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Interview!

DR. GEORGE JOFFE

The Director of Studies at the

Royal Institute for International Affairs in London

He is among the leading analysts of Islamic Studies.

This interview was conducted by Out There News Internet Web Site. Reprinted by a permission

 

"You only hear about Islam in crisis.

Q: Whenever we hear of Islamic fundamentalism it seems to involve violence: the Iranian revolution, or Hamas bombers blowing themselves up in Israel, or the World Trade Center bombing (in New York). Why do these movements appear to be so violent?

A: Well I think first of all one has to bear in mind that you only hear about these movements when in fact they do something which catches the media eye and therefore perhaps the image we have of the Islamist movements as being solely violent is in itself misleading.

...One has to bear in mind that you only hear about these movements when in fact they do something which catches the media eye and therefore perhaps the image we have of the Islamist movements as being solely violent is in itself misleading."

Nonetheless, many of the movements are indeed violent and they're violent first of all because they believe that there's no other way in which their arguments can be heard. Secondly that the movements themselves have an ideology on occasion, although this isn't universal, that requires a violent response to confrontation from a world that they do not accept as being legitimate. Behind all this is a particular view of the political and social order today that is rooted in a religious vision. That religious vision is exclusive and calls for violent confrontation to correct what are seen to be fundamental errors in the organisation of human society because it's not organized along what these groups would consider to be proper Islamic lines.

It should be borned in mind however that not all people who believe in the Islamic ordering of society consider that this kind of (violent approach is correct and many of them in fact would engage in both peaceful confrontation and in practical active restructuring of society rather than in violence of the kind that you describe.

Q: Will Islamic movements really destroy Israel if they get the chance because as you know a lot of their rhetoric in many countries is directed towards that. Do they represent a threat to the industrialised democracies of the West, and perhaps to expand on this, I suppose the question is are they acting in concert as certainly some analysts in the West would have us think. The Israelis like to say that there is an international Islamic conspiracy. Do they (the Islamic movements) collectively represent a concerted threat?

A:There's no doubt that Islamist leaders talk to each other. And there's no doubt that they share ideas and exchange them, after all that's a function that occurs elsewhere too. It's a perfectly natural thing to occur between people of similar points of view. However to go from that to saying that there is an Islamist international led by Sudan or by Iran or by people in Afghanistan is to make a very large leap indeed and it has to be said that the evidence to support such a view is really very tenuous. In some cases of course there is co-ordination. And no doubt there are cases where such co-ordination stretches across national boundaries. One should remember here that Islamists like anybody else can also make use of the Internet.

But in reality there is no Islamist project, unified, co-ordinated and dedicated to the destruction of the West or of Israel despite the rhetoric that is often used by Islamist leaders and Islamist members.

The fact is that Islam cannot represent, as is argued by Samuel Huntingdon, a threat to the West. It's too disparate, it's too multifarious. It has too many objectives. It is too concerned with its own specific objectives and indeed it is too inappropriate in terms of operating in modern, complex democratic states.

Nor indeed do most of the Islamist leaders wish to do that. They're primarily concerned with the countries in which they themselves operate and the cultural world from which they come. So I really think we can abandon the idea of confrontation between the Islamic and the Western civilisation.

As far as Israel is concerned, that's more complex. Of course Islamic movements have fundamental ideological grounds for rejecting the existence of the state of Israel but then so do Palestinians secular or religious and so do many Arabs. So the issue is not one of political Islam as such but of the fundamental nature of the Israeli state, the reasons for its location where it is and the way that it itself tends to adapt to the world in which it finds itself. And it h to be said that Israel is as much to blame for the hostility that confronts it as are those who are hostile to it.

Many people who engage in violence within the context of political Islam, do so because they believe there is no other way in which their opposition and their protest can be effectively expressed The concept of Jihad is in fact a concept of struggle, and it is in fact an internal personal struggle designed to purify the personality.."

Certainly some Islamic movements say they would like to see the destruction of the state (of Israel) and some indeed no doubt would but the reality is the vast majority of the people in the Middle East, Islamist or not, have accepted that Israel is there to stay. Their problem is how they can adjust to it in terms that they can accept as well as terms that Israel itself can accept and that is the real drama and the real issue.

In a sense, arguments put forward by the Israeli government arguing about an international Islamist conspiracy or the impending destruction of the state of Israel are also rhetoric in the same way as the arguments put forward by the movements themselves claiming that their objective is to destroy the state of Israel are rhetoric too.

Q: What makes somebody become an Islamic guerrilla? These people are often described as though they're wide-eyed madmen who lust for blood. Is that always the case, or are there other reasons why someone might choose to do this?

A: We have to assume that people make decisions to engage in violence for reasons that are substantially rational, even if their means of operation later on turn out to be irrational. Many people who engage in violence within the context of political Islam, do so because they believe there is no other way in which their opposition and their protest can be effectively expressed. They also do so in part because of an ideology that encourages them to do so, the concept of Jihad, or Holy War, although this is very often misunderstood both by those who practice it and by those who observe it.

The concept of Jihad is in fact a concept of struggle, and it is in fact an internal personal struggle designed to purify the personality. Only in a less significant definition is it a struggle to extend, or to maintain or to protect the Islamic world by external violence. Such groups however or such individuals who engage in that sort of violence, do so because they feel that this the only means by which a protest, a change, can effectively be achieved and that's best seen, perhaps in the context of Afghanistan where the Soviet invasion in 1979 elicited a violent and extreme armed response from groups that defined themselves as being Islamist.

They were in fact supported for political reasons by countries outside Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, not least Saudi Arabia and the United States. So in part the violent response is also a calculation of practical politics in the international arena as much as it may be a personal decision.

Q: why has religion remained such a strong force in the Moslem world when Christianity has weakened so much by comparison in the West? People often mention Christian and Islamic fundamentalism in the same breath, are they really similar? And why did Islamic fundamentalism seem to emerge so strongly in the late 1970s and early 1980s when we didn't hear much about iin the early dindepof those Muslim countries?

Islam has remained a very potent force in the Muslim world partly because the type of intellectual evolution that occurred in Western Europe has not yet occurred there. Western Europe after all from around the fifteenth century onwards engaged in a process of confining religion to personal private life and considered that the secular public sphere was a secular matter, a matter to be decided by practicalities, not by religious principle.

That sort of evolution didn't occur at the same time in the Islamic world and indeed when it began to occur at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, it was overtaken by European intervention and European occupation (of the Muslim world). So as a result Islam continued to be an identifier for Muslim peoples that distinguished them from the colonial powers that occupied them. I think those two reasons are probably why it's continued to be such a powerful force.

Christianity, of course, correspondingly since it was the religion of the dominant group weakened as an ideological motivator. Other things took its place: nationalism, socialism, capitalism. Indeed it's never been able to maintain the same kind of position in social identification that Islam has been able to do.

Nonetheless, Christianity is still a very powerful sense of collective identification and Christian fundamentalism is one expression of this. In a sense, Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism are very close indeed in so far as they believe that their sacred documents are practical statements about the fundamentals not only of personal belief but of social and political organization. Indeed, although the environments in which they operate are very different, both types of view seek to achieve the same objective, namely, to impose their religiously-dictated structures on the social and political arenas in which they operate. The only difference really is that Christian fundamentalism cannot do so as effectively as Islamic fundamentalism has been able to do, partly because Islamic fundamentalism has also become the vehicle of opposition both to bad government within countries, and to oppression foisted upon the Muslim world - as Muslims often see it - from the outside.

"In the end, political Islam became the only effective vehicle by which opposition to existing governments and to the wider arena of international politics could be voiced and that has given it tremendous dynamism."

That brings me onto the third point - why Islamic fundamentalism emerged so strongly in the 1970s and 1980s. I think here we have to remember that the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism has been primarily seen in the Middle East. Really, its emergence in the 1970s and 1980s is a consequence of political events inside that region.

Before the 1970s, the dominant theme in the Arab world, stimulated by the Arab-Israeli conflict, was Arab nationalism. But the defeat of Arab armies in (the Six Day war of) 1967 discredited the ideology itself. Alongside the discrediting of Arab nationalism was a similar discrediting of socialism as a form of national organisation. So in a sense people in the Middle East were left with Islam as an alternative mode of organising collective social and political life.

Beyond that, though, there was a very powerful impulsion given to the idea of political Islam by the Iranian revolution in 1979. Whether or not that was truly revolution on the basis of Islam is not really the point here. It was perceived so to be and it created a system of apparently religious control of the political arena that has lasted up until the present day and as such made the Islamist project seem realistic and possible.

The third very important factor was the war in Afghanistan which almost coincided with the Iranian revolution and provided a practical basis through which political Islam could express itself as an ideology of revolution and confrontation. Now that was supported ironically enough by Western states and by Saudi Arabia.

Then the fourth factor that has maintained political Islam as a dominant theme has been the support of conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia providing money not to extremist groups necessarily but to other Islamist groups and making sure that they remain financially viable and thus players on the domestic political scene for the countries inside which they operated.

In the end, political Islam became the only effective vehicle by which opposition to existing governments and to the wider arena of international politics could be voiced and that has given it tremendous dynamism.

And the final factor that has made sure that it should continue has been its ability to alter, to mutate, to find new ways of expressing opposition, of expressing a political and religious and social alternative. The way in which Islamist movements have provided social services that governments themselves in the Middle East don't provide, the way in which those movements provide a justification for the social and political order in which millions of people in the Middle East and the Arab World actually live.These factors, and they apply by the way inside Europe and the United States, have become very important factors in guaranteeing the continuation of political Islam as a means of expression - and a means of vital expression - inside the developing world.

Q: We think of Islamic fundamentalism or the rise of political Islam as a modern movement partly because it's emerged so strongly in the last 15 to 20 years. But have there been any precursor movements in Islamic history before?

A: The idea of Islam being used as a means of confronting established power is a very old one indeed, it goes back to the very beginnings of Islam as a world religion. In fact the death of the fourth caliph (Ali, in 665 A.D.) brought the first major confrontation of this kind, one can even argue that it went back before that too. And in a sense the idea of using Islam as a means of articulating political opposition is a long tradition inside the Islamic world.

Islamic revivalist movements became particularly important after the 18th century and then again in the 19th century when they became the vehicle by which indigenous opposition the colonialist projects of Western states was articulated and expressed.They then became the means by which an attempt was made to redefine and modernise the Islamic world so as to confront the implications of colonialism.And thus in a sense, what we're seeing today is part of a long tradition that goes back over centuries even though it expresses itself in quite new forms and is in itself a consequence of modernity and modernisation.

Q: You mentioned that Islamic fundamentalism had primarily been seen in the Middle East. But of course the Islamic world stretches right the way through to east Asia to Indonesia and the Phillipines not to mention of course the migrant communities now very strong in Europe and America. There are revival movements in those countries. How similar are Islamic revival movements in different Muslim countries?

"It's said that Islamic movements are responses to political repression, injustice and corruption which pervades many Muslim countries."

A: I think we have to make a distinction between political Islamic movements and Islamic revivalist movements. Revivalist movements traditionally have had a political side to them but they've been primarily concerned with the purity of Islamic doctrine and with the revival of the original belief - and that's a tradition that goes back to the very early days of Islam. They've been political in the sense that by opposing that they've often been opposed to existing state power and as such therefore become the vehicle for political change as well. But political Islamic movements offer a new agenda. Their movements are concerned with genuine political change. They are modernist movements and not traditionalist and as such therefore they differ to some extent from revivalist movements. That means too that such movements do differ depending on where they occur. In the Middle East they've been stimulatprby tcaseof the Iranian revolution, and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. In Africa such movements have been stimulated by the failure of governments to govern effectively and properly and they've been much smaller scale, particularly in Nigeria.

In the far East such movements have not been politically violent. They've tended to see themselves as being in a position to influence government particularly in Malaysia or indeed in Indonesia, although there the case of the Mindanao rebellion indicates that violence is not excluded.

As such they reflect differences in social organisation in these countries which may be nominally Muslim but which in other respects are culturally very different from each other. Thus there is a considerable difference in the way in which these movements organise even though their fundamental ideological concepts and precepts may be the same.In that respect I'd point out that one of the inspirers of the Sunni Muslim movements in the Middle East came from Pakistan, Mawlana Mawdoodi, who was operating in the 1950s in Pakistan and has been a very powerful influence on the way in which those movements have developed alongside Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, whose main work was done in the 1960s.

Q: It's said that Islamic movements are responses to political repression, injustice and corruption which pervades many Muslim countries. Does that mean if Muslim countries become broadly liberal and democratic or pluralist, Islamic fundamentalism would fade away or are there essential differences which will always make the Islamic world different to the West?

A. The issue of political Islam is certainly a response, a response to injustice, a response to repression and corruption as you suggest and to other things too. A response to the fear engendered by modernisation and modernity, a response to the anxiety of corruption through alien influences, a response too to the loss of a sense of an established world order.

Nonetheless, as social conditions improve as political conditions improve, as countries modernise, undoubtedly the need for political Islam will diminish and political Islam itself will mutate and change to adapt to those new conditions. So in a sense, yes, I think, that as Muslim countries undergo evolution towards democratic societies and towards developed societies, the tensions producing political Islam will mean that as they disappear, so will political Islam itself. And that's also part of the process of the internationalisation of Islam. That's to say that in the end Islam, like Christianity, becomes part of the private personal sphere and not part of the public sphere of social and political organisation.

That being said, undoubtedly differences will remain between the Islamic world and the Western world simply because both places have their own cultural origins, their own sources of inspiration, their own past experiences and their own traditions and therefore there's bound to be variation, difference, and to an extent no doubt a degree of cultural conflict. But that could be healthy. It's a way of learning from each other and it's part of the complexity and variety that makes up the modern world.