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February 2015

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Confronting Political Islam
Review by Amb. (ret.) Anthony Quainton

Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past by John M. Owen IV, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 2014, ISBN: 978-0691163147, e-book ISBN: 978-1400852154, 232 pp., Hardcover $29.95, e-book available on Kindle and Apple iBook.


There is no topic more likely to attract public attention than the challenge presented for world stability and international order by radical, jihadist political Islam. Professor John Owen in this provocative and scholarly work has sought to deal with this problem by embedding it in an historical context. He focusses his analysis on three historical periods 1) the experiences of Europe after the Reformation and through the end of the 30 Years War, 2) the post Napoleonic transformation of European politics from absolute monarchies to liberal political systems and 3) the struggle between communism, fascism and democracy in the mid-20th Century. Each of these periods was characterized by intense ideological debate, among Calvinists, Lutherans and Catholics in the first instance, between absolute and constitutional monarchists and the forces of revolution in the second and in the third the seventy years conflict between communism, fascism and the forces of liberal democracy. From these three case studies, explored in each of his separate chapters, he draws six lessons. 1) Islamism is not a short or transitory phenomenon, 2) Ideologies are (usually) not monolithic, 3) Foreign interventions are normal, 4) States may be both rational and ideological at the same time, 5) no one ideology will necessarily triumph, and 6) Iran and Turkey are the models of Islamism which deserve our closest attention.

While the author struggles mightily to draw parallels with the major periods of political and ideological conflict over the last half millennium, drawing on a wealth of historical detail, the analysis in many cases seems strained. The distinctions between Sunni and Shia Islam are far less radical than between Catholics and Calvinists. Understanding the Islamic vision of a the good society and natural political order, while varying within Islam, is not of the same order of magnitude as those issues that divided Europeans and the Western World throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. As professor Owens repeatedly makes clear Islamists of virtually every persuasion have a common goal: the ordering of society according to the precepts of Sharia law. All followers of Islam favor Sharia to some degree. To be sure, some would have it imposed in all its brutal entirety, as both the Saudis and the Iranians seems to believe. Others would limit it to family and commercial law.

Professor Owens repeatedly notes that the current challenge in confronting political Islam is in devising a credible secular alternative to it. Unfortunately modern western secularism with its insistence on social, economic and gender equality and personal freedoms challenges many of Islam’s deepest values particularly with respect to the value of community and the definition of roles for both women and men in the context of social action and family authority. It is extremely difficult to confront Islam, however one understands its ideological content, in the name of a secular worldview based on individual freedom. Islam claims for itself divine authority and a set of principles, which cannot be modified in the name of secular freedoms. As Dr. Owen makes clear this was, indeed, the vision of much of the Christian world at least until the Middle of the Nineteenth Century. Ironically the West has retained one element of what has otherwise been discredited in Marxist theory, i.e. the idea that there is an ineluctable progress in human history. Although the dialectic is no longer the basis of our analysis, we in the West are deeply imbued with the conviction of a necessary evolution in human rights. We believe in progress and its inevitable if erratic course. In the case of political Islam believers are asked to accept that the tenets of the Quran provide all the necessary elements for the creation of a just society, no evolution is required. In this regard the conservative Muslim view is not so different from the position held in medieval Christian with ifs understanding of the inerrancy of biblical authority.

How are we to deal with this challenge? Professor Owens offers an answer: be flexible, be patient and be true to ourselves.  Here he provides altogether reasonable advice. He argues that the key to understanding political Islam is to recognize its diversity and deal with it according to that diversity. He calls for a containment strategy reminiscent of Georg Kennan’s strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union after World War II. That strategy also called for patience, not expecting rapid transformation but waiting for the internal contradictions of the Communist worldview to emerge. It is, of course, an open question whether there are comparable internal inconsistencies in the radical Islamic position, although one can clearly argue that its goals conflict with the modernizing force of market oriented capitalism, which has advanced the prosperity of millions of global citizens, including, many in the Muslim world itself. How that force will impact the evolution of Muslim thinking is far from clear.

At the heart of Professor Owens’ argument is the exhortation to western societies to be true to their highest values of freedom and equality. The demonstrative effect of secular societies, which produce greater openness, greater prosperity, greater freedom, and greater wellbeing, will eventually undermine the most stringent and unforgiving aspects of political Islam. The risk is that the hedonistic and materialistic excesses of the modern world will in fact only engender greater resistance among Muslim advocates for a purer, more disciplined society. He does not expect a conversion of Islamists to western values in their totality, but he argues that a convergence over time is possible. While the victory of one side over the other is theoretically possible, he remains skeptical. He favors Kennan’s approach of a firm, consistent, and uncompromising containment, which might over time, lead to a better and more peaceful relationship between political Islam and liberal democracy. It remains to be seen if the patient strategy can withstand the political pressures for more violent responses on both side of this great debate. The growing polarization between radical jihadist Islam and the West certainly raises question about whether such a gradualist approach can succeed. One can only hope that it will.bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


Ambassador Anthony Quainton is currently Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University.

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