[OPE-L] Whither Political Islam? By Mahmood Mamdani

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sat Jan 01 2005 - 12:26:23 EST

Whither Political Islam?
By Mahmood Mamdani

 From Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005

Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. Olivier Roy. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2004, 320 pp.$29.50

The debate over why the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred has
been dominated by different versions of "culture talk," the notion
that culture is the most reliable clue to people's politics. Their
differences notwithstanding, public intellectuals such as Samuel
Huntington and Bernard Lewis agree that religion drives both Islamic
culture and politics and that the motivation for Islamist violence is
religious fundamentalism. Ascribing the violence of one's adversaries
to their culture is self-serving: it goes a long way toward absolving
oneself of any responsibility.

The singular merit of two new books by Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy
is that they take the debate about the rise of political Islam beyond
culture talk. Kepel seeks to understand the intellectual history of
political Islam, Roy the social conditions under which Muslims think
and act. Of the two, Roy makes the most forceful break from culture
talk. He dismisses "the culturalist approach" that treats Islam as
"the issue" and that assumes it bears a relation to every
preoccupation of the moment, from suicide bombings and jihad to
democracy and secularism. Not only does culturalism treat Islam "as a
discrete entity" and "a coherent and closed set of beliefs," Roy
explains, but it turns Islam into "an explanatory concept for almost
everything involving Muslims."

Roy argues that the Koran's most important feature is not what it
actually says, but what Muslims say about it. "Not surprisingly," Roy
observes, "they disagree, while all stressing that the Koran is
unambiguous and clear-cut." Like culturalists, Roy and Kepel examine
very carefully the Islamist discourse about both the Koran and the
rest of the world. But they understand it as the product of many
forces, rather than as the necessary development of its religious
origin. In doing so, they provide a more nuanced understanding of
doctrinal and political Islam than do the culturalists.


In a historical account that is both careful and user-friendly, Kepel
tracks two radically different strands of Islamic thought: the
ultra-strict, quietist Salafist, or Wahhabi, school and the more
political thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood. These two schools later
merged, producing the more hybrid ideology now identified with Osama
bin Laden.

Kepel traces the origins of Salafism to Saudi Arabia and the ideas of
the radical theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In the opening
decade of the nineteenth century, the Wahhabis and the House of Saud
formed an alliance, commencing a state-building project that was
completed a century later. Wahhab agreed to glorify the Saudi tribal
raids on neighboring oases by treating them as jihads, in return for
King Muhammad bin Saud's promise to elevate Wahhabism to a state
ideology. The project did not survive the Ottoman invasion in 1818,
however, and had to be renewed with a series of Wahhabi-anointed
jihads in the 1910s and 1920s. By that time, the jihad was no longer
a stand-alone affair: Wahhabi blessings for the Ikhwan, the religious
militia of King Saud, were doled out along with bombs dropped by the
British, who by then were occupying the Arabian Peninsula. After
World War II, the Americans replaced the British as the kingdom's
main patrons. And under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was
eager to use the Saudis as foils for the Soviet Union, "Wahhabism was
elevated to the status of a liberation theology--one that would free
the region of communism."

According to Kepel, a second, more autonomous and activist strand of
political Islam originated in Egypt in the 1920s when the Muslim
Brotherhood resolved to go beyond observing sharia (Islamic law) to
establish a full-fledged Islamic state. Their slogan was "The Quran
is our constitution." The Brothers joined Gamal Abdel Nasser in the
Free Officers' Revolution that toppled King Farouk in 1952, but the
alliance soon dissolved. Repression, at first in Egypt and then in
Baathist Iraq and Syria, forced them to decamp to Saudi Arabia in the
1970s, where they joined forces with religious Palestinians who were
uncomfortable with the Palestine Liberation Organization's secular
nationalism. Gradually, the brotherhood took control of Saudi
intellectual life, positioning itself to shape the country's
religious and political awakening after the Iranian revolution of
1979. Its power grew with the attack on the Great Mosque in Mecca on
November 20 of that year, which brought the Wahhabists under official
suspicion. The religious "awakening" of "a plethora of young
radicals" followed; like the Iranian revolutionaries who combined
traditional Shiite rhetoric with Third World anti-imperialism
(portraying Saudi officials as American lackeys, for example), they
mixed the activism of the brotherhood with quietist Salafism,
creating "an explosive blend that would detonate throughout the
region and the whole world."

The effect was to be momentous. As Kepel points out, after
Afghanistan in the 1980s, the jihad went global. The move was not
just an expansion in scale; it was also a critical shift in strategy
and tactics. Consider, for example, the seminal work by the Egyptian
Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's right-hand man: Knights Under the
Prophet's Banner, the most politically grounded and comprehensive
manifesto on global jihad. Its text is not yet available in English,
but Kepel has translated important sections of it. Zawahiri begins
with a call to shift the jihad's target from the "nearby enemy" to
the "faraway enemy." To succeed, he says, the jihad needs a new
leadership that is sufficiently "scientific, confrontational, [and]
rational" to rethink relations between "the elite" and "the masses"
and to wield inspirational slogans. (He finds that there is no cause
more mobilizing than Palestine, which is "a rallying point for all
Arabs, whether or not they are believers.") To those who are
ambivalent about the use of political terrorism, Zawahiri explains
that it is legitimate to strike Western populations, not just their
governments and institutions, because they "only know the language of
self-interest, backed by brute military force." "In consequence," he
adds, "if we want to hold a dialogue with them and cause them to
become aware of our rights, we must speak to them in the language
they understand." Zawahiri defends suicide attacks as "the most
efficient means of inflicting losses on adversaries and the least
costly, in human terms, for the mujahedeen."

The global jihad's radically different goals could warrant only
radically different methods and spawn radically different
organizations. So instead of seeking out recruits through patient
face-to-face encounters as the Afghan jihadists did in the 1980s, the
leadership of the global jihad reversed the approach: tapping the
potential of the Internet and the global media, it arranged for
recruits to come find it. Predictably, the strategy has produced an
organization that defies conventional understandings. Al Qaeda, a
"terrorist NGO," or nongovernmental organization, is not, Kepel
explains, "a nation with real estate to be occupied, military
hardware to be destroyed, and a regime to be overthrown." As a
result, Washington has ended up reifying the group--to little effect.
According to Kepel, with its "Internet websites, satellite television
links, clandestine financial transfers, international air travel, and
a proliferation of activists ranging from the suburbs of Jersey City
to the rice paddies of Indonesia," al Qaeda is resolutely modern and
innovative. Unlike culturalists who portray bin Laden and his
associates as linear descendants of an esoteric Saudi Wahhabism--or
as premoderns with access to contemporary technology--Kepel
understands them as hybrid products of multiple intellectual
traditions. That insight is the great virtue of his book.


Yet even Kepel's work is not entirely free of culture talk. He tends
to associate "reason" with "the West" and "metaphysics" with Islamic
homelands. Of the September 11 suicide bombers, he says, "These
militants, educated in the West, must have [had] the discipline,
intelligence and training to carry out complex operations" and
"[been] able to shift back and forth between the rational mindset
they had cultivated during their studies of engineering, urban
planning, medicine, or administration and an alternate mindset that
infused suicide attacks with metaphysical meaning and value." In
search of this alternate mindset, he scans "Mohammed Atta's
testament," where he finds evidence of "fanatical faith" in the
promise of "gardens of paradise" and of houris--the virgins with
which the martyrs will sleep, Kepel explains--"wearing their finest

Here Kepel's logic fails. Roy wonders, quite rightly, how the promise
of houris in heaven could motivate female suicide bombers. More to
the point, Kepel need not have looked so deep into a martyr's heart
to find a contemporary example of how interest and ideology can mix:
neoconservatives in the West are as apt an illustration. Kepel does
have an inkling that the neoconservatives are a twin of al
Qaeda--both came out of the Cold War on the winning side--and he
devotes an entire chapter to them. But his occasional reliance on
culturalist assumptions blind him to important parallels between the

The neoconservatives, Kepel rightly notes, were convinced that the
Oslo accords were a trap; some even thought that the entire "[Middle
East] peace process posed a potentially fatal risk to the Jewish
state." Their alternative to negotiation was to redraw the map of the
entire region through occupation, assuming, in a simple-minded
analogy with Eastern Europe, that if they blew up the government
apparatus of rogue states, the newly liberated peoples would embrace
their occupation with gratitude. But Kepel misses the implications of
his own observation, largely because he presumes a linear development
from U.S. conservatives to neoconservatives that prevents him from
understanding what distinguishes the two groups. Is it not precisely
the potent mix of cold-blooded interest and hot-blooded ideology that
distinguishes neoconservatives who link George W. Bush to Reagan from
the conservatives who drove foreign policy under George H.W. Bush?

As a result, Kepel misses key parallels between neoconservatives and
jihadists. In addition to the mix of interest and ideology, the two
groups share global ambitions and a deep faith in the efficacy of
politically motivated violence, and both count among their ranks
cadres whose biographies are often tainted by early stints in the
Trotskyist or the Maoist left. Both jihadists and neoconservatives
are products of the Cold War, when ideologically driven violence was
embraced by all sides, secular and religious. Kepel's failure to see
this commonality ultimately limits his understanding of jihadist
politics, heir not only to the traditions of the quietist Salafism
and the Muslim Brotherhood, but perhaps even more so to recent
secular traditions, such as Third World anti-imperialism and the
Reaganite determination to win "by any means necessary."

Kepel's lapse may explain why he frames this book with a claim that
he cannot ultimately sustain: "The most important battle in the war
for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought not in
Palestine or Iraq but in these communities of believers in the
outskirts of London, Paris, and other European cities, where Islam is
already a growing part of the West." Although he points to their vast
numbers--there are more than ten million Muslims living in
contemporary Europe--Kepel cannot explain their significance except
as so many conveyor belts between the East and the West. He does not
see the Muslims of Europe as active subjects struggling to establish
a new citizenship in adverse circumstances--some of which, such as
racism and unemployment, were familiar to earlier immigrants; others,
such as the stigma of a terrorist culture, are new. As a result,
Kepel presents only stale visions of the future, redolent of
culturalism: Will these Muslims bring European modernity to their
homelands or religiosity to Europe? Will they be able to forge a
democratic Islamic ideology by recognizing that in these times
"intellectual creativity and innovation come from the West" and by
building appropriate relations with "non-Muslim allies"?

Although Kepel carefully renders the history of Islam's internal
debates, he treats them as if they were taking place inside a
contained "civilization." Casting contemporary Islam as the product
of a linear tradition, he is unable to understand Muslims as fully
historical and global. On this point, Kepel's historical analysis is
overtaken by Roy's sociological argument.


In Globalized Islam, Roy tries to explain why jihadist Islam
resonates in the communities in which it does. He sees the spread of
jihadist Islam today as "a consequence of and [a] reaction to
sociological changes," rather than as "evidence of the permanence of
unchanging values" (the culturalist view) or as a direct historical
consequence of the Saudis' and Reagan's support for the Wahhabi
project (Kepel's view). Roy distinguishes contemporary
neofundamentalists from traditional fundamentalists, such as Wahhabis
who have tried "to delink Islam from ethnic cultures" for centuries
and have everywhere "fought against local Islams"--"Sufism in South
Asia, marabouts in North Africa, specific music and rituals
everywhere," and even Shafism, Hanafism, and other historical schools
of sharia.

For Roy, neofundamentalist Islam is "born-again Islam" and strictly a
product of the diaspora. Islamic religious debate is no longer
monopolized by the learned ulema (teachers); as they have turned to
the Internet, the neofundamentalists have also become tulaab
(students). As a result, "religion has been secularized, not in the
sense that it is under the scrutiny of modern sciences, but to the
extent that it is debated outside any specific institutions or
corporations." With the traditional ethnic community left behind,
"the disappearance of traditional values ... [has laid] the
groundwork for re-Islamisation," which has largely become an
individual project. "Islamic revivalism goes hand in hand" with a
modern trend: the "culture of the self."

The growing individualization of religious practices has prompted
believers to create a new community that transcends strict geography.
The consequences of these changes have been contradictory. Those who
have succeeded in reconciling the self with religion have tended to
embrace a "liberal" or "ethical" version of Islam; those who have not
have been prone to embrace "neofundamentalist Salafism." Meanwhile,
the quest "to build a universal religious identity, de-linked from
any specific culture," has come at a price, because such an Islam is
"by definition an Islam oblivious to its own history." As a result,
"the quest for a pure Islam [has] entail[ed] also an impoverishment
of its content," Roy writes, and the ironic consequence of this quest
is "secularization, but in the name of fundamentalism."

This transformation has had particularly radical consequences for the
Muslims of Europe, setting them apart from their cousins in the
Middle East. According to Roy, political Islam is bifurcated between
Islamist parties in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and
Islamists in the diaspora. Because in the Middle East, Islamist
parties have mobilized in response to particular state policies, by
the end of the 1990s, most Islamist movements had become "more
nationalist than Islamist." As a consequence of their political
integration, "violence related to Islam has been decreasing in the
Middle East since 1996."

Islamist violence has increased outside the Middle East, however. The
question is why, and why specifically in the West? The answer, Roy
ventures, is that the violence of al Qaeda is politically, not
religiously, inspired. After all, "al Qaeda did not target St.
Peter's Basilica in Rome, but the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. It targeted modern imperialism, as the ultra-leftists of
the late 1960s and 1970s did with less success." Furthermore, the
cliche "that in Islam there is no difference between politics and
religion ... works in favor of the political," making it easier to
redefine the core content of religion and subordinate it to a
political project, as the jihadists have done.

Even the contemporary notion of jihad is a marked departure--perhaps
even a rupture--from its traditional forerunner. It too has been
reinvented according to neofundamentalist principles: personalized,
secularized, and turned into a political tool. Roy points out that,
contrary to Western popular belief, traditional jihad is not one of
the five pillars of Islam and that it has long been understood as a
defensive, collective duty. But modern radicals now hail jihad as "a
permanent and individual duty" to fight the West to the death.

This modern understanding of jihad goes hand in hand with a revamped
notion of community, or umma: no longer bound by traditional
solidarity, the umma is the "reconstructed" product of the "free
association of militants committed to the same ideal." The umma now
plays the same role as did the proletariat for Trotskyist and leftist
groups in the 1960s: it is "an imaginary and therefore silent
community that gives legitimacy to the small group pretending to
speak in its name."

Roy observes, moreover, that most contemporary Islamist ideologues
are neither clerics nor ulema but former leftists, yet he offers no
explanation for this fact. These politicos were able to move into the
religious domain despite poor theological credentials, partly
because, unlike Christianity, mainstream Islam has no institutional
backbone. Catholicism is organized on the model of Rome, the empire
state. But Sunni Islam has no organized hierarchy, only a prayer
leader. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's creation of velayat-e faqih
(The state of the jurist), with the clergy as constitutional
guardians, is a relatively recent development that goes against the
thrust of Shiite tradition. And judging by events in Iraq, such as
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's insistence that the ulema are a moral
force outside, not within, the state, it does not seem to be taking
well in non-Iranian Shiite milieus.

Roy's analysis has important implications. If secularism--the
subordination of the church to the state--is mainly of institutional
significance, then it would appear to be a given where Islam is not
organized as an institutional power. But even where Islam is
institutionalized, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia, Roy observes,
"conservative Islam, without reformation, could be as compatible with
democracy as Catholicism has been since it was defeated in its
face-to-face confrontation with modern secularism at the end of the
nineteenth century in France." In contrast to culturalist views,
Roy's account can explain why a religious or cultural world-view
(fundamentalism) does not necessarily have a political corollary


Still, if Roy's sociological analysis is always insightful, it is, in
the end, limited. His account of neofundamentalism, a religious
tendency, cannot fully explain the nature of Islamism, a political
construct; the first seeks salvation, the second liberation.
Curiously, although Roy traces the transformation of Islamist parties
in Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries to political rather than
sociological conditions, he attributes the rise of jihadist Islam in
the Muslim diaspora in the West only to sociological causes.
Ultimately, Roy's argument cannot explain why jihadist Islam, an
ideology of marginal political significance in the late 1970s, has
come to dominate Islamist politics any more than can Kepel's skillful
intellectual history. And although both Roy and Kepel (the former
perhaps more so than the latter) have begun to part from the premises
of culture talk, the break is still incomplete.

They share a common failing: Kepel's history refuses to relate Islam
to non-Islam, and Roy avoids studying encounters between Muslims and
non-Muslims. Yet in fact, the birth of jihadist Islam, which embraces
violence as central to political action, cannot be fully explained
without reference to the Afghan jihad and the Western influences that
shaped it. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration declared the
Soviet Union an "evil empire" and set aside the then-common secular
model of national liberation in favor of an international Islamic
jihad. Thanks to that approach the Afghan rebels used charities to
recruit tens of thousands of volunteers and created the militarized
madrassas (Islamic schools) that turned these volunteers into cadres.
Without the rallying cause of the jihad, the Afghan mujahideen would
have had neither the numbers, the training, the organization, nor the
coherence or sense of mission that has since turned jihadist Islam
into a global political force.

The influence of the Afghan jihad cannot be overstated. It is
evidence that the growth of political Islam has been less linear and
more hybrid than is often acknowledged and that it has been driven
largely by distinct political projects, such as the "global jihad" or
"the West." And properly understanding the development of political
Islam is the only way to gauge its prospects. According to Roy's
account, political Islam will continue to bifurcate between an
indigenous strand and an immigrant strand. According to Kepel's, the
two strands will become more connected, but with the diaspora playing
a more dynamic role, perhaps much like the African diaspora of a
century ago, which later brought home notions of black consciousness
and pan-Africanism developed in the West. But a full understanding of
the political nature of the jihadist project, which neither Kepel's
nor Roy's book quite achieves, begs a radically new question: Will
political Islam follow the example of Marxism, which spread from the
West to fuse with various local nationalisms and create hybrids
potent enough to topple regimes?

It is too soon to tell, but anyone who wants to venture a guess
should first turn to Iraq, where, more than anywhere else today, the
future of political Islam is being cast. Every Middle Eastern
movement that opposes the American empire--secular or religious,
state or nonstate--is being drawn to Iraq, as if to a magnet, to test
out its convictions. More than a year after the U.S. invasion, it has
become clear that, by blowing the top off one of the region's most
efficient dictatorships, the United States has created a free-for-all
for fighters of every hue--Islamist and nationalist, from the
homeland and the diaspora--sparking a contest that will influence the
course of political Islam for years to come.

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