Perspectives on Radical Islamism

Angry Young Muslims

The political scientist Volker Perthes is the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin and has published numerous studies on the Near and Middle East. He sees five key ways for Europe to take constructive action in the Muslim world

Palestinian Hamas supporters chant slogans during a speech by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniye in Gaza City, in 2006 (photo: AP)
Parts of the younger generations in the Arabic and Muslim world are united by a new anger, not stirred up by regimes or liberation movements, but by intellectual leaders who use religious language

​​Western policy-makers have gradually realised that any analysis of extremist groups defining themselves as Islamic has to make differentiations. There is a politically relevant distinction between movements that follow a local political agenda and therefore have a local basis with negotiable objectives, and those who believe they are fighting a global battle transcending space and time.

This fine line was ignored in the Bush administration's "Global War on Terror", but has since been rediscovered by American government bodies. Nevertheless, one must not overlook the transnational mood in large parts of the Arab and Muslim world, which at least makes it easier to mobilise violent elements in the name of a combative Islam.

Although the majority in these countries is by no means radical or violence-oriented, we can now find at least two generations of young men – and a number of women – from Morocco to Pakistan and even in the Muslim diaspora in Europe, whose anger is tipping over into violence or indifference towards violent means.

Political anger, religious language

While the generation that produced the founders of al-Qaeda grew up with the US-supported Islamic Jihadists' struggle for liberation from Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, the younger generation was socialised in the shadow of the American war on terror, which many understand as a Western war against Islam.

Volker Perthes (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
According to Volker Perthes, the oft-cited clash is not between "the West" and "Islam", but within Arab-Islamic society: between the pro-globalisation and reactionary forces

​​These generations' anger is no longer channelled by revolutionary regimes or national liberation movements. That anger is still political, but the angry young Muslims, and particularly their intellectual leaders, use religious language to legitimise their extremely radical resistance.

In structural terms, this opposition is based on three different phenomena. The first is the conditions in the countries in question, which are considered unjust – poor governance: corruption, disrespect for human rights, poor rule of law and social inequality. Islamic theology has often denounced unjust rule as un-Islamic, making it easy to come to the utopian reverse conclusion that a return to "true Islam" would guarantee the justice people want.

Palestine – an open wound

The second problem is activists' feeling that their own countries are being held back in their development by foreign, non-Muslim powers, above all the West. They see that Western governments support Arab autocrats, and they would regard any US or Israeli military action against Iran simply as a further example of the West's attempts to keep Muslim nations down.

Palestinians investigate wreckage of a destroyed house in Gaza City (photo: AP)
Solving the Palestinian conflict would not put an end to Islamist terrorism, but the ongoing violence helps mobilise extremists. A Hamas building destroyed by an Israeli rocket in March 2008; people combing through the rubble

​​The third element is the conflict over Palestine. Not that there would be no extremist movements in the Muslim world or no Islamist terrorism if the Palestinians had their own state. However, the conflict remains the most important open wound on which this extremism feeds, and the most important symbol for mobilising those who believe Islam is involved in a fight for its existence with the West. This is most effective outside of Palestine – for the Palestinians, realising their national ambitions is a concrete goal, not a symbolic one, which they attempt to achieve by political, diplomatic or violent means, but hardly through "global jihad".

The nation state and democracy

Dealing with extremism on an Islamic basis is primarily a battle for the future of the Arab and Muslim world. Particularly the first dimension of anger described above can only be tackled by far-reaching political reforms in these countries. The autocratic regimes selected as partners in alliances with the West, however, are rarely prepared to take such steps. European governments can call for and support reforms. Yet Europe's policy-makers must start thinking about how their own decisions contribute to increasing or decreasing the potential for anger in the Muslim world. Five brief proposals:

Europe should support actors in the Arab and Muslim world who take peaceful action for change in their countries. This also means accepting that civil society includes not only those involved in secular discourses, but also conservative Islamic forces. One thing is certain: without the national moderate forces of political Islam, there will be no sustainable political reforms in the Arab world.

Political change is never linear; it is always full of contradictions, detours and setbacks. It is therefore advisable to break down the concept of democracy into its constitutive elements for operational purposes. That means in particular the rule of law, human rights, independent justice, transparency, freedom of opinion and free elections, whereby these are the decisive but certainly not the first and only necessary element of sustainable political reform. Democracy – and this is essential – cannot come before a much more all-encompassing process of state building; statehood is instead a precondition for consolidated democracy.

Symbolic picture of the flags of USA, Israel, Palestine and Europe (photo: AP/DW)
The conflicts continue in the Middle East. But "the West" will also be judged by its efforts towards solving them. Perthes calls for Europe to show "credible action on the political, social and economic front."

​​In the development of states, there is a close link between economic process, educational status, the growth of the middle classes and the chances of anchoring pluralism and democratic processes. That means that promoting the development of new middle classes remains a correct way to lay foundations for change.

It is essential that the West does not ignore the significance of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and increasingly that of the conflict in Iraq, for the region's political development. In the eyes of the Arab states, Europe's credibility, not just that of the USA, is measured in terms of our states' willingness to act towards ending these conflicts.

Where is the clash?

Although the rifts have grown deeper, there is no clash of civilisations that positions "the West" against "Islam". The real clash is taking place within Arab-Islamic civilisation. The boundary runs between those who want to lead their countries to globalisation, and reactionary utopians who would like to put their societies into totalitarian strait-jackets.

It is up to us Europeans to decide whether we make life harder for our actual and potential partners in the region by making them the object of our policy, or whether we support them through credible action on the political, social and economic front.

Volker Perthes

© Qantara 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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