By: Dr Marwan Asmar
The writer is director of
research and analysis at Writelabs, an Amman-based consultancy
Immediately after 11 September the world became deluged with books on
the relationship between Islam and the West. Suddenly it was felt by
writers, opinion-makers, columnists, journalists, researchers and
academics that people in western countries wanted to know and read about
Islam and what Muslim people think.
I mention academics last because a great deal of what was written had a
sensationalist aspect, seeing Islam as a war-mongering religion.
However, a great deal of the writing had a serious nature to it. Some
books concentrated on the relationship between Islam and the West,
others discussed what they talked about the myth and reality of
contemporary Islamic movements, Islam in the digital age, rethinking
Islam in the modern world and the importance of Islamic culture and
belief. The variety of titles showed some were really re-evaluating past
views and trying to come up with more meaningful analysis.
Despite the fact that the Bush administration was concentrating on
bringing democracy to the Arab world, or at least this is what it has
been saying after the war on Iraq and Afghanistan, few books
concentrated on that particular aspect of Islamic politics. However,
some did take such an angle like the book on Islam and the Challenge of
Democracy by Khaled Abu Al Fadl (Princeton 2004) who examined the
democratic pressures facing the Muslims today.
This is an angle that was taken up through what has been termed as
Islamic revivalism, Muslim fundamentalism, Islamic politics and Islam in
international relations. Some writers have become so well-versed on the
subject that they are producing several on the subject of which Peter
Mandaville is one of the first. His Transnational Muslim Politics,
(Routledge 2001) is today being followed by a second book on Global
Political Islam, International Relations of the Muslim World that is due
to be out by the middle of 2007.
This book contextualizes what it terms as political Islam in its
international dimensions, concentrating on a complex and fluid relation
between political Islam, nationalism and globalization while downplaying
the 1990s theory of the clash of civilization.
But the writer appears to be establishing a theme when he talks about
the Al Qaeda as a transitional network in international relations one
that is likely to influence the direction of relations in the region.
However, the book is clearly aimed at students of international
relations theory who seek to understand the interactions between
different global actors in the international system.
This is followed by other literature that tries to understand notions of
change in Islam as brought about by the different interpretations given
to jihad or holy war. Thus the Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global by Fawaz
Gerges, (Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp 358) precisely looks at
this point seeing the concept as preached and practiced by Al Qaeda as
only a minority view.
Gerges says that the mainstream Jihadists concentrate on the internal
dimension of changing the Islamic world from within and adopt a
nationalist view to bringing about political reform. This is in contrast
to those braced by such organizations Al Qaeda which espouses a
different philosophy of striking at the heart of the international
Reviewers says this is an articulate book that examines the tactics used
by the Jihadists in a bid to gain power and inflates its rank and file.
But the author poses different questions such as can the Jihadists
survive if they stick to violent tactics as those used by the Al Qaeda.
The issue of transnational politics in Islam has been tackled from
different aspects and angles. Quite frequently the domestic angle of
Islamism was seen to impinge on the external dimension. The notion of
the state, ideology, nationalism, civil society, even piety and
revivalism are seen as inputs in the analysis on Islam and the political
behavior of Muslims, Muslim leaders, politicians as well as activists.
These factors it is argued are used by Muslim politics and is in turn
influenced by them.
These ideas and practical beliefs were argued to manifest themselves in
different ways when dealing with the perceptions of Islam on the
international and transnational levels to produce sophisticated points
of view and analysis. While issues of terrorism, violence and threat may
manifest themselves in certain literature, the trend has become less
In Face to Face with Political Islam by Francis Burgat (I.B.Tauris,
2003), the dimension is more subtle. Burgat, a French academic, says it
is too simplistic to say Islam negates democracy and is intolerant
towards the other for this is far from the truth. Burgat says Islam
seeks to express its identity in an international system dominated by
western states and western ideology.
It is from this perspective political Islam seeks to reassert its
authenticity in the global system that is hegemonized by external forces
on the one hand, and from internal domination by the state system and
order on the other which is argued to be propped up by the West, the
But her analysis goes further than this when she says Islamists may not
recognize the universality of democratic rights because of the fact they
may have never experienced these rights themselves because of the nature
of the dogmatic political systems they live under and of the nature of
political rule that stifles opposition, the multi-party system and free
The book, which has been described as one of the best analysis on Islam
argues on the one hand, that the religion seeks to restore its culture
as dominated by colonization and on the other it�s a device for
emancipation rather than fundamentalism. She also specifically examines
the Islamic view on modernity and its interactions with it, on women and
the questions of violence.
As opposed to such analysis however, Ray Takeyh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev
give a different interpretation to political Islam. In their book The
Receding Shadow of the Prophet: The Rise and Fall of Radical Political
Islam (Praeger paperback, 2004 p 208) paints a gloomy picture of the
future of Islamic movements in the Arab and Muslim worlds, saying they
have dismally failed because of not being able to produce a workable
model of governance for a nation-state.
The authors state that what they call "militant Islam" is more adept at
breaking things rather than creating them and that it is successful in
fomenting rebellion and channeling unrest rather than building stable
But many would argue this is a too simplistic interpretation and may
even lean on the ideological in their views. A prime example of this is
firstly the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and the establishment of an
Islamic government based on firm representation and which has ruled Iran
through elections and parliament.
The other example is that of Hamas when it participated for the first
time in the January 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative
Elections and obtained the majority of the seats.
The Hamas experience clearly negates the views put forward by Takeyh and
Gvosdev because of the measure of the popularity of political Islam
among the masses who have become fed up by mainstream politics and
politicians who do not deliver on their promises.
Both in Iran and Palestine, the Islamists, and over the 1980s and 1990s
built grass-root institutions, extended their hands to the masses, the
poor, the destitute and the middle classes to gain support for their own
political Islamic point of views and become respected in society.
In Iran, Islamists built a strong participatory political system, and in
Palestine the Hamas movement became active, reactive and answered the
needs of Palestinian in the West Bank and more so in Gaza. Thus on those
two levels Takeyh and Gvosdev may be considered to have undermined their
point of view and produced a short-sighted analysis.
Since fundamentalism seems to be regarded as big game theory, there is
always differing point of views. While literature does not directly
concentrate on the "them" and "us" attitudes, it is felt that these
always crop up in the analysis by trying to be reductionist and even
Professor Bassam Tibi, professor of International Relations at the
University of Gottingen, Germany, tries to distinguish between the
spirituality of Islam which poses no threat to the international system
and Islamic fundamentalism which he views as a political response to
In his The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New
World Disorder, (University of California Press, 2002, p 256), Tibi says
there is a fundamentalist revolt not only against western political
power but also against western culture and values because it challenges
the western-based notion of a world order of nation-states as Islam
rejects such boundaries and sees itself as the legitimate organizing
force of the world.
Tibi however argues that Islam should be better understood as a cultural
force to be cultivated rather than as a threat to be feared. This book
urges political and religious leaders to foster cultural and religious
tolerance among the world's religions.
Despite the great number of books that have been written critics have
suggested that most of those have been marred by superficial western
understandings of concepts related to traditions, values and beliefs
that exist in the West but do not necessarily have the same impact in
the Arab or Islamic worlds.
It is argued that views on democracy, political systems, freedom of
expression, the issue of leadership must be contextualized within the
prevailing indigenous ideas and thought processes. But apart from that
however, one of the striking things that appear to be missing in any
book on Islamic politics and international relations is the textual
aspects of the Koran and its doctrinal percepts.
Views on the organizations of society, the issue of order, relations
with one another, as well as the relations with the other tend to be
underplayed, and what tends to be highlighted by some writers like
Bernard Lewis is what he calls the belligerent views in Islam like war
and the issue of bringing the non-believers to hell.
But such views are taken out of context. The peaceful aspects of Islam,
its rejection of aggression unless attacked and the need to treat
prisoners of war kindly are not aspects that are frequently stressed and
consequently neither readers know about them nor do western Middle East
specialists care to acknowledge them on the whole.
However, certain books which appear from time to time seek to readdress
the picture. Take Graham Fuller's The Future of Political Islam,
(Macmillan, 2004, pp 226). His easy approach makes this book a good read
of an immensely important subject to the West.
Quite simply he says political Islam is here to stay, and it serves as a
realistic alternative to repressive regimes in the Muslim world,
something which the West needs to get used to.
Fuller moves away from the traditional stereotype about Islam belonging
to the Middle Ages but paints a youthful and modernistic picture of
Islam as it enters into the 21st century. The author, a former CIA
operative, says Islam is an adaptive religion that is able to work
within modern institutions be they are democratic or quasi-democratic.
Above all, Islam has the knocking ability to engage in modern systems in
the world and accept concepts like participatory democracy and its
universality in the modern world.
So many ideas, so many points of view. Many argue that Islam is not a
uniform system of beliefs, there are many trends and movements within
the religion, pointing to its rich texture and the ways it engages
itself in different complex structures throughout the world. On the
whole it�s a religion within the international system rather than one
which seeks to work outside it or even overthrow it.
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