Seven Questions

Seven Questions: Gilles Kepel

A terrorism analyst and Middle East expert tells Foreign Policy why al Qaeda’s racist attack on Barack Obama signals the death of jihad.


Last week, al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a provocative video commenting on the election of Barack Obama. You were born to a Muslim father, but you chose to stand in the ranks of the enemies of the Muslims, Zawahiri tells the U.S. president-elect. Referring to Obama as abid al-beit, the Arabic term for house slave, the tape condemned Obama as a typical American politician in the pocket of the Zionist lobby.

To decode Zawahiri’s words, Foreign Policy‘s Blake Hounshell spoke with French scholar Gilles Kepel, chair of Middle East studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. Kepel has followed Zawahiris statements closely for several years. In his most recent book, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East, Kepel identifies two sweeping but opposing narratives — the neoconservative war on terror and the jihadist myth of martyrdom. According to Kepel, both have failed miserably.

Foreign Policy: Do you think the tape Zawahiri released last week is significant?

Gilles Kepel: The tape is extremely important, because [al Qaeda believed] that 9/11 would be a means to mobilize the Muslim masses against the West and to topple the [Middle Eastern] regimes. But they were totally unable to do it.

I’ve monitored Zawahiris statements between the fifth and the seventh anniversary of 9/11 to try to decipher his whole system of thought, to understand how it works. The more [strident] Zawahiri’s discourse was, the less it was in tune with reality.

Within the ranks of radical Islamism, Zawahiri has been very, very violently criticized. There is a widespread feeling now that al Qaeda’s strategy has failed, because [critics] say Zawahiri has spilled Muslim blood. The Jews and Christians he may have killed were OK — halal — but the Muslim blood was not halal.

FP: Do you think Zawahiri hoped that with this tape, he would tap into a kind of Arab anti-black racism?

GK: In a way. But I think he tried not to look like a racist because he quoted Malcolm X, who was a good black man because he [converted to Islam and] became [al-Hajj] Malik al-Shabazz. But you could almost feel in his speech the aristocratic background of Zawahiri, who looks down on niggers with the utmost contempt.

Abid al-beit, [the name by which Zawahiri referred to Obama], is something much more [potent] than house Negro. It is loaded with a very, very strong racist connotation, and I’m not sure that Zawahiri made himself very popular with this sort of discourse. In my view, this is a sign that al Qaeda is in dire straits.

FP: Do you think Obama — with his ethnic identity and his rhetoric about regaining Americas respect in the world — is going to help reverse widespread international cynicism toward the United States?

GK: I think even outside the Beltway, everybody still believes that America is necessary. But no one is sure that its sufficient anymore. And America needs allies, [because] what is a foreign-policy agenda for the United States in the Middle East is — to a large extent — a domestic policy for us and for people in what we call our Near East.

FP: Over the last eight years, youve been a frequent critic of the Bush administration. What would you say was the biggest analytical error that George W. Bush made?

GK: The administration mistook the Middle East for the former Soviet Empire. They thought that from the Evil Empire to the Axis of Evil there was a continuity, which was not the case.

The war on terror was supposed to mobilize public opinion behind the Bush administration. Everybody was with them after 9/11, but then the agenda was changed and the war on terror was a means to implement another plan — downing the Saddam regime and creating a U.S.-friendly Iraq.

FP: Are you using war on terror in the past tense?

GK: I think that now, with Obama, [the war on terror] is something that has been wiped away. He’s [going] to pull out from Iraq.

The big game in 2009 will be how they deal with Iran. And from the Iranian point of view, they are having a presidential election in 2009. My belief is that the Ahmadinejad hard-liners will be defeated. They were in power because you had the neoconservative hard-liners in Washington, D.C.

You know what Hussein Obama means in Farsi? Hussein is with us. I dont think this is just a joke; Ahmadinejad doesnt stand a chance even in terms of Shiite credentials in front of someone called Hussein is with us, right?

[What] I mean more seriously is that engaging Iran doesnt mean going to Iran in a position of weakness. It means seeing to what extent there [will be] people in the post-Ahmadinejad Iran who consider it better to be part of the security system of the Gulf than to be the bad guys.

FP: What would you tell Obama if you had a meeting with him?

GK: [I would advise him on] the need to conceive of a Middle East policy that would be in close cooperation with allies. And [he needs] to understand that there is a new era being shaped in the Middle East. From the North Sea to the [Persian] Gulf, you find know-how, academic strength, and secure and legal space. Couple the strong European Union, the wealth and the energy of the Gulf, and [the United States, and you can] triangulate a relationship that will allow for growth in the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Without that growth, we will not find any solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

FP: Isn’t that a lot like French President Nicolas Sarkozys initiative of building a Union for the Mediterranean, which didn’t really work politically?

GK: They are in the same direction, but I think that the Union for the Mediterranean was mistaken in that it did not explicitly include the Gulf. We don’t have to see the Gulf as a gas station with an ATM. Those people want to talk about politics. They have tremendous problems of security, and they want to be reassured. Until now, they benefited from the American military umbrella. But after the catastrophe in Iraq, this military umbrella is becoming questionable. It is still a necessity, but it is not sufficient.

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