Book review: Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World

It is the west’s blind myopia that leads it to go to war in the Middle East, with disastrous consequences, argues JP O’Malley on reading an account of Islamism which shows that, as an ideology, it is growing further apart.

Tarek Osman

Yale University Press, €24.99

LAST December in the British House of Commons, the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, made an impassioned speech aimed at persuading his parliamentary colleagues that British troops must join the fight to obliterate IS.

The following day, the right-wing conservative British press was full of predictable jingoistic dribble: Benn’s words were described as ‘Churchillian’. 

And for five minutes, Britain — loudly beating the drums of war — rather naively, believed it had once again become de-facto moral guardians of the “international community”.

Most commentators, however, failed to analyse Benn’s blatant lack of understanding about IS. And, more importantly, the complicated nature of the current conflict in Syria.

Benn referred to IS — an organisation that wants to recreate a seventh century global Islamic caliphate — as “fascists”.

Not only is this lazy comparison to an ideology that came of age in Europe during the 1920s egregiously misguided, it’s factually inaccurate too.

Benn and his fellow war-mongering parliamentarians — in both the Labour and Tory party respectively — would do well to read Tarek Osman’s: Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World.

I suspect after finishing the book — although they probably wouldn’t admit it in public — these British politicians would most likely arrive at two conclusions.

Firstly, to finally understand that every time the west thinks it has mastered politics in the Middle East, clearly, it has not. 

In fact, it’s the west’s blind myopia that continually leads it to go to wars in the region: costing billions of euro, and millions of innocent lives in the process.

And secondly, there is no one-size-fits-all policy that’s going to magically bring peace and stability to countries of Islamic faith any time soon.

Primarily because, as this book’s central thesis continually points out, Islamism — defined as the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of society — is a multifaceted and complicated social movement, with various world views that have deep historical cultural foundations.

If one were foolish enough to listen to the dogmatic creeds of some western politicians, past and present — think of Tony Blair and George Bush as extreme examples — your worldview might go something like this: the ongoing political crisis in the Middle East could easily be solved if we could just teach these ignorant little souls the value of liberal democracy.

Osman’s book is essentially the antithesis to the reductive worldview typically imposed by western imperial thinking.

Instead, it traces the trajectory of Islamism — that is, Islam as an ideology which is a political, economic, cultural, and social tool, as well as a religious and moral one — all the way back to the prophet Mohammed in the seventh century, right up to the present day.

In doing so, the Egyptian political economist explains how numerous interpretations of the ideology have split.

It’s this ongoing battle to lay claim to, and to identify with, the so-called purest form of Islamism, that’s ensured violence and conflict in the region is an ongoing headache that won’t go away.

To paraphrase an old Irish political proverb: every time there is a meeting, a split occurs.

Chief among these conflicting ideas is the showdown between sunni Saudi Arabia, and shia Iran: the two current de-facto superpowers of the Middle East.

Tensions between these two states, supported by a coterie of state and non-state actors from each side, have exacerbated exponentially over the last five years in particular. 

Osman also warns how the the vacuum created by the Arab uprising in the region has also allowed militant Islamism — the tool favoured by Salafist

groups especially — to flourish: causing wide spread panic and chaos.

Here, groups like IS have been extremely successful in building support. And they only look set to grow in numbers too.

The majority of Osman’s narrative is set over the 20th, and early 21st century. 

And, he focuses predominately on Islamism in the Arab world, Turkey, and Iran; eschewing from his analysis, countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and all of sub-Saharan Africa.

The reader is also taken through the numerous battles that have taken place between Arab nationalism, liberalism, and a more authoritarian, conservative form of Islamism: the latter ideology harking back to a utopian past that’s soaked in fervent religiosity.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Osman reminds us, was a huge historical epoch: marking the end of the last Islamic caliphate, which had, hitherto, had wide recognition in Turkey, north Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean.

Ever since, Islamism has experienced a serious crisis of identity.

Numerous forced attempts to follow the west onto a path of secular modernity, has led to the severe tensions in the region today.

As Osman’s thesis points out: every time the west takes the moral high ground, the results are not only disastrous, they are saturated in irony too.

For example, the west perpetually preaches about bringing democracy to the the Middle East. And yet, the political actors it does most business with, namely the Gulf States, are the most autocratic of all.

Moreover, these conservative states — particularly Saudi Arabia — have continued to fund numerous schools and educational programmes, throughout the Middle East, that encourage and abet the one ideology that the west publicly claims is enemy number one: Salafism.

Osman ends his narrative on a rather cautious note: offering little solutions in the process.

There aren’t many left. Especially since Islamism, as an ideology, seems to be growing further apart, rather than reaching any kind of collective-peaceful-consensus.

Meanwhile, the Salafist Jihadist movement — IS being the most dangerous and wealthy of these groups — have, according to Osman: “managed to carve out a social presence that is unprecedented in modern Arab history.”

The biggest mistake the west continues to make, Osman’s narrative convincingly argues with stern conviction throughout, is to assume that the majority of Arabs and Middle Easterners actually aspire to a world of liberal democracy, and free speech: as practised in the west.

Democracy, the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, once told me when I interviewed him: “is an imperfect system, but the best we have come up with.”

Unfortunately, though, as we are clearly seeing the results of today in the Arab world, sometimes, for a variety of complicated reasons, this noble aspiration for a functional form of government simply does not deliver.

And, when a working alternative cannot be found, barbarism, social chaos, and failed states usually become the scary unpredictable substitutes.

My one reservation about Osman’s book is this: his unwillingness to tackle how detrimental fundamental religion can be to all societies; not just in the Middle East. 

This is something, it seems, he purposely shies away from.

And his book, while extremely well researched and written in lucid, crystal clear prose, never seems to grasp a complete sense of authority on the subject he’s writing about.


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