Scholars Renew Attempts to Explain Islamic Fundamentalism

Anthony F. Lang, Jr. Anthony F. Lang, Jr.

Americans were obsessed with the Middle East even before September 11, 2001, an obsession that shaped both popular and scholarly concepts -- but did not necessarily foster a profound understanding -- of the region, its politics, and its culture. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, one of the most studied, and contentious, aspects of Middle Eastern culture has been Islamic fundamentalism. Questions raised not only by the Iranian revolution but also by the outbreak of terrorism in Lebanon in the early 1980s spurred the development of a cottage industry of scholars and policy analysts. The September 11 terrorist attacks and, more recently, the war with Iraq have only heightened the American preoccupation with Islamic fundamentalism. But has the recent crop of works deepened our collective understanding of this phenomenon? In part, yes. Historians and social scientists have brought their analytical tools to bear on a complicated set of issues. By moving Americans away from the simple headlines and talk show debates, these works can improve public understanding at a moment when it is sorely needed. Yet when scholars feel the need to respond to current events, their analyses sometimes suffer. The impulse to educate the wider public, while admirable, can also produce the kinds of works that cater to the needs of the moment rather than seeking to capture long-term developments and dynamics. A particular danger in writing about a topic like Islamic fundamentalism is the tendency to oversimplify by using just one method of explanation—for instance, by referring to some portion of Islamic history, or by telling the stories of individual Islamic reformers or radicals. Using just one lens to capture the dynamics of a phenomenon as old and as complex as political Islam, especially at a time of heated political debate, can lead to distortion. The best way to avoid the tendency toward oversimplification is to examine Islamic radicalism from a variety of perspectives—drawing on history, sociology, religious studies, and political science. The Carnegie Council's Merrill House Programs series has provided opportunities to hear from scholars—Bernard Lewis, John Esposito, Fawaz Gerges, and Giles Kepel—with a range of expertise on this topic. Each of their books represents an important trend in scholarship on the Middle East; and taken collectively, their works can lead to a profound understanding of what drives Islamic radicalism—its origins, current status, and likely future directions.
What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle East Response, by Bernard Lewis [Go to edited transcript of Lewis's remarks at his 3/26/02 Carnegie Council breakfast talk.]

Bernard Lewis brings a historian's insights to bear on the Islamic religion. Drawing on decades of scholarship, his most recent work, What Went Wrong?, briefly summarizes the encounter between Islamic societies and Europe. It asks a challenging question: Why are Muslim societies and political systems relatively worse off than they were 500—or even 1,000—years ago? He answers by showing how Muslims themselves have dealt with this question. When the armies of the Ottoman Empire were defeated by those of Christian Europe at the gates of Vienna in 1699, the Ottoman leaders were forced to accept the Treaty of Karlowitz — a decisive moment in their history. Lewis, in a book based on a series of his lectures, recounts the discussions that ensued as Muslims sought to understand, from their own perspective, how such a rich and powerful empire could fall to the Christian barbarians. Their explanations ranged from military to religious to economic. Some were also tempted to blame the defeat on the conquerors themselves, turning the Europeans into scapegoats for the problems that had beset the Ottomans. Lewis sees parallels between the Muslim debates of centuries ago and debates taking place today, although, as a good historian, he is hesitant to connect past and present too closely. He does, however, posit that the attempts to explain "what went wrong" date from this defeat, thus can teach us something about the current reality. While there is much to be learned from Lewis's thesis, I would argue against making too strong a connection between the end of the 17th century and today. The debates that shaped the Ottoman response to the Treaty of Karlowitz were those of an imperial elite seeking to understand a devastating military defeat, whereas the debates animating Islam today reflect a variety of political dynamics in diverse locations around the world. Debates about political Islam in Indonesia, for example, differ greatly from those taking place in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, they are often led by activists, both reformers and radicals, who are not beholden to an imperial dynasty, unlike those who sought to explain the fall of the Ottoman empire. This leads to the second problem with Lewis's book. Lewis began his scholarly career as an expert on Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. Since that time, he has focused most of his research on the interactions between the Ottoman Empire and Renaissance Europe. His best work, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, examines the period when the Ottomans, who initially resisted interacting with a Europe just emerging from the "dark ages," came to recognize the region's potential, seeking closer ties with their European neighbors. The history of the political, cultural, and military interactions between the two regions is subtly developed in that book. What Went Wrong? remains rooted in this particular slice of Islamic life, ignoring other Islamic communities that were thriving at the same time as the Ottoman Empire, such as India and Spain. Of course, good historians focus on one region and time, as Lewis does. But while it is important to know something about the history of Islam, the legacy of today's radical Islamic movement is more complicated than just that of the Ottoman Empire.

Jihad: The Trial of Political Islam, by Gilles Kepel [Go to edited transcript of Kepel's remarks at his 4/17/02 Carnegie Council breakfast talk.]

Like Bernard Lewis, Gilles Kepel, the noted French scholar and Islamic expert, has written a book that asks a big question: is political Islam in ascendance or decline? His answer, framed in response to the attacks of September 11, is surprising:

In spite of what many hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath, the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might. . . . Torn between those favoring rapprochement with democrats and those intoxicated by the mystique of jihad, the Islamist movement will have much difficulty reversing its trail of decline as it confronts twenty-first century civilization.
Kepel substantiates this claim through a historical survey of Islamic movements from the 1960s to the present. Carefully tracing the rise and fall of political Islam in diverse parts of the world, Kepel presents a strong case for the decline of a movement that many in the West fear is rapidly growing. Also like Lewis, Kepel is a careful scholar. His previous work, The Prophet and the Pharaoh, described in detail the rise of political Islam in Egypt and the resulting assassination of Anwar Sadat. Published in 1986, it remains one of the best sociological analyses of the appeal of political Islam in the context of a developing country. In Jihad, Kepel discusses Islamist movements in Malaysia and Algeria, suggesting the geographical reach of Islamic fundamentalism. He argues that while radical Islam was on the rise in the 1960s and 1970s, peaking with the Iranian revolution, it began its decline in the 1990s. During that decade, terrorist incidents were sporadic, suggesting that Islamists had failed to develop a cohesive program appealing to a broad range of interests, as well as a convincing vision of an alternative political structure. While Kepel delivers a persuasive argument about the decline of Islamic fundamentalism, upon closer examination one realizes that his judgment rests on a particular definition of fundamentalist ideology. In the conclusion to his book, Kepel refers to a young Muslim scholar in Switzerland, the grandson of Hassan al-Bana, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as a spokesperson for an alternative vision of Islam. This suggests that a new notion of political Islam may be evolving, one that does not have fundamentalism as its wellspring. It is worth noting in this connection that a number of young Islamic scholars based in the United States—such as Sohail Hashmi and Khaled Abou el-Fadl—are beginning to refine political Islam in ways that suggest creative development. Moreover, the recent elections in Turkey of an Islamic governing party indicate that the appeal of a moderate form of political Islam—and the hope that it may somehow be combined with liberal democracy—has not entirely disappeared (see the recent interview with Carnegie Council fellow Ihsan Dagi). Another, related problem with Kepel's work is the extent to which his argument rests on the fate of particular Islamic intellectuals. Islam is a way of life and mode of understanding one's place in the world; whether or not political leaders can translate that into political ideologies that correspond with Western notions of democracy may not be the best way to analyze its appeal (or the lack). That said, Kepel provides a useful corrective to the apocalyptic descriptions of Islamic fundamentalism so often found in the popular press. Identifying this movement as an ideology that may not outlast the current generation will hopefully serve to enhance Western understanding of the movement's current status.
America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests?, by Fawaz Gerges [Go to edited transcript of Gerges's remarks at his 10/29/01 Carnegie Council conversation.]

Neither Lewis nor Kepel wrote their books primarily for the benefit of the U.S. policy-making community. Fawaz Gerges, by contrast, was commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations to analyze the evolution of U.S. policy toward Islamic fundamentalism. Published in 1999, America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? looks into the Clinton administration's Middle East policy and compares it to the policies crafted by previous—Carter, Reagan, and Bush—administrations. Gerges also reviews U.S. policy toward four important countries that have struggled with how best to incorporate Islam into their political systems: Iran, Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. Unlike Kepel's sociological analysis or Lewis's largely historical account, Gerges employs a "current history" approach to the study of U.S. reactions to Islamic fundamentalism. He poses a typology of "accomodationists" and "confrontationists" to account for the array of reactions to political Islam across the American political spectrum. But while he suggests explanations for American perceptions of this movement, the majority of his attention is focused on debates that took place among U.S. government officials and opinion makers. His sources consist primarily of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, as well as like-minded works of contemporary American history. Gerges's book is no worse than any other in this genre. Indeed, his even-handed approach to competing American views of Islamic fundamentalism is refreshing (although one has the distinct feeling he himself falls into the accomodationist camp). He highlights a number of important—often overlooked—moments in the repeated attempts by U.S. policy-makers to come to terms with radical Islam. For example, he critically analyzes the speech made by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Edward Djerejian at Meridian House (Washington, D.C.) in May of 1992. Djerejian presented the moderate approach to political Islam favored by the first Bush administration. His statement was remarkable in that it did not focus on a single country or even region, but was a broadly conceived attempt to understand a burgeoning political movement. While producing a solid work, Gerges has ironically relied on the analytical method that he says has become too prevalent in the West, i.e., drawing more from popular rather than from scholarly sources. While it makes good sense to refer to the ideas of Daniel Pipes, John Esposito, and Bernard Lewis, all of whom have important insights into one level of debate in the United States, Gerges should have done more to establish the wider social and political context that shapes the American understanding of political Islam. His book is fundamentally about the dynamics that shape American attitudes towards outside groups—a topic not easy to capture. Most glaringly, Gerges omits to talk about the influence of American Jews and fundamentalist Christians on U.S. policy toward the Middle East. He covers in just a few pages the American Jewish lobby and its attempts to influence the U.S. Congress; likewise, he neglects to explore the public activism of groups like AIPAC and JINSA, both of which feed information not only to Congress but also to local media throughout the United States. Moreover, Gerges fails to point out the extent to which the aims of these Jewish activists dovetail with those of their Evangelical Christian counterparts, who likewise view political Islam as an enemy threatening to take the Holy Land away from God's chosen people. The overlap between these two American religious traditions has shaped the views of many Americans, leading to what some see as unconditional support of Israel—American-Israeli relations are not the usual political alliance but a sacred alliance grounded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Since September 11, transnational Islamic movements, such as al-Qaeda, have become the main focus of American policy, rather than the state-centered Islamic fundamentalism that Gerges addressed in his pre-9/11 work. Gerges does note that the 1993 World Trade Center bombing disrupted the Clinton administration's attempts to accommodate Islamic fundamentalism; but he fails to draw out the lesson this should have provided to American policy-makers: namely, that they could no longer confine their view of the fundamentalist Islamic threat to a nation-state context. Interestingly, the American reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001—attacking one state, Afghanistan, and another state, Iraq—suggests that to this day, American policy-makers continue to view political Islam through the prism of state-to-state conflict, a habit that Gerges has done little to change. With whole chapters devoted to specific nation-states in which political Islam has been a factor, his book provides disappointingly few guideposts for taking U.S. Middle East policy in a new direction.

Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, by John Esposito [Go to edited transcript of Esposito's remarks at a 5/7/02 Carnegie Council breakfast talk.]

Scholar John Esposito, who has been writing on political Islam for over twenty years, published this book little over a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001. While balanced and informative, it largely rehashes Esposito's previous works, with an attempt to describe what Islam "really is'" as opposed to how terrorists like the leaders of al-Qaeda would like us to see it. Esposito has long attempted to demystify Islam and Islamic fundamentalism, often by making analogies to Christianity. His earlier works were well-received, although his more recent writings have been criticized by some as too accommodating to political Islam (indeed, he is listed as an "accomodationist" by Gerges). His latest book focuses on the question of jihad, the concept employed by Muslim fundamentalists and Muslim individuals alike to explain their struggle to adhere to the teachings of Islam. Esposito emphasizes that jihad should be understood primarily in the latter sense—as a personal struggle to be a better person. He acknowledges that the term has been co-opted by the fundamentalists to justify terrorist acts while insisting that this is not its "true" meaning. I would like to see Esposito discuss jihad in terms of how it resembles Christian notions of "just war." One need only look at the divergent ways in which just war has been defined by different Christian churches and scholars to see how a religious term can become a point of contention—even among believers. Rather than seek to discover the true meaning of "jihad" or "just war," experts on world religions could do us a favor by describing the range of meanings applied to these terms and providing insights into what makes particular interpretations so appealing to various groups at various times. Esposito might have waited a bit before embarking on this book. Undoubtedly driven by a desire to help the American public respond to the attacks of September 11, 2001, he could have served that public better by undertaking the type of long-term, scholarly analysis that distinguishes his earlier works.

* * *

In conclusion, it is vital that the West continues to listen to the received wisdom of established Middle Eastern experts in the attempt to come to terms with Islamic fundamentalism, and these four writers are among the best. By the same token, the field can be enriched by the addition of new voices, some of whom are not Middle East scholars. This is already happening. A short while ago, Merrill House hosted a talk by Paul Berman, who made some fascinating comparisons between radical Islam and the Western totalitarian movements of the past century, arguing that they operate along similar lines. [SEE ALSO: Berman transcript and book review.]

Read More: Islam, Middle East

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