April 20, 2012

Book: Jihad – The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:55 pm

Many of you who follow the news probably know that the word ‘Al Qaeda’ means ‘The Base’ in Arabic. (Don’t you?) But did you know that the word refers to a (Computer) Data Base? This book says that Osama Bin Laden started collecting names of people who hold similar views to his in his early days in Afghanistan in a computer data base and the name Al Qaeda originated from this.

These and other interesting tidbits abound in this volume. Some views are very controversial as well. For instance, would you agree that the attack on the twin towers on September 11, 2001 belongs to the phase of “Decline of Islamism around the world”?

But whether you agree with everything or disagree with some things, this is a phenominal book. Anyone who wants to understand the causes, and the factors that favour the growth of Fundamentalist Islamism today should read this. This will answer questions of the type ‘Why do they hate the Westerners so much?’ or  ‘Why are they bent on violence as the only answer?’  The answers are there  and even if you are not fully happy with the explanation provided, it is thought provoking.

The author wrote the book in French first, and the English edition came later. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the countries involved and the comprehensive tracing of the factors that fueled the growth of this movement are astounding! He tracks the Islamist movement, both pacifist and militant, in countries as diverse as Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey and many others. He tracks the suppression under Nasser in Egypt and the co-option of these groups by Sadat; he traces the about turn by Sadat midway and recounts the price he paid for it, with his life. He tracks the violent rise of Gamaa Islamiya and its status. In Sudan, he tracks the conditions that gave rise to Hassan Al Thurabi. The Malaysian question involving Anwar Ibrahim is forcefully brought out. The Iranian revolution, the GIA bloodbath in Algeria, the stoking of fundamentalist movements by Zia Ul Haq of Pakistan, the balancing act of Saudi Arabia blown apart by Saddam with his invasion to Kuwait, the Iranian revolution and its aftermath – every one of these are described in full detail.  So is the situation is Turkey where Kemal Ataturk’s secular vision maintained by the army engaged in a tango with the midly Islamic politics of Erbakan – his surprising rise among other things. Of course, the book was written some years ago and does not cover the current situation fully, but what it covers, it does well.

Therein lies the problem  with the book (no fault of the author, of course):  it stops in 2001 (It does not foresee or include the second rise of Islamist party – AKS in Turkey under Erdogan as PM is not mentioned. The controversial decision to invade Iraq by the Bush administration is not covered, let alone the death of Osama Bin Laden or the current quagmire in Afghanistan.

In addition, if you are not really into the subject, you may find some of the detailed description a bit dragging. I was fascinated with the amount and depth of detail in the book, but I can see how for some this may be ‘too much’.

Nevertheless, as a comprehensive catalog of the Islamist movement and the militant fringe around its edges, there is no book that even comes close!

I would easily give it a 8/10

— Krishna


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