Tuesday 24 December 2013

Review of The Missing Martyrs: Terrorism, Institutions and the End of History

The Missing Martyrs: Why there are so few Muslim Terrorists by Charles Kurzman (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp.256

I recently finished re-reading The End of History by Francis Fukuyama and I still accept his core argument: history is directional. The contradictions inherent in illiberal regimes, economic systems and ideology inevitably lead to liberal democracy. Fukuyama doesn’t spend much time discussing Islam and Islamism as a possible challenge to liberal democracy because, as he notes, the ‘religion has virtually no appeal outside those areas that were culturally Islamic to begin with.’ He goes on to say

Indeed, the Islamic world would seem more vulnerable to liberal ideas in the long run than the reverse, since such liberalism has attracted numerous and powerful Muslim adherents over the past century and a half (p.46).

Later in the book he says that

But now [i.e., in 1991], outside the Islamic world, there appears to be a general consensus that accepts liberal democracy's claims to be the most rational form of government (p.211)

Charles Kurzman’s The Missing Martyrs goes some way into explaining that Fukuyama’s first quoted statement is largely correct and the second statement is, at the very least, too simplistic when it comes to the Middle East in 2013. The rest of this post is a review of three elements of the book I found interesting – one of which speaks to the Fukuyama extracts.

Terrorism: Kurzman’s Mea Culpa

Firstly, his main thesis is that there are an incredibly small amount of Islamist terrorists relative to the number of Muslims. Moreover, there are a small number of supporters of such terrorists. Kurzman has several data points for these two propositions: he starts with quoting upset Al Qaeda statements:

We are most amazed that the community of Islam is still asleep and heedless while its children are being wiped and killed everywhere and its land being diminished every day... Oh, brother in religion, why have quit supporting Islam an its people (p.8-9) - Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

In fact, Al Qaeda planned to carry attacks on the West Coast of the U.S during 9/11 but they ‘could not find qualified people to carry it out’ (p.12). Of course, the most persuasive evidence is simply the numbers: ‘Islamist terrorists have managed to recruit fewer than 1 in 15,000 Muslims over the past quarter century and fewer than 1 in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11’ (p.11). The two people who have read all my posts know that all of the above is music to my ears because it’s something I’ve been saying for a really long time. True, many others have said it but almost no one accepts the implication of such a view:

...the vast majority of Muslims across the Middle East don’t like Al Qaeda. This gives prima facie evidence to the position I’m advocating: if foreign policy is the cause, why do we not see a wide spread response?[1]

I haven’t seen anyone make or accept this argument – until now, and it comes in the form of a mea culpa. Kurzman, back in 2001, was part of the ‘blowback’ brigade. He argued against military action would lead to increased attacks. As it turned out

Johnson [the author of Blowback] was wrong, and so was I. Afghans did not sign up with Al Qaeda... and Muslims around the world did not [violently] protest against the invasion... the overall level of Islamist terrorism remained stable... Islamist groups carried out 60 attacks per moth prior to 9/11 and 43 per month in the following year. Non-Islamist groups carried out a similar number of attacks during the same period (p.143)

The Iraq War produces the same result: there were ‘an average of 47 attack per month in year before the invasion and 44 per month afterward’ (p.144). It was only in 2007 where there was a large jump. Kurzman doesn't go into the reasons for this – but its clear from the data that I’ve previously shown this has very little to do with Western foreign policy. That said, Kurzman is incorrect because he goes too far: he says that terrorism is inelastic (i.e., Western foreign policy is irrelevant). This is far more acceptable than the Greenwaldian blowback nonsense but it is just simply a fact that our military action has reduced violence (see here, here and here).

There are some data points which contradict this argument about the Muslim world shunning terrorists:

[In 2003], in nine Muslim-majority countries, disturbingly large percentages expressed confidence in Bin Ladin [sic] “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”... 55% of Indonesians and Jordanians, 62% of Pakistanis, 77% of Palestinians (p.29)[2]

Greenwald would happily explain that these levels of support are genuine and tell us about foreign policy. The reality is that these results are not genuine expressions of support for Al Qaeda. Kurzman believes that these responses are given as part of rebellious fad of anti-Americanism which he calls ‘radical sheikh’ (a play on Tom Wolfe’s ‘radical chic’ - a similarly rebellious fad of American hipsters expressing support for communist revolution). I’m unconvinced by this because polling shows that only a third state that they sympathise with Al Qaeda’s goal to ‘confront the U.S’ (out of those who have any sympathy with it (p.48)).

A far more persuasive explanation which Kurzman never explicitly states is the proliferation of the conspiracy that Al Qaeda was not behind 9/11 (although he comes close on p.48-9). According to Pew, there is ‘no Muslim public in which even 30% accept that Arabs conducted the attacks.’ So when they express support in Bin Laden, the vast majority cannot be expressing support in attacks like 9/11. Which is why (as will be outlined below), you find overwhelmingly large majorities in favour of democracy and similar levels of support for civilian attacks as Westerners.

The reason I find this explanation so much more persuasive is because it matches the path of the question that is asked. If you look at the Pew results you will see confidence in Bin Laden going down year on year:

Over time, support for bin Laden has dropped sharply among Muslim publics. Since 2003, the percentage of Muslims voicing confidence in him has declined by 38 points in the Palestinian territories and 33 points in Indonesia. The greatest decline has occurred in Jordan, where 56% of Muslims had confidence in bin Laden in 2003, compared with just 13% in the current poll.

The reasons why it has gone down so radically could be because people started to realise that Al Qaeda meant support for violence – more research is needed into this question. But one thing does remain clear: there is no way to reconcile (i) the decline in support for the ‘confidence in Bin Laden’ proposition and (ii) huge support for regimes which AQ would call apostate governments with any expressed support for Bin Laden – unless you see it as not supporting Bin Laden at all.

Ideology and the End of History

Kurzman shows how the second Fukuyama statement quoted above is overstated:

The World Values Survey and a variety of subsequent polls have asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Democracy may have problems, but its better than any other form of government.” More than three-quarters of Muslims agreed... this included 71% of Saudi citizens, 83% of Palestinians and 85% of Afghans (p.110).

This is should be the first riposte to those who claim that we cannot ‘impose democracy’: it is not an imposition, it is giving the people what they want. In any event, I don’t think it makes any sense to talk of “imposing” choice, its a self-refuting proposition[3]. Kurzman’s claims about how liberal Middle Eastern Muslims are a little harder to accept. He defines ‘liberal Islam’ as the acceptance of ‘key ideals of Western liberal tradition such as democracy, human rights, social equality, tolerance’ (p.95). This is a good definition but he goes to say that these ‘ideals [are approached] from a distinctly Islamic discourse.’

The reason its hard to accept the liberalism of M.E Muslims should be apparent from this result: Gallup found ‘majorities or near majorities in dozens of Muslim societies favouring the implementation of Sharia’ (p.109). The extent to which this is a negative result, of course, depends on the content of ‘Sharia.’ Kurzman believes that Middle East Muslims reconcile their ‘dual ideals of sharia and democracy’ through ‘a combination of political liberalism and cultural conservatism’ (p.117). Kurzman attempts to show this in two ways: first, in practice, people do not choose Islamist governments and secondly, support for Sharia may simply be a ‘symbolic gesture.’

This latter second claim is supported by the following finding: ‘majorities in 13 out of 14 Muslim [countries] agreed’ with the statement that ‘religion is a matter of personal faith and should be kept separate from government policy’ (p.110). However, unlike the Bin Laden result, we have reasons for thinking this is not merely symbolic but translates to actual support for Islamist policies. The latest Pew data finds that 40% or more of most Middle East countries want Sharia applied to non-Muslims; there are majorities in support of barbaric penalties like amputations; there is anywhere between 44% and 84% support for stoning for adultery (of those who want Sharia to be the law – which also constitutes a majority); between 29% and 86% support for the death penalty for apostasy. This is not liberalism ‘approached through a distinctly Islamic discourse’ – this is a clear manifestation of illiberalism.

It’s not all bad, of course, most Muslims ‘also embrace specific features of a democratic system, such as competitive elections and free speech.’  Moreover, a majority Muslims in the Middle East do support ‘equal education for boys and girls [and] women having the right to decide whether to wear the veil’ and state that ‘women should be allowed to vote, hold cabinet level positions and work outside the home’ (p.116). But again, it is a stretch to state that the ‘conservatism’ of Middle East Muslims does not ‘translate into illiberal policies’ (p.116).

Taking Kurzman’s first claim about Islamists losing elections: historically, it does seem to be correct (bearing in mind this book was published in 2011):

in more than 80 election in Muslims societies over the past generation, Islamic parties do worse in the freest election than the non-freest. Overall, most Islamic parties won less than 15% of seats, and only once has an Islamic party won an outright majority.

This should show that the idea that Arabs or Muslims are hostile to democracy/non-Islamist parties is utter nonsense. However the trend has not been followed since 2011. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and Nour parties won 70% of all seats; in Tunisia a relatively liberal Islamist party won 41% of the vote and in Libya another relatively liberal Islamist part won 48.8% of the vote. I am not suggesting that all Islamist parties are the same but they are certainly not the kind of human rights-respecting parties that would garner seats in this country.

There are many non-ideological explanations for this: civil society in these countries has not been allowed to flourish whereas religious groups have giving them an organisational headstart. Polls carried out between August 2011 and June 2012 showed between 51% and 56% preferred a democratic-civil state rather than an Islamic state – but this didn’t align with the results of the election. But organisationally: Islamist parties have four times as many active members and more than double the amount of campaign volunteers (source).

But it would be wrong, given the results shown above about support of illiberal policies, to suggest this is entirely about non-ideological factors. Over time, however, this will change – we are seeing the pangs of refusing to have liberal democracy subverted in Egypt. Where Islamist come into power, they will fail (a July 2013 poll found that 73% thought that Morsi didn’t make a ‘single good decision’; 82% support the military’s ousting of Morsi)[4]. It is also encouraging that less Islamist parties have won in Tunisia and Libya[5].    

To summarise: From the survey of the polling, it does appear that the Muslim world has accepted democracy. But it is a stretch to say that there is an acceptance of political liberalism. There are encouraging levels of support for selective forms of free speech, limited personal freedoms and pluralism – but the thing about liberalism is that it cannot be selective. The barbarity of punishments, gender discrimination and religious involvement speaks to the conflict of political liberalism and Sharia rather than reconciliation between the two.

This is not to suggest that the Muslim world will not change – I think it will, particularly as civil society (on which, see below) and free speech grows. History is directional and the contradictions in a non-liberal democracy will manifest themselves – this is just a fact that is inherent in the superiority of liberal democracy. There are problems in overstating the liberalism (as Kurzman does) and illiberalism (as many on the right do) in Muslim countries but one fact should encourage us all: Arab spring ‘crowds were much larger than the ones that have formed in the past few days [protesting the anti-Islam film in 2012].’


This section has nothing to do with the book but its interesting to ask why Middle Eastern countries haven’t democratised despite having populations which explicitly endorse democracy. I am not talking here about the causes of revolution – I have stated my opinion on that before: the socio-economic, cultural explanations of revolution (and crime and terrorism) almost always fail. In fact, Brownlee, Masoud and Reynolds (2013) find in their statistical study that ‘there were no structural preconditions for the emergence of [the Arab] uprisings.’ I am instead asking: why, given that the people endorse democracy, have they not had their way? The answer is a mixture of brute force (which oil-states can fund), hereditary monarchies (who have a lot of loyalty) and, most importantly, an anti-democratic institutional framework.

There are two studies which show exactly how the institutional framework severely impedes successful democracy despite the wishes of its people. Kuran (2013) builds on his work on Islamic economic institutions (reviewed on this blog here) and shows how Islamic institutions (not people or culture) have inhibited the rise of a civil society. The most significant of these is the waqf – this is an institution which provides public services (like schools and water). This was a form of trust which was funded by a private individual’s assets. It allowed the individual to protect their assets without giving it to the government.

As Kuran states, ‘the waqf served as the delivery vehicle for functions met in the West generally through corporations’ (p.400). The reason the waqf matters is because a waqf could not participate in politics, could not align with other waqfs and was not accountable to its users. Compare this with a corporation which can take part in politics and was accountable to its customers and its stakeholders. And the absence of the corporation matters:

Democratic rights got established because of epic struggles driven by groups organized, usually as corporations, within universities, as cities, as religious orders, as unions, or as merchant associations. Such groups demanded rights. They articulated requests. They developed blueprints for alternative orders. They stimulated intellectual life. (p.401)

Hence this absence of the corporation as an institution left ‘the Islamic world without politically influential social structures situated between the individual and the state’ (p.402). Chaney (2012) provides another institution which impeded the growth of civil society: the use of slave armies in Islamic conquests. The use of ‘these slave armies allowed rulers to achieve independence from local military and civilian groups’ (p.12). The only check that formed on this ruler (backed by his slave armies) was religious associations but both these groups ‘worked to resist the emergence of rival centers of political power such as merchant guilds that could have facilitated institutional change’ (p.12).[6]

The use of slave armies explains different results in different countries which were invaded by Muslim armies: slave armies were not used in India and the Balkans and hence a dual effect that (i) the ruler would have to cooperate with the existing groups with the effect that (ii) wholesale institutional importation could not be carried out. Both of these allow for strong civil society to arise. (Chaney’s paper is excellent because he provides statistical support his argument against other explanations of democratic deficit).

These historical Islamic institutions explain why civil society is so weak – even today. This does not mean that widespread protests cannot occur – it simply means that the citizenry are organisationally weak. It means that even when you have support for democracy across the population, institutional reform is difficult. It is with this institutional framework in mind that one should read Sheri Berman’s article in Foreign Affairs:

The fundamental mistake most commentators on the Arab Spring make is underestimating the scale, scope, and perniciousness of authoritarianism. Tyranny is more than a type of political order; it is an economic and social system as well, one that permeates most aspects of a country’s life and has deep roots in a vast array of formal and informal institutions. Achieving liberal democracy is thus not simply a matter of changing some lines on a political wiring diagram but, rather, of eliminating authoritarian legacies...

One of the best ways to help foster civil society is help create these groups. According to the New York Times, this is exactly what the U.S did in the run up to the Arab Spring. As they note, ‘the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.’


Aside from the shortfall mentioned above, there are several other shortfalls. Firstly, a general theme of Kurzman’s book: he seeks to underplay the good that Western military action can do. In explaining the low levels of Islamist terrorists, part of his explanation involves Muslim pushback and ‘symbolic support’ (which is explained above). That is undoubtedly true: but this small group of terrorists can be eliminated. In fact, even he notes that since the liberation of Afghanistan ‘the scale of terrorist training has dropped by 90 percent’ (p.12). The same has happened in Pakistan where Al Qaeda has been decimated[7] – and the whole host of other examples I’ve given in the past.

As I’ve shown above, Kurzman has a tendency to overstate the liberalism of Middle East Muslims. Rather more surprisingly, he has a tendency to overstate that extent to which terrorist organisations are willing to change their behaviour. He does this generally:

Most of these [terrorist] organisations abandoned revolutionary violence a generation ago and now run candidates in parliamentary elections, with platforms that pledge allegiance to democracy and limit jihad to peaceful definition (aside from destroying Israel) (p.42-3).

I laughed at the end of that sentence – I particularly liked that he put it in brackets. He also does the same thing more specifically to Hamas and the Taliban. He points to the fact that Hamas leaders signed a statement which ‘condemn[ed] in the strongest terms the incidents [i.e., 9/11] which are against all human and Islamic norms’ (p.43). I didn’t know about this but I think its (i) selective because Hamas praised Bin Laden (and the chances of this being symbolic are slim because it happened in 2011) and (ii) irrelevant because it carries out terror attacks. True Hamas endorses nationalism whereas Al Qaeda is globalist but that is about it.

On the Taliban, I find Kurzman more egregious. Kurzman claims that ‘the Taliban leadership remained dubious [first] of al-Qaida’s global aspirations and [secondly of] killing of civilians’ (p.79). His evidence that the Taliban doesn’t like to kill civilians? Mullah Omar’s orders which says that they should not ‘cause death and injury to innocent people.’ Lets ignore that we shouldn’t take a terrorist organisation’s word especially when they have a history in massacring innocents – the order is meant for public consumption. If you look at orders Mullah Omar gives in private, you’ll see he approves of the massacre of innocents. Article 10 of a 2009 order allows Taliban terrorists to kill hostages who are not just soldiers but “government workers” but even this says that care should be taken not to harm “local people” (Article 41). But then came a 2010 Order which was not intended for public consumption and it stated

2. Capture and kill any Afghan who is supporting and/or working for coalition forces or the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
3. Capture and kill any Afghan women who are helping or providing information to coalition forces

These people are civilians – even the “informers” are civilians who are merely helping their democratic government. Note that it allows for the killing of anyone who ‘supports’ the government – a government that was democratically elected that polls show have an extraordinary amount of support. Both claims about the Taliban are shown to be incorrect by the fact that Taliban had a camp to train suicide bombers to be dispatched to the West. The cooperation between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is such that a Taliban spokesperson stated that

They [al Qaeda] are among the first groups and banners that pledged allegiance to the Emir of the Believers [Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban], and they operate in Afghanistan under the flag of the Islamic Emirate

The Taliban have refused to denounce Al Qaeda – and so to say they don’t have global aspirations is misleading (see here, here, here, here). They will allow the Taliban to operate and help them in their global endeavours to attack the West. The Taliban’s primary goal is to remove the democratically elected government of Afghanistan and the coalition forces but given their material support for Al Qaeda that really shouldn’t matter.

Finally, a shortfall is his view that ‘Muslim liberals suffer the second hand smoke of American foreign policy’ (p.156) because association with America leads to them being targeted. He therefore praises the Obama administration’s ‘restraint’ and ‘hands off approach’ during the 2009 Iranian elections (p.158-9). I’ve always thought this view of what Obama did has been somewhat overstated (see this fact check of Romney’s claim that Obama was ‘silent’) but in any event assuming he was muted, his silence was regretted not just by Iranian reformists (which he admits on p.159) but also the Obama administration itself (see this New York Times report). Either Obama spoke out in which case its a bad example or he didn’t speak out and it turned out to be wrong choice because everyone regretted it. And even then, regardless of which one is right, the Iranians condemned the U.S anyway (i.e., it led to the result that Kurzman wanted to avoid). More generally I think his approach is wrong because of the New York Times report quoted above about the U.S having an important role in civil society organisations and the Arab spring.

Despite the negatives I’ve listed, this really is a good book. I don’t think there’s been a more interesting book on terrorism in a very long time. I have a couple of other gripes but this post is already long enough. Merry Christmas!


[1] This is merely prima facie evidence, the host of studies that I’ve provided merely confirm this. Statistics like this make claims such as “but these factors could affect different [sane] people in different ways” redundant. If we are trying to establish a cause, something to direct responsibility to, and the factor we have is present in 15,000 people but only one of them actually becomes a terrorist, the relevance of that factor is severely undermined. A similar argument should and can be made about poverty and crime.

[2] These figures seem incorrect, they are based on Pew Global Attitudes research but from my search, the results are different from those given though not markedly: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2011/05/2011-osama-021.png

[3] You cannot “impose” choice for two reasons: the whole idea of leaving a society to “its” culture is predicated on the idea of choice – i.e., “they want to exclude choice” is an expression of desire. But until you have a mechanism for deciding choice, you simply cannot state that is “their” choice. Indeed, the polling reveals that their choice is not undemocratic. Secondly, even if there were polling in support for an anti-democratic government, that itself is a choice but, additionally, that doesn’t mean we should give effect to it for the same reason we shouldn’t give effect to slavery contracts: not only does it undermine their choice in the future, but in this context would undermine generational choices (one election for 100 years doesn’t leave any choice for those born after that election). See this old post on Iran and elections for an elaboration of this latter argument.

It’s also based on cultural relativism. Three points on cultural relativism: the extent to which cultural relativism is relevant in a debate is continually undermined by people sharing values – like democracy. If one accepts a directional history then the idea of “cultural relativism” increasingly is and will become merely an academic exercise.

Second, to the extent that people have not accepted a fully-formed human rights perspective cultural relativism is still wrong. I don’t have the time/space to go into detail but just as a brief argument: Ronald Dworkin in Justice for Hedgehogs explains that it is simply not possible to make claims about moral truth without committing oneself to claim of substantive moral truth. To state that there is no moral truth is to make an assertion that “there is no moral truth” is itself is a moral truth. Additionally, we can rightly call something universal when it cannot be questioned. One cannot question human rights without implicitly endorsing them: the cultural relativist uses free speech, free thought and ideals of democratic pluralism when criticising the universality of free speech and he therefore presupposes that they exist. 

[4] The coup isn’t necessarily a blow to democracy in the long term. One study finds that ‘Whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1991 installed durable rules, the majority of coups after that have been followed by competitive elections’ (see here and here). It’s important to remember that the goal is liberal democracy rather than democracy alone – Morsi was putting the country on a path to an authoritarian executive that may have been irreversible in addition to his interference with NGOs, the rise in blasphemy cases and press freedom violations (see here). It is for this reason that I agree with Tony Blair in his article in The Times

The people do want democracy, but they will be disdainful of Western critics whom they will see as utterly naive in the face of the threat to democracy that the Muslim Brotherhood posed... We should support the new Government in stabilising the country... This is the only realistic way to help those — and they’re probably a majority — who want genuine democracy, not an election as a route to domination.

[5] See also: “Ijali Naqvi and I [Kurzman] found when we analysed 48 Islamic party platforms [that] platforms are more likely in recent years to mention democracy, the rights of women and the rights of minorities than in earlier years” (p.114) 

[6] A particularly interesting article of one of the ways opposition was resisted is provided by Sarkissian (2012) who finds that religious laws like blasphemy laws are ‘largely directed at suppressing political competition rather than limiting non-Muslim religious practice’ (p.523).

[7] Just as a brief tangent, I want to address an argument people have unfairly being directing toward the Obama administration – an argument that has disappointingly found a place on the pages of The Economist:

A FEW months ago Barack Obama declared that al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat”. Its surviving members, he said, were more concerned for their own safety than with plotting attacks on the West... His overall message was that it was time to start winding down George Bush’s war against global terrorism... the inconvenient truth is that, in the past 18 months, despite the relentless pummelling it has received and the defeats it has suffered, al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies have staged an extraordinary comeback. The terrorist network now holds sway over more territory and is recruiting more fighters than at any time in its 25-year history

Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat...what we’ve seen is the emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates.  From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse, with Al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula -- AQAP -- the most active in plotting against our homeland.  And while none of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11, they have continued to plot acts of terror, like the attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009.

None of what the Economist stated contradicts what Obama said. It is undeniable that AQ in Pakistan has been decimated – so much so the Foreign Office no longer thinks that AQ core exists. Obama’s view didn’t come out of nowhere, see this post I wrote on Al Qaeda’s strength in 2011: mainstream thought said exactly what Obama said (and they were right then and they are right now).

Obama similarly has not said he wants to end the War on Terror: he said a chapter of the War was coming to an end (he was referring to Afghanistan). He also said that he did not want a ‘boundless War on Terror’ but instead he wanted ‘a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.’ The key word is ‘persistent’ and this, again, is nothing radically different from his administration’s approach (see my post here, key part is from a 2009 AFP report: ‘President Barack Obama is replacing the "global war on terror" with a new US strategy more narrowly focused on Al-Qaeda’). And should anyone be in any doubt, Obama administrations officials made clear that the War was not coming to an end in the Washington Post: 'there is a broad consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade' and 'some officials said no clear end is in sight.' So, again, the claim in the Economist extract above is at best misleading.


Unrepentant Jacobin said...

Another fine post. A few comments:

1. Bernard Lewis talks about the waqf briefly in his book "What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response". I'll summarise his thoughts on civil society and secularism briefly.

"[T]he civil society is that part of society, between the family and the state, in which the mainsprings of association, initiative and action are voluntary, determined by opinion or interest or other personal choice, and distinct from - though they may be influenced by - the loyalty owed by birth and the obedience imposed by force. Obvious modern examples are the business corporation, the trade union, the professional association, the learned society, the club or lodge, the sports team and the political party." [Pg 123]

Lewis argues that the modernising C19th autocrats brought many of the waqfs under State control meaning the State now "disposes of new and stronger instruments to control the schools, the media, and in general the printed word." He anticipates this will be progressively undermined by electronic media (the book was published in 2001, just after 9/11).

He argues that because "Islamic Law, unlike Roman Law and its derivatives, does not recognise corporate legal persons, there are therefore no Islamic equivalents to such corporate entities as the city, the monastery, or the college." Instead, Muslim societies were organised around "family, clan, tribe, the faith group, often linked together by membership of a sufi fraternity; the craft group, joined in a guild; the ward or neighbourhood within a city."

It was the penetration of the Islamic world by Western ideas, particularly those of the French Revolution as well as the increase in Muslim students studying in the West that began to introduce secular notions of a civil society as something "desirable or even permissible", and that this entailed the separation of church and state power.

He says, however, that classical Islamic societies were only theocratic to the degree that the UK, say, is a monarchy. Classical Islam had no prelates, priesthood and the Calif was a politician not a theologian. As Lewis points out, the Islamic tolerance of religious minorities compared favourably to their brutal persecution in Christian Spain, for example. But the spread of Western ideas of self-determination led these minorities to start to demand equal rights as opposed to simply toleration and subordinate status. This combined with a decline in Islamic military and cultural power led to a concomitant growth in Islamic insecurity and intolerance, and the post-war rise in Islamic fundamentalism. The office of the Ayatollah is a C19th creation. Khomeinism is a C20th revolutionary innovation.

Lewis concludes: "Secularism in the Christian world was an attempt to resolve the long and destructive struggle of church and state....Looking at the contemporary Middle East, one must ask whether...Muslims and Jews may have caught a Christian disease [theocracy] and might therefore consider a Christian remedy".

Unrepentant Jacobin said...


2. I've long argued that it makes no sense to talk of "imposing" emancipatory systems. Talk of imposing democracy is as nonsensical as imposing free speech. However emancipation carries with it the corollary of individual responsibility, which for those used to authoritarianism can cause massive culture shock. Perhaps this may help explain the circular nature of the Egyptian revolution? In her two memoirs, Ayaan Hirsi Ali postulates that this is what causes many immigrants to the West from the Muslim world to resist integration in favour of self-segregation and integrism.

3. I was also brought up sharply by the bracketing of "(aside from destroying Israel)". This appears to be a not-too subtle variation on the bigotry of low expectations. To wit: "Well, to expect the Islamic world to get over its Jew hatred is too much to ask..." the unspoken conclusion being "given the injustice of the nakba, the occupation, colonialism etc". This seems to me to be the same reason by self-described progressives like Ken Livingstone seem to have no problem sharing a platform with those like Qaradawi who promote and valorize suicide terror against Jewish civilians.

Singing Man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MazMHussain said...

I read this book by Kurzmann a few years back and found it to be an enjoyable read whose central thesis largely rang true. You’ve done a nuanced analysis of the work, but I have to question the basis of your belief that American foreign policy is not a contributing factor to terrorism. As Kurzmann says, the demand for terrorism may be ‘inelastic’, but he also uses a particularly narrow definition of terrorism to include only the nihilistic, ideological variety favoured parties such as Al Qaeda and the Woolwich killers. If you class all violence committed against American interests around the world – including against military and political interests in Iraq and elsewhere as terrorism – then it would seem that the demand is almost perfectly elastic. There was a state hostile to U.S. interests in power in Iraq pre-2003, but there were essentially no Iraqi citizens taking up arms against U.S. interests because they had no impetus to.

Either way, most people are not nihilists and regardless of circumstances would not sign up for a quixotic crusade such as advocated by Bin Laden and his fellow travelers, but I think you are remiss to say that military action does not embitter public opinion against the United States and lead many people in affected countries to take up arms against U.S. interests there. This is not terrorism in a transnational sense (and I reject that people such as the Adebalajo (sic) use it as a justification for their own heinous actions), but it is terrorism inasmuch as the word is defined as hostility to Western interests. Forgive his levity on the subject as he is a comedian, but I have to defer to David Cross in part about this issue of what drives terrorism (even OBL’s kind to a limited degree): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EM202BVLf78

I returned to Egypt during the run-up to Morsi’s election in 2012, and part of my purpose there was to interview youth activists who had taken part in the Jan25 revolution. These were young, liberal, secular people – disdainful of both the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood - and the people whom you would ostensibly consider as the natural constituency for being pro-America anywhere in the Muslim world. Remarkably though (not remarkable to me btw), they were not. I’m not a fan of broad generalizations but I feel relatively confident in saying that there is no meaningful group of people anywhere on the ideological spectrum in Egypt who ‘likes’ America (to a lesser extent the same is true in Pakistan). There are people who are indifferent to it, or who think it can be manipulated to achieve certain objectives, but the common refrain when the subject comes up is: “They sided against us in two wars and supported mass-murder of our neighbors, why should we like them?”. You have to do some great circumambulations to avoid this logic, which I see you’ve attempted to do in other circumstances (OBL was popular among Muslims because they believe he DIDN’T do 9/11?). This isn’t terrorism, but it is a microcosm of a broader phenomenon where American foreign policy has completely poisoned the well of public opinion against America throughout the Muslim world, and for eminently practical reasons. Some percentage of people will take this to its ultimate consequence and take up arms over it. It is actually a bit remarkable that you believe otherwise.

MazMHussain said...

To a poll showing that publics in many Muslim countries support democracy you say: “This is should be the first riposte to those who claim that we cannot ‘impose democracy’: it is not an imposition, it is giving the people what they want.” I hope you can appreciate how closely related the ideas of self-determination and democracy and thus how foolish a statement this is. While ~70% of Saudis may support democracy in their own country this does not equate to supporting a foreign military invasion and occupation of their country to depose their government and thus ‘give them what they want’. They would certainly be more supportive of civil society initiatives and ideological support for the cause of democracy, but this is vastly different from what has been prescribed and practiced in many other countries by the U.S in recent years. Not many people get to make a $4 trillion dollar mistake that kills hundreds of thousands of people and creates millions of refugees (Iraq), but it would behoove you to at least learn from that experience than to continue to hold such disturbingly myopic views.

You make a few more deeply questionable points which I feel deserve some comment. Regarding the Afghan war, most Muslim countries in the region supported this action (I also supported it at the time) and there were rational reasons to do so. But ‘because the Taliban have global ambitions’ is not one of them. You are obviously an intelligent person so I’m not sure how you can use this as a justification with a straight face. The United States both had to confront Al Qaeda (then based in Afghanistan) but also had a need to project power and for messaging purposes after the mass atrocity perpetrated on 9/11. This is a defensible reason to go to war, and one which most people around the world sympathized with. However that the Taliban were a military power with aims of global domination is not a similarly logical reason; this is a laughable suggestion that it would be best to abandon in future.

On Iran, Obama did not forcefully speak out during the 2009 election, but it is a bit of narcissism to think that if he had this would have somehow been deeply important. While the U.S. may have a hostile relationship with the IRI, it is a mistake to think that the Green Movement was markedly sympathetic to American interests in the Middle East. Mousavi himself was a prominent supporter of its nuclear program and someone who was broadly demonized by American neoconservatives until he emerged as a potentially useful figure to them in that episode. There were no magic words Obama could have said to change the situation there because the conflict had little to do with America; but more importantly there is not really anyone on the ideological spectrum today who sympathizes with American politics in the region.
Also you seem to make a very curious conflation between fostering civil society groups and embarking on military confrontations against Muslim majority countries. They are not the same thing, and it is dangerous and counterproductive to suggest that they might be. The United States absolutely should foster civil society and business ties in the Muslim world, because this is both in its interests and also because it is the best means of helping foster democracy. Aside from engendering resentment and creating humanitarian devastation, invasions and bombing campaigns tend to promote zero-sum politics in the countries which are subjected to them. This is not conducive to the growth of a democratic polity, and in fact is prohibitive of it. Kurzmann is absolutely right that Muslim liberals suffer the second-hand smoke of these policies; in fact they are utterly suffocated by them. If you want to know want some reading on what type of ‘intervention’ might actually be helpful, I urge you to read this book by David Rohde: http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-War-Reimagining-American-Influence/dp/0670026441/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1388852168&sr=1-1&keywords=beyond+war

MazMHussain said...

Finally, while Al Qaeda has never been broadly popular in the Muslim world I actually harbour some fear that this is beginning to change. The group has gone from a small ideological movement into a broader military one that today controls entire cities in Yemen, Iraq and Syria; and its influence appears to be metastasizing. After 10 years of open warfare in the Muslim-majority countries most of them are now more torn with violence and radicalism than they have been at any time since modernity. I fail to see a single democratic result produced from any Western military action, and none seem to be on the horizon. As such, I urge you to reflect critically on the woefully misbegotten views espoused here.

Mugwump said...

Hi Murtaza, thanks again for your comments and for giving me an excuse to avoid revision for a Monday exam.

Unfortunately, I feel the bulk of your comments are either misrepresentations and misunderstandings of my post. I'll try to handle everything you've stated in the order you went through it:

1. I'm afraid it is just simply wrong to suggest that he doesn't include all relevant forms of violence. He does and he makes a distinction - and they support his conclusion of inelasiticity (though, as I mentioned above, I reach a different conclusion on the basis of empirical studies reference in the links I’ve provided). If you look at this post you'll see an assessment of the data which suggests that it is elastic: http://anonymousmugwump.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/blowback-against-blowback.html

2. You state "I think you are remiss to say that military action does not embitter public opinion against the United States and lead many people in affected countries to take up arms against U.S. interests there." I don't think it prudent for you to make such a statement without having read my detailed posts on the subject. In this post I simply reference my view - I do not aim to prove it as I have addressed it and wont repeat what I've said - feel free to respond on those articles (including the one above):




Mugwump said...

3. Your next paragraph (beginning with your trip to Egypt) simply doesn’t contradict anything I said. I planned to write another section about why anti-Americanism is so high in the Middle East but the post was already 5,000 words. I have no real issue in stating that it M.E Muslims feel aggrieved with Western policy (I would disagree with them) but it’s simply an empirical fact that they are anti-American. The point, which I make in the links provided above, is that is completely unfounded, illogical and offensive to suggest a jump from being aggrieved to becoming a terrorist.

4. You state “I hope you can appreciate how closely related the ideas of self-determination and democracy and thus how foolish a statement this is.” This is simply a misunderstanding of the data. It is not just on questions of ‘support for democracy’ but on the *specifics* of democracy like competitive elections and pluralism. Both Kurzman and I provide numerous and distinct sources for that proposition.

5. You have mistaken my claim about imposition: I am not making a claim about Western military policy *imposing democracy*. I am talking about moral philosophy and cultural relativism – which is why if you follow the footnote you’ll see a discussion on that. In this post I make no claims about military action and democracy and wont make this discussion any longer by talking about your misrepresentation.

6. You state that “there were rational reasons to [support the war in Afghanistan]. But ‘because the Taliban have global ambitions’ is not one of them.” This is yet another misrepresentation for multiple reasons. First, I am not talking about why anyone – Afghan, Muslim or otherwise - supported the war, I am simply talking about the Taliban’s ideology. Second, I am not talking about justifications for the war – the whole point of that paragraph is that Kurzman has downplayed their global ties. I am not suggesting that they have aims of ‘global domination’ (another misrepresentation) – in fact, I make that point clearly in the last sentence.

7. I don’t have many disagreements with your paragraph on Iran – but thats because it doesn’t really undermine anything I said.

8. You state that I “conflation between fostering civil society groups and embarking on military confrontations against Muslim majority countries” – I do no such thing: the points about terrorism and military action are in one section and civil society in two different section. See point 5.

9. I have seen no statistical evidence that *support* amongst the M.E Muslim population for AQ is rising. The trend is clear – outlined in this post and Kurzman’s post.

Thanks again for your comment.

Anonymous said...

The vast majority of Muslims don't like al-Qaeda... because the vast majority don't believe it exists. If we don't engage with Muslim activists in Muslim-majority countries who have progressive, critically thought out views on politics, culture, etc.... then, anti-Americanism & conspiracy theories will inevitably pervade through even intelligentsia. That saves all the stats, nuance, pedant and intellectual masturbation.