Olivier Roy, Islamism expert and renowned authority on the Islamic world wants his new book, "The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East", to refute the idea of a "geostrategy of Islam" – and along with it the theory of the clash of civilisations. A review by Loay Mudhoon
It's not just the fact that the majority of victims of international Islamist terrorism are Muslims that contradicts the kind of simplistic interpretations that see the Islamic world as waging war on the West. For Olivier Roy, the renowned French expert on Islamism and director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), there is no such thing as an "Islamic world" in the sense of a single geopolitical entity at all; that, for him, is an image that is purely a "figment of the imagination".
Most of the conflicts in the Middle East he points out are being fought out between Muslims; and majorities in most of the current Islamic regimes see themselves as allies of the West.
Global and local terrorists
Roy draws a fundamental distinction between the terrorists who operate worldwide, such as Al-Qaida, and Islamic actors with a limited local, national agenda and sphere of activity such as the Shiite Hezbollah or Sunni Hamas.
The respected commentator and authority on the Islamic world goes on to point out that only under particular conditions do Islamic actors become a threat. Islamisation, he believes, only becomes a strategic factor when it overlaps with other determinants, generally of a nationalistic (such as in the case of Hamas or in Iran), ethnic or tribalistic nature.
Roy adroitly analyses the present state of alliance and interest, as well as the legitimacy conflicts in the Near and Middle East, with a fineness of touch that defies the drawing of any neat ideologically-dictated black and white conclusions; with masterly concision he examines complex problems and makes them understandable:
In Iraq, he says, the Americans are willingly supporting a government that has close ties to their archenemy, Iran. Al-Qaida has withdrawn into Pakistan, a country supposedly allied with the West, but one that makes little attempt to disguise the support it provides for the Taliban in their war on the new Afghan regime put in place by the international community.
In Lebanon, he notes, Shiite Hezbollah has joined forces with General Aoun's Christians in an alliance that is threatening Sunni Muslims to a much greater extent than the Maronite Christians while the Syrian regime, prop of Hezbollah, has murdered and thrown into prison members of the Muslim brotherhood.
No simple explanations
First and foremost Roy's analysis is aimed at highlighting a momentous misunderstanding: The complexity of the play of alliances refutes the 'demagogic simplification' of the phrase 'worldwide war on terror'. It is the view implied by this phrase, he maintains, that has led to Islamic terrorism becoming a global threat and to the 'war on terror' becoming the cause of even more radicalism and more terror.
The political situation in the Muslim world has drastically worsened in the wake of the fatal mistakes made by the US administration in the war on international terrorism. Above all it was the Iraq war of 2003, which, as we know, was fought in the name of neoconservative plans for the "revolutionary democratisation" of the Middle East that proved a grave mistake and one which severely damaged the authority and moral creditworthiness of the last remaining world power.
The West's war is wrong, says Roy, because it serves to weaken the forces of moderation in the Islamic countries and ultimately to strengthen anti-Western powers such as Iraq.
More attention to the internal conflicts
The main objective of the independent researcher in this new book is to refute the idea that there is a 'geostrategy of Islam' that would explain all of the contemporary conflicts from Palestine to riots in the Paris suburbs to Bin Laden.
Prevailing ideas of a clash of civilisations or of a confrontation between the Muslim world and the West are dispelled by Roy's dissection of the various conflicts and upheavals.
The power elites of the West, he believes, must be prepared to undertake some self-critical analysis. Nevertheless, no easy answers are proffered – no ready-made solutions for the complex problems in the Islamic arc of crisis. Maybe that is why his advice to the powers that be in the West is at once both simple and cogent: to pay more attention to the internal conflicts within the Islamic countries in the Near and Middle East.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Ron Walker