“Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West” by Gilles Kepel— Forty Years of Middle East History

Kepel, Gilles. “Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West”,  Columbia University Press, 2020.

Forty Years of Middle East History

Amos Lassen

The Middle East is one of the world’s politically hot regions. We have had great optimism for and tremendous disappointment in the countries there. We have seen the rise of the Arab uprisings through the rise and fall of the Islamic State resulting in challenges to international security challenges. The threat of terrorism has caused migration as have warfare and climate change, competition for control over oil.

Writer Gilles Kepel’s “Away from Chaos” is a forty year political history of Middle East conflict and its ramifications for the rest of the world. He brings us a “narrative of the long-term causes of tension while seamlessly incorporating on-the-ground observations and personal experiences from the people who lived through them.”

The history here begins in 1973 with the Yom Kippur War. We look at the many and diverseideologies of Middle East politics and their implications on the global stage. Kepel puts the chaos in perspective and shows their underlying dynamics while also exploring the prospects of coming out of what is happening.

“Away from Chaos” is Kepel’s personal and political look at the Middle East and a synthesis of years of engagement with and in the Middle East. Keppel has lived what he writes about and has even been targeted by jihadists. Here he shares what he has lived while proposing that there is a return to what steadied the region successfully in the previous century.
In 2016, Kepel was condemned to die for being “an experienced Arabist”. Then right afterwards French-born terrorist, Larossi Abballam, murdered a police officer and his wife . On Facebook he called for the murder of seven public figures in France, with Kepel’s name close to  the top of the list. A government security team guarded Kepel round the clock.  He is a public intellectual in France and extremely well-known.

While there isn’t much new or groundbreaking here yet this is a fine primer for anyone wanting to get up to date on the region and does not go into the aspects of the conflicts that so often cause one to not get a clear picture of what is going on..

Until the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Arab-Israeli conflict  was what really defined the region. Then a steep rise in oil prices and profits financed the first wave of radical Islamism. In 1979 the Iranian revolution and the siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca brought about  a deadly conflict between Tehran and Riyadh that continues today. The same year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and this accelerated for the movement of international jihadists who were willing to become martyrs in battle against heathens.

Jihadism of the 1990s switched the United States for the U.S.S.R as its major enemy. Then came the 9/11 attacks. The Arab Spring pulled the region in yet another direction offering ideas fleeting of hope that the authoritarian regimes from Libya to Syria might finally become representative governments. Only Tunisia conformed.

After this,  ISIS picked up where Al Qaeda had left off and conquered and governed territory in Syria and Iraq . Young Muslims in Europe began to murder their neighbors and Jihadism was everywhere in the Middle East and became which became the beginning of the terrorism in the 2010s.

Kepel says that a new era has now begun with the destruction of the ISIS “caliphate” and the keeping of its influence and prestige in-check. Not only terrorism has largely subsided again but he monarchies of the Persian Gulf are modestly reforming and finally distancing themselves from the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect that has was the backbone of support for many years. Oi money that has financed radical mosques, sectarian militias and terrorist organizations all over the world are permanent declining and the United States replaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas.

We are certainly not sure of how it all stands today and whether we are just experiencing a pause or actually beginning a future that is not so volatile.

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