Olivier Roy Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Political Imagination of Islam: Conversation with Olivier Roy, Senior 
  Researcher, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris: 4/16/02 by 
  Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 3 of 6

The Islamicists

There's a misperception in our country, at least in popular consciousness, that the key to understanding the people who are joining these movements of protest are traditionalists trying to impose a conservative religion on modernizing societies. That is a misperception. Explain that to us. Who are these people who are recruited into these movements?

If you take, for example, the Islamic movement of the seventies and eighties, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Refah in Turkey, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the actors are young, urban, educated people, and people educated in the modern, Western system of education. They were engineers. Everybody is thinking about Ayatollah Khomeini, but Ayatollah Khomeini was the only ayatollah in the rolling cycles of Iran, or almost the only one. Most of his ministers were young, Western-educated intellectuals. book coverIt's the same in Afghanistan. It has been the same in former Soviet Central Asia, the same in Turkey, the same in Egypt, the same in Morocco. The traditionalists don't challenge the existing regimes. Usually -- in fact, it is still true: most traditionalists are supportive of any kind of existing regimes, because they are traditionalists. They are conservative. They are not revolutionary. What they want is sharia, to have Islam being enhanced and supported by the government, but they don't contest the fall of the regimes, they don't contest the ulas.

But there is a protest, by especially the radicals now, of modernization, of the consumption products of a globalized age. Why is that, and what is it that they are trying to achieve?

I think most of the Islamicists were and are the heirs of the modern movements of liberation. They are anti-imperialists. It's clear, for example, in Iran, all the discussions revolving around economy are based not on Islamic considerations, but on the modern idea of building a nondependent national economy. So they used the economics of the sixties. They don't go back to the Koran to discuss the price of oil, or should we nationalize or privatize the oil industry. No, they think in terms of the debate of the sixties and seventies about statization, privatization, cutting the link with imperialism, being autonomous in comparison with the world leading economic power (that is, the United States). So in this sense, the Islamicists are modern.

You say in one point in your book that "the Islamicists are attempting to restore dignity to the individual, to restore a sense of dignity in the face of humiliation." Explain that phenomena.

The problem is for everybody, and not just for the Islamicists. In a time of globalization, people have the feeling that they are losing their identities. That they are just becoming Westernized with no possibility to influence the big decisions on the economy. So this sense of alienation is widely felt, of course. The Islamicists, and the other kinds of fundamentalism, they have an answer. The answer of the Islamicist is yes, we can combine modernization and Islamic identity. We can Islamize modernization. We can be proud Islamic engineers, we can be proud and self-assertive Islamic rulers of an independent country. In this sense, yes, they touch a very sensitive core.

Is there a particular problem posed by Islam if you compare it with other protest groups across the world? Does Islam pose particular problems for those trying to assert their identity and embracing Islam as they do it?

Yes, it's a big issue. In a sense, the same use of a traditional religion to forge a new identity is not related only to Islam. We can see, for example, in India with the BJP [Bharathiya Janatha Party, or Indian Citizen Party], the same use and the reconstruction of Hinduism. But, yes, the movement is specifically striking in Muslim states. Why? First, I think Islam provides a common denominator for different categories of the population. A young, modern, Western-educated intellectual can speak with an illiterate peasant in terms of Islam. Secondly, Islam provides a universal ideology, which is not the case with Hinduism, Shintoism, whatever you want. It's a universal religion with a tradition of fighting. Not necessarily of blood and things like that, but there is [conquest] in the history of Islam, which goes along with the nostalgia of the idea that we lost our identity, we lost our territories, so we now can restore that by using the paradigm of the time of the Prophet, when Islam was expanding world religion. This is a dimension of internationalism and universalism which is specifically at work in the new Islamic militancy.

But there is a point at which it doesn't work. Is that because of the focus in Islam on the conversion of the individual, the individual achieving his own salvation?

It's covered in Christianity, too. The idea of umma, of the Muslim community, is a big tool for political mobilization. This concept of umma has also the advantage of providing an identity beyond ethnic, tribal, and national identities. In the Middle East, which has been sometimes divided by colonial powers into artificial states, pan-Islamism is also a way to revert back prior to the colonial period. Still, I think that most of the concepts and slogans and mottoes brought up by Islamism are not a return to traditional Islamism, but a response to Western colonization and encroachment. It's a reactive identity.

And it's an identity that has not succeeded when it confronts the power of existing states in the region. We see over time that these kinds of movements have not been successful in transforming the states that exist in the Muslim world, is that correct?

Yes. The paradox of Islamism is that these movements have been shaped by the state they want to conquer, instead of shaping the states. In the beginning, the Islamicists just wanted to take the state and create an Islamic state. Taking the state doesn't mean necessarily violence, it could be through relations. But, of course, the state they were confronted with was a complete state: the Egyptian state, the Lebanese state, the Iranian state, and so on. So, the Islamicists, sooner or later, were taken by the political gain of the home countries and became more nationalist-minded than Islamic-minded. Very soon, I would say just months after the success of the Iranian revolution, the Islamic revolution in Iran turned more into a nationalistic, anti-imperialist, than a purely Islamic revolution. The Refah party in Turkey is more Turkish nationalist party with an Islamic domestic agenda, than a revolutionary party. The same with Mr. Hassan Turabi in Sudan. So the paradox of the Islamicist movement is that in the name of establishing a common Islamic state for the whole Muslim community, they reverted to nationalism in most cases. And that, for me, is the failure of political Islam. They have been unable to bypass both the state and both the nation.

So when the religion or the Islamic movement confronts the state, it's captured by the state.

It is captured by the state, even if it takes the state, which happened in Iran.

In this part of the world, who tends to run the state? You are suggesting in your book that they are solidarity groups, often traditional groups around a particular clan or an ethnic group.

Yes. The predicament of most of the Middle Eastern states is that in fact, beneath the appearance of modern state, what is working is what I call the asabiyya, networks of solidarity. Either these networks are based on tribal links, like in Saudi Arabia; or on a specific religious minority, like in Syria; or military networks, like in Algeria. In any case, it's not a real state, it's just a way for a particular network of solidarity to work for its own benefit. So in these circumstances, the Islamicists do provide an alternative, and, to a certain extent, they succeed. The FIS in Algeria succeeded to win the parliamentary elections in '91 because they ran against the oligarchy. They say, or they write, "We represent the whole population." The same in Iran. The same for Hezbollah in Lebanon, which, of course, addressed the Shia population. But they said to the Shia, "Until now you were represented by notables, big landowners, rich families. But now, you, the people, you are in charge." So, we have here, of course, a populist approach, certainly. The Islamist parties have been able to bring to the political space segments of the population which were excluded from the political game. And this is, for me, the big and positive achievement of the Islamist movement in the Middle East during the eighties.

But the state, in the end, is able to win out, because the regimes that control the state can adopt the symbols, the apparent re-Islamization of the society, and steal the thunder from these movements, is that correct?

Absolutely. It's perfectly clear in Iran. But in other parts, the ruling regimes suddenly used, I would say, a conservative re-Islamization in order to undercut the momentum of the Islamist party. The Islamist party did not realize that they were not the legitimate owner of the representation of Islam in the political field. They suddenly realized, in the early nineties, that Islam was a far more polymorph movement than they expected. Let's take an example: Turkey. The Refah party had a very clear slogan in the seventies. It used to say, look, in Turkey 90 percent of the population claim to be mosque-going believers, and we have only 16 percent of the vote of the population, so if the Muslims in Turkey are coherent, they should vote for us and we should achieve at least 80 percent of the vote. They never made more than 20 percent. Why? Because there were other religious networks. The Brotherhood, for example, the makmondia, the muju, these were not political parties, of course, but they had a huge political influence. A part of the nationbundi, for example, could call for three million voters, and they used to bargain these votes against some payoff. They had no intention of joining the Refah party insisting on an Islamic state. So suddenly the Islamicists who wanted to coalesce all the Muslim believers into one political framework realized that they do not have the monopoly on all of political Islam, that Islam is pervasive and that nobody can claim to have the monopoly of political Islam.

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