FRED Halliday’s widely-read book, now published in paperback, comprises seven chapters covering the Middle East, the Iranian revolution, the Gulf War, human rights and the debate about orientalism. But its core is about modern Islamist movements, which Halliday analyses cautiously and pragmatically in chapter four.
Halliday argues Islamism is essentially reactive. ‘Where Islamist movements arise or where particular groups identify themselves primarily as ‘Muslim’, they are responding not to a timeless influence, but to the issues their societies and communities face today,’ he writes.
Because of this, Halliday argues the Western response should be measured and targeted at the underlying issues. He says the main stimulus to Islamic radicalism is economic issues and calls for the West to frame ‘a longterm policy of economic integration with (Muslim) countries designed to assist them on the path to development.’ Muslim communities in Western societies should be treated equally and helped economically. But the Western response to Islamic dictatorships should also be tough. ‘Policies that deny the equality of men and women, of Muslims and non-Muslims, which legally suppress the rights of the individuals are not matters to which Western Europe, whatever its own failings can remain indifferent,’ he writes. Halliday says there should be greater awareness of prejudice against Muslim immigrants and Islamic countries. ‘However, such a policy must not entail the indulgence of Islamist movements themselves,’ he cautions.
Halliday’s book is interesting, if at times a little academic, and the section on Iran is particularly good. But issue can be taken with some of its arguments. The first is the handling of religion. Halliday never tries to explain why people are Muslim, or, for that matter, believe in God in the first place. This is a big omission. Belief or the need to believe has a huge influence on human behaviour, motivating hundreds of millions of people every day to fulfil the obligations of their faith. Halliday deals with this issue by ignoring it.
Halliday rejects the idea of Islam as monolithic arguing there are many interpretations of the Koran and sharia. Yet, influential Islamic religious leaders agree about most of the basic elements of their faith. Differences are mainly about matters of detail. For the moment, conservative interpretations of the Koran’s social message dominate. And Islam forms a much more coherent body of practice than Christianity does or communism ever did.
Halliday plays down Islam’s aggressive qualities. In the sense that Islam does not represent a military challenge he is right. But in a much more important sense he is wrong. Like Christianity, Islam is a proselytising religion made for all humanity, not just part of it. Every diligent Muslim dreams of a time when the whole world will accept the sharia. Islam by its very nature is combative, at least intellectually.
Halliday argues that human rights and Islam may conflict, but they can be reconciled. I think he is mistaken. Islam is a system of human obligations that starts with an individual’s duties to God. It can be argued that Islam, like most religions, puts these obligations above everything else, even property rights.
Halliday rightly says Islamic movements are a response to Western involvement in the Middle East and to the policies of the modernising, usually unrepresentative, state. But they are also a positive manifestation of Muslim societies’ essential character. This makes them difficult to understand. They are doing three things at the same time.
The real confrontation is not at the level of the state. If it was, the West would have nothing to worry about. The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of Muslim Middle East countries is smaller than California’s. One US aircraft carrier in the Gulf possesses more firepower than most Middle East armies. The real conflict is about what is going on in people’s heads. This is a battle the Islamists have already won. Inexorably, this ideological victory will be expressed in Muslim countries in many different ways in the decades ahead.
If this thesis is right, the correct Western policy is not constructive engagement, but sensitive disengagement and for Western governments and multinational institutions in particular to abandon the counter-productive game of trying to manage in detail the future of the Middle East. There is nothing to fear in this. The people of the region deserve to be left to deal with the legacies of the past half century and the challenges of the future in their own way. Halliday’s argument could lead to the opposite conclusions.