Political Islam: Past, Present, and Future

Pan-lslamism is dormant – yet we have to reckon with the possibility that the sleeper may awake if ever the cosmopolitan proletariat of a “Westernized” world revolts against Western domination and cries out for anti-Western leadership. That call might have incalculable psychological effects in evoking the militant spirit of Islam – even if it had slumbered as long as the Seven Sleepers – because it might awaken echoes of a heroic age . . . If the present situation of mankind were to precipitate a “race war,” Islam might be moved to play her historic role once again.


The question of Islam as a political force is a vital question of our times, and will be for several years to come. The precondition for its treatment with a minimum intelligence is probably not to start from a platform of hate.

– MICHEL FOUCAULT, Dits el Ecrits III, (Gallimard, Paris, 1006, p. 708)

SIX DAYS into the new year saw the broadcast of a one-minute excerpt of a 20-minute video message by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s second in command, on Aljazeera. Having heard a recent announcement that America planned to reduce the number of its troops in Iraq, Al-Zawahiri declared a victory for Islam in Iraq and boasted that America was being defeated in Afghanistan, and would be defeated in, the perennial Islamist favorite, Palestine.

In the full video message, he also condemned the recent Egyptian elections as being a sham orchestrated by the United States to help maintain the status quo of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial rule. He further cited Algeria’s botched elections to demonstrate that the West would never permit real change through the ballot box. The alternative, then, as seen by Al-Zawahiri and AI-Qaeda, would be to seek liberation from the corrupt regimes that have permitted the “Crusader Zionist occupation.”1

The American occupation of Iraq, it appears, has not only failed to accomplish its ostensible mission of “liberating Iraq,” but has also exacerbated the very problems it sought to solve. It has opened a new front for those who see the encroachment of America, and by extension, the West, as a threat to their values, and has thus created an entirely new generation of people who fight in the name of and for Islam. For the near future, political Islam and its myriad manifestations, violent and otherwise, will remain on the global agenda.

As early as 1994, however, Olivier Roy, a leading French scholar on political Islam at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), predicted its demise. In The Failure of Political Islam, Roy – as the title so succinctly states prophesized that Islam, as a political movement, had been depleted, thus becoming intellec-tually and historically bankrupt.

Gilles Kepel, Roy’s colleague at CNRS, further evolved Roy’s theory and adopted it as his own. For Kepel, political Islam has not only failed, but is also dying when remains uncertain) as he writes in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Rooting his analysis in history, Kepel persuasively forwards the theory that the Islamist movement was based on the mutual cooperation of the poor, new urbanites who were marginalized and the “Godfearing bourgeoisie” who included the urban middle class. As the movement aged, tensions grew between the two groups, which had separate visions and methods for an Islamic political space. While the urban poor rejected participation within an electoral or government system and instead advocated for violent resistance, the well-to-do embraced it. This tension, he argues, led to the demise of the partnership and has since sealed its demise.
To those who view the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as proof positive that Roy and Kepel’s conclusions are incorrect, Kepel argues that “Sept. 1 1 was an attempt to reverse a process in decline, with a paroxysm of destructive violence.” (pp. 4-5) Following Kepel’s reasoning, we ought to view the fighting in Iraq; the July 7, 2005, bombings in London; the Beslan school seizure in Russia in September 2004; and all other recent acts of violence through the same lens.

For all the fanfare about Kepel’s highly touted conclusion, his work does not answer one fundamental question, nor does he even consider it: Is it possible that violence can stop, or more significantly, reverse the decline of political Islam? Kepel’s answer remains no. “Violence in itself,” he argues, “has proven to be a death trap for Islamists.” (p37Ó)This, however, remains true only if we were to examine violence through Kepel’s highly selective condition that violence is successful if, and only if, it leads to the establishment of an Islamic state. Even if we view violence in this light, it will have nonetheless been successful to some extent. After all, did not the Taliban in Afghanistan create an Islamic state based on their own unique, albeit ahistorical understanding; did not Hassan Turabi do the same in Sudan? Although some would answer that the success of the violence in creating the state must be examined by the longevity and success of its product, it ultimately did create states, no matter how “failed” or shortlived they may have been.

There is no doubt that Sept. 1 1 radically altered America’s foreign policy and its involvement with the Muslim world. As Kepel maintains, the events of 9/ 1 1 in and of themselves may be considered a failure in that they failed to mobilize Muslim support toward the cause of those who orchestrated the violence; they may, however, have prompted a response that most certainly has.

The American response to the events of Sept. 1 1 led to the carpet bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq and the ouster of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Although most people understood the American logic in attacking Taliban-governed Afghanistan, the same could not be said for Hussein’s Iraq. The carpet bombings of Iraq and the occupation by allied forces have no end in sight, and have emboldened the rhetoric of political Islam and the violence of its adherents.

The White House contends that foreign fighters represent the majority of insurgents in Iraq. If we are to believe the Bush administration, then surely Kepel must be incorrect. Given the track record of the Bush administration in providing an honest assessment of its foreign policy, perhaps it would be wiser to trust one of its opponents on the Iraq issue.

John Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, puts the figure of foreign insurgents at 7 percent.2 How does Murtha’s figure alter our analysis? If the percentage of foreign insurgents is indeed as slim as Murtha proposes, this would mean that the majority of the insurgency in Iraq is derived from the local population; it is Iraqis who are responsible for the violence and it is they who have been radicalized by the American occupation.
It is possible that the Iraqi insurgency is primarily a struggle for liberation, having little to do with Islam, political or otherwise. Even if this were true, we must bear in mind that its origins principally lie in the events of Sept. 1 1 . How this will frame and affect political Islam’s future and that of Iraq is yet to be worked out by scholars, and perhaps it is here where the future of political Islam lies.

For all the violence ostensibly committed in the name of Islam, we are left wondering about its origins, evolution, and goals. This is where Roy’s Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah becomes useful. While maintaining the theory that political Islam has failed, Roy argues that it has now shifted it sights elsewhere.

Influenced by the increase of globalization and, in recognizing its own defeat, proponents of Islamism no longer desire an Islamic state. Instead, they now seek to create an imagined Umma based on the Shari’a as well as to impose Islamic norms on Muslim societies. Roy dubs this evolution “post-Islamism” or “neofundamentalism” (terms he uses interchangeably). He argues that while the original Islamists dismissed the idea of a “separation of church and state” and advocated a union of politics and religion, post-Islamism recognizes the two spheres as being separate. By doing so, Roy writes, neofundamentalists have secularized religion. Although this may appear to be a paradoxical conclusion, he explains, in post-Islamism, “the role and status of religion are decided by the political.” (p.4)

Roy’s analysis of the nascent globalized Umma and neofundamentalism is based in large part on the growing number of Muslims in the West. It is because of globalization, he argues, that Muslims are now faced with “detcrritorialization,” a process by which Muslims are no longer tied to a specific geography or a “pristine culture.” It is with the lack of both an attachment to a particular land and “deculturation” that Muslims are now free to construct a new political Islam, to be born again, and to embrace postIslamism.

In the epoch of “McDonaldization,” Roy astutely notes that Muslims are now more likely to be radicalized in Europe and embrace political Islam abroad. It is, however, a bit presumptive of him to ignore the Muslim world, where the majority of Muslims are found and where the future strains of Islamic political thought will be carved out, even if they are carried from the Orient to the Occident. Yet, Roy’s meticulous analysis does not explain why this has just emerged in the first six years of the 2 1 st century. Indeed, the factors of detcrritorialization and deculturation have been present since the 1950s and 1960s, when Muslim immigration to the West began. Why is it that these factors have just now changed into neofundamentalism? !Moreover, his analysis does not recognize that these factors are not new and that they must have had some influence, however minimal, in the formation of Islamism.

Islamism and neofundamentalism have found violent manifestations, and, as a result, enjoy being in the international limelight. The violence of Islamism is often interpreted and viewed as being part and parcel of Islam itself by Western media and Western academics. Roy by and large rejects the idea that Islamist violence has anything but a tangential relation to the religion of Islam. Instead, he traces the origins of Islamist violence to radical and extremist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Dismissing Bernard Lewis’ problematic contention that Islamist violence can be mapped to the Ismailt Assassins, Roy contends that Islamists have more in common with the Tamil Tigers and the Baader-Meinhof gang (Red Army Faction) than with anything from the Qur’an or Islamic religious history.

Although Kepel and Roy have gained currency in recent discourse on Isiamism, one of their CNRS colleagues has largely been ignored. Francois Burgat’s Face to Face With Political Islam is a masterpiece in forging new avenues of thought and inquiry that were left hidden and unexplored by his colleagues. Burgat readily dismisses the conclusions of Kepel and Roy as being premature. In light of the Iraq war, Burgat’s conclusions and analyses are eerily prescient.

Unlike his colleagues, Burgat recognizes the dynamism of the Islamist movement that allows it to evolve and mature, and argues that “the Islamists implacably continue to be both advance guard and main body of mobilized activity.” (p. 1 82) One need not look further than Iraq to see Burgat’s conclusion in action. While Burgat agrees with Roy’s analysis of Islamist history and evolution, he rejects the underlying assumptions that Isiamism is a discrete creation that can be painted with just one brush – as he contends has been done by Roy and Kepel – and by doing so, regards the failure or death of Isiamism as having been greatly exaggerated.

Like his colleagues, Burgat also sees Isiamism as a vehicle of national liberation, and he bases the origin and evolution of Isiamism in the failure of Arab nationalism to provide a solution. The alternative rhetoric and liberation movement is then that of Isiamism. Burgat is neither blind to modernity nor the evolution of Isiamism. He recognizes that the current rhetoric of Isiamism will eventually be outdated and must present itself in a manifestation more palatable to Muslim authences. Additionally, he identifies Isiamism as a discourse as being active in the domestic contention of despotic rule in the Muslim world and in the relationship between the Muslim East and the West. He, however, has little, if anything, to add to Roy’s notion of the importance of Muslims outside the Muslim world, which may indeed be an extremely significant factor in years to come.

All three Frenchmen are aware of the importance of the role of democracy in the future of political Islam, but they know Middle Eastern history too well and acknowledge that democracy can only succeed if, and only if, current regimes expose themselves to the “wins” and “losses” of democracy.

In other words, the regimes must be prepared to relinquish their rule, something that all three scholars do not see happening anytime in the near future. It is remarkable then that Roy and Kepel pen Islamism’s eulogy in light of recognizing that domestic conditions of regimes in the Muslim world and their out-and-out hostility to allowing other actors Islamists or otherwise – a voice and hand in rule.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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