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As the discord between modern and traditional Muslims is ideological by nature, so is the conflict between Islam and the West. And ideology is more about power, influence and identity than a mere reflection of culture and belief system. While modern Muslim elites are unwilling to concede power and privileges to the mullahs, most mullahs and their followers — mostly rural and small town lower elites with traditional Islamic or “vernacular” education — are also unwavering about not conceding any ground to non-traditional “Westernised” Muslims.

The Iranian Revolution and the Taliban/al-Qaeda experiment in Afghanistan have inspired mullahs and their followers to go the Khomeini or Taliban way. Meanwhile, Western duplicities and open support for Islamists during the Cold War had further emboldened Islamists within and beyond the Muslim World. State-sponsorship of Islamism by Saudi Arabia, Gulf States and Pakistan, among other states, has also been a contributing factor to the rise of political Islam. Arab autocrats promote Sunni orthodoxy to contain Shiite Iranian influence; and Pakistani rulers sometime promote Islamists to bleed archrival India and to neutralise secular democratic opposition at home.

For distancing ourselves from any pseudo-history of Islamism, we need to understand that postcolonial Islamist re-assertion is a legacy of defeats and humiliation for the Ummah. “The death of Nasserism… in the Six-Day War of 1967”, one analyst observes, “brought Islamism as the alternative ideology in the Muslim World.” We also need an understanding of the Muslim psyche vis-à-vis the Muslim experience in Palestine, Kashmir, Iran, Algeria, Egypt, and among other places, Iraq and Afghanistan. How the Cold War allies – Muslims and the West – turned into adversaries or competitors in an uneven “elite conflict” in the Globalised World for conflicting hegemonies and ideologies demands our attention.

We also need to discern the Cold War Islamism from the post-Cold War one. While during the Cold War, Muslims considered the West a “suspect-cum-ally”. Nevertheless, Muslims regarded the West as a friend against their common enemy, communism. Although, the end of the Cold War following the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan had heightened Muslim optimism, they were soon crestfallen by the not-so-benign role of the West. Instead of ushering a new dawn of hope and empowerment for Muslims, the New World Order did not bring anything new to the Muslim World. By 1991, almost all the Muslim-majority countries — barring Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia — had became autocratic; and by 2003 three of them — Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan — had been invaded by Western troops. In short, the cumulative unpleasant post-Cold War Muslim experience has led to the beginning of another Cold War. “Islam vs. the West” has become the new catchword. Meanwhile, pre-modern ultra-orthodox obscurantist forces had gained upper hand in many Muslim-majority countries. Interestingly, enamoured by the concept of transnational Muslim solidarity, Muslims in postcolonial societies are grabbing the elusive Ummah as their security blanket as weak and marginalised people find security in number. We may impute the prevalent obscurantism among sections of Muslims to their backwardness, lack of education and opportunities for various historical factors, but we cannot turn a blind eye to Western duplicities and hegemonic designs in the Muslim World. One can at best consider the Western lip-service to “democracy and freedom” in the Muslim World as condescending, insincere and deceitful; its insistence on bringing peace without justice from Algeria to Iraq and Palestine to Kashmir is simply shocking and terrifying.

Islamism, a postcolonial syndrome

Since most Muslim countries with a handful of exceptions were European colonies, the Muslim-West conflict is at least as old as colonialism. One may trace the roots of the conflict to early medieval era, even predating the Crusades. The inter-state conflicts between Muslim neighbours are by-products of colonialism. European colonial powers’ arbitrarily drawing lines “across the desert”, which created artificial states like Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia and truncated entities like Syria and Iraq; have further accentuated the conflict. The postcolonial ascendancy of the Pax Americana, which coincided with the beginning of the Cold War, divided the Muslim World between pro-American and pro-Russian camps. However, the end of the Cold War signalled the beginning of another between the Muslim World and the West. In the wake of the Cold War, the overwhelming Muslim majorities globally turned anti-Western in general and anti-American in particular. They were disillusioned with the West for its continued support for Israel and regimes hostile to their interests in the Muslim World. As substantial part of the global disempowered people, they also believe the West-sponsored Globalisation process has not been beneficial to their interests at all. We must contextualise Islamic reforms, resurgence and Islamist militancy and terrorism to the dilemma of postcolonial Muslim community. They can neither forget their pre-colonial and colonial pasts, nor can they fully integrate themselves into the modern world due to various cultural and economic constraints.

The Ummah represents a racially, culturally, politically and economically diverse global Muslim community. As Muslims have economic, political and sectarian differences, they also have different ways of resolving problems, organising dissent and protest, violently or peacefully, in the name of Islam or with secular agenda. Algerian Muslims, for example, fought a protracted bloody war of liberation against France. Algerian Muslims having the tradition of fighting a people’s war against oppressive regimes are more likely to take up arms against their enemies than Muslims in some other countries. They are not that different from Afghans. As the French colonial rulers did not allow representative self-governing institutions and relatively free press, unlike what the British experimented in its colonies; Algerians lack the tradition of organising protests and demonstrations against their rulers in a peaceful constitutional way. The French allowed no Gandhis in their colonies either. Consequently, as Fanon has argued, the “colonised, underdeveloped man” in Algeria metamorphosed himself into a “political creature in the most global sense”. Unlike the “colonised intellectual”, the relatively free peasants posed the biggest threat to the French in Algeria. [1] The postcolonial Algerian government’s maintaining the colonial hierarchical systems, especially in the realm of education by continuing with the French and Arabic medium schools to create the employable and under-employable, French and “Vernacular” elites respectively. According to Roy, Algerian Islamist “lumpen-intellectuals”, mostly with science or engineering background, had been striving for “lumpen-Islamism”. He has

[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Grover Press, New York 2005, Ch V, pp.181-234

demonstrated how corrupt autocracy in Algeria was responsible in culturally Islamising the polity by toying with Islamism for the sake of legitimacy.[2]

The situation in Egypt, Sudan and Somalia is not that different from Algeria; the only major difference being their different colonial experiences. Unlike Algeria, Egypt was not sharply polarised between Western and Vernacular elites, as the titular heads of state or the khedives (later glorified as kings up to 1952) ran the administration with both Western and Arabic elites. By gagging the freedom of expression, proscribing all opposition parties and even executing dissenting politicians, postcolonial rulers have left no space for constitutional politics either in Egypt. As under Nasser and Sadat, Hosni Mobarak’s government also does not allow political dissent. Since April 2008, there has been a crackdown on the anti-Mobarak “Facebook Revolution” by Ahmed Maher. This youth movement through Facebook and Twitter has been mobilizing support for boycotting sham elections under Mobarak.[3] Dissident Muslim Brotherhood and others also face persecution on a regular basis. This has paved the way for clandestine organizations, especially the Jihadists. It is noteworthy that Pan-Islamist thinker Jamal al-Din Afghani’s Egyptian “great-grand-disciple”, Hassan al-Banna was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Banna’s disciple, Sayyid Qutb directly inspired Ayman al-Zawahiri “who in 1967 established the first jihadist cell in the Arab world”. [4]

[2] Oliver Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, I.B. Tauris, London 1994, pp. 75-88

[3] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The April 6 Youth Movement”, September 22, 2010 http://egyptelections.carngieendowment.org/2010/09/22/the-april-6-youth-movement (accessed November 22, 2010)

[4] Fawaz A. Gerges, Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, Harcourt, Inc. New York 2006, p.37

It is noteworthy that Indian (Pakistani after 1947) Islamist Maulana Maududi (1903-1979), who founded the Jamaat-e-Islami (Party of Islam) in 1941, was both influenced by the Brotherhood and his writings also influenced the latter. However, Jamaat and Brotherhood were (are) different as well; while Maududi admired fascism, Banna had admiration for socialism and wanted social justice for the poor. Interestingly, although the Egyptian Brotherhood holds a supranational ideology, the FIS in Algeria has been primarily an Algerian nationalist movement for “Islamo-nationalism”.[5]

— (To be continued next week)


Taj Hashmi is a professor of security studies at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.

[5] Ibid, pp. 129-30