Whither Political Islam?

The debate over why the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred has been dominated by different versions of "culture talk," the notion that culture is the most reliable clue to people's politics. Their differences notwithstanding, public intellectuals such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis agree that religion drives both Islamic culture and politics and that the motivation for Islamist violence is religious fundamentalism. Ascribing the violence of one's adversaries to their culture is self-serving: it goes a long way toward absolving oneself of any responsibility.

The singular merit of two new books by Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy is that they take the debate about the rise of political Islam beyond culture talk. Kepel seeks to understand the intellectual history of political Islam, Roy the social conditions under which Muslims think and act. Of the two, Roy makes the most forceful break from culture talk. He dismisses "the culturalist approach" that treats Islam as "the issue" and that assumes it bears a relation to every preoccupation of the moment, from suicide bombings and jihad to democracy and secularism. Not only does culturalism treat Islam "as a discrete entity" and "a coherent and closed set of beliefs," Roy explains, but it turns Islam into "an explanatory concept for almost everything involving Muslims."

Roy argues that the Koran's most important feature is not what it actually says, but what Muslims say about it. "Not surprisingly," Roy observes, "they disagree, while all stressing that the Koran is unambiguous and clear-cut." Like culturalists, Roy and Kepel examine very carefully the Islamist discourse about both the Koran and the rest of the world. But they understand it as the product of many forces, rather than as the necessary development of its religious origin. In doing so, they provide a more nuanced understanding of doctrinal and political Islam than do the culturalists.

GOING GLOBAL

In a historical account that is both careful and user-friendly, Kepel tracks two radically different strands of Islamic thought: the ultra-strict, quietist Salafist, or Wahhabi, school and the more political thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood. These two schools later merged, producing the more hybrid ideology now identified with Osama bin Laden.

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