By Juan Cole
Dec 4, 2016
Several members of Donald Trump’s new team,
including National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and proposed Secretary of
Defense James Mattis have expressed themselves troubled about “political
Islam” (or in Flynn’s case, just “Islam”). Mattis seems to have confused Daesh’s (ISIS,
ISIL) idea of a neo-Caliphate (bringing back a medieval papacy-like institution
to Islam) with “political Islam” in general.
He wants Americans to ask the question of whether political Islam is
good for the US…
Gen. Mattis should grapple a little with
whether his 2004 Fallujah campaign did not alienate the Sunni Arabs of Iraq,
turn them off to the 2005 elections, and pave the way for them to ally with
Daesh/ ISIL in 2014. That is, Mattis may
have created the political Islam he now wants to name and ideologically combat.
The American right wing has substituted
hysteria about socialism with hysteria about Islam and especially political
Islam, equating both with terrorism. And
its members appear to imagine that Islam is an ideology like Communism, and can
be defeated by the United States just as Communism was (well, except in China,
which, let’s face it, is a hell of an exception).
There is hopeless confusion on the American
right wing about Islam in general and political Islam in particular. Let me suggest some distinctions:
Muslims are adherents of the religion of
Islam. Some 85% of them in opinion
polling are not fundamentalists.
Fundamentalist Muslims are those who take a
literalist approach to Muslim law, ritual and doctrine and disallow any
ambiguity. Fundamentalists can be
quietist (uninterested in politics) or political.
Political Islam is the attempt to make
Islam the basis for a political ideology that would dictate government
policy. It is analogous to Zionism,
which makes Jews the basis for a political ideology. It is also analogous to the Christian Right
in the US, which makes Christianity a political ideology and pursues the
Christianization of American law (e.g. striving to ban abortion, to outlaw sex
outside Christian marriage, etc.)
Not all Muslims are fundamentalists. Many in e.g. West Africa or South Asia are
Sufi mystics who have an allegorical interpretation of the religion. Others are secular-minded. Of the fundamentalists, not all are devotees
of political Islam.
Terrorism is the tactic of a non-state
actor harming non-combatants to achieve a political goal. Very, very few Muslims engage in terrorism,
and very few fundamentalists do so, and very few devotees of political Islam do
so. (People of Christian heritage also
routinely deploy terrorism).
Arguably, Daesh runs a terrorist state, not
a political-Islamic one. The people
fighting against Daesh at Mosul include a large contingent of Shiites who
believe in political Islam and belong to the major parties in the Iraqi
parliament that advocate this ideology, including the Da’wa Party of Prime
Minister Haidar al-Abadi and the Islamic Supreme Council of Ammar
al-Hakim. If you denounce political
Islam across the board, you’d have to denounce the Iraqi government, but Gen.
Mattis construes it as a friend.
Regular readers will know that I don’t like
the word “Islamism,” which was coined by French academics in reaction against
the English-speaking world’s tendency to speak of Muslim fundamentalism. In English, fundamentalism is a perfectly
good description of the phenomenon, and it has the advantage that we all
recognize that fundamentalism exists in all religions.
Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism Project” at
the University of Chicago resulted in several volumes that underline this
point. Here are some common elements in
fundamentalisms across the board as Marty’s project discovered them:
Patriarchy: women are to be subservient
to their fathers and husbands and if possible to remain at home.
2. The rules of religion are self-evident and
must be literally obeyed.
3. Children of believers should be segregated
from non-believers (as incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos holds).
4. Fundamentalists hold that their religious
laws are binding on all, believer and unbeliever alike (thus, incoming Attorney
General Jeff Sessions tried to keep an LGBT meeting from happening on a state
college campus; fundamentalism construes public space as belonging to
5. Fundamentalist believers are the
in-group. The out-group is rejected.
6. They are nostalgic for an imagined religious
golden age of the past that they would like to reinstate.
So here is a question for Gen. Mattis and
Gen. Flynn: If political Islam is so
bad, why is political Christianity better?
And, then we have to ask, are governments
ruled by believers in political Islam really inimical to the US?
The ideology of the ruling government of
Morocco, a non-NATO ally of the United States, is political Islam.
The major opposition party in Tunisia, the
only successful case of democratization coming out of the Arab Spring, is a
party of political Islam.
Adherents of political Islam just won a
majority in the Kuwaiti parliament.
Kuwait is a key ally of the US which provides basing to the US military.
The major Shiite parties forming the
government in Baghdad, Iraq, are all devotees of political Islam. The Baghdad government is a key ally of the
US in taking down Daesh/ ISIL.
While the Muslim League, the ruling party
in that fantastic Pakistan over which Trump gushed in his phone call to Prime
Minister Nawaz Sharif, is not a fundamentalist party despite its name, many of
its backbenchers to believe in aspects of political Islam. I.e., they believe in using the state to
assert what they consider to be Islamic law.
Pakistan is waging a long-term and important campaign against the
Pakistani Taliban, from which the 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan benefit.
The US has been actively backing 30 Syrian
rebel groups for years. Almost all of
them have as their ideology political Islam.
It is the regime of Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Ba’ath Party, that is
So Gen. Mattis apparently does not mean by
“political Islam” what social scientists or people in the Middle East mean by
it. Governments of political Islam, aside from Iran and a few others, appear to
have perfectly good relations with the US.
On the other hand, secular governments like
that of Syria, Algeria, and Uzbekistan have often had frosty relationships with
In any case, neither Islam nor political
Islam in any way resembles Communism.
Islam is the religion of 1.6 billion people, over a fifth of
humankind. Because of high birth-rates
in Muslim countries, moreover, the proportion of the world that is Muslim will
probably go to 1/3.
If the United States, which is 5% of the
world by population, tries to go against a third of humankind, it will
lose. But the fact is that the US has no
beef with most forms of Islam or even political Islam. And aggressive attempts to dictate to Muslims
what they may believe will backfire, just as the whole Iraq War backfired.
The US can defeat individual terrorist
organizations that appeal to Muslim themes.
Counter-terrorism tactics can work.
But it will need Muslim help, including the help of devotees of
political Islam. If Daesh goes down in
Iraq, it will have been defeated in large part by an alternative form of
political Islam, to which the US gave air support. If what the Trump cabinet wants to say is
only that the US plans to promote kinds of Islam that support the US and to
fight those that stand in the way of the interests of the American Empire,
well, the French and British empires used to plot out those schemes, too. Those empires aren’t around any more, but
there are plenty of governments rooted in political Islam.