Islamic Politics and Political Islam

Traditionalist religious attitudes did not necessarily have political consequences. Well into the 1980s, European Muslim leaderships were politically quietist. Most Muslims accepted their status as immigrants or transients who could reasonably expect to return some day to their home countries. Significantly, the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 evoked little activism among Europe's immigrant populations. Meanwhile, ordinary immigrants were generally to the left, inevitably, since it was the left-wing parties who supported them against racist and na-tivist attacks. Africans and Asians found their warmest advocates in parties such as the Communists in France and Italy, Socialists in Britain and Germany, and everywhere the small radical sects to the left of the communists. Immigrants' religious views were often secularist or anticlerical. In retrospect, it is difficult to recall the strongly conservative nature of Islamic politics before the late 1970s. In this earlier era, Islamism was associated with the reactionary royalism of states like Saudi Arabia, which was starkly opposed to the modernizing nationalism of Nasserism, Ba'athism, or revolutionary socialism, the fashionable and exciting Middle Eastern ideologies of the day.15

But distinctively Islamic political thought revived when corruption and economic failure discredited secular regimes and politics across the Muslim world. Repeated oil crises gave much greater visibility and prestige to Islamic states, especially in the Gulf, while Marxism and secular nationalism entered a period of terminal crisis. In north Africa and the near East, the Islamic revival was associated with the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, founded in 1928. Pakistani thinkers like Maulana Maududi (Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi) were also vital. Maududi preached the doctrine of iqamat-i-deen, "the establishment of religion," the theocratic idea that society and the state should be subjected entirely to Islamic law: he was especially hostile to new concepts of women's rights. In 1941, he founded the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), which became a leading force in the religious politics of Pakistan when that nation emerged from British rule. (This organization is not to be confused with the Indonesian JI, the extremist Je-maah Islamiyah.)16

These two movements, the Muslim Brotherhood and the JI, have provided the essential background for modern Islamist organization within the Muslim world and in Europe itself. Hamas, for instance, is the Palestinian offshoot of the Ikhwan. Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb— a massive influence on modern-day Islamist extremism—drew on both the Muslim Brotherhood and on the thought of Maududi himself. The strong presence of JI supporters in Pakistan's military and security apparatus goes far toward explaining the tight Saudi-Pakistani alliance that has done so much to support fundamentalist Islam in south Asia, including, for several years, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.17

Maududi died in 1979, the very year that the Iranian revolution brought revolutionary Islamism to the center of global affairs. Also during this pivotal year, a coup attempt by Islamist radicals in the holy city of Mecca terrified Saudi authorities and encouraged them to find ways of exporting dissent outside the limits of the kingdom. During the 1980s, accordingly, Saudi money sponsored hard-line mosques and schools around the world, encouraging the growth of more militant and confrontational varieties of Islam. Meanwhile, international conflicts aroused young Muslim activists worldwide. The war in Afghanistan mobilized radicals from around the Muslim world, who often traveled to join the struggle against Soviet imperialism. In most nations too, the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in 1991 raised qualms about Western imperialism in the Middle East. By the early 1990s, other political and religious struggles included the Chechen revolt against Russia.18

Other detonators had a special effect in particular countries. For Britain, which in recent years has produced some of the deadliest Islamist plots, by far the most significant conflict was the religious/political struggle in Kashmir, the area from which so many Pakistani immigrants came. Though Americans are familiar with the broad outlines of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the no less emotive Kashmir crisis remains unfamiliar. Like Palestine, Kashmir represents another hangover from a messy colonial partition of the late 1940s—in this case the breakup of Britain's old Indian empire. Depending on religion, territories affiliated either with the mainly Hindu nation of India, or with Muslim Pakistan. However, the Hindu prince of Kashmir led his domain into India, contrary to the wishes of the substantial Muslim majority. Irregular Muslim forces seized part of the area for Pakistan, but the remainder continues under Indian rule. Since 1947, Muslim activists have fought to win the whole of Kashmir, and in recent years, the separatist movement has become increasingly dominated by Islamist radicals. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, extremists moved their attention to Kashmir, and the presence of Qaeda forces in neighboring Pakistan reinforced the hardliners. Kashmir's neighbors to the west are the unruly tribal peoples of the North-West frontier, who still, probably, play host to Osama bin Laden. Pakistan's secret services and military have also dabbled extensively in the Kashmir conflict, provoking fears of full-scale war between India and Pakistan, both of which are now nuclear powers.

Militant Islamist movements also grew steadily in Algeria, from which so many French Muslims derived. Radicals followed the Salafist movement that aspired to return to the strictest interpretation of Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest disciples, abhorring any later developments or accommodations. In 1990, the Islamic Salvation Front, FIS, did so well in national elections that the military was forced to cancel the election process to avoid the establishment of an Islamist regime. Through the 1990s, the nation endured a destructive war that left 100,000 dead, as the government tried to suppress the Armed Islamic Group, the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé). This movement in turn spawned an even more hard-core grouping, the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). By the end of the decade, the Algerian government won the struggle, driving many extremists into exile, chiefly in Europe.19

Egypt suffered its own Islamist insurgency, the leaders of which pioneered some influential ideas. Building on the thought of Sayyid Qutb, radicals evolved a system in which believers claimed a revolutionary duty to struggle against regimes that claimed to be Muslim. Radicals should respond with an act of takfir, proclaiming the traitors as kaffirs, unbelievers, in effect reading them out of the faith. Members of the purified true-Muslim remnant should then make hijra, undertaking a self-exile that would remove them from that false society, usually withdrawing inward, to an alternative Islamic culture. In 1971, extremist members of the Muslim Brotherhood founded the movement Takfir wal Hijra. As Egyptian radicals came under mounting official repression during the 1990s, many fled to Europe, taking the movement with them, and it has proved a fertile recruiting ground for militants.

Meanwhile, the complex wars that swept the former Yugoslav federation had a special impact for Europeans. Some of the refugees from the Balkan war zone carried radical ideas with them: Germany alone has around 170,000 Muslims of Bosnian origin. While the conflicts drew international jihadist forces into the Muslim-Christian struggles in Bosnia, these events also deeply affected ordinary and hitherto nonpolitical Muslims. As Melanie Phillips remarks,

What made this carnage so much worse was that it was taking place in the middle of secular, multicultural Europe. The Muslims being wiped out were pale skinned and clothed in jeans and track shoes. They looked and behaved like any other Europeans. And yet Britain and Europe were dragging their heels about doing anything to stop the slaughter.20

As interest in Islam grew, the appeal of secular leftism was diminishing. For the European left, the 1980s began with enormous promise, with popular revulsion against the Reagan regime and a deepening economic crisis. The U.S. decision to base missiles in western Europe in 1983-1984 galvanized a mass antinuclear movement that drew on envi-ronmentalism and feminism as much as traditional leftist opinion. After 1984, though, it was clear that aggressive U.S. policies had not only failed to ignite a nuclear war, but they appeared to be bringing the Soviets to the bargaining table. By the end of the decade, the fall of communism across eastern Europe created an ideological crisis for the Western left, which moved rapidly away from familiar socialist doctrines. In the process, these parties lost many of their most active and idealistic supporters, those most likely to reach the urban young. As Olivier Roy remarks, "When the left collapsed, the Islamists stepped in. . . . Islam has replaced Marxism as the ideology of contestation." Or to quote Farhad

Khosrokhavar, "Islam is becoming in Europe, especially France, the religion of the repressed, what Marxism was in Europe at one time."21

In their purest and most extreme form, theories like those of Qutb and Maududi influenced only a small minority of European Muslims, but the new wave of Islamic political thought and activism enjoyed wider influence. From the late 1980s, Islamic activists, and especially clerical leaders, demonstrated a much greater sense of confidence in their dealings with the mainstream society, while the campaign against Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1989 galvanized militancy across Europe. Rushdie himself describes this as "a pivotal moment in the forging of a British Muslim identity and political agenda. I did not fail to note the ironies: a secular work of art energized powerful commu-nalist, antisecularist forces, 'Muslim' instead of 'Asian.'" The younger generation growing up in the 1980s and 1990s found such assertive-ness both natural and attractive, and in some cases, they criticized the political passivity of their parents.22

Reinforcing these trends was the arrival of exiles from the Muslim world, radical and fundamentalist activists who faced prison or execution at home but who could speak and publish freely in Europe. London, above all, came to occupy a pivotal role in Middle Eastern life comparable to that of Beirut prior to the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. It was here, not in Algiers or Cairo or Damascus, that one could readily find Takfiris and Salafists, Wahhabis and Deobandis, apart from the many representatives of moderate and democratic Muslim traditions, feminists, and secularizers. Far from being a distant fringe of the Muslim world and occasionally receiving the latest cultural and intellectual trends, European cities played a leading role in shaping those movements.

We must stress the novelty of this situation for Muslims. Intense intellectual debate was anything but new for the Islamic world, but for some centuries, clergy and religious thinkers were limited by the demands of the states in which they worked. They had somewhat more freedom in European colonial settings, such as the British Raj in India, when European rulers cared little about Muslim theological debate, provided it did not venture into open sedition. In modern Europe, however, even that degree of restraint rarely applied. Radical imams need no longer look over their shoulders at their respective ministries of religious affairs, nor could moderates reliably count on police intervention against even the most hare-brained extremists.

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