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A fundamentalist Muslim once said to me, “I listen to Mozart, I read Shakespeare, I watch the Comedy Channel – and I also believe in implementation of the Shari’a [Islamic sacred law].”
This unlikely combination may sound eccentric, but it is not. The founder of Islamic Jihad, an arch-murderous fundamentalist (or, more properly, Islamist) organization, boasted of reading and enjoying Shakespeare. Ali Khamene’i, the most powerful figure in Iran’s Islamist government, has a well-known fondness for the Bard of Stratford.
More broadly, Islamic radicals tend to be well acquainted with the West (the main exceptions are those in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan), having learned its languages, studied its cultures, or lived there. A disproportionate number of them (such as the heads of the Turkish and Jordanian Islamist organizations) are engineers. In a statement from his Manhattan jail cell, the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing pointedly cited Newton’s laws of physics.
This points to an important if little known fact: However much Islamists hate the West, they are deeply connected to it. They are not peasants living in the remote countryside but urbanized, thoroughly modern individuals, often university graduates. As Westernized individuals coping with modern life, they seek the West’s learning and admire its efficiency.
Contrarily, Islamists hardly know their own culture and often disrespect it. Aziz Al-Azmeh, a specialist on Islam, notes that they are “entirely inattentive to the historical experience of Muslims and to the historical character of their law.” Plans to recreate the prophet’s society notwithstanding, they care little and know less about traditional Islam – the
immensely rewarding faith of nearly a billion adherents. The vast corpus of Koranic scholarship leaves them cold, as do lyric Persian poets and beautiful Egyptian mosques. For them, no less than for a Swedish aid bureaucrat or a World Bank development economist, the Muslim world is a backward place which urgently needs overhauling through the adoption of Western ways.
That Islamists seek not a traditional Islamic order but an Islamic-flavored version of Western life can best be seen in their views on religion, politics and the law. Their ideas about women are perhaps the most striking; despite their insistence on veiling and on punishments for extramarital sex, Islamists actually espouse an approach more akin to
Western-style feminism than to anything Islamic.
Traditional Muslim men took pride in their women staying home; in well-to-do households, females almost never went outside. In contrast, Islamists proudly speak of “liberating women” and the leading organization of Muslim states calls for “full respect for the dignity and the rights of Muslim women and enhancement of their role in all aspects of social life.”
A veil once served only to preserve a woman’s virtue; today it also facilitates the feminist goal of pursuing a career. And it’s even more to some Islamist men, who claim to find the veil sexy; Shabbir Akhtar, a British writer, sees it creating “a truly erotic culture in which one dispenses with the need for the artificial excitement that pornography provides.”
Even Islamist restrictions on women derive from Western models. As As’ad AbuKhalil of California State University points out, “What passes in present-day Saudi Arabia as sexual conservatism is due more to Victorian Puritanism than to Islamic mores.”
Despite themselves, then, Islamists are Westernizers. Whichever direction they turn, they end up looking west. The men wear T-shirts reading “Islam is the solution.” The women wear blue jeans under their chadors and shout “Death to America.” Even while ostensibly rejecting the West, they accept it.
This state of affairs has two implications. However reactionary in intent, Islamism adopts not just modern but Western ideas and institutions. The Islamist dream of expunging Western ways from Muslim life is doomed.
But, second, the resulting hybrid is more robust than one might think. Opponents of Islamism, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, too often dismiss it as a regressive effort to avoid modern life, comforting themselves with the prediction that it will be left behind as modernization takes place. This expectation is mistaken; because Islamism appeals most compellingly to Muslims coping with the challenges of modernity, its totalitarian utopianism
has huge potential to do damage.
Islamism will remain a force for some time to come. Its adversaries cannot simply sit back and await its collapse, but most actively combat what has become a nearly worldwide scourge.
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