The Economist, a publication that has already shown that its understanding of Islamic radicalism is zero minus eight degrees, does it again in a gushing piece subtitled “How Muslim fundamentalism has a thoroughly modern streak” (thanks to Ming the Merciless for the link). In this love letter to Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, two French scholars of Islam whose optimism evidently outstrips their objectivity, they seem to think that because young European Muslims prefer halal hamburgers to traditional Muslim fare, they will eventually forsake jihad. No mention is made, of course, of the fact that modernity and jihad have coexisted quite well so far “” witness the sophisticated use of computer code techniques and other effluvia of modern life by jihadists.
This, of course, gives the lie to the common idea underlying this piece, that jihadism is a rejection of modernity. It is not so much a rejection of modernity as of non-Islamic culture, which happens to be modern. But jihadists will happily appropriate the technological creations of those they hope to conquer.
The results of this high-octane brainwork are not always appealing to English-speakers; but when the topic is political Islam, and the authors are among the leading French (and international) authorities on the subject, people who care about the future of the world can hardly fail to prick up their ears. They will not be disappointed. Neither Olivier Roy nor Gilles Kepel conforms to any stereotype of the Parisian egghead, yet they make full use of Gallic gifts in their latest analyses of the Islamist response, whether peaceful or violent, to the liberal, capitalist West.
At the heart of both works is an understanding of a central paradox: in all its varieties, whether political, pietistic or warlike, Muslim neo-fundamentalism is an essentially modern phenomenon. The more stridently it calls for a return to the “old-time” religion of 1,400 years ago, with all later additions removed, the more contemporary this movement looks.
In “Globalised Islam”, published in French in 2002 and newly issued in an updated and revised English version, Mr Roy takes a broad look at the way in which militant Islam is expressed and organised in a world where people, ideas and electronic messages move swiftly across borders that used to be sealed. As he convincingly argues, the striking revival of outward piety among the second generation of families which have moved from Islamic countries to the West does not in any way imply a slowdown of modernisation. Precisely because traditional cultures, societies and extended families are breaking down, both among immigrants and in their home countries, a younger generation of Muslims in the West is attracted by the idea of a simple, stentorian version of their faith, stripped of the cultural accretions that were built up in the “old country” over many centuries, and compatible with modern patterns of consumption.
To take one crude example, young European Muslims are more likely to demand halal hamburgers at their school than to take an interest in the elaborate recipes by which forebears in Pakistan or Algeria broke their fasts. For angry, restless young Muslims, a back-to-basics version of the faith can be a way of protesting against their parents as well as against their host societies; it fills the same space as radical leftism did in a previous French generation, and as counter-cultural rap does in America’s ghettos. Even suicide bombing, whose indifference to individual life might seem deeply unmodern, is presented by Mr Roy in a contemporary light. As he argues, the culture of suicide attacks””as fostered by al-Qaeda and its imitators, and promoted on their websites””has a self-indulgent, me-generation flavour about it. The narcissistic characters who carried out the September 11th attacks were no exception to this….
OK, so they were narcissistic. But modern? Me-generation? Hardly: John Paul Jones encountered suicide attacks by Muslim Turks in 1788 (thanks to Looney Tunes for the citation):
–¦for it was the intention of the Turks to attack us and board us, and if we had been only three versts further the attempt would have been made on the 16th [June 1788] (before the vessel of the Captain Pacha ran aground in advancing before the wind with all his forces to attack us,), God only knows what would have been the result”¦The Turks had a very large force, and we have been informed by our prisoners that they were resolved to destroy us, even by burning themselves, (in setting fire to their own vessels after having grappled with ours.) [note added by Jones: Before their departure from Constantinople, they swore by the beard of the Sultan to execute this horrible plan”¦if Providence had not caused its failure from two circumstances which no man could forsee.”]
That’s from John Paul Jones” Letter to Prince Potemkin, June 20, 1788, from Life and Character of John Paul Jones-A Captain in the Navy of the United States, John H. Sherburne, 1825, p. 308.
The Economist concludes:
Yet Mr Kepel ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note. It is possible, the author suggests, that European Islam might evolve in new ways that could co-exist with modernity, asserting its distinctiveness without pretending, dishonestly, to live in another century. If that happy scenario were to unfold, Muslims and non-Muslims alike would need a keen sense of what modernity and tradition really mean. In the development of such an understanding, both these books can make a large and highly intelligent contribution.
I hope that Islam does indeed evolve in new ways. But this will not happen because Muslims stop “pretending…to live in another century.” The methods of the global jihadists show that they aren’t really doing that at all. A new Islam will only evolve if Muslims confront the sources of jihad violence and renounce them. But you won’t hear that from Roy or Kepel “” or The Economist.