By Dr. Einat Wilf
December 1, 2014
While there is much talk of Islam, Islamism, and the Islamic State, the three are not synonyms for one another. Islamism takes from Islam the utopian vision of “an optimal world order as a caliphate, in which faith and government are united and peace prevails throughout the Dar al-Islam, or house of Islam.” Islamism, however, is the ideology that seeks to impose this Islamic utopia by brute force. Muslims are not necessarily Islamists, and most Muslims legitimately seek the realization of this vision through good works and a pious lifestyle. But Islamism seeks to accelerate the fulfilment of this utopian vision by turning all of the world’s people into Muslims, even if by force.
Francis Fukuyama is famed for his 1989 thesis, The End of History, which states that with the defeat of communism, liberal capitalism emerged as the ideology to end all ideologies. A few years after 9/11 – an event many considered to have put into question Fukuyama’s thesis – Fukuyama gave a talk in Israel where he was asked if he considered Islamism a new competing ideology to liberal capitalism challenging his thesis. He responded that the appeal of Islamism was limited to only a few Muslims and was certainly not a competing ideology to liberal capitalism and therefore did not invalidate his thesis.
More than a decade later, I beg to differ: the appeal of Islamism is broad and increasing. It offers a universal vision of a utopian world order and is most certainly a competing ideology to liberal capitalism. Moreover, Islamism, like communism, is emerging as a language and ideology of resistance to the West in all its aspects, from political control to family values. It aims to stand against what is perceived as a decadent and hypocritical West that speaks highly of values but supposedly brings war, drugs, and destruction of communities and family values everywhere it goes.
In addition, Islamism, like communism before it, is a totalitarian ideology that espouses a Manichean worldview of black and white and good and evil. It has a territorial base but also a presence in almost every country in the world. It purports to govern all aspects of life – from personal life to the formation of government and a legal system based on Sharia – and is willing to use violence in the service of spreading its utopian vision.
Islamism has also become a form of authentic self-expression for people seeking to be freed from foreign influences. This is a role that communism, too, played in its time. In 1971, Saul Alinsky wrote in his book, Rules for Radicals, that those “desperately seeking revolutionary writings, can find such literature only from the communists … and since in this literature all ideas are imbedded in the language of communism, revolution appears synonymous with communism.”
Alinsky’s insight was that whether or not revolutionaries were Marxist scholars, the language of resistance and revolution had become the language of communism since this appeared to be the only language available to those who wanted to challenge the existing order. Today, Islamism fulfills this role. Islamism has emerged as the language of revolution, providing challenges to existing order, a form of authentic self-expression, and resistance to the West.
In the spread of this revolution to implement a new Islamist world order, conversion – whether voluntary or forced – is emerging as a key tool. Just as voluntary and forced conversions were responsible for the rapid spread of Islam under Mohammed and his successors, so too today conversion is a key element in the Islamist battle. Anyone can become a Muslim with a single utterance, and the numerous websites that explain the process of conversion take pride in advertising that, “It is that easy!”
Since Islamism is an ideology with universal outreach, it appeals to so many young people around the world. The young who flock to fight under the Islamist flag are not necessarily poor, disaffected youth with integration problems looking for some action as some suggest. Research shows that many of them are educated, middle and upper middle class, and well integrated. These youths, who are searching for purpose and meaning, find themselves inspired by a utopian revolutionary vision that stands up to a world they perceive as decadent, flawed, and hypocritical.
While communism was a totalitarian revolutionary ideology based in secular thought, Islamism is a totalitarian revolutionary ideology based in religious thought. However, they are both ideologies that have aimed to revolt against an existing order, providing also authentic self-expression against foreign influences and resistance to the West. The battle against the Islamic State is not just a battle against a brutal armed force – it is also a battle between competing world-views on the ideal and desired world order. It is a battle of ideologies that puts to bed any notion that we have reached the End of History.
Dr. Einat Wilf is a Senior Fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute and an Adjunct Fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.