Origins of modern Islamism

Westerners tend to imagine that militant Islam is something which began with the Iranian revolution of 1979. In the Middle East people suggest earlier dates. The Iranians refer to the Shah’s unpopular social "reforms" in the 1960s, and his government’s grave mismanagement of the economy in the 1970s. The Arabs, if they are asked to pick a date, choose 1967, the year of their catastrophic defeat by the Israelis in the Six Day War. This defeat undermined people’s confidence in the power of the Arab nation state (itself a rather un-Islamic concept), socialism and pan-Arabism. It humiliated Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the Arab hero of the day, who was the principal protagonist of the newly independent Arab state, and of the idea that the Arabs could be powerful if they worked together, or united, under his leadership. The defeat was not the only disaster of the latter part of Nasser’s rule. Nineteen sixty-one had seen the break-up of the union between Egypt and Syria, agreed in 1958, and from 1962 Egypt had been involved, ineffectively, on the republican side in a civil war in Yemen.

The defeat of 1967 was more traumatic for all the Arabs than the West realises. It produced two reactions. The Arab republican governments rapidly lost their idealism which had been, in part, the springboard for their actions in the previous 15 years, and became concerned just with preserving themselves. The intelligentsia and the people as a whole began to look for a new set of principles to guide their political aspirations. They sought something which was not imported - as socialism was - but which came from their own culture. Inevitably they began to turn to Islam.

This was a conventional, indeed classic, reaction for a Muslim society. It stems from the fact that Islam is an all embracing religion - more of a rule for life than a religion of the mystical sort understood by the Judeo-Christian tradition. It provides not only an explanation of why and how the world and mankind were created, but also instructions for how a person, or a group of people, should live their lives. It covers marriage and the division of a person’s estate, what a person should eat and drink, how he should wash, how he should engage in business and lend and borrow money, what obligation he owes to government and, for those who govern, the right way of ruling a state. Even in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when modernisation and copying Europe were the vogue, most political movements in Arab society based themselves at least partly on Islamic principles. This was a necessary part of their making themselves legitimate. Most of the few purely secular nationalist movements in the earlier years of this century were founded by Christians.

It was not only the conspicuous disasters that befell Arab governments in the 1960s that pushed the people towards Islam. Régimes by this period had become authoritarian and sometimes brutal - and they got worse in the 1970s and 1980s. Islamic political ideas appealed to people because they were becoming tired of living under governments that they saw as corrupt, selfish, obsessed with security and devoid of any ideals or belief in their ability to create a better future. The governments represented nobody but themselves. They had no legitimacy. Islamist movements, in contrast, held out the prospect of governments which would be based on God’s law. Being obliged to "consult", they might turn out to be more responsive to the people.

At the same time the Arab, and Iranian, economies, in spite of (or because of) oil, were failing to develop. Oil revenues, paid directly to governments or transferred to the poorer non-producing states through aid and remittances, financed some grandiose construction, but did little to increase production of industrial or agricultural goods. In the 1970s and early 1980s they encouraged governments to pay their people all sorts of subsidies, they caused inflation and, through pushing up rents and labour costs, they made small industries uneconomic. It was the undermining of the existing economic framework by inflation, combined with a large movement of people from the countryside to the towns, a sudden fall of revenues (coming on top of huge waste) and the collapse of the expectations of millions that caused the revolution in Iran.

The virtual collapse of the socialist state in Algeria came from the government’s creation of an unproductive economy and society based on subsidies, financed first by oil revenues and then by borrowings. From the mid-1980s the government ran out of money and was unable to continue to provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of young people coming onto the labour market each year. When it began to liberalise its political system in response to the riots of 1988, millions of unemployed and hopeless youths turned to the Front Islamique du Salut.

A further influence on the people, very much linked to political and economic failure, has been the Arabs’ and Iranians’ sense of their being swamped by Western culture. They see this as having introduced permissive and individualistic attitudes which have weakened the cohesion of their families, which have traditionally been at the very centre of their lives. Much of Islam is addressed to the need to preserve the family. Western societies are now seen by many of the Arab and Iranian intelligentsia as being Godless, fecklessly tolerant, crime and drug ridden, neglectful of old people and obsessed with material gain - in short, lacking any firm direction or moral values.

The feeling of being threatened by an alien culture is particularly distressing to Muslims because they have a strong sense of their being separate, and in some ways special and superior to other cultures, through being the recipients of God’s last word to mankind. The Koran, which is the base of Shariah law, is the actual word of God as written down by the Prophet Mohammad, and in it God states, in effect, that he has revealed himself to the Jews and Christians, who have misinterpreted his message, and that he is now making a full and final revelation of his law to the Muslims.

In Muslim eyes their society should be the best and strongest in the world. Among the Arabs this instinct is reinforced by an extraordinarily strong sense of their history, which is taught in somewhat romantic and unquestioning terms in their schools. Arabs are very much aware of the triumphs, and some of the humiliations, of their past. They will often refer to events that took place hundreds of years ago as if they were quite recent.

This makes the present weakness of Arab and Muslim society all the more frustrating. It also makes the Arabs ready to believe that foreigners are conspiring to attack their societies. There are many Arabs and other Muslims who believe that the presence of Israel in their midst is part of a Western plot to weaken them. They hold the same view to the sanctions imposed on Iraq and Libya and, by the United States, on Iran. Whether or not it is logical, the common response of a people who feel under pressure in this way is to look to the roots of their own culture, rather than to try to adapt.

The conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that Islamic fundamentalism, now generally referred to as political or militant Islam or "Islamism", is a form of nationalism. It is true that the Muslim world is more God fearing than society in Europe or America, but it is quite wrong to imagine, as many Westerners do, that the recent resurgence of Islam stems from Muslims suddenly having become more religious.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999

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