Sunday, February 13, 2005

I have not fully collected my thoughts on this topic but a couple of posts have me mulling the relationship between radical Islamism and the great secular totalitarianisms of the 20th century. the first was from JB at riting on the wall who delved into the recent pronouncements of al Qaida's chief ideologist, Ayman al-Zawahiri. JB is not impressed with al-Zawahiri the theorist:

"braude interprets all of this from a rationalist/western/critical perspective. but that's missing someting. there's nothing new here. zawahiri hasn't made a single point here that he hasn't been making since, at the very least, bin laden's days in sudan. actually, i'm not sure there's anything here unique to zawahiri. all three foundations are straight out of qutb. enjoining against the united states came out of the early days of egyptian islamic jihad. and it's really hard to see any of this as an attempt to link himself to an-nahda:"

The second prompt for rethinking Islamism was a dialogue I had with Collounsbury on his post on Koranic duels. I ended up after the exchange stating the following hypothesis:

"Islamism has some analagous traits or borrowed tactics from previous Totalitarianisms - people like Bin Laden are not stupid, they will use what can be adapted that does not contradict their view of Islam - but I think Islamism needs to be better understood on its own merits and not its borrowings. In other words, a revision of previous attempts to retrofit Islamism into Fascist or Communist models by American intellectuals is in order. Not all of these observations are wrong but the extent has been exaggerated in an attempt to understand how Islamism ticks. Or to communicate the urgency or scope of the problem."

I am not knocking Paul Berman whose book Terror and Liberalism argues the connection between Fascism and Islamism or even those who took the tack of analogies with Communism. I think those arguments were fairly made and are persuasive to the degree that the Islamists have been influenced by or borrowed tactics from their secular predecessors who were also in revolt against the liberal modernity represented by he West. Islamist and Arab radicals have often cribbed Anti-semitic discourse in some of its vilest manifestations directly from its European and Nazi context. Even in the instances where the relationship between Islamism and Fascism or Communism is tenuous there remains some remarkable paralells in terms of psychological/internal and transnational/organizational dynamics because all three represented a revolutionary, anti-status quo, attack on the global order.

Conceding those points I must move on to the crux of the issue. These influences and analogies may be misleading us in terms of confronting the Islamists because they are secondary and not central to Islamism as a motivating ideology. By relying too heavily on our experential familiarity with the Nazis and the Cold War we avoid looking at the heart of what drives a Muslim to become a Jihadi and are apt to miss the evolutionary trajectory that Islamist groups may be taking. By missing the trends and not understanding the psychological-ideological levers we miscue our actions in the GWOT I think also that this works both ways. Bin Laden's pre-election videotape revealed that he did not know quite how to direct his message to a Western audience with the clarity and effect he has enjoyed with the Arab-Islamic world.

Another conundrum is the existence and relationship between radical Sunni and radical Shiite forms of Islamism. The former is in a transnationalist, revolutionary, movement phase with no overarching authority and the latter is an official state ideology already swiftly descending into bureaucratic ossification. Supreme Guide Khameini is wearing his high religious titles with as much justification as Brezhnev wore his military decorations - and probably is causing as much wincing embarrassment to his followers. I'm no expert on Iran or Islam but I find it dubious that any significant body of Shiite Muslims hail Ali Khameini as a Marja, much less as an Imam.

I'm interested in hearing what you think regarding whether we are on the right track in analyzing and countering - and hopefully crushing - radical Islamism
Please bear with me if my ignorance is too obvious and correct me where I stray too far...

I have an interest in Islamism and history and try to educate myself when the opportunity arises and I think I understand what you are saying.

It seems to me there are some historic parallels with Christianity and Islam.
The apex of Christian ideology, nationhood and politics was 1000 CE when it was assumed that Christ would return. At that point the Holy Roman Empire faced a religious crisis which took hundreds of years to play out culminating in the Reformation and a cavalcade of violence lasting until the Peace of Westphalia.

If this can be used to build a parallel, then let's say that Islam too grew geographically from its Golden Age in the 8th century until 1492 when it finally lost Spain. For the next 5 centuries it struggled with the loss of its role as conquering and pre-eminent religion. Lately is has been assailed by its own reformers, a struggle to capture the essence of Islam (submission) - is it personal or is it political?

If this can be accepted then we may be at the beginning of the presumably violent stuff of reformation. (I might also consider that Judaism went through this from the Babylonian captivity [loss of daily sacrifices] through destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE [Josephus describes the horrific carnage between Jewish sects as the Romans were destroying the city].

In the Reformation I see the last violent gasp as the Spanish monarch tries to reclaim the world (at least the UK & Netherlands) for Catholicism and his empire. The Inquisitions seem all too reminiscent of the Islamist rhetoric. The defeat of Catholicism doesn't mean its end but its change to peaceful coexistence with the world (Christian and non-Christian alike).

The bloody Iraq/Iran war was partly a religious war that seems to show a parallel as well. 9/11 seems a laying down of the gauntlet for the West on the part of Islamists - an insistence that the troubles of Islam are due to lax religious observances and outside interference.

If this is reasonable case then there is very little we can due to 'defeat' the Islamists - the Muslim reformers will have to do that. As outsiders the best we can do is to not treat Islam as the enemy and show mercy and compassion when we are able (the Tsunami assistance is a good example).

I would refer you to experts such as Dr. Khaleel Mohammed for better insight than mine and appropriate references.
Hi Stuart,

I cannot claim any special expertise on Islam either as I am just starting to study/read in earnest.

Your " evolutionary" analogy with Chistianity is one I have heard a couple of times before and it makes a certain sense because Islam is around 700 years more recent. There are also recognizable parallels with Protestant Christianity's increasingly austere reification of the faith and with Salafi and Wahabbi-Hanbali interpretations of the Sharia. There are also differences too well outlined by Bernard Lewis ( I think in Islam and the West)

Islamism though, is relatively recent and more overtly political. At it's fathest it goes back to Mohammed Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the 1880's who wanted to renovate the decaying Caliphate and Persian monarchy to better resist Western imperial powers and promote Pan-Islamic unity. Abduh's disciple, Mohammed Rashid Rida, while a founder of Salafism was also a promoter of Pan-Arabism and helped lay the foundations for the Baathists to argue that secular Pan-Arab nationalism was compatible with Islam.

With Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam, religious extremism became political activism and terrorism. These two are very recent innovators and hopefully, their ideas, can be contained by the West and rejected by the Muslims.
That is sort of my point - there were not a lot of years between Martin Luther and the violent upheavals of the Reformation. Are we witnessing something similar in Islam? Islamists being a backlash against a fairly recent reformation movement within Islam? (Which in itself was triggered by a stagnation of the religion since 1492.)
Perhaps my view is too simplistic but I view the problem from the perspective of both an athiest and a scientist. The very essence of science is being able to challenge any idea and replace it with something else that "works" better (as an aside, of course scientists have their own prejudices and tend to shun radically new ideas, but in the long run, if your ideas prove true, they are accepted). This is the opposite of faith, as in Christianity, and also the opposite of the certainty of the Quran (can anything be questioned if it is directly God's word?). Why do you think quite a few of the 9/11 hijackers and many in al qaeda management had/have engineering or technical backgrounds? They were raised with Islam, and educated with science and they just can't reconcile the two. What makes it worse is that they see that our success is built on the foundation of science/technology.
Greater minds than I will have to figure a way out of this mess.

I'm not sure I can agree with the idea of Islam being halted in its expansion with the expulsion from Spain in 1492. That's too Western European a view. The Muslim Ottoman had taken Constantinople in 1453, consolidated their holdings, and engaged in peripatetic expansion until the middle of the 17th century.

IIRC there was an uneasy stasis thereafter until the 19th century when the Ottoman was expelled from Europe bit by bit culminating in the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.

Said another way the height of Muslim expansion into Europe is very nearly within living memory.
Hmmmm, many points.....

Dave has an important comment. The Turks twice were at the Gates of Vienna and at one point would have been in the Germanies except for being routed by Jan Sobieski, the Polish King.In the 17th century Islamic polities held sway from Morocco to the Tibetan border. The Emir of Bukhara was not deposed unti the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war. It was a long slow decline.

Barnabus raises an interesting cognitive dilemna. There's a terrible dichotomy between traditional rote learning of the Quran which is beyond criticism ( the Hadith is less sacral) and modern scientific training.

More or less a pious Muslim who is trained to think critically cannot (easily or safely) turn that analytical power toward Islam when diagnosing the ills of his society.

It's far safer to look for extrinsic causes to what ails the mMslim world. To propose that some aspects of the Sharia or the way some schools of jurisprudence interpret it might be a stumbling block to Arab progress would be blasphemous or at least a serious impiety.

As for Stuart's comment, the radical salafists would argue that they *are* a reforming movement.

This too seems obvious during the reformation such as Hugo Grotius advocating human reason (natural law) over biblical citation and Rene Descartes.

Christianity as part of the reformation was able to reconcile the conflict between faith and science.

I have heard quite a few Muslims describe the loss of Spain as a blow and the end of an age. It might not be wholly acurate but it may be visceral. I am not an expert in Islam so I hope some Muslims can weigh in on this.
I'm late to the party, I see. Some quick thoughts. First, like it or not, parallelism in historical epochs can only get you so far. Yes, there is a certain resonance between the Reformation and modern debates within Islam, but this is a classic example of coincidence not implying causality - the obervation doesn't seem, to me anyhow, to carry an predictive weight what so ever. The ages are just too different.

Political Islam has developed and will continue to develop in a globalized world where one can't help but come into contact with global liberal modernism (and, somewhat different, global capitalism.) That is, the rules of the game which modern Islam has to play are quite a bit more set than they were for the Reformation. Luther et al could revolt against the dominant order and wholly define an alternate schismatic vision. Islamic reformers don't have any such freedom: they must reject an established social order - that is, Islam as it was/is - while coming to terms with another established social order - global liberalism. The tension is immense.

This is really quite something. The Islamic world (speaking in gross generalities here - specifics obviously vary from context to context) has grievances against both dominant social orders they have to contend with/against. And there's a tendency on both sides to simplify this too much, overplaying one side of this dynamic over the other. Yes, Islamism responds to grievances against the Islamic world by pitting its vision contra modernism. Likewise, liberal reformers tend to lay too much blame on traditionalists for causing real grievances. The truth is in a dialogical position between the two, along with some creative theoretical advancement. And no, no one really has an answer to this.

I've done this before, but it seems a good place to do so again: I'd recommend Armando Salvatore's Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity. He traces various responses to the tension quite admirably, though he really doesn't come to conclusions per se. This sort of thing is hard to really legitimately conclude.

Anyhow. That's my two cents.
Quality blog, enjoyed it. I will comeback.
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