The Crisis of Islam; The Future of Political Islam
by Bernard Lewis; Graham E. Fuller
These two volumes exemplify the main trends in serious analysis of the present turmoil in the Islamic world and in its relations with the West. Neither shares the Islamophobic prejudices of Oriana Fallaci and similar popular writers; that is, neither seeks to frighten the Western public. But there the similarity ends, for the authors, Graham Fuller and Bernard Lewis, stand at opposite poles in their approach to extremism in the Muslim world.
Fuller, a former high official of the CIA, has produced something resembling a college student's tour book of Islamist crisis zones -- superficial, chatty and often inaccurate. Lewis, the dean of Islamic studies in the West, has added to his distinguished body of work a thoughtful study of contemporary Islam faced with immense historical challenges. Fuller, although given to pompous generalizations, seldom includes the sharp detail or citation of sources for which Lewis is best known, and from which Lewis seldom strays here.
The most striking difference, however, is that Fuller has written an apologia for Islamic extremism, while Lewis offers an explication. Fuller is also possessed of a corrosive hatred of American power, and of the state of Israel, that reveals itself repeatedly. (Lewis is Jewish and a defender of the U.S. and Israel.) This lamentable aspect of Fuller's work is aggravated by what can only be described as deliberate intellectual deception.
Fuller begins his analysis of Islamic ideologies from a correct standpoint. He recognizes that most Western journalists and experts have proven incapable of really understanding the distinctions in Islamic political thought, and that many simply lump together all Islam, all Islamist politics and ideologies. But rather than analyze the differences so as to make them comprehensible, Fuller uses them to project a flawed paradigm that reinforces the false picture of a monolithic Islam. For him, "political Islam" is a single category, comprising "organizations across a broad range, both violent and peaceful, in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Indonesia, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Palestine."
This is grossly misleading. In this book, the diversity of Islamic thought serves to mask, rather than to reveal, the fragility of extremism; that is, Fuller uses the development of legitimate Islamic politics in some countries to divert attention from the use of Islam for political ends by tyrants and terrorists in others. But the gap between an Islamo-democratic politics, comparable to Christian Democracy in Europe and Latin America, and the Islamo-fascism fostered in Algeria, Egypt or Afghanistan, is the essence of the political crisis of the Islamic global community, or umma.
In Fuller's accounting, intra-Islamist differences serve to develop a false presentiment: that the growth of mainstream, traditional, moderate and democratic Islamism -- as represented by, for example, the new AK party in Turkey -- should prove that Islamism worldwide is fundamentally benign. For him, concerns about Wahhabism, the extremist dispensation backed by Saudi Arabia, and other forms of Islamo-fascism, are mistaken.
Indeed, Wahhabism, the foundation of Islamic extremism and terrorism for the past 250 years, gets almost no attention in this book. Fuller argues as if the Saudi kingdom -- which bars women from driving and treats non-Wahhabi Muslims and the other faiths as enemies and pays for fundamentalist and terrorist organizations from Morocco to Malaysia -- were a minor factor, rather than the quintessence of the political manipulation of Islam. For him, "Islamism in Power" is typified by Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan -- a gambit that gives away his devotion to headline-driven "analysis."
To group these states as if they were characteristic of Islamist political thought is legitimate if one discusses the profound differences among them, because the only thing these governments have in common is that they have captured excessive attention in Western media. But Fuller uses them to suggest that they are merely variants within his unitary conception of "political Islam," which they are not. A much more telling set of comparisons might involve Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq.
But Fuller wishes to exempt Saudi Arabia from identification as extremist, has no apparent understanding of the peculiar nature of Qatari governance and has little to say about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who has given his "secular" party-state a religious covering, as in the inscription of Allahu Akbar (the Islamic slogan "God is Great!") on the national flag. Fuller's bizarre classification of Islamist regimes leads him to exclude Saudi Arabia, founded in the 1920s, from such consideration, and to describe Iran as the first such state. This is nonsense.
Fuller frequently engages in propagandistic allegations that, if not lies, qualify as half-truths. He defines Hamas, the Saudi-backed Wahhabi terrorist organization that targets civilians in suicide bombings in Israel, as "engaged in a national liberation struggle against foreign non-Muslim occupation, in which case violence is widely perceived by all Muslims to be justified." But how do "wide perceptions" come to include "all Muslims"? And who is Fuller to make such a claim?
Many Muslims repudiate Hamas and its tactics, and many more reject the argument that violence is the only legitimate response to "foreign non-Muslim occupation." Millions of Indian Muslims live under a "foreign non-Muslim occupation," but have not engaged in violent resistance to it; so do millions of Russian Muslims, outside Chechnya.
But Fuller's addiction to such questionable assertions is not limited to the obvious sore point of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In one of his few references to the international expansion of Wahhabism, he refers to "Wahhabi-like radical Islamist groups, not all of which are violent." It would be extremely enlightening to be informed what Wahhabi groups are not violent; I know of none. But his myopia about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia also leads him to ignore the Wahhabi-Saudi link to al-Qaeda and thus to Sept. 11. Furthermore, Fuller describes the Pakistani jihadist movement Jama'at-i Islami as "mainstream" and non-violent, wilfully ignoring its recruitment of fighters to defend the Taliban regime, its involvement in terrorism in Kashmir, its alignment with al-Qaeda and its support of the mass murder of minority Shia Muslims in Pakistan.
Fuller's views of Islamic culture are shaded by his acceptance of Wahhabi rhetoric, leading him to regurgitate cliches by which Islamic spirituality, or Sufism, is labeled a "folk" practice, said to involve "saint worship." Neither descriptive is accurate. Sufism represents a refined and even elite phenomenon in many Islamic countries; it is denounced in some societies as a manifestation of popular ignorance, and elsewhere as a form of snobbery. But Sufis worship only God; to confuse their honouring of saints with "worship" is Wahhabi propaganda.
When dealing with relations between the United States, whose government he once served, and the Islamic world, Fuller abandons all pretense of objectivity. According to him, the atrocities of Sept. 11 "might serve as a 'wake-up call' to the United States to reconsider its disastrous policies in the Middle East." Although Fuller describes this as an opinion held by "many" Muslims, he makes it his own, even though it is expressed in the U.S. only by the most marginal Islamic extremists, ultra-leftists and neo-fascists.
Fuller goes on to defend Muslims who, according to him, "denounced U.S. arrogance at treating the deaths in New York as some unique crime when thousands of Muslims themselves have been dying unnoticed under constant military attack in Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, and Kashmir." This sentence contains a breathtaking number of untruths: Few Muslims aside from extremists took this position and, however many Muslims may have died in Palestine or Chechnya, neither their suffering nor that in Bosnia-Herzegovina has gone "unnoticed." The Palestinian intifada has repeatedly occupied centre stage in global media, and Russian atrocities in Chechnya are continually denounced publicly.
Bernard Lewis's contribution is rather elementary, but represents a welcome alternative to Fuller's survey. His outlook is a powerfully humanistic one that begins with an emphasis on the nature of Christendom and Islam as "sister civilizations," an insight of a kind largely absent from Fuller's work. Almost from the beginning, Lewis establishes the disparities that escape Fuller, writing: "There are many types of Islamic fundamentalism in different countries and even sometimes within a single country. Some are state-sponsored -- promulgated, used and promoted by one or other Muslim government for its own purposes; some are genuine popular movements from below."
Among the regimes backing such movements, Lewis identifies "notably the Saudis." He correctly identifies the Iranian Islamic Republic as the first exercise in Islamist rule by a popular movement, but not the first Islamist regime.
He also differs dramatically from Fuller, who uses Islamic radicalism as a stick to beat the U.S. and Israel, by rejecting the two main misconceptions about Islam now common in the West. He argues equally against the phobic claim that Islam has supplanted Communism as a mortal threat to the West, and in opposition to the politically correct argument that all Muslims, including extremists, "are basically decent, peace-loving, pious people, some of whom have been driven beyond endurance by all the dreadful things that we of the West have done to them." The latter, of course, reproduces much of Fuller's discourse.
Lewis declares "both views contain elements of truth; both are dangerously wrong." Islam, he avers, is not fundamentally anti-Western; many Muslims seek a fruitful relationship with the West. But, as Lewis says, an important minority of Muslims hate the West, for reasons quite other than those of simple oppression. Perhaps most importantly, Lewis distinguishes between two groups that have taken their distance from open extremism: Muslims who wish to join the West in seeking freedom and prosperity, and others who accept "some temporary accommodation in order better to prepare for the final struggle" against the West. He argues that we would be wise not to confuse these; such nuances are absent in many other commentaries, including that of Fuller.
Lewis continues with a careful and useful review of Islamic history, culminating in the reverses suffered by the Ottoman empire at the end of the 17th century, which are generally recognized as the beginning of the "crisis of Islam" extending to the present. He offers a summary examination of the impact on the umma of Western technological advances, European imperialism, the emergence of Communism and Nazism, the foundation of Israel, and the Iranian revolution. He also discusses the unfortunate propensity of the U.S. to support corrupt and tyrannical rule over Muslims, and to betray such promises as those made to the Iraqi masses, encouraged to rebel against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War of 1991, but then abandoned to their fate.
Lewis includes a concise chapter on the role of the Saudi state and Wahhabism in fostering Islamic extremism around the world, based on oil income. His book ends without a simplistic resolution, indicating only that the crisis of Islam has brought forth a dangerous extremism that must be defeated. It is obvious, I think, which of these volumes is more honest, and more useful in understanding the challenge facing the West: Lewis is to be congratulated for continuing, after many decades, his efforts to advance of comprehension and courage.