By Rafael Castro
June 12, 2018
Islamism is one of the most astonishing
phenomena of the last 50 years. Whereas in the Western world and Asia, religion
has retreated from the public sphere, the Muslim world has witnessed an
ostentatious strengthening of religious sentiments. Images of the 1960s
featured Muslim urbanites wearing fashionable Western garb; yet nowadays,
hijabs dot the landscape of most cities from Casablanca to Jakarta.
Meanwhile, the Muslim university students
of the mid-20th century, who embraced socialist and communist ideals, have been
superseded by students with Islamist convictions. Ironically, many of the most
important Islamist leaders in the Muslim World, such as Sayyid Qutb (the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt), Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi (the National Islamic Front in
Sudan), Dr. Abbassi Madani (the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria), and Dr.
Mousa Abu Marzook (Hamas in the Palestinian territories) were trained in
Conventional explanations for this
phenomenon highlight the appeal of Islamism’s rejection of European colonialism
and Western imperialism. However, these explanations do not fully account for
the strengthening momentum of Islamist sentiments in Muslim societies. As
memories of colonialism recede and American military adventurism falters, it is
truly remarkable that nowadays even sectarian bloodbaths fail to deter millions
of Muslims from embracing an Islamist worldview.
The answer to this paradox is found in the
effects of modernization inside the Muslim world.
In the political sphere, modernization
brought universal suffrage and mass politics to traditional societies hitherto
ruled by colonial powers and local potentates. Mass politics empowered
movements that had a grassroots presence and access to regional networks. The
cornerstone of civil society in Muslim societies is the mosque. It is thus
natural that political movements associated with Islam would galvanize millions
of voters. This is even understandable given the endemic corruption and failure
of monarchic, secular nationalist and socialist regimes to improve living
standards throughout the Muslim world.
Islamist politics are viewed by many in the
Muslim world as the last chance to cope with the economic and psychological
challenges of modernity while remaining loyal to a distinct cultural and
Modernization has also narrowed the
cognitive dissonance between religious beliefs and religious practice in
Islamic lands. In traditional Muslim societies, religion always played an
important role. However it also incorporated many syncretistic and
superstitious elements that blunted the severity of Islamic jurisprudence. This
traditional Islam survived intact in Southeast Asia and West Africa until the
mid-20th century. What happened afterwards is one of the tragedies of
contemporary history. Petro-dollars funnelled into Islamist education and
outreach influenced the colourful texture of traditional Islam, often
supplanting it with an austere and militant ideology that has scarred the whole
of Asia and Africa.
It would nevertheless be naïve to believe
that foreign funding alone sufficed to sweep away centuries of tradition. A
more accurate statement would be that Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood
ideologies drove out local traditions because they are closer in letter and
spirit to the original Islam of 7th century Arabia. Many of the syncretistic
rites popular until two generations ago in Muslim societies became untenable
once modern communications exposed their animist and polytheistic origins.
Thus, Arabised Islam filled the void left by discredited religious
idiosyncrasies. Islamic puritanism did not touch only West Africa and Southeast
Asia, but North Africa and South Asia have also suffered.
One of the most startling developments of
this period is how Islamist student movements have conquered universities in
the Muslim world — particularly the faculties of medicine, information
technology, and engineering. Scientific disciplines are predicated upon logical
rigor and coherence. Likewise, the Islamist interpretation of religion is
predicated upon drawing the most logical and coherent connection between holy
Islamic texts and everyday spiritual and political practices. The result is
little tolerance among future engineers and doctors for the contradictions and
inconsistencies that characterized traditional Islamic piety.
The interplay of these factors suggests
that the meteoric rise of Islamism reflects dynamics that lie at the heart of
modernity: electoral politics, modern communication, and scientific education.
In the contemporary Muslim world, it is evident that these developments have
empowered the strictest elements of Islam. Islamism will thus not vanish even
if the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas are all defeated
militarily. On the contrary, it can be forecast that Islamism will gain
traction as old-school sheikhs are completely replaced by formally-trained
religious teachers, and as digital information sweeps away local customs.
One way to ensure that Islamism does not
engulf the whole Muslim world is for the international community to generously
support secular governance in countries with a predominantly Islamic
population. In addition, more generous development aid to the Muslim world
should favour the humanities and social science education. Successful models of
secularist rule with flourishing economies are urgently needed for the Muslim
world to wean itself from authoritarian temptations.
Likewise, a more tolerant and open
understanding of Islam might emerge if the Muslim world assimilates secular
philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Indeed, only prosperity and the
successful dissemination of secular culture can save the Muslim world from
Rafael Castro is a Yale- and Hebrew University-educated political analyst
based in Berlin. His pieces on Middle Eastern politics appear regularly in the