the Middle East and Europe, creating a fertile space where entrepreneurial classes can grow, and democratic processes can take root.” Well, perhaps. At the very least, no one can fault him for lacking ambition.

Less amorphous are the recommendations in The Arab Center, Marwan Muasher’s thoughtful, balanced, and relentlessly hopeful memoir of fifteen years as Jordan’s leading diplomat. Advisor to King Hussein and to his son and successor, King Abdullah II, Muasher was Jordan’s first ambassador to Israel as well as ambassador to the United States, minister of foreign affairs, and deputy prime minister. An inadvertent testimony to the Job-like patience required of the Middle Eastern statesman, The Arab Center leads the reader through endless rounds of negotiations and shuttle diplomacy with Israeli prime ministers, Clinton and Bush administration officials, Palestinian politicians, and with Muasher’s diplomatic counterparts across the Arab world, where the so-called center proves to be an oasis one day, a mirage the next.

The problem, Muasher shows, is that this center is only as dependable as the Syrian or Saudi or Egyptian or Lebanese position, or mood, of the moment. There are so many troublemakers intent on spoiling the peace party! And even when centrist diplomats momentarily transcend the internal divisions, inconsistencies, and duplicities of the U.S. and Israeli governments, the incompetence of the Palestinian leadership, or the know-nothing obstructionism of the Syrians or Lebanese, a single suicide bomber can jeopardize a painstakingly crafted agreement.

Poring over this chronicle of frustration, one is tempted to ask what good came of the ceaseless efforts that produced the Clinton Parameters, the Oslo Accords, the Arab Peace Initiative, the Road Map, and other unrealized peace plans. One thing is clear: The persistence of war does not arise from an absence of good ideas. Indeed, proposals for the establishment of secure borders, sustainable development, and a lasting peace abound. What keeps peace elusive is a failure of political will, a failure rooted in an appalling dearth of civic education and political reform.

To his credit, Muasher is no harder on the Israelis than on his fellow Arabs, who for decades have stubbornly persisted in believing that “allegiance to the country meant allegiance to the party, system, or leader...and that diversity, critical thinking, and individual differences were treasonous.” Clinging desperately to power, Arab dictators constitute an “entrenched old guard,” promoting their own short-term interests at the expense of their countries’ futures and using Islamic radicalism and Israeli aggression as excuses for maintaining the police state. Arab civil society, Muasher comments in droll understatement, has not been an effective agent of change. Governments have consistently stifled its development, leading ironically to the emergence of the Islamists as the most effective (and sometimes only) opposition party—posing a formidable challenge to a state bureaucracy that is “largely secular and elitist...and out of touch with the grass roots.” Accordingly, the Arab public must be convinced that “a proactive, pragmatic Arab discourse is not limited to the peace process but extends to other concerns: good governance, economic well-being, and inclusive decision making.”

However severe the internal domestic problems facing Arab states, their solution cannot finally be disentangled from the dominant concern of the region as a whole. Kepel and Muasher agree that sustainable peace, democracy, and development in the Middle East cannot be achieved as long as the question of Palestine remains unresolved. And that, in turn, will depend on the more moderate sectors of Arab opinion being nurtured and supported, from both within and without. Muasher notes that the Arab Peace Initiative was largely ignored by the United States, and that, consequently, “the three Arab states that championed it—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—are today on the defensive in the Arab world.” He concludes:

Though the Arab center has proved its ability to take courageous action to end the conflict peacefully, without the active support of the United States—in deeds, not just words—the center will soon be overwhelmed by radicalism.... It has become easy and routine for the radicals to point to the Arab center’s policies of the past years and ask: What have they accomplished for the Palestinians? Have they achieved an end to the occupation? Have they delivered a two-state solution?

The Arab center, Muasher warns, “cannot survive on lip service alone.” If Arab moderates can’t show results, eventually they will be marginalized, and the Arab center “will either collapse from exhaustion or be outpaced by extremism.”

As a Catholic, a scholar of religion and peace, and an American citizen, I share the hope for the triumph of moderation over extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere. But are grounds for that hope to be found in the history of the conflict, or in a sober assessment of the current situation? Perhaps the recent conflict in Gaza is darkening my outlook. Or the Niebuhrian litany, recited by Kepel, of the perilous consequences of imperial hubris. Or the fact that a few terrorist attacks or episodes of Israeli overreaching can neutralize years of peacebuilding.

Mao observed that real power comes from the barrel of a gun. Good and gracious Lord, in the name of the children of Abraham we petition thee: Say it ain’t so.

Published in the 2009-02-13 issue: 

R. Scott Appleby is the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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