Islam is the second-largest and the fastest-growing religion in the world. In its heartlands in Asia and Africa, the movement of Islamisation has penetrated the fortress of the modernised elites, taking root among students, engineers, doctors and lawyers. And where once western dress was the mark of culture and emancipation, educated Muslim women today are more likely to don the hijab to assert their determination to be active citizens and express an alternative feminist identity.
Far from being a desert of stagnation, as it is often portrayed in the west, the Muslim world is in the grip of powerful change. The quest to renew Islam has always gone hand in hand with resistance to the westâ€™s military, political and cultural hegemony over the Muslim world. This goes back to the 19th century when, amid the turmoil that accompanied the shift in the balance of power in favour of Europe, two projects of reform emerged in Muslim society.
One was represented by the men of the tanzimat (reorganisation), who responded to the challenge of the rising European powers by seeking to build a powerful modern army and a centralised administration capable of securing authority over the provinces of an Ottoman empire in long-term decline. But alongside these pragmatic technocrats were the Islamist reformers, led by Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and their disciples. Much like the standard-bearers of reformation in Christianity, they sought to reactivate Islamâ€™s innate energies through the call to return to â€œpristine sourcesâ€™â€™ without recourse to custom or tradition. A reinterpreted Islam, adapted to the conditions of modernity, they were convinced, was the only way out of the decadence of the present. This revivalist project, with its many offshoots and variations, is dominant in todayâ€™s Islam.
Ironically, the mighty powers of western modernity have neither dispensed with nor weakened the grip of the religious in Muslim society. If anything, they have acted as a catalyst for the revitalising of Islamâ€™s inner resources and as a midwife for the birth of modern Islam. While modernisation has been wedded to secularisation in much of the world, in Muslim society it has gone hand in hand with Islamisation. The mass appeal of modern Islam is such that any open, free elections are bound to bring to power its representatives and sympathisers - which, in a nutshell, is the trouble with democratisation in the Muslim world for the powers that be. That the political status quo has stubbornly refused to budge in much of the Muslim world has nothing to do with either culture or religion. It is all down to regional and global politics, with their crude stakes and calculations.
Islamism, like socialism, is not a uniform entity. It is a colourful sociopolitical phenomenon with many strategies and discourses. This enormously diverse movement ranges from liberal to conservative, from modern to traditional, from moderate to radical, from democratic to theocratic, and from peaceful to violent. What these trends have in common is that they derive their source of legitimacy from Islam, just as Latin American anarchist guerrillas, communists, social democrats and third-way Blairites base theirs on socialism. To view such a broad canvas through the lens of Bin Laden or Zarqawi is absurd.
Faced with this dynamic and multifaceted force across the Muslim world, the west has two options. It can deal with it peacefully, allowing it to express itself freely and opening a dialogue with it, or it can channel its energies towards violence and destructiveness. Whatever course of action it chooses, we can be certain that the ensuing consequences will not affect Muslim societies alone. In our globalised world, crises can no longer be kept far away, left to rage in distant lands and devour obscure nations. The troubles of Kabul, Jenin and Falluja now spill over on to our shores, towns and cities, lay bare our fundamental vulnerability, and put an end to our sense of immunity.
Bush and Blair seem determined to turn the clock back to the heyday of Napoleonic and Victorian expansion. The trouble is that the world is refusing to be dragged back to the age of grand colonial conquests, atrocities and tragedies, and Muslims are no exception. London and Washington must decide which Islam they want: a peaceful, democratic Islam, crucial to any pursuit of global stability, or the anarchical and destructive Islam of al-Qaida and its ilk. The shape of contemporary Islam will largely be determined by the environment within which it is forced to operate. As they ponder how to deal with Islam, our leaders would do well to remember the lessons of history. After all, it was Europeâ€™s colonialist adventures that drove the esoteric spiritualist Mahdis of Sudan, Sanussis of Libya and Qadiris of Algeria out of seclusion and on to the road of militancy and jihadism. â€” The Guardian