Olivier Roy: Conversations with History

The text of the interview can be read here.

Roy discusses his latest work Globalized Islam.  It is the most important work I have read on Islam and the modern world.  The guy is brilliant and worth the listening to.  His distinction between Islamists and neofundamentalists lies at the heart of his work and completes the ideas he began in his earlier work The Failure of Political Islam. He was on Convos w/History once earlier to discuss that work–link for that video here.

I’ll be talking more about his work to come–I’m working on a paper I’m hoping to get published in Integral Review on the entire question of the Islamic modern state, using Roy’s analysis as background, and then comparing Abdullahi an-Na’im and his new work Islam and the Secular State alongside Noah Feldman’s The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. I will be analyzing both works through an integral lens.  Interesting to note, the American secular Jew Feldman calls for a sharia state while the Sudanese Muslim (living in exile in America) calls for a secular state. But that is Roy’s point exactly:  the East is Westernized and the West is Easternized.

A takeaway point from Roy’s work is that Islamists can be worked with in many cases; neofundamentalists not so much (at least radicalized ones).

Quote of the Day

Actually from about a week ago but I missed it then.

From the world’s leading expert (imo) on Islamism Olivier Roy:

One of the key questions in the U.S. presidential race is what will happen if U.S. troops leave Iraq.

Of course nobody knows for sure. But I can say this: Al Qaeda will not take power and establish an Islamic state.

Too many in the West persist in seeing Al Qaeda as a territorialized Middle East organization bent on expelling the Christians and Jews from the region in order to create a “Dar al-Islam” (land of Islam) under the umbrella of a caliphate.

Al Qaeda is not a continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas or Hezbollah. It is a non-territorial global entity which has never tried to implement an Islamic state, even in Afghanistan, where it found sanctuary in the 1990s.

Over you to John McCain, Christopher Hitchens, and right-wing pro-war radio and blogosphere.  There are other more serious things to worry about in Iraq–the continued violence, the re-igniting of full scale civil war, intra-Shia fighting.  But the fear of an al-Qaedastan in Western Iraq is totally ludicrous.


Al Qaeda goes where the Americans are while the U.S. Army goes where Washington thinks Qaeda might be . . . one day.

Secondly, Al Qaeda seeks to hijack existing conflicts and make them part of the global jihad against the West.

However, in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and now Iraq, the Islamist internationalist groups have been unsuccessful in diverting local and national conflicts, playing only the role of auxiliaries. The key actors of the local conflicts are the local actors: the Taliban in Afghanistan, the different Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon. These groups are not under the leadership of Al Qaeda.

But don’t ever expect to hear anything half or a quarter lucid in the US press.

Moqtada an Ayatollah?

As a seminarian myself, I find this story totally fascinating.

Moqtada al Sadr is quietly studying hard (it would appear) to attain the title of Ayatollah, the highest in the Shia clerical universe.

Like a modern day Shia version of St. Cyril of Alexandria (who to gain doctrinal victories in Christianity threatened to cut off the grain trade to Rome and used mobs not unlike the Mahdi Army to enforce his position):

Al-Sadr’s objectives — described to The Associated Press by close aides — are part of increasingly bitter Shiite-on-Shiite battles for control of Iraq’s southern oil fields, the lucrative pilgrim trade to Shiite holy cities and the nation’s strategic Persian Gulf outlet. The endgame among Iraq’s majority Shiites also means long-term influence over Iraqi political and financial affairs as the Pentagon and its allies look to scale down their military presence in the coming year.


It also would give him fresh clout to challenge his top rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which looks to Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as its highest religious authority and has its own armed wing, the Badr Brigade, which have been largely absorbed into Iraqi security forces. Al-Sadr often stresses his Iraqi and Arab roots and rejects suggestions that he is beholden to Persian Iran, the world’s Shiite heavyweight and the benefactor of many Shiite politicians. As an ayatollah, his views and fatwas, or religious edicts, would resonate with even more authority as the battles heat up for sway over Iraq’s Shiite heartland.

I find it amazing that the US (secular military) establishment has focused and invested so heavily in a central and useless democratic parliamentary government in Baghdad.  Too British (parliament).  Too Western (constitutional).

And meanwhile the cagiest politician, with the most power in all likelihood in Iraq, is studying in seminary as a way to gain real power in the streets.  That’s the difference between a meritocratic, scientific industrial order (orange-central gov’t/US occupation) and a mythic theocratic poor-based, militant order (blue/Sadrist faction).

Significantly, the aides said, the main focus of al-Sadr’s studies has been the Shiite doctrine known in Arabic as “wilayet al-faqeeh,” which supports the right of clerical rule. The concept was adopted Iran‘s Khomeini, but carries little support among Iraq’s Shiite religious hierarchy.

Which accords with the right-wing Islamist (though anti-US) vibe of the movement.  a la Hezbollah.  The defining characteristic (from Ali Eteraz) of right-wing Islamism is an un-democratic, non-transparent, guardian council or clerical rule.

Which is interesting because while Sadr is the most Arab and Iraqi of the Shia he is the one it would seem most thinking along the lines of Khomenei.  The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has changed its allegiance from Iran (where it was founded) to Supreme Ayatollah Sistani.  Sistani Iraqi though educated (fled to) Iran does not support Khomenei’s version of Islamism.

So the weird situation where the SIIC, which is militarily and politically much closer to Iran but theologically is not is up against the Sadrists, much less allied with Iran culturally, diplomatically, or militarily and yet is closer theologically & politically (in terms of theoretical structure but not actual alliance).

The real fight for control of Shia-stan has always loomed as that between SIIC (upper-class, pro-Iranian and pro-American) and the Sadrists (lower class, anti-American, less pro-Iranian, at least anti-Persian hegemony though still pro-Shia).

The British are pulling out of Basra.  The South is ready to explode in violence.  It is unclear how long Sadr’s ceasefire with the US Army with last.

Published in: on December 13, 2007 at 7:09 pm  Comments (2)  
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Ali Eteraz: Roots of Islamism I

Ali Eteraz has written a series of 7 Articles in Comment is Free (Guardian UK) on the future of Islamic politics and theology. The sum total of them all is very brilliant. (Though I would disagree with a few individual points/points of emphasis).

The first three deal with Islamic Reform, Islamic Reformation, and the rise of Islamism.

The key point is that from within the Muslim world, the Islamic Reformation has already commenced (for at least 200 years now). The Reformation, contrary to opinion in both the West and (some) within the Islamic world, is not an inherently stabilizing and modernizing force. The Christian Reformation brought about illiberal revolutionary & reactionary forces from both the left and right. John Calvin and crew set up a theocracy in Geneva. Luther aligned himself totally with the German princes, calling for the slaying of the Peasants Revolt (Protestant radical left).

The Reformation, above all, is the destruction of the traditional clerical elite–who is theologically and morally conservative but politically quietist (hence its total support for modern dictators and classical caliphs/rulers/kings). The Reformation is the coming of individualist interpretations.

Eteraz writes:

This leads to an important conclusion. Extremists, being dissenters to Islamic traditionalism, are not merely a reaction to external pressures like western foreign policy (which they are), but also a reaction to the traditionalist response (or lack of response) to internal problems as well. Ibn Taymiya would not have led attacks against the hypocrite kings had the traditionalists of that time spoken up against them. Bin Laden hates not just the West, but the Saudi royal family and the clerics who prop it up by not criticising it. Sayyid Qutb did not just villify people in the US, he castigated the village of his childhood as well. Extremism is not just an irrational conflagration; it is rational, though misguided, dissent.

The individualist interpretations (like the Christian Reformation) will lead to massively different interpretations–many of them right-wing and illiberal. Other call for a renewed ithjihad (like Irshad Manji). The problem with this call alone is that ithjihad–individual interpretation outside the control of traditional clericalism–can lead to Bin Laden as much as to feminist Islamic points of view. Bin Laden is not a cleric. He is a “Luther” like figure, here I stand and I can do no other, he says from a Pakistani cave. And like Luther’s use of the printing press, al-Qaeda has the internet and its video studio.

In integral terms, this is because ithjihad or the Islamic Reformation more generally when translated is an external only affair (flatland theology) and therefore has no real way to distinguish between different levels of theological and political depth.

So I think Eteraz is right that the call for a Reformation is not right, more that it is simply happening and will continue and there is nothing to be done except hope to influence that train in a better direction.

Eteraz on this point (article #4):

It means that Islamic rationalism – the act of a Muslim using his (or her) individual reason to access the Quran and Islamic tradition – has triumphed so emphatically that both Muslim liberals (Wadud) and illiberals (Qutb), rely upon it. It means that the whole time people have been talking in terms of civilisations, we should have been talking in terms of individuals, because reason is an individual act. In fact, some of the most unsavoury characters of 20th century Islam have essentially confirmed that there won’t be any turning back from Islam’s individualist revolution.

In the next post I’ll deal with his parsing of Islamist (modern) right-wingism versus jihadism and his call for an Islamist left.

Published in: on November 1, 2007 at 9:06 am  Comments (1)  
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