Saturday, January 15, 2005

Mahmood Mamdani reviews Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, by Olivier Roy

Excerpts from the Foreign Affairs review:
The debate over why the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred has been dominated by different versions of "culture talk," the notion that culture is the most reliable clue to people's politics. Their differences notwithstanding, public intellectuals such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis agree that religion drives both Islamic culture and politics and that the motivation for Islamist violence is religious fundamentalism. Ascribing the violence of one's adversaries to their culture is self-serving: it goes a long way toward absolving oneself of any responsibility.

The singular merit of two new books by Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy is that they take the debate about the rise of political Islam beyond culture talk. Kepel seeks to understand the intellectual history of political Islam, Roy the social conditions under which Muslims think and act. Of the two, Roy makes the most forceful break from culture talk. He dismisses "the culturalist approach" that treats Islam as "the issue" and that assumes it bears a relation to every preoccupation of the moment, from suicide bombings and jihad to democracy and secularism. Not only does culturalism treat Islam "as a discrete entity" and "a coherent and closed set of beliefs," Roy explains, but it turns Islam into "an explanatory concept for almost everything involving Muslims."

Roy argues that the Koran's most important feature is not what it actually says, but what Muslims say about it. "Not surprisingly," Roy observes, "they disagree, while all stressing that the Koran is unambiguous and clear-cut." Like culturalists, Roy and Kepel examine very carefully the Islamist discourse about both the Koran and the rest of the world. But they understand it as the product of many forces, rather than as the necessary development of its religious origin. In doing so, they provide a more nuanced understanding of doctrinal and political Islam than do the culturalists.
From here on I'll summarize the high points of the history in the article instead of merely extracting the whole thing, in the hope of convincing the reader to read it. Briefly:
  1. There are three strains of radical thought in Islam that will be considered:
    1. the ultra-strict, quietist Salafist, or Wahhabi, school; and
    2. the more political thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood.
    3. These two schools later merged, producing the more hybrid ideology now identified with Osama bin Laden.
  2. In the opening years of the 19th century, radical theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers formed an alliance with the House of Saud. Wahhab blessed the Saud's raids and wars against their neighbors as Jihad, and they gave him and his movement patronage.
  3. When the Ottomans invaded they severed this alliance
  4. The alliance was reborn in the 1910's and 1920's with a series of Wahhabi-blessed "jihad" raids by Saud forces, with the blessing of the British who were involved in World War I against the Ottoman empire.
  5. In the 1980's US President Ronald Reagan assisted the Saudis, under the belief that Wahhabism was a liberation-theology that could oppose Soviet Communism in the region.
  6. In 1920's Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood resolved to go beyond sharia to establish a full-fledged Islamic state.
    • This was a new idea!
    • Their slogan was "The Quran is our constitution."
  7. The Brotherhood was in Nasser's revolution in 1952, but soon was ousted from the corridors of power.
  8. Repressed in Egypt, then in Syria and Iraq, the Brotherhood eventually moved to Saudi Arabia.
  9. The Brotherhood joined up with religious Palestinians and together they began to dominate Saudi intellectual society.
  10. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan energized and radicalized the movements and brought them together
  11. Ayman Al Zawahiri advanced the idea that muslims must kill Americans indiscrimately
  12. Al Quaeda formed as a NGO of Terrorism to execute Al Zawahiri's war.

There is lots more.
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