I read this book for one simple reason: it was one of just six books on the "short list" of the Army Command and General Staff College Commander's Counterinsurgency Reading List. Moreover, it was touted as "an excellent overview of the broader radical Islamic insurgency." After reading "The War for Muslim Minds" by the French political scientist Gilles Kepel I find such strong endorsement from the United States Armed Forces rather puzzling.
To begin with, there is nothing new to be found here. Giles delivers a basic narrative on the confluence of events that have led to the current conflict in the Middle East: the second Intifada, the ascendancy of the neoconservative movement in the United States, the emergence of Al Qaeda, the Wahhabite religious awakening (sahwa) in Saudi Arabia, and the post-invasion civil war in Iraq. Each of these issues has been better and more fully addressed elsewhere. For instance, Giles' chapter on "The Neoconservative Revolution" is essentially a redaction of James Mann's "The Rise of Vulcans," only more condemnatory and less accurate (I tend to agree with Tom Ricks' assessment that the neocons have "been given too much blame and too much credit"). His chapter on the foundation and rise of Al Qaeda ("Striking at the Faraway Enemy") is a weak synopsis of Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize Winning "The Looming Tower." To the extent that Giles has added anything new to previous works, it would be his thinly veiled anti-American tilt to the overall storyline. (Giles accepts as indisputable fact the argument that the pre-invasion claim of WMDs in Iraq was a bald-faced lie used as pretext to overthrow Saddam for the sake of Israel's security. My question to those who subscribe to that belief has always been: if the administration was willing to go to such mendacious lengths, why not conduct an equally complex conspiracy to plant evidence to justify the original lie?)
But these are just quibbles. The main reason "The War for Muslim Minds" disappoints is that the author fundamentally fails to address the compelling central thesis of the book - "the most important battle in the war for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought not in Palestine or Iraq but in communities of believers on the outskirts of London, Paris, and other European cities, where Islam is already a growing part of the West." The final chapter ("The Battle for Europe") supposedly addresses this challenge of winning second generation European-Muslims away from both the quietist salafist and violent jihadist influences; however, Giles focuses almost exclusively on a situation report from France circa 2004 with heavy emphasis on the controversial Islamic activist Tariq Ramadan. He suggests that the ability of the West to win-over their second-generation Muslim citizens to a universalist notion of citizenship and civil, open society will determine the outcome of the current ideological confrontation that is, in his mind, every bit as threatening to twenty-first century peace as communism was to the twentieth. Yet Kepel does not offer any pragmatic solutions or even novel insights as to how the West can successfully compete with the powerful elements in the European-Muslim communities who stridently resist cultural and political integration.
Finally, there is a sobering, defeatist message in this book. Giles contends that "though the ultimate goals of jihadists and neoconservatives diverged, their proximate goals were remarkable aligned: ousting the region's regimes, whose authoritarianism and corruption they both abhorred." He suggests that a shake-out in the Middle East is indeed coming and that the neocons vision of "a virtuous cycle of missiles and tanks, liberation and democratization" is losing out to Al Qaeda's dream of a new greater Islamic Caliphate.