A British author's 6 lessons to deal with Islamist-secularist struggle

John Owen calls for an understanding of Islam's struggle with secularism and provides insights into the relationship between state, religion and society
Updated on May 23, 2015 10:03 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByShaikh Mujibur Rehman, New Delhi
Ever since 9/11, there has been a dramatic surge of writings on Islam and the Muslim world - especially from the West. An area of study once entirely dominated by Bernard Lewis is now inundated with well-researched books by Western academics, thinks tanks, veteran journalists and advisors to various governments. Now, about a decade-and-a-half after 9/11 transformed global politics and brought to the fore attendant questions of war and peace - more decisively even than the fall of the Berlin wall - one wonders what is left to be learnt about Islam and the Muslim world.

Unfortunately, the strategy towards and the rhetoric of fear against Islam and the Muslim world remains the same. And the war against terror has taken many forms. Why has this subject been so hard to crack? John Owen, whose earlier book, The Clash of Ideas in World Politics, has been widely appreciated, promises something fresh on the subject, not just for scholars and readers but also for the world's power elites.

Owen clarifies that the book is not about Islam, but political Islam. He writes: "Political Islam matters, and it is not going to go away soon. It is a powerful ideology and social movement, running deep within and across most Muslim countries today and among minority Muslim populations... A source of hope to millions, an atavistic nightmare to millions of others." Here, Owen is not trying to simply analyse but seeks to give us clues on how to deal with it. The key fact he shares is that the problem is not new at all. And everything did not begin with Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda.

The West has had religious massacres during the course of its own history. Since the West was able to deal with it earlier, there are clues on how to deal with Islamic terror today too. The West, according to Owen, must look within. He recommends six lessons to deal with this old problem that is lately being presented as a new and unprecedented threat. The book makes two particular claims: firstly, understanding political Islam calls for an understanding of what it describes as "its long twilight struggle with secularism"; secondly, understanding the Islamist-secularist struggle requires that we need to grasp "the origins; dynamics, and ultimate end of similar ideological struggles in the history of the Western world."

Confronting Political Islam Six Lessons From the West’s Past John M Owen IV; Princeton University Press (Rs 1,888; PP216)

Ever since the emergence of political Islam in the 1920s, there have been claims about its imminent end. The first and most important lesson that the author shares is that such a prediction should not be taken seriously. That ideologies of any kind are not monolithic is the second important lesson. The third one is about foreign interventions which, the author argues, are to be seen as normal so long as Muslim societies struggle to find the most effective ways to order themselves. The fourth lesson is about how the state need not be rational or ideological and could, instead, be both. The fifth one is about how it is hard to predict the winner in a prolonged ideological struggle. The final lesson that Owen offers is that while Western nations remain key players in the struggle, the role of Iran, Turkey and Egypt matter more than what many observers consider.

He further analyses the different facets of the Middle East problem including unrest, repression, terrorism, revolution, intervention and international tensions, and also attempts to locate its real problem - to establish whether it is in deprivation, American imperialism, or in Islam itself. If deprivation is the key factor, he asks why sub-Saharan Africa has no terrorism. Next, he wonders, if American imperialism is the factor, why there are no suicide bombings in Latin America. Having examined various issues associated with Islam, he then concludes that the ideological struggle within Islam itself could be the key factor.

The effort to study the global terrorism question as an ideological one sounds convincing. However, any attempt to see it purely through the lens of an ideological struggle could be a simplistic one. In fact, the author warns against such fallacies. The real question is why the post-World War II global political order failed to engage Muslim societies and contribute to their compatibility with the global system. Scores of experts emphatically tell us that it is all about culture. The Arab Spring proved all of that wrong. We learnt that the Arabs are like everybody else; and that their ambition to live in a democratic world is as strong.

Consider how the interplay of forces exists in the intra-West conflict almost how it does in the Muslim world in the case of the Syrian conflict. That provokes us to ask how plausible it is to analyse the West and the Islamic World as distinct political categories. Scholars might see this as a limitation in Owen's analysis but that should not undermine the insights this work provides. This book will help readers understand the relationships between state, religion and society and will serve as a major source for scholars of international relations and conflict studies.

(Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. His book Communalism in Post-Colonial India: Changing Contours will be out in September 2015.)
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