Slap Him, He's French

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Reading today's Reason Daily by Michael Young, you might get the impression Gilles Kepel, the hero of the article, has some common interests with the Martin Kramer faction of Middle East Studies Association critics. (Speaking as a skeptic of neoconservative schemes for regional transformation, I can say that Kepel—though I think his thesis is highly debatable—has done a better job of elucidating what's wrong with the Muslim world than a hundred Bernard Lewises.) In an intriguing enemy's-enemy formulation, this Foreign Affairs article by a professor at Columbia—the Evil Empire for Kramer and Daniel Pipes—tags Kepel for not being harder on the neoconservatives.

But all is not well in Neoconville. As it happens, Pipes hates Kepel with a passion, and never misses a chance to slam him. From a 419-word review by Pipes of Kepel's Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam:

One way to become a Famous Intellectual in France is to take a nonsensical thesis and be the first write a whole book advancing it. By this standard, Kepel excels, for he adopts the preposterous idea that militant Islam is in decline and manages to fill 376 pages of text with examples and arguments that credibly support this idea. His only fault is a certain lack of originality, given that one of his colleagues, Olivier Roy, beat him to the punch by publishing L'Echec de l'Islam politique a full eight years earlier.

In a review of Mehdi Mozaffari's Fatwa: Violence and Discourtesy, Pipes blames Kepel for a serious lapse in the Rushdie affair: "It was, [Mozaffari] holds, two French scholars of Islam, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, who came up with the term fatwa, which then others picked up."

And in a 2001 article by Pipes and Jonathan Schanzer, bearing the prescient title "On to Baghdad?: Yes—The Risks Are Overrated," we get more scorn for Kepel:

Destabilized Arab regimes: "Arab regimes will be considerably weakened if they are incapable of preventing operations against Iraq," finds French analyst Gilles Kepel. "This would be highly destabilizing."

Really? More likely, ridding the world of Saddam will stabilize every Arabic-speaking country, as they no longer worry about his depredations and can loosen up. Better yet, the Iraqi National Congress (waiting in the wings) gives signs of setting up a democratic government and the Kurdish government in the north of Iraq (in power) has already done so.

I hesitate to apply the term "neocon" to Pipes, who contains multitudes and can't be reduced to mere earthly labels. And Kepel is by no means an uncomplicated ally of neoconservatism. But he's clearly a useful figure for the rightist, hawkish school Pipes belongs to. So why the abuse? From my own view in the cheap seats, I can only speculate, but I suspect this is a case where it's considered better to have no friends at all than friends who are off the reservation. Why have an unreliable cohort making your arguments for you—even or especially when he's doing a better job of it than you are? But since I never want to overlook sloth and incompetence as solutions to a mystery, I suspect Pipes has become so wrapped up in being an O'Reillyesque performance artist that he can't be bothered to figure out what Kepel's thesis is. (The review of Jihad above, which never mentions the book's main idea and misstates all but one of the factual claims it considers, really puts the curse in cursory.) You can almost see the wheels spinning: French? An intellectual? Must be somebody I'm against!

BHL, watch your back!

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  1. Having read it in French I have to say that was one bizarro review.

    It was doing well in the 1980s, expanding its base, but fell apart in the 1990s due to an inability of the Islamists to keep intact the alliance they had cobbled together of the young urban poor and the devout middle class.

    He argues that it fell apart with regard to the “near enemy,” that is regimes in the middle east (e.g., Egypt, Algeria, etc.) and Israel; he argues that they then re-focused their efforts on the “faraway enemy.” Talk about a dishonest review.

    Pipes also fails – of course – to recognize Kepel’s discussion of post-9/11 setbacks for the Jihadists (e.g., the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan) and how those setbacks (as well as the incompetance of more amatuer Jihadists who have killed more Muslims than anyone else) has led to a waning sense of confidence in their abilities.

  2. Tim–I did make the point that Kepel wasn’t staking out a position in the dispute, so I agree, and wrote it, that he is not taking the Kramer line. Having said that, he appears to be on friendly terms with Kramer, as the two have hosted panels together, and Kramer writes well of Kepel on his blog.

    Once again, I fear, Kramer and Pipes are being wantonly lumped together, when in fact they have notable differences. Kramer a neocon? He’s certainly not in agreement with a central neocon tenet in the Middle East, namely that the U.S. can democratize the region. I also find him to be far less of a showboater than Pipes, who somewhere along the way seemed to prefer being a strident pamphleteer.

  3. You’ve missed the boat entirely.

    From Pipes to Chirac: ?Le bruit et l’odeur?

    French? An intellectual? Must be somebody I’m against!

    Meandering along and leaping from the various links of the posting, I somehow ended up at this 1990 Pipes article, in which we find:

    All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most…

    FEARS OF a Muslim influx have more substance than the worry about jihad. Western European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene.

    interestingly revised to

    …and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene.

    for his website version.

    This, of course, reminded me of the famous Zebda song, Le bruit et l’odeur. (To hear a bit of this song, click here. [You may have to scroll down to the clips section and click on it yourself. I can’t seem to make it work on H&R. / The clip on the UK site is better than the one on the French site, btw.] To read the lyrics, go here.)

    The stimulus for the song was the 1991 remark by Jacques Chirac (you can hear him saying it here, made in the hope of attracting some of Le Pen’s voters.)

    From Pipes to Chirac (via Le Pen). “The Noise and the Smell.”

    Pipes IS a French intellectual!

  4. it seems to me that pipes never really has found failure in the roussauian/jacobin strain of political theory that moved through hegel and nietzsche to the 20th c dictatorships — right down to the masked-racist idealization of germanic hygiene. why not phrenology, mr pipes?

    it makes me shudder with fear that men like pipes have an audience in the united states — and political power as well. the ascendancy of his neurotic hubristic viewpoint has to make one question whether or not the age of the age of western dictatorships is past. to my mind, it seems certainly not.

  5. Once again, I fear, Kramer and Pipes are being wantonly lumped together, when in fact they have notable differences.

    As did Martin and Lewis. Pipes and Kramer started Campus Watch together, Kramer edited Pipes’ journal until last year, they give glowing reviews to each others’ books, and I’m not aware of their making any big effort to differentiate their views. In any event I mentioned Kramer (whom I don’t read because in the interest of life-simplification I’ve decided never again to read anything that uses “sand” as a simile, metaphor, or other figure of speech with regard to the Middle East) only because he and Pipes lead the faction of MESA critics that should view Kepel as an ally.

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