October 18, 2004


This futile fundamentalism: Champions of Islamic revolution are fooling themselves; they have nothing to offer contemporary Muslims (William Pfaff, October 17, 2004, The Observer)

The intellectual godfather of modern Islamist radicalism is generally taken to have been the 19th-century Egyptian intellectual named Sayyid Qutb. A review of the literature on Islamic radicalism during the past 25 years (cited by John Zimmerman in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence ) shows Qutb routinely mentioned as one of the two most important intellectual influences on these movements and, in particular, as being the main (if indirect) inspiration for Osama bin Laden.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 to oppose the secularising tendencies in Islamic society, influenced the Qutb tradition of religious revival and reform towards greater militancy and conservatism.

Yet the most important reform movements in the Arab world before the Second World War were secular in character. A modernising and secular pan-Arab nationalism followed the First World War and gave rise to the Baath movement in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Arab-Christian intellectuals were originally important in its development. They wanted an 'Arab nation' that was not exclusively Muslim.

The most important effort to establish a secular pan-Arab 'nation' was that of Gamal Nasser in Egypt in the 1950s. This and the parallel 'Arab Socialist' movement were in part reactions to the shock of Israel's creation, and its defeat of the Arab armies in the 1948 war.

These secular Arab movements failed. The depressing residue today of the Baath movement and of Arab socialism consists of hereditary Presidents for life and military dictators.

Social and political reform has generally been more successful in monarchies whose legitimacy is ultimately religious, as in Morocco and Jordan. (Saudi Arabia's rulers are mere military usurpers of the Hashemite dynasty, hereditary protectors of the Holy Places.)

The Ottoman Empire's survival until the First World War delayed the shock of foreign conquest on the Arab Middle East. In colonial Asia, a pattern of reaction was already evident, initially of resistance, then of accommodation or even conversion to Western ideas, producing an ideal - usually unattained - of synthesis with the West.

Eventually, there were new forms of armed resistance, based on subversive ideas taken from the West: nationalism, and 20th-century national communism. Otherwise, there was the surviving idea of return to religion in order to find a new golden age.

Today's militant Islamic revival has seemed a success because it is taken so seriously in the West. Al-Qaeda's attack on the United States have produced three years of frenzied and quasi-paranoid reaction by the American government. The rest of the world has been pushed to follow the American lead, convenient for many leaders with troublesome separatist or subversive minorities easily redefined as international terrorists.

The Islamist movement itself evolved as a form of 'franchised' terrorism with a common ideological and inspirational base. It spread to aggrieved Muslims in Europe, Asia, Africa and the US.

In reaction, the US, with allies, has invaded two countries (thus far) and overturned two governments. This has served chiefly to promote the Islamist message and recruit more militants. Iraq and Afghanistan today are the evidence of this. [...]

The Islamist movement is a desperate effort by elements in a thwarted society to strike back at enemies. But it really wants only to expel the West and its influence from the Muslim world. It can't even do that. The Islamists want to conquer and convert Islamic society - not infidel society.

Islamic fundamentalism has nothing to offer contemporary Islam. You cannot function in the 21st century on the basis of a primitive interpretation of Islamic law. That already is evident in Iran. Afghanistan under the Taliban had no future. The future of the Islamist movement itself is irrelevance. For the Islamic people, its legacy will be tragedy.

If he didn't hate our intervention so much Mr. Pfaff would achieve a genuine insight here. As he notes, Islamicism is not much of a threat to us in the West and it's not capable of effectively organizing societies any more than the other totalitarianisms were--Nazism and Communism. The War on Terror is really nothing more than saving weak Islamic states from the gruesome experience of experimenting with Islamicism. It is best thought of as intervening in Germany in 1933 or Russia in 1917.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2004 3:18 PM

People who say it all started with Qutb have not been paying attention.

Islamicism is conservative.

The kindler, gentler Islam you're banking on is the revolutionary development -- or would be, if it ever happens.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 18, 2004 5:53 PM

Islamicism is a Western phenomenon.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 6:10 PM

The Islamists want to conquer and convert Islamic society - not infidel society.

Yeah, right: and Hitler just wanted the Sudetenland.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 18, 2004 6:24 PM

No Harry, it is deeply reactionary and radical; from Mohammed to Ibn Tammiya to Ibn Wahhab to

Posted by: narciso at October 18, 2004 9:04 PM

"The War on Terror is really nothing more than saving weak Islamic states from the gruesome experience of experimenting with Islamicism. It is best thought of as intervening in Germany in 1933 or Russia in 1917."

Orrin - I swear to God you rock, man. Love to have a beer with you ('cept I'm on the worng coast.)

George in Seattle - holdin' down George Washington's fort.

Posted by: george at October 18, 2004 11:23 PM

The question of the 21st century:

Is Islam as it always was, or has it changed?

It is as it was.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 19, 2004 1:52 PM


Posted by: oj at October 19, 2004 1:59 PM