The Context of Islamism

This post is adapted from an essay I wrote in early 2011:

Islamism must be considered as one of the most successful political ideologies of the modern era, on par with Communism and representative Democracy. From a handful of secret societies and tribal confederations, the ideologues of totalitarian Islam have swept their competitors off the battlefield of Middle Eastern politics. How did this movement rise from such humble roots to inspire millions with an active spiritual strength as powerful as any military arsenal?

Islamism is a modern political movement that advocates the submission of the entire world to the ancient doctrines of Orthodox Sunni or Shiite Islam. According to this system, all aspects of an individual’s personal and civil lives must be regulated by the Islamic legal code of Shariah, a canon inspired by the word of God and animated by the example of Muhammad, who Muslims believe to be the last and greatest of the prophets of God. Seeking, as all great political ideologies do, to provide order in a turbulent world, Islamism championed the power of totalitarian spiritual servitude, where before it democracy had exalted the indispensible virtues of liberty and equality.

If we suppose that, “the Muslim community [is], in a sense Allah’s army, with the conquest of the world as its object,” then we can consider the Islamists as the self-appointed Generals in command of this holy army. If we further the analogy, then by the outset of the 19th century the army of the faithful had been uniformly defeated, thought not conquered, by the very Christian powers of Europe that they had more than once nearly conquered themselves. There naturally arose in the midst of this epic communal failure a desire to identify the causes of decay in order that they might be reversed. What went wrong, and, crucially, how could these shameful circumstances be corrected? How would the community of the faithful react to its encounter with the modern world? 100 years ago, the world’s leading European expert on Islam wrote that in the answer to this question, “the whole civilized world and the whole world of Islam are concerned.”

To this day, Muslim intellectuals have offered and been offered every conceivable antidote to address the decline of their once powerful civilization: theocracy in Iran and Saudi Arabia, monarchy in Jordan and the Gulf, Socialism in Egypt and Syria, mandated secularism in Turkey, nominal democracy in Indonesia and Iraq, dictatorship, tribalism, and autocratic depredations everywhere. The cultural and spiritual traditions of Islam non-withstanding, Islamism is a successful ideology precisely because of the abject failure of all the other political constructs throughout the lands peopled by Muslims. Indeed, by picking and choosing the most opportunistic aspects of the ideologies that preceded it, Islamists have constructed a hybrid system that has attracted a global network of loyalists. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood has many successful businesses that operate in the free-market, yet the essence of their ideology is Islam, and their organization is structured in a manner similar to the Communists.

Of course, the Islamists have had a little help, and while their militant spiritual force has gradually worn away at the material supremacy of the West, it has been the largesse of Saudi and Iranian oil dollars that has allowed Islamists to rise so quickly to the heights of Middle Eastern politics. The dark, oily wealth of the Wahabbis and Ayatollahs has been used to fund tens of thousands of radical mosques and schools (madrassas) throughout the globe, where daily the multitudes of Islamic youth are raised in the supremacist glories of the Ancient Golden Age of Islamic yore. Crucially, it is within this loosely-connected global network of Islamic schools, Muslim NGOs, mosques, and Islamic community centers, where generations of children have been taught, enlightened national leaders have been deceived, millions of Muslim faithful have been proselytized, and entire Muslim communities have been segregated from, and antagonized against, the modern liberal ways of Western culture and society.

The failure of all modern political constructs, the general instability sweeping the globe, and the massive transfer of oil wealth to the enemies of liberal civilization have all abetted the rise of Islamist power. Yet the heart of the movement lies in its militant spiritual strength, which is so essential a component of orthodox Islam. Islamists legitimize their totalitarian doctrines as a continuation of the glorious legacy of an ancient, respected, and powerful religion. The hard facts are that the Sunni and Shiite orthodox traditions, which are followed by the vast majority of practicing Muslims, agree on the following: that infidels ought to be aggressively converted, apostates must be murdered as traitors, that the Koran and its Prophet must not be critiqued, that Christians and Jews are to be reviled, and that women are subjected to men. The Muhammadan faith since its inception has been at odds with Judeo-Christian civilization. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a movement of the radical right-wing of Sunni and Shiite Orthodox traditions should necessarily stand opposed to those bedrocks of Western civilization: reason, science, capitalism and freedom.

The hypocrisy of the Islamists is on a scale with their political cunning. The bearded fanatics who are loudest with their invective against modern society are the first to utilize modern technology to drag the world into the supposed glorious barbarism of 7th century Arabia. A megaphone carries the call to prayer to more ears; the printing press brings the dictates of the Koran to more eyes; cell phones allow commanders to give orders directly to the jihadists on the front lines; the internet expands the reach, and magnifies the power of insurgent groups like Al-Qaeda; and the education of Muslims in the western sciences has led to their ability to develop deadlier weapons. The irony of the Salafist successes is that though they may despise the climate of freedom in which these inventions were created, they are quick to abuse the scientific genius of infidels towards the advancement of their own backwards, totalitarian dogma. Much as Adolf Hitler used the pretense of democracy to come to power, so he disregarded the will of the people as soon as he had achieved his position of authority.

The Islamists are thus able to draw from the greatest strengths of two diametrically opposed civilizations. It is precisely this hypocritical genius that has allowed the modern Islamist movement to conquer the peasant minds of the Arab street, both in the Middle East and in the important Muslim Diasporas in India, Europe, and the Americas. Radical Islamism is certainly one of the primary factors driving the revolutionary sentiment presently sweeping the Muslim World. In the few places where they have achieved tangible political power, their ascension has led to the abuses one might expect from a totalitarian ideology. The world has not heard the last of Islamism. Civilized nations of all stripes would do well to prepare for the day when the governments of many States are in their hands, and where the Mubaraks and Ghaddafis are replaced by the Qaradawis and Gannouchis.