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Meteoric Rise of Islamism Reflects Dynamics That Lie At the Heart of Modernity

By Rafael Castro

June 12, 2018

Islamism is one of the most astonishing phenomena of the last 50 years. Whereas in the Western world and Asia, religion has retreated from the public sphere, the Muslim world has witnessed an ostentatious strengthening of religious sentiments. Images of the 1960s featured Muslim urbanites wearing fashionable Western garb; yet nowadays, hijabs dot the landscape of most cities from Casablanca to Jakarta.

Meanwhile, the Muslim university students of the mid-20th century, who embraced socialist and communist ideals, have been superseded by students with Islamist convictions. Ironically, many of the most important Islamist leaders in the Muslim World, such as Sayyid Qutb (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi (the National Islamic Front in Sudan), Dr. Abbassi Madani (the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria), and Dr. Mousa Abu Marzook (Hamas in the Palestinian territories) were trained in Western universities.

Conventional explanations for this phenomenon highlight the appeal of Islamism’s rejection of European colonialism and Western imperialism. However, these explanations do not fully account for the strengthening momentum of Islamist sentiments in Muslim societies. As memories of colonialism recede and American military adventurism falters, it is truly remarkable that nowadays even sectarian bloodbaths fail to deter millions of Muslims from embracing an Islamist worldview.

The answer to this paradox is found in the effects of modernization inside the Muslim world.

In the political sphere, modernization brought universal suffrage and mass politics to traditional societies hitherto ruled by colonial powers and local potentates. Mass politics empowered movements that had a grassroots presence and access to regional networks. The cornerstone of civil society in Muslim societies is the mosque. It is thus natural that political movements associated with Islam would galvanize millions of voters. This is even understandable given the endemic corruption and failure of monarchic, secular nationalist and socialist regimes to improve living standards throughout the Muslim world.

Islamist politics are viewed by many in the Muslim world as the last chance to cope with the economic and psychological challenges of modernity while remaining loyal to a distinct cultural and spiritual identity.

Modernization has also narrowed the cognitive dissonance between religious beliefs and religious practice in Islamic lands. In traditional Muslim societies, religion always played an important role. However it also incorporated many syncretistic and superstitious elements that blunted the severity of Islamic jurisprudence. This traditional Islam survived intact in Southeast Asia and West Africa until the mid-20th century. What happened afterwards is one of the tragedies of contemporary history. Petro-dollars funnelled into Islamist education and outreach influenced the colourful texture of traditional Islam, often supplanting it with an austere and militant ideology that has scarred the whole of Asia and Africa.

It would nevertheless be naïve to believe that foreign funding alone sufficed to sweep away centuries of tradition. A more accurate statement would be that Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood ideologies drove out local traditions because they are closer in letter and spirit to the original Islam of 7th century Arabia. Many of the syncretistic rites popular until two generations ago in Muslim societies became untenable once modern communications exposed their animist and polytheistic origins. Thus, Arabised Islam filled the void left by discredited religious idiosyncrasies. Islamic puritanism did not touch only West Africa and Southeast Asia, but North Africa and South Asia have also suffered.

One of the most startling developments of this period is how Islamist student movements have conquered universities in the Muslim world — particularly the faculties of medicine, information technology, and engineering. Scientific disciplines are predicated upon logical rigor and coherence. Likewise, the Islamist interpretation of religion is predicated upon drawing the most logical and coherent connection between holy Islamic texts and everyday spiritual and political practices. The result is little tolerance among future engineers and doctors for the contradictions and inconsistencies that characterized traditional Islamic piety.

The interplay of these factors suggests that the meteoric rise of Islamism reflects dynamics that lie at the heart of modernity: electoral politics, modern communication, and scientific education. In the contemporary Muslim world, it is evident that these developments have empowered the strictest elements of Islam. Islamism will thus not vanish even if the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas are all defeated militarily. On the contrary, it can be forecast that Islamism will gain traction as old-school sheikhs are completely replaced by formally-trained religious teachers, and as digital information sweeps away local customs.

One way to ensure that Islamism does not engulf the whole Muslim world is for the international community to generously support secular governance in countries with a predominantly Islamic population. In addition, more generous development aid to the Muslim world should favour the humanities and social science education. Successful models of secularist rule with flourishing economies are urgently needed for the Muslim world to wean itself from authoritarian temptations.

Likewise, a more tolerant and open understanding of Islam might emerge if the Muslim world assimilates secular philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Indeed, only prosperity and the successful dissemination of secular culture can save the Muslim world from Islamism.

Rafael Castro is a Yale- and Hebrew University-educated political analyst based in Berlin. His pieces on Middle Eastern politics appear regularly in the Israeli press.