Academic Writing on Islam

Islam and Politics in the 21st Century : Reflections on the New World Order

 Lubna Nadvi



The defining moment of the 21st century it would seem, has become epitomized and located within the fateful events of September 11, 2001. One wonders if such an attack had happened to a nation other than the United States, would the course of world events have taken a different turn? But given that it did take place in the US, and given that the perpetrators have been identified as Muslims, predominantly of Saudi nationality, it would seem that these circumstances have arguably shaped and defined many of the political developments that have subsequently occurred.  The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, by the United States, as well as the responses to these invasions by Muslim militants from a variety of backgrounds, are the very events that have come to dominate the world stage over the last few years, and it is therefore critical, that we must attempt to understand the nature of this new world order that now exists, and what its dynamics mean for the global community.


The last significant reference to a new world order, was arguably in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had effectively signaled the end of organised global communism. Since then rapid global economic expansion has meant the emergence of a new set of political fundamentals, that encompass, as many have argued, economic neo-liberalism, and in more recent times, increasing neo-conservative thinking, predominant within US ideological circles. While the 15 years since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, has proved to be fraught with a range of turbulent political crises, two things have remained relatively consistent, one being the shift towards a world dominated by the flow of capital and secondly, the increasing hegemony of technology driven politics.


Amidst this process of intensified globalization, the project of modern Empire as many scholars have argued, has sought to survive and flourish, through not just trans-national economic colonialism, but also through intellectual and psychological co-option, often referred to as cultural globalization.[1] At some levels such co-option has been invidious and destructive, whereas at others it has been less so. However, much of the process of this “cultural” imperialism has had the effect of entrenching one dominant culture, inevitably subsuming others.


Cultural globalization has meant that minority communities within predominantly western secular societies have had to adjust to the dominant rather than the other way around. Of course most minority communities have been able to sustain their own traditions and values, fairly comfortably, particularly Muslim communities, and these have been generally tolerated and respected by the dominant. However, when elements of the minority communities begin to resist against the dominant, as has been the case, over the last few years, there is inevitably going to be friction.


Resistance against the dominant has always been part of the human condition. However, what we see unfolding politically in our times, is not simply just a question of resisting against the dominant, it is arguably raising fundamental questions about the values of society, upon which we base our common existence. In a post September 11 world, many Muslims were simply horrified that other Muslims could have carried out such acts, but many might have actually understood the reasons behind it, and that some might even have quietly declared that the US deserves to be attacked, because of its government’s treatment of people elsewhere, particularly in the Muslim world.


The essential questions that this set of circumstances raises are, firstly, have the spaces within a predominantly global western value system and an Islamic or Arab one, become largely ideologically incompatible,  and if this is the case, then how do we address it, not just ideologically but politically. Secondly, has the powerful imperial spin machine engineered much of the current conflicts, in the wake of 9/11, so as to gain political leverage and advantage for its own invidious machinations? While this discussion may not be able to provide a definitive answer to either question, it attempts to allude towards the possibility that actually both are the case. In other words that there are serious differences between the western idea of democracy that the West is so eager to impose on everyone, including the Arab and Muslim world, and an Islamic ethos, but also that these differences have actually been manipulated and embellished, by imperial powers to create divisiveness and fear, and advance their hegemony in the Islamic world. Hence, the collective Muslim worlds legitimate resistance to occupation and imperialism in their midst, becomes largely conflated with acts of terrorism, and the distinction between the two is cleverly obfuscated.


In so doing, the construction of an incompatible “other” becomes effectively entrenched in the collective western psyche with the commensurate vilification of such otherness, creating it would appear, the conditions for inevitable confrontation between the status quo and that which seemingly challenges and threatens it. Hence the notion of annihilating such an evil other becomes rationalized through a process of demonizing it, without understanding ones own complicity in the construction of the other, or even why it is so antagonistic to the dominant.


The notion of otherness as an intellectual concept is by no means a new one. Philosophers such as Sartre and Heidegger, and post-colonial writers such as Edward Said have reflected at length on this concept. [2] What is new however, is the identity and character that shapes this otherness, in a 21st century context, and the careful manipulation that has arguably gone into crafting this identity, to achieve precisely what its architects wish, fear, chaos, confusion and above all, the continued hegemony of those who claim to be the only saviors, that can save us from the dangers that such otherness brings with it, viz, (according to the spin that is enforced on it), the compromise of essential democratic freedoms, the tyranny of terror and the increased violation of human rights. This new otherness is as Tariq Ali, calls it, Islamic terrorism, a psychological construction of the American empire. [3]


However, while one may argue that such terrorism is very often provoked or is a result of incitement, we also need to be clear in our condemnation of those who have actually deliberately perpetrated acts of terror, in the name of Islam. While I would argue that the project of resistance against imperialism, colonialism and occupation by the West, is a legitimate one, what is seriously problematic is committing violent acts against innocents in the name of God, and legitimizing these by referring to verses of the Quran. The same criticism applies to those states who perpetrate violence against Muslim and Arab civilians, in the name of self-defense against the evil terrorists. Both are unacceptable when judged against an objective ethical lens, and both kinds of excesses must be fought against.


The idea of the existence of a world that operates according to the rule of fear, as opposed to the rule of law, has become increasingly more prevalent in contemporary international relations discourse. However such a world, I would argue, is an engineered one, which becomes victim to the most base of human reactions, fear and ignorance. And so, as recent events such as the outcome of the US presidential elections illustrate, which resulted in Americans re-electing a pro-war president, the new world order is no longer about advancing universal values of peace, justice and viable security, it is about the skillful and masterful architecture of creating a web of intrigue, suspicion, fear and deception by those in power, to which even sane and rational beings eventually capitulate. Tariq Ali in his major essay, Clash of Fundamentalisms describes such a world, a “parochial culture that celebrates the virtues of ignorance, promotes a cult of stupidity and extols the present as a process without an alternative, implying that we all live in a consumerist paradise”. [4] 


Could it be argued that our world has been taken hostage by not only such ignorance and stupidity, but also a sense of helplessness, that has allowed the politics of fear to reign supreme, in the absence of a rational and coherent framework that would inevitably serve as a check and balance to the agenda of a divisive and discordant balance of power ? And can we separate the religious and theological dynamics of this power struggle, from its essential battle-ground, the desire to wrest political control away from the perceived enemy, with each side claiming moral and divine legitimacy as justification for waging the wars we now see unfolding before us ?


Central to all of these questions however, is the relationship between the events of 9/11 and the subsequent creation of a world order, which seeks to annihilate any possible threat to its hegemony as a dominant force in world politics. And so, the fact that the perpetrators of the attacks on the US were identified as Muslims or Arabs is significant, because virtually all of the declarations of war that have emanated from a predominantly western power configuration since then, have been directed towards Muslim and Arab communities. The critical question that I want to unpack though in this essay is, is all of this being primarily undertaken by a dominant hegemon, calling itself a coalition of the willing, and comprising of predominantly western nations, in order to defend civilization against what it perceives to be a real threat of Islamic fundamentalism, or is there, as I alluded to earlier, a deliberate attempt to create conflict and chaos to achieve political control over those who pose an ideological and strategic threat to the western world as we know it? Is Huntington’s thesis of a clash of civilizations being proved as inevitable, albeit through a feat of as I would argue, careful manipulation and not simply as he argues, as a result of an essential cultural and historical incompatibility between Islam and Western ideas. [5] 


Based on these central questions, this essay seeks to do the following. Firstly, it attempts to analyse emerging trends in political Islam that have occurred in the last 5 years. These trends take into account not just developments in international relations but attempt to link other events that have some bearing on an overall understanding of how Islam is developing politically. Secondly, it seeks to understand what the motivating factors were behind the attacks on the United States in 2001, and link these to subsequent events that have happened globally, leading to a new world order. Together with this, it tries to reflect on the nature of the new world order and unpack some of its key components. And finally it articulates the necessity for resistance against imperialist ideology and neo-liberal hegemony, through harnessing the political theology inherent within Islam, yet calls for a dialogue between those who advocate violence as an inevitable circumstance of difference and those who seek to resolve political disputes through reasoned and rational means.


Emerging Trends within Political Islam : 2000 – 2004


The turn of the century was a significant event for global politics, not least of all Islam as a faith and space for political engagement and mobilization. The term political Islam is one that has emerged fairly recently within a variety of discourses, that are attempting to understand what has transpired within the political arena of the Muslim world, that has brought it into such intense conflict with a more mainstream dominant culture. As such, it can be regarded as an overarching term to describe all of the resulting sub-discourses within Islam that have generated extreme controversy, such as gender issues, Shariah law, terrorism and so on.


In order to understand what has happened in these last 5 years, it is useful to also reflect on what characterizes the essence of political thought within Islam historically. No doubt 1400 years of thought can not be simply summarized within a few paragraphs or pages, however it is critical to link some of the key moments of the history of the development of political thought in Islam to a contemporary context. These references to historical events will be interspersed within the broader ensuing discussion around the emerging trends within political Islam.


The circumstances in which the primary and original model of political governance within Islam, ie the Caliphate emerged, is well known. The fact that the first Caliph, after the death of the Prophet Muhammed (saw), in the year 632, was chosen by majority consensus by a council consisting of various Muslim tribes, is an indication of the democratic roots of political governance within Islam. But even despite this, the emerging controversy that occurred at this point, has been a cause for historical division amongst the two most well known sects of Islam, ie, the Sunnis and the Shiites, the latter who being loyal to Imam Ali, broke away from the mainstream, in the wake of the death of the Prophet (saw). The fact that Imam Ali, who was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet (saw), was not given the distinction of being the first Caliph, because of his age and inexperience has been a sore point of contention between these two groupings, the Shiites  believing that Imam Ali, should have been the first rightful successor to Prophet Muhammed (saw). [6] He did however eventually become the 4th Caliph after the assassination of Imam Uthman.


It is clear though from all of the recorded history that the early Caliphs were astute political and military leaders whose military conquests consolidated what eventually became an extended Islamic and Arab empire. Subsequent Islamic dynasties, such as the Ummayyads, the Abbassids, Fatimids and the Ottoman empire, have been credited with  creating a lasting legacy of the overwhelming intellectual contributions made by Muslims, to civilization as a whole, and the constructive role played by Islam in the world. [7] Nevertheless the Islamic world today finds itself at a difficult juncture, where much of its principles and beliefs are being called into question by a broader multi-faith community, that is seeking answers, as to why virtually all of the acts of political terror committed in recent history, have links to the Muslim and Arab world, and whether this is reflective of an inherent incompatibility between Islam as it is practiced today, and broader society. In attempting to address this, I want to firstly refer to some key issues that link to the broader question of what political trends are currently emerging within Islam and why some of these are contentious and / or significant. I will focus on 4 such issues, viz, leadership in Islam, Islamic law, Islamic ideology and lastly, political mobilization within Islam.


The issue of leadership has always remained, throughout the history of Islam, a contentious one. However it is really in a 21st century context that the issue of leadership becomes particularly critical, given that Islam faces so many contemporary challenges and actually desperately needs strong and astute leaders to guide the Ummah away from autocracy towards egalitarianism and a vibrant and pluralistic intellectual political discourse. While the history of the original contention around succession has been briefly alluded to above, it is useful to reflect on the bigger picture. There have essentially been three schools of thought on succession. Firstly the mainstream Sunnis, who believed that choosing Islamic leaders from the tribe that the Prophet (saw), belonged to, ie the Quraysh, and their descendants, was best for continuing and consolidating his original vision and Sunah. Secondly the Shiites, who broke away from the Sunnis, because they believe that the Prophet’s blood relative, Imam Ali, and his descendants are the true leaders of Islam. And thirdly the Kharajites, who believe that leaders should be chosen regardless of the hereditary claims of the Sunni sect of the Ummah, according to the needs of society as they arose. [8] This group is effectively a minority within the broader global ummah, whereas the Sunnis and Shiites are larger in number and influence.


While these schools of thought continue to exert a historical influence on political debates within Islam, they are arguably not as relevant today as they might have been under an existing Islamic empire, simply because the terrain of contemporary politics has changed dramatically. The struggles emerging today, are essentially between those who consider themselves as the correct and legitimate leadership of Islam, ie, the Ulema, (be they Sunni or Shiite) by virtue of their knowledge of the religious principles of Islam, and an emerging reformist and “progressive” element, who while not necessarily wanting to totally adopt a western political system, believe in the supremacy of choosing their leaders democratically, as opposed to having them imposed upon them, as well as wanting to embrace a less restrictive and rigid interpretation of the Islamic faith, which is often enforced by a more orthodox leadership.[9] Such struggles have manifested themselves, within an array of circumstances, ranging from the struggle within an Islamic state like Iran where the mullahs and religious authorities have overwhelming control of many aspects of public and private life to a moderately secular state like Egypt where degrees of permissiveness exist side by side with religious autocracy to a totally secular society like Canada, where the struggle between the ultra-orthodox religious leadership and the progressive elements that have to a significant degree embraced a national identity, are battling it out amongst themselves. [10]


The significant trend as regards the issue of leadership has been the struggle to try and find a common understanding within the Muslim world of what constitutes legitimate leadership, within an Islamic framework. The existence of different political systems within the broader Muslim world have meant that there is effectively no consensus on the issue of firstly, whether there should be one religious authority for all Muslims, similar to the leadership of the Pope for all Catholics, or whether leadership should depend on differing political systems. It is indeed the case that the leadership structures throughout the Islamic world are different, for example in a state like Saudia Arabia, a monarchy rules, guided by religious leadership, but in Indonesia, which is actually the largest Muslim country in the world, elections are held to choose the national leader. I would argue that diversity of forms of leadership are essentially healthy within the Muslim world, however, what is not so healthy is a stifling of open and transparent political discourse, by religious edicts, which has come to be the essential obstacle in articulating the direction for a more unified global Islamic political agenda.


The second significant and perhaps somewhat more contentious issue within political Islam that has emerged as a focal area over the last five years, has been that of the implementation of Islamic or Shariah law within society. Given that within the Sunni tradition alone, there are four schools of thought as regards the interpretation of the Quranic injunctions, into law, that is commonly referred to as the Shariah, it is no doubt contested territory. The Shiite ulema has also developed its own legal schools of thought according to their codification of the Hadith (Traditions).[11] One of the essential premises of Islamic theology that has direct relevance to the codification of the law is that all forms of sovereignty belong to God alone, and hence the Quranic laws must be applied in order to govern issues related to the public as well as private domain. It is arguably the application of the law and legal rights in the private domain of Muslim Personal Law that seems to have come under the most scrutiny in the space of the last few years.


While there are a number of incidences that abound on this issue, I will expand on two that effectively made global headlines and called into question the issue of the Shariah’s application in a 21st century context. Firstly I want to deal with the issue of Islamic legal rights as it was applied under the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Prior to the invasion of the US into Afghanistan, there had been real concerns expressed by human rights groups over the way in which women and girls were being treated under the Taliban regime. While there have been denials issued by many conservative sectors, by all objective accounts, women and girls were deprived of a number of rights, that had been originally accorded to them under Quranic injunction, such as the right to education, the right to work, the right to own property, etc. In addition, there were many reports of women who had been left to starve on the streets or beg, because they were not allowed to work, and that they were frequently killed or beheaded without the full application of the Hudud laws as originally laid out in the Quran, which has very clear directions on pronouncement of final sentencing, as well as leniency regarding certain crimes. The Taliban it would seem, was arguably a chauvinist regime, not an Islamic one.


The second issue of contention was around a Nigerian women named Amina Lawaal, who was sentenced to be stoned, by virtue of the pronouncement of a Shariah court, because she had a child out of wedlock. The man she named as the father of the child, was in the end not held accountable, and she was considered as the sole guilty party. As a result of intervention by many around the globe, she was eventually spared from having to endure the sentence. The fact that prominent Muslims spoke up against what was perceived as an essentially patriarchal ruling within the domain of the Nigerian Shariah court, was also seen as significant, reflecting diverging viewpoints even amongst Muslims themselves on this issue.


What these two incidences indicate to us is that, the issue of how Shariah law is applied today, particularly where it concerns women, is contested political territory, and that calls for revisiting the framework of the Shariah, seem to constitute the more contentious aspects of the ongoing debates. Kecia Ali argues that while Muslims agree that the Quranic Shariah is complete, infallible and universal, it cannot be known directly except through the work of human interpreters, or Islamic jurists. She further points out that the Shariah as the revealed law of God has been codified into an interpreted version, which as a body of jurisprudence (fiqh), is by virtue of being interpreted by humans, subject to fallibility and therefore mistakes, unless there is the applicability of legal reason or ijtihad. [12] The other critical aspect of this issue seems to revolve around the notion that Shariah law in its fiqh form, allegedly contradicts some basic principles of human rights. Of course this critique emerges largely from within western secular circles, but what has become more interesting in recent times, is that more and more of the criticisms seem to be emanating from within Islamic circles, by Muslims, who are increasingly forced to reflect on the problems emerging within the domain of Shariah law, as it pertains to its most orthodox application vs more liberal interpretations.


I now move on to looking at the issue of Islamic ideology, which while linked to the other 3 issues, has a particular status of its own, given that it has come under intense scrutiny, by a global audience in more recent times. While there are many schools of religious thought under the various sects such as Sunni and Shiite, I want to look at the question of ideology from a political lens, in other words, dissect it according to what would constitute mainstream political terminology such as radical, left wing, moderate, progressive and right-wing. It might appear that these notions are actually western notions developed by western political science, but I want to argue that such notions have existed within Islamic political thought, from the inception of the Quranic revelations. Concepts such as freedom (al-hurriyya), equality (al-musawat) and justice (al-adl), are all intrinsic components of the teachings of the primary texts of Islam, from the Quran to the Hadith and the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw). Furthermore the tools of political engagement such as shura (consultation), ijma (consensus) ikhtilaf (difference / diversity of opinion), have formed part of the history of Islamic civilization, and as such constitute a very critical part of a contemporary understanding of Islamic ideology.


These principles and their relationship to Islam have no doubt been under even more focus recently because of the increased violent acts that seem to have been perpetrated by predominantly Muslim groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Middle East and Africa and Jamah Islamiah in South East Asia.[13]  The responses that these actions have evoked from within western circles, seem to question whether Islam even has a body of political thought that advances notions of human rights and justice. It is unfortunate that a few acts of violence have brought into question a well established archive of political ideas and principles.  

However, given that the body of what I will term religio-political thought in Islam is vast and spans several centuries, I want to simply reflect on two broad movements that I will argue are effectively competing with each other within the various political discourses currently dominating discussion within influential Islamic circles. The first one is that of the Wahhabbi tradition, an ideologically well established formation emerging from within Saudi Arabia, that articulates a very orthodox approach to the belief and practice of Islam. The influence of this tradition is evident in the social structure of Saudi society, where a cadre of religious police constantly monitor social interaction, to make sure there are no infringements. Many have argued that this school of thought has essentially been responsible for influencing what is considered the extreme right wing philosophy of militant groupings such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and others. I would argue though that it is necessary to make an intellectual distinction between Wahhabbism as a religious movement, and the degree of its influence on militant groupings who arguably have primarily a political agenda rather than a religious one. Given however that most of these groups do invariably invoke God and religious sentiment as part of their militant engagements, it would appear that Wahhabbism has also been co-opted to serve as a tool of political mobilisation for many to join these groups. A subsequent term has been created, predominantly by Western states, to refer to these militant groups, who have both a religious and political identity. The terms Islamists and Jihadists have been used interchangeably to refer to them. Their political leanings can arguably be best described as right wing and conservative. Some within the broader militant movement might consider a group like Hamas, that is based in Palestine and resisting an occupation, as left and radical, however many would also reject such a categorization.


The second broad movement is that commonly referred to as Progressive Islam, which is still seen as very much of a developing and emerging movement. Its formation lies in the coming together of a group of Muslim activists and intellectuals, from around the world, particularly Muslims living in predominantly secular societies, and who have over the last few decades been pushing for a reformist agenda. Most of this group has been actively involved in a range of political issues, and are very familiar with an egalitarian and pluralistic tradition, by virtue of having been exposed to a multi-cultural, multi-faith social structure. Essentially;


Progressive Islam is that understanding of Islam and its sources that comes from and is shaped within a commitment to transform society from an unjust one where people are mere objects of exploitation by governments, socio-economic institutions and unequal relations. The new society will be a just one where people are the subjects of history, the shapers of their own destiny, in the full awareness that all of humankind is in a state of returning to God and that the universe was created as a sign of God’s presence.” [14]   


It is clear from this statement that the agenda of Progressive Islam is social change and justice, and the inspiration for this approach comes from the primary text of Islam, ie the Quran, and the Hadith. While Wahhabbism as an ideology advocates a return to the original practice and sunnah of the Prophet (saw), it is also puritanical in the sense that it does not make space for critical and healthy debate which for the movement of Progressive Islam is its lifeblood. In fact, to not allow for healthy debate would in fact be going against the sunnah of the Prophet (saw), as he was by virtue of many of the recollections in the Hadith, someone who encouraged discussion and debate on many issues.


As mentioned previously, there are many schools of religious thought within Islam, but the question of ideology, particularly political ideology is something that has been discussed at great length only recently because of the nature of the events unfolding before us, in recent history. An attempt to understand why there is violence in Iraq or Palestine, or any part of the Muslim world requires us to understand, the circumstances of those conflicts, and the political thought processes driving these events. I will delve into these issues in a bit more detail in the next section on the new world order.


The final issue under the section on trends, is that of political mobilization and it follows in some senses from the above discussion on ideology. The question of political mobilization in Islam, would seem to the uninformed observer, to focus predominantly around militant or militarized aspects, where young men and sometimes women are recruited to be involved in activities which mostly require military training. We have all seen video footage on our TV screens of training camps, where Muslim militants are being trained to fight and be prepared to take on western soldiers or carry out military operations when called upon to do so. I would argue that this is only one side of the real picture. While there are many young Muslims who do get recruited to get involved in such militarised activities, there are as many if not more, who are involved in non-violent activities where they are resisting against imperialism and war, and in some instances their mobilization is ideologically more powerful and effective in its outcomes. No doubt the issue of young people being recruited to military camps has become a very controversial idea and this is a huge debate particularly amongst young Muslims, living in both the West and predominantly Muslim societies. Much of this debate also centers around the ideological principles that drive people to take up military arms against those that they perceive as their enemy, and where many times they end up losing their lives.


The question of political mobilization in the Islamic world within a contemporary context has to take into consideration the fact that the context of mobilization is very often one which is antagonistic to a dominant western institutionalized framework. In other words, the nature of the mobilizing usually revolves around campaigns and marches protesting against occupations, wars, imperialist and neo-liberal policies, generally being implemented by western nations in Arab and Muslim societies. Such activism against institutionalized oppression is not unique though to the Muslim world. It has become commonplace, for Asian, African and South American communities to do the same. It is also not unusual to see Europeans and North Americans participating in such protests. What is somewhat unique though to the Muslim world, is the religious dimension of the process of mobilization. While religion has throughout history been used to try and convince people to take up arms against the “enemy”, it is arguably most effectively used within the Muslim world. Given that prayers are held 5 times a day in mosques, and the Jummah prayer being the most well attended, there is ample opportunity for the pulpits of the mosques to be used as spaces for recruiting and mobilizing. In conservative Muslim communities it is often the case that the message emanating from the Friday Khutba is that of taking up physical arms against western occupation forces. In more moderate communities, emphasis is given to aspects of resistance such as peaceful protests, economic boycotts, isolation campaigns and so on. While militancy might exist in even moderate progressive spaces, such militancy usually does not advocate violence and killing.


No doubt the issue of political mobilization is central to what is often referred to in western scholarship as agency and praxis. In other words, to be able to effectively mobilize people to execute a range of critical outcomes, that can challenge and overcome a set of destructive and debilitating political circumstances, such as those that face us today, is certainly a powerful notion. What is equally powerful is the ability of a community to be able to understand the dynamics of its oppression and counter it, at the levels at which they emerge. For the Muslim and Arab world, this understanding must arguably be located within the framework of a strong Islamic ethos that promotes resistance against injustice, but also does not lose its essence of being a peaceful belief system, that opposes random violence, killing and terror.   



September 11, 2001 and The New World Order    


It is virtually impossible to encapsulate the range and breadth of discussion on this issue in a single essay. However I will attempt to capture some of the essential contemporary debates, and locate it within the essence of the discussion in this article.


The debates in international relations and related intellectual discourses, around the events unfolding in our times, that have direct relevance to 9/11, is phenomenal. Prominent thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali, Mahmood Mamdani, to journalists like Robert Fisk and others have all reflected on the nature of the political developments currently taking place. The essence of their discussions reveal to us the very grave consequences of what is currently taking place, and why these circumstances need to be reversed, to avoid further global catastrophe. While it is understood that the consequences of an illegal war and occupation like that in Iraq, or the still unfolding effects of the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and its coalition armies will have serious repercussions for generations to come, this paper will not dwell on these consequences. Rather it intends to try and understand where and how the fundamental shifts in policy have taken place, within the domain of western power politics, and what the response to this has been by a range of militant groupings within the Muslim and Arab world.


There have been a number of explanations in the contemporary international relations literature to explain the current phenomena unfolding globally. I will elucidate on 3 that I believe constitute the core of a plausible set of explanations. Firstly, the growing antagonism by the Muslim and Arab world towards western particularly American military presence, in their part of the world. This presence has been a longstanding one in some countries, and in others more recent, through war and occupation. The US is cited as having the largest military presence abroad, particularly within the developing world.[15] This is regarded by many across the globe as a continuation of an imperial agenda in a world that has by virtue of consensus condemned the pursuit of colonialism and imperial domination, through military occupation. This antagonism has been expressed in many different ways over the last few decades, through various political structures such as the United Nations, and regional bodies such as the Arab League, to more militant actions as evidenced by the emergence of groups such as Al-Qaeda, and Hamas. The key points of contention prior to 9/ 11, have been the ongoing violence and occupation in Palestine, US military presence in Saudia Arabia and other countries, as well as the economic sanctions and other imperial designs imposed on Arab and other third world nations. Of course post the attack on the US, and the US government’s subsequent actions, the cause for resentment and outrage has deepened, and not just in the Muslim world but globally as well.


The second theory revolves around a significant ideological shift in US foreign policy with the election of Goerge Bush as President of the US in 2000, and the increase in neo-conservative thinking as part of the broader spectrum of political thought in the US. Much of this neo-conservative agenda is arguably related to the launch of a US based think tank in the 1990’s called The Project for the New American Century. Its founding members included people like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The Project for the New American Century, was arguably initially conceptualized as a latter day American imperialist project that seeks to create a modern day American empire, by controlling world affairs. I would argue that the occurrence of 9/11 in some ways was advantageous to such an agenda, and it could be further argued that it was politically expedient to use it as leverage to further legitimize the invasion by the US into countries that serve its strategic interests. While this explanation can not be directly linked as a cause of 9/11, it certainly could be seen as offering reasons for much that has transpired since then.


The third set of explanations allude to ideas similar to those posited by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, ie, that modern civilization is in some ways experiencing inevitable clashes within its midst, and that the fundamental differences between the current trajectory of an essentialist Islam and western culture can not be sustained, hence the only way to resolve them is through clashes, primarily in the form of militarized engagement. Edward Said, as an Arab American and Palestinian rejected such notions and argues that in order to make sense of Muslims, one has to understand the many multiplicities of Islam. In other words Islam is not a homogenous faith, it has many ideological leanings ranging from orthodox to progressive (like any other faith), and it should be understood within those parameters. [16]


It would seem that all of the above explanations put forward fairly credible reasons to explain, why everything from 9/11 to the war in Iraq has happened. I would argue though that while they do manage to present relatively comprehensive arguments, they don’t necessarily go far enough. I return therefore to my opening remarks, around the questions I raised initially. I alluded to the notion that actually the new world order has effectively been engineered, to create a set of circumstances, such as fear, confusion and divisiveness, and that the imperial project has simply turned a set of events such as 9/11 to its advantage. Does this explanation sound too callous and ruthless ? Perhaps so, but what is unfolding before us is also exactly that, ruthless. While I have taken a strong position against the killing of civilians by Muslim militants, and while I do not agree with some of their methods, I would argue that the project of their overall resistance against occupations and imperialism is a politically legitimate one. No doubt, because such resistance is inconvenient for those governments that are enforcing these occupations, it is only logical that they have to create circumstances in which they are perceived as being under siege and have to fight off terrorism. While I would argue that terrorism per se is a seriously problematic strategy to achieve political objectives, it is a reality in a contemporary world, and until such time as those who claim to want to end it, understand why it exists in the first place, and genuinely want to address the causes behind it, the current world order will remain.




Whatever reasons one may want to ascribe for the current chaos that exists in the world today, one thing is clear, the global community is in serious distress and needs sustainable remedies to heal political, ideological and certainly physical wounds. Whether one wants to call this an inevitable clash of civilizations or not, it is critical that we see beyond this, so that we do not destroy the world so much so, that there is nothing left to hand over to the next generation. Accountability, responsibility and peace-making are essential components of trying to fix the mess that we are currently in. I want to argue that the answers do lie within the faith of Islam and its essential principles of peace and co-existence.


At the same time that it advocates for peace, the Quran also talks about the importance of justice, and hence we as Muslims, but also as citizens of the world must understand the necessity of aspiring towards both. The cry for many progressive Muslims involved in trying to work towards a more pluralistic and tolerant society has been that of aspiring towards a peace that is just, and a political framework which takes into account the idea that if unjust conditions continue to prevail, then peace is virtually an impossibility. In realizing this, what are our options ? I want to suggest the following.


  1. Given that a conglomeration of imperial powers have sought to continue to pursue unjust economic and political policies against a predominantly third world and Muslim / Arab community, we have no choice but to resist and protest until they cease to do so.
  2. The question of how we resist, must no doubt be reflected upon very carefully to ensure that while we voice our objection vociferously, we do not lose our humanity, as imperialism eventually forces us to do.
  3. While militarized engagement might remain an option, for militant groupings, these are unfortunately not very effective against institutionalized occupation and imperialism, because they simply advance a vicious cycle of violence and death. New structurally sound ways of resisting need to be incorporated into the broader resistance movement.
  4. The new world order is arguably one that manipulates us to fall prey to exactly what the imperialists want, fear and chaos. Hence the global citizenry as a whole needs to rise above this, and realize that if we pursue this path, we are never going to end up building bridges towards each other. Instead we will be kept apart by fear and ignorance and in the end, it is the powers that be, who serve to gain from this.
  5. Peace-building requires courage, intelligence and astuteness. These are qualities that must effectively be nurtured, instead of blind fear, stupidity and obtuseness. The latter are all the things that must of necessity be resisted against.


I want to conclude by reflecting on what the Quran says, about having created many nations so that we may know each other. I would argue that the world order we should really aspire towards, is one that reflects this ethos. As Muslims it is our duty and part of our Iman to ensure that we achieve this in some significant measure. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming a marginalized and vilified Ummah, without alternatives and solutions. This is not, nor should it ever be the way of Islam in the 21st century.     




















[1] Many writers such as Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein and others have articulated the view that cultural globalization has been one of the most invidious aspects of the globalization process

[2] See JP Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, M Heidegeger’s Being and Time, and E Said’s Orientalism. The concept of otherness is depicted in various ideological configurations, as the relationship between Master and Slave, and in Said’s context, the construction of an exotic other, ie Islamic and Arab culture to be dissected and explored and ultimately conquered as part of an expansionist colonial agenda

[3] Ali, T, 2003, The Clash of Fundamentalisms : Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, London : Verso, pp xiii

[4] Ibid, pp 1

[5] See Huntington, S, 1996, The Clash of Civilizations : The Remaking of World Order, New York : Touchstone, pp 174-179

[6] Wintle, J, 2003, The Rough Guide History of Islam, London : Rough Guides (Penguin), pp 39-65

[7] Gettleman, ME, et al, 2003,  Islamic Beginnings in The Middle East and Islamic World Reader, New York : Grove, pp 5-12

[8] Ibid, pp 21-22

[9] See Safi, O, 2003, Progressive Muslims, Oxford : Oneworld. This collection of essays reflects a diversity of viewpoints, that emerge from the current debates taking place within the discourse of “progressive” Islam, which is being seen as an alternative to the rigidity of the dominant Wahhabi or other conservative schools of thought.

[10] There have been a range of controversial remarks made to the press in recent times by Canadian Muslim religious leaders that have been militant in the extreme, causing much embarrassment to its more moderate Muslim population.

[11] Gettleman, ME, et al, 2003, pp 10

[12] Ali, K, 2003, Progressive Muslims and Islamic Jurisprudence, in Safi. O, Progressive Muslims, pp 167

[13] There have been a number of bombings throughout the globe from Kenya to Bali to Saudia Arabia, to the US, Spain and other nations, some prior to 9/ 11, but most have occurred since 9/11 and more particularly during the recent Iraq war. Most of these attacks have been attributed to locally based groupings with broad affiliations to Al-Qaeda.

[14] Esack, F, 2003, In Search of Progressive Islam beyond 9/11 in Safi. O, Progressive Muslims .This is from the declaration of an online debate site, called Network of Progressive Muslims

[15] See Blum, W, 2000, Rogue State : A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, London : Zed Books

[16] Gettleman, ME, et al, 2003, pp 345 – 349


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