10 March 2016

The Roots of Islamic Radicalism

On the Fatal Consequences of Broken Traditions

In the Arab world the most often repeated slogan of our age is Al-Islam din wa dawla: Islam is state and religion. It means religion and politics cannot be separated, they go hand in hand. The slogan suggests that Islamic radicalism too has to have two faces: a political and a religious one. In the following I will try to explain the phenomenon of “radical Islam” from both sides, and analyse the most important elements responsible for the rise and proliferation of radicalism in the world of Islam and in Europe today.




1) Turning first to the political roots of radicalism, rapid population growth is a key factor. The population of Islamic countries is today roughly nine times what it was a hundred years ago. In 1915 Persia’s population was 9 million, this compares with 80 million today. The corresponding numbers for Egypt are 11 and 90 million. At that time the population of Turkey together with the occupied Arab countries was 15 million, today 80 million, without the Arab countries. This surprisingly rapid population growth in countries with underdeveloped agriculture and industry led to numerous economic problems in Islamic societies in the last decades of the twentieth century. Masses of people were tossed into deep misery and hopelessness, which contributed to irresolvable internal tensions in those societies.

In 1915 the population of the territory known today as Hungary was about 8 million, thus, proportionally, Hungary should have around 70 million inhabitants today. In spite of the economic development of the last hundred years such a growth rate would inevitably lead to economic and social problems among others: large masses of jobless people, emigration, neighbouring countries that would see a continuous security risk in Hungary. Analogically, the same is valid for the countries in the Middle East.

2) In recent years, across the Arab countries and the Sahara a process of large scale desertification can be observed. In the last decade a seven-year long period of drought contributed to the extension of desert at the expense of agricultural land in many Arab countries, which resulted in food shortages and social unrest. Shrinkage of agricultural land in parallel to the overpopulation dynamic resulted in deep social and political problems and the eking out of subsistence means of living by citizens. The turmoil in some Arab countries, called by ignorant Western journalists with an unfounded optimism as the Arab Spring”, should be regarded as the first reaction to these tragic circumstances. This social and political situation was aggravated by many other factors.

3) The first one was the division of the Caliphate under the Turkish Sultan after the First World War, and accordingly the division of the Islamic umma (community) into national states that had been never seen before. This means that the new countries lost some components of their previous religious foundations, and they were built on western principles of national states. This brought along a deep change in political life. The new states were created rather cunningly: the seeds of later political quarrels were sown at the moment of their birth. In Iraq, Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites were united in one country, in Lebanon Maronites, Sunnis, Shi’ites and Druze. Those who killed each other in the past had to share the same country and live together. In Libya several tribes which were previously inimical towards each other had to form a new political entity. The creation of Syria and Jordan meant that many family relationships and historical ties were torn when a new border line was drawn between them, and the same happened between Syria and Iraq too.

In the Near and Middle East there are only three natural countries: Turkey, Iran and Egypt. All the other states were put together from various, incongruent, sometimes even hostile elements. Nevertheless, as a result of the existence of these countries, a new, more or less secular, national conscience emerged in the political field: an Iraqi conscience, a Syrian conscience etc. The new national conscience competes everywhere with the never extinguished Islamic conscience of umma. A blatant example of this conflict is that almost all political parties in the Arab countries pretend to be pan-Arab parties existing in the whole “Arab homeland”. The conflict of the more or less secular national state and the Islamic umma is well reflected in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is the home of all Muslims, but the head of state has to be a Persian-speaking person. The same conflict between the national state and the Islamic umma was manifested by several attempts to create a union among two or more Arab countries, and in the failure of all these attempts.

4) The new national states emerging of nothing lacked political traditions, administrative skills and experiences necessary for successful governments. They suffered from economic difficulties, as mentioned earlier, and they sought remedy both in Western liberalism and in East European socialism. The lack of success of both attempts resulted in the failure of the secular national state and the revival of Islam; people were led by the idea that in the Middle Ages, when Islam was strong and glorious, the Islamic world was successful. Thus the remedy for all troubles and social diseases might be the return to Islam and the unified homeland for all Muslims. This attitude shifts the balance of forces in the process of political struggles towards the adherents of the idea of a new Islamic Caliphate.

Thus the new contradiction created after the First World War by peace treaties is that of the national state and secularism on the one hand, and the umma and the Islamic state, on the other. This contradiction resulted in a long series of internal political conflicts and struggles in the Arab world. Paradoxically, the creation of national and secular states after the First World War and their economic failure paved the way for the revival of Islam. The politically motivated return to Islam was naturally accompanied by the appearance of political Islam.

5) The process of the creation of new states has been crowned by the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine. The new state was driven like a wedge into the Levant, between Arabs in North Africa and those in the Middle East, separating the ever-to-be unified Arabs of the region. The establishment of the new state was accompanied by the expulsion of several millions of Palestinian Arabs who, both for political and for economic reasons, were not admitted, or could not be admitted to and accepted by other Arab countries, which themselves suffered from extremely rapid population growth. The unsolved problem of Palestine and the Palestinians goes back to the Israeli–Arab conflict, due to which by now the fourth and fifth generations of Palestinians are living in refugee camps, without any foreseeable hope of improvement in their living conditions. This 70-year-old wound in the Arab world is still open.

6) The new Arab states after the First World War could not enjoy real independence, as they were promised before the war. They were treated by Great Britain and France as colonies, and were dependent in every respect on the great powers. The situation became especially desperate after the discovery of oil in many Arab countries: the great powers had almost free access to the natural resources of the region, but did nothing to improve the continuously deteriorating economic conditions, and to help states take care of growing populations. Compared to the rest of the world, the economic and cultural development of the new countries was very slow as in spite of their newly found natural resources, their economies were lagging behind that of most other countries. This fact explains why they were still categorised after the Second World War as “underdeveloped countries”.

7) After the Second World War, when drives for independence by colonies were emerging around the world, some Arab and Islamic countries also tried to take their future into their own hands, which meant first of all the nationalisation of their own natural resources. They calculated that they had no other choice if they wanted to tackle their grave demographic and economic problems. By doing so however they damaged the economic interests of the great powers, which were not slow in taking actions against their rebellious colonies.

First they overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran, because it nationalised the country’s oil fields which were under the supervision of a British oil company. It was followed by a retaliation against the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which hurt British interests again. The same scenario was played out again and again: the ruling person of a country becomes an enemy of the Western World; he does not share the values of the Western civilisation, and professes either fascist or communist ideals. At the same time the international press begins to demonise him as a despot. As a result, countries defending their basic interests and choosing democratic elections and secular politics (incidentally compatible with Western ideals) find themselves on the morally wrong side, whereas the countries exploiting them appear on the morally good side, pretend to be defenders of humanity and Western democratic values, and feel obliged to punish the rebelling countries by imposing economic sanctions on them.1

8) In addition the 70-year-long period of peace in Europe is arguably due to the exporting of European wars to the Middle East. For example, the civil war going on in Syria now is, or was at least until recently, a clash between the rising Russian power and its Western adversaries. Created by some Arab and Western countries mobilising local forces against the Shi‘ite government, and by proxy against Iran and the “Shi‘ite crescent”, the common target of those Arab and Western countries, the conflict offers the Russian state (and China in the background) an excellent opportunity for a show of strength to its opponents in the Middle East, as well as a comeback to the stage of international politics and of setting limits to the aspirations of the US to find solutions, a new pax americana, to the Middle East crisis (caused by the US itself).

The same analysis pertains to the long series of the Arab–Israeli conflicts and other local wars. A battlefield for foreign powers, the Arab countries had to withstand a lot of suffering and pay high prices in human life.

9) And finally, one has to mention the export of democracy to the Middle East. Political philosophy in Islam is based on the tribal traditions of the Arabs on the one hand, and on Byzantine political theory on the other. These two constituent elements of the Islamic political philosophy were compatible with each other for a long time; both of them were based on the rule of one man, who in turn has to consult the appropriate persons or bodies. According to the rules of Islam, any kind of revolution against the ruler is forbidden, as long as he defends the religion of Islam and enables people to live corresponding to the prescriptions ofthe sharia. As a well-known religious maxim says: it is better to have a tyrant for forty years than to remain without a ruler for one day. The fourth Sura of the Koran demands unquestioning obedience from all believers: “O you who believe, obey Allah and obey his Messenger and those who are in authority among you.”2

The only exception which allows revolt is corruption, which creates a general deterioration of all conditions of life.

This religiously based abstention from revolution is one of the reasons which explain why the massive foreign interference in Syria remained ineffective: the great majority of the Syrian citizens did not want to revolt against their own, democratically elected government. Only the foreign “defenders of democracy” ignored the will of the Syrian people.

Thus the ideal leader in the Islamic state can be considered an autocrat or tyrant in the West. Nevertheless, any aspiration to “liberate” by force a country from its “tyrant” from outside is a violation of the local traditions and the feelings of the local people. A special “un-success story” is the enforcement of so-called democratic elections” in some Arab countries. Suffice to remember the elections of Algeria, where the victory of the Islamic party was rejected by the very Western countries which imposed the elections on Algeria. The same happened in Palestine after the victory of Hamas.

These and similar events prove that human rights, democracy, and all other concepts of the Western political tradition, for the lack of which the Islamic countries are continuously castigated, are merely pretexts of interference into their internal affairs and attempts to impose foreign will and ordinance on them.

In all these cases the West fails to speak openly of the selfish economic interests of the great powers, of exploitation and oppression of the peoples of the region, but only of moral values to be defended.3

As is well-known from ancient history, the Romans arriving to Hispania did not want in any way to occupy the land. But when seeing how badly the slaves were treated by their masters, out of pity they felt obliged to march in and attach the peninsula to the Roman Empire, only aiming at the restoration of humanity in the new provinces. International politics in the West still follows the Roman model.




As a natural consequence of all these economic and political, internal and external factors, and of the general desperation generated by them, large masses feel disappointment, frustration and exacerbation in the Islamic world. In this hopeless and dismal situation the general conviction gained ground that the Golden Age and the old glory of the Islamic countries can be restored if they return to the faith, giving up secularism, liberalism and everything that they have taken over from the West in the expectation that these will serve as remedies for all kinds of social and political diseases.4 A religious awakening of this kind is always followed by neophyte zeal, and especially, when people are pushed forward by desperation, they are ready to go to extremes. The world of Islam is not an exception to this rule: the Islamic awakening means the spread of the most traditional and severe schools everywhere. (I deliberately avoid the expression “fundamentalism”, because it has no sense in Arabic and has no Arabic equivalent.) Devout observance of religious rules, however, even in the case of the strictest schools, is far from radicalism. Radicalism is alien to purely religious systems, which strive to regulate the relationship between God and man, or between man and his brethren or neighbours. Radicalism is rather connected to political Islam, which means the political application of the Islamic religious principles.

Turning to the religious aspect of radicalism, in this paper I will not touch on the adventurers who turn up everywhere in the world, especially in regions in a chaotic situation and in combat zones. Naturally, they are now present in large numbers in Syria, Iraq and Libya, but they do not pertain to the topic of my discussion.

First of all, Islamism, i.e. political Islam, can be divided roughly into two groups. The first one is that of the “legitimate” movements that belong to the last generations of the two-century-long tradition of Islamic reformism.5 These movements are usually theoretically well-founded and, generally, their doctrines are derived from accepted religious principles. Suffice to mention al-Mawdūdī from Pakistan, and Rūhullāh Khomaini from Iran, who carried al-Mawdūdī’s political theory into execution. Sayyid Quṭb and the Muslim Brotherhood, together with Sayyid Ḥasan Naṣrallāh and his Ḥizb Allāh and other similar movements and parties also belong to the legitimate group. (Their “legitimacy” depends on the accepted official religious views they derive their doctrines from.) Their common aim is to establish an Islamic (al-Mawdūdī) or theocratic (Sayyid Quṭb) state, which realises Allah’s suzerainty (ākimiyyat Allāh) on earth. Allah’s rule involves the practice and implementation of sharī‘a in everyday life, and the elimination of foreigners and all kinds of foreign influence from the state. These aspirations imply a radical break with the traditions of the previous era of secular states.

In the beginning various radical movements of Islam took firm steps against the secular governments (in Iran against the royal regime, in Egypt against Jamal Abd al-Nasser, etc.), and, as several books published recently in the US prove,6 they were supported by the US government. The indirect recognition connected with moral support, and the substantial financial support coming from governments or wealthy private persons of oil-producing countries largely contributed to the ascent and subsequent success of these hardcore puritanical movements.

A more compound phenomenon is the case of the second, rather “illegitimate” group of radical movements, e.g. al-Kaida, al-Nusra Front or the so-called Islamic State, just to name a few of them. (I call them “illegitimate”, because their doctrines are based on insufficient knowledge of Islam.) These radical, combating groups have obviously not very much to do with religion, because they violate all basic norms of Islam. Suffice to remember that Islam forbids any resort to force against unarmed civil population in war, protects women and children in occupied territories, and warrants free life for Christians and Jews as ahl al-kitāb, and so on. The reality one can observe in the civil war in Syria is the opposite. Members of these radical groups kill Christians, because they are infidels, kill Jews, because they are infidels, they kill Yazidis, because they are infidels, they kill Shi‘ites, because they are infidels, and they kill Sunnis, if there is any reason to blame them as infidels. They sell women as slaves, if they are not Muslims, because they are infidels, or if not they are not good enough Muslims. Everything they do or say proves their insufficient knowledge of Islam.7 Nevertheless, they refer at every instance to their Islamic faith, because being Muslims, they are unable to justify their behaviour in other terms. Islam is for them merely a point of reference, without noticing that everything they do is only discredit to official Islam.

These people, lacking sufficient knowledge, rely on randomly known passages of the Koran. For example the Qur’an says: “They are indeed disbelievers who say: Allah is the Messiah son of Mary.”8  This sentence picked out of the Koran – while leaving out of consideration other passages and some relevant pieces of hadith – can serve as sufficient ground for the above-mentioned murderous zeal against Christians. This neophyte ardour is especially dangerous among Muslims living in Europe, where a young generation, born there and educated in liberal and secular spirit regains its national and Islamic religious identity, and far from the general moderate spirit of the Muslims in the Middle East, swings emotionally to the other extreme. This state of mind generated by ignorant and fanatical spiritual leaders can result in ignorant, fanatical believers.9 In addition, if these young people come from underprivileged suburban milieus, where they might be targets of restrictive practices, they give free course to their social dissatisfaction and wrath, which takes the shape of illegitimate radicalism.

For various reasons, this illegitimate Islamic radicalism, mainly as a form of protest against the extant social system, can be attractive to young people with European background. No wonder that they too are ready to convert to Islam and join the Islamic State as volunteers.

Finally I have to say that Islamic radicalism, as far as its religious aspect is concerned, can be traced back to one-sided or insufficient knowledge of Islam. It is, however, very much a sociological and political phenomenon. One has to bear in mind that people educated in Islam are not able to express their dissatisfaction and despair, except in (half-understood) Islamic terms.

Radical Islam is thus a common product of the unfortunate economic and political conditions in the Islamic countries, of the failure of secular pan-Arabism, and of disastrous European and American interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic countries in order to protect their political, economic and military interests.

1 M. Lüders: Wer den Wind sät: Was westliche Politik im Orient anrichtet, München (C. H. Beck), 2015.

2 Qur’an, Surat al-nisa’, 59.

3 M. Lüders: Op. cit.

4 An interesting collection of naive sociological illusions is presented by David Lerner: The Passing of the Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East, New York (Free Press), 1958.

5 A. Hourani: Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798–1939, London, 1962; A. Belqazīz: Al-Dawla fīl-fikr al-islāmī al-muāir, Beirut, 2002.

6 Robert Baer: Sleeping with the Devil, New York (Crown Publishing), 2003; Robert Dreyfuss: Devil’s Game, New York (Metropolitan Books), 2005.

7 Their principles of government are contained in a volume (Management of Savagery) of Abū Makr Nāǧī: Idārat al-tawaḥḥush, Markaz al-dirāsāt wa-’l-buḥūth al-islāmiyya, Internet, 2004.

8 Qur’an, surat 5, 16.

9 From the vast literature see Ed Husain: The Islamist, London (Penguin Books), 2007.

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