What Is It About Radical Islamism that Leads People to Commit Acts of Terror?
Mr. Calvert is Assistant Professor of History, Creighton University.To judge from the terminology employed by Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden, one would assume that the current terrorist campaign against the United States and its allies is part of a religious war with roots reaching back to the distant past. Bin Laden and his associates speak of America as the most recent incarnation of "Crusaderism" and conflate Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the calumny of the Medina Jews in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. They compare regimes such the Saudis with the "hypocrites" who "stabbed Muhammad in the back" during his struggle with the pagan Meccans. Viewing their individual struggles as episodes in an on-going zero sum contest, these radical Islamists justify terrorist violence against "infidel" powers such as the United States with reference to a fixed Qur'anic worldview that incorporates all efforts to create an ideal Islamic State regardless of time or place. As is clear from much post 9/11 rhetoric in the United States, many Americans, influenced variously by Orientalist, religious or political notions, have been quick to oblige this kind of essentialism.
However, the idea that normative Islam stands behind Islamist generated terrorism does not hold up to scrutiny. From the standpoint of critical analysis, a correct understanding of the phenomenon requires that we consider its origins and the development of its discourse in historical terms. As most scholars and commentators recognize, Islamism is a fairly recent phenomenon that arose in reaction to the failure of post-colonial Muslim states and societies to engage on an equal footing the robust nations of the West. Military defeat, occupation and economic and political subordination have been the orders of the day. Ominously from the Muslim perspective, these worldly challenges are accompanied by the pervasive influences in Muslim societies of imported Western culture, which many Muslims regard as threatening to the integrity of their civilization. Given these and other pressures, it is not surprising that Muslims have sought to revitalize their history, so that Islamic society may once again flourish as a divinely guided society must and should.
Modern era Muslims have responded in different ways to the conditions of dependency and malaise. Whereas Muslim modernizers have attempted, often with considerable success, to accommodate Islam to global modernity, Islamists have sought conceptually to distance Islamic culture from what they purport to be the hegemonic and hostile civilization of the West. By honoring the culturally authentic over the foreign, Islamists are thus able to create a classic boundary mechanism that marks them off from the Western culture of the dominant order, thus providing their quest for empowerment with a "cultural affect" grounded in the validating sentiments of pride and identity. We have already drawn attention to the Islamists' tendency to regard events and trends in the present as contemporary manifestations of Qur'anic paradigms; such instantiations provide Islamists with a sense of Islamic civilization's continuity and purpose. Another important aspect of the reifying process is the Islamists' definition of Islam as a totalizing entity sufficient unto itself. Rather than treat their faith as a congeries of beliefs and religiously informed social practices, Islamists conceive Islam as a comprehensive ideological system (nizam) covering all aspects of the state, economy and society.
Conceived as such, the Islam of the Islamists stands in stark juxtaposition to the political and ideological systems of the West. In the Islamist perspective, it is only natural that American policies as regards Palestine and Iraq should be unjust since Americans, in common with other Westerners, ignore the divine mandate, both in their private lives and in their public dealings with others. Both the South Asian Abu Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), two of Islamism's most influential ideologues, equated the moral universe of the West with the condition of disbelief and cultural barbarism characteristic of the Arabs prior to the advent of the Qur'an.
Islamist terrorism emerges in the nexus of despair and the promise of utopia. Although most Islamist organizations, whether in Egypt, Pakistan, or Indonesia, favor strategies of moderation and gradualism in their quest for the islamization of society and the state, there exist Muslims who are impatient with this bottom-up approach. Attracted to the most radical tenets of the established Islamist ideology, these men have rather opted for the "propaganda of the deed," which often includes dramatic acts of terror designed less as politics "by other means" than as manifestations of superior spiritual power and will. It is risky to pin a particular profile on the perpetrators of this violence. The evidence at hand suggests that they tend to be younger men, often with limited career prospects who feel deeply the sting of humiliation and civilizational blockage. Many have lived for periods in the West, experiencing first hand the "debased" culture and "biting arrogance" of Americans and Europeans.
What is clear is that the terrorists of 9/11 and of operations of lesser scope
have articulated their rage in a declared context of "total war,"
one absolute system against another, no holds barred. In so doing, they identify
their struggle with a sacred cause that elevates the debased nature of their
terrorist activities. Rather than reflective of foundational Qur'anic principles,
radical Islamism is a pathology born out of the structural imbalances of the
This paper was first delivered at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's HISTORY INSTITUTE ON AMERICA AND ISLAM, May 3-4, 2003.
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Bill Stepp - 5/26/2003
Dave Thomas writes: "Arabs are Muslim, but not all Muslims are Arab."
The latter part of this statement is correct, but the former is not. In fact there were and still are Christian Arabs, and for all I know there were also atheistic and agnostic ones.
As the Christian Arab George Antonius wrote in his book _The Arab Awakening_ (Capricorn Books ed., 1965, p. 93):
One of the lasting contributions which the development of Western education in Syria made to the Arab national movement was that it helped to transfer the leadership from Christian to Moslem hands.
See also Appendix 5, p. 421.
Dave Thomas - 5/25/2003
It isn't Islam that drives people to mass murder. The 9-11 killers were not Muslims they were Arabs. Arabs are Muslim, but not all Muslims are Arab. This is the important point. The terrorists are Arab radicals trying to return to the Middle Ages when Arab countries "were" great instead of the decadent, anachronism they are today. The rejection of women's rights, free speech, and separation of church and state is what Arab terrorism is about. It has nothing to do with Islam.
Josh Greenland - 5/24/2003
"The author writes, "the idea that normative Islam stands behind Islamist generated terrorism does not hold up to scrutiny."
"Directly contradicting his assertion is Ibn Warraq, the psuedonymous author of "Why I an Not a Muslim:" "The truth is there is no real difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism - at most there is a difference of degree, but not of kind.""
With all of the worthwhile scholars and writers who've weighed in on Islam and "Islamicism," why should we trust or bother to read someone who is writing under a pseudonym? There may be a good reason we should give this person the time of day, but you haven't provided us with it. For all we know, "Warraq" is a pathological liar who is not of Arab background.
"Warraq argues that Islam must reform. It must either be modernized or else marginalized. No religion so xenophobic, sexist, and imperialistic can be said to be "civilized" in this day and age."
I would agree if "Warraq" was talking about the majority of politically active American Protestant fundamentalists. BTW, what is this "Warraq" character's agenda? What religious background is "he" coming from, and what politics is "he" pushing?
Orson Olson - 5/22/2003
The author writes, "the idea that normative Islam stands behind Islamist generated terrorism does not hold up to scrutiny."
Directly contradicting his assertion is Ibn Warraq, the psuedonymous author of "Why I an Not a Muslim:" "The truth is there is no real difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism - at most there is a difference of degree, but not of kind. There are moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate. All the tenets of so-called Islamic fundamentalism are derived from the Koran, the Sunna, and the Hadith - the defining texts of Islam - and elaborated in intimate detail by the classical Muslim jurists from all four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, as well as by Shi’ite jurists."
Warraq argues that Islam must reform. It must either be modernized or else marginalized. No religion so xenophobic, sexist, and imperialistic can be said to be "civilized" in this day and age.
But the common sense of facts and reality elude the vory tower academics and writers of elite opiionmaking like the New York Time's Chris Hedges.
The only reality check one needs is to note the failure of "moderate" Muslim's to distance themselves from the radicals. It's as if Martin Luther King, Jr., would fail to distance himself from the terrorism of the Black Panthers!
Frank Lee - 5/15/2003
In this refreshingly straightforward analysis, John Calvert identifies "radical Islamism" as a "pathology" disguised as a "total war". He does not explore the obvious parallel of attempts to counter Islamic fanaticism which are marketed as "war on terrorism". War and terrorism are separate animals. Persistently and erroneously conflating the two strengths both.
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