Islamism and the West

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Let me start by clarifying the two key words in the title of this paper.

The first thing to be said is that Islamism is, for all its discursive anachronisms, a modern phenomenon that arose as a revolt against the rapid changes that Modernity introduces into the social structures, educational apparatuses, state forms, familial and gender relations, and even sensibilities in heretofore traditionalist Muslim societies. Among all the attributes of Modernity it fully accepts only the technological side; all the other philosophical underpinnings and social consequences it rejects as mere ‘westernization’. To the extent that modern institutions arose in most of the Muslim-majority countries either under European pressure or under outright colonial occupation, Islamism’s revolt legitimates itself in accents of cultural authenticity and, in many cases, as opposition to foreign domination.

In our usage, then, the term ‘Islamism’ refers to a whole array of ideological positions and political organizations which hold that religion is, metahistorically, the constitutive element of culture and society for Muslims wherever they may reside, whether as majority or minority of population; that, consequently, Muslim-majority countries must have states, legal codes, educational apparatuses, etc that reflect this centrality of Islamic religious belief and its canonical texts; and that, where in a minority, the primary duty of Muslims is to safeguard their separate group identity, against existing laws and social norms if need be, not only in matters of  religious faith per se, such as liberty of worship etc, but also in those customary matters of one kind or another, such as the female hijab, which are uniquely identified as markers of a Muslim culture. An outstanding characteristic of the Islamicist creed is its refusal to concede any fundamental separation between religion and politics, or between the sociologically distinct categories of religion and culture. Religion is said to be all-inclusive: a whole way of life, personal, familial, trans-national.

In short, ‘Islamism’ is not just a pietistic belief but, above all, a very general matrix for many kinds of politics. It can be gradualist, reformist, non-militaristic, and willing to accept—at least provisionally—the coordinates of the established nation-state, as is currently the case, for instance, of the Tunisian An-Nahda and the Moroccan Justice and Development Party as they win a plurality of votes in recent elections, and of the Egyptian Ikhwan as they position themselves for the transition of power there. Or, at the other extreme, it can be millenarian, militaristic and beyond the pale of ordinary legality as is the case with what one might call Jihadi Islam, symbolised these days by al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban. When in power, it tends to be theocratic, be it Sunni and monarchical as in Saudi Arabia, or Shia and formally republican as in Iran. Geopolitically, various kinds of Islamism are capable of very disparate kinds of alliances, pro-West or anti-West, as witnessed, most dramatically, in the shifting fortunes of the pro-American, anti-communist jihad in Afghanistan against the PDPA government there and, subsequently, the anti-American Jihad of al-Qaeda under the stewardship of Osama bin Laden and others who had previously fought for the Americans. Similarly, the Islamism of Saudi Arabia and the Islamism of Iran can be quite differently positioned, in geopolitical terms, in relation to NATO and the United States. Indeed, divergences are so great that it might be better to speak of Islamisms, in the plural, than of a singular Islamism. Such specificities shall be of great relevance to our later discussion of the fraught relations between Islamism and the West. What unites all the divergent manifestations, though, is a common assertion of the primacy of religious faith, over and above politics, society, secular nationhood, modern civil law, and the idea of universal normative values beyond religion and ethnicity.

This brings us, then, to the second term in our title: ‘the West’. At the most basic level, I don’t really believe there is such a unitary thing as ‘the West’. But it is a convenient short-hand, so I will use it. For the larger part of the last millennium, European powers viewed Muslims stereotypically through the prism of their anxieties about the adjacent Ottoman empire, and European scholarship, such as it was, viewed Islam primarily in terms of theological combat, often as a degenerate and blood-thirsty form of heresy. I am not concerned with that history in this paper, but, for those who are interested, a short and very fine-grained treatment of the theme can be found in a chapter of Aziz al-Azmeh’s seminal book, Islams and Modernities.[1]

In the sense that is given to the term in this paper, ‘the West’ emerges as a coherent configuration of power only in the period of high colonialism, from late 18th century onwards: from Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, let us say, up to the present, a period in which most of the Muslim lands came to be occupied by sundry colonialisms—British, French, Russian, Dutch, Italian, what have you—not to speak of the ongoing and very palpable settler-colonialism of the Zionist state in the historic land of Palestine. Those that were not colonised were turned into subordinate allies (Turkey), clients and dependencies (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies) or enemies in perennial need of subjugation (Afghanistan). It is a traumatizing history. Contemporary Islamism bears all the pathological hallmarks of that trauma. More broadly, however, one of the chief effects of these colonial and imperialist involvements has been that no Muslim peoples have ever been allowed to find their own way into modernity. The West has always intervened, in one way or another, pursuing advantage for itself. This can be seen as much in NATO’s own agenda in the aerial invasion of Libya as in its efforts to control the outcome of the Egyptian revolution. As I draft this paper, the news of reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has come together with the news that Palestinians will now lose the meagre financial support they were receiving from the West in lieu of the Oslo Accords and will become even more financially dependent on the Arab League, i.e., the Gulf monarchies. Palestinians cannot even settle their own internal disputes without the West intervening, negatively, in the process.

In domains of ideology and cultural attitude, all the basic stereotypes of Islam and Muslims that were coined during centuries of confrontation between Christendom and the Islamicate, mainly the Ottomans but the more distant Muslim lands as well, survived into the colonial repertoire and can now be mobilised in the service of contemporary empire. This can be seen in the hair-raising and outright racist rhetoric of the Christian Right in the United States, but a very broad spectrum of more urbane theological, academic and governmental authorities is also remarkably prone to such stereotypic stigmatization of Mulsims.[2] I have commented elsewhere on Islamophobic attitudes of the current Pope as well as influential academics such as Samuel Huntington.[3] Let me now offer three examples from the Franco-German zone to illustrate how biological racism and expansionist colonial nostalgia keeps emerging in the rhetoric of men at the very centre of the financial oligarchy and political power.

There is, first, the complex case of Thilo Sarrazin, until recently a senior member of the German Social Democratic Party and a member of the executive board of the all-powerful Bundesbank, who wrote in 2009 that “I do not have to acknowledge anyone who lives by welfare, denies the legitimacy of the very state that provides that welfare, refuses to care for the education of his children and constantly produces new little head-scarfed girls. This holds true for 70 percent of the Turkish and 90 percent of the Arab population in Berlin.” He further added, “No other religion in Europe makes so many demands. No immigrant group other than Muslims is so strongly connected with claims on the welfare state and crime. No group emphasizes their differences so strongly in public, especially through women’s clothing. In no other religion is the transition to violence, dictatorship and terrorism so fluid.” He was roundly criticized by polite society in Germany for actually saying in public, while holding high office, things that one is supposed to say only behind closed doors—things, moreover that are generally believed and get repeated in the popular media ad infinitum. He then followed it up with a book whose title translates into English asGermany Does Away With Itself in which he amasses statistics from dubious biological research on relative intelligence capabilities of various ethnic groups to show that the Muslim immigrants, with their lower intelligence ratios, pose a dire threat to the cultural and techno-scientific identity of Germany. Here cultural nationalism is seamlessly fused into biologistic racism of an older vintage. He lost his position at the Bundesbank when he also asserted that all Jews shared a special gene that makes them more intelligent and industrious. This relativistic racialism proved to be too much for polite society. The striking fact is that Sarrazin, the author of this bestseller, belonged in the financial elite of the country as well as the upper echelons of the German liberal-left elite, and yet he could still write effortlessly what Le Pen in France or Haider in Austria would surely applaud. Equally striking, though not at all surprising, was the revelation through subsequent polls that half of the Germans agreed with his views and 18 per cent said that they would vote for him if he started his own party.

My next two examples come from France. Pierre Levy, a former editor of L’Humanite, recently recalled a passage from a speech Sarkozy delivered in 2007 in which he recalled "the shattered dream of Charlemagne and of the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the great schism between Eastern and Western Christianity, the fallen glory of Louis XIV and Napoleon. . ." and then went on to declare that "Europe is today the only force capable of carrying forward a project of civilization."[4]  This claim to a unique European civilizational mission, rooted as it is to the civilizing missions of the French colonialism f yesteryears, then led quickly to an ambition to conquer: "I want to be the president of a France which will bring the Mediterranean into the process of its reunification after twelve centuries of division and painful conflicts . . .  America and China have already begun the conquest of Africa.  How long will Europe wait to build the Africa of tomorrow?  While Europe hesitates, others advance." Levy then goes on to quote Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a senior  leader of the Socialist Party (much in the news recently for alleged sexual misdemeanours), who matched Sarkozy’s bombast with his own desire for a Europe stretching "from the cold ice of the Arctic in the North to the hot sands of the Sahara in the South (. . .) and that Europe, I believe, if it continues to exist, will have reconstituted the Mediterranean as an internal sea, and will have re-conquered the space that the Romans, or Napoleon more recently, attempted to consolidate."  

In this world-view, then, NATO is seen as having inherited a mission from the Roman Empire and the Napoleonic conquests, which then involves the “re-conquest” of North Africa. It was, after all, only about fifty years ago that France finally relinquished its claim that Algeria was not a foreign colony but an “outlying province” of France itself. What is very striking in any case is how closely the rhetoric of “civilization” is woven into the rhetoric of “conquest” and even “re-conquest.” Is that what the recent “humanitarian intervention” by NATO and its 40,000-plus aerial sorties are supposed to yield in Libya: an empire without formal colonisation on the American model?

The Islamophobic strain in Western high culture that runs, let us say, from medieval writers up to Freud and well beyond, and which structures a certain kind of historical imagination, the dominant positions in Western academic institutions, as well as major presuppositions in geopolitical thinking. Furthermore, the insertion of large numbers of non-European immigrants into Europe has typically created great atavistic unease. However, the kind of phobia that highly placed men like Sarrazin spout, and the broadest public approval they receive, was not always nearly so extreme, except in fascist circles. During the quarter century after the Second World War, Western Europe was launched on Reconstruction and Euro-American societies began to experience the longest period of prosperity in their history, lasting into the early 1970s. During that period of great industrial expansion, infrastructural construction and economic prosperity, issues of religion and religious difference got minimized in public life. The large number of Asian and African, including Arab, immigrants that came in response to labour shortages in Europe during those postwar years were assimilated much more easily, with hardly any religious conflict per se. That recent past stands in sharp contrast to the kind of religious friction and seemingly unbridgeable cultural antagonism that one witnesses today across the Euro-American zone, in the period of economic stagnation, the rightward drift in politics and a general atmosphere seething with social resentments.

This phenomenon in Europe began to grow in the 1970s and has grown with each passing decade, as full employment economies succumbed to rising rates of unemployment, and immigrants were seen to be taking precious jobs away from the older native populations and came also to be seen as undeserving beneficiaries of the social state. Crises of culture, religion and capital exacerbate each other in this context. All across Europe, race and religion now return in the cloak of cultural differentialism.  From Switzerland to France, the mere building of a minaret seems to threaten the very foundations of a European secular civilization that thrives on church spirals dotting the skylines across the continent. It is considered perfectly normal in liberal press in the European Union to advocate the idea that Turkey should perhaps never become a member because the EU cannot absorb so large a Muslim population, and a large part of public sentiment on this issue is of course more extreme. One is reminded here of Adorno’s rueful comment that all that is left of the religion of love for the Christian is the hatred of his neighbour. That was said in the midst of savage waves of anti-semitism. Now, some seventy years later, it would appear that the anti-semitism that was repressed after the Second World War now returns as hatred of that other Semite who is not the Jew but the Arab—and, reaching beyond the Arab, this stereotypical stigmatizing extends to all Muslims, generically.

It needs to be said, though, that among immigrants within Europe, the situation is greatly complicated by the organized emergence of Muslim religious entrepreneurs who are often funded by Saudi and other related agencies. They set up mosques not only as sites of worship but also for production of communal hysteria and incitement, often over issues of minor significance such as the supposedly Islamic headgear for women. In an atmosphere charged with resentments, these religious entrepreneurs present themselves to the governments in question as community leaders and partners in dialogue over practices of cultural differentialism. All of this is getting played out in a time of lethal but eventually ineffectual Islamist terrorism of the past couple of decades on the one hand, wars of occupation and energy extraction in Muslim lands on the other. And, when I mention this Islamist terror, I am thinking less of the Twin Towers in New York and more of the Algeria of the recent past and the Pakistan of today. Aside from the terror, there is also an unquestionable expansion of popular pieties, millenarian religiosities and general social disorientation across the very lands that are the object of imperial greed. Matters are now such that something like a passive Islamist revolution is unfolding even in Turkey, while Turkey and Saudi Arabia close ranks over the question of Syria (and this needs to be said without any defence for the abominable Assad regime which has brought it all upon itself). One hopes that the explosive splendour of Tahrir Square shall redeem at least part of this situation. Yet, it is also the case that even the popular uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, not to speak of Syria itself, have deeply sectarian colouring. Softer versions of Islamism are within reach of power in Tunisia and Morocco, and Algeria may well be next; having survived Islamic extremism, at very great cost, the country may yet fall, like a ripened fruit, into the lap of the more soft-spoken Islamists. This is a fair measure of the almost complete collapse of left alternatives and projects in the entire region where Muslims are a majority.

This phenomenon could perhaps be traced back to US President Roosevelt’s declaration of 1943-- “I hereby find that the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the United States”—and the agreement to establish a US Air force base in Bahrain in 1945. More specifically, one could say that this strategic Islamophilia comes into its own with the Truman Doctrine at the very onset of the Cold War which designated Islam as a strategic ally in the worldwide anti-communist crusade. This brand of Islamophilia was then quickly stabilised in the Eisenhower Doctrine that chose, in a historic context, the Wahabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against the secular nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Roughly three decades before President Reagan was to entertain the Afghan Mujahideen in the Oval Office, describing that group of Islamists as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers”, President Eisenhower had already received ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood in the same room (the famous Said Ramadan, the father of equally famous Tariq Ramadan, among them),  as part of a policy to roll back Arab secular radicalism, well before Nasser had turned to the Soviet Union for military and economic assistance.

The United States is said to have played a distinctive role in persuading the Saudi king to provide a home and fabulous funding for the Muslim Brotherhood after Nasser had evicted them from Egypt, thus providing the basis for confluence between Wahabi Islam and the Salafist tendencies of the Brotherhood. The handsome funds that flowed into the coffers of the Brotherhood not only from Saudi Arabia but also other petro-Islamic states of the Gulf served to revive the fortunes of political Islamism and turn the Brotherhood and its affiliates-- such as  Maudoodi’s Jama’at-e-Islami—from ineffectual, local manifestations of a malignant social phenomenon into a powerful worldwide network of politically ambitious pan-Islamic groupings with no small degree of millenarian fevers of the mind. Inter alia, two universities were created in the kingdom during the 1960s, the Islamic university of Medina in 1961 and King Abdul Aziz University in 1967, to compete with the venerable old Al-Azhar to capture the minds of the religiously oriented Muslim youth for Wahabi and Salafist indoctrinations. Osama bin Ladan was a typical product of that educational system and the lethal atmosphere prevailing in and around them.

A more detailed examination of this phenomenon shall have to be undertaken elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the history of strategic Islamophilia that begins with the Truman Doctrine reached its zenith in the anti-communist crusade in Afghanistan embodied in the Carter Doctrine, which in turn called into action Jihadis from some forty countries and turned them, for the first time, into a compact fighting force that could reasonably be called Jihad International Inc. Details of all that too, we shall ignore. Suffice it to say here that in their original formation, members of al-Qaeda  were paid fabulous sums by the US and Pakistani intelligence services and their conduits in the Gulf, for fighting the good fight against communism in Afghanistan; that after communism was defeated in Afghanistan and the international ihadi force was disbanded, many of the luminaries of that jihad were to return to their countries of origin and create mayhem in them, from Indonesia to Algeria; others headed toward a variety of intermediate destinations, from Turkmenistan to Chechnya; while others came west, into Europe and the United States, to re-train themselves for waging jihad against the very country—whom they now called “crusader”-- that had taught them the virtues of jihad against the Soviet infidel. 

Western narratives have a profound interest in occluding the actual processes of recent history which have brought us to the point where academic claims can be made, in a genre popularised by professors Huntington and Bernard Lewis, that what has happened in the Muslim world after those defeats of secular nationalism was a Return or Resurgence of an Islam as it has always been, essentially. There is in fact noReturn of that kind. Every neo-traditionalism is a modern artefact, even in its anti-Modernity, as the whole history of European rightwing romanticisms and irrationalisms have taught us. Osama Bin Laden probably knew more about the shadowy aspects of modern banking than Huntington or Lewis ever did, and the Muslim Brotherhood is quite as modern a phenomenon as Baathism or German Christian Democracy.

When it comes to geopolitical concerns, the West has some intrinsic antipathy toward Muslims, is ill-founded. The question always is: which Islam, and whose Islam?  The West befriends certain kinds of Muslims and fights other kinds of Muslims, in accordance with its own interests. We have gone through a decade of hair-raising Islamphobia, with entire countries devastated by wars on ‘Terror’ and on what is called ‘Islamofascism’ in American parlance.



[1] Aziz al-Azmeh, ‘Islamic Studies and the European Tribe’ in Islams and Modernities, Verso, 2nd Edition, 1996.

[2] See, for a considerable flavour of this Islamophobic culture industry in the U.S.,  Stephen Sheehi,Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign against Muslims, Clarity Press, Atlanta, 2011.

[3] Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Islam, Islamisms and the West’ in Socialist Register 2008, Merlin Press, London, 2007.