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Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda

Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda
Translated by Patrick Hutchinson

A provocative rethinking of the war on terror that exposes the dangers of Western blindness to colonial Middle Eastern history and breaks the deadlock of geopolitics and religious identity.

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November 2008
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198 pages | 6 x 9 |

A renowned authority on Islamic movements, François Burgat lived for eighteen years in the Arab world, including his time as director of the French Center for Archaeology and Social Sciences at Yemen. He also dedicated many months to fieldwork in North Africa. Bringing Burgat's decades of expertise to the complex dialogues that have marked the post-9/11 world, Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda delivers much-needed clarity and historical perspective.

In Burgat's eyes, most of the West's political and media rhetoric has only fueled al-Qaeda's case, revealing a woeful lack of comprehension regarding the violent authoritarianism that divides the Middle East and creates a breeding ground for terrorism. Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda provides a primer of the three eras of political Islam, from the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brothers to the rise of post-colonial dictatorships and the current radicalization of "Generation al-Qaeda." Offering a new roadmap for stability, Burgat bridges the ideologies—political, religious, and cultural—that must be traversed if the deadly sectarianism is to be superseded.

  • Translator's Note and Acknowledgments
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Identity Matrix of "Muslim-Speak"
  • 2. From National Struggle to the Disillusionments of "Recolonization": The Triple Temporality of Islamism
  • 3. The Islamist Field between National Specificity and Transnationalization
  • 4. Red Sea Secrets or Islamism without Colonization
  • 5. The Brothers and the Salafis: Between Modernization and Literalism, with or without Radicalization
  • 6. Islamic Radicalization: Between Religious Sectarianism and Political Counterviolence
  • 7. From Sayyid Qutb to Mohammed Atta: Sectarianism or Political Counterviolence?
  • 8. From Fears Inherited to Fears Exploited: The War of Representations
  • 9. Hard Power and Imposed Reform: The Illusions of the Western Response to Islamism
  • Conclusion: Against Terrorism—the Absolute Weapon?
  • Appendix: The Islamists as Seen by the West in 1992
  • Notes
  • Index

François Burgat is Director of Research at the National Center for Scientific Research in France and teaches political science at the Institute for Research on the Arab and Muslim World. His many previous books include The Islamic Movement in North Africa, with William Dowell.


No, when all is said, I would far rather see the Muslim Brothers co-opted by the Egyptian military, with the latter retaining the lion's share of power, than contemplate their winning free elections, then setting up someone like Tariq Ramadan as Minister of Culture. . . . Therefore I support maintaining the most enlightened—or even not enlightened at all—dictatorships possible in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia rather than the implementation, in these regions of the world, of democratic principles which, for the time being, would only entail chaos and violence.

Alexandre Adler, French essayist, Le Figaro, September 6, 2004

We all remember the man who saw the man who saw the man . . . who saw the bear who ate the postman and who was not scared. A small portion of the glory of the last is inherited by the first. In this case, it is the toxic fragrance which hangs round anyone who knows a person whose friend sometimes says nice things about someone who one day inadvertently shook the hand of one of Tariq Ramadan's close friends. It has become like a byword for anyone who wants to denounce any political initiative, stance on some issue, network or periodical, trend, or even slogan . . . ramadanism, ramadanian, ramadanizing. It is useless to add anything. . . . And it is not only for those who have engaged in criticizing his work that the mere name of the intellectual from Geneva thus bears the semblance of an insult or a provocation. No. It is among the ranks of those who take ignorance for a virtue—or for the necessary consequence of militant contempt.

Laurent Lévy, French antiracist activist, Socialisme International (Spring 2005)

Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world.

Michael Scheuer (former CIA agent), Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (2004)

At the core of the severe misunderstanding which is fueling the ongoing tensions between Europe, the United States, and the Muslim world resides a difficulty shared by the West as a whole: that of undertaking a rational and well thought out assessment first of the political and second of the intellectual and ethical roles of the various trends of "political Islam," "Islamism," or "radical Islamism," too frequently considered to be just so many stumbling-blocks on the road to consensual modernity and the peaceful coexistence of all the world's tribes.

Since the epoch-making antiterrorist summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in March 1996, the United States, Europe, and Israel, but also Arab authoritarian regimes and a fraction of Arab intellectual elites, have adopted a language and a strategy on the issue which are curiously similar. Less than ten years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the specter of "Islamic fundamentalism" has well and truly become the global Public Enemy No. 1.

"If they were not infiltrated by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's fundamentalists," the rhetoric of today's powerful somehow suggests, "would the Iraqis be refusing the democratic overture which George Bush has so generously come to bestow on them?" "If the militants of Hamas and other Jihadis hadn't corrupted the minds of their fellow citizens, would the Chechens and Palestinians persist in sulkily rejecting the offers of peace made by Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon?" If we finally managed to ban Tariq Ramadan from expressing himself in public, would that not put an end not only to those feminine veils which so disfigure the modernist alleys of the French Republic but also to the criminal "gang-bangs" and, why not, to all the insecurity currently reigning in the high-rise stairwells of the suburbs? In short, if Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya (in the fourteenth-century Middle East) or Sayyid Qutb (in Egypt in the 1950s) had not "invented" "radical Islamism," would the whole world not be wallowing in that democratic felicity—secular, modern, and consensual—which today seems so far out of reach?

The recent upsurge of the "al-Qaeda generation" has further fraught with passion our interpretations of the phenomenon. There is obviously to be no question here of minimizing the necessary arraignment of its terrorist undertakings. Our goal is to show how the reading which is usually made of its exterior manifestations is too unilateral, simplistic, and overemotional to be rational and hence effective in bringing it to an end. And that, by erecting so many walls where we should more than ever be building new bridges, we are accelerating and not winding down the radicalization which currently threatens to engulf us.

The Trap of Our Categories

Our knowledge and the rational management of our relationship with the "Islamists" are above all adversely affected by the extreme fragility of the categories we have set up to represent them. The way of thinking of analysts, strategists, and other "experts" is today confined, ever more self-evidently, to the bald assessment (optimistic for some, pessimistic or realistic for others) of the performances and future prospects respectively of the Islamist terrorists and those who, in Washington, Paris, Algiers, or Riyad, devote an equally all-consuming zeal to combating them.

The logic of criminal indictment has irresistibly trampled that of evaluation and analysis. The democracies and other defenders of "freedom" or "tolerance," as we have relentlessly been told since September 11, 2001, are confronted with the terrorist threat of Muslim "fundamentalism." Is this really what it is all about? The following pages are an open invitation to call into question the political and ideological foundations of a worldwide quasi-unanimity concerning the "global war against terror." And to take the full measure of the disastrous consequences which its zealous adepts are busy compounding: the generalization and radicalization of the very revolt which they tell us it is their profession to "eradicate."

Is the violence with which the West is being confronted merely "ideological" and "religious"? Do we always take the time to discern the essential difference between religious sectarianism and political counterviolence, even if they are sometimes inextricably intertwined, without, however, ever completely merging into one? Condemnable though it may be, was the theology of war elaborated by Sayyid Qutb while in the tender care of Nasser's torturers truly the "root cause" of Islamist radicalization or merely the vocabulary of a revolt whose motives are strikingly more down-to-earth?

The Western powers today claim that they are "morally assaulted" by the "hatred of democracy and freedom" which they allege increasingly grips their aggressors as they "teeter on the edge of radical Islam." But this anti-Western revolt might be much better understood as highlighting a relatively predictable reaction to the unilateralism, selfishness, and iniquity of policies implemented, directly or indirectly through the intermediary of pet dictators, in a whole region of the world. In the vanguard of the "Imperial West"—a role in which it first caught up with then overtook colonial Europe and Russia—the United States is today harvesting the bitter fruits of utterly irresponsible policies which it has been implementing for several decades in the Third World in general and in the Muslim world in particular: in these countries, the thousands of victims of such policies, just as innocent as those of the World Trade Center, and the West's decades-long unswerving support for tyrannical dictatorships have fostered in their populations a sentiment of deep despair, favorable to the most extreme forms of revolt.

Beyond the question of an "Islamist" form of violence, it is easy to see that what is at stake is the difficulty of conceding the very banal resurgence of an Islamic political lexicon in societies of Muslim culture and the fact that a non-Western culture should dare aspire to erode the age-old Western monopoly on the expression of the universal. Caught in the crossfire between the "negative intellectuals" of late denounced in France by Pierre Bourdieu for their involvement in the dirty work of the Algerian junta and today's "façade intellectuals" of the South, who dissemble from the Western public—whom they wish to woo or manipulate—the real condition of societies whose sole ambassadors they nevertheless purport to be, does the social science-based mediation of the world of the Other still have any chance to play its role?

Since the beginning of the 2000s, the international community—under the de facto hegemony of the U.S. superpower—has aspired to promote within the Arab world a set of "cultural" and "educative" reforms, concerning which it may legitimately be wondered whether they do not serve more to criminalize the forms of resistance to that world's own malfunctions than to find any realistic and equitable solution to them. In the face of the growing imbalances of the world order, is giving in to the temptation to criminalize all forms of critical introspection really the best option to prevent future confrontation?

Breaking the Deadlock of the "Global War on Terror"

The purpose of this book is to find ways to break out of this deadlock. Almost twenty years after proposing the first blueprint for an intellectual and political "instruction manual" for the "Islamist" bogeyman in my The Islamic Movement in North Africa, at the end of a long spell of fieldwork in the Maghreb and ten years after widening the underpinnings for my initial analysis and sharpening the focus of its terms in Face to Face with Political Islam after a five-year stay in the Mashreq, I am here reverting to this strife-torn issue, which has been eating away at the very tissue of the relationship between the West and a Muslim world which has now become part and parcel of itself. Empowered by a six-year stay in Yemen, my approach henceforth integrates some of the lessons imparted by the Arabian Peninsula, where the imprint of colonialism has been less direct than elsewhere in the Arab world but which nonetheless represents—as the events of September 11 have shown—an essential field of study for an overview of Islamism as an object of research.

The successive re-editions of Face to Face with Political Islamism (the latest in 2003) have enabled me to undertake a constant updating of the intellectual or political dynamics sanctioned or accelerated by the September 11 attacks. This third reversion to the object of Islamism intends not only to integrate new factual data but to correlate a double historical perspective: on the one hand, of course, the original statement of my hypotheses elaborated in the mid-1980s; on the other, my ensuing observations on "Islamist" behavior patterns.

These hypotheses set forth in my previous books—to which I refer for their explicit initial formulation—have remained at the core of my present reasoning. In order to confront them both with my later fieldwork and with the test of time, I will attempt to use them as underpinning without, however, repeating anything more than their substance. Even though they have now been brilliantly clarified and substantiated by younger colleagues—to whom this book owes a lot—it may be said that they are still far enough removed from having become commonplace for it to be worthwhile to recall their framework.

In space and time, we will see that it is only the multiplication of such points of observation which will enable us to circumvent the discourse of received wisdom and impassioned conviction which is currently the basis of the Western strategies—purblind and hence dangerously counterproductive—of our terror-fraught "global war against terror."

In this book, I wish first and foremost to recall the necessary distinction between an essential phenomenon of identity, a resurgence of the popularity of something we will here call "Muslim-speak," and the manifold ways in which its supporters have put this "rehabilitated" lexicon to use in political and social life (Chapter 1). In order to reconfigure Islamist mobilization within contexts which, in the space of one century, have vastly evolved, I next propose to distinguish the three main sequences during which (before and after the waves of independence) it became widespread (Chapter 2). We will then explore the tensions between national specificities and the phenomenon of transnationalization; this examination will procure us a better understanding both of the great diversity of the Islamist field and of the forces which have come to shape its dynamics (Chapters 3 to 5). Chapter 6 offers a more precise deconstruction of the mechanics of the radicalization which is at the origin of the emergence of al-Qaeda within this field, whose "sectarian" and "political" dimensions urgently need to be distinguished. Chapter 7 scrutinizes the trajectories of four individuals who are among the most emblematic of this radical configuration, from the ideologue Sayyid Qutb to Mohammed Atta, the pilot who carried out the September 11 attack.

In order to reach an understanding of why emotion often tends to deprive the analysis of its much-vaunted rationality, Chapter 8 recalls that the obstacles which the interpretation of the Islamist phenomenon must overcome are not only linked to fears and misunderstandings inherited from the Western colonial past: they are also deliberately "exploited" today by all those who have a vested interest in discrediting the forms of resistance encapsulated in the Islamist lexicon. Finally, Chapter 9 reviews the contradictions of the unilateralism of the Western "response" following September 11, as well as the counterproductive effects of the security culture which is currently developing to the detriment of what should be a truly effective political response to the threats which "radical Islamism"—along with many other actors on the international scene—holds in store for world peace.