Reading this book on "the future of the Middle East" as Israel tried to obliterate Gaza, one sees afresh how that insanity fits into the larger tragedy. As a sequel to Gilles Kepel's excellent The War for Muslim Minds, it ends with a utopian vision of how that tragedy might be transcended. But its real achievement lies in his analysis of how we come to be where we are now.
In a nutshell, the two grand narratives which set the stage in the Nineties have collapsed. If Bush's "war on terror" has been a calamitous failure, so have al Qa'ida's "martyrdom operations". Theatrical jihadism has not only failed to unify global Islam: it has also bolstered the rise of al Qa'ida's Shi'ite rivals in Iran. Kepel (above) charts the disintegration of both crusades, and sheds much light along the way.
He delineates martyrdom's Shi'ite origins, with flagellant re-enactments of the death of the Prophet's descendant Husayn conscripted by Ayatollah Khomeini to guarantee youthful cannon-fodder for his war with Iraq. First Hezbollah imported the concept, then Hamas. Kepel notes the hierarchy into which grades of martyr fit, and outlines the debate on when suicide, and the "slaughter of innocents", may be permitted.
Equally illuminating are his discussions of how the conflict's flare-ups in Europe have played out in relation to each country's context. While Jack Straw's perverse demand that Muslim women remove their veils when speaking to him dealt a blow to benign multiculturalism, the Pope's inept citing of a medieval provocateur forced moderate Islamists to abandon their non-confrontational stance.
Kepel describes that ideological collision in detail, as he does the 11-minute film which earned its director, Theo Van Gogh, death by throat-cutting in an Amsterdam street. This came as a huge shock to the Dutch, who had relied for stability on their "pillarisation" policy, with each separate ethnic group supporting the "dome" of society.
The cartoons-of-the-Prophet controversy began as a cheeky challenge to liberal self-censorship, but rigidly Lutheran Denmark was quite unable to contain the ensuing conflagration. Kepel explains why France, with its long-established Muslim communities, is the country least scorched by these fires. He thinks car-burning in poor suburbs shows that assimilation simply hasn't gone far enough.
Kepel quotes the ranting videos of Bin Laden's mouthpiece Ayman al-Zawahiri to illustrate the increasing desperation of al Qa'ida, and he notes the flame-fanning efforts, on either side, of Al Jazeera and Fox/CNN. Tony Blair is not significant enough to figure on his landscape of villainy. And his vision? An integrated civilisation, "for sustainable prosperity", stretching from the North Sea to the Gulf. Very seductive, but if he means business, Kepel should devote the whole of his next book to showing how this might be brought about.