BAD MOON RISING
Saqi Books, London, 2003
In October 2001, Gilles Keppel, one of the most prominent French scholars of the Arab world, set off to the Middle East to survey reactions in the region weeks after the shock of 9-11. Gilles Keppel is fluent in Arabic and knows the region and its people well. This gives the reader incredible insights, to which few other scholars might have been exposed. From interviews and conferences with sheiks, scholars and journalists to random meetings with people, Keppel understands the region and manages to grasp the different currents navigating through Egypt , Lebanon , Syria and the Gulf states in the aftermath of 9-11.
The picture we get, as if to contradict the straightforward and rather simplistic view one might see in Washington , is full of opposing views: when it comes to 9-11 and Bin Laden, Keppel does not present us with a unique line of thought but rather a succession of pluralistic, multifaceted and contradictory discourses. Edward Said would have been pleased to see that Keppel avoids the frequent Orientalist pitfall of giving a uniformistic and simplistic face to the region. Sharjah's American University , which Keppel visits while in the UAE, is in this effect quite telling. “The class where I am lecturing,” writes Keppel, “is a microcosm of the Islamic ummah : a veiled Iraqi sits next to a Kuwaiti boy in jeans; a Wahhabi Saudi indishdash and checkered kuffieh rubs elbows with the Shi'ite Iranians, Pakistanis, Emiratis and Omanis. Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese and Egyptians make the bulk of the contingent.”
The dialogue which follows on Bin Laden is even more interesting: “The young Iraqi and her Palestinian classmates commune in praise, describing their emotion when they heard Bin Laden swear by God…that America would never enjoy security as long as Israeli tanks were crushing Palestine, and Iraq was afflicted by the embargo. ‘He stood up to defend us. He is the only one.' Their Kuwaiti neighbour doesn't say a word. The dishdash -clad Saudi student introduces a nuance: ‘Bin Laden is a billionaire. Why didn't he bother about Palestine immediately after the end of the Afghan jihad ? It's to easy to raise these issues now, to widen his support base when he is under attack.'”
Such differences of opinions concerning Bin Laden are found at every level of society throughout the book, from university students to simple market vendors, to political and religious figures. The attacks on New York are condemned but at the same time U.S. actions in the region are disliked, whether it be support for Israel or the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan . There is a love-hate relation to the West: Arabs dislike America 's foreign policy in the region, yet Arab youth admires Western pop culture, from shopping malls to fast foods to satellite televisions.
The book's original title, “Chronique d'une Guerre d'Orient” and the subtitle in English, “Chronicle of an Oriental War,” hints at what I view as the main point of the book, one which might not be that clear in the short and rapid snippets that Keppel gives us: there is a war of opinions taking place in the East, similar to that in the West, which opposes the progressives to Islamic extremists. The reader comes to realize this acutely at the end of the chronicle, when Keppel travels to the US . In the spring of 2002, Keppel is at Harvard's faculty club with Samuel Huntington. “Professor Huntington, author of ‘ The Clash of Civilizations,' seems surprised when I tell him that his book, of which the Arabic translation is a bestseller, is the top reference for all Islamism militants, thrilled by the cultural rift that gives credence to their confrontational ideology. All they have to do is invert the signs of Good and Evil to set themselves as champions of the cause for all Arabs and Muslims combined, against a West it is now easy for them to demonise.”
All in all, Keppel's chronicle is full of unique insights and interesting questions, yet at times one feels that the author is going too fast, that he is covering too much ground in too few pages. What Keppel has done is transcribe Arab reactions to 9-11 when they were still “hot” (chaud ), yet by going so fast, he runs the risk of losing the reader who is not fully versed in the historical background of each state covered in the book.
This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 50
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid