The complexities of Islamism

Submitted by AWL on 21 July, 2005 - 12:20

The liberal left, from the Guardian op-ed writers to the Socialist Workers Party, has tended to see modern political Islam as an automatic response of the oppressed and dispossessed of “the Muslim world” to “imperialism”, “the West”, and global inequality. It’s a simplistic view which is not much endorsed by any of the detailed studies of Islamism which have been published in the past few years. Clive Bradley surveys the literature.

Tariq Ali is one of the most forthright advocates of the “left liberal” consensus arguing that the heavily Islamist-influenced “resistance” in Iraq should be regarded as a national liberation movement. Yet his The Clash of Fundamentalisms (Verso, paperback edition 2003) paints a pretty dim picture of the history of political Islam from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Indonesia, and Ali’s native Pakistan. Ali’s whole framework is populist-nationalist — for instance in his account of the Iranian revolution he is much more interested in the guerrilla movements than in the working class — but much of the historical detail is valuable.

But by far the best general overview of Islamism from its origins, through the 1970s to the end of the nineties, is Gilles Kepel’s Jihad: the trail of political Islam (I B Tauris 2002). A French academic (he was involved in the 2004 commission which looked into religious dress in schools), Kepel’s knowledge is encyclopaedic: the book covers everything from Algeria to Malaysia, looking at the Iranian revolution, the link between the rise of Islamism and petrodollars in the 1970s and afterwards, and the growth of political Islam in Europe.

Kepel’s central argument is that militant Islamism is on the decline, having failed to win any significant victories since driving the USSR out of Afghanistan — suffering defeat, especially, in Algeria and Egypt, and failing to transform Bosnia or Kosova into a new jihad. At first sight this analysis has been superseded by events since September 11. But I think the underlying trends he identifies remain valid. Kepel’s later The War for Muslim Minds (Belknap/Harvard 2004) brings the story up to date – examining the emergence of the neo-cons, the failure of nation building in Iraq, and the background to the dispute over the veil in France. (Kepel was an adviser on the British documentary series The Power of Nightmares, and the book covers much of the same territory). For sheer weight of facts and reliability of judgement, I would recommend Kepel’s books above all others discussed here.

Al Qaeda (I B Tauris 2003), by Observer reporter Jason Burke, is also strong on detail and in tracing the development of the most extremist of the Islamist groups. Burke has spent time with “mujaheddin” in Afghanistan and Pakistan; his book is more journalistic than Kepel’s. Burke’s main argument is that “al-Qaeda” is not one thing, one group. There is a central, small organisation around bin Laden; there is a wider network of militant Sunni Islamists influenced by bin Laden; and there is a still much wider general constituency for this deeply conservative Islamist philosophy. In mixing up the three, the “war on terror” creates problems rather than solving them.

Malise Ruthven’s A Fury for God (Granta 2002) has an excellent discussion of the individuals involved in the 9/11 attacks and their ideological background. He examines in particular the radical Islamist movements which developed in Egypt in the 1970s, drawing on the thinking of Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayid Qutb, who was executed by Nasser in 1966.

One of these groups assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981; this milieu went on to provide the key militants in the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s “right hand man” — in fact, the chief theorist of al-Qaeda. Ruthven’s discussion of Qutb is valuable; he puts the same analysis in a wider historical framework in his earlier Islam in the World (Penguin 1984).

Another very good discussion of Qutb, whose influence on the current generation of Islamist militants cannot be overstated, can be found in Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism (Norton 2004). Berman’s book is an argument in favour of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from a broadly left-wing perspective. But his analysis of Qutb stands by itself. He stresses, absolutely rightly in my view, that to understand how Islamism has managed to grow, and recruit young educated men, especially, in the Muslim world — young men who, a generation earlier, might have joined Communist Parties or radical, secular nationalist guerrilla movements — it is necessary to take them, the Islamists, seriously as an intellectual current. The salafist, jihadi militant groups, in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere, and now to some degree at least in Iraq, have not recruited by accident: they have been involved in a sophisticated political operation.

A slightly older study which remains extremely useful is The Failure of Political Islam (I B Tauris 1994), by another French writer, Olivier Roy. Like Kepel, Roy sees the Islamist project as essentially in retreat. The most interesting aspect of his analysis is the distinction he makes between those Islamists who simply reject modernity, and those who in fact embrace it. In Iraq today, for instance, a group like the Dawa Party — set up in the 1950s — is intrinsically “modernist”, structured as a political party, with a programme aiming for the building of a national state (albeit with an Islamic constitution...). This is a very different sort of animal to, say, the Taliban in Afghanistan, which was deeply backward-looking in all respects. Roy examines the complex interplay between these different kinds of movement.

(The best available account of the Islamist movements in Iraq, incidentally, is The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq by Falah A Jabar (Saqi 2003). This is an invaluable source of information about both the political parties currently active in Shi’ite Iraq — Dawa, Sciri, etc — but also the clerical hierarchy around Ayatollah Sistani).

An interesting — and brief — neo-conservative overview is The Islamic Paradox (AEI Press 2004) by Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor to William Kristol’s Weekly Standard. Gerecht argues that the democratic pressures on even the Muslim establishments are such that Western-style democracy will flourish in the Middle East in the relatively short term. He sees the promotion of “moderates” as counter-productive for this reason. It’s a somewhat Panglossian take on recent developments, which is not very convincing.

What emerges from all these accounts is a picture of a complex movement — or movements — with specific ideas and political programmes — for an Islamic state, for a return to the post-Muhammed “golden age”, and so on. These are movements which have grown, declined, and revived in competition with others: they are not simply a reflex reaction to “imperialism”, “the West” — or to globalisation or other pressures.

Some are more reactionary than others: the most violent, religiously-dogmatic and anti-Western groups, like al Qaeda itself, are the most reactionary. But all of them need to be fought. Learning about them can help us build solidarity with the democratic, secular, feminist, socialist and working class movements which are the real hope for the future of the “Muslim world”.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.