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Understanding the Rise and Sprawl of Political Islam

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Within a post 9/11 society, political Islam is seen as a virulent force that threatens national security. In a response, Western governments have taken extreme political and militaristic action seeking to cripple the political ideology’s domestic and international expansion. Unfortunately, however, there has been little progress in this department. Still, for a small but increasing minority of Muslims, the West and its imperial intermeddling within Islamic Middle Eastern affairs (i.e. Israel-Palestine) is categorically reprehensible. Using this as a point of departure, serious acts of terrorism have been committed supposedly in the name of ‘jihad’.

The most iconic representative of political Islam is without doubt the late founder al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. For nearly two decades, the Islamist figurehead has been synonymous with a militant form of Occidentalism, and has been named as the main orchestrator behind the 9/11 bombings. Based upon these charges, many believe that the timely assassination of this ‘evil man’ by US military forces was both just and necessary. However, bin Laden’s death does very little to ameliorate the social and political preconditions of radical Islamism itself. With or without Osama bin Laden, this religio-political attitude will continue to be embraced by certain Muslims who are vindictively antipathetic towards the West. Under these circumstances, the age old argument of attacking symptoms but evading the disease is rather apt.

According to Christopher Hitchens, the main factor energising political Islam’s rise and sprawl is not Osama bin Laden, but the Islamic belief system itself. Within the eighth chapter of the Holy Qur’an, there is a passage that comprehensively delineates the right and duty of all Muslims to fatally persecute those whom fall under the rubrics of the ‘unbelieving’. This is accordingly the scriptural basis of jihadism. If this theory is correct – which it is most certainly not – then why do only a small minority of Muslims embrace this political persuasion? Well, put simply, contemporary political Islam has very little to do with the theology. Normatively speaking, its supporters are nearly always found within a very specific social, cultural and political context. This finding is well explicated by the American-Japanese political philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, who maintains that radical Islamism is more accurately understood through the prisms of modern identity politics. According to Fukuyama, globalisation is blurring the once apparent distinctions between the developed world and the Middle East. Under such conditions, the Islamic faith is being socially and geographically “deterritorialised”, namely through immigration and Western influences. As a consequence, the traditional Muslim identity has almost becomes untenable. This phenomenon is especially the case when the younger generation of Western Muslims are concerned. Without the everyday social and cultural cleavages found within traditional Islamic societies, young Muslims living within Western Europe and North America often feel divorced from their traditional ancestral ties. Concomitantly, such Muslims additionally feel ontologically estranged from the norms and values that are commonplace within their host nations. Under these inauspicious conditions, this generation of Western Muslims are extremely vulnerable to a sort of existential anxiety, whereby the proverbial question of “Who am I?” becomes subjectively difficult to ascertain. Fukuyama explains that political Islam and jihadism arises in response to this quest for identity, and provides a sense of belonging for anomic Western Muslims by positing statements such as:

“You are a member of a global Umma defined by adherence to a universal Islamic doctrine that has been stripped of all of its local customs, saints and traditions.”

This sociological interpretation explains the Western fraction of the global political Islamist movement. Here, European and North American Muslims – who feel socially, culturally and politically alienated from their secular, democratic host countries – readily embrace a doctrine that gives their personhood a meaningful raison d’ĂȘtre. This account elucidates the reasons why so many radical Muslims were originally non-Islamic in their daily behaviour. Oftentimes, these kinds of ‘secular Muslims’ were initially petty criminals who then became radicalised within the penal system. Records suggest that many were also alcohol or drug abusers before they became inspired political Islam. What these findings suggest is that with feelings of alienation and anomie, Western Muslims, just like any other social group, crave a sense of purposefulness within their lifeworlds. Based on these circumstances, political Islam provides the sufficient antidote to this existential crisis.

Whilst Fukuyama’s main thesis is certainly valid within Western contexts, it still fails to take into account that political Islam was originally a Middle Eastern reaction to the vices of Western imperialism. By stating that political Islam is mainly based on a sociologically-orientated need for a coherent self-identity, Fukuyama absolves the US and its allies of the political and economic oppression that it has continually inflicted upon Islamic societies. The United States and its questionable economic and militaristic support of the Israeli occupied territories is obviously the most pertinent case in point. This charge – coupled with other injustices such as the Iraq War – needs to be acknowledged if political Islam is to be understood in a global context.

Noam Chomsky states that the Islamist reaction to Western hegemonic forces is certainly not a recent phenomenon. In 1958, President Eisenhower stated – within an internal, underreported discussion – that hatred towards the US and its allies is exponentially growing within the Arab World. This attitude was not assumed by the autocratic governments of the region however, but by the actual people. After research was conducted that sought to suggest why this was the case, the US National Security Council observed that this hatred was based upon the assumption that the US and its allies (especially the UK and Israel) support brutal authoritarian regimes within the Middle East, North Africa and Indonesia principally because they want to control their lucrative oil reserves. Responding to this accusation, US representatives unashamedly claimed that this was wholly accurate and justifiable: if Western prosperity is to be effectuated, then building partnerships with Middle Eastern dictatorships with large supplies of natural recourses is essential. Because of the sheer frequency of these kinds of politico-economic arrangements within recent history, the West is often deemed to be complicit in the prevention of the democratization of the Arab World. Under these circumstances, the people living under these brutally repressive regimes have every right to be antagonistic towards the West.

 

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