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In 1984 the French scholar Gilles Kepel published a pathbreaking study of modern Islamist movements, issued the following year in a slightly updated edition in English translation as Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh (Univ. of California Press). Kepel, who is professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris, has revisited the subject in his important book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, published last year by Harvard University Press. Michael Cromartie spoke with Kepel in December.
Some commentators on your book suggested that you paint an overly optimistic picture of the future.
Many people do not really understand what I was saying. It's not an issue of being optimistic or pessimistic; it's more an issue of trying to be realistic about what is taking place in the Muslim world today.
So it's more descriptive.
Yes. And it may be perceived as optimistic because, after 9/11, many commentators—who became instant experts on the issue—have described the Muslim world as irredeemably violent, characterized above all by a deep-seated animosity against the West.
We should not mistake the tree for the forest. Making such distinctions is particularly difficult now, but I have been doing that job for 25 years. I was probably the first scholar in the West to write a book on contemporary Islamist movements, Muslim Extremism in Egypt, which I wrote in the mid-1980s. Political Islam is nothing new to me. I've always tried to look at it in cold blood.
Today there are signs of increasing openness to democratization. But this is really the only alternative if the whole Muslim world is not to slide back to the Stone Age. They are lagging behind everywhere. They have not created anything in terms of the advancement of science. Their scientists are increasingly poor. There is no upward social mobility. What they have is oil and nothing else. And oil is unevenly distributed. This is the big challenge they are facing.