ISLAMISMS 'THERE' AND 'HERE'

Azza M.Karam1

Introduction

The end of the millennium is witnessing a great many social and political changes - some of which appear contradictory. Globalisation is a feature of our times, and though widely used, it is not clearly defined a term. Globalisation is here understood to mean the increasing advances in communication technologies which have rendered the transfer of information - and occasionally of knowledge - instantaneous and almost universal. So much so that to talk of a global village is to more or less adequately describe the flow of ideas, peoples and cultures across previously impermeable boundaries. As a result, national boundaries have been questioned and in some instances redrawn, while the discourses of the state, sovereignity, citizenship and identity have had to come to terms with change and hybridity, both of which are features of increased interaction on all levels.
Yet, contradictory to expectations of many theorists of modernisation and advocates of global integration, the processes of globalisation have not resulted in a unified and universal identity nor discourse of any sort. A mass culture has not emerged. Even the much touted 'fall of Communism' has not resulted in much unanimity - except perhaps to the extent that McDonald's increased its number of stores worldwide. On the contrary, the increasingly economic homogeneity pertaining to consumerism and other sailent aspects of capitalist society, has actually been accompanied by a great deal of fragmentation and diversity in conceptions of self, nationhood, morality, among other aspects. This in turn has led to a serious questioning of metanarratives in general on a theoretical level, but is backed by important political trends which are demanding recognition on the basis of difference, or some would say 'authenticity'.
The end of the 20th century is thus witnessing a revival in calls for recognition of specified identities - either on the basis of ethnic affiliaton, language, or religion. These demands are partly attempts to urge for more popular participation in decision-making processes, and to protest against the sense of exclusion and threat that a massive move towards homogeneity inevitably results in. The demands for empowerment and recognition of specific identities are not necessarily violent, but many of them are persistent, organised, and echo the marginalisation and socio-economic desparation felt by many.
There are a couple of situations where the demands for empowerment, and against all manner of marginalisation, represent a direct sense of threat to the status quo. This takes place in the Middle East where the legitimacy and/or sovereignity of ruling bodies is already in question due to the lack of popular participation. But it also occurred in parts of Europe where some of the traditional means of popular participation, e.g. legislation, parliamentary representation and so on, are themselves coming under scrutiny, and are being questioned due to the influence of previously marginal concerns, such as migration. Due to the fact that Islam is the second largest religion in Europe - with over 10 million immigrants, and in a continent still struggling with a past dominated with the doubtfull honour of being former colonisers (and facing the revival of one of colonialism's ugly manifestations, racism, today) it is not surprising that much ado has been created around the religion and its adherents. However, this also results from historic interest in the Orient in general, and especially of contemporary economic and geo-political considerations - none of which should be underestimated since they play a crucial and highly formative role in current politics, and will in all likelihood continue to do so. Due to this wide configuration of political stakes and tendencies, interest in Islam in general and in Islamism in particular is undergoing a revival.

Islamism: Politics of Identity and Politics of Power

Islamism is a term which defies definition and invites controversy. In this it is not unique, since almost all terms which first appeared in a Western or European context and refer to the Islamic context, share the same fate. The term also shares a tendency to universalise and generalise - so that all Islamisms or Islamists become indistinguishable and refer to the same unified tendency. An assertion which could be more distanced from the complexity of reality. It might be even more accurate to refer to Islamism as a kaleidoscope - the more one shifts it, the more the picture and images change and take on different dimensions and a different shape. Admittedly, this metaphor could equally adequately describe Islam itself - and almost any other fate or credo that has adapted and continues to adapt to the changing nature of life's contigencies and demands. In general - very much for the sake of the argument and fully recognizing the complicated potential of this - it can be said that an Islamist is one who uses Islam in contemporary political practice to achieve or exercise power in such a way as to prioritise her/his version of Islam at the expense of any other political ideology, and in a manner which tends to be exclusionary. Other contributors to this volume have rightly referred to Islamism as an Islamic tendency active in political discourse (see Mohammed Tozy's article). Critics will rightly contend that power is not the only aspect of Islamism and that not all Islamists are exclusionary. The point is however, that Islamism is difficult to categorise and isolate from the contexts in which it emerges, at the same that it is not limited in definition to the borders within which it operates. An example of the latter can be found in the particular 'brand' of Algerian Islamists (who are by no means representative of all Islamist activists in Algeria or elsewhere) responsable for the violent incidents in Paris in the last few years. While claiming an allegiance, indeed a representivity, of Islamic consciousness, they are very much involved with a political dynamics that is both internal to Algerian politics, as well as relevant to the sentiments of some Algerian Muslims living in France. The latter may well be angry and resentfull of a certain perception and position accorded to them by the French government and French mainstream society. These sentiments in turn could be inflamed when there is an ongoing and not altogether justifiable dynamics taking place between the respective governments, and the opposition within the country of origin.
Another important question in the proces of defining or understanding Islamism is what distinguishes it from, in this instance, Islam? The answer is simultaneously simple and complicated. On the one hand, the simple answer is to assert that Islamism is intimately connected to politics of power. The complicated version is that power does not take one form, and that certainly not all organised quests for power are similar. Suffice it to read the many theses on power developed by academics and politicians alike, in order to begin to comprehend that perceptions of power vary from the very basic idea of power as a political aspect, to power as an all-pervasive aspect of life, and one that may be positive or negative or even both simultaneously.
Hence, Islamism, though involved in and encompassing the politics of power, is nevertheless characterised by a substantial diversity. Those who espouse Islamism's purposes and ideals describe themselves as Islamiyin (Islamists), see their identity and political goals (such as the thorough adaption and implementation of the shari'a, or Islamic laws) as defined almost exclusively by their socio-political credo, and yet differ widely as to the approach adopted to implement their goals, and the agendas they set for themselves and the rest of society. This difference is shaped by the context in which Islamists operate, and is manifested in many ways. On the one hand Islamists in the Middle East are keen on achieving state power; but even they differ in the strategies they adopt vis-à-vis both the state and the society they operate in. Advocates of the Muslim Brotherhood for example, invariably tend to advocate the Islamic education of society, and gradual infiltration into key positions using existing state and key civil structures. In other words, theirs is a more gradual and 'down-up' approach. This is in marked contrast to other Islamists, admittedly a minority, who believe that the question of Islamising society is contingent upon capturing state power, and seemingly adopt the Machiavellian notion that the end of achieving this, justifies the means. Examples are the Jihad of Egypt or the Taliban of Afghanistan. The latter approach is more 'top-down', which can also be used to legitimise any form of violence.
On the other hand, Islamists in Europe, though also involved with a form of power politics, are seeking a different end. It must be pointed out at the outset that indeed very little is known about them, which has only enriched existing misperceptions and stereotypes of 'Muslim terrorists', as well as it has necessiated the attempts currently being carried out by some to investigate these groups and individuals. By talking of and analysing the Islamists in Europe, it is not the intention to sound the red alert and justify a great deal of xenophobia and injustice that is taking place all over Europe today. Rather it is to highlight that there is a very real sense of grievance felt on the part of many Muslims living in Europe, that their identity as Muslims is perceived as being threatened and trampeled on at worst, or disrespected and misunderstood at best. The emergence of European Islamists is a reaction to the sense of injustice and the powerlesness that some Muslims are confronted with - particularly in situations where their status as citizens is challenged by what appear to be insensitive politics of integration, where the sense of communion with other parts of host societies has been severely strained, and where their impact on political decision-making is seen as minimal.
All these factors combine with the fact that globalisation has contributed to the difficulty of drawing clearly divisive national borders, to create a situation where 'here' and 'there' are mostly rethorical. In other words, the internal dimension and the external one can often overlap, and in this case, do. Once again, the example of what took place in Paris is pertinent, since it highlights the extent to which borders between the politics of each country became blurred and in fact, interconnected. To assume that Algerian Islamists infiltrated Paris overnight and managed to plant some bombs is certainly one way of looking at it. However, remaining more within the realm of practicality would entail a realisation that even if an infiltration of a certain group of migrant Algerians did take place, it would have resounded with some very real and home-grown (where home now is France) frustrations. It is not impossible to imagine that a perceived sense of injustice by Islamists in Algeria against their 'undemocratic, secularised and Westernised' government, which is being supported by a supposedly democratic former colonial power, can be appreciated and understood by some migrants who are consistently being socially and politically reminded of the fact that as migrants they should not feel at home, as Muslims they are backward and odd, and as citizens they are at best second or third class.2
Islamists are not representative of all Muslims - though they may claim to be the real/authentic voice of Islam. Rather, they are the limited group of people who choose to prioritise certain Islamic aspects of their identities and to use particular discourse and rethoric to justify their quests for more power and influence in decision-making processes. In other words, European Islamists are attempting to participate in the political landscape of the countries they have chosen to create a second in, but to do so in such a way that they emphasize a particular often highly conservative (sometimes more so than their colleagues and/or family members back home in the respective Muslim countries) and exclusive version of Islam. Thus, theirs is not so much a quest for state power - which in a European and largely non-Muslim context is recognised to be ludicrous anyway. In fact, it could be seen as a demand for more democratisation in the form of a call for increased participation in the process of political decision-making - a demand for a bigger say in what happens to themselves, their community and their future.
Other European Muslims who are also actively participating in the politics of their communities would differ with Islamists on a number of issues. In this context, the most important of those is the interpretation and understanding of Islam that Islamists chose to adopt and affect, the desire (of Islamists) to Islamise the community and politics at the exclusion of all other ways of being. What many Muslims in Europe are prepared to accept- and some will actively argue for - is the fact that what the Koran has to say in terms of basic human rights and obligations differs little from what other Western secular or religious credos would advocate. Moreover, some Muslims would maintain that what matters in influencing political decision-making is not how to Islamise, rather how to effectively harmonise with the different understandings and ways of life around them, and which are a factor of constant changes. In other words, the quest of many Muslims living in Europe is not how to exclude 'the Other' Western community and create a 'real' Islamic one, but how to include and be included in a community of human beings which shares a mutual understanding of difference, and insists on reciprocal respect, while maintaining the option of choosing to be proud of an Islamic identity.3
However, it remains important to highlight the subtleties further by stressing that there are many shades of Islamism, and reiterating that politics of power involve many variations and forms. The aspects of effective harmonisation, mutual respect and inclusiveness of some Western traits may well be relevant for some Islamists as well. In other words not all Islamists dismiss Europeans and Western lifestyle, and insist on some forms of Islamic orthodoxy. Some of them may well adopt the latter stances, but in general they differ widely, enough to be able to form the continuum their fellow Islamists in many parts of the Muslim world also feature in: from moderate to extreme. What distinguishes the moderate from the extreme Islamist? To put it candidly, the distinction resides in the extent to which the 'Islamic' is prioritised over any other identity, and the intention to combine this with politics of supremacy and exclusion. The latter refers to the basis of much whaty Islamists stand for: that 'Islam is the solution' and by implication, that it is the 'only' and 'best' solution - presumably to modern day problems, ranging from economic insecurity and political instability to the favourite term of all, 'cultural inauthenticity'.

The (Non)Linkages and the Options

The outcome of the seminar held in Amsterdam on the 22nd of November 1996, indicated that the awareness of Islamists in Europe remains fragmented and unclear. What has yet to be proved and documented are the supposed financial and moral connections between the diverse Islamist groups in Europe and in many parts of the Islamic world. What is relatively more apparent and elucidated is the European fear and its consequent misperception, that the 'terrorist Muslims' are at (Europe's) doors. This renders any discussion on the impact of Islamisms in Europe, the harbinger of images of bombs in Paris subways and bearded terror in general. Yet the endeavour to understand that which is complicated and certainly not without effect, leads to the question of whether there is a link between Islamism in the Middle East - in Turkey and Morocco for example - and that in Europe (The Netherlands)? This is not necessarily the same as asking whether there is a connection between the activists themselves. The former question is on the level of rethoric and/or ideology, and the latter is beyond the scope of this paper but is adressed to some extent in the article bij Rusen Çakir.
So is there a link between Islamist ideology in Turkey and Morocco and that in the Netherlands? Even here there is a lack of concrete answers. But what is undeniable is that the linkage between political Islam and politics of power is common to both streams of Islamisms. Nevertheless, the actual means and methods that both sets of groups adopt, as well as the goals they set for themselves are quite different. What is equally undeniable is the fact that whether in the Middle East or in Europe, Islamism is a politicised expression against a perception of injustice - and an expression which is both exclusivist as well as supremacist. The perception of injustice may well be exaggerated or uncalled for - but for policy-makers and researchers concerned with the phenomenon, this ought not to be the issue. Rather, what is at stake is the necessity to adress the root causes of this sense of injustice. In order to do so, it is important to pose a series of questions - which should take precedence over questions on the faith itself, since the latter tends to make all Muslims defensive and uncomfortable, and in some cases, may serve to promote the sense of injustice further, rather than eliminate it.
What does this mean? Some Western governments attempt to understand their Muslim communities in general by educating themselves (or funding some selected local initiatives which profess to enlighten and 'encourage dialogue' on Islam, Muslims, Muslim migrants, Muslim women et cetera) in various ways, on the religion itself and improving their links and dialogue with the Islamic world. This is both extremely necessary as well as commendable. However, it is not enough. An understanding of Islam - were it to be possible even to the person who was born, bred and highly educated in all its available intricacies - does not necessarily explain the contemporary political manifestations that Islamism is. The anology that can be made here is that a study of Christianity per se would fall short of explaining the Christian Coalition in the United States, or the role and influence of the church in the politics of some Latin American countries. Similarly, a study of any Western religions and/or cultural practices would be insufficient to explain the (re)emergence of fascism and racism in these societies. In other words, what is equally necessary (to the study of religion and the strengthening of cultural ties with relevant countries) is a critical (self)appraisal of the entire political and economic situation that surrounds the propagators of certain ideologies both 'there' as well as - if not more so - 'here'.
This means that with respect to Islamists in Europe, what needs to be taken into account is a comprehensive (re)consideration of the policies and strategies adopted by governments vis-à-vis the sectors from which Islamism is emerging - e.g. the Muslim migrant community. What is further necessiated is an analysis and self-critique of the cultural factors which both encourage and possibly create stereotypes of 'the Other' (in this case Muslims), within the local contexts. These are not easy meassures, very often it is simpler to look into the other side attempting to understand what is happening 'there', rather than do some looking around oneself to see where one has a role to play in what is happening. The analogy once again - this time in the form of an Egyptian joke:
The story is of a man whose eye is paining every time he drinks tea. After this is repeated very often and the pain becomes unbearable, the man decides to consult the expert in these health affairs - a physician. After considering the problem from various angles, the doctor finally decides to offer the patient a cup of tea, and observe what happens. The doctor then notices that the patient, after dissolving the sugar with the spoon, lifts the teacup - with the teaspoon inside - to drink. At which point the spoon goes into the man's eyes, and he ends up in obvious pain.
The patient - for the sake of this joke and certainly not to characterise all tea drinkers (!) - was unaware that it was the manner in which he drank the tea that caused him problems. Whereas the visit to the doctor was helpfull and indicative, the cause and the solution to the problem, still remained very much within the patient's hands.
In the same vein, European countries should continue their efforts at understanding what is by now no longer an outside, but very much a local population - Muslims. At the same time however, there must be a simultaneous effort to periodically review their own policies of immigration and integration and its impact within as well as without its borders - especially in line with the criteria for judgement and/or intervention applied in their respective foreign policies. Moreover, European governments need to question the individual motivations that drive this search for 'knowledge' of Islam, and particularly vis-à-vis larger geopolitical interests and culturally dominant prejudices. If this process of self-critique is absent on the part of Europeans, one can be sure that this questioning is continuously taking place by the large majority of Muslims. Some of the latter, like their colleagues in other developping countries, believe that colonialism is not so much a matter of the past, but in view of the current economic and political imbalance of power, an ongoing concern. Assessing linkages between different movements, ideas and ways of life is a necessary feature in response to the global village. But what is equally vital and long-term is to constantly review and to be receptive to the rationale and the means with which its assessment is taking place.
Above all, what needs to be constantly kept in mind is the realisation that Islamism is a political phenomenon which does not occur in a vacuum - but is very much an aspect of a global process to demand political empowerment based on the recognition of an especially formulated identity. Last but not least and in this context, it need also be realised that the aspect of time is very important in all considerations relevant to understanding a phenomenon: what is here now, is not necessarily per se what exists in the future, but the way we deal with what faces us today, will definitely impact on what we are confronted with tomorrow.



1 Program Officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Stockholm, and a fellow of Middle East Research Associates (MERA) in Amsterdam. All opinions expressed herein are those of the author and are not representative of either organisation.

2 It is worth mentioning that the recent election results for Le Pen's Front National, along with new and only slightly controversial (in the eyes of most of the French public) migration laws, do not bode well for future migrant-host relations.

3 In this respect many of these and like-minded Muslims are seeking common ground with their European neighbours. Hence an increasing number of 'Euro-Islam dialogues and inter-cultural exchanges can be witnessed that are mushrooming in different parts of Europe over the last few years.

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