Reasons behind sympathy of some western academia circles with islamism (1)

D.Wael Saleh

In recent years, many serious Arab researchers intertwined with Western civilization have noticed a measure of sympathy in a balanced section of Western research and academic circles with the phenomenon of political Islam, including academics belonging to what is known as the new left, which emerged clearly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, this attention did not receive a serious critical discussion handling these thoughts, which may reflect in part the insufficient knowledge about the Arab – Islamic cultural context and in another part the impact of the early migration of academics and Islamic activists – most of them from the Brotherhood – to Europe and North America, and their intellectual and political activity there in a promotional, systemized and accumulative way.

In this study that will be published on several parts, d. Wael Saleh will directly address the ten hypotheses on which some Western academic circles build their positive view about the political Islam trend despite the increasing risks of violence and terrorism phenomena during the last forty years that accompanied their emergence and which exploded as a global phenomenon in the wake of the war known as “jihad” against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

Islamism is a political change movement that focuses on Islam

Islamism usually refers to political change movements that focus on Islam as a “ruling political system,” whereby the members of these movements and groups consider the political power the ultimate goal that outperforms other spiritualties and religion relevant rituals. Undoubtedly, the most surprising issue the researcher specialized in the study of Islamism is how much sympathy this current enjoys, especially the Brotherhood, among significant proportion of Western academic circles.

‎First of all, the current approaches in Western academies show us that with regard to the Brotherhood, which is the mother group of Islamism and the version that some Western researchers believe is more moderate compared to other more violent Islamist groups.

However, there is no consensus on this assessment among Western researchers and also there is no consensus on the ability of this movement to adapt to the social and political modernity.-

While some researchers believe that Islamism, topped by the Brotherhood, is an anti-modern movement and extremist in nature [1]]

‎Others describe it as a movement that is usually peaceful and nonviolent, and that it is likely to accept modernity, even if with entries that may sound different [2.]

– While a third category of researchers indicates that the two currents, the modernist and the anti-modernist, exist and are in conflict within the Brotherhood organization and that it is too early to know who will prevail in the end [3].

– A fourth class of Western researchers, often working in the field of sociology, believes that Islamists are on their way to modernization, despite the many challenges that await them before they can be definitively considered modern democrats [4]

This study deals with the ten hypostases on which this trend established their sympathetic view to Islamism. This sympathy is based for decades on basically wrong ideas about the Brotherhood, but it has become a postulate in the collective subconscious of these academics, and these hypostases are as follows: –

‎ 1-The Islamist movement is the Islamic form of liberation theology

‎2- The Islamist current is a current with a postmodern aspect.

‎3- Separating religion from the state is a Christian peculiarity, while blending them together in the way the Brotherhood advocates is part of the identity and peculiarity of Islam .

‎4- A group that asserts that the Brotherhood is the representative of Islam or is the predominant trend in Islam.

5- The Brotherhood is a group that can conform to the basic values ​​of citizenship and coexistence.

6- The violence practiced by Islamism is not due to its political ideology but only for economic, political and social reasons

‎ 7- Islamism is a process that will inevitably lead to the development of the Brotherhood into a post-Islamist current

‎8-  Some of these Western researchers claim that the Brotherhood could follow the same path taken by Christian democratic parties in Europe.

‎9-Others believe that the Brotherhood is a legitimate response to the attempt to dispossess the civilizational-cultural identity by the former Western colonialist.

‎10-Others consider that restriction to analyzing the foundational texts to understand the practices and imaginations of Islamists is a kind of shorthand for their truth.

‎ These ten assumptions inherited – from my point of view – in a significant proportion of Western academies are the subject of this research’s articles that will deal with these assumptions with analysis and discussion from the perspective of the actual political and social practice of these groups on the socio-political ground, with which I will begin an article discussing the first assumption of some Western academics which is: Are Islamic movements are the Islamic form of Christian liberation theology that Latin America has known? Or is out of a hasty looking remotely? Or is it a kind of Western groundless rule to judge what we do not know by analogy with what we know, without sufficient pause in the face of the peculiarity of each political movement that differs from one cultural area to another in our world?

Is Islamism a theology of liberation or of charging with unbelief?

Some researchers, such as “Hamid Dabashi,” a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York City, USA, according to his book “The Theology of Islamic Liberation”, and the French researcher “Sylvie Taussig” [1] who is a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France according to her article titled  “From Political Islam to the theology of Islamic liberation” believe that Islamism can be the Islamic form of the theology of liberation. For them, Islam has remained an Islamist tendency for two hundred years because the geopolitical reality of the world has forced Islamists to embody the reaction of the Arab and Islamic world towards the Western hegemony. Thus, political Islam, in its various forms and experiences, is Islam in its modern version that fought against colonialism and which is now fighting against neo-colonialism in the guise of economic imperialism and wars in the region. Consequently, Islam in its Islamic form – for the religious people and even a section of non-religious Muslims – became a new form of resistance to the Western imperialism in its political, economic, cultural and military forms, stemming from an idea to oppose the Western project with the knowledge of Islamic culture.

And to respond to this proposition, which is also adopted by some people I met in Western academies, I usually use “Asif Bayat” [2], who is a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Illinois, USA as a reference.  He explained that although Islamism and liberation theology are often in Latin America use the religious language in their political discourse, they are completely different on the ground. While Islamists aim at “Islamizing” their society, its politics and its economy, liberation theologians have never been among their goals to “Christianize” their societies, but rather to change society in favor of the poor.

While we find that the main goal of Islamism is to establish an Islamic system – in a specific sense – a system in which the state is not seen as a public institution that monitors the interests of people and organizes public affairs, but as a basis and pillar of Islamism and political Islam movements. From their point of view, there is no legitimate state without implementation of Sharia and there is no Islam without a state primarily concerned with the implementation of Islam and its Sharia, while liberation theology considers “liberating the poor” the starting point for the foundation for all its political goals.

It is also noted that the general right-wing of the Islamic movements and the submission of Islamists and their acceptance of the mechanisms of the capitalist market do not correspond to the socialist development of the theology of Latin American liberation. In contrast to Islamism, liberation theology was not merely an expression of cultural identity that is substantially reduced to its religious perspective compared to other. Rather, it was a development theology that focused its attention on the social aspect of the poor and on the political emancipation of peoples.[4]

Meanwhile, It is noted that Islamism was born on special goals that make it more comparable to Protestant fundamentalism than to liberation theology. Islamism is fundamentalism that shares a certain number of features with any religious extremism, such as the Southern Baptist Conference in the United States of America and the “New Birth” movement as well as Hindu fundamentalism, for example. According to Michelin Melo [3], there are basic features of religious extremism that fundamentalist movements share despite the great diversity of expression forms and different social and cultural roots of each one of them. These features can be summarized as follows:

  • The generally aggressive discourse that is based on conspiracy theories towards modernity.
  • Returning to religion in all aspects of life as the only viable way to overcome the ills associated with modernity.
  • Hedging over an identity issue.
  • The ability to mobilize the populace to establish and impose an alternative political and social system.

To refute the idea of ​​considering Islamism as the Islamic form of liberation theology, I also use as a reference the book ‘Religion and Revolution between Christian Liberation Theology and the Contemporary Islamic Left’ published in 2016 by the Egyptian researcher, Dr. Hamdi Abdel Hamid Al-Sharif, a teacher of political philosophy at the College of Arts, Sohag University. According to Al-Sharif, the current Liberation theology in Latin America is based on extracting progressive social dimensions in Christianity, and it moves away from controversial dogmatic issues and is characterized by two basic features: the first is that it does not charge the authors of different interpretations and other Christian sects with disbelief, while the second is that it did not thirstily seek power with like Islamism. Accordingly, Islamism cannot lead to the formulation of a revolutionary social Islam model, for the following reasons:

-Monopolization of speaking in the name of religion, as Islamism presents one interpretation of religion and Islamic history as being one of the proven facts, and it seeks to impose this interpretation – exclusively – by force on society. .

-The predominance of the interest of the organization and the group over the general interest of society, regardless the opinions of others.

-Relying on the Machiavellian approach (the end justifies the means) to justify any approach, behavior, or decision taken by the group in its favor.

-The prevalence of the mobilizing populist thought and the mobilization of the masses over the epistemic thought based on the relativity of the truth.

– dominance of ideological and fundamentalist aspects over the social ones, and the restriction of discussion – if any – to the old controversial doctrinal issues, which makes society a hostage to the jurisprudence of old and the middle ages theories, and thus breaking away from the movement of science, philosophy and human progress.

-The prevalence of the principle of charging others with disbelief in order to justify violence in its political approach to reach power, based on the belief that it is the surviving group and guardian of religion.

These important comparisons and clear radical differences were not taken into account by some Western researchers when comparing Islamist movements to movements of liberation theology, which leads us to conclude that the particular intellectual nature of the political development of Islamist movements has in fact produced a reactionary theology for disbelief accusation rather than a progressive trend for liberation..

Is Islamism a trend that belongs to postmodernity?

First of all, we have to define modernism and postmodernism in brief, as they are complicated concepts especially for non-specialists. The purpose here is only to simplify and to better understand the article.

What is modernism?

Modernism is a concept to describe the common characteristics of the most advanced countries in terms of technological, political, economic and social development. [1] Modernity is linked to the historical era that began in the West with the European Renaissance, and among its most prominent features was the realization of major transformations that formed a reversal of the characteristics of traditional society in the Middle Ages, as civil life appeared with it, and capitalism was born, as well as individual values, public freedoms equal rights , democracy, and most importantly the emergence of rational thought for the first time in human history with this clarity. Max Weber considers that the rationalization of all human activities is the basic characteristic of modernity, “as all areas of social activity have rid themselves of the burden of traditional thought to pursue later their own rational logic” [2].


At a later stage in European development, criticisms of modernity (and of rationality, of course) began to emerge and new trends called “postmodernism” also appeared, forming an intellectual current based on a criticism of the universal concepts of modernity (which assumes the existence of one person in all societies, who can be understood in one way. And that there is one rational path of development that is taken by European civilization, and therefore all societies and civilizations must follow it regardless their specificity), and like one morality, one truth, human nature and one mind. These concepts began to be replaced by other “postmodern” ones, such as focusing on the existence of distinctive values ​​and personal characteristics, whether for humans or for different societies and epistemological and moral relativism and cultural pluralism.

How far Islamism accepts postmodern pluralism?

How can a “postmodernist” researcher and academic who denies the existence of a consistent rational system or one true truth and believes in the plurality of opinions and their relativism, sympathize with Islamism or the ideology of political Islam movements from the Brotherhood to ISIS? How can he think that this thought includes postmodern aspects? How can a “postmodernist” researcher and academic professor, who uses in research methods such as discourse analysis and dismantling the phenomena and texts – including religious texts – and the possibility of double reading, sympathize and defend Islamism, with its intellectual isolation and the unilateral of interpretation of the religious texts and the social phenomenon?

This was the question that was over my head for a long time, as I noticed that some “postmodern” Western scholars think that since Islamists criticize modernity and its concepts of the central role of the state and one comprehensive national identity, they can be considered a current with a postmodern perspective and that there is a potential ground to work together.

In order to refute the notion that Islamism is a current with a postmodern perspective, which is also adopted by some of people I met in the Western academies, it is important to note first that postmodernism is a reaction from within modernity, while political Islam is a reaction from outside basically. Rather, the ideology of political Islam groups rejects modernity and calls for reversing it, not overcoming it, as the proponents of postmodernism did.

Secondly, the Algerian professor of political philosophy “Ali Kaidi” [3] believes that a discourse based on the certainty with religious theocratic nature cannot contain a discourse that believes in the relativity and plurality of the truth, like postmodern discourse. Abd al-Rahim Lamchi agrees with this contradictory view of considering Islamism as a postmodern trend, explaining that Islamism seeks to liquidate the positive values ​​of modernity and not to correct some of its deficiencies.

Thirdly, by criticizing the negative societal and political consequences of modernity, postmodernists demand more individual freedom and independence from the authorities that embody the “rational” values ​​of modernity, a demand that contradicts what Islamists aspire to in their criticism of modernity. Islamists want much less individual freedom and independence than modernity offers.

Fourthly, the postmodernists view the Republican Jacobi secularism (as it is applied in France to the point of prohibiting citizens from showing their religious affiliation in public places) as an act against freedom of belief and conscience. The postmodernists neither aspire nor demand the complete eradication of the religious from the public sphere. As for Islamism, it is totally nourished by the merging of the religious and the political, with the aim of the total confiscation of public space and limiting it to themselves and not others.

Finally, postmodernism is an intellectual movement driven by philosophical values ​​and not by religious theocratic values ​​as is the case with political Islam. Claude Jeffrey believes that the discussion about postmodernism as an indicator of a crisis in modernity is specifically a Western and European problem. As for Islamists, they take from the postmodern critique of modernity a starting point to reject modernity as a whole and to develop feelings of hedging their own religious identity as being higher than the identities of others, not as an identity within many identities have a value for its followers. Most important is what this way of thinking generates in terms of cultural narcissism and fundamentalist tendency that seeks only to tickle the feelings of populist currents that justify the continuation of the antagonism with modernity, according to Muhammad Sabila and Muhammad al-Sayed Said.



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