The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy

It is reading time again here at AFOE. I am happy to invite you to read The politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy. If you like the world to be simple and easy to understand then you will hate The Politics of Chaos.

Olivier Roy offers his readers a descriptive overview of the many and ever moving social and political currents and dynamics in the Middle East. Understanding these will give a clearer insight into many of the conflicts in the region. Roy places the conflicts within their own context and separates them from the idea of ‘a clash of civilizations’. As the title of the book suggests, there is no single formula, or a ‘geostrategy of Islam’ as he calls it, that would explain everything that currently goes on in the Middle East. In the rather provocative introduction to the book, which you can read at the Columbia University Press website (pdf), Roy States:

Far from bearing out the prevailing theory that there is “a clash of civilizations” and a confrontation between the Muslim world and the West, the conflicts and realignments affect primarily the Muslim world itself and operate along fault lines that have very little to do with ideology.

It is true that some people, in their discussions about Islam, tend to forget the actual social and political ‘realities on the ground’ and see the Muslim World as a huge monolith. Olivier Roy addresses this issue in the first chapter of the book called Who is the enemy? Where is the enemy?, in which he describes how current Western, and notably American, Middle East policy was shaped and why it failed. Talking about the failure of the democratization of Iraq he writes:

Why then, is there talk of failure? Fundamentally because, for the neoconservatives and international institutions alike, democracy is a simple question of building institutions and electoral mechanisms. (…) What is lacking in this theory of democratization is the entire political dimension of a modern society (state), and the entire anthropological depth of a traditional society.

In short, the West looked at the problems in the Middle East from a purely Western perspective that largely ignored ‘the reality on the ground’.

Olivier Roy then goes on to describe ‘this reality on the ground’ in a second chapter called The Middle East: Fragmentation of Conflicts and New Fault Lines. It would be impossible to give a decent summary of all the different actors and complex dynamics Roy describes at length in this most fascinating part of the book. To give you an idea, consider this quote:

A major problem in the Middle East is that of political legitimacy. Local nationalisms generally develop around states, not regimes, but the political ideologies on the market are supra-nationalist while the political “grammar” (the game of individual alliances and loyalties) is inter-state (all that is contained in the term asabiyya or “solidarity group”: clannism, tribalism, sectarianism). (…) And yet nationalisms remain the key to conflicts, but are undermined by internal divisions (…) which can be linked to ideologies and transnational networks.

It is in this chapter that we discover the true political, social and ideological kaleidoscope that is the Middle East. If there is one thing that does unite the countries of the Middle East, it is not a desire to bring down Western civilization but rather an ongoing search for identity (based on nationalism or religion) in a globalised world. And this search is very much influenced by the role the West has played and continues to play in the internal affairs of this region.

The complexity continues in a third chapter that is dedicated to Iran and in which Roy sheds some light on the internal dynamics of that country, its ambitions as a regional power, its nuclear programme and the Ahmadinejad phenomenon. And in the fourth and last chapter of the book Olivier Roy discusses Al-Qaeda and explains why this organization, potentially lethal as it may be, has no real future and that its activism is increasingly detached from actual political developments. As Roy states, “Al-Qaeda’s recruitment map in no way reflects the flashpoints in the Middle East” and, one of many surprising facts in this chapter, “10 to 25% of activists are converts”.

With this short summary, which does no justice to the wealth of insights and information this new book by Olivier Roy provides, I can highly recommend The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East as an excellent introduction to the diverse political and social realities in the Middle East. If you are interested in the subject, you can use this book as a primer to get a better understanding of the Middle Eastern Zeitgeist, its contemporary history and sensibilities with regards to Western influence in the region.

For more information you can visit the book’s webpages of Columbia University Press and Hurst & Co.

And, as a bonus, go have a quick browse through the books on offer in Columbia University Press’ White Sale. Today (Monday June 2nd) is the last day of the sale.

I would also like to take this opportunity to recommend two other books that I received from Hurst & Co: Iran in World Politics, The Question of the Islamic Republic by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam and Hamas in Politics by Jeroen Gunning.

Secularism confronts Islam by Olivier Roy

When I look at contemporary public discourse, no day seems to go by without at least someone mentioning the threat of Islam. Last week Dutch MP Geert Wilders even went as far as to call for a ban on the Koran itself, comparing it in true Godwin style to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, because “it incites violence in the name of a fascist ideology”. His idea was widely condemned, even by people who would normally sympathize with at least some of his views, but the fact that he was confident enough to put this idea to the test is very telling. Islam is a hot topic and the threat of Islam, the Islamic monster as it were, either perceived or real, sells.

At the same time there has been real violence in the name of Islam. 9-11 and the bombings in London and Madrid are obvious examples but, the scope of the inflicted destruction notwithstanding, they could be placed in a wider geopolitical context. Far more telling, for me, was the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. He was killed in the name of Islam by a young, Dutch Muslim extremist of Moroccan descent called Mohammed Bouyeri. This particular murder has been as devastating as the aforementioned bombings, not in scope but in psychological impact. He brought the threat of Islam home… from the inside out. His religious radicalization leading up to his murder of Theo van Gogh cannot be explained merely by geopolitical events or by what some people, like Wilders, would call inherent traits of the Islamic religion. The prosecutor in his murder trial formulated it like this: “The defendant rejects our democracy. He even wants to bring down our democracy.”

The murder of Theo van Gogh was seen as proof of the failure of multiculturalism and, much more important, a direct link was established, in the public mind, between Muslim immigrants and religious violence. What had thus far been a sociological problem, the cultural integration of immigrants who had, by the way, been around for decades, turned into a debate on the position of, in this case Islamist, religion in Western society. Islam, in short, had become a subversive force in Western society threatening traditional values and democracy. Islam was no longer just another religion, it had become a political, assertive and proactive force. Again, in the public mind. I remember fifteen odd years ago there already were lively debates on the position of immigrants in Western society. But those debates hardly ever considered religion. What exactly happened between then and now? Why did some young Western Muslims radicalize and how did they, arguably a minority within a minority, manage to have such an impact on Western public opinion?

With these introductory questions I can finally introduce world renowned expert on Islam Olivier Roy and his excellent new book Secularism confronts Islam, published by Columbia University Press. As far as the body of the book goes, Columbia University Press already did a great job summarizing this online:

Analyzing the French case in particular, in which the tension between Islam and the conception of Western secularism is exacerbated, Roy makes important distinctions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims, hegemony and tolerance, and the role of the umma and the sharia in Muslim religious life. He pits Muslim religious revivalism against similar movements in the West, such as evangelical Protestantism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and refutes the myth of a single “Muslim community” by detailing different groups and their inability to overcome their differences.

The great value of Secularism confronts Islam, which should make it a lasting classic, is that it recognizes the complexity of the issues at hand and that it offers us, by revealing their diverse and often surprising underlying dynamics, the tools to understand them better. Olivier Roy hands his readers a wealth of material that will allow them to interpret past, ongoing and future developments in a more objective and different manner. And, maybe most important of all, he reduces “the Islamic threat” to its just proportions and, in doing so, gives us the means to deal, both intellectually and emotionally, in a more appropriate and effective way with that very same threat. One example to illustrate this:

Laïcité creates religion by making it a category apart that has to be isolated and circumscribed. It reinforces religious identities rather than allowing them to dissolve in more diversified practices and identities.

In other words, by fighting a monster the wrong way, you can actually make that monster stronger.

Olivier Roy does not necessarily provide conclusive, foolproof all-encompassing answers to the questions I asked in my introduction, but he does provide a wealth of insights that may help us understand not only what is going on, but how things have developed and how they should be seen in a wider context. To rephrase it using my monster metaphor: Who is the Frankenstein behind the monster and how tall and threatening is that monster really?

It is here that Olivier Roy excels. Instead of focusing on the monster itself, I am of course talking about the public perception in the West of Islam, he takes a hard look at the surroundings and circumstances in which it was created. In the preface to Secularism confronts Islam, which can be found online on this page of the Columbia University Press website, he states:

The redefinition of the relations between religion and politics is a new challenge for the West, and not only because of Islam. Islam is a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis. We live in a postculturalist society, and this postculturalism is the very foundation of the contemporary religious revival.

With this observation Olivier Roy takes his readers on an intellectual, yet fact-based, journey that ends with another remarkable observation:

What I have attempted to show here is that even fundamentalism has at bottom incorporated the religious space of the West (individualism, separation between politics and religion) and is striving to promote its conservative, indeed reactionary, values in a discourse and practice that mirror those of Christian and Jewish conservatives. The problem is not Islam but religion or, rather, the contemporary forms of the revival of religion.

Olivier Roy comes to this conclusion by analyzing the true meaning and origin of the French laïcité policy and by contrasting laïcité with secularism, by exploring the different attitudes different countries in the West have adopted to Islam and immigration, by comparing neofundamentalist doctrines (and finding too many similarities for comfort), by explaining the political dimension of religion, by pointing out the importance of and quest for identity, etcetera. In the end it all comes together nicely and clearly and the reader is left, not necessarily with clear-cut answers to the (re)integration of religion, and notably Islam, in Western societies, but with a clearer vision of all the different elements that are working together in (re)shaping our societies.

In short, even when Secularism confronts Islam focusses on the confrontation between Islam and secularist values, which, as Olivier Roy demonstrates, are not necessarily exclusively Western, it is most of all a work that, by its sheer depth, inspires readers to think about many other concepts. It inspires readers to even rethink some of those concepts in order to gain a better understanding of all the dynamics at play. As we all know, the first step in solving a problem is understanding that problem. Or, to pick up my silly monster metaphor again, if you are afraid of something, the best thing to do is to confront the scary monster by trying to understand it. More often than not you will find it to be much less threatening than you initially thought it would be. The monster may even confront you with yourself… Or, in this case, with the dynamics of our own societies.

So, if you feel the need to chase some monsters, imagined or real, from under your beds, go and read Olivier Roy’s Secularism confronts Islam. As he himself states this is:

…an invitation to think about Islam in the same framework as we think about other religions and about the religious phenomenon itself. This is true respect for the other and the true criticial spirit.