Since 9/11, like many people, I have spent some of my time trying to expand my knowledge of the goals, ideology, and history of political islamism. My starting point was, I am somewhat ashamed to say, orientalist in the aptly pejorative Saidian sense. I think I first heard about the Muslim Brotherhood when, at 16, a close schoolfriend of mine told me that his political ideal was embodied in that organisation, and that he hoped to join it one day. As he was a very religious fellow, and as my only other image of islamist politics was of the eccentric Shi’ite version which involved fanatical chanting crowds, I dismissed islamism as – not even the socialism – by the politics of fools.
I suspect that’s this is the visceral response of many on both the British left and right;
Some on the left have gone a step further, and convinced themselves that the essential character of islamism is that it is a form of resistance movement or liberation struggle. Others would go beyond that and recognise that it is, in essence, a personal liberation struggle: a resistance to modernism, along with the political values which that outlook engenders, and a turn to piety and political action.
The two conflicting analyses of political islam outlined above have developed differently. The first has proclaimed its “solidarity with oppressed people everywhere” and formed an alliance with moderate, or at least restrained, qutbists. I regard this alliance as an error, one which stems from a clouded understanding of the nature of their allies. The second has, essentially, done nothing. The failure – in general – to engage with islamism, conceptually, except at the level of islamophobic caricature, is a dangerous one. Ignoring islamism is scarcely better than allying with it.
Raoul very kindly directed me to the International Crisis Group’s Saudi Arabian Backgrounder: “Who are the Islamists?”. It doesn’t provide you with the sort of background to the birth of islamism as a political doctrine that you’ll find in some books which I will recommend to you in a later post. A reasonably good introduction to the subject can be found in Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism.
The political themes of islamism aren’t foreign. Nor are they fascism except in the Rickian sense. They are entirely comprehensible and familiar, and should be as well understood as the tenets of socialism or the principles of liberal democracy, by all people who wish to be informed.
Also, if you’re the sort of person who likes knowing things like the real reason the RCP and the RCG split, you’ll enjoy the ICG Backgrounder’s trainspotterish quality.
I should thank Raoul and Arthur Dent for starting this discussion.