EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Islamists and the Perpetuity of Catastrophe

Islamist governments in the Middle East have provided the perfect breeding ground for religious extremism. In the mean time, intoxicated by the prospect of a holy war, European Muslim youth are pouring into Syria in order to participate in the spectacle of terror. This new breed of fanaticism is mobile, highly networked and capable of orchestrating a global media campaign to intimidate large segments of populations.

Now in panic, many of the peaceful Muslim associations are trying to prove that Islam has nothing to do with this form of extreme-extremism. But it is a bit too late, and a bit too soft.

In my opinion, the core of the matter lays in the articulation of the problem itself. The West has been the scapegoat for lousy Middle Eastern politicians, and amateur bloggers who want to score some cheap public points. It is easier to accuse an all-powerful outsider rather than taking responsibility at home. When it comes to ISIS, high profile actors constantly repeat that the Islamic State is a U.S. or Israeli project.

Certainly there is much frustration with the West, which has exploited natural resources and supported authoritarian governments and dictatorships in order to maintain the status quo in the region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the progressive left was unsuccessful in producing any viable alternative to neoliberal capitalism, which effected the working classes the most. Within the European context of post-Fordist economies, social crises highlighted stigmatized communities. Excluded from modern institutions, and discriminated by many aspects of society, the young have found a retreat in rather pre-modern non-democratic solidarity spaces, such as mosques. For them, religion has provided social comfort and support for the remnants of post-industrial society. At the same time, it allowed for a radicalization of resistance to emerge. In other words, instead of finding a voice within the modern solidarity networks such as labor and student unions and democratic associations and political parties, sections of the European Muslim youth identify as Jihadist. It is no surprise that today thousands of Europeans are travelling to Syria to fight for their imagined Caliphate.

The problem however is that Islamism is an ideology with no vision for society other than a dark version of an imagined past, a simulacrum. Their strategy is to stigmatize society as a whole in order to gain and maintain power. Without a future project, Islamists use perpetual crises in society as a form of governance. “You are either with us, or against us”, this has been their motto. They move into the public domain and test the limits of others while systematically expanding.

In other words, Islamists promise a solidarity network of resistance: one without a future, or social goal that relies on a constant state of war. The only difference between soft Islamisms and more radical versions is, in fact, the way that war is articulated and the level of terror they can inflict.

Not all Islamists are the same, of course. The last decade was marked by the rise of a new version of Sunni Islamism, a neoliberal adaptation with colonialist tendencies, in large part manifest as pan-Islamism. During the past decade, Sunni Islamists gained incredible momentum by mobilizing a coalition of social forces, mostly composed of the powerful ruling class and the poor. Besides a highly pumped-up counter-West narrative, Islamists present neither a salvation from the Western capitalist system nor a solution to crises in Western democracies. On the contrary, Sunni Islamists (in countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE) use their power for complete integration to global finance capital, and the absolute exploitation of natural and human resources. This has resulted in social, cultural and ecological disasters and crises.

While they present themselves as opposition to the West, Islamists simply mirror the tools and techniques that they are opposed to. They are the true crusaders. They want power. They want to spread, dominate and exploit resources at all costs. Islamism is a reactionary modern ideology, in the sense that it can only find life in the cracks of failed modern social institutions. It can only work as a negating force.

Islamism is an invention, and similar to any other religious fundamentalists, has nothing to do with religious principles; in fact, it reimagines a form of Islam by destroying its previous social functions, the very core of religious practice, a virtuous relationship with the world. Beyond morality, Islamists want to destroy ethics, art and science, and of course the notion of free expression.

But how to fight Islamists? Can there be a salient alternative in the Middle East at this point? I believe that the first move should involve facing the grim reality. If those “peaceful Muslims” want to save Islam from the Islamists, they have to come up with genuine solutions and reimagine their society. While I am not sure they can reposition Islam as a religion for social justice, equality or even an initiator of democracy, I am certain that a progressive movement can articulate a new mode of solidarity against exploitation, while being inclusive, progressive and resisting.

In my next post, I will comparatively look at the Kurdish resistance in Turkey, and Hamas in Palestine, their goals and strategies as resistance movements. I will argue that while the Kurdish national movement could imagine a better future for its people, Hamas and its variations will never be able to provide a better prospect for the Palestinian people, only the permanence of the crises.

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Hakan Topal

  • Zachary Sunderman

    It is nice to have the promise of a sober, unprejudiced, non-reactionary, historically informed, and scientifically legitimate treatment of Islamism and its resistance movements. In a world where the debate seems to be reduced to the platitude of “Islam is a peaceful religion” vs. the idiocy of “all Muslims are violent barbarians,” it is crucial that those with the requisite knowledge step in to treat the problem of Islamism seriously and yet fairly. I look forward to reading more.

    • Hakan

      Thanks Zachary.

  • Amir Aziz

    We are not used to listen to such coherent analysis in the west..thanks

  • Danillo Alarcon

    I think you didn’t have much space here to go beyond on the issues involving Islamism, but I somehow disagree with the way you treat the issue and the “soft” Muslim associations. If we gotta make such a critic towards one religion specifically, we have to open it to all forms of human expression, and what is behind Islamism is precisely an agenda – even tough we don’t agree with it – that goes beyond the religion, that is pragmatic and that is necessarily linked to the way the world is nowadays organized (and Neoliberalism was not invented in the Muslim world) – good point on noticing that! (We have been seeing a rise in conservative rethoric here in Brazil that is pretty much linked to that). On that we agree. The world-wide spread of the neoliberal tenets have undermined many efforts towards a more “inclusive, progressive and resisting” form of expression. Anyway, good article. I’ll share it!

    • Hakan

      Hello Danillo,
      Thank you for your valuable comment. I specifically used the word Islamists as opposed to Muslims. Soft Islamists are, for instance, current governments in Turkey, UAE, Qatar as so on. I would clearly distinguish Islamist ideology from the practice of Islam, which is diverse/multiple. I am no way developing a critique of religion but rather a particular adaptation of authoritarian neoliberalism in Muslim counties. Islamist ideology is simply the starting point.

      • Danillo

        Hello Hakan, I got the difference between Islamists, Islamism and Muslims. What I meant is that Islamist ideology is a way to “practice” religion in the public space, since religions have clearly a voice inside politics and they are not going anywhere (we can get for instance the Brazilian and American cases). That’s exactly the point I most liked about your article: it goes beyond that – it is about as you’ve said “authoritian neoliberalism”.

  • I too look forward to reading more. One concern I have, though, is that we have to recognize several and competing “islamisms”. I’m sure the author is more than well aware of this, and there is only so much complexity you can get into without writing an entire book. But one of the key tangles of the middle east at least isn’t a matter of islamism v. “west” but inter-muslim violence wrapped up in various political guises. There are islamists who are not particularly jihadist (who seek a states based on islam, but do not want to kill innocents to achieve this), and there are jihadists who are not particularly islamists (people who want to kill innocents (“enemies”), but are tremendously inarticulate about state-building). So I’m not entirely happy with claims like “islamists want to destroy art, ethics, etc.”, but I certainly take your meaning and know to whom you are referring. Thanks for the informative work!

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