The rise of radical Islam

Amin Saikal traces the history of the relationship between the ‘domain of Islam’—the Muslim nations of the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Central Asia—and the West. Taking the events of 11 September 2001 as his starting point, Saikal seeks to investigate whether a ‘clash of civilisations’, as described by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same title, is as inevitable as current events might imply.

This book’s central objective is to examine the growing tension between the West and the domain of Islam, with respect to three fundamental questions: first, what has happened to the relationship in both historical and contemporary terms; second, to what extent do Muslims bear responsibility and in what ways has Western, and more specifically American, policy behaviour contributed to diluting the relations between the two sides; and third, how to repair the damage already done?

Saikal’s main premise is that the radical Islamification of Muslim civil society is a relatively recent phenomenon, and that it is primarily a reaction to external factors. Chief among these are the policies pursued by the West since the rise of colonialism on the European continent in the 16th century. Saikal argues that since then, secularism has been gradually superseded by radicalism, with the greatest spike occurring since World War II. The main reason for this historically recent surge in radicalism has been the support provided by the West, principally the United States, to authoritarian regimes in North Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East.

Much has been said and written about jihad in the mainstream press since September 11, but Saikal stresses that this is a multidimensional concept. Rather than assuming the existence of some kind of monolithic ‘Arab Street’, Saikal carefully documents the competing strains of political identity that have struggled to assert themselves within the domain of Islam. To simplify the historical and cultural diversity inherent among these, Saikal identifies them as ascribing to one of either two interpretations of political Islam: jihadi or itjihadi.

The jihadi form of political Islam is characterised by radicalism, extremism and the attempt to incite violence against its opponents—whether they be Western or local. In contrast, itjihadi is a more liberal, inclusive and secular interpretation of political Islam. The modern itjihadi movement is perhaps best illustrated by the democratic reform movements, spearheaded by Presidents Abdurrahman Wahid in Indonesia and Mohammed Khatami in Iran. Al Qaeda and the Taliban perhaps best embody the spirit of jihadi.

Saikal argues that if one studies the history of relations between the domain of Islam and the West, the itjihadi dimension spans a much longer period than does its more radical cousin. Jihadi first gained the ascendancy as a revolt against the Western-style secularisation of Muslim society in the 19th century. The Mahdi mission to liberate Sudan, which succeeded in defeating several British armies, capturing Khartoum in 1885 and killing the storied British General Gordon—all in the name of jihad—represents a poignant turning point. Despite the British regaining control of Sudan in 1898, the Mahdi tradition of Puritanism and Islamic resistance to outside domination spread throughout the domain of Islam as a legitimate liberation theology. Despite this, until the 1950s and 1960s—with the exception of Saudi Arabia—there was not a single Muslim country ruled by fundamentalist Islam.

The subsequent destruction of secular nationalist movements in favour of friendly authoritarian governments, brought on by the anti-communist hysteria gripping the West, succeeded in tipping the balance in favour of the jihadis. And since September 11, the key Western actor—the US—seems in many cases to have shown more willingness than ever to add dictators to its list of allies.

While Saikal succeeds at enlightening the reader on the first two of his stated objectives, there is scarce good news on how to solve the problem of fractured relations. The author concludes that the nascent hostility to the West in the domain of Islam cannot be addressed by force alone, and that as long as the conditions in which anti-Western Islamic radicalism can flourish remain, jihadi, rather than itjihadi, causes will continue in their ascendancy.

Ostensibly, there have been some recent commitments from the West to address the policies that have encouraged radical Islam in the Middle East. Whether this represents a fundamental change in direction remains to be seen. One thing is certain: without the opportunity for addressing their real concerns through the democratic institutions idealised by itjihadi movements, Islamic civil society—and the relationship between Islam and the West—will continue to be dogged by radical Islam. 

Islam and the West: Conflict or Co-operation, Amin Saikal. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. ISBN 1 403 90358 1, RRP $35

Tim Martyn is the policy and research officer at the Ignatius Centre for Social Policy and Research, Jesuit Social Services.


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