The Failure of Political Islam

If you read only one book on political Islam, this should be it. Olivier Roy, an authority on the complex politics of Afghanistan, has turned his attention to the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism, with remarkable results. On practically every page one finds an interpretation or observation that is provocative and insightful.

He maintains that contemporary Islamic radicalism has little to do with the traditional views of Islamic religious scholars, the ulama. Indeed, "political Islamists" were anticlerical intellectuals intent on finding ways to deal with the modern world.

Political Islam has come closest to succeeding with the Iranian revolution, which in many ways was profoundly anticlerical. Now that Khomeini is dead, no grand ayatollah, for example, exercises political power, and the state determines the role of the clerics, not the other way around.

In a brilliant chapter on the sociology of political Islam, Roy shows that the recruitment of large numbers of alienated young men without much hope in the future has transformed political Islam into what he calls "neo-fundamentalism." Unlike the Islamists, many of whom were serious intellectuals who tried to adapt to aspects of modernity, the neo-fundamentalists do little more than channel the discontents of urban youth into political opposition. Neo-fundamentalists worry about morals, mixed education, veiling, and the corrupting influence of the West, but they have no real political or economic program. If they come to power they will resemble the repressive, one-party regimes that they are likely to replace, and will in turn face the opposition of these same disaffected classes.

Some Muslims will disagree with the bleak prognosis that Roy delivers. Some secularists will reject the notion that it makes little difference whether Algeria is ruled by the FLN or the FIS. The evidence to date, however, from Iran and Sudan supports his view that Islamists in power are far from finding solutions to the social and economic problems of their peoples. Roy sees contemporary Islamic movements not as serious efforts to return to the classical paradigms of Islamic governance (which are only partially rooted in the Koran in any case), but rather as a result of a failed modernization. But the appeal of the modern world is still at the root of much of the anger felt by Islamists, and they blame their rulers for keeping them from enjoying the fruits of modernity. Therein lies the dilemma for both incumbent regimes and opposition forces in the Middle East today. Roy has helped to illuminate the problem, but offers little to those looking for solutions.

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