How Marx turned Muslim

Not ancient, but modern: John Gray argues that Islamist militants have Western roots

Saturday 27 July 2002 00:00
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Some years ago -- just over a dozen, to be exact -- there was a good deal of talk about the collision of East and West. In the media and academy, the Cold War was routinely described as a clash between western liberal democracy and something else (Russian despotism, perhaps) that was definitely not western. In fact, the communist system from Lenin to Gorbachev was one of several attempts to turn Russia into a western society that the country had experienced since Peter the Great.

Soviet Marxism did not spring from an Orthodox monastery. It was one of the finest flowers of the European Enlightenment. Equally, the USSR was nothing if not an Enlightenment regime. The Soviet state was the vehicle of a westernising project from start to finish. The Cold War was a family quarrel among western ideologies, in which rival versions of political universalism struggled for hegemony.

Today, we are watching a rerun of that uncomprehending struggle. Of course, much has changed. Unlike communism, political Islam does not purport to be secular. For that reason alone, it is a puzzle for the many who still hold to the atavistic 19th-century faith that secularisation is the wave of the future. But the view that something called "the West" is under attack from an alien enemy is as mistaken now as it was in the Cold War.

Islamic fundamentalism is not an indigenous growth. It is an exotic hybrid, bred from the encounter of sections of the Islamic intelligentsia with radical western ideologies. In A Fury for God, Malise Ruthven shows that Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian executed after imprisonment in 1966 and arguably the most influential ideologue of radical Islam, incorporated many elements derived from European ideology into his thinking. For example, the idea of a revolutionary vanguard of militant believers does not have an Islamic pedigree. It is "a concept imported from Europe, through a lineage that stretches back to the Jacobins, through the Bolsheviks and latter-day Marxist guerrillas such as the Baader-Meinhof gang".

In a brilliantly illuminating and arrestingly readable analysis, Ruthven demonstrates the close affinities between radical Islamist thought and the vanguard of modernist and postmodern thinking in the West. The inspiration for Qutb's thought is not so much the Koran, but the current of western philosophy embodied in thinkers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Qutb's thought -- the blueprint for all subsequent radical Islamist political theology -- is as much a response to 20th-century Europe's experience of "the death of God" as to anything in the Islamic tradition. Qutbism is in no way traditional. Like all fundamentalist ideology, it is unmistakeably modern.

Political Islam emerged partly from an encounter with western thought, but also from revulsion against the regimes founded in Egypt and elsewhere in the aftermath of European colonialism. In Jihad, Gilles Keppel argues al-Qa'ida turned to global terrorism because, like fundamentalist groups in other countries, it has failed to achieve its revolutionary goals on home territory. In a magisterial study of the rise and decline of political Islam, Keppel maintains that Islamist movements have never gained sufficient support to produce a sustainable alternative to democracy. He argues compellingly that the failed Khomeinist revolution in Iran gained much early support from western-educated Marxists "projecting the messianic expectations of communists and Third World Peoples on to revolutionary Shiism".

The aspirations of these westernising radicals were defeated when Khomeini set about constructing a theocratic regime. That regime proved highly repressive, but -- if we credit recent reports of pro-western demonstrations -- it failed to eradicate the yearning for a more pluralist government.

The political failures of radical Islam in Iran and elsewhere leads Keppel to conclude that "the Islamist movement will have much difficulty in reversing its trail of decline". Here he may be optimistic. As he notes in his analysis of the Saudi regime, a major source of Islamist strength comes from the growing numbers of dislocated young men in the Gulf. The Gulf States are rentier economies, dependent on a single depleting resource to sustain exploding populations. Fuelled by an insoluble Malthusian dilemma, Islamist movements may well gain enough momentum to overturn pro-western regimes. The likely outcome is chronic instability for the region.

In the first and last chapters of The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a hastily assembled collection of autobiographical vignettes and commentaries on Islamic themes, Tariq Ali writes that he is not a believer. The veteran leftist need not be taken literally. What he means is that he has rejected Islam for another faith: a rather crude version of Enlightenment humanism.

The Clash of Fundamentalisms is well worth reading, if only because it shows that the harshest critics of fundamentalism are often exponents of a rival fundamentalism. Tariq Ali performs a valuable service by reminding us that Islam was once a tolerant and pluralist religion, more intellectually advanced than anything Christendom had to offer. Ironically, though, he seems to pine not for the complex culture that Islam once animated, but for that monument to Enlightenment fundamentalism, the former Soviet Union.

Here Ali unwittingly testifies to an important truth. A common error of western commentators who seek to interpret Islamism sympathetically is to view it as a form of localised resistance to globalisation. In fact, Islamism is also a universalist political project. Along with neo-liberals and Marxists, Islamists are participants in a dispute about how the world as whole is to be governed. None is ready to entertain the possibility that it should always contain a diversity of regimes. On this point, they differ from "non-western" traditions of thinking in India, China and Japan, which are much more restrained in making universal claims.

In their unshakeable faith that one way of living is best for all humankind, the chief protagonists in the dispute about political Islam belong to a way of thinking that is quintessentially western. As in Cold War times, we are led to believe we are locked in a clash of civilisations: "the West" against the rest. In truth, the ideologues of political Islam are western voices, no less than Marx or Hayek. The struggle with radical Islam is yet another western family quarrel.

John Gray's 'Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals' will be published by Granta this autumn

A Fury For God: The Islamist Attack on America by Malise Ruthven, Granta, £15, 315pp
Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Keppel, trans. Anthony F Roberts, I B Tauris, £25, 484pp
The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity by Tariq Ali, Verso, £15, 342pp

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