Chris Harman


Contested values

(Winter 2005)

From International Socialism (2nd series), No.105, Winter 2005.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Globalised Islam: The Search for the New Ummah
Olivier Roy
Hurst, 2004 £16.95

Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection
Mariam Abou Zahab and Olivier Roy
Hurst, 2004 £14.95

The Languages of Political Islam: India 1200-1800
Muzaffar Alam
Hurst, 2004 £35

Nine years ago Olivier Roy wrote a book entitled The Failure of Political Islam. It was a book which demanded to be taken seriously, since he is one of the few Westerners to provide a serious account for a general readership of what has variously been called ‘political Islam’, ‘Islamism’ or ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. But after 11 September 2001 it might seem that the book’s very title was inappropriate. Fundamentalism seemed to be back with a vengeance.

In Globalised Islam he defends and extends his argument. Political Islam, he says, was a project aimed at conquering power in the modern state so as to carry through a sort of revolutionary change. Its proponents were reaching back to what they saw as the values of early Islam, before it became ‘corrupted’ by its involvement with earthly empires, to push through far reaching changes which would do away with the poverty, oppression and atomisation of the Third World societies where the majority of the world’s Muslims live.

The ‘failure’ was real enough in the most important countries where this was attempted. In Algeria the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in 1992 was followed by a military coup and a long civil war which drowned Islamist hopes in blood. In Egypt the state crushed the militant wing of the movement with executions and mass imprisonment, and in Iran, where the Islamists had taken control of the state, their rule has been characterised by factional disputes based upon the most earthly of considerations (personal enrichment, rival schemes for economic development) barely disguised by the occasional religious terminology.

For Roy, the ‘terrorist’ approach epitomised in 11 September was something qualitatively distinct from the political Islam that went before and a reaction to its failure. Actions aimed at destroying symbols of the ‘corruption’ (the twin towers, Australian tourists in Bali, Spanish commuter trains) have replaced any strategy of trying to change the world. They constitute a series of disconnected actions that resemble nothing so much as the wave of ‘outrages’ of the 1890s (when anarchists threw bombs into the French chamber of deputies and the St Lazar railway station).

For Roy, such ‘terrorism’ is not the only reaction to the failure of the original Islamist project. More widespread is an attempt at reconciliation with the existing state, as has happened in Turkey and as is the trend with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. ‘The revolutionary social message (or at least the terminology) has faded away in favour of a conservative agenda: insistence on the ‘shariatisation’ of the law, opposition in parliament to women’s political participation (Kuwait), and expression of the desiderata of the middle classes more than those of society’s disenfranchised.’ The end result is a sort of Islamic equivalent of the mainstream Christian Democratic parties of continental Europe.

A third response is to abandon politics completely and adopt a purely spiritual approach which sees Islam as a universal faith that cannot be manifest in any existing national structure. The Islamic ummah or community is no longer something to be created by a material remoulding of society. Rather it is to come about by conversion of individuals so that they are ‘reborn’ in much the same as way as are converts to evangelical Christianity, free from the corruption of existing cultures (including the traditional cultures of societies where Islam has been prevalent).

He argues that this is a form of adaptation to globalisation. Islamic beliefs historically have been rooted in particular societies and integrated with their distinct cultures. As globalisation has increasingly undermined traditional cultures – especially among those whose families emigrated to the West – various groups try to remould the old beliefs and practices, separating out the cultural particularities of the past from what they see as the ‘true Islam’.

This search for a new, universal, ‘Islamic’ identity is reinforced by the racist demonisation of Islam. Western political and media figures claim all Muslims share some metaphysical essence that makes them prone to barbarity; this creates the feeling among people with different ways of living that somehow they have a single identity in common.

Roy insists that the sense of identity created among the younger generation Muslims in the West is not an identification with the values of the societies their parents or grandparents came from – the young women who wear the headscarf do not want to go back to the Punjabi village. They are asserting the legitimacy of their place in modern Western society. Such religious symbolism can coexist with otherwise completely ‘Westernised’ modes of behaviour and dress: in Iran there are expensive fashionable garments known colloquially as chardior; a young woman sat near me on a train as I was writing this review, with a hijab over her hair and a copy of Cosmopolitan in her hand (open at an article on abortion). The Islamophobes of left and right are completely blind to such apparent contradictions.

Roy’s points are a very useful challenge to those who present Islam as a single entity determining its adherents’ behaviour regardless of the social context in which they find themselves. It is a valuable rejoinder to all those who see no difference between, for instance, the Muslim Association of Britain with its desire for people to integrate into the wider British society while preserving certain religious norms, Hizb ut Tahrir who want people to separate themselves off from it in a quietist manner, and those followers of Bin Laden who want to set off high powered bombs.

But it suffers from a couple of problems. Roy uses the term ‘neo-fundamentalist’ in a loose and confusing way, to cover a range of different trends, with much repetition and occasional inaccuracies (as when he treats separate Muslim schools as the norm in Britain, whereas two years ago they only educated about 2 percent of all Muslim children). This leaves you wondering sometimes what he is trying to say.

Second, and more importantly, Roy suggests that the new Islam usually expresses itself in conservative notions about social behaviour, not that different to that of evangelical Protestants or reborn Catholics, and in some cases seeing Islamic values (the sharia) as involving the huddud punishments (cutting off the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers) that have rarely been imposed in the actually existing Islamic societies of the last 1,400 years.

But there is another trend which Roy tends to minimise. This is to interpret the essential religious message as meaning a struggle against the dehumanised world of racism, capitalism and imperialism, and of doing so, just as Christian liberation theologists did a generation ago, in alliance with the non-religious left.

This is possible because the Koran and the Hadiths are much open to multiple interpretations, as are the Old and New Testaments.

Muzaffar Alam’s The Language of Political Islam is a fascinating study of how Muslim rulers and theologians made such multiple interpretations as they adapted to ruling over majority non-Muslim populations in the Indian subcontinent. He shows the rulers caught between interpreting their religion as meaning they should rule humanely (he assumes that rulers ever rule humanely!) in the interests of all of their subjects, and a narrow interpretation of the sharia privileging the Muslims and restricted to them. Out of this contradiction emerged a ‘Muslim’ culture in northern India which could, at times, share religious festivals with Sikhs and Hindus, seeing the temple and the mosque as a expressing the same values.

Islamist Networks is an A to Z of the different movements that have developed in Pakistan since the CIA, the Saudi state and Pakistani military intelligence collaborated with Bin Laden to fight the Russians. As such it is a reference work more than an easily digested analysis. But it does bring out the crude politicking (involving all Pakistan’s mainstream political parties and successive dictators) which encouraged these movements – and the fragmentation of these movement, now that Pakistan is bowing under pressure from the US to crack down on their actions in Kashmir as well as Afghanistan.

Last updated on 11 January 2010