Reflections on Political Islam After September 11

Ali Banuazizi
Boston College

Date: January 23, 2002

Event Recap

According to Ali Banuazizi, understanding political Islam depends on finding a “middle way” between the extremes of a “clash of civilizations” approach, where Islam is seen as intrinsically political and on a collision course with the West, and the opposing view that Islam has nothing at all to do with extremist politics. Banuazizi, a professor of Psychology at Boston College and the director of the Minor in Middle Eastern Studies, argues that terrorist movements do have something to do with Islam, but that exploring the connection between terrorism and Islam is not so much a theological as it is a political and historical inquiry.

At a luncheon seminar at the Boisi Center on January 23, Banuazizi outlined the historical roots of contemporary Islamist movements, and proposed a three-fold typology of these movements as a way of getting at the complexities underlying political Islam. According to Banuazizi, the roots of modern Islamist movements are found in the largely negative encounter between Muslims and the West through the experience of colonial exploitation. Indigenous political movements originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to recognize that they could use Islamic symbols and identity as a way of resisting European colonialism. Over the course of the 20th century, these movements have developed in three different directions. “Liberal Islam” seeks to reform Islamic societies and states and to move them toward democracy. Ruling elites inmost Middle Eastern countries have generally suppressed liberal Islamic movements, often with the explicit or tacit support of the United States and other Western governments.

“Revolutionary Radical Islam,” on the other hand, espouses something like a liberation theology, attracting masses of young people with the goal of developing amore egalitarian, democratic society. Such movements are anti-clerical and have been influenced by Marxism and other Third World initiatives. The third form of political Islam is “Theocratic;” movements of this kind are religiously conservative, seeking to seize the state apparatus and establish an Islamic government. Such movements are actually new in Islam; for most of its history, Islamic rule has been characterized by a separation of spiritual and political rule. Only in the 1960’s and 70’s did the idea of an Islamic state develop.

While justice is the overriding ideological goal of these movements, exactly what each means by justice (in general and as it pertains to women) is quite different: the liberals, for example, understand justice in terms of the French model of equality before the law and espouse a fairly moderate view of women’s freedom and social roles. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, interpret justice as messianic, involving the equal distribution of resources to all, and espouse a correspondingly egalitarian view of women’s place in society. Finally, conservatives espouse an Aristotelian notion of justice as impartial and involving the proportionate treatment of unequal parties; in this scheme, women are in an inferior position and therefore receive different treatment than men under the law.

Banuazizi notes that the typology outlined above cuts across the traditional Sunni/Shiite divide in Islam; at the same time, it does not include the many non-political orientations in Islam, ranging from the world-denying Sufis to “ordinary, apathetic” Muslims. The typology also makes the study of terrorism more complex, because it demonstrates the difficulty of fitting terrorist movements into any one category. But on the whole, terrorist groups tend to be peripheral in Islamic societies, and their methods are rejected by most Islamic governments.

Banuazizi argues that limiting the spread and influence of such terrorist groups demands a two-fold political strategy. First, the debate between political groups in the Muslim world needs to be allowed to flourish. At the same time, the United States and its allies should promote democratic institutions in Islamic society through a measured process of influencing governments and enunciating the U.S. values of pluralism and tolerance.