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Books and Documents ( 8 Jan 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Understanding Islamism through History



By Talmiz Ahmad

January 1, 2015

Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from The West's Past

John M Owen IV

Princeton University Press

216 pages; price not stated


John Owen has set himself a daunting task: how the West is to confront the ubiquitous challenge of political Islam, or Islamism. He draws on various developments in the history of Europe and the United States over the last few centuries and identifies six lessons that he believes will clarify matters for the bewildered, and possibly reassure those terrified by the ongoing struggle that the West is engaged in with its new enemy.

Islamism is the movement that seeks to achieve a reformed political order that is founded on a reconciliation of Islamic principles and those of modern political theory, such as constitution, parties, elections, representative government, human rights, freedom, justice, and social and economic welfare. It emerged, not in the 1920s as Mr Owen says, but in the early 19th century, in response to the total defeat suffered by the Arabs at the hands of the western colonialists. This sense of crisis, particularly in the area of politics, led to deep introspection among Arab intellectuals. While some suggested a return to pristine Islam and a few advocated a wholesale rejection of the Islamic heritage, the overwhelming majority suggested a re-interpretation of Islamic principles and to harmonise them with modern precepts of governance.

This review, carried out by scholars over the last 150 years, was anchored in Islam for it was an integral part of the Arab ethos and imparted authenticity to the new order that was envisaged. The reformers ranged from the conservative to the liberal, but they shared certain views: that Islam contained within it all the principles required for modern governance: the provision of Shura (consultation); the importance of Adl (justice), and the primacy of masalaha (public interest). Islamic tradition also provided that this re-interpretation could be done on the basis of Ijtihad, independent reasoning.

Beginning from 1928, when the Muslim Brotherhood was set up in Egypt as an activist Islamist organisation seeking to replace the existing authoritarian rulers, a variety of Islamist movements have emerged across the region to agitate for a political order in which they might compete for power and realise their vision of a free and modern state founded on Islamic principles. Their struggle has generally been marked by oppression, incarceration, execution and exile. The Arab Spring four years ago promised real change. This dream now lies in ruins, with the Brotherhood government in Egypt replaced by a new tyranny, and its members killed, imprisoned or exiled.

Today, Islamism is represented by three streams: the mainstream Brotherhood and its affiliates; the Wahhabiya of Saudi Arabia, that is relatively rigid and doctrinaire; and extremist movements, such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, that resort to violence to achieve their State. Unfortunately, Mr Owen provides none of this background that would have explained the complexity of contemporary Islamist discourse.

The six "lessons" he has postulated in regard to dealing with Islamism are: Islamism is pervasive and influential; like other ideologies, it is not monolithic but has numerous strands; foreign interventions in defence of national interests are normal; even an ideology-driven state can be rational; the outcome of a contention could yield an uncertain result, perhaps even a hybrid of the two positions; and, finally, the outcome could be influenced by the success of "exemplary states".

Mr Owen's central concern is Islamism's competition with secularism. To understand the possible outcome of this seminal contention, he makes a survey of the emergence and consolidation of secularism in the West, so that this issue is placed in a comparative historical context. He concludes that the struggle will be long and furious, but its outcome is uncertain and could be a hybrid of the two positions. He makes frequent references to the secular order of the authoritarian rulers in West Asia, but does not point out that it is this association with tyranny that has discredited secularism across the region.

For the rest, the book does not make any new or significant point: of course, we know that an ideological movement is multi-faceted; that ideology-driven states, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, are rational and robustly pursue their national interest, and that foreign states intervene in other areas in defence of their ideological or balance-of-power interests.

But there is a problem at the heart of the narrative, and that is the author's contention that the central issue in West Asia is competition between Islamism and secularism. The overwhelming aspiration in the region is for dignity, which can only come from freedom and democracy. The role and influence of religion is secondary and, in the free polity, will be debated by elected representatives, as happened a year ago in Tunisia.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat