The Failure of Political Islam

by Olivier Roy
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. 238 pp. $22.95.

Trans. by Carol Volk from the French: L’Echec de l’Islam politique. Paris: Seuil, 1992. 255 pp. 140FF


Reviewed by Daniel Pipes


For decades, “the Middle East conflict” referred to the Arab-Israeli confrontation. Now, as this dispute abates somewhat, the central conflict of the region concerns fundamentalist Islam: will fundamentalist Muslims manage to take power, or will the mostly nonfundamentalist autocrats now in power stay there?

The answer has enormous importance primarily to the Muslims involved, but also to Israel and the United States. Should fundamentalists win power, the Middle East is in for a long and dark era. Weapons of mass destruction will proliferate; warfare will become more common; and economies will contract. All-out hostility with Israel will likely be the case again; Americans will be targeted for terrorism and other violence.

The fundamentalists could well take over several governments in a short period. In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) has launched a virtual civil war. In Egypt, radical fundamentalists control parts of the cities and countryside. Fundamentalist parties have done impressively well in nearly all the Muslim countries with electoral politics (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Malaysia). By any measure, the fundamentalist challenge to the established order is growing. Much of the Muslim world is currently at risk.

It therefore comes as something of a surprise to find that Olivier Roy, a leading French analyst of Islam, has written a book titled The Failure of Political Islam. Political Islam a failure? Roy knows all about Algeria and the other countries, of course, so “failure” for him must refer to something other than conventional political power.

The failure he alludes to follows from an elaborate argument that distinguishes between Islamism and neofundamentalism. For Roy, the former means the drive for political power, and the latter means focusing on the family and the mosque. Instead of taking over the state, neofundamentalists try to create their own miniature versions of the just society. What the government of Iran furthers is Islamism, while the Saudi authorities sponsor neofundamentalism. In Roy’s view, neofundamentalism represents a “degradation” and an “enfeeblement” of Islamism, for it challenges “the political, economic, and social realms . . . only in words.”

Outside of Iran itself, he argues, Islamism has failed and the weaker cause of neofundamentalism has flourished. This “watering down” of Islam means that Islam has but limited political force. Its impact, aside from the parenthesis of the Iranian revolution and the war in Afghanistan, is essentially sociocultural: it marks the streets and customs but has no power relationship in the Middle East. It does not influence either state borders or interests. It has not created a “third force” in the world. It has not even been able to offer the Muslim masses a concrete political expression for their anticolonialism.

The challenge of fundamentalist Islam, in brief, is overrated. Roy grandly declares “the Islamic revolution is behind us.” This is so even in Iran: “the Tehran of the mullahs,” he asserts in an astonishing passage, “has a very American look.” (To which this reader replies: Check carefully the next photograph you see from Tehran and decide how much it brings to mind your own hometown.)

For these reasons, Roy concludes, fundamentalist Islam poses no great challenge to the West. It “is not a geostrategic factor: it will neither unify the Muslim world nor change the balance of power in the Middle East.” We can relax. “Degraded” and “enfeebled” as it is, fundamentalism would mean no serious changes even should it stagger to power: “Today, any Islamist political victory in a Muslim country would produce only superficial changes in customs and law.”

Roy is a very knowledgeable student of Islam, even a brilliant one, whose (well-translated) book is replete with fine insights and memorable epigrams. (My favorite: “There are happy Muslims; there are no happy Islamists.”) His analysis contains some important kernels of truth. He is right to note, for example, that fundamentalist Islam is a form of modernization. Contrary to the usual assumption, it is not medieval in spirit at all but an acutely modern form of protest. In Roy’s elegant formulation, it “is the sharia [Islamic sacred law] plus electricity.”

Roy also makes the important point that fundamentalist Islam cannot work: there’s no possibility that its program will serve Muslims well or that they will stick with it over the long haul. As Muslims recognize fundamentalism to be dysfunctional, they will abandon it. Here, however, Roy misses the point: the realization that fundamentalism does not work could be years or decades off; in the meantime, as the Marxist-Leninist precedent shows, regimes can do a great deal of mischief to their own populace and the rest of the world. The mullahs in Iran have tasted power and appear to like it; we must assume they will make great efforts to retain control of their country.

But the stunningly wrong-headed notion in Roy’s book is his thesis about the failure of fundamentalist Islam. He seems to assume that because fundamentalists have not swept the Muslim world, they cannot do so in the future. This is comparable to an analyst’s looking around in 1933, sixteen years after the Bolshevik revolution, and deciding that because communism came to power in only two countries (Mongolia being the second), and even there did not live up to its socialist ideals, therefore “the revolution is behind us.” That would have been a profoundly mistaken conclusion; and so is Roy’s today, sixteen years after the Iranian Revolution.

Indeed, Roy has already been proven wrong. The French version of The Failure of Political Islam appeared in October 1992, and the three years since have exposed his complete misunderstanding of the situation in Algeria. He expected a “watered down” movement not to amount to much; if FIS reaches power in Algeria, he predicted, it “will not invent a new society. . . . the FIS’s Algeria will do nothing more than place a chador [women’s headdress] over the FLN’s Algeria.”

Well, FIS is yesterday’s organization, surpassed by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). As its name implies, the GIA is not a gentle band of preachers urging moral self-improvement but a deadly gang of murderers. News of their work comes almost daily out of Algiers. They specialize in murdering the children of police officers, women without veils, unsympathetic journalists, and non-Muslim foreigners. They kill their victims in particularly horrifying ways, slitting throats and cutting off heads. As in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge attacked all those educated and Western-oriented, so in Algeria is anyone speaking French or wearing a business suit a potential victim. In comparison to the potential deaths in the culture war building in Algeria, the revolution in Iran was child’s play. The GIA on its own repudiates Roy’s prediction of fundamentalism’s becoming tame.

Which raises the question: How can someone who knows so much be so completely wrong? Roy seems to write in the French tradition of intellectual virtuosity-taking an implausible point and making a brilliant argument for it. He also indulges in the intellectuals’ sin of épater la bourgeoisie; fears of fundamentalist Islam being particularly severe in middle-class France these days, he perversely must insist on their being illusory.

But whatever games Roy is playing in his own circles, his book has potentially real importance in the United States. Enlightened opinion already tells us not to worry about fundamentalist Islam: leading American specialists on the subject, such as John Entelis, John Esposito, and John Voll, argue that we should look beyond fundamentalism’s rough edges and bristling rhetoric. If we do so, we will find a movement that is democratic in spirit, capitalist in orientation, and prepared to co-exist with the West. To this, Roy adds: fundamentalist Islam has degenerated into a quietist movement seeking to create nothing more than “authentically Muslim microsocieties.”

Coming at a time when FIS and the GIA are within striking distance of taking power, his words suggest that Americans need not worry about events in Algeria. Unfortunately, Roy and his ilk have the ear of our policymakers, for it is U.S. policy in Algeria (but less so in Egypt and Iran) conspicuously not to condemn the fundamentalists’ ideas and goals. Instead, it seeks them out to engage in dialogue.

As Algeria stands today on the threshold of becoming the last great tragedy of the twentieth century, leading intellectuals find ways, yet again, to lull Westerners into false hopes. Let us at last learn from history and this time not be fooled.


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