Books Olivier Roy's latest challenge to conventional wisdom demolishes the myth of a monolithic Islam united against the West, writes Fawaz Gerges.
Olivier Roy's latest challenge to conventional wisdom demolishes the myth of a monolithic Islam united against the West, writes Fawaz Gerges.
The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East Olivier Roy C Hurst & Co Dh78
At the peak of the Islamist revolutionary moment in the early 1990s, many western pundits warned that the Islamic tide was unstoppable and likely to sweep away failed socialist and nationalist Arab or Muslim regimes. One of the few dissenting voices was Olivier Roy, a French sociologist and an authority on religiously-based social movements. Challenging the prevalent conventional wisdom, Roy published a sensational book in 1994, The Failure of Political Islam, which argued that the Islamist revolution was already a spent force and, more important, an intellectually and historically bankrupt one.
According to Roy, Islamist movements offered neither a concrete political-economic program nor a new model and vision for society: the slogan "Islam is the solution" could not resolve Muslims' developmental crises. Nowhere was the Islamists' failure more blatant, noted Roy, than in their inability to go beyond Islam's founding texts, be self-critical and overcome traditional divisions and narrow sectarian loyalties.
Roy asserted that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolutionary Iran, often celebrated as a pioneering Islamist project, made two key mistakes. Rather than reaching out to the entire ummah, or Muslim community, it immediately locked itself into a Shiite ghetto by limiting its appeal to coreligionists, and it quickly reverted to an ultraconservative social model that echoed Saudi Arabia's own brand of Sunni puritanism. The only remnant of Khomeini's vision of a new pan-Islamism was the rhetoric. The radicals hoped to create a new regional order based on Islam, but the hard logic of history, power, states, sectarianism, ethnicity and borders proved much more enduring than Islamists acknowledged in their propaganda.
Although Roy was wrong about the failure of political Islam, his hypothesis engendered a big debate among scholars, activists and policymakers. He was right to point out that efforts by militant Islamists like Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian Islamic Group, along with their Algerian counterparts, to foment widespread revolution were a failure. But he underestimated the durability of political Islam as a social and political force to be reckoned with in many Arab and Muslim societies.
A decade later, in Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Roy sought to understand and explain how conservative "neofundamentalism" - which aims primarily at Islamising society from the bottom up - superseded revolutionary Islamism, whose goal is to capture political power and Islamise society by autocratic fiat from the top down. Roy documents how versions of this neofundamentalism have been spreading among uprooted Muslim youths, particularly the children and grandchildren of Muslims who migrated to the West. These new fundamentalists advocate multiculturalism, but only as a means of rejecting efforts to integrate into western society. And like their coreligionists living in the West, even Muslims in the Middle East and parts of Asia may feel like members of a besieged minority because of the sweeping changes brought on by westernisation and globalisation. Sometimes, you really can't go home again.
In Globalised Islam, Roy addressed two main issues: post-Islamism and the global dispersion of Islam across modern nation-states. Roy's "global Muslims" are those who have settled permanently in the West, and the neofundamenalists who distance themselves from a given national Muslim culture and stress their membership in a worldwide community of believers. Once again Roy turns received wisdom on its head. He argues that, despite the backlash by radicals, the Muslim world itself is going through a process of transformation and secularisation, parallel to the re-Islamisation of daily life in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. "The real secularists," Roy writes, "are the Islamists and neofundamentalists, because they want to bridge the gap between religion and a secularised society."
"Islam is experiencing secularisation," he concludes, "but in the name of fundamentalism." For Roy, the root causes of the social upheaval roiling the Muslim world and the jihadist revolt against the West lie in the spreading and deepening westernisation and globalisation of Muslim societies, particularly in the past 30 years. Many Muslims are anxious about the loss of their Islamic identity and the encroachment of alien western ideas about education, pop culture, and women's rights.
The tactics of al Qa'eda, Roy asserts, are grounded not in Islamic tradition but in more recent European radical, leftist and Third-Worldist movements: bin Ladenism, in this sense, represents both a rupture with mainstream Islam and an import from the West. Roy's analysis of these revolutionary Islamists parts ways with the lazy western perception that these people are simply deeply traditional types who seek to impose a centuries-old Islam on modern societies.
But Roy greatly exaggerated the role of uprooted Muslims living in the West as the driving force behind jihadism. To support his thesis, Roy cites the case of al Qa'eda's jihadists, expatriates who choose to fight for an imaginary ummah rather than their homelands. He suggests that the Egyptians, Algerians, Yemenis and Saudis who follow bin Laden's siren song made a conscious decision to wage jihad against the West, not their local rulers. But throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s militant Islamists launched a fierce assault against their own rulers. It was only when their onslaught ran out of steam that they decided to target the United States and its allies. These local jihadists, like Ayman al Zawahiri, paid lip service to the ummah, but their first aim was to capture power in their native lands; the same is true of bin Laden.
Now, in a slim volume titled The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East, Roy convincingly argues that there is no "geostrategy of Islam" that would explain all present conflicts, from Palestine to bin Laden to the riots in Paris suburbs: it is a "self-fulfilling prophecy for it transforms an imagined situation into a policy and therefore gives substance to this essentialist dogma." It is a policy-orientated book that lacks the analytical and scholarly depth of his previous texts. But it offers a critical commentary on the current debate raging in western capitals about the War on Terror, Iraq, and the weight of Islam in the political process.
Roy's goal is to demolish the myth of a monolithic Islam united against the Christian West. The claim that the Muslim world is at war with the West is a fantasy, writes Roy. This "Muslim world" does not exist except as an ideological construct: most of the conflicts raging in the Middle East pit Muslims against Muslims. Roy stresses the importance of local contexts and internal tensions and cleavages in fuelling instability and chaos in the Middle East. In an elegant survey of the various local conflicts destabilising the region, he demonstrates that each has its own history and dynamics, independent of Islam or great power intervention: "Each local conflict has it own history and follows its own course, the most striking examples being the rivalry between Iran and Iraq, which echoes the border battle between the Persian and Ottoman empires, or Pakistan in its endless quest for legitimacy and territory, the Palestinian and Israeli peoples' difficulty in making the transition from existential to territorial conflict."
The driving force behind the spread of social and political chaos in the Middle East is not Islam, notes Roy, but deeper undercurrents of national, ethnic, and tribal rivalries and uneven processes of state-led modernisation in poor and traditional societies. The critical question in Roy's work is the role of Islam in a newly global context, and the relationship between Islamic publics and notionally Islamic states. What lies at the centre of Roy's writing is this very relationship between Islam and the state, and the problematic nature of many constructed Middle Eastern states, with their lines drawn haphazardly by colonial Britain after the end of the First World War.
In his view, three fault lines, or traumas, mark the contemporary history of the Arab Middle East, and none of them has anything to do with Islam as such; rather they arise from the translation of the Arab identity into political terms: the first trauma, in 1918, was the collapse of the project to build a pan-Arab nation out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, as promised by the British; the second is the establishment of the state of Israel in the heart of the Arab world and the subsequent Arab defeats at the hands of the small Jewish state; and the third the destruction of the balance between Shi'ism and Sunnism and the Shia revival.
Although Roy is correct to draw attention to the internal and local roots of chaos in the Middle East, he underestimates the role of great powers in fuelling regional conflicts and fighting wars-by-proxy. Time and again external players have internationalised local disputes and exacerbated tensions. While local conflicts do have their own independent dynamics, it is misleading to neglect their interconnectedness: the Palestine-Israel conflict intrudes on and intersects with other regional problems, producing further social and political chaos, and the war in Iraq has had the same effect.
It is also surprising that in his effort to situate the conflicts in the Middle East in their own context, Roy falls into the trap of dismissing Islam as a key factor in the grammar and sociology of Arab politics. He has little to say about why Islam is the only viable discourse of opposition and an effective mobilisational tool against both western influence in the Middle East and authoritarian Arab and Muslim rulers. Obviously, Islam matters and matters greatly; it resonates with Muslims. Islamists or religiously-orientated activists are the dominant force in several key Muslim countries.
But Roy's broader argument makes sense: the American "global war on terror" erased distinctions, nuances, differences and conceptual boundaries between al Qa'eda-style terrorists, Islamists proper (those who try to build Islamic political institutions), fundamentalists who want to live under sharia law, and cultural conservatives who advocate communal autonomy under multiculturalism. These latter groups, as Roy observes, do not represent an existential threat to their societies to the West.
Driven by ideology and a messianic zeal to restructure Arab and Muslim societies and politics, the Bush foreign policy team lost sight of ends and means, and ignored the self-limiting nature of al Qa'eda, which remains a fringe element and not a viable social movement: it does not possess the capacity for large-scale social and political mobilisation. Despite its bloody tactics, Roy reminds readers that al Qa'eda's violence has no strategic orientation to give political direction to its activities because the group possesses no lasting institutions or political roots: "al Qa'eda is in essence a deterritorialised, global organisation, relatively distanced from the Middle East issues, with no political roots in the Muslim populations."
Similarly, according to Roy, although moderate Islamist movements have more political traction, they also run up against their limits: the failure of the Islamist political model in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, and the fact that they must consistently push beyond an Islamist agenda in order to maintain political momentum in any national arena. Western states' inability to distinguish between different types of Islamised politics leads directly to impotence and compounds failure. According to Roy, America's enemies, like the Taliban and al Qa'eda, have been the beneficiaries of these shortsighted and sweeping policies. "It is Washington's bitterest enemy, Iran, that has gained the most from this new situation, which is likely to lead to further confrontations. Presented as the precondition for the eradication of the causes of terrorism, the military intervention in Iraq has proved to be a fiasco, which and has played into the hands of America's designated enemies."
The only intelligent way out, Roy notes, is for western diplomacy to engage serious Islamist political movements such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and to treat them as rational interlocutors and legitimate representatives of sizeable segments of their publics. "The refusal to distinguish between movements which are primarily political," he writes, "and others which are purely terrorist makes action impossible."
For while Roy argues conclusively that chaos in the region cannot be blamed on some mythic clash between Islam and the West - and that Western interventions have often worsened matters, The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East presents rational choices that the West can take to arrest the spread of further disorder. We can only hope that future American administrations will heed them. Fawaz A Gerges is professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence University, New York. His most recent books are Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy and The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global.