Kepel and Abu Musab al-Suri, with a side of poetry
[ by Charles Cameron — cool scholarly Kepel dismissive of hot apocalyptic al-Suri, and some beautifully crafted sentences from Kepel ]
I admire Gilles Kepel, not only and not so much because he is an analyst of Islamism of the first water (which he is) as because the man can write like a poet – and beside the pleasure this brings me, I have the sense that a subtle and compelling voice is liable to be the voice of a subtle and compelling mind.
I am particularly fond, therefore, of his little book, Bad Moon Rising – a journal more than a scholarly tome, but a scholar’s journal none the less – in which you’ll find such gems as these:
Egypt unfurls its seasons according to an intimately olfactory calendar, bound up since eternity with the ebb and flow of the Nile…
— this from the very first page, and – discussing the 1984 exodus of Egyptian radicals to fight in Afghanistan:
For Egyptian officials, this was a boon: the most extremist beards were clearing out, going off to fight in the service of the American ally, and if, perchance, they happened to die, it had been divinely ordained…
— not to mention his reasonably chaste comment on al-Qaradawi and matters sexual on p. 63.
Accordingly, I thought I’d drop in here two paragraphs that Kepel uses to describe the hundred-page apocalyptic finale to Musab al-Suri‘s Global Islamic Resistance Call in Beyond terror and martyrdom: the future of the Middle East, pp. 169-170:
Suri’s existential angst, along with the frightening vision of a near future when the state of barbarism would be combined with a war of all against all, resulted in an astonishing conclusion. The rationalist engineer — who threw physics, Arab nationalism, Third World ideologies, Qutb’s Islamism, and French and Spanish essays and novels into the jihadist blender of his mind — turned into a prophet of the apocalypse at the end of his magnum opus, much like the authors in the Arab world who flood the displays of sidewalk vendors with predictions with predictions about the end of the world, the return of the messiah, and torture in the grave.
As if he had shell-shocked himself with his practical, all-too-human theories of how to take over the world, he turned back to metaphysics at the end, lining up dozens of Quran verses and commentaries that predict the arrival of the Anti-Christ, the return of the messiah, or the battle of Gog and Magog. The rationalism that informs the body of his work gives way, in the Conclusion, to a mishmash of superstitions and ends with a testament “written in a time of misery: we are fleeing from one hiding-place to another, hunted down by the enemies of God, infidels, and the apostates who help them.
Kepel’s comments on al-Suri have a touch of the dismissive to them, I’d say – but it was also Kepel who supervised the painstaking years of research that went into J-P Filiu‘s Apocalypse in Islam, and for that we should be very grateful.
Filiu himself notes that he hesitated for a long time before throwing himself into a detailed study of Islamic apocalyptic literature, fearing that he “would have to overcome academic against a subculture that had grown up around self-educated authors and cheaply produced books” and eventually deciding to commit himself to the work only after his Arab colleagues convinced him of “the necessity of taking this frenzied expression of apocalyptic feeling seriously.”
Getting back to Kepel, then — he’s a “cool” scholar, and al-Suri’s a “hot” apocalyptic warrior D’you suppose cool sometimes dismisses hot just a tad too easily?
May 2nd, 2012 at 2:13 am
excellent post. On Kepel:
” As if he had shell-shocked himself with his practical, all-too-human theories of how to take over the world, he turned back to metaphysics at the end, lining up dozens of Quran verses and commentaries that predict the arrival of the Anti-Christ, the return of the messiah, or the battle of Gog and Magog. The rationalism that informs the body of his work gives way, in the Conclusion, to a mishmash of superstitions and ends with a testament “written in a time of misery: we are fleeing from one hiding-place to another, hunted down by the enemies of God, infidels, and the apostates who help them.
al-Suri/Settmariam/Whatever was not as serious a student of Muslim theology/law as he was of strategy and tactical matters. Not secular, but critical of those in what he called “the jihadi current” who substituted religious speculation and quranic debate for analytical consideration of strategic problems. And he resented that these fatwa -ists had more influence than jihadis like himself who had “field experience”. It may be that this rambling messianism was partly a nod to garnering more “street cred” among the simpletons and shielding himself from criticism from layabout pen jihadis by escalating the religious drivers of jihad to “the next level” of Mahdism