For a couple of centuries, successive French regimes have sought to harness the Arab world into serving French ambitions. Recent American influence in the Middle East has therefore been greatly resented in Paris. The French have done everything they could to prevent a US-sponsored peace between Israel and the Palestinians, while the display of American strength in response to Islamism in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, has been a cause of despair.
Gilles Kepel is a French Orientalist of note, and one who faithfully projects the worldview of the French governing elite. Beyond Terror and Martyrdom has the primary purpose of rubbishing President George W. Bush. Kepel holds that various characters, identified only as neo-conservatives, devised a "narrative" for Bush whereby he was to deliver the political world from evil; this supposed "narrative" is really a sort of fantasy having nothing to do with the national interest and the suppression of Islamism. The result, Kepel asserts without any examination of the evidence on the ground, is fiasco and chaos.
The secondary purpose of the book is to deflate the Islamists. They had a corresponding "narrative": to rescue faithful Muslims from the evils of the West. Kepel provides some useful commentary on tactical discussions among Islamists about attacking Muslim rulers deemed Western stooges or insufficiently religious, and about whether to establish bases for combat or underground cells. All Islamists took it for granted that their cause would mobilise Muslims everywhere in the world against unbelievers but this too has proved a fantasy. Instead, Sunnis and Shias are gearing up for fresh outbursts of sectarian violence. As for Muslims in Europe, Kepel alleges that they are keen to integrate. The rioting which in 2005 almost brought France to a standstill, the bombings in Spain and Britain, or the row in Denmark over cartoons depicting Muhammad, ought to be seen in his unusual logic as evidence of the wish for more and faster integration.
Kepel's concept of "narrative" is only a way of deforming reality in the manner of the structuralism and post-modernism in vogue on university campuses. The facts do not bear out "narratives" that place the US and Islamism on the same footing of self-deception and failure. The moral equivalence drawn between the two parties is wholly false, and self-serving as well. In his final chapters, Kepel has a "narrative" too, visualising the Middle East and Europe melding into an enormous power bloc to replace "Washington's military engineering". Here is the old wishful thinking about the Arabs so familiar in Paris, and it is rather bad luck to be publishing this reprise of it at a moment of economic and political crisis for all concerned.