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The Double Death of Islamic Fundamentalism

Philip Cunliffe

In 1992, Olivier Roy, Research Director at the Paris Centre for National Scientific Research, published a contentious book entitled The Failure of Political Islam (1).  Published in English in 1994, the book discussed the decline of that significant political movement popularly known in the English media as Islamic fundamentalism, and as ‘Islamism’ in the French media.  But instead of merely describing the strategies of co-optation or repression that states deployed to counter the fundamentalist threat, Roy argued in a novel manner that Islamic fundamentalism was imploding from the pressure of its own internal ideological contradictions, as much as any external pressure of state repression.    

Yet in the same year as Roy’s book was published in English, the Taliban scored its first significant victories in war-torn Afghanistan.  The intervening period has seen the bombing of the World Trade Centre (February 26 1993); the bombing of a US military facility in Saudi Arabia (25 June 1996), the bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya (August 7, 1998); the suicide attack on the USS Cole off the Yemeni coast (October 12 2000); the attack on the Pentagon and destruction of the World Trade Centre (11 September 2001); the attack on the French oil tanker off the Yemeni coast (October 7 2002), and the bomb in the Bali nightclub (12 October 2002).  Beyond these direct attacks on Western interests, the intervening period has also seen Islamists directly implicated in or claim responsibility for numerous bombings, massacres and assassinations throughout the Middle East.  Most recently, a party with strong Islamist roots, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has swept to power in recent Turkish elections (November 5 2002).  All of this would seem to spectacularly invalidate Roy’s claim.  So on what basis did Roy reach this novel assessment of Islamism, and does Roy’s thesis retain any validity as a way of understanding the politics of the contemporary Muslim world?


Since the firebrand cleric and mystic Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the mighty Shah of Iran in 1979, to the 2001 massacre in New York, Islamic fundamentalism has always seemed a force to be reckoned with.  Although Western familiarity with Islamic fundamentalism begins with the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, modern Islamic fundamentalism emerged as a significant force in Middle Eastern politics as early as 1970.  Before 1970, Islam’s political, legal and educational frameworks were usurped by the modernising post-colonial state.  The Islamic clergy, the ulema (2), were assimilated as salaried state bureaucrats, and a modern, public education sector ousted their traditional educational role.   Islam’s values were challenged by secular values and ideologies, and undermined by the spread of unbelief and declining religious observance (3).  Although Islamic fundamentalist movements emerged as early as 1928 with the founding of the Egyptian ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ (or Ikhwan), it was popularly deemed too nostalgic to command any significant popular following in the face of forward-looking mass movements such as Arab nationalism (4).  Post 1970 however, throughout the Middle East, Islamic Sharia law has increasingly encroached on secular constitutions.  Public education has been increasingly ‘Islamicised’, and personal behaviour transformed, with an increase in religious observance (such as mosque attendance and wearing of the headscarf or veil among women) (5). 

The ideological terrain of the Middle East was opened up to religious revivalism with the spectacular defeat of an Arab coalition by Israel in the 1967 ‘Six Day’ War.  This war ended any prospects of Arab nationalism destroying the Zionist enemy.  Politically, Islamism rapidly gained ground post-1970 at the expanse of secular leftist, liberal, nationalist and pan-Arabist movements.  But, far from being the re-assertion of primordial religious loyalties, the ideology that followed the demise of Arab nationalism was a distinctly modern product.  Although Islamist ideology renounces contemporary society as Jahaliyya (the pre-Islamic age of darkness and ignorance), and draws on Muslim scripture and an idealised image of the original community of believers for inspiration, it is nonetheless distinct from a mere restoration of religious orthodoxy (the usual understanding of religious fundamentalism).  The difference lies in the fact that Islamism defines Islam explicitly as a political system of thought – a political basis with which to restructure modern state and society.  Its advocates have consciously seen themselves as competing with secular ideologies such as nationalism or socialism; hence their own designation - ‘Islamism’. 

Islamism reflects its modern roots in a number of ways.  Drawing on the intellectual legacy of the Sunni ijtihadiya (‘those who question tradition’) of the late nineteenth century, Islamism criticises the orthodox canon of religious commentary on Islamic scripture.  It also rejects the traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and decries maraboutism ­(the superstitious, obscurantist spirituality of the village).  Against the traditional clergy, the ulema, Islamists have championed the right to individual interpretation of scripture.  In the words of the Sudanese Islamist, Hassan al-Turaibi: ‘Because all knowledge is divine and religious, a chemist, an engineer, an economist or a jurist are all ulemas.’  (6) 

The sociological and historical co-ordinates of Islamism’s emergence are modern, post-colonial Middle Eastern societies.  These societies are undergoing immense transformation under two colossal trends: demographic explosion and the massification of education (7).  Post 1970, the Middle East saw huge population pressure on the urban metropoles, while suffering economic stagnation and political despotism.  The reach and coverage of state welfare policies began to fray.  Saturated state bureaucracies were no longer able to guarantee employment to a burgeoning graduate population, formed from a generation of recently-urbanised rural immigrants who had been educated in the modern state sector.  This volatile mixture of social dislocation and frustrated social mobility ensured that Islamism rapidly spread among what Roy terms the ‘lumpenintelligentsia’, those recently urbanised rural immigrants with a technical or professional training (doctors, teachers, technicians).  Confronted with urban squalor, social gridlock and the exhaustion of secular ideologies, religion became an identity of defence (8).      

Anti-imperialist mysticism 

Islamist organisations have taken one of several forms: that of revolutionary party or militia (e.g., Hizbollah); a Western-style political party (e.g., Turkey’s AKP), an elite network of religious militants (the traditional Arab Ikhwan); or a mixture of the latter two (e.g., the Jordanian Ikhwan).  For such groups, scriptural notions are infused with modern meaning: the mustadaf (‘oppressed’) of scripture became ‘the people’.  The Qu’ranic notion of tawhid (‘oneness’) supplants the old anti-imperialist aim of an egalitarian society (a ‘tawhidi society’).  Militant groups such as Hizbollah often adopted and ‘Islamicised’ the political vocabulary and organisation of traditional Third World revolt: so the hizb, shura and amir of scripture substitute for the vanguard party, central committee and secretary general of Leninist organisation.  Taking the divine object of salvation, the community of believers, as the proper unit of political organisation, Islamism rejects the modern grid of nation-states as the imposition of false colonial borders. 

Hence the Islamism of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, for example, fuses reactionary themes of religious revivalism with traditional Third World themes of anti-imperialism and North-South opposition.  Consequently, there are many points of ostensible similarity between Islamism and traditional Third World liberation movements.  The Islamist regimes of Sudan and Iran have overseen regimes of bureaucratic planning and  economic interventionism in the garb of ‘Islamic socialism’.  Some Islamist militias, such as Hizbollah, AMAL (Lebanon)  and Hamas (Palestine), style themselves as national liberation movements, firmly placing their struggle in a national framework and claiming political support beyond a narrow religious following (9).  In his book Roy notes that throughout Khomeini’s rule in Iran, Iranian newspapers frequently devoted coverage to long-standing Third World struggles such as those of the ANC, the Sandanistas, and even the I.R.A., while they harshly criticised Muslim movements they considered to be conservative (such as the anti-Soviet mujahedin in Afghanistan).  Other examples come from Arab Africa: the acronym of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, F.I.S. (Front Islamique de Salut), meaning ‘son’ in French, was deliberately chosen to indicate that F.I.S. styled itself in the heroic tradition of the F.L.N. (National Liberation Front) that had liberated Algeria from French colonialism.  One of the left wing leaders of F.I.S., Abhas Madawi, was even a member of the F.L.N. Revolutionary Command Council in 1962 (10).   

Although Islamism expresses to some extent the North-South opposition in religious terms, it was never simply a matter of green banners replacing red ones.  Roy attributes the failure of Islamism to four factors: (i) ‘paradigm failure’ (the international isolation and internal decay of the Sudanese and Iranian regimes); (ii) revolutionary failure (the successful response of Middle Eastern state repression to terror); (iii) ideological impasse; and (iv) the ‘petro-Islam’ of Saudi Arabia.  It is on the last two in particular that Roy focuses. 

Ideological Impasse

Islamism, due to its internal ideological contradictions, cannot hope to hold the fort of Third World liberation, and succeed where Arab nationalism failed.  Roy identifies several major internal contradictions of Islamism.  Firstly, there is the problem of participation.  Since Islamism’s point of departure is religion, it repeatedly returns to emphasise that mode of behaviour and those personal, ethical qualities appropriate to a true believer (that is, behaviour that is pleasing to God).  So membership of the hizb, or incept of an Islamic society, is defined by faith, or an individual mystical experience, not rational political argumentation or persuasion.  So to fill their ranks, Islamists are dependent on enough people enjoying mystical conversions.  This logically obviates the need to engage in political debate at all.  So there is nothing inherent in Islamism that necessitates participation in the public sphere to achieve political transformation.   For Islamists, political change does not come about through argumentation or persuasion; it literally falls from the sky, spontaneously inhering in a revolutionary vanguard of mystically—inspired ‘true believers’. 

The individual’s relationship to God always intellectually and ideologically outweighs any other consideration, including majoritarianism, that is the basis of modern mass politics.  The goal of religion is individual salvation; not political freedoms or social emancipation.  Islamists attempt to transform society in order to establish one where the individual believer can achieve total virtue.  Yet, if Muslim societies are not virtuous enough beforehand (as Islamists ostensibly claim), how are enough virtuous individuals to emerge to constitute a revolutionary vanguard?  And if society is indeed Islamic enough beforehand to ensure a vanguard of ‘true believers’, then what need is there of Islamists in the first place?    

Islamic society is a necessary condition for the believer to achieve total virtue; but, alternatively such a society functions only by virtue of its own members.  This is what Roy dubs the ‘self-consuming loop’ of Islamist ideology.  Roy points out that the relentless Islamist emphasis on personal qualities undermines any notion of specifically Islamic political institutions; all that is important is that these institutions efface themselves before God.  So Islamist political institutions are to function only incumbent on the virtue of those who participate in them.  Hence, in Roy’s words ‘The Islamistpolitical model being attainable only in a man, and not in institutions, [this] alone makes the creation of a polis, an Islamist ‘polity’, impossible.’(11)  Since the Islamist political model is only embodied and attainable in a virtuous man – a leader to follow the Prophet – who is to decide who is virtuous enough?  The problem of popular and legitimate theocratic leadership has only been circumvented in Iran.  Being one of the few Muslim countries with an autonomous, institutionalised clergy, the apex of Iran’s clerical pyramid could square the circle, and provide the theocratic leader in the form of Khomeini.  But Iran is the exception that proves the rule.  The only thing that can be guaranteed about a sufficiently virtuous leader is that he will be followed by one less virtuous and less charismatic, as Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khameinei, has found.

This leads us to the problem of jihad, holy war, that Islamists have argued is obligatory for all Muslims (the ‘sixth pillar of Islam’ [12]).  As Roy points out, for all the terror jihad evokes in the Western press, jihad is not even primarily directed at the non-believing enemy.  First and foremost, jihad is oriented around the relationship between the believing individual and God.  The actions carried out in jihad are primarily aimed at demonstrating the strength of the individual’s devotion to God; actually overcoming the opponent is secondary.  The demonstrative nature of the act of jihad lends itself to exhibitionism rather than achieving a political aim.  As Bin Laden has repeatedly made clear in his video messages, ‘success comes from God’: once devotion is demonstrated, everything else is in God’s hands. 

For example: the Islamist group that assassinated the Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat in 1981 were convinced that their action would be followed by a mass uprising and establishment of an Islamic republic.  Assuming along similar lines that the ‘aim’ of the September 11 hijackers was to provoke a global, spontaneous mass uprising of Muslims, the entry into paradise of the hijackers was nonetheless not dependent on this outcome.  The hijackers had committed what they saw as the supreme act of devotion; the fact that the global jihad never materialised and the U.S. survived is ultimately irrelevant to the fate of their eternal souls.  So although Islamist jihad may make for spectacular orgies of violence and narcissistic self-immolation, it is ultimately politically hollow.  In Roy’s words, ‘devotion is opposed to organisation’ (13): the goal of martyrdom erodes the necessity of long-term strategic planning, until it eventually logically eclipses the necessity of victory itself.  Since jihad is not aimed at political change, it will, quite simply, never achieve it.  The relentless individuation implicit in Islamism through themes of faith, virtue, and jihad, when carried to their logical conclusion, necessarily negate modern mass politics.  Politics presumes and requires speaker and listener; Islamism presumes individual and God.       

Finally, in contrast to the vulgar claims of the threat of ‘Islamic totalitarianism’, Roy points out that Islamic totalitarianism is a nonsense.  The fusion of state and society implicit in totalitarianism could not occur under Sharia law, since Sharia is designed to defend the freedom of the private sphere - the family and household.  However, in a global capitalist economy, the increasingly nuclear Muslim household is primarily a site of consumption (as opposed to being a site of production, as in pre-modern economies).  Implementation of Sharia will do nothing, argues Roy, to stem the inflow of commodities into the private sphere, that materially reproduce the modern world that the Islamists so loath.  As such, Islamism can only perform a rear-guard action against social development that is already under way.

Ideological Decay

Whatever outrage there is in Arab societies at US foreign policy, Islamists do not command the mass popular support of the ‘Arab street’ in the way that, for example, the Egyptian nationalist leader Nasser did, following his nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 (14).  Although Roy does not explicitly make the link, the rise of Islamism parallels the rise of Western ‘new social movements’ (NSMs), such as environmentalism and feminism, that expanded their influence in the Western world post 1970 (15).  While the influence of the NSMs grew from the decline of the organised labour movement, Islamism expanded over the ruins of Third World nationalism.  Even organisationally, these movements are similar.  Political organisation among Islamists has increasingly given way to Da’wa (‘Call’) organisations, with structures are made up of spokesmen, informal networks, voluntary helpers and private donations, rather than more traditional modes of political participation (such as a clear hierarchy and membership dues).  Like NSMs, these Da’wa networks often consist of charitable trusts and Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  Both NSMs and Islamists have beaten a retreat from expressly political public sphere activity, turning to focus instead on lobbying, advocacy for victimised groups, and modifying cultural and social mores.  Often Da’wa organisations seek to transform society incrementally by modifying inter-personal relations through funding Islamic dress, religious libraries, sexually segregated transport for students and so on.  The obsessive focus on cultural authenticity and sexual / gender relations parallels many of the emphases of Western NSMs.  This logic of cultural conservatism has been reinforced by the genuflection of Middle Eastern states to Islam, in an attempt to dampen Islamist ardour (e.g., by interrupting radio or television broadcasts for the call to prayer, banning alcohol on national airlines).   

With the decline of any notion at majoritarianism, these networks attempt to accumulate state power ‘on the cheap’, by infiltrating the ranks of the political and administrative elite or professional classes, rather than by building mass membership.  Often, they seek to negotiate with power to achieve their aims: the Jordanian Ikhwan has close ties to the Jordanian monarchy, and the Kuwaiti monarchy relies on the Islamists of the Islamic Constitutional Movement as a counterweight to the liberalism of influential Kuwaiti merchant families. 

So the logical ideological conclusion of the Islamist hizb is elitist mysticism.  This is also distinctly observable in the structure of Islamist militias: the group Takfir wal-Hijra has literally retreated to caves in the Egyptian desert.  The operatives of Al Qaida itself wander like crazed, belligerent hermits from jihad to jihad, mostly at the fringes of the Middle East (Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Indonesia), more or less indifferent to the concrete political processes within these countries.  As has been frequently pointed out, most of the September 11 hijackers and Bin Laden himself come from the ranks of the Saudi elite.  Conscience-driven individuals and mystical experiences, it seems, are much more common to both the alienated metropolitan elites and the Arab middle classes than they are to the majority of the population in either the West or the Middle East. 

The breath of life: the US, Petro-Islam and the Cold War

Although ideologically speaking, Islamism is a walking corpse, its inner ideological life cannot be divorced from the various political, social and economic threads of world politics.  Wars and immediate political goals (such as jihad in Afghanistan, Yemen until 1994, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir) have allowed some Islamist organisations to escape the unbearable pressure of the political vacuum at their core.  Groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas can claim legitimacy as national liberation militias, based on their military effectiveness in anti-Zionist struggle.  The Taliban claimed legitimacy by temporarily restoring order to Afghanistan.  Moreover, given the absence of any large-scale progressive secular movements, Islamists also retain political capital as oppositional movements to authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, such as Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt, the military junta in Algeria or the Ba’thist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq.  But these circumstances are ultimately only a respite from the unbearable pressure of the political vacuum at the Islamists’ core.  As such, Islamists fight on a terrain that is predetermined by their opponents.  The legitimacy of Islamists is dependent on the corruption and despotism of Middle Eastern elites (or Zionist occupation in the case of Hamas and Hizbollah), and this renders them prisoners of their opponents’ stratagems.  While they can react, they can furnish no positive vision of universal progress. 

However, as everyone is now aware, the US has also breathed life into modern Islamism.  Roy notes that the fear of Islamic fundamentalism is typically French rather than American, given France’s colonial history in Muslim North Africa.  Indeed, the US allied itself with Islamic fundamentalism as early as 1945, following an historic meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.  Since then, US grand strategy has had a definite place for puritanical Wahhabism: in the words of Middle East scholar Aziz Al-Azmeh, as ‘a local Arab purveyance of the Truman doctrine’ (16).  Predicated on a cold war alliance between the West and conservative Islamic fundamentalism, the Saudi regime served as a model for wider US relations with the Muslim world: in particular, the military fundamentalist regimes of General Numeiri in Sudan (1969-1985) and General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan (1977-1988). 

The US-Saudi relationship was deepened by two events: the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) and the Iranian revolution (1979).   Sunni radicalism was to be cultivated as a rallying banner both against the Soviets in Central Asia and, as a bonus, Khomeini’s Islamic universalism that aimed at transcending the Sunni-Shi’i schism.  The US provided the infrastructure of political support, including weaponry and training; the Saudis, the financing.  Day-to-day management of the project was ‘contracted out’ to Pakistani intelligence and Arab Ikhwans, as well as, of course, the original Al Qaida (meaning ‘base’ or ‘foundation’) (17).  More recently, it is now well-established that the Clinton administration relied heavily on these organisations to further its political goals in the Balkans, by strengthening the Bosnian Muslims’ ranks with international jihadis as shock troops (18).  After 1979, with Radio Teheran denouncing monarchy as ‘un-Islamic’, with unrest among the Shi’i oil workers of eastern Saudi Arabia and the pilgrims in Mecca, and with the parallels between the decadent Shah and the opulent Saudis all too evident, the Saudi monarchy was more than willing to fortify its Islamic credentials and expand its regional role in the early 1980s.

The Saudi King Fahd expanded the jurisdiction of the reactionary religious police from 1979, and appointed himself the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Sites’ [of Mecca and Medina] in 1986.  Vast sums were dispersed through the World Muslim League (based in Jedda, Saudi Arabia), to fund various Islamist organisations in order to promote an Islamism that emphasised a rigid, orthodox implementation of Sharia, avoiding any of the political or social content of Khomeinism (such as populism, republicanism, or any notion of ‘revolution’ - a theme distinctly absent from Bin Laden’s communiqués, for example).  The turning point came in 1986: with Iran poised for an invasion of Iraq following the Iranian Fao victory in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1989), the Egyptian Ikhwan and the Saudi monarchy, previously estranged, combined forces to confront the revolutionary, heretical Shi’i threat.  Moreover, Iran’s Islamic revolution was increasingly seen as simply being masked Iranian nationalism.  Meanwhile, The Saudi financial colonisation of Islamist networks throughout the Muslim world reinforced their own internal impetus to political conservativism and ossification. 

Being closer to a traditional conception of religious fundamentalism, Roy terms this new ideology that emerged from the convergence of Saudi Arabia’s petro-Islam, U.S. geostrategy and the reactionary Sunni Islamism of the Ikhwans, ‘neofundamentalism’, in order to precisely differentiate this phenomenon from the Islamism incarnated by Khomeini.  In this sense, the Islamism of Khomeini was a half-way house between traditional Third World nationalism and neofundamentalism, which is characterised by a much stronger current of religious revivalism.  The distinction is not a rigid historical dividing line, and with the decline of Khomeinist Islamism, the two terms are more or less inter-changeable in their contemporary reference.   The utility of the specific category of ‘neofundamentalism’ serves to conceptually eke out the inherent conservatism of Islamism, and illustrate the ideological development of the conservative, elite-based networks of neofundamentalism out of the nominally revolutionist Islamism.  The neofundamentalism of Al Qaida is the offspring of the ideological decay of Islamism, mediated by Saudi petrodollars and the dynamics of cold war politics. 


But now there is another dynamic underway in world politics that threatens to further eclipse Islamism as we know it.  US political and military support for the reactionary mujahedin militias, and the fundamentalist networks that recruited jihadis for Afghanistan from 1983 onwards, is now well known. The attacks of September 11 have brought the U.S. relationship to Islamism / neofundamentalism under close public scrutiny, and a direct link is now perceived between the Wahabi pulpits of  Saudi Arabia and Ground Zero in Manhattan.  Bin Laden himself, and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.  The restrictive practices of Saudi Wahhabism, when refracted through the lens of the Taliban, become menacing rather than merely exotic or bizarre.    

The continued survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the 1991 Gulf War gave renewed life to the US-Saudi axis despite the end of the Cold War.  The Saudis were one of few cold war allies to survive the clearing out of the old guard.  Other erstwhile clients were overthrown or edged out of power with tacit or open US support.  In the Muslim world this included General Ershad in Bangladesh (December 1990), Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan (November 1993), and, of course, the Gulf War against Saddam (1990-1991), among others: Marcos in the Philippines (February 1986);  Mobuto in Zaire (May 1997), and Pinochet in Chile (March 1998) (19).  After Saddam’s defeat, the US ‘Peninsular Shield Force’ in Saudi gave the U.S. the military presence which it had sought since the fall of the Shah in 1979. 

But this ‘special relationship’ was already fraying by the mid-1990s.  The generation of Islamists trained in Afghan camps under the aegis of the C.I.A. were still heady with their recent victory over the Red Army, and much embittered by the presence of U.S. troops in the land of the Prophet.  Meanwhile the US was increasingly perturbed as the ‘Arab Afghans’ now returned to swell the ranks of Islamist movements opposed to US client regimes, particularly Egypt (20).  Then came the Al Qaida attacks on Western interests in east Africa, Yemen, and the World Trade Centre.  Ironically, while the US laid economic and political siege to the ‘rogue states’ of Iraq, Iran and Libya, its own cold war ally Pakistan bolstered the Taliban regime from which the Islamists emanated, muddying Washington’s attempt at clear-cut strategic division of the post cold war world (21). Then, in May 1998 the long-dreaded ‘Islamic bomb’, the wet dream of every Pentagon armchair strategist, came into the hands, not of Iran or Iraq, but U.S. ally Pakistan.  Washington’s regional chessboard was in total disarray.  Since then, the ambiguity of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has been further underscored by recent reports of North Korean and Pakistani co-operation on nuclear and ballistic missile technology (22).

After the slaughter of September 11, it is no longer tenable for the U.S. to rely on so unwieldy a political weapon as Islamic fundamentalism.  Since it snapped so viciously at the hand that feeds, Islamism’s old ring master the U.S. has decided a renegotiation of  U.S. strategy toward the Muslim world is in order.  With the reports of a MacArthur-style military despotism to replace Saddam’s military despotism (23), perhaps the more blunt instrument of direct colonial occupation will substitute for navigating the complexities of an alliance with Islamic fundamentalism.  Certainly, it is clear that the ‘Saudi model’ of alliance with a reactionary Muslim state is unravelling.  Having betrayed the Taliban on U.S. orders, the Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf has been forced to sever the long-standing links between his military and intelligence forces and the Pakistani pro-Taliban Jamaa-i-Islami (that provided many cabinet advisors to the cold war regime of General Zia ul-Haq, for example) (24).  The success of the Islamist opposition in the sham recent Pakistani elections only confirms the fact that they are now exiled from the corridors of power (25).  While mulling the imposition of democracy on Iraq, Washington is once again supporting military dictatorship in Pakistan, except this time devoid of Islamists’ support.  

The Mother of all Betrayals

The relationship with Saudi Arabia is more complex, given the critical Saudi position as the dominant producer in world oil markets, on whom Washington is relying to make good any shortfall in oil output in event of war with Iraq (26).  Re-negotiation of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia are still in flux and difficult to determine.  What is known is that Saudi Arabia has been slovenly in obeying Washington’s orders to freeze ‘terrorist’ assets, refused to allow Saudi bases to be used for the bombing of Afghanistan (27), and has equivocated over granting U.S. access to its airbases for an attack on Iraq (28).  Furthermore, it is clear that if there is any political content to the nihilistic tantrum that is Bin Ladenism, it aims at the removal of Western troops from Saudi soil and the overthrow of the House of Saud.  Given the current U.S. reliance on Saudi oil, Washington has avoided openly destabilising Saudi Arabia, as it has done with Pakistan through the demands it has imposed on General Musharraf for support in the ‘war on terror’. 

Nonetheless, the Bush administration is scrambling to ideologically distance itself from the Saudi regime, by ceding the stage to hawkish conservatives within its own ranks.  A briefing paper presented to the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board (DPB) on July 10 2002 and leaked to the Washington Post (29),  described Saudi Arabia as ‘the kernel of evil … the most dangerous opponent’ and recommended seizing Saudi oil fields unless Saudi Arabia stopped supporting terrorism (30).  In fact, after the acrimony of the Gulf War (when Saudi Arabia enraged many Islamists by allowing infidel troops onto Saudi soil) and with Saudi economic decay during the 1990s, Islamist groups have increasingly relied on the private patronage of wealthy sympathisers, like Bin Laden himself.  But this is of little consequence.  

The Saudis, it seems, are soon to be swept onto the same ash heap of history as other Cold War allies.  The anti-Saudi voices in Washington are growing more shrill: both Democrat and Republican Senators have lashed out in unison against Saudi Arabia for allegedly failing to suppress extremism within its own borders (31).  More recently, allegations have been made that thousands of dollars in donations from the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the US ended up with friends of two of the September 11 hijackers, and the Saudis have been infuriated by a 90-day ultimatum from Washington, demanding that the desert kingdom deal with a list of alleged Saudi Al Qaeda donors (32).  Although the Bush administration has been criticised for being ‘soft’ on the Saudi monarchy (33), the fact is the Bush administration has repeatedly encouraged hawkish voices in order to politically pressure the Saudis, while it simultaneously pays lip service to US-Saudi friendship: last year, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer claimed the Saudis ‘could do more’ (34) in the war on terror, and more recently, although the Bush administration signalled that it did not endorse the DPB Pentagon briefing, Donald Rumsfeld’s public statement did not include the normal expressions of support for Washington’s old ally (35).

Nonetheless, the chances of a US invasion of Saudi Arabia are virtually non-existent.  Several factors serve to raise U.S. hopes that Saudi Arabia will be knocked from its pedestal as predominant producer in world oil markets: firstly, there seem to be strategic moves afoot to secure U.S. access both to the untapped oil reserves of western Africa and those of Central Asia (36); second, the possibility of ready access to Iraqi oil under a post-Hussein regime.  However, even if the U.S. were to successfully diminish its reliance on Saudi oil, the fact that Saudi Arabia possesses at least a quarter of known global oil reserves entails that the U.S. cannot allow that prize to fall into another’s hands.  If the US occupies Iraq, it will no doubt feel freer to actively destabilise the Saudi regime with less fear of long-term repercussions on world oil markets, or any political threat of ‘Islamist gangrene’.  What is for certain is that any assault on Iraq would represent the complete end of US political and economic dependence on Saudi Arabia, and the final abandonment of Muslim fundamentalism as political weapon of choice in the region.    

Making Islam safe for Afghanistan

With the abandonment of Islamic neofundamentalism, what Islamic ideologies could replace it that are equally agreeable to Western interests as they are taking shape post-September 11?  Occupied Afghanistan is perhaps something of a laboratory for the West, presaging experimental new approaches to the Muslim world.  A conference in Kabul on Sufism (Islamic mysticism) in April 2002, hosted by the Afghan Ministry of Culture and Information and funded by UNESCO, may give us some premonitions.  The conference focused in particular on thirteenth century mystical poet Jalal al-din Rumi (referred to by the conference as Jalal al-din al-Balkhi, to emphasise his origins in the Afghan city of Balkh).  This conference encapsulates the relationship between the West and the Third World.  As white supremacy was the ideological complement to gun boat diplomacy, so tolerant multiculturalism is the ideological complement to Western cruise missile diplomacy.  With Qur’an-thumping Tony Blair and George Bush’s mullahs bleating about Muslim love and tolerance, it is clear that other cultures are indeed embraced, but only on conditions that are pre-determined among Western politicians and intellectuals. 

What Muslim denomination conforms to the Islam most appropriate to the contemporary Western imagination than ‘Afghani Sufism’?  Exotic, eclectic and decidedly ‘authentic’, infused with sufficiently warm, vague mysticism and (of course) oozing tolerance and diversity, it is the polar opposite of the puritanical Wahabi Luddism of the Taliban.  In the words of Rumi himself: ‘I am neither a Moslem nor a Hindu.  I am not Christian … nor a Jew, I am neither East nor West . . . I am of the divine whole…’ (37).  Such words will no doubt leave NGO workers in Afghanistan misty-eyed.  How much comfort it will afford Afghan people themselves as their country slides into warlordism under U.N. occupation is another matter. 

A more indigenous laboratory for the future of Islamic consciousness in the politics of the Muslim world is Turkey, following the recent landslide electoral victory of the AKP on November 5 2002.  The AKP was formed from the wreckage of the Islamist Welfare Party (disbanded by the Turkish military in 1997 following a series of symbolic Islamist gestures while in government).  While AKP supporters carry images of their leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan alongside banners of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s ferociously secular founder, the AKP symbol is nonetheless a light-bulb with seven beams, to signify the seven regions of Turkey - simultaneously modernistic and emblematic of the recurring Islamist theme of enlightenment after darkness.  Although the electoral base of the AKP is neofundamentalist by Roy’s terms (comprising an alliance of recently-formed social strata with more traditionally conservative segments; in Turkey’s case an emerging class of medium and small businessmen along with the highly traditional rural heartlands of Anatolia), the AKP has also capitalised on widespread voter disgust with the incompetence and corruption of the Turkish political elite, following the country’s worst recession since 1945. 

Judging by the pronouncements of AKP leader Erdogan, the lesson has been well-learned: tolerance is the watchword of the AKP, and it has devoted more energy to communicating with the international financial community than any other Turkish party (the IMF characteristically delayed a loan of $1.6 billion until after the election).  Erdogan himself denies being an Islamist, decrying Islamists’ attempts ‘to impose some sort of Jacobin and intolerant uniformity’.   Instead the AKP styles themselves as ‘Muslim democrats’ modelled after the Christian Democrats who dominated post-war politics in Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries.  Nonetheless, Erdogan is quick to point out how that despite the similarities of ‘a conservative outlook’ and ‘similar attitude to family issues and to traditional values’, the AKP is far more tolerant compared with the ‘xenophobia’ of Christian Democratic parties (most likely referring to German Christian Democrats’ well-known paranoia regarding Turkish accession to the European Union) (38).   

What impact does the AKP victory have on Roy’s thesis, and on the thesis developed in this article of the conscience-driven, anti-popular standpoint of neofundamentalists?  Despite the popularity of the ‘Muslim democrats’ of the AKP, its electoral victory is more a reaction to the venality of the Turkish political class by the poor and disinherited of Turkey, rather than an endorsement of any glittering new vision.  Moreover, someof Roy’s incisive concluding insights anticipate to a great extent some of the themes raised by the electoral victory of the AKP.  

Roy argues that any Islamist political victory necessarily undermines itself, and in the long term, Islamism effectively acts as an agent of ideological secularisation in Muslim societies.  For by assimilating Islam to the state, Islam finds itself reduced to the level of the profane.  Rather than being a sacred, transcendent sanctuary away from worldly troubles, Islam becomes beholden to the mundane economic success or failure of a Third World state in a global economic system riven with structural inequalities.  Precisely foreseeing this outcome, most of the top ranks of Iran’s Shi’i clergy and Sheikh Fadlullah (Hizbollah’s spiritual guide) have never endorsed Khomeini’s theories of theocracy.   Now, Iran’s Shi’i clergy are a popularly-reviled political elite, responsible not to God but to an impoverished and disgruntled populace.  According to Roy: ‘Khomeinism was simultaneously the impetus to Iran’s Islamic revolution and its mortal blow.’ (39).  In Khomeini’s Islamic utopia, there is no way to comprehend the durability of economic inequality and social segmentation, except in mystified terms: ‘Islamism furnishes no conceptual apparatus for thinking about one’s own socio-political reality; hence its drift toward neofundamentalism.’ (40)   

So paradoxically, the only way that Islamists - or indeed ‘Muslim democrats’ - can avoid eviscerating the religious sphere is by keeping politics and religion separate.  Indeed, the repeated support voiced by the politically-shrewd AKP for Turkey’s secular constitution may well be a conscious strategy aimed at shielding the sanctity of the religious sphere from the vicissitudes of the international economy (Turkey has a foreign debt of roughly $120 billion) (41).  Hence, an ‘Islamist’ electoral victory has effectively required an explicit renunciation of Islamism, and as predicted by Roy the initial premise of Islamist thought ends by destroying its own ‘innovative elements’.     

A convergence of two factors ensures the end of Islamism: its ideological bankruptcy and the end of its alliance with U.S. military and political power.  Regardless of whether an invasion of Iraq takes place or not, the U.S. is severing its links to its old cold war ally.  Islam will not provide any political emancipation for the peoples of the Middle East, as the decaying regime in Teheran amply demonstrates.  Indeed, in alliance with U.S. political and military might, Islamic fundamentalism was explicitly designed as a bulwark against progressive political emancipation.  Predicting when the walking corpse will finally disintegrate is impossible; but what is for certain is that Islamism is ultimately condemned to historical failure.



(1) Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam (1994)I.B. Tauris Publishers London, New York

(2) In Islam, the clergy (ulema) exists as a corporate social body, not as an institutional body.  So clerical status is determined by a relationship to a body of knowledge (e.g., scripture, Sharia law) according to certain norms and procedures defined by the said corporate body.  A cleric does not gain membership of an institution, as is the case in Christianity.  A Christian cleric is a member of the institution of the Church, as well as being familiar with theology.

(3) See Yapp, M.E. The Near East Since the First World War: A History to 1995 (second edition) (1996)  Longman (London)  

(4) See Chapter 5 ‘The Spectrum of Middle East Resistance’ in Britain’s Moment in the Middle East:1914-1956 (1963) by Elizabeth Monroe, Chatto and Windus, London

(5) See Yapp, M.E. The Near East Since the First World War: A History to 1995 (second edition) (1996)  Longman (London)

(6) See Chapter 2 ‘The Concepts of Islamism’ in Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam (1994)I.B. Tauris Publishers London, New York

(7) See Yapp, M.E. The Near East Since the First World War: A History to 1995 (second edition) (1996)  Longman (London)

(8) Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam (1994)I.B. Tauris Publishers London, New York

(9) Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has declared that all of Lebanon supports Hizbollah.  Hizbollah has dropped the slogan of ‘Islamic republic’ from its political programme.  Ali Fayad of the Hizbollah politburo claims ‘Islamist movements … must accept the idea of political pluralism …They must also … avoid sinking into the logic of civil war that threatens the unity of Arab-Muslim societies.’  See ‘South Lebanon Resistance Fights On’ by Walid Charara and Marina da Silva, Translated by Harry Forster Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition) November 1999 

(10) See Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam (1994) I.B. Tauris Publishers London, New York

(11) p.62; Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam (1994) I.B. Tauris Publishers London, New York

(12) See Chapter 4 ‘The Impasses of Islamist Ideology’ Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam (1994) I.B. Tauris Publishers London, New York (1994)

(13) p.66; Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam I.B. (1994) Tauris Publishers London, New York

(14) See Stephens, Robert: Nasser: A Political Biography (1971) Penguin (London)  

(15) See Chapter 8 ‘The Agency Debate’ in Heartfield, James The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained (2002) Sheffield Hallam University Press

(16) p.34; Al-Azmeh, Aziz Islams and Modernities (1994) Verso  

(17) Pakistani support for the anti-Soviet mujahedin, and later the Taliban, was integral to Pakistan’s regional grand strategy: Afghanistan was invaluable as both base and training camp for guerrilla warfare in Kashmir.  Moreover, the ‘Islamic Emirate’ of the Taleban was to open a Pakistani corridor to central Asia, in order to give Pakistan strategic depth in its long-standing confrontation with India.  See Roy, Olivier ‘Fundamentalists without a common cause’, Translated by Barry Smerin, Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition) October 1998

(18) Aldrich, Richard J. ‘America used Islamists to arm the Bosnian Muslims’ The Guardian April 22 2002

(19) See  ‘Friends, Allies and enemies’ by James Heartfield 16 November 2001 Spiked Online

(20) Karawan, Ibrahim A. (1997) ‘The Islamist Impasse’  Adelphi Paper 314 International Institute for Strategic Studies Oxford University Press  

(21) Roy, Olivier ‘Fundamentalists without a common cause’ Translated by Barry Smerin Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition) October 1998

(22) Wolffe, Richard ‘ “You don’t look at this regime that has 60 tons of reprocessed plutonium and assume they’re bluffing” ’ Comment and Analysis Section, Financial Times November 1 2002

(23) Borger, Julian ‘US plans military rule and occupation of Iraq’ The Guardian October 12 2002

(24) Roy, Olivier ‘Fundamentalists without a common cause’ Translated by Barry Smerin Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition) October 1998

(25) See IRINews Asia ‘Pakistan: Electoral Victory for religion’ 1 November 2002 Available from

(26) ‘Friend or Foe?’ The Economist August 10 2002 U.S. Edition

(27) ‘Friend or Foe?’ The Economist August 10 2002 U.S. Edition

(28) Spiegel, Peter ‘Saudis harden stance on US bases’ Financial Times November 4 2002

(29) ‘Views Aired In Briefing on Saudis Disavowed’ Thomas E. Ricks Washington Post August 7 2002

(30) ‘Friend or Foe?’ The Economist August 10 2002 U.S. Edition

(31) ‘Senators Accuse Saudis of Not Helping to Fight Terror’ Johnston, David and Shenon, Philip The New York Times November 25 2002  

(32) See ‘US and Saudis fall out’ Guardian Saturday supplement: The Editor November 30 2002

(33) Editorial, The New York Times November 26 2002-12-01

(34) Tisdal, Simon ‘Sleeping with the enemy’ Guardian 28 November 2002

(35) ‘Friend or Foe?’ The Economist August 10 2002 U.S. Edition

(36) See Stern, David ‘A backwater catapulted to the world’s attention’ Financial Times ‘Companies and Markets’ section October 1 2002, and Anderson, Jon Lee 'Who needs Saudi Arabia when you've got Sao Tome?' The New Yorker October 7 2002

(37) Clover, Charles ‘Afghans offered sensual antidote to the Taliban’ Reuters April 23 2002

(38) Boulton, Leyla and Gardner, David ‘This weekend a Nato member, EU applicant and US ally is set to bring former Islamists to government’ Financial Times October 30 2002-12-01

(39) p.179; Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam I.B. (1994) Tauris Publishers London, New York

(40) p.202; Roy, Olivier The Failure of Political Islam (1994) I.B. Tauris Publishers London, New York

(41) Boulton, Leyla and Gardner, David ‘This weekend a Nato member, EU applicant and US ally is set to bring former Islamists to government’ Financial Times October 30 2002


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