Most Western analysts of political Islam make the same mistake. They instinctively assume that conflict with the West has mainly to do with specific foreign policies, particularly of the U.S. with respect to Israel, the Arab world and Iran, and, if those changed, all would be well.
In fact, my intensive contact over the years with Iranian clerics, Hezbollah and Hamas suggest that the conflict with the West is much deeper. It is rooted in radically different worldviews about human nature and the good society.
Failing to grasp this reality, the West continually misreads what is going on in the Muslim world. At root, the West is about individualistic, instrumental rationality and materialism; the Islamic resistance movements are about a communal and spiritual approach to life.
It has been 30 years now since the Iranian Revolution, and 50 years since the first Islamist resistance movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was formed in Egypt. Yet many in the West remain bemused: Why is there an Islamist resistance at all? “Against what are Muslims in revolt?” Westerners ask.
Even now, more shockingly, there seems still no clarity about the Iranian Revolution: Was it nothing more than a populist kick against power, and the Shah’s heavy-handedness that was hijacked by the Ayatollahs — as many assert?
Such explanations seem blindingly inadequate to account for events that were — and still are — mobilizing and energizing hundreds of millions of Muslims. In my book “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution,” I argue that the Revolution is essentially a “Refusal” — a grand refusal to accept an understanding of the self or of the worlds dominated by contemporary secular Western consciousness.
Islamism, in short, is not irrational — it is no whimsy of divine caprice; it is accessible to reasoned explanation. And it seeks to evolve an alternative to the ways of the West.
Islamists returned to the Quran for insights. The Quran is not a blueprint for politics or a state: It is, as it states frequently, nothing new. The Quran is a “reminder” of old truths, already known to us all. One of which is that for humans to live together successfully society must practice compassion, justice and equity.
This insight lies at the root of political Islam. It is a principle that represents a complete inversion of the “Great Transformation.” Instead of the pre-eminence of the market to which other social and community objectives are subordinated, the making of a society based on compassion, equity and justice becomes the overriding objective — to which other objectives, including markets, are subordinated.
It is revolutionary in another aspect: Instead of the individual being the organizational principle around which politics, economics and society are shaped, the Western paradigm again is inverted. It is the collective welfare of the community in terms of such principles — rather than the individual — that becomes the litmus of political achievement.
In short, Islamists are re-opening an old debate — one that is at the root of both Western and Islamic philosophy. Posed by Plato, that debate questions the purpose of politics. Some Westerners are troubled that after 200 years of settled opinion, the Western paradigm is being questioned anew. One American conservative commented to me recently that with Descartes, the West had discovered “objective truth” through science and technology. It had made “us” rich and powerful and Muslims could not bear that. They knew that ultimately they would be forced to acquiesce to Western “truth.”
But the Islamist revolution is more than politics. It is an attempt to shape a new consciousness — to escape from the most far-reaching pre-suppositions of our time. It draws on the intellectual tradition of Islam to offer a radically different understanding of the human being, and to escape from the hegemony and rigidity of the Cartesian mindset.
It is a voyage of discovery to a new “Self” that is far from complete. It has many shortcomings, but its intellectual insights offer Muslims (and Westerners) the potential to step beyond the shortcomings of Western materialism. This is what excites and energizes. As a Hezbollah leader replied to me when asked what the Iranian Revolution had signified for him, he said unhesitatingly that Muslims were free to think Islamically once again.
It is not possible therefore to make sense of the Iranian or wider Islamic resistance without understanding it as a philosophic and metaphysical event, too. It is the omission of this latter understanding that helps explain repeated Western misreadings of Iran, its Revolution and events in the region.
Of course, there is another side to Islamism: Islam, like Christianity, has witnessed, from the outset, a struggle between a narrow, literalist and intolerant interpretation in opposition to the intellectual tradition grounded in philosophy and reasoning and in transforming knowledge. Though not at all perceived by most Western analysts, who see them only through the prism of opposition to Israeli occupation, movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas are part of the latter, intellectual tradition.
Perversely, for the past 50 years, it is to the literalists, often called Salafi, that the West has looked to circumscribe “threats to its interests” in the Middle East — emulating Cold War containment thinking.
The Saudi orientation of Salafism has been used by the West to counter Nasserism, Marxism, the Soviet Union, Iran and Hezbollah; but in so using the literalist puritan orientation, the West has misunderstood the mechanism by which some Salafist movements have migrated through schism and dissidence to become the dogmatic, hate-filled and often violent movements that really do threaten Westerners, as well as other Muslims, too.
Ironically, the West of the Enlightenment is situated on the wrong of the divide — backing dogma versus the open intellect of religious evolution. It is perhaps not surprising that a literalist and dogmatic West has contributed to literalism in Islam also. But the West, by holding on to this flawed perception that it is supporting docility and “moderation” against “extremism,” paradoxically has left the Middle East a less stable, more dangerous and violent place.