Sunday, October 7, 2007

Islamic Political Radicalism

While everyone seems to have an opinion on radicals, Islamists, jihadis and violent radicals, there is a growing academic literature which one hopes will contribute to the debate and foster understanding.
Here is a review of one recent important collection.

Islamic Political Radicalism: A European Perspective

Tahir Abbas, ed.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 306 pages.

As jihadi ideology shifts from articulating a perpetual conflict against the ‘far enemy’ (read: the United States and its allies) and the ‘near enemy’ (read: the clients of the US) within the Middle East and the wider Muslim world to taking the conflict to the heart of the far enemy in North America and Western Europe, it is certainly time for academics to take stock of what has happened, how it has happened and why. The ‘radicalisation’ debate, as it is called, tries to ask the pertinent question of why some Muslim men, citizens of these ‘Western’ states feel disenchanted, disintegrated and alienated from their immediate communities enough to perpetrate gross acts of violence such as the bombings in Madrid in March 2004 and 7/7 in London. The challenge of such violent radicalism (and it is important to qualify it as such since radicalism traditionally has been a political virtue of the left demanding change) affects security policy as well as the integrity and dignity of Muslim communities. Tahir Abbas, Reader in Sociology at the University of Birmingham and a leading expert on the sociology of Muslim communities in Britain, has assembled a vibrant interdisciplinary circle of specialists to tackle the question of radicalism, comprising academics and activists, Muslims and non-Muslims. The collection brings together studies in political science, political sociology (the primary area of focus for the debate on radicalism), anthropology, psychology, criminology and related disciplines. The focal point of the studies is Britain, albeit within a European context and it might be of value for those studying Islamism in other Muslim minority contexts (particularly the United States) and even Muslim majority contexts as a base of comparison.

The title suggests a concern with the wide spectrum of Muslim radicalism from Islamism to jihadism. One need not be a constructivist to recognise the significance of contextualisation. Thus the studies examine not only internal issues within Muslim communities but also the role of government, Islamophobia (a reality that many have to live and which was succinctly defined in the famous Runnymede Trust report of 1997, even while it is coming under attack from the left in an ironic twist of events akin to the recent onslaught on the notion of multiculturalism), the media and global events. The structure is remarkably coherent: part one sets the scene with key definitions, part two examines the wider European context, part three which comprises the bulk of the volume focuses on Britain, and the final part brings together a number of short reflections of key Muslim political activists in Britain post-7/7. As such, it successfully bridges the requirements of an academically rigorous volume and the exigencies of informing policy debates. Apart from Abbas’s own introduction which is a brief but excellent summary of the concerns and contents of the volume, the other paper that caught the eye of this reviewer was Ismail Patel’s examination of what one means by political radicalism in the scale from ‘moderate’ Islamists to salafi jihadis. His simple equation of political radicalism as responses to foreign policy is too basic; anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism are strong motivations for the development of modern Islamisms. Advocating mono-causal explanations is problematic. Part one still seems somewhat unsatisfactory in that it assumes a widely held notion of what radicalism is. It also requires some disaggregation: there are clearly a number of overlapping but even mutually exclusive types of radical ideology present within Muslim communities and yet are objectified as belonging to a generic overarching rationale for violence that the media (and unfortunately many in the intelligence community) reify and simplify as ‘al-Qaeda’. The radicalisation debate often also strips young Muslim men of any agency and volition: surely people are not ‘radicalised’ but rather choose certain pathways given certain conditions, motivations, frustrations, opportunities and ideologies.

Part two moves to the European context. Silvestri’s survey of the role and perception of the EU is an important contribution (particularly in the context of Turkey’s bid for accession) as is Yemelianova’s study of former Soviet contexts. But what is lacking here is a study on France and Germany, the main sites of Muslim radicalism in Europe. Aziz’s piece on anti-semitism is critical for understanding a particular European impetus to an element of political radicalism but it does not directly address the question of anti-semitism among radical Muslims in Europe today; rather, it tries to engage in some normative analysis and textual interpretation. Mukhopadhyay’s chapter raises the key issue of identity and belonging but this is not followed up. It would also have been useful in this section to see some engagement with Amin Maalouf’s musings on identity given their ubiquity in sociological debates (despite the impression that one has of their articulating ill-digested theory and an almost vacuous nativist theory of radicalism).

Part three is the best contribution of the volume. Abdullah tackles the key grievance of Zionism. Marranci examines the centrality of the frustration in some communities at the lack of social justice, a central concern of Islamism. Hamid weighs into the debate on Hizb ut-Tahrir and argues that it is not the bogeyman that it is made out to be since its ideology remains constant before and after the rise in jihadism (although some recent defectors from HT might well disagree). Two chapters examine that quintessence of Muslim Britain in the imaginary of the media, Bradford, and focus on the ‘crisis’ of masculinity. Spalek considers whether exclusion is a primary issue in fostering and perpetuating grievance. The penultimate chapter in this part is theoretically the most astute and interesting. Awan locates radicalism in the context of transitional identity formation and disjuncture. The final part deals with policy implications and suggests that not only does violent radicalism need to be dissociated from legitimate political radicalism but that Islam itself needs to be extricated from the context of security policy in which it is merely a geopolitical threat and reality.

In the growing cacophony of voices on Islam, terrorism and politics (in which often Muslim communities ‘need’ to be spoken for), Islamic Political Radicalism is a refreshing change. It represents a genuinely interdisciplinary and communitarian attempt to analyse issues and suggests serious policy implications. Notwithstanding the lacunae and need for greater theoretical clarity mentioned, it is an outstanding contribution to the existing literature and will hopefully be read profitably by academic specialists and those in government concerned with the challenges of ‘political radicalism’.


Anonymous said...

Islamic Terrorism has a historic home and funding source, has that changed? See the video, 9/11 SYNDICATE:

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