Understanding Political Islam – An Unbiased Analysis


The events of 9/11 were significant. Significant less for the loss of life, however tragic, more so for the powerful symbolism it represented. A Superpower had been successfully attacked on its own home soil by a then relatively obscure militant organization that targeted the economic, military and political heart of the country. It represented a turning point in international conflict, no longer the greatest threat, at least among the intellectual circles of the time, would come from other states but from non-state actors. Globalization has paved the way for an enemy that was without a territory, without a central government and without means to be defeated through conventional methods. But it also brought forward the role of political religion. Before, while radical outfits existed and in the case of Iran and Pakistan, regimes backed by religious elements were able to take power, the common discourse was that religiosity was overall in decline, eventually to be relegated to the private life of individuals and becoming irrelevant to public discourse. Yet, 9/11 showed that religion remained very much relevant to the public discourse and had to be addressed and understood. Rather than understand the dynamic that has played for the most fringe elements among the Muslim community to gain influence, the initial reaction was to put the blame on the religion itself. Islam was seen backward and hostile to Western values, it was proclaimed and that now a ‘clash of civilizations’ was taking place. Thus, on basis of this intellectual laziness, was set in motion an unending war that has cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, gave rise to even more radicalized outfits and have resulted in a massive refugee crisis that in itself is a national security issue for many states. A good solution can never come if the premise on which it is based is false. It is true that Islam, unlike many other religions, has a clearly established political aspect but it must be critically viewed through an unbiased lens if ever one wishes to steer towards a positive workable discourse in eliminating the threat of fundamentalism.

The Crisis Catalysts for Islamic Revival

Violence is costly and any regime that tries to hold power through sheer violence seldom lasts long. A stable hold on political power requires an implicit consent from the people being ruled, in other words, governments have to be viewed as legitimate if they are to function properly. When a government is seen as illegitimate, the opposition is quick to rise up and attempts to overthrow it. In the case of the Middle-East, Islam served as a powerful counter-current to the secular dictatorships. Military defeats, rising inequalities, and social injustice were the three crisis catalysts that led to an Islamic revival in the political discourse.

When the Pan-Arabian Nationalist states were defeated decisively by Israel, it led to a surge in support for an Islamic revival with its emphasis on the martial aspect of the religion itself to remedy the perceived inadequacy in Arab leadership. When rising inequalities and unemployment were left unchecked, it led to a surge in support of an Islamic revival, for Islam was a religion strong in egalitarian teaching. When corruption, clientism, and bureaucratic incompetence were the norm within the regime, it led to a surge in support for an Islamic revival which advocated harsh justice for public offenses. It should not come as a surprise then that the Islamic movement found it’s greatest support among the poorest section of the Muslim society, those most discontented by the three crises facing their countries. With mainstream Islamic movements heavily suppressed, it was the most fringe elements that slowly gained influence and radicalism grew in the most dissatisfied populace. Eventually, such fringe factions could challenge the state itself. Most notable was the case of Iran in 1979. Then the most powerful state in the Middle-east, Iran was witness to an Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah and established the ulema in power.

A Clash of Civilizations?

The end of the Cold War saw the resurgence of religion into the global political discourse. Outside the west, religion replaced ideology as the main source of transnational identity. The conservative academic Samul Huntington, writing in 1993, proclaimed that a new global conflict was underway, that between the Secular West and the Islamic East, a so-called ‘clash of civilizations’. The events of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks on the West would place Huntington’s work in the spotlight. Was there really a civilization clash taking place? In opposition to what has become the popular narrative, the evidence does not support this thesis. More conflict has occurred within civilizations than between civilizations.

The primary targets of Islamic fundamentalists have remained local regimes, not the West. Attacks on the West, when they have occurred have not been borne out of any “hate for their freedom” but for the active support of local rulers that these movements opposed. Bombings in France during the 90s were not a result of irrational spite for their culture but for the French government’s involvement in the Algeria civil war in support of the military Junta. Bin Laden, one of the most notorious terrorists and the mastermind behind 9/11, bore his grudge against Americans not because they were hamburger-eating infidels in his mind but because of America’s heavy involvement in the Middle-East. The most violent strain of Fundamentalism, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), saw most of its operations limited to the Islamic world and the people who opposed and fought them on the ground were mostly Muslims themselves, religious and orthodox by Western standards. It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of victims of Islamic fundamentalists as well as their most stern opposition have been Muslims themselves.

Understanding Islamic fundamentalism

Most of the Islamic world today is experiencing what the West did more than a century ago. Modernization and rapid population growth have led to profound social and economic changes. Contemporary Islamic resurgence carries with it a popular disillusionment with progress stemming from a sense of alienation and confusion as old communitarian structures break down as states consolidate. Whereas in Europe, nationalism remedied the sense of growing isolation among the populace, in the Islamic world, with virtually all existing states a product of colonialism, lack of a common ethnic identity or history of shared institutions allowed religion to serve as a more powerful identarian instrument. Thus, similar to Europe when it came to Nationalism, in the Islamic world, appeal to religion was employed both by the state to garner legitimacy and by those who resisted the state. Similar to Europe, failure of the mainstream parties to address the grievances of the populace led them to be attracted to the most fringe elements of politics. In Europe, these were the Fascists, in the Islamic world they are the Fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists differ from mainstream Islamic movement primarily in their advocacy for unrestrained violence. Whereas most Islamists would adhere to a concept of ‘just war’, regulating what is and isn’t justified in the conduct of warfare, fundamentalists, however, support a state of total war, with combatants and innocent bystanders alike valid targets in their view. Islamists are willing to partake in democratic exercise to facilitate reforms they support; fundamentalists call for the violent overthrow of a democratic system and establishment of a totalitarian state instead to reset society back to an imagined idealized past. Mainstream Islamic movements have a degree of pluralism, Fundamentalists are hostile exclusionists, deeming even their fellow Muslims who disagree with their strict views as apostates.  Just like the European fascist movements of yore, Fundamentalism primarily attracts the most socially alienated individuals, desperate for a sense of comradeship and meaning. Both movements bind its identity in relation to violence towards an outside group which it deems as a threat to its own existence. For this reason, violence against the outside group becomes justified in their perspective. On an additional note, it should be no surprise thus, that a disproportionate number of radical Jihadis coming from European states happen to be second-generation migrants unable to integrate into Western societies and have little connection to their country of origin.

Addressing Fundamentalism

As long as there remains a sense of disenchantment with progress, there will be support for radicalism of all forms. It is intellectual laziness to blame religion. Not far back in history, Catholic institutions were considered unfavorable for democracy to flourish. Yet, today many Catholic majority countries are consolidated democracies. Historically, across cultures, rising inequalities, rapid social transformation, stagnant mobility and dissatisfaction with the existing political regime has led to growth in radicalism and the Islamic world is no exception. What is important to counter radicalism is to give people a real sense of agency in expressing their political voice. It is a mistake to assume that political extremism attracts only the least educated and well-off. It is, in fact, young people from the educated middle-class background that are most vulnerable to joining Jihadi outfits. As global inequalities rise and social mobility becomes stagnant, especially among the skilled, it is apparent that support for extremist movements is growing in all countries, attracting frustrated individuals dissatisfied with the status quo. In the Islamic world, it just occurred earlier as Cold War politics allowed incompetent dictatorial regimes to survive and aggravate the issues highlighted above.

To address Fundamentalism, there must be a real sense among people of having control over their lives. First, frequent intervention in the Middle-East has to be stopped. Domestically unsupported regimes and political instability are the primary cause of the rise in fundamentalism. Second, mainstream Islamic parties in Muslim majority states should not be seen as a threat but potential ally against the rise of fundamentalism. Democracy is an exercise of arriving at a consensus. If an Islamic party is elected into power in a democratic state than it implies that a large portion of citizens has supported them. Undermining them will only lead to the rise in support of radical fringe alternatives. Military elites are more likely to overthrow a democratically elected government if they perceive international opinion to be supportive of a coup. The only positive example to come out of the bloody Arab Spring is arguably Tunisia. Here an Islamist party did win the first election but it did not result in a democratic breakdown, rather joined a coalition with a secular party when it lost the elections after completing its term. What allowed a successful transition was a lack of intervention in domestic politics by an outside group and, unlike neighboring countries, a historically weak and politically sidelined military. Lastly, non-humanitarian aid should be stopped to the Middle-East completely. Aid is highly fungible and ends up propping corrupt dictatorships against their own people and for a certain democratic country there, decrease incentives towards pursuing regional peace-building measures.



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