Unless the United States drastically changes its foreign policy toward the Muslim world – and supports democratic efforts at every turn – Islamic radicalism will continue to thrive, according to a new book from a Michigan State University professor.
In “The Many Faces of Political Islam,” Mohammed Ayoob, a renowned scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, challenges Western assumptions about Islamic politics but also argues that democracy may be the “ideal antidote” to the appeal of Islamism and its rhetoric.
“Dealing with political Islam and the challenges that emerge from it will form a significant part of the new president’s agenda,” says Ayoob, University Distinguished Professor of international relations at MSU’s James Madison College and the Department of Political Science.
“It is imperative that policy analysts and policymakers take a hard and fresh look at the reality of political Islam rather than going by conventional, stereotypical images of Islamic political activity that have become fashionable in Washington.”
Ayoob’s book, published by the University of Michigan Press, explains in layman language the concept of political Islam and its potential consequences. Political Islam, or Islamism, is the pursuit of political objectives by individuals or groups in the Muslim world who use Islamic idiom and rhetoric to achieve their goals. Drawing upon Islamic vocabulary gives their rhetoric an aura of authenticity, especially in the context of the failure of secular ideologies and regimes to deliver power, wealth or dignity to Muslim societies.
Writing and speaking about political Islam, Ayoob writes, has become a growth industry in the United States following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has led to the emergence of many “half-baked ‘experts’” who spread misinformation in the media. Among the common assumptions he challenges in the book:
Assumption: Political Islam is driven by religious concerns. Reality: As with Christianity, religion and politics in Muslim lands historically have remained distinct. In fact, when the two spheres do intersect, it’s typically political actors who use religion for their purposes and not vice versa.
Assumption: Political Islam is monolithic. Reality: No two Islamist parties are alike. Political activities depend on a host of cultural and socioeconomic factors; what works in Indonesia, for example, would not work in Egypt.
Assumption: Islamist groups are unwilling to compromise or join coalitions. Reality: Compromise and coalitions are increasingly common in the Muslim world, as seen in Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey and even the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Assumption: Islamist parties are by definition anti-democratic. Reality: On the contrary, Islamist parties in Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Kuwait, among others, have engaged in democratic political activity to a significant extent.
Assumption: Violence is inherent in Islamism. Reality: Nothing could be further from the truth. Violence is the exception rather than the rule and is typically committed by fringe groups such as al-Qaida. Mainstream Islamist movements normally work within constitutional constraints even though the rules of the game are fashioned by regimes unsympathetic to their cause. The only major exceptions are Islamist national resistance movements fighting foreign occupation.
While Islamic radicalism thrives, in part, on anti-American sentiment, Ayoob says it is generally not based on opposition to the U.S. values of democracy and freedom. Instead, he says, the antipathy is grounded in a U.S. foreign policy that is perceived as using “double standards” and “Washington’s support of unsavory and repressive regimes such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
The military occupation of Iraq has further fueled radical movements in the Middle East, he argues.
“The impact of the American decision to invade Iraq is likely to haunt Washington and its allies for a long time to come,” Ayoob writes. “The monumental mismanagement of the occupation has further added to America’s woes not only in Iraq but in the rest of the Muslim world as well.”