Salafi Tea Parties at the Future of the World

There is no essential conflict between Islam and the West. The only reason this frustrates some people is because of their need to believe that Islam is unaffected by history, which only the West creates. Not only do such assumptions prevent us from understanding Islam as it is today, they veil those forces at work in the world – which, if we paid any attention to them, could tell us a great deal about the futures of America, Europe and the Muslim world. What will these regions look like in years to come? What forces will shape them? What anxieties will grip them? And what possibilities are there for better relations and closer connections?

We are in the midst of one of the most significant global realignments in history, propelled by economic forces that produce drastically different effects in different parts of the world. Capitalism has empowered the former global South with the resources and confidence to demand a seat at the table. For the first time in centuries, numerous non-Western societies are successfully competing with the West – though on what were once the West’s own terms. Whether Western societies will accept the material consequences of a democratization of the global order remains an open question.


It is not a coincidence that Islamophobia is on the rise while the Tea Party has become a major part of our political scene. The campaign against shari’a – most infamously Oklahoma’s State Question 755, the shari’a Law Amendment – masks an agenda to push Islam out of America while introducing a specific type of Christianity into America. Ironically, or perhaps logically, the Tea Party isn’t far from the crude political Islam it is so afraid of: romanticized history, legal literalism, political triumphalism. Consider their message: If we go back to the Constitution, which does not require interpretation, we’ll be great again.

Alan Greenspan called it “the age of turbulence.” Note to Greenspan: Turbulence is always easier to bear in first class.

Of course, there is a tendency to dismiss this kind of rhetoric, or see it as secondary to the Tea Party’s larger concerns. But the very reason we so often hear Tea Party candidates stressing American exceptionalism is because they understand, though perhaps only subconsciously, that America cannot make itself an exception to history. Muslims also tried, over the centuries, to undo economic losses with simple religious revivalism. Hadith studies alone cannot explain why the Muslim world failed to realize an industrial revolution – nor will they produce one.

Why are we witnessing the emergence of a populist American constitutional Salafism only two decades after the Cold War’s conclusion? Francis Fukuyama chose that moment for his anti-apocalypse, with America eternally and permanently triumphant. The actual truth was this: If there are no more challengers to liberal capitalism, then the West’s economic system has been universalized. Everyone is competing with everyone. The fall of state socialism unleashed unregulated global capital, which is now doing to the West what over the past two centuries it did to the darker nations. This process is precipitating a relative decline in the West, instigating powerful cultural anxieties and nostalgic originalism.

Hence, American Salafism. Which means tough times ahead for American Muslims. Under President George W. Bush, Muslims began to see the Democratic Party as a balancing force; in 2008, Muslims saw the Democratic Party as a source of hope; after the summer of 2010, Democrats appear to be Muslims’ last and only refuge. This will at least force Muslims to work together across their many divides, making many immigrant-heritage Muslims ask why the only two Muslim Congressmen are named Keith and Andre. Conversely, one could argue that this shift underlines the Republican Party’s demographic suicide, since the GOP has also alienated many Hispanics. But in an increasingly economically immobile and unequal republic, the anxieties of the majority will be repeatedly mined by the titans of capitalism for their benefit.

BLIND SPOT: Tea Partiers are right to challenge Washington’s indifference to the American people, but they lack a rigorous framework for understanding why that indifference seems impossible to remedy: Severe economic inequality will strangle a republic.

We’re used to a world in which Americans claim baseball’s “World Series,” while the Olympics generally traveled within Western countries. But at the time of writing, Qatar was selected to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. We should not underestimate the profound long-term trends that have enabled such a selection, trends that were also similarly revealed by South Africa’s recent hosting of the Cup.

Just like many Muslims got into pan-Islam when the Muslim world was economically fragmenting, so too is a new pan-Western cultural identity surging in a time of economic hardship. Unfortunately, that cultural identity is neither confident nor forward-looking. It attacks elitism in the political establishment and in the pursuit of knowledge. Such an attitude will make it harder for Western societies to compete against younger and hungrier countries, and will make it harder for Western Muslims and other Western minorities, such as the Roma, to participate fully in society.


Europe will become more and more dependent on Germany, whose primary concerns will be figuring out: 1) its relationship to the European Union, 2) where to find skilled immigrants, and 3) what to do with its Muslims – around whom much of Europe’s future politics and culture will be determined. Then again, net emigration of Turks from Germany may accelerate, as countries on the fringe of Europe become more important. Three nations will dominate Europe: Germany, Russia and Turkey, though of these three, Russia will face the greatest internal challenges (hint: it’s the non-democracy). Note further that neither Russia nor Turkey are members of the European Union, have little interest and less chance at membership in the near future, and cannot be considered fully European. Because of this new economic pattern, political relationships across Europe will become more and more the product of economic advantage, accelerating that turn, British historian Tony Judt best described:

For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world?

For more than a century, the world has been dominated by an Anglo-American alliance underlaid by a shared way of life, a financial and cultural prosperity toward which Westerners willingly affiliated. Things are changing. For the first time in centuries, Westerners will find that cultural identity and economic relationships are separated. As Germany will look toward Russia and Turkey, and of course China, America will be politically and economically less interested in Europe – emphasizing a rising Asia. This economic divorce will leave behind uncertain off spring. Conservatives might accuse U.S. President Barack Obama of importing socialism into America, but their most radical voices are the ones adopting Old World ideas and thinkers.

It’s hard to know precisely what this embattled pan-Western identity will mean in practice, for we must also consider that the economic distancing of the two Wests, America and Europe, may exaggerate cultural differences. In both places, economic anxiety produces essentialism, but in both places that essence is differently defined. America’s Islamophobes advocate a Christian identity, which is anathema to Europe’s latest anti-Semites: Though Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali of the Netherlands have cooperated with American Islamophobes, they are authoritarian liberals who demonize Muslims while embracing gay marriage. At least we will end the fiction that the right is necessarily more intolerant than the left, though that also means there is equal opportunity for discrimination against Muslims from both political directions.


After America opened the door to a Shi’i government in Iraq, many pundits and analysts assumed that Iran’s age had begun. Perhaps nothing so quickly ended Iran’s presumed regional reign as its 2009 elections. Iran will be a power, but its government will more and more hold Iran back while uniting its neighbors against itself – why else isn’t a country as talented, resource-rich and culturally sophisticated as Iran on a par with Germany, Japan or Korea? The Iranian Revolution has ended with a reproduction of the violence and oppression that was the problem in the first place.

At its heart, political Islam echoed leftist liberation movements throughout the Third World, which imagined that after independence, they would be as autonomous as they presumed Western nations to be. That didn’t happen, and anyway, the nation-state is no longer where power resides. Any conception of Islam that fails to understand this truth will either generate a failed politics or be forced to compensate through the realization of an ever more authoritarian order. As thinkers and politicians in the region reflect on the lessons of Iran’s recent history, they are producing a great shift in Islamic societies.

In the coming decades, the key tension in the Muslim world will be between a fading “political Islam,” which seeks to establish authoritarian states, and “lifestyle Islam,” a transnational pattern of ethical consumption and production. Consider Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Its pious businessmen are culturally self-confident enough to transcend statist definitions of Islamic life, identity and practice. They do not require state power to realize their vision of Islam, although they require a political system that allows them the freedom to operate.


Today, the whole world is competing in a capitalist race, except insignificant outliers such as North Korea and Cuba. As a result of the victory of capitalism, we see remarkable turns in Muslim societies: Indonesia is a near-member of the BRICs (the rapidly growing emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China), Turkey is a top20 economy, and Dubai hosts much of the world’s outstanding infrastructure. Thirty years ago, who would have imagined this? As power shifts to other parts of the world, such as China and Brazil, how long can Muslim political discourse stay focused on the West? How will Muslim thinkers deal with capitalist Muslim societies?

It’s one thing to say that everyone can compete, and quite another thing to argue that this is entirely a good thing. The only hope for Islam in Muslim-majority nations is the development of culturally and socially responsible networks, institutions and practices. They do not have as their end state power, but they can, as a result, reach across religious, ethnic and national boundaries to face up to common ecological and economic challenges. One example could be ethical Islamic finance, which focuses on the needs of the majority of the region’s population, and not just the wealthy.

We are approaching another Gilded Age, this time on a global scale. It will be fascinating to see how the next few decades play out.

KEY TREND: European Muslims are going to find more impetus to work with their co-religionists throughout the West. Thus will be born a pan-European Muslim identity, an exaggeration of the same process whereby Muslims in the United Kingdom claim Britishness precisely because of the difficulty of claiming Englishness or Scottishness.

Because the environment against them will get uglier, Western Muslims will find that they have more and more reason to work together. But they will still enjoy, especially in Anglophone nations, greater freedom of speech than those in Muslim-majority societies.

KEY TREND: In the next few decades, we’ll see a revival of interest in Marx. Religious and ethnic movements often find it difficult to build the coalitions needed to challenge authoritarianism. Consider how Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood cannot build a deep coalition for democracy. Unregulated capitalism, as has empowered Egypt’s elite and impoverished its society, is too universal for strictly identity-based responses.

PREVIOUS PAGE: Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani, chairman of the Qatar 2022 bid committee, (L) raises the World Cup trophy as he stands with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (C), his wife Sheikha Moza and FIFA president Joseph Blatter (R) after Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on December 2, 2010. Qatar became the first Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim country to be awarded the right to stage football’s World Cup.

ABOVE: The Dubai Marina at night.

In the Muslim-majority world, Pakistan, Egypt and Iran will decline in influence while Turkey will continue to become increasingly important, regionally and globally. Istanbul will edge out Dubai to become the world’s premier Muslim city by culture, economy and dynamism. Indonesia will become a Muslim bridge between India and China, whose full potential will only be realized if Jakarta can be adequately modernized. The best ideas in the Arab world will increasingly come out of Qatar, which will build on its media, diplomatic and cultural resources to become a tremendously influential actor despite its size.

Unavoidable trends: By geography alone, the Muslim world will be crucial to the coming decades – as Muslim populations become more economically capable, they’ll have to be engaged beyond extremism. As Muslim middle classes grow, their democratic demands will too. Keep a special eye out for Mecca and Medina, as a growing number of wealthy pilgrims demand more sophisticated services, transparent management and egalitarian treatment.


Capital is creating dependencies and regressions in places of the world that assumed that cultural and economic superiority were inseparable and inevitable. For many, this will not be an easy assumption to abandon. We will have to suffer the Tea Party trying to resurrect American primacy through the great strategy of simply insisting on it.

Meanwhile, in the real world, concerned citizens across the planet will work to come up with truly global regulatory bodies and actually globally representative institutions. Otherwise, the next few decades will produce anarchic instability for the many and ridiculous prosperity for the few. But these common challenges belie the difficulty of getting people to see their shared vulnerability – the tremendous effort necessary to produce a planetary consensus on how to manage those forces that have bound us all together. §

Haroon Moghul is executive director of The Maydan Institute and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and Religion Dispatches, and has spoken internationally on Muslim history, politics and practices.

for more, see:

Lepore, Jill, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution And The Battle Over American History, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Judt, Tony, “Ill Fares the Land,” New York Review of Books, April 29, 2010.

Charlemagne, “A False Prophet,” The Economist, October 7, 2010.

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    Haroon Moghul

    Haroon Moghul is a co-producer at Avenue M, a widely published writer and a popular public speaker.

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