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Parsing political from traditional Islam

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Those seeking superficial "culture talk" to pigeonhole Islam as a theology and a political force should skip this note as I conclude this trio with a tour of Mahmood Mamdani's dissection of the idea that "religion drives both Islamic culture and politics and that the motivation for Islamist violence is religious fundamentalism." Were it only so easy. No more monolithic a block than 'Christianity,' Islam is a sea of interpretations, large and small. Olivier Roy notes that Muslims "disagree, while all stressing that the Koran is unambiguous and clear-cut."

Remember that the magic of bin Laden is his marriage of two heretofore distinct arms of Islamic thinking, the ultra-strict, quietist Wahhabi (Salafist) school and the more autonomous and activist strand of political Islam of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (which was itself injected with the thinking of Sayad Maududi's Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) from Pakistan where it still holds sway today).

Conceptualizing Islam interlinked with socio-economic and political systems, Islam became a "movement which struggles (jihad) to enforce "the way of life," and in the hands of the Brotherhood fleeing to Saudi Arabia to avoid persecution, it "took control of Saudi intellectual life, [shaping] the country's religious and political awakening after the Iranian revolution of 1979. A new generation of radicals carried this new activist Wahhabism into the Middle East and Asia. (This is not the only time that Wahhabism has been "elevated to the status of a liberation theology," as Kepel notes, Ronald Reagan used Saudi money and religion to "free the region of communism." Isn't blowback wonderful?)

Soon came al-Zawahiri's brilliance in the tactical shift from the "nearby enemy" to the "faraway enemy," the strategic adoption of Palestine as a rallying point (which bin Laden had only paid token service), the advancement of political terrorism as a legitimate and cost-effective means of attack, the need for a new infrastructure to manage, operate, and recruit in pursuit of jihad, and the creation of a stateless and thus largely untargetable entity. (I still find al-Zawahiri the more essential thinker than bin Laden.)

I was more than intrigued by Mamdani's 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.

Jihadist politics are "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." It is most certainly not a simple cultural extension of Islam.

Mamdani sees Europe's Muslims 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." In a discussion too long to report here, he summarizes ideas which would indicate that traditional Islam could coexist. The problem is that political Islam whose ideologues are former leftists not clerics or ulema (teachers) likely cannot.

Mamdani believes that the Afghan jihad's influence cannot be overstated in understanding "why jihadist Islam, an ideology of marginal political significance in the late 1970s, has come to dominate Islamist politics":

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... 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.

Mamdani drives home the fact that that political Islam's growth has been nonlinear and hybridized by specific political projects. Political Islam may bifurcate between indigenous and immigrant arms, with one taking precedence over the other, but at least he is offering a far less simplistic means of analysis. He does not answer the question if political Islam will mimic the melding of Marxism and local nationalisms to create entities strong enough to pull down regimes, but he says to look to Iraq where:

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 [in] a free-for-all [that] will influence the course of political Islam for years to come.

Part 12

Whither Political Islam?
Mahmood Mamdani
Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005

Gordon Housworth



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