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Roots of ‘radical Islam’

Posted in Islam, terrorism by Mustafa Malik on the May 8th, 2008

Washington — I was invited to give a talk at an INR seminar at the State Department on “Islamic radicalism in Europe.” My comments:

News media and political scholarship are all over the lot on their use of the term “radical Islam.” Daniel Pipes calls it “terroristic Islam.” Emmanuel Sivan says radical Islam is the doctrine that seeks to apply medieval Islamic theology to modern politics. And there have been many other faith-based definitions and descriptions of the term, which I would have difficulty using in any empirical work.

I would leave the definition of Islamic radicalism to my esteemed colleagues who will follow me. I will be talking, nonetheless, about the kind of Muslims that are being referred to as “radical” in Western media and scholarly discourse. I met many of them during research and pleasure trips through Europe. Some would agitate against the Iraq war or the showing of Theo van Gogh’s anti-Islamic documentary. Some would campaign to foster Muslim culture in Europe. Some would like to Islamize all Europe. Others would denounce European rationalism.

I don’t believe what is called radical Islam is causally linked to terrorism. Data show that Muslims terrorists come from a variety of Islamic perspectives: traditionalists, fundamentalists, Islamists and secular.

I disagree with the notion – and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough — that the so-called “radical Islam” is fueled by the Islamic faith. It is usually the other way around. Muslim minds are first radicalized by political and social forces and then they turn to Islam for moral and religious confirmation of their missions. Those who are digging into the Qura’n and scurrying around madrasas for clues about radical Islam are wasting their time, fomenting unnecessary interfaith and international tensions and diverting people’s and governments’ attention away from the real issues troubling these Muslim youths. The clues to Muslim radicalism can be found in history and sociology, not in scripture.

Historically, whenever Muslims have faced a major political, military or cultural challenge, they’ve rallied around the Islamic banner and many secular Muslims have turned to religion. Muslims have fought most anti-colonial struggles in the name of Islam and cited the Qur’an to justify them. Once the struggle is over, however, the radicals become regular Muslims. If some European Muslims today have radicalized, it’s because they’re reacting to political, cultural and ontological challenges, not because some Muslim clerics have decided to give some Qura’nic verses a radical twist.

I would classify the so-called radical Muslims under three categories. One, there are Islamist groups such as Al Muhajirun and Hizb al-Tahrir, who want a public space for Islamic law, the shari’a. Secondly, there are fundamentalists who believe in the inerrancy of the Qur’an and are calling on European Muslims to follow the Holy Book literally. Unlike the radical Islamists, they do not wear the Shari’a on their sleeves and are not spoiling for a fight with society over it. The radical Islamists, with their outlandish statements and spooky scowls, make great television and Page One stories. I have found very little impact of their histrionics among everyday European Muslims. Even if all of them are deported tomorrow, what is called Islamic radicalism in Europe will endure until the sociopolitical and ontological questions that are spawning it are resolved.

This brings me to the third group. I would call them culturalist Muslims. I’m not using culturalism as the technical term one uses in social science research to distinguish his or her approach from the structuralist and rationalist ones. I’m talking about Muslims who identity Islam with its cultural values and symbols and insist on having a discrete cultural space in Europe. They, too, have radical views about Western societies and cultures. Among the 15 to 17 million European Union Muslims, I guess they would be 1 to 2 million.

Unlike the radical Islamists and radical Muslim fundamentalists, Muslim culturalists interact daily with native Europeans and help set the European Muslim communal agenda. Their views and lifestyles do affect Muslim-native relations. Unlike the offspring of southern Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek or Polish immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries, they are not assimilating into social mainstreams. Integrating them into societies is the real Muslim challenge facing Europe.


Muslim radicalism has, of course, non-European roots, but I have been asked to talk today only about its European roots. I would mention three:

1. Europe has lost its lure for many young Muslims.

2. Western Europe has historically been a cultural monochrome and is having a hard time reconciling with the return of the Muslim cultural strain five centuries after it was blotted out of Iberia.

3. Post-Renaissance Europe is coming slowly to an end demographically and socially. And many Muslim youths are seeking – as are many native Europeans — an answer to the old question: What is good life?

Let me try to explain.

1. The loss of the lure: Disenchantment with Western social priorities is the most striking thing I have noticed among Muslim youths during my more recent trips to Europe. I disagree with the suggestion that poverty and disenfranchisement are the main sources of Muslim radicalization. Three decades ago when I lived in England and began scrounging for news stories through the Continent, Muslims in Europe were much, much poorer and almost totally disenfranchised. Yet they were mostly appreciative of their presence in Europe, which they saw as the promise of fulfillment through progress. European Muslims are still mostly poor, but many among the second and third generations are making progress. Of them there are those who don’t consider material progress the means to fulfillment in life. They view the amenities of modern life as an existential necessity and seek fulfillment through the pursuit of non-material causes such as justice for Muslims under oppression, solidarity with the global Muslim community, the umma, and so forth.

Having just come out of hundreds of years of European colonial subjugation, my generation of Muslims were much more tolerant of Western hegemony over Muslim societies than this generation. In 1956 when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt, Muslim youth in Pakistan yawned. In 2003 when Britain joined the U.S. war against Iraq, British youths of Pakistani descent exploded in anger, so much so that several of them lurched into the senseless crime of killing themselves and scores of innocent Britons in terrorist attacks. European Muslim youths’ growing indentification with the global Muslim community stems to a large extent from their disenchantment with Europe and the West.

The reasons: They see that modernity, for which my generation marveled at the West, is no longer the preserve of Europe or the West. European technology and values of freedom and democracy are becoming universal. Some young Muslims are doing well at Oxford, Cambridge and Sorbonne. So what’s the big deal about being a Brit, Frenchman or German? Many of them view amenities of modern life as an existential necessity and working for the Palestinian or Kashmiri cause or organizing a Muslim charity as fulfilling work.

Many non-Muslim European youths today are also seeking fulfillment in life through non-material pursuits. Ronald Inglehart has found that postmaterialist native Europeans are prone to the quest for cultural belonging, self-worth, environmental causes. Their quest is anchored to the liberal European tradition. The European Muslim cultural elite cherish Islamic concepts of justice, charity and brotherhood. These values did not, by the way, originate in Islam. They evolved during the Axial Age (800 B.C.-200 B.C.) – the first great age of cross-cultural interaction — and flowered in the teachings of Zoroaster, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and other prophets. Justice, equity and translocal solidarity seem to be associated with times of unusual human mobility and culture clash. I’m fascinated to see the stirring of these values again in the whirlwind of our globalizing era.

A more obvious reason European societies no longer lure many Muslims is the unraveling of Europe’s social and political institutions, beginning with the nation-state. Prior to the inception of the European Community and European Union, European national institutions and cultural idiom had strong appeal to immigrants and their offspring. Today EU institutions such as the European Commission, European Parliament, International Criminal Court, European immigration and security laws, European Central Bank, the euro, and so on, are competing with national institutions for citizens’ allegiance. As Alain Touraine says, How can you ask immigrants to integrate into cultures that are disintegrating? Unfortunately, most other leading European intellectuals from Jorgen Habermas to Anthony Giddens to Noberto Bobbio seem to remain unconcerned about the epistemological challenge that Islam poses to the languid European cultural milieu.

European Muslim intellectuals’ argument with their native counterparts essentially runs along the following line. Post-Roman Europe began its journey with the most precious gift man has ever received: the Sermon on the Mount. But soon Germanic tribes’ materialist and martial cultural ethos began to divert Europeans from the seminal Christian message, and by the 16th century the Catholic Church lost its way. European intellectuals of the time, instead of trying to reclaim early Christianity’s ennobling message, submitted to man’s animal spirit, which is epitomized by Thomas Hobbes’ republic of selfish men and women in which rights stem from brute force rather than moral meaning.

2. Cultural Exclusivism. From the 16th to the mid-20th century Western Europe was a white-Christian cultural monochrome. I call this exclusivism cultural rather than racial because Western Europe has used race and religion interchangeably to define the Other. After the completion of the Spanish reconquista in 1492, Jews and Muslims were persecuted on religious grounds. The Jews were then Christ killers and Muslims heathen. Half the Jewish and Muslim populations in Iberia were expelled and large numbers of others forced to convert to Christianity. But the converts were not accepted into the Christian mainstream and were still persecuted. A new theory evolved: The converts’ old religions remained in their blood. This conception of the impurity of blood fostered European racism, which gained respectability through Social Darwinism. The Nazis killed the Jews for their race, not for their faith. The return of large numbers of Muslims a half-millennium after the fall of Granada has revived the old exclusivist vibes among many Europeans. Race has become taboo in the West since the Holocaust. Religion is a more acceptable marker to define the Other. No wonder Islam is fair game again.  

3. The Old Question. Many Muslim intellectuals whom I should call radical are jumping off the ship of European liberalism because they see the ship sinking. In 1903 George Bernard Shaw wrote in Don Juan in Hell that Western hedonism would lead to the depopulation of the West. It’s happening in Europe. Demographically, the white-liberal-Christian Europe is dying. Native Europeans are projected to become a minority in “Roman Europe” in the next century. Meanwhile, by 2050, a host of cities such as Rotterdam, Cologne, Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford could pass under the political control of Muslim and other minorities of non-European origins.

The Catholic Church had strayed from the search of eschatological meaning in life, and the Enlightenment stepped in proposing that living rationally and individually is meaning. Now the rationalist individual cannot insure his living much longer, let alone the meaning of the living. And so the old question has revived: To what end are we all here? I’m afraid European societies can’t draw in many of its Muslim and other youths unless, among other things, they propose a plausible new answer to this old question.


Muslim-native tensions in Western Europe have been rising for the last quarter-century. They have heightened alarmingly after the van Gogh murder and terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. The future of the Muslim niche in Europe will, I think, be decided in the next two decades.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Muslims are being profiled, held under surveillance and deported; and anti-Islamic rhetoric is reaching a crescendo. Some of my European friends fear that Islam’s second incarnation in Western Europe may not be much more promising than the first.

Europe has barely a million Jews left; they no longer retain a discrete cultural space. Europeans may decide that Muslims are not making cool neighbors, either, and revert to their cultural exclusivism. If they choose not to do so, however, they would need to make room for a Muslim cultural space. The old model for immigrant assimilation is obsolete. Canadian- or American-style multiculturalism is not working for native Europeans, not yet anyway. European societies need a new integration model. I don’t see European statesmen thinking about it yet. I hope they will. 

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