Why the Islamic alternative is an abiding challenge to the West

07 August 2004
The vitality of Islam in the Middle East continues to bamboozle Western leaders and intellectuals. But there was a time when the world thought it knew what was likely to happen in the Middle East.Thirty years ago, when I first started seriously to study the Arab and Islamic world, the conventional wisdom was that secularism would triumph there as it had done in the West. Communism and nationalism were then believed to be much more potent than a supposedly declining religious movement.

There was a shift of thinking after the Iranian government was toppled in a revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini that reached a climax on 11 February 1979. Islam attracted fresh attention but many believed religion was being manipulated by Iranian communists and secular anti-regime forces.

Nevertheless, a new consensus emerged that argued Islam was going through a period of revival but could be driven back into the shadows by force. The end of the 1980-88 Gulf war as an effective draw and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were seen to be evidence of this trend.

The belief that political Islam was a fad was undermined by the emergence of a popular Islamist movement in Algeria in the late 1980s and similar trends throughout the Muslim world.

So, by the end of the 1990s, a third consensus developed which conceded that Islam was the most dynamic political factor in the Middle East and that it was here to stay. Its robust nature has become more evident since 11 September 2001. America has declared war against every Islamist movement on earth. None, including the Taleban of Afghanistan, have been comprehensively defeated. The mullahs of Iran have this year strengthened their grip on power. Elections in Iraq early next year, if they go ahead, are likely to produce a government with a strong Islamic complexion. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are the most dynamic elements of the Palestinian resistance in the Occupied Territories. This pattern is repeated in every Muslim country practically without exception.

The prevailing view is that political Islam can no longer be ignored or repressed. The new Western policy is to win over the people of Islamic countries by encouraging democracy, free expression and free markets. Conventional politicians in the Western image will develop and religious leaders will retire to the mosque.

The third consensus, however, is as wrong as the two it has displaced. It fails to recognise that Islamic thinking is coherent and genuinely appealing in Muslim countries. Western political thought argues that society is made up of individuals motivated by utilitarianism, or the pursuit of happiness. Government is there to correct market failures, provide defence and protect rights. President Bush is so convinced by this approach that he claims it is divinely ordained.

Primacy of the group

Islamic political theory, in contrast, starts with the group and puts the interests of the community of the faithful above those of the individual. The pursuit of happiness, which often looks like vulgar hedonism, is viewed as illusory. Islam argues that humanity's purpose is to reconcile itself with the wishes of its maker as defined in the Sharia. Government exists to enforce obligations, not protect rights.

This approach has a much longer pedigree than the new-fangled initiatives being developed in Washington and London. And it is far more popular. Every time people in Muslim societies have been given the chance to express an opinion, they have opted for the Islamic over the Western political model. Why? Because it makes at least as much sense and is more relevant to low-income societies that cannot afford the excesses of Western materialism.

For these reasons, the Western political model will struggle to take root, and not only in the Middle East. The latest attempt to westernise the Islamic world

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