The Future of Political Islam


Were the attacks of September 11, 2001, the final gasp of Islamic radicalism or the opening salvo of a more violent confrontation between Muslim extremists and the West? And what does the current crisis imply for the future of the Islamic world itself? Will Muslims recoil from the violence and sweeping anti-Westernism unleashed in their name, or will they allow Osama bin Laden and his cohort to shape the character of future relations between Muslims and the West?

The answers to these questions lie partly in the hands of the Bush administration. The war on terrorism has already dealt a major blow to the personnel, infrastructure, and operations of bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Just as important, it has burst the bubble of euphoria and sense of invincibility among radical Islamists that arose from the successful jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But it is not yet clear whether the war will ultimately alleviate or merely exacerbate the current tensions in the Muslim world.

Depending on one's perspective, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can be seen either as a success, evidence that a few activists can deal a grievous blow to a superpower in the name of their cause, or as a failure, since the attackers brought on the demise of their state sponsor and most likely of their own organization while galvanizing nearly global opposition. To help the latter lesson triumph, the United States will have to move beyond the war's first phase, which has punished those directly responsible for the attacks, and address the deeper sources of political violence and terror in the Muslim world today.


President Bush has repeatedly stressed that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam. But by seeking to separate Islam from politics, the West ignores the reality that the two are intricately intertwined across a broad swath of the globe from northern Africa to Southeast Asia. Transforming the Muslim environment is not merely a matter of rewriting school textbooks or demanding a less anti-Western press. The simple fact is that political Islam, or Islamism -- defined broadly as the belief that the Koran and the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet's life) have something important to say about the way society and governance should be ordered -- remains the most powerful ideological force in that part of the world.

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