Theorizing Islam

In January, 1981, the Islamic Republic of Iran released 52 Americans whom the revolutionary students occupying the Tehran embassy had held for 444 days. This ended a traumatic intrusion of Middle Eastern politics upon the American psyche. Unimaginable only two years before, the trauma has clouded our dreams and our memories ever since.

Twenty years and eight months later, a similarly unimaginable confrontation between Middle Eastern political reality and American complacency exploded at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Two calamitous incidents twenty years apart, both hinging to some degree on currents in Islamic politics: What understanding did we achieve during that 20 year interval?

It would be an exaggeration, but only a slight one, to say that at a policy level we learned nothing. After an initial couple of years during which scholars tried to deny any significant connection between the Iranian revolution and Islamic religious reassertion, a torrent of studies of Islamic movements and political currents gushed from academic and journalistic presses around the world. The nearly complete ignorance of contemporary Islamic political-religious phenomena that had marked the decades from the end of World War II to the fall of the Shah gave way to an abundance of observations and theories. There is little to indicate, however, that any government policy horses chose to drink from the fresh scholarly water poured in their trough. On September 11, 2001, therefore, while a substantial number of analysts in the scholarly world could honestly claim that they had seen and understood the handwriting on the wall, even if the message had not included the date, place, and time of the actual attacks, very few people in the policy community could make the same claim.

The knowledge that accumulated between 1981 and 2001 never intersected the world of policy because it was never integrated into an overall vision of Middle Eastern/Islamic politics of sufficient persuasiveness to unseat the long-standing assumptions that had guided most policy decisions since World War II. It has long been a commonplace that U.S. policies over that period reflected a calculation of national interest that had three components: security for the state of Israel, maintenance of a steady flow of petroleum at reasonable prices, and denial of opportunities for the Soviet Union to secure footholds in the region. In addition, several theoretical assumptions derived from modernization theory channeled the ways in which policy makers sought to ensure these national interests: 1) In the process of modernization, economic development normally precedes democratization, which can go awry if it is not based on mass education, and a solid and prosperous middle class. 2) The process of modernization is necessarily accompanied by a growth of secularism and a retreat of religion from the public stage to the arena of private observance. 3) Strong guidance-preferably by academy-trained military officers, western-educated technocrats, or monarchs willing to collaborate with western powers-is needed to channel resources efficiently and rein in immature or demagogic advocates of democratization.

These several assumptions, which were well articulated by the scholars who laid the theoretical foundation for the field of Middle East studies in the late 1950s, resulted in a fairly consistent and bipartisan policy outlook for half a century. Moreover, they seemed to work. Instability in the early postwar decades gave way in the 1970s to authoritarian regimes, some military and some monarchical, that sought to develop their economies, educate their young people along modern and often secular lines, and exclude from the political arena anyone who advocated placing communism or Islam at the center of political life. The United States agonized over Israel’s unexpected vulnerability in the Ramadan war of 1973, suffered through the oil crisis that came out of the war, and worried continuously about Soviet expansion. Islamic politics, however, never reached the threshold of visibility on the worry list, despite the fact that the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Khomeini, and many others were achieving broad circulation and stimulating their readers to dream about different social and political orders.

The decade from the Iranian Revolution to the collapse of Soviet power saw widely varying estimates of the role of Islam in the world. Devotees of modernization tried to dismiss the new religious phenomena as inter-generational angst, lopsided modernization, or a passing phase. Theorists wedded to the inseparability of revolution and liberalization sought to account for the Iranian anomaly, in some instances by associating it theoretically with fascism. Cold Warriors began to think of international Islamic militancy, directed from Tehran, as a new wine pouring into the aging bottles of international communism. Islam specialists devoted themselves to creating various mutually incompatible classification schemes by which specific Muslim writers or groups might be divided into: modernists, reformists, revisionists, fundamentalists, radicals, moderates, reactionaries, progressives, what have you.

That none of these schemes for fitting new Islamic phenomena into old theoretical frameworks succeeded in creating a new basis for policy formulation is hardly surprising. On the one hand, the hold of the preexisting models was so tenacious that analysts were reluctant to abandon them and strike out into uncharted territory. On the other, the scholars who claimed to have a grasp of the new phenomena did not share the same grip. In contrast to the various currents of modernization theory, Realism in international relations theory, Cold War deterrence theory, or the notion of the rentier state in economics, no voice rose above the clangor of conflicting estimates of Islam with the sort of simple, cogent, persuasive analysis needed by policy makers who might be considering an abandonment, or even a partial abandonment, of policies that were heading in the wrong direction.

The failure of theory culminated in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991. Academic specialists invited to a conference at the Pentagon in November, 1990 to speculate on the prospects for the Middle East five years after the resolution of the Iraq crisis, whether by war or by diplomacy, had little to contribute beyond a consensus that “the Arab street” would be incensed by any attack on Iraq. The only appraisal of the postwar situation that quickly came to pass came from a State Department official who said that after the war, the Arab states would sit down at the negotiating table with Israel. In keeping with the basic triad of American interests, the State Department looked at a scenario of war against Iraq and asked: How can this improve Israel’s security? The possible consequences for Iraq, for Iran, for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, areas where subsequent events would demonstrate the saliency of Islamic perspectives, were not seriously discussed.

So now that we have been given a second and brutally effective wake-up call, whom does the United States turn to for sorely needed new ideas? To begin with, there is no reason to suppose that the old theories will wither away. Reassertions of the primacy of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute come from both camps, though with different twists. Energy professionals fear for the future of affordable gasoline if relations with Saudi Arabia worsen because of a perception that many current problems have deep roots there. Cold War acolytes muster international coalitions to fight overt and covert wars of many years’ duration against worldwide enemies. Modernization mavens, metamorphosed into globalization gurus, measure internet access, youth unemployment, and international debt loads and warn that unbalanced and stagnant economies make democracy a dicey proposition.

But where is the new voice in the choir, the one that offers a persuasive analysis of contemporary religious-political currents in the Islamic world? Does it sing lead? Does it harmonize? Or is it not heard at all? So far, and to our peril, it seems to be singing to itself. Islam gets star billing in the tragedy we are witnessing. It deserves to play an equivalent role in our thinking about how to resolve the tragedy.

To be persuasive, any outline of a theory of Islamic politics must cover several bases:

1) The nature of authority in the contemporary Islamic world.

How did the process of modernization as carried out by nineteenth century reformists, European colonizers, and independent monarchist and secular nationalist regimes subvert or co-opt traditional Muslim authorities and uproot their essentially conservative hold on the Muslim public? How did printing in the late nineteenth century and electronic media in the late twentieth century foster changes in the means of asserting authority and the credentials of those putting themselves forward as authorities? How have these changes entered the political arena: As sources of new thinking? As buttresses of old thinking? As forces supporting participatory government? As forces supporting violence? As forces supporting totalitarianism?

2) The ways in which the Islamic community has responded to parallel crises in past centuries.

Since Islam is a religion with a past that long precedes imperialism, the nation-state, and the invention of modernity, how have previous breakdowns in authority and perceptions of external attack been resolved? Does the structure of the religion at either the dogmatic or the sociological level offer clues to understanding the parameters within which contemporary Muslim communities will address their current dilemmas?

3) The potential and probable impact of participatory government on the role of Islam in thought and society.

While Islam is an old religion, current attempts to wed it with participatory government are new. Do those attempts, looked at in comparison with the history of other democratization experiences, warrant optimism and support? If the range of feasible political choices is limited to authoritarian government or participatory government strongly influenced by advocates of Islamic politics, which promises more in terms of future desirable developments?

4) The relationship between Muslim societies and the United States.

Looking beyond the current crisis, but assuming that the United States continues to play a dominant role in world affairs for the foreseeable future, is there a posture that the United States should adopt toward Islam that recognizes its historic and continuing centrality in the lives of believers? Does such a posture imply specific policies, and is maintenance of that posture of such significance that it should stand on equal footing with other calculations of American national interest?

This list, which might well be extended by others, serves the purpose of demonstrating the degree to which “bringing Islam in” will require a profound rethinking of a half century of social science theories. Simply admitting the continuing salience of religious belief as a touchstone of public behavior calls into question the equation of modernity with secularization that took form during the Enlightenment and has ever since underlain a good proportion of scholarly theorizing. To go beyond such an admission and grant proponents of an “Islam policy” a seat at the table with Arabs and Israelis demanding priority for their parochial feud, energy advocates fearful of instability in the Persian Gulf, and globalization cheerleaders seeking to place all policy eggs in the economic basket would require a major rupture in the ways we are accustomed to looking at the world. This rupture will only occur when it is recognized that the seeming foreign policy successes of the second half of the twentieth century planted the seeds of our current crisis. There is much to be said for retaining and refining the theories that guided our policies during that half century—they did, after all, achieve some worthwhile goals—but to put them up for reconsideration without factoring in a systematic and theoretically articulated understanding of Islam, and possibly, by extension, some other religions, risks planting more seeds and reaping yet more poisonous harvests.