Islamism in Europe

My article on Islamism in Europe has now been published by Europa. You can read the original here.

Four years after the Madrid bombings, there is still no consensus on how to understand Political Islam in Europe.

The Rotterdam Imam El Moumni, whose preaching so shocked Pim Fortuyn, uses a language that would not seem out of place in an American Evangelist Church to make a moral appeal which would equally seem at home on the Christian right: homosexuals are sick and in need of treatment. Both Church and Mosque alike feel that they are among a small number of true believers in Godless societies.

Yet, despite this seeming proximity, the same Imam claims that it is these Churches that are part of the Crusader’s imperialist project, in league with the same society of Godless heathens the church wishes to condemn – equally, Christian Evangelists like Bill Keller group Muslims and the multicultural (secular) left together when he diagnoses society’s ills.

If there seem to be strange bedfellows today, it because we still do not have any real idea of what the bed is, and correspondingly who is lying in it; over four years after the Madrid bombings, there is still no consensus about how to understand Islamism in Europe.

This uncertainty is made manifest by the terms we use: political Islamism, political Islam, Islamo-fascism, or just plain old Islam. Each term refers to a different object, and yet we tend to lump them together, or hope that our definitions will somehow be adequate to the situation in which we find ourselves.

To try and avoid this slipperiness, let me state what I am talking about when I talk of Islamism, and why I am interested in it. By Islamism, I am naming groups that make political interventions in Europe, which are sometimes – but by no means exclusively – violent, and use Islam to justify their activity. I don’t think we yet have any understanding for the situation in which we find ourselves – and thus my interest.

Opposites reconciled

In the aftermath of Madrid, and the regime-change that was seemingly affected, a popular line of argument – present whenever there is a terrorist attacks – links these attacks to the situation in the Middle East. In such an argument, violent attacks in Europe become the extension of a strange foreign policy acted out in the name of those oppressed by American (and often by extension, European) imperialism. It was, indeed, the explicit motivation of the Madrid bombers to protest Spanish troop deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But while such an explanation at least takes seriously what those involved say about their own motivations, it distorts as much as it clarifies. Violent Islamism in Europe becomes merely the adjunct of a foreign policy for an ummah without a standing army. Such an approach struggles to explain the form of the action (a sudden outburst of violence, unmoored from any non-violent political struggle), and the debates around the Islamic legal status of such actions that accompany them.

The position of the left has tended to be, even while repudiating the violent basis of their actions, that we should take the words of Islamists seriously, and that thus they are worthy partners in debate. The position of the right wants to trace the basis of their actions in terms of geopolitics, but through an understanding of Islam. Time and time again, commentators such as Daniel Pipes will ask “what does Islam say about x?”, as if we could find some sort of formula that would allow us to explain why Islam necessarily leads to such actions. This position is of course typified by the clash of civilisations hypothesis, which sees each culture as a self-contained entity, and, in the case of ‘Islam’(and the argument starts to collapse at precisely the point religion and culture are made equivalent), one on a collision course with the west.

Such an approach makes a fundamental error: it assumes a religion says any one thing, and that, indeed, when someone claims to be acting with a religious motivation, that all the relevant causal factors are indeed religious. Islam doesn’t say any one thing: all the current debates about what type of obligation jihad is should be enough to signify this.

Both these positions, while seemingly opposed, are espoused simultaneously by one group: the Islamists themselves. They claim to be acting in terms of Islam, against the crusaders.

One approach to understanding European Islamism would be to take these claims seriously; to share a vision of the world in which the dar al-Islam (land of Islam) is fragmented by migration, globalisation and military interventions, and in which actions in Europe act to support a deterritoralised Islam.

According to Olivier Roy, one of the most prominent analysts of Islam, what such an approach would miss is the specifically European aspect of Islamism. Instead of trying to explain Islamist violence in terms of imperialism or Islamic theology, Roy places Islamist violence squarely in terms of European history. Our history.

And if, Roy claims, we look to European history, what we will see is that:

“The far left in Europe today has abandoned zones of social exclusion. This is a fact. We have good reason to rejoice in the disappearance of a violent and radical far left, but it did have a function, which was to contain and hold in check a certain revolt, often also based on the generation gap. But this is over: a 30-year old, in France, who would have joined the proletarian left, the Maoists or Action Directe, who, in Italy, would have joined the Brigate Rosse, who, in Germany, would have joined the Rote Armee Fraktion, this young person no longer has the opportunity to join left-wing movements, and if he or she wants to fight the system, and use violence, he or she has only one role model: and that is bin Laden, or the local Islamist networks, or his or her friend.”[1] (online here)

The inheritance of failure

There is much to suggest such a viewpoint has some merit.

We are in Egypt. It is 1952. Following the coup d’état that brings Nasser to power, Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the last hundred years, is made the “tribune of the revolution”. Despite Nasser’s socialist leanings, over the next six years Qutb will make a series of radio broadcasts in which he sets out a vision of the revolution as the first in a series that will lead to the unity of all the Muslim nations.

This co-existence between the Muslim Brotherhood, of whom Qutb was an influential member, and Nasser’s regime soon soured, and a few years later Qutb would be rotting in jail writing Milestones and In the Shade of the Quran – two of his most influential books – for “the Vanguard, which I consider a waiting reality ready to be materialised.”

Nevertheless, this separation – which was soon followed by the collapse of socialism and the rise of Islamism – should not obscure the links between Islamism and socialism as political ideologies. Theoretically, both Qutb and Mawdudi – the influential Pakistani thinker – took the notion of the vanguard from Marxist language.

The notion proves so popular because the political situations are structurally similar. If the vanguard for Lenin is the party – that force that will ensure the movement from an existent political world in which the proletariat do not recognise the situation of oppression in which they find themselves – then, for Mawdudi and Qutb, the vanguard is used to ensure the movement between a world in which politics and religion are completely separated, and the world to come, where religious virtue and political power will be inseparable.

Both movements fail. Ultimately for Olivier Roy, “the existence of an Islamic political society is a necessary condition for the believer to achieve total virtue, but on the other hand such a society functions only through the virtue of the members, beginning with its leaders.” In the rare cases where Islamists did take power, then the demands of state power, coupled with a political theory that did not explain how virtue could be institutionalised (how can one ensure virtue?), meant Islamists restricted their efforts to the imposition of social rules, and society was not genuinely transformed.

Political Islamism failed, and what we see today in Europe, according to Olivier Roy, is structurally different. Among the videotapes and internet articles of those who argue for violent attacks on Europe, there is no thought, unlike for Sayyid Qutb, of taking state power. There is instead an insistence on the duty to perform individual actions, without thought for the practical political consequences. It is most of all this emphasis that means trying to understand Islamism in Middle Eastern terms is flawed.

The links that Roy sees between the radical left and Islamism go past ideology. There is also a similarity of situation: both movements emerge after a failed attempt to ensure passage to a virtuous state (the GIA in Algeria, Communism in Russia), both emphasize individual actions, both act in an international space constituted by a deterritorialised community, and, whether this community is the ummah or the global proletariat, the space is conveyed, paradigmatically, by the media.

There are problems with Olivier Roy’s account, however, and these problems tell us a lot, not simply about Islamism, but about the difficulty of understanding politics today.

Roy’s argument, as expressed in the paragraph above, is narrowly functionalist: it assumes that there is a need for revolt in society, and that now merely the names have changed.

As an account of the far left, this account fails. The Rote Armee Fraktion was largely composed of the alienated bourgeois, and did not ever enter zones of social exclusion in order to abandon them. More importantly, the comparison misses the differing ways people understand the violence that they use.

Why Islamism? The question is almost nonsensical to the framework Olivier Roy creates: what he sees is history repeated. But as the recent arrests in France of a group of far-left radicals show, there are other options for the discontented today: nothing about assuming a need for rebellion tells us why the recent arrests appear so marginal in comparison to the phenomenon of Islamism.

The reasons people give for things are not merely tools – useful justifications for actions they would have carried out regardless – they are scaffolding with which we build our world.

The great advantage of Roy’s book Globalized Islam, is that it puts these tools in light of two perspectives without which they are unintelligible: that these tools are those of a population in Europe who are unrooted, and that such tools cannot be put in terms of taking state power, nor in terms of negotiating with states.

Yet if we look to the tools that are used, the personal videos made, the constant invocations of duty, the sudden appearance of violence outside of formal political parties, then it is clear we cannot understand them in terms of politics. If we can understand them at all, then it would seem to be an ethical duty, something one takes upon oneself as an individual, outside of any political or religious structure. In a space outside of politics, we are left with a particularly deadly form of ethics.

[1] Olivier Roy. 2006: Islam in Europe: Clash of Religions or convergence of religiosities? In Krzysztof Michalski (ed.) Conditions of European Solidarity, Vol. II: Religion in the New Europe. Available Online here.