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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

Know your enemy

Over the past few weeks, a number of readers have submitted letters to The Observer regarding their opinions on whether or not Muslims are "civilized" and how the West should interact with the Muslim world. Since September 11th, Americans have exhibited a wide range of thoughts on the matter, from's 2001 letter of opposition to the war against the Taliban, to random acts of hatred against patriotic Muslims in the United States. As Notre Dame students and educated citizens, we must demarcate the distinction between the religion of Islam and the political ideology of Islamism, particularly radical Islamism. Understanding this difference and the underpinnings of Islamism is critically important to the determination of American strategy in the War on Terror.

The religion of Islam, as with other major world religions, contains diverse interpretations and schools of thought. Since the 2003 liberation of Iraq, most Americans have heard of the Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam, but there are also a number of subgroups within Shi'a and Sunni Islam. These include Progressive Islam (also known as Ijtihadism), Wahhabism and Sufism. One of these schools, Wahhabism - commonly referred to as Islamic fundamentalism in the West - has provided most of the adherents to radical Islamism, which uses an interpretation of Islam from the first three generations after Muhammad as the foundation for a distinct political ideology.

According to Professor Bassam Tibi of Göttingen University, "Islamic fundamentalists challenge and undermine the secular order of the body politic and aim to replace it by a divine order, the so-called hakimiyyat Allah. The order they envisage is not simply a domestic one, but the foundation for the new world order they expect to mount in place of the existing one." Radical Islamists, such as Sayyid Qutb and Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi, have the goal of creating a global Islamic state and a universal Islamic social order which would supersede the personal religious adherence of individuals. In addition, radical Islamism is similar to Communism and Nazism in the sense that all three ideologies separate society into "desirable" and "undesirable" groups, based on class, race or religion, respectively. Islamism is a coherent political ideology which is quite distinct from Islam itself, and its followers are committed to a goal which cannot be fulfilled as long as liberalism thrives in the United States or anywhere else in the world.

According to Gilles Kepel, author of "Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam," radical Islamism began its ascent in the early 1970s with the demise of Arab nationalism as the dominant ideology in the Muslim world. At this time, the region experienced a rapid increase in the number of educated and unemployed young people alongside growing middle class frustration with the control that the military or royal families had over economic opportunity in many Middle Eastern states. The ideas of Islamist intellectuals such as Qutb and Maududi offered the poor the possibility of social revolution, and the middle classes the promise of seizing economic control from the ruling elite.

The continuing attraction of Islamism to the marginalized elements of the Middle East is based on the failure of most Arab states to create effective political structures, build broad-based economies and foster technological innovation. Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote that "the gulf governments offered their people a bargain: we will bribe you with wealth, but in return let us stay in power. It was the inverse slogan of the American revolution - no taxation, but no representation either." As long as the governments of the Middle East operate by this bargain, the soil will be rich for Islamism to take root and terrorism will bloom.

Without the components of liberalism implemented in Middle Eastern nations, Islamism will continue to be an influential factor in budding democracies if not the dominant ideology. As Zakaria writes, "It turns out that modernization takes more than strongmen and oil money. Importing foreign stuff -Cadillacs, Gulfstreams and McDonald's - is easy. Importing the inner stuffings of modern society - a free market, political parties, accountability and the rule of law - is difficult and dangerous." Liberal democracies have been forced into fighting an ideological war with Islamist terrorism, as the current administration has currently stated, unfortunately it will not be won by holding elections alone but by fostering the foundations of liberalism abroad.

According to experts like Tibi, Kepel and Zakaria, the people of the Middle East desire economic opportunity, governmental accountability and open societies, and their frustrations have led many to Islamism as a last resort. Liberalism has accomplished these things for such diverse societies as Japan, India, Germany and Costa Rica, and can do so in Iraq, Afghanistan and the greater Middle East if the world's liberal democracies have the will to support the creation of liberal institutions throughout the Arab world. American measures which foster open markets, a free press and the development of strong political institutions in currently autocratic states will be far more successful in combating Islamist terrorism than by establishing elections alone.

Jonathan Klingler is a senior management consulting major and the President of the Notre Dame College Republicans. He currently resides in Keenan Hall and enjoys Tolstoy and Matlock. He can be contacted via e-mail at

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.