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Catching Up
Islamic Political Ideology and the West
by Tim Meyer

The twentieth century witnessed the birth of a new political ideology: political Islam. In light of the events of September 11, 2001 it is appropriate to examine the roots of political Islam. Political Islam can be defined as a developing world ideology of mobilization and legitimacy like Marxism or socialism in the Soviet Union and Southeast Asia, with many of the same programs of expansion of opportunity and upward social mobility. It is not unfair to say that, as much as political Islam in the latter half of the twentieth century was born as a response to the cultural imperialism and failure of Western political thought to be relevant to the Islamic world, political Islam is also the child of these ideas, with many of the same goals. Political Islam here is treated separately from Bin Ladenism and the ideology of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which will be dealt with as its own case. While they make appeals to Islam, the nature of these ideologies is drastically different from that of other political Islamic movements.

In the age of mass politics and global interconnectedness, all states fundamentally require an appeal to their populations on which to base their legitimacy, and this appeal cannot be provided by simple rule by force. Opposition movements propose programs based on alternative ideologies to that of the government. Their potential success with an agenda of industrialization and modernization hinges on being able to mobilize the population to move from rural areas to cities and to work at a sufficient level to catch up to industrialized nations. An appeal to an ideology that resonates with the population is clearly easier than military or police repression. This makes political Islam an appropriate ideology for the Arab world, where it has its cultural roots.

It is important for the West to understand the manner in which political Islam operates in the Arab world, particularly as its presence in the area increases. Simply because Islam is a religion, as opposed to a secular ideology, does not mean that its goals are not similar to those of liberal or socials democrats; economic prosperity, political stability, and international security. In the twentieth century the United States has been prone to mistaking internal legitimating, or populist, ideologies for oppositional confrontational ideologies. Inexplicably, the United States then concludes that a nation that merely shares the same ideology as an enemy of the United States is also an enemy. The U.S. made this faulty assumption in the case of a number of developing socialist countries such as Cuba at the moment that Castro came to power or Guatemala when Arbenz undertook his program of land reform.

The lesson to be drawn from this history is that simply because the Taliban, financially supported in part by Osama bin Laden, is an enemy of the United States, does not necessarily mean that other Islamic nations are, or that an appeal to Islam is consistent with a hatred for the United States. Instead, political Islam as it has here been defined is a means toward the end of prosperity. The United States should not begrudge poor, under-industrialized nations their own legitimating myths simply because they do not strictly agree with a liberal democratic ideology or because they oppose a current world order that economically disenfranchises their nations.

Bin Ladenism, in contrast to political Islam, is a state-less war that is waged on the industrialized nations of the West that have exploited the Arab world for its markets and its resources, primarily oil. It certainly appeals to a very rudimentary form of Islam, but most, if not all, contemporary Islamic thinkers decry Bin Laden and his associates for their lack of understanding of Islamic thought.1 Its primary creed is a rage against past wrongs and a global politico-economic order that has left certain nations poor and politically minor players on the international scene. While the debate about what is proper Islam may be difficult, as Islam has changed an enormous amount in its fourteen hundred year history, it is important to understand that Islam is not anti-modern. Rather, political Islam can be anti-Western in the sense that it holds the West responsible, with its sanctions and interventionist policies in the Islamic world, for that areas current situation. The situation for the last few years in Afghanistan will be considered as a separate case, because while the Taliban did appeal to political Islam, a substantive understanding of that nations problems requires a vast background in the extraordinary circumstances at work in a country that has been at war unceasingly for twenty-five years.

Understanding the Origins of Political Islam

Islam as a political ideology has pre-twentieth century roots. The Muslim Empire in the first millennium stretched from Spain to India. The caliphate and the Shia imamate were the religiously legitimated institutions of rule for the empire or sections of it. Eventually the Muslim Empire overextended its authority, and due to a variety of factors disintegrated first into smaller gunpowder empires and then into small, amorphous states that were easily penetrated by Western colonial powers.æ The period during and following the Wests domination of the Middle East and the Islamic world saw Islam reborn as a political ideology. Yet, clearly, this is not the same Islam that legitimated the conquests of the early Islamic period, the reign of the Umayyad or Abbasid dynasties, or even the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Power relations have shifted; mechanization and increased contact with Western thought have modified Islam to a great degree. So the questions arise: what is the nature of the political ideology of Islam in the late twentieth century, and why has it taken on the characteristics that it has?

Islamic scholar Bassam Tibi writes, The wholeness of a given society is the creation of the intimate intertwining of the economics, culture, and politics; and any attempt to divide it schematically into a socioeconomic base and a political or ideological-superstructure, as is the wont of most marxisant writers, is a violation of its natural integrity.2 This concept raises perhaps the most fundamental issue when attempting to understand Islamic political ideology. The people who have tried to understand political Islam through a Western socioeconomic lens are the same people who tried to introduce Western ideologies to solve the Middle Easts problems. To understand the success of political Islam in the last half century one must not only examine socioeconomic conditions but also look at the cultural situation in which the Islamic world currently finds itself. An examination of this cultural climate, in addition to socioeconomic conditions, is integral to a full understanding of why Western liberalism and socialist ideologies have failed to motivate the people of most Islamic nations, and why these nations experience strong religious political movements.

When Islam first swept through the Middle East, across Africa, and into Persia and India, Islam came as a conqueror. It lacked a substantial culture of its own, but it came bearing a new religious message that served as its political reason for expansion. Islam, as a conqueror, had few reservations about adopting parts of the cultures that it encountered during its expansion, particularly Hellenistic culture.3 Like all of the other Abrahamic religions, Islam has an inherent belief that Muslims were the possessors of the one true faith. This justified the conquests of their early empires, but it has made their inferior situation in the past two centuries that much more bitter. While it was easy to accept another culture when in a superior position, it is much more difficult for the Islamic world to rationalize its religious position as the believers in the one true faith with a world in which it has an alien culture thrust upon it by global political and economic forces.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century the Islamic world found itself in the position of being the conquered. Having not experienced the Industrial Revolution, Muslim states were easily defeated and colonized by Western powers possessing greater technological capabilities.4 At first, the Muslims resisted domination by Western powers, but their defeat, given their pre-industrial economies and technology, was inevitable.

During this period, the focus of Islamic activity was generally centered on personal piety. A notable example of this is the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization based on reinforcing Islamic values in society, by Hasan al-Banna in pre-World War II Egypt.5 Later, movements such as this took on a more political bent, as the heel of a Western military presence was lifted following World War II. With independence came the often-illusory hope of being able to catch up to the West. The former colonizers had proved not to be omnipotent, and the hope of improvement was a real one. However, in the wake of the removal of direct rule by the West, there were questions about identity, legitimacy, and theory that needed to be resolved.

The Lingering Effects of Western Rule

The West left behind Third World economies that were linked to Western European and American industrial economies. Equally important, they left behind several centuries of Western political and economic theory, culminating in liberal democratic and Marxist socialist theories. Socialist movements sprang up, and the cry for democracy rang throughout the region. Nasser in Egypt is the best example. While he had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, he ran a secular state with a socialist agenda. In the global arena, he managed to remain largely unaligned with either the Eastern or the Western European blocs.

In other countries, Western influence was not a matter of economic concern, but a matter of democratic concern, as ruling elites abused their power. In Iran, the Shahæ aligned with the United Statesæ used oil money to finance an autocratic regime that permitted few individual freedoms, in a reign that saw mass urbanization lead to the rise of slums in Tehran and other cities.6 Because of its alliance with the Shah, formed after a CIA-backed coup that brought him to power in 1956, the United States, and the West in general, became symbols for the oppression the people of Iran felt at the hands of their government. In Pakistan, corrupt but democratically elected governments were swept aside by military coups in both the sixties and the seventies, and then again in 1999.7

The result of all of this was mass disillusionment with the West and the economic and political ideas that it had introduced. Nassers socialist agenda ultimately failed, and Sadat, who succeeded Nasser, was assassinated by Muslim activists on the grounds that he was too secular. It seemed as though anything related to the West, be it political ideologies or economic theories, were only dreams to tease the technologically inferior, pre-industrial but post-tribal developing world.

In this context of a non-Western culture saturated with Western ideologies and theories that had failed to achieve basic economic reform, it is not surprising that a section of the Islamic population rejected these alien cultural theories and turned back to a tried and true native ideology. This section had existed prior to the failure of regimes such as Nassers to accomplish significant reform, and the influence of Muslim activists increased as time went on, beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood in post-World War II Egypt. However, the majority of those activists never held influential positions in government. In every country except for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan under the Talibanæ states in which Muslim clerics play (or played) at least some role ingoverningæ political Islam continues to exist primarily as an opposition movement. Occasionally these opposition movements are also taken in and made members of the government, but they are given no real policy-making power, as was the case with the Zia regime in Pakistan in the late seventies and eighties.

Conflicts in Modern Political Islam

Political Islam in the twentieth century arose under the auspices of Western ideology. In the face of Western domination and economic superiority, it seems quite logical that there would be a group that supported Western methods of government and a group that supported native means. Political Islam represents some Western ideas in an acceptable cultural packaging. However, it is interesting to note the various ways in which political Islam has been modified or reinterpreted in light of the world that it faces today. It has adopted aspects of Western thought and finds itself unable to gather much support for the literal implementation of Islamic law, which was written for a society without the technological and economic complexity of the modern world. A close look at theories, rhetoric, and actions, particularly in the case of Iran or Saudi Arabia (although Saudi Arabia is a slightly different case as it was founded on the basis of the Wahhabi movement), can help us to better understand how political Islam operates in the modern world. Even as it rejects Western ideologies such as Marxism, socialism, or capitalism, it is in constant dialogue with these ideas. Western global hegemony has given Western values and systems of thought an exposure that other systems of thought have not had. Furthermore, the institutions of the Western world affect the Islamic world much more than its institutions affect the West. Western models of social, political and economic thought therefore necessarily force themselves onto Islamic thought, either as an Islamic response to Western imperialism or as the adoption of Western concepts.

It is significant to note here that, while it is tempting to point out that even secular Muslim states such as Egypt have laws based in Islamic law, the United States and Western liberal democracies have laws that are based in Christian doctrine, such as the laws governing marriage and divorce. Thus, if having laws based in religion is an indictment of some sort, the West is as guilty as the Muslim world. It is perhaps best to view laws based on religious doctrines as cultural vestiges rather than fierce ideological commitments.

Any religio-political ideology finds itself constrained by the purely religious tenets that it possesses. Thus, it can be argued, and it is by a wide variety of social scientists including but certainly not limited to Marx and his followers, that religions on a macro-scale operate as political ideologies. If one accepts this premise, the question then becomes: precisely how do religious tenets operate in the political sphere? In the case of Islam, the rallying cry for many revivalist groups is rule by the Sharia, a compilation of rules for living according to Islamic law. This is, however, a problematic issue for actual ruling groups, because the Sharia was created during the seventh century. While the rules were adequate for that time, they can hardly be considered such in the post-industrial world with all of the social and economic changes of the last two hundred years. The process of industrialization entails far too much social uprooting; the general destruction of traditional social norms, such as tribal identifications, make it very difficult to modernize and still cling tightly to morals that were invented for a pre-industrial society. Yet, Islam finds itself in the uncomfortable position of not being able to really amend these rules very easily.

Unlike Western ideologies such as Marxism, which are designed to achieve a certain end within the Western-dominated global politico-economic structure, Islam emerged in a far different situation, and makes absolute claims about how life should be lived. Amending these absolute claims to fit with the nature of the political world today is difficult. Therefore, fundamental Islamists find themselves in a situation in where the cultural values of the Islamic world, which are being clung to tightly in the face of bad economic times and Western cultural imperialism, are at odds with the political and legal necessities of the modern world. For example, some might consider strict Islamic law to be misogynist. Islamic inheritance laws provide for a larger share of an estate to pass to male heirs than to female heirs, and polygamy is permitted. This is seen in the more powerful West as being backwards, and thus affects the Wests willingness to assist these developing nations in their economic struggle. This inability to adapt to modern modes of thought is a major reason for political Islams continued role as an ideology in opposition in most countries. It is only in a few countries, for varying reasons, that the state is able to co-opt the Islamic creed and bring the ulama, scholars of Islam who are traditionally outside of government and not organized into a formal clergy, into the fold.

If one considers the purpose of most oppositional ideologies in the age of mass politics, it becomes apparent that at the heart of each of them is the appeal to equality for the downtrodden masses, the promise of a better life for those people that do not have access to the standard of living that they can see others possess. In Europe, the most influential manifestations of these goals were utopian socialism in the eighteenth century and Marxism in the nineteenth century. These ideologies fit the Western context of industrialization and urbanization that had left so many people socially uprooted. They were grounded in Western thought from the previous two centuries, which emphasized humanistic subjects such as the basic rights of man. They were envisioned in a politico-economic context that first saw the birth of mass politics on the backs of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Given the context that gave rise to the radical egalitarian movements in Europe, it should come as no surprise that such ideas failed to take hold in the Islamic world. Not only were they at odds with the cultural and intellectual heritage of the region, but the necessary preconditions for these ideas to take root- a significant industrial base and the resulting alienation of the working class- were not present. Traditional tribal groups were being destroyed without a large industrial complex to absorb the people. In this setting of failed Western modernization techniques and ideologies, a reinterpretation of Islam was a better ideology of opposition to the status quo than a straight adoption of Western oppositional ideologies.

Personal Islam and Self-Identity

Sayyid Qtb, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood during the fifties and sixties until his execution by Nassers regime, laid out what became a very popular model of Islamic political thought. Qtb confirmed Islam as a sacred obligation of the holy: those who obey the Koran and follow the hadith (traditions in Islamic law developed from the behavior of the Prophet), are the only followers of the one true faith. As a religion with theoretically strict, non-negotiable beliefs regarding God and the nature of the world, Islam cannot completely abandon this strain of thought and remain politically viable. Its popular appeal lies partially in this cultural vestige, something that is shared and understood amongst the population of the Islamic world.

For Qtb, devout Muslims have a duty to God, but the state has a duty to provide certain benefits to its citizens. While earlier Muslim thinkers had justified any political authority as being better than none at all, Qtb denied this, suggesting that political power attaches to it a responsibility to bring parity of economic opportunity to a nation.æ He wrote, Islam has first confirmed the principle of equality of opportunity and the principle of justice for all and then has left the door open for the competition of effort and work.8 Here Qtb is drawing from the pages of Western thought, which is often econo-centric. He recognizes that disparity of ability exists, but claims that there should be equality of opportunity under Islamic law. Thus, Qtb is grafting the historically Western notion of individual rights, which originated in Enlightenment thinkers Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, onto his political Islamic ideology.

The concept of developing a new man, an ideal Islamic man living his personal life according to Islamic mores, is tied into this reordering of the individuals relationship with the state. In an Islamic society an implicit goal is for each citizen to share the societys values at an individual level. This gives the state a model for its values. During times of extreme political persecution of opposition groups, when the state does not necessarily reflect the values or concerns of sections of its population, many political Islamic movements, such as the NU in Indonesia in 1983, or the Muslim Brotherhood at its inception, stay away from politics. They instead focus on personal piety. This gives political Islam a completeness that not all ideologies have: It is rooted in personal behavior. Qtb and Ali Shariati9 both constantly referred to the righteousness of Muslims, and the proper way of life for a Muslim. The religious component of the ideology allows for much tighter control of the group, be it an opposition group or a state manipulating its citizens. Furthermore, it draws people in by giving those who have been uprooted by modernization and industrialization a complete way of life. It can absorb them and become their identity. This identity is important. In a world that it feels has left it behind, the Islamic community, a proud community with a history of political power, craves a strong sense of self.

In the West, nationalism provides this sense of identity for many. For some, identity is class based, for others it is race based. The Islamic world lacks these more Western sources of identity. Instead, its sources of identity tend to come from the more traditional tribal or religious sectarian (Sunni versus Shiite) categories. Nationalism is based upon loyalty to a state grounded in a common myth of a national past. It may be tied to ethnicity, or it may not be. In the Islamic world, there is no national past. As nations, they have only existed since World War II for the most part (although some, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, have been in existence much longer). Considering the brief history of these nations it is not surprising that most of them are unable to inspire the populace with a strong nationalist ideology. In fact, as Michael Hudson writes, nowhere is the task of definition (of nationhood) more difficult than in the Arab world where the multiplicity of primordial identifications includes kin group, sect, and universal religious community.10 Arab states, and states in the broader Islamic world, have never become sufficiently economically or politically engaged with their populations, either domestically or internationally, to inspire widespread nationalism for extended periods of time. What nationalism is inspired is often dampened by international humiliation and military defeat at the hands of the West and, more recently, Israel.

Some nations, such as Egypt, are able to rely on nationalist ideologies for legitimacy more than others, but the problem remains even for them. These nations are unable to project strong global images and do not exist in the power vacuum that European nations were able to grow into unimpeded by outside interference. Because they are unable to grow into a sense of themselves gradually, appeals to nationalist ideals are largely inadequate.

Class lines are also problematic. There is not a traditional, Western proletariat to be mobilized. Most of the money that flows into Islamic nations, particularly those in the Arab world, comes from oil, an industry that does not require large numbers of people. While there is industry to varying degrees in different nations, it is not on the same scale as in the West. This makes it difficult to use the factory as a recruiting point or the working class as a revolutionary class. Without large centers of industry, and with weakened traditional tribal groups corresponding to the rise of cities, organization becomes a huge problem.11 Thus, it is more likely that one will see a coup within the government, such as that which occurred in Pakistan and Indonesia, than an external revolution.

Political Islam in Power: The Case of Iran

The major exception to this trend is Iran, a state in which a revolution successfully toppled the regime and erected a state that is semi-republican in its place. There are a variety of reasons that oppositional political Islam succeeded in Iran whereas it has yet to do so in other nations, but the longevity of the regime has much to do with the manner in which the ideology has been managed by those in power.

The form of Irans government is a hybrid between a republic and a theocracy. At the head of the government is the Supreme Leader, the faqih. The justification for this is that government should be headed by a spiritual leader, a member of the ulama. Under the faqih, there is a democratically elected president who is in charge of the everyday workings of the government. There is also a legislature, the Majlis, which is elected. To offset this secular side of the government, there is a twelve member Council of Guardians, half appointed by the faqih and half chosen by the Majlis. The Council is in charge of approving as good Muslims candidates standing for office, and approving laws passed by the legislature to ensure that they do not contradict the Sharia. Thus the state institutionalizes both democratic traditions as well as traditional Islamic concerns.

The manner in which the Iranian revolution came to pass is worth examining. Tehran is a sprawling metropolis that underwent rapid expansion, growing from 192,000 in 1922 to over 15 million today.12 This mass movement of people to the city, where jobs were often unavailable, left workers feeling uprooted and disillusioned with their prospects for a better life and made them susceptible to salvation ideologies. A preference for adopting political Islam explains the Islamic, rather than secular, government that replaced the Shah. Perhaps the biggest reason for the failure of the Shahs regime was its alienation of the Iranian people. The Shah, wealthy from oil, backed by the United States, and, unlike most other Muslim rulers, sitting on the throne of a country that had been ruled by a Shah for several centuries, felt too secure. He made no effort to see to the welfare of his people and aligned himself with the West, exporting Irans oil for his own profit and that of his cronies, but not benefiting the population of the country at large. Consequently, when things went awry for the Shah, the government disintegrated around him. The corruption of the Shah and his government should not be underestimated when listing the factors that drove the Iranian people into the arms of political Islam.

The operation of political Islam (as it is defined here) in power is something that can only be observed in Iran. As has been maintained throughout this paper, political Islam is an ideology that is unique to the twentieth century. No better example can be found than Iran since 1979. Movements in opposition can make many claims, such as the unity of religion and politics in Islam, without ever being put to the test. In contrast, Khomeini had the ability to implement his policies, policies that he did not articulate prior to the seizure of power and the formation of a government.

The effect that the governmental structure detailed above has had on Iran is interesting. The state finds religious legitimacy in the eyes of the populace, although the form of government, ilyat-i-faqih, was completely the invention of Ayatollah Khomeini, the first faqih. There is no precedent for it anywhere in Islamic history, the Koran, or the hadith.13 As does any ideology that assumes power, Khomeinis political Islam had to make compromises to function in the real world of politics. Parties in power do not have the luxury, if they wish to remain in power, of maintaining a strict ideological framework. Ideals must always compromise with pragmatism on a state level. The strength of Khomeinis regime was that he had never articulated a clear plan for government prior to taking power. Thus, he could not contradict himself.

Khomeini himself was enormously popular, and had impeccable religious and revolutionary credentials. He held the clerical rank of Ayatollah, something approximately akin to a bishop, and was exiled in 1964 for activism against the regime. He continued his agitation against the Shahs regime from Iraq and then Paris. When he returned to take the reins of government in 1979 in the wake of popular unrest, the population had confidence that Khomeini spoke with both religious and revolutionary authority.

By assuming power in the name of Islam, Khomeini removed it as a legitimate source of opposition and simultaneously, by making Irans government a hybrid, he conceded something to the more liberal minded Iranians.æ They could no longer complain because they wielded substantial influence. The stage was set, therefore, to move towards a more democratic, less religiously oriented regime following the death of Khomeini. The structure of government that he had erected had institutional checks in place and had a truly democratic election process to determine the presidency and the composition of the legislature. There is a basic background check on candidates for office to ascertain whether they conform to Islamic ideals. However, the power to remove a candidate from the ballot is not often exercised as a tool of political reaction by conservative elements involved in the examination process, as can be seen by the ability of reformists such as President Mohammed Khatami to stand for election. Even as Khomeini was able to dominate the system because of his credentials as the founder of the state and the holder of ideological truth, the institutional checks became important following his death. Absolute ideological truth becomes a matter of debate, and, in the case of Iran, it is a debate that occurs in a democratic forum. Just as monarchies can become constitutional, the Iranian faqih could become a ceremonial post. Indeed, this trend appears to already be taking shape, with the reelection of Khatami in June of 2001 with 76.9 percent of the vote.14

The Case of Afghanistan

Afghanistan has recently drawn the most coverage of any nation in the Islamic world because of its ultra-conservative Islamic regime, the Taliban, and its harboring of alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden and his organization, Al Qaeda. Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Taliban received an enormous amount of negative press in the West for various actions, including its repression of women and its destruction of centuries-old Buddhist statues. The Taliban has been characterized as the ultimate evil to emerge from religious fanaticism, and for many Americans it has become the embodiment of the behavior of Islamists in power. However, understanding the case of Afghanistan requires much more historical background, after which it becomes clear that the Taliban, while using Islam as a legitimating ideology and implementing strict Sharia law, is nothing like the regime in Iran, and indeed is primarily a military power falling the same way it rose to power.

Afghanistan is a country that has been independent for nearly three hundred years. For most of that period it was ruled by the Durrani dynasty, ethnic Pashtuns from the south. The Pashtuns comprise the majority of the population in Afghanistan, and the majority of the Taliban are Pashtuni. In 1976 the last Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah was ousted by a coup that installed a leftist government that ultimately turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. When the regime disintegrated due to infighting amongst the Marxist officers that deposed the first President, Daud, the Soviet Union invaded the country and installed and supported a communist government.15

A decade of war followed before the Soviet Union finally withdrew in 1989. There were a variety of Afghan leaders, the most prominent being the Mujaheddin, who were learned Islamic scholars and fought against the communists on nationalist and Islamic grounds. The casualties were great: over the course of the Soviet occupation, it is estimated that around 1.5 million Afghans were killed.16 When the Soviets finally withdrew, a communist government was left in place, led by former head of the secret police, President Najibullah. Najibullahs government collapsed in 1992 and was replaced by a group of warlords who ruled the various provinces in Afghanistan. Nominally there was a government comprised mostly of ethnic minorities from the north of the country, headed by President Burhanudd in Rabbani, whose government lasted until 1996, when the capital, Kabul, fell to the Taliban.

The Talibans origins are in the south of Afghanistan, among the Pashtunis centered around Kandahar. That region was divided amongst a series of petty warlords who committed atrocities against the population, including theft, kidnapping, and rape.17 The traditional leadership of the region, both tribal and religious, had annihilated each other over the course of the civil war, and only the most extreme elements were left.18 These elements coalesced into the Taliban, a group of young men raised in a war-torn nation who had fought against the Soviets but lacked the education of the former Mujaheddin. As the Taliban pushed north over the next few years, thousands of refugees flocked to the Talibans banner. Rashid describes the Taliban as being from a generation who had never seen their country at peace . . . They had no memories of their tribes, their elders, their neighbors nor the complex ethnic mix of peoples that often made up their villages and their homeland.19

The subsequent success of the Taliban often had to do with the support it received from nations such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that opposed the northern Afghan warlords and supported the Talibans self-proclaimed program of peace. The Taliban became nothing more than an Islamic alternative to these warlords. Their creed was to bring peace, but to do so they enforced what was practically Islamic martial law.

Again, the Taliban was an extremist military regime that lacked the education and influence of the moderate Islamists who had been killed in the preceding years. They were reacting to a terrible situation: a country literally torn apart by internal and external forces bent on exercising their own wills. As such, the Taliban movement is an extremely poor example of political Islam and does not fit the definition laid out here. It is an almost purely military regime without any democratic or popular participation, and what popular support it had has almost entirely dried up. Furthermore, the Taliban has not articulated much of a plan for modernization, only a demand for peace on its own terms.

The Stabilization of Political Islam

To some extent the same analysis used in the case of Iran can be applied to Pakistan under Zia, where he appropriated the Islamic creed for his regime, establishing Sharia courts, but exempting those issues most central to his rule, such as taxation and martial law. The clergy found itself co-opted. In Indonesia the election of President Wahid brought the Muslim community into politics as a powerful, not merely oppositional, force.

Tibi, however, discusses the correspondence existing between the sacred and the political realms in those societies which have not attained the stage of dominion-over-nature and thus remain traditional societies. If partisans of a particular political system in such societies succeed in making politics sacred, they achieve a guarantee of stability for their system.20 Saudi Arabia, founded by the Saud family under the banner of the Wahhabi reform movement, is a very good example of a religiously legitimated state that has achieved political stability. The entire political process involves the clergy, and therefore any clerical criticism is necessarily self-criticism, something not easily done in an absolutist religious system. So, while religious political ideologies are odious to the West with its notions of the separation between church and state, incorporating these ideologies into the ruling ideology may be the only practical measure to ensure political stability.

Now one is left to ponder the attitude that the West takes towards religio-political movements in the Islamic world. Iran has perhaps discovered the key to progress for developing nations with a strong Islamic cultural influence. As opposition groups outside the government or the law, political Islamist groups act as pressures on their governments, but also provide a destabilizing force. The solution to this instability is the incorporation of Islam into the government. While this may force the ulama to become more of a regular clergy, it also affords the opportunity for compromise within a broader political spectrum. The institutionalization of dissent creates stability and is also democratic. Even if the government is not necessarily democratic, the number of people on the inside increases the exchange of ideas and opinions, and broadens the support for action. Thus, while the military dictatorships of Pakistan under Zia and Musharref, or even Saudi Arabia under the monarchy, are not ideal democratic nations, not even as democratic as Iran, the West does owe to these nations some respect for what they have accomplished. As is the case in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic ideology of these nations does not prevent them from allying themselves with the West. Political Islam is not intrinsically opposed to the West.

Political Islams Place in the 21st Century

The ideologies of the Islamic world are heavily Westernized; it is merely the cultural packaging that is different. Economically, the creed of political Islamists is equalityæ either of the socialist nature or, at the very least, equality of opportunity. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the goals of political Islam are not so much Western in substance as they are couched in Western terms. Political Islam stems from the basic desires that have motivated people since the beginning of politics on a local or tribal level centuries ago: the desires to improve ones lot and not to be trodden upon by another simply because of relative size or strength. The West should recognize that there is no necessary threat from these ideologies. The West used its own liberal democratic methods to industrialize and attain the prosperity that it now possesses, but it did so at a time in which there were no outside political pressures bearing on it. Islamic nations do not have that luxury. If they sacrifice some democratic ideals, or if they at times seem to be religious zealots, one should realize that they are just trying to attain what has passed them by historically.

The danger in all of this is that the West will treat political Islam in the twenty-first century in the same manner that it treated Third World socialism in the latter half of the twentieth century. The East versus West complex has broken down. The United States does not need to find another enemy to replace the ideological one it lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. It need not expand the existing conflict, rising to the bait from a small section of the Muslim world. Political Islam, with its strong truth statements and its all-encompassing way of life, may seem radical to Westerners, but Westerners have the luxury of being able to judge from their industrialized, modernized nations. Political Islam, as Marxism in the Soviet Union or China, is not really an end, but merely a means to an end that any civilized nation should be able to understand. As one can see in Iran with the reelection of Khatami, if the West gives the Islamic world some time, then comfortable internal equilibria can be reached.

In the last century the United States made the mistake of assuming that simply because an ideology seemed to be shared between an enemy and another nation, that other nation was an enemy. There is little argument that Osama bin Laden and his associates are enemies and need to be dealt with as such. There may be more enemies beyond Al Qaeda and they may come to include other nations besides Afghanistan. But there is also little doubt that the conflict need not be broadened along ideological lines. Thus far the United States has taken precautions along those lines. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, as well as other Muslim states, have been, to varying degrees, involved in the international coalition against terrorism. This pragmatic, sympathetic approach will save the United States unwanted entanglements in other nations and do justice to the United States oft asserted, though less often implemented, belief that all nations are entitled to equal opportunities.


1,CNN, October 10, 2001.

2 Tibi, Bassam. The Crisis of Modern Islam. University of Utah Press: Salt Lake City, 1988, pg. 1.

3 Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Faber and Faber: London; 1991, p. 75-78.

4 Hourani, p.266-267.

5 Hourani, p. 348.

6 Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Westview Press: San Francisco, 1994, p. 403.

7 Baxter, Craig, Yogendra K. Malik, Charles H. Kennedy, and Robert C. Oberst. Government and Politics in South Asia.æ Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1998, p. 241-243.

8 Qtb, Sayyid. Social Justice in Islam. Trans. and ed. by William Shepard. E.J. Brill, New York, 1996. pg. 37.

9 Shariati, Ali. Marxism and other Western Fallacies. Trans. by R. Campbell. Mizan Press: Berkeley, 1980.

10 Hudson, Michael C. Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy. Yale University Press: New Haven, 1977, p. 34.

11 Hudson, p. 9-13.

12 Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Westview Press: San Francisco, 1994, p. 403.

13 Keddi, Nikki R. Iranian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective. The Modern Middle East. Ed. by Albert Hourani, Philip S. Khoury, and Mary C. Wilson. I.B. Tauris and Co.: London, 1993, p. 617.

14, CNN, June 10, 2001.

15 Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban. Pan Books: London, 2001, p. 12-13.

16 Rashid, p. 13.

17 Rashid, p. 21.

18 Rashid, p. 19.

19 Rashid, p. 32.

20 Tibi, pg. 43.