In his exploration of what gives rise to a sense of national identity, the nineteenth-century French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan (1823-92) pointed out the importance of suffering and persecution in creating a sense of solidarity and shared values: "Suffering in common," he wrote, "unifies more than joy."1 Violence and oppression—and sometimes even the mere perception of such a threat—from a rival religious grouping help to crystallize a sense of self-identity in the face of "the other." When it comes to binding a group together, nothing is quite as effective as shared grievances, suffering, and hatred—perhaps even the hope of revenge.
This phenomenon is so well known that it needs illustration rather than justification. An excellent example lies to hand in the role of Western interventionism in politicizing and radicalizing Islam in the last hundred years. A growing Western presence and influence in Islamic regions of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been a powerful stimulus to the development of politicized forms of Islam that derive their sense of identity and mission from hostility toward the West. For instance, an appeal to a common sense of Islamic identity is central to Osama bin Laden's ideology of "holy war." In fact,
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Islam is just as divided as Christianity: substantial differences exist between Sunnis and Shi'ites, not to mention the range of sects within those two broad strains, such as the Wahhabis. But the perception of a series of coordinated attacks on Islam by the United States and others was easily portrayed as an assault on "Islam" itself. Those attacks rapidly became the centers of nucleation around which a shared belief in an essential Islamic identity crystallized.
The origins of the modern Islamic movement can be traced back to about 1875, when Jamal al-Din al-Afghani urged Muslims to resist the growing Western influence in the Middle East by a reaffirmation of their Islamic heritage. He encouraged Muslims to believe that, prior to the arrival of the Westerners, a golden age of wise Islamic rule had held sway. This situation could be retrieved by a return to personal religious piety, a reform and renewal of Islamic shariah law, and violent resistance to the Western presence and influence in the region.2 By defining a common enemy—the United States of America, or a specific American president—modern Islamism thus creates a sense of identity and shared goals within Islam. As we shall see, much the same process happened within Protestantism in the later sixteenth century.
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