The Many Faces of Political Islam:Religion and Politics in the Muslim World

The Many Faces of Political Islam:Religion and Politics in the Muslim World

Mohammed Ayoob
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press , 2008

Chapter 8: The Many Faces of Political Islam Pages 160 to 164

International Factors and Political Islam

The various manifestations of political Islam do not operate in an environment insulated from broader international currents. A major international factor that has been discussed only tangentially so far possesses considerable relevance to the future of political Islam and needs to be analyzed in some detail in this concluding chapter. This variable is related to the international power structure, especially in terms of policies followed by the major powers toward issues of genuine concern for much of the Muslim world. It applies with particular force in the post-cold war era to the United States' unrivaled power and the policies that flow from it.

It goes without saying that the current distribution of political, economic, and military power in the international system is heavily tilted against Muslim countries. This is in large part the result of the colonial process and the policies followed by the dominant powers in the postcolonial period to solidify and extend the strategic and economic gains they had achieved during the colonial era. Such policies of direct and indirect domination have left an indelible mark on the psyche of most politically conscious Muslims. This is a mind-set that Islamists are in a good position to exploit, for a number of reasons.

The first such reason is that they have a simple and apparently coherent explanation for Muslim political decline. As stated earlier in this book, Islamists argue that Muslim societies declined the more they moved away from the model of the golden age that Islamists depict in their romanticized version of the early years of Islam. They argue further that if Muslims are able to re-create a true and pure Islamic society, they will be able to reattain their former glory or at least compete with the West on a basis of equality. Their slogan "Islam is the solution" emanates from this interlocking set of arguments. In theory, their prescription is simple, although it undergoes significant mutation when they attempt to put it into practice in individual countries. As stated earlier in this book, this Islamist prescription has found great resonance in widely diverse Muslim societies because the secular, nationalist project in the immediate postcolonial decades was unable to provide dignity, freedom, power, or wealth to most Muslims around the world.

American Policies and Political Islam

The major powers and their policies are perceived by most Muslims as being largely responsible for keeping Muslim societies in the sad plight they are in today. This applies with particular force to American policies in the current era. In much of the Muslim world, American policies are seen as akin to those followed by the erstwhile European colonial powers, aimed principally at preventing any challenge to Western domination arising from Muslim countries.

This argument finds great resonance among politically conscious Muslims because it does correspond to reality in significant measure. The policies of erstwhile colonial powers in the 1950S and the 1960s, especially in the Middle East, bore adequate testimony to the fact that they were committed to maintaining their control over strategically important parts of the Muslim world despite the formal end of colonialism. Such policies ranged from the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 after he had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951 to the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt following President Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956.

The bloody war of independence forced on the Algerians by France's intransigent insistence that Algeria was a part of France and, therefore, inalienable territory augmented the feeling among many Muslims that European powers were bent on the subjugation of Muslim lands even after colonialism had become discredited both as ideology and as a form of governance. Since the major European colonial powers were important allies of the United States and since the latter collaborated with Britain in the covert operation in Iran in 1953 and turned a blind eyed toward French brutality in Algeria, the opprobrium heaped on the former colonial powers rubbed off on America as well.

The hostile Muslim perception of the United States was augmented by the cold war strategies adopted by Washington and by its proclivity to step into the European powers' imperial shoes in the Middle East, ostensibly to contain Soviet expansion. Although American opposition to Arab nationalism and to the emergence of independent centers of power in the Middle East was the result largely of cold war considerations, it confirmed for most Muslims that American policy was basically a continuation of the colonial policies of the previous era. America's current military occupation of Iraq has further convinced most Muslims that the United States is working within the same imperialist paradigm used in the Middle East by the British and the French. [6] Washington's unqualified support for Israel is also seen as a part of America's strategy to create and strengthen proxies so as to better control the resource-rich Middle East. [7]

Furthermore, the support that Western powers - above all, the United States - have extended to authoritarian and repressive regimes in the Muslim world during the cold war and after has alienated the Muslim masses from the West in general and from the United States in particular. Support extended to the shah of Iran forms the quintessential example of this policy but is not the only one of its kind. Propping up regimes like those of Presidents Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt and Kings Hussein and Abdullah in Jordan and collaborating with Saddam Hussein of Iraq to check the growing influence of revolutionary Iran in the 1980s are part of anti-American folklore not only in the Middle East but also throughout the Muslim world. All this augments the image Muslim populations have of America as a global power bent on supporting repressive client regimes to further its own strategic and economic objectives in Muslim countries.

America, Israel, and Political Islam

Above all, it is the unstinted and unquestioning American support to Israel, especially to its policy of continued occupation of and settlement within Palestinian lands conquered in 1967, that demonstrates to politically conscious Muslims that the United States is committed to treating Muslims and Arabs not only with insensitivity but with utter contempt. The American policy of vetoing or threatening to veto UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli policies provides to most Muslims proof beyond doubt of American-Israeli collusion to dominate the Muslim Middle East politically and militarily.

America's insistence that Middle Eastern countries from Iraq to Iran to Lebanon abide by UN Security Council resolutions while it supports repeated Israeli defiance of a much larger number of resolutions passed by the same body further strengthens the feeling in the Muslim world that the United States unabashedly uses double standards when it comes to Israeli defiance of international opinion. [8] American insistence that Iran give up its nuclear option while America condones - indeed, connives at - the Israeli possession of nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems augments the double standards argument as far as most Muslims are concerned.

Many Muslims perceive America's discriminatory policies aimed against Muslim countries as violation of their dignity, a variable often overlooked by most Western political analysts of the Muslim world. For most Muslims, the antipathy toward America is not based on opposition to American values of democracy and freedom, as some superficial analysts pronounce. It is fundamentally grounded in their opposition to particular aspects of American foreign policy, especially the perception of the blatant use of double standards by Washington in relation to the Muslim Middle East. [9]

Several of the Muslims' concerns relating to dignity come together on the issue of Palestine. Palestine has therefore become the Muslim grievance par excellence. Many politically conscious Muslims believe that all Muslims are potential "Palestinians," the ultimate outsiders, who can be dispossessed and dishonored with impunity and the justice of whose cause will always be dismissed by the West - particularly by the United States - as irrational fanaticism. The American occupation of Iraq has further fueled Muslim anger against the United States, since it is seen as a ploy to fragment a major Arab and Muslim country, to control the oil wealth of the Middle East, and to consolidate Israeli hegemony in the region. [1O]

The American endorsement of the Israeli policy of inflicting highly disproportionate damage on Lebanon in July and August 2006 in retaliation for Hizbullah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers has added to the long list of Muslim grievances against the United States and further fueled Muslim anger against Washington and its allies. As a leading scholar of Islamist politics pointed out, "Far from weakening Hezbollah, Israel's military onslaught increased the group's popularity throughout the Muslim world." Furthermore, it has "made Hezbollah into the new vanguard of armed resistance to Israel and America in the eyes of tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims." [11] America's support for Israel has worked to the advantage of Islamist political formations, Sunni and Shia alike, especially in the Middle East. The increasing support for Hamas in occupied Palestine and for Hizbullah in Lebanon is in substantial part a reaction to perceived injustices inflicted on Muslim populations because of America's collusion with Israel, including the resupply of arms to Israel during its invasion of Lebanon in 2006. In the Muslim world, Islamism thrives to a considerable degree on anti-Americanism.

[6] This point has been eloquently argued in Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon, 2004).

[7] Shibley Telhami, The Stakes: America in the Middle East IBoulder: Westview, 2002), chap. 4.

[8] Two leading American scholars of international relations, both from the realist school, have cogently made the argument that America's unquestioning support for Israel, in substantial part the result of strength of the Israeli lobby in Washington, is highly counterproductive from the perspective of the American national interest in the Middle East. See John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby," London Review of Books 28 no. 6 (2006): 3-12. For an expanded version of the article that provides meticulous documentation, see John Mersheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," Middle East Policy 13, no 3 (2006): 29-87.

[9] For a cogent and detailed argument on these lines, see Fawaz Gerges, America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[10] Mohammed Ayoob, "The War Against Iraq: Normative and Strategic Implications," in The Wars on Terrorism and Iraq: Human Rihgts, Unilateralism, and U.S. Foreign Policy, ed. Thomas G. Weiss, Margaret Crahan, and John Goering (New York: Routledge, 2004), 27-39

[11] Fawaz Gerges, "Gauging Terror - Part I, Lebanon," YaleGlobal Onine, August 15, 2006,

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