AT ITS CORE, Islamism is an ideological movement with a program that seeks to fundamentally alter the religious, intellectual and political complexion of Muslims worldwide towards a more pristine and ‘Islamically authentic’ form – an original, divinely sanctioned, winning template that will restore the lapsed political, military and economic fortunes of the Muslim world. Islamism’s primary obligation is to ensure that Islam defines the political, legal and public space of Muslims, but the corollary of Islam’s religious universalism means that the political implications of this universalism must perforce embrace the global arena too.
The program (if not the term ‘Islamism’ itself) dates from the late 19th century, and developed in parallel with the intellectual currents of the Nahda (the ‘resurgence’) which failed to indigenise modernity in the Islamic cultural tradition and which the Islamist reformers for their part construed as an inauthentic, élite program of overly-westernised Muslims appearing to require the ingestion of elements that over-stretched the definition of Islamic faith and culture as they understood it.
The current political status of the Arab Middle East – military defeat, economic stagnation, intellectual sterility and consequent porosity to currents of culture which they have played little or no part in shaping – provides the ideal arena for Islamists to vindicate their diagnosis of the failure and their formula for recovery: the ‘re-Islamization’ of Muslim society at all of its levels. Their diagnosis, to be sure, is eclectic but this eclecticism is adroitly dressed in the language of piety and the divine promise of revival of a Golden Age. Being expressed in a series of abstractions divorced from time and place, such a promise is also never invalidated through any demonstration of inconsistencies. The success of this approach over the last four decades can be clearly seen as Islamist ideology – in its varying degrees from quietist to activist – has made its voice increasingly audible among the currents of contemporary Islamic thought and continues to maintain the initiative, to the point of displaying greater public vitality than any other trend in the Muslim world.
The authors of this section put up a challenge to the Islamists’ manipulation of the language of faith to a program of political activism and spell out the consequences, both for Islamic belief and contemporary politics, of such a conflation.
Over the last half a century during which my life, my experiences, my thoughts and dealings have been associated with all the colours of the cultural spectrum, some facets of major flaws in the intellectual and cultural education of the overwhelming majority of the leadership – at all levels – of the currents of political Islam have become clear to me. To cast some light on these egregious flaws I should first clarify what constitutes a modern, balanced intellectual training before turning to unbalanced intellectual training.