Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Origins of Islamic Radicalism

[Written the fall of 2006 in conjunction with a Methodist church study of Islam]

Where did Islamic radicalism come from?

Protest by Islamic Fundamentalists in London
This is an important question, because we know that the Islamic civilization that has spanned some 14 centuries and a large part of the African, Middle Eastern, and Asian continents cannot in itself be called radical. To the contrary, it has been throughout history a most impressive civilization, which blended the Islamic religion as founded by the 7th century prophet Muhammad, with all of the geographic, cultural, social, political, and economic factors that go into any civilization, whether it be Western Civilization, the Chinese Civilization, or the Indian Civilization of the South Asian Subcontinent.

The entity we call Islam was and is actually a hybrid civilization that brought together elements of Arab, Latin, Greek, Persian, and Jewish cultures. For about 400 years, from 800 to 1200 AD, it was one of the greatest civilizations of the time, far more cultivated than the Europe of the Dark Ages. Medicine, astronomy, architecture, mathematics, poetry, history, and religious studies flourished. Even the Crusades, the invasion by the West to regain the Holy Land, didn’t really amount to much. Then around the 13th century, the Islamic empire began to decline, especially under the attacks by the Mongols of Genghis Khan, who invaded the lands of the Middle East, conquering the centers of Islam, including the great centers in Persia and eventually the great Islamic city of Baghdad. Millions of Muslims were slaughtered by the Mongols, who ironically themselves eventually became converts to Islam.

Eventually, the Ottoman Turks succeeded the Arabs as rulers of Islam, and the Ottoman empire in its turn became one of the greatest empires in the world for the next six centuries. It eventually conquered what remained of the Eastern Roman Empire called Byzantium and converted its capital city from Constantinople to Istanbul.

Yet the best days of the Islamic civilization were behind it by the 14 century, and it passed the cultural baton, so to speak, to the West, beginning with the Italian renaissance, which profited immensely from the cultural and intellectual achievements of the Persians Muslims especially. After that, Islam sunk into a kind of cultural slumber, not really ever going through the ages of reason and science that caused the West to become such a powerful civilization technologically. With the failure of the Ottoman Turk advance on Vienna in 1683, Islam began its long military, political and economic decline vis-à-vis the West.

In Western Europe, the forces of capitalism and democracy were stirring, spurred on by the scientific, technological, and rational advances of the age of reason. The Spanish, then the British and the Dutch, and finally the French began to project their power around the world, conquering this land and then that land. The Islamic countries were first touched by this when the armies of Napoleon invaded Egypt and then colonized other North African countries. Britain had already colonized India and other Asian lands with their large Muslim populations. Finally, when the Ottoman Empire sided with the losing Axis powers in World War I, it was eaten up by the victorious Allies, with England taking over the provinces making up Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt while Lebanon and Syria were taken over the French. Persia, current day Iran, was just about the only country to not be colonized. Over the next 80 years, all of these countries would gain their formal independence from the European imperial powers. Yet they would continue to be caught in the large political crosscurrents caused by the Cold War between the Soviet Union and Russia.

During all of this time, the religion of Islam continued to nurture and control the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the people of the Islamic civilization. And it was a remarkably centrist and stable Islam, with a certain diversity and toleration for diversity.

So what are the factors that have caused the development of Islamic radicalism in the 20th century?

First of all, Islamic radicalism was a reaction to the secularism and modernism of the West. Western secularism began to impact Islamic society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were the upper classes of society, the ruling and relatively wealthy elite, who for the most part, accepted the forces of modernizing change. They attended Western educational institutions, often in Europe or the United States. They began to dress like Europeans, casting aside their traditional garb. They began to allow women, who were traditionally kept in very subservient, domestic roles, to begin to be educated, to work, and to dress like Western women. In addition, these Islamic elite began to advocate for the progressive secularization of Muslim society along Western lines, separating religion from politics, education, and the legal system.

In reaction to this, a minority of Muslims developed a movement called Islamic Fundamentalism, and this movement was led by religious conservatives who opposed modernism and favored the traditional ways of Islam. They deeply resented the changes going on in their society, fearful that it would lead to the kind of social decadence that was beginning to appear in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries, with its moral permissiveness and family breakdown. This deep split between the modern and the traditional in Islamic lands seemed to be much more dramatic and substantial than anything seen in the West.

The first major embodiment of Islamic Fundamentalism was in Egypt with the rise and growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s. This religious organization, based in the growing slums of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, drew many rural immigrants into its fold and, through the use of social welfare measures, such as providing health care, supplemental food, education, and employment opportunities, as well as indoctrinating them in the fundamentalist worldview, was able to forge a growing mass movement that was anti-Western and anti-modern. Over the years, this model of organization was duplicated throughout the Muslim world, and at the same time, became increasingly militant in its demands and political in its goals.

What did and do the Islamic Fundamentalists want? First of all, they reject the Modern West and its alien cultural ways. To them it is seen as a “civilization of lazy people obsessed with longevity, physical beauty, financial success and material possessions.” It is also “colonialist, self-assured, barbarous, and racist…a collection of casinos, supermarkets, and whorehouses linked together by endless highways passing through nowhere.” It is not too much to say that the fundamentalists hate the West and its current leader, the United States, considering it to be the agent of Satan in the world. They believe that God is seeking to destroy the West for its sins and paganism, and they would like to be agents of that destruction.

They want to return the traditional Islamic ways of life, and this includes the demand that the creedal and ethical dictates of Islam, traditionally understood, be publicly recognized and legally enforced, in all their strictness. Women and men are to be socially separated, and women are to be kept in merely domestic roles, wearing traditional Islamic clothing that covers everything including most of the face. Islamic law, directly derived from the Koran, is to be the recognized and enforced law of the land. The regular Islamic religious ritual is be faithfully performed by every person. Every behavior that contradicts the Koranic law is to be prohibited, and there many such prohibitions, ranging from drinking alcohol, to watching Western television and movies, to reading Western books or magazines. The education in Islamic societies is to be traditional, avoiding any contact with Western ideas. Ideally, the Islamic world is to be reunited, by force if necessary through Jihad, under one just ruler, who, though not ruling democratically, would rule by Islamic justice, thus completing the re-Islamization of the land of Islam.

Interestingly, we can see a somewhat parallel phenomenon occurring in Christianity, particularly in America, with the rise of Christian fundamentalism. It has a similar desire to return to the traditional Christian way of thinking and acting. We have seen this around this, with the rise of home schooling, creationism, pro-life movement, and so on.

The second major cause of Islamic radicalism is the establishment of Israel in 1948. The rise of Israel saw a concurrent forcing into exile of many of the inhabitants of Palestine, which was an event of great pain to the Islamic world, which saw Israel as a permanent intrusion of the West into the Islamic civilization. Then with the conquest of Jerusalem, which was a holy city to Muslims, things got even worse. Finally, most Muslims see the United States as an uncritical supporter of Israel and this has caused them to be quite anti-American as a result.

A third cause of Islamic radicalism would seem to be the involvement of the United States in the Middle East, especially in the lands holy to Muslims, such as Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden has specifically stated that it was the presence of the American armed forces in his homeland of Saudi Arabia that he found to be so offensive.

Another ‘bone’ that sticks in the craw of the Muslims was the role of the American CIA in the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Iran in 1953. After 25 years of pro-American rule of the Shah of Iran, who was basically put in power by the Americans, Islamic radicalism took over Iran in 1979 in a revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeni. Since then, Iran and America have been at each others throat for the last 25 years. In the 80’s, the United States was a supporter of Saddam Hussein and Iraq against the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War. Ten years later, Saddam Hussein and Iraq became our enemies, during the first Persian Gulf War and in the following ten years.

Ironically, America also promoted the rise of Islamic radicalism by sponsoring and helping to pay for the rise of the Islamic mujahadin to help fight the Soviet Union, following their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Osama Bin Laden was one of the fighters recruited by the United States for that purpose. Saudi Arabia assisted us in this endeavor by promoting their brand of Islamic Fundamentalism known as Wahabism throughout the Islamic world.  Al Qaeda and its offshoots (like ISIS) came out of the conjunction of the Afghanistan Mujahadin and Saudi Wahabi Fundamentalism.

Finally, our recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have only poured fire on the flames of Islamic radicalism, increasing its attractiveness to millions in the Islamic world as a way of opposing American/non-Muslim presence in the Islamic world.

It does not seem to me that we will make much progress in reducing the influence of Islamic radicalism in the Islamic world until we find it possible to reduce our military presence there and until we find it possible to act as an honest broker of a peace settlement between the Israelites and the Palestinians.


  1. Hello Carl. Hope you and Beth are doing well.

    I was quite surprised to see that you republished your older article. It's quite surprising that the intervening years have not suggested some modification of your views might be in order. I previously mentioned the dhimmi and jiziya as two facts you seemed to ignore. You indicated you were unfamiliar with the terms.

    It is remarkable that your opening paragraphs extolling the virtues of Islam do not mention that every expansion of Islam throughout history has been through brutality, murder, and plunder. I guess it's a matter of emphasis.

    The comparison Islamic fundamentalism with the Christian version is also interesting. While both are in part a reaction to modernity, the comparison is as tired and shallow as it was in the '80's.

    Since 2006 the Jew hatred inherent in Islam has become more and more apparent. Your views have occupied the White House since 2008. How's that working for us?