Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah
by Olivier Roy
Since its first publication, Roy's survey of the present crisis in Islam has won much praise. From his position at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, he has managed to account for all the significant trends in today's global Muslim community, or the umma. One need not agree with every detail of Roy's work nor overlook its occasional factual errors and swings toward excessive generalization to recognize its virtue, which is its breadth.
If Roy has a basic weakness, it resides in his affection for the anthropological rather than the politico-economic approach to the challenge of the "new umma." That is, his paradigm is based on the emergence of revitalized identity in a context where traditional identity has become fragmented by Muslim emigration to the West and the acculturation, successful or not, of Muslims into European and North American society.
Yet globalized and radicalized Islam began not among immigrants to Europe but in the Islamic world itself. In Roy's scheme, the nature and development of radical Islamist ideology as a form of intra-Muslim politics becomes a secondary matter. Roy exaggerates the distinction between "neofundamentalists" and "Islamists"—the first rejecting involvement in politics and the second accepting electoral campaigns and, when successful, holding office. Such a differentiation ignores the essential and menacing reality about both camps, neofundamentalist followers of Saudi-financed Wahhabism and such movements as the Muslim Brethren in Egypt. Although the former hate Western-style elections and the latter exploit them, all are united by the belief that their interpretation of Islam is the sole valid one, that established Islam, which functions as a normal religion, is apostasy from Islam because it is insufficiently adversarial to the non-Muslim world, and that society is divided between the virtuous and the deliberately sinful.
None of the last three concepts are mainstream principles in Islam. Whether radicals run for election or not is hardly the standard by which to judge them. The varied products of globalized Islam must be studied and elicit Muslim (and non-Muslim) response according to their world-view, not the strategies they use to advance them. It is often said by critics of the war on terror that terror is merely a political tool and does not define a historic struggle. The same may be said of elections. Roy may sow illusions when he so avidly seeks something that could be passed as moderation among those who are all, finally, wreckers of Islam in their war with the world.