Another day, another violent attack targeting civilians. Another sad occasion for both apologists and bigots to battle on various media outlets and continue creating more confusion about the dire situation of our world today. I have written a number of previous blog entries that briefly dealt with some of the challenges that face us all today while at the same time avoiding to fall in the twin traps of polemics and apologetics, playing attack or defense about this thing we simplistically call “Islam.” In this short intervention, I want to propose two points. One is that groups and organizations that use violence for political gain under the banner of Islam have, despite their different agendas and tactics, a significant common element. They all come from settings of severe failures, confusions, and frustrations that emanate from the highly uneven experiences of the postcolonial states in the Muslim world, particularly with the intensification of globalization in the last few decades. They also find recruits within Muslim diaspora communities in Western countries that have implemented over the decades policies that simply failed to create satisfying avenues for social inclusion.
Keeping this common element in mind, I also propose a second point. The highly visible violent acts by Islamist groups and individuals adhering to their ideology have an impact that is larger and more dangerous than their short-term or long-term political objectives. This impact concerns how social actors, who are simplistically reduced to the label “Muslim” and who are themselves products of the same contexts described above, become entangled in a web of perception that will unfortunately make the future even more challenging for all of us. Of particular interest here is how non-Muslims perceive Muslims and how Muslims perceive themselves in the contemporary world. In both cases, serious misconceptions and distortions are amplified as a result of the highly mediatized actions of violent jihadists.
It is analytically useful to keep different Islamist organizations that use violence within separate frames in order not to impose a generalized view on groups that have their own internal histories, cultural specificities, and socio-political contexts. However, it also becomes tempting then to disregard the commonalities. This is especially important when these commonalities can provide the observer with important keys to better understanding the highly volatile times in which we live.
One of the most important common elements and the one that might seem counter-intuitive is the similarity in context. By this, of course, I do not mean that all these groups are active within the same local setting. Rather, I would suggest that there are features of their social and political contexts that transcend the localities and that create a background shared by most of these organizations. All these groups developed within crisis-laden postcolonial countries with Muslim-majority populations. It is important to note that, historically, most of these populations had adhered to popular forms of Islam and that the premodern world that preceded the rise of the modern nation-states was dominated by rulers who gave one or another form of Islam a central role in the organization of their geographical domains, without having the reach and control abilities of modern states. Significantly, rulers had to negotiate their power with the “managers of the sacred” i.e. the ʿulamā’ or religious scholars. But with the onslaught of European imperialism and colonialism, the systems in place all around the Muslim world were seriously challenged. This included the partial disintegration of the authority of the ʿulamā’. Importantly for our discussion here, the policies of the schizophrenic postcolonial nation-states on one hand and the new unsettling international geopolitical realities on the other hand created popular grievances on a large scale. Even a cursory look at the realities in most parts of the so-called Muslim world would show disturbing trends at all social and political levels.
Without being exhaustive, one can note the lack of a free civil society and the lack of spaces of solidarity between “citizens,” based on meaningful participation. Connected to this, at the economic level, no room was given to the rise of large middle classes, the role of which would have been crucial in opening the door to creativity and the nurturing of dynamic outlooks that maintain a balance between conservatism and liberalism. Instead, within the postcolonial states, small elites came to control the political process and the economic sector. The enormous gap between the rich few and the deprived many reached shocking levels. This was exacerbated by the old tribal and religious rivalries that remained alive and well and by the flux of migrants from the country side to the cities, eventually creating slums and very harsh living conditions.
The neoliberal economic model that came to dominate after the end of the Cold War created conditions that made the local situations even more explosive. Here again there is a dearth of spaces for meaningful participation by the “global citizens” in shaping their own futures. The glaring limitations of an organization like the United Nations in providing avenues for such participation can be contrasted to the imposed economic policies of international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank that, regardless of their ultimate goals, have created in the short and medium terms, unacceptable social exclusions and severe economic disparities in the world. The global stage then became even more divided between the rich and seemingly unaccountable few on one side and the impoverished and voiceless many on the other.
We see that regardless of whether the violent Islamist groups operate at local or global levels, there is a background setting that ferments severe popular grievances. One could argue that this background setting is characterized by many forms of structural violence that lead to much anger, and at times, despair. It is not surprising that there is a backlash although not all groups react in the same fashion.
In Muslim contexts, those who seek to mobilize a movement of protest have access to the powerful religious symbols of a once militarily dominant civilization. This brings me to another common element between the groups and organizations under discussion, namely that in the face of what they perceive as a loss of control over one’s own destiny, they advocate violence as the only adequate avenue. In this, they differ from those groups within the Islamist movement that espouse a more gradualist and accomodationist approach. It would however be a mistake to see the two sides as unrelated, since they both share a commitment to a similar social and political order. This commitment to Islamic symbols, coupled with willingness, and at times, even eagerness to use violence needs a long analysis that is beyond the scope of this blog post. What is important for our purposes is that the proponents of violence within the Islamist movement need to justify their choices in Islamic terms. Here, the traditional concept of jihad becomes central, but it is taken out of its traditional frame of reference and instrumentalized in a particular direction.
It is clear that the rise of violent Islamist groups has had a major impact on our contemporary world. One only needs to scan the daily international news to witness the various ways in which the activities of “Jihadist” groups impact the lives of people all around the world, including in Muslim-majority societies. But, I would argue that an even bigger, long-lasting, and wide-ranging impact of these groups concerns the way in which social actors, who are themselves products of the same general context described above, become caught up in a web of perception that involves defining the “self” and the “other.” Of particular interest to this short piece are 1) the way non-Muslims perceive Muslims and 2) the way in which Muslims perceive themselves.
Because the proponents of violence among Islamists constantly use Islamic symbols and Islamic terminology, these symbols and terminology become entangled within the webs of meaning that the violent groups and their ideologues weave. For non-Muslims, even those who are fairly informed, it then becomes extremely difficult to move beyond the framing that violent Islamists present. This is exacerbated by other factors. One factor is that most media outlets, for a variety of reasons, are prone to sensationalism. Even those events that are rather mundane are often approached from angles that seek to grab the media consumer’s attention. Not surprisingly, the actions of violent Islamists satisfy more than anything else the dominant media’s appetite.
The other factor that deepens the misconceptions is the agendas of some political groups within Western settings. For many of these political actors, maintaining the fear of everything Islamic is very useful. Thus, many a forum and community event is transformed into an arena for highlighting the dangers posed by violent “Islam” while at the same time maintaining and even encouraging ambiguity about what is what and who is who within “Islam.” New generations of Westerners and non-Muslims around the world are raised with this emotionally and psychologically draining ambiguity about who Muslims are and about what they exactly want.
Even more problematic in my mind is the way that the actions of violent Islamists shape the way Muslims perceive themselves in the contemporary world. The violence in the name of God/Islam against the enemies of God/Islam is a confusingly complex subject in Muslim contexts. Part of the confusing complexity stems from the fact that Muslim memory was shaped by an understanding that the best of all generations i.e. the early generations of Muslims, the Companions of Muhammad and their immediate successors were involved in violent jihads against the enemies of God/Islam. The message is not only preached in mosques around the Muslim world and available on satellite television programs and popular websites, it is also part of the curriculum of elementary and secondary schools in most nation-states.
This is especially relevant to the world of postcolonial states because most of them achieved their independence at least partly through violent struggles under the banner of jihad against foreign occupiers. It also remained useful for the postcolonial states after independence to constantly reconnect the populations to the notion of jihad, because it allowed the states to keep the attention of their citizens on external threats rather than on the frustrations against the local governments. Consequently, when Muslims today witness the highly mediatized violent actions of Islamist groups, there is some form of dissonance at play.
This does not mean that all Muslims support the perpetrated violence. It is safe to say that the vast majority rejects it. But, whether Muslims reject Islamist violence, support it, or sympathize with it without openly supporting it, the interaction with the violent actions creates an emotional response that has serious ramifications on how the Muslim heritage is approached. Rather than being able to create room for critical engagement with that heritage, Muslims are put in a position of emotional engagement with the purpose of maintaining an imagined identity tied to some vague Islam; with many defending “true Islam” from the violence of modern actors and some defending the authenticity of struggling for God at all prices. What remains unthought or even unthinkable, to use the late Mohammed Arkoun’s terminology, is that any heritage is a historical construction. Parts of that heritage might be liberating; other parts might be on the contrary alienating or oppressive; yet others might have been liberating at one historical point but become oppressive in contemporary settings.
To be clear, I am not implying that no Muslim is committed to critically engage his heritage. There are certainly many Muslims of various currents who do just that. But, their audiences remain marginal. Nor do I suggest that Islamist violence is the cause of the dearth of critical engagement with the inherited traditions. There are of course a variety of factors that lead to this situation, some of them touched upon above in the discussion of the larger contexts. However, Islamist violence intensifies the emotional responses and freezes the encounter with Islam to the political here and now, thus pushing further away the deeper intellectual and spiritual encounters with an extremely rich heritage.
Most studies on “Jihadist” groups focus on the short-term security issues surrounding their activities in order to limit their immediate impact. I propose to further investigate the ways in which Islamist violence impacts Muslim perceptions of themselves and non-Muslims’ vision of Muslims in order to have a better grasp of the long-term challenges facing our global communities in a fast-changing environment.