Is Islam a political threat? That might depend on where you live. Is there a distinction between Islam and Islamism. Some say yes. Others say no. Naive leftists who are anti-political (in the Schmittian sense) believe the universal ark of fraternity triumphs over the tribalisms of politics. The boisterous liberal right, spearheaded by anti-religious libertarians like David Harsanyi and others, routinely peddle the usual “Islam threatens the world” argument. But why is Islam such an enigma to many?
Part of my undergraduate degree in history was in Islamic history. In some regards, I feel exceptionally blessed to having studied Islamic history from ca. 630-1900. Arabic and Islamic literature is also worth a read, One Thousand and One Nights is a classic of literature period. Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan minister, is supposed to have read a Quran and was a devotee of Ibn Tufail. Islam has also had a quiet, but ever present, presence in the New World since its discovery and settlement by Europeans. Muslims were even soldiers in the American Revolutionary army.
There is little reason to go through a long history of Islam from its birth to the present, it is more appropriate to start with the present. It is true that the Arab Conquests were often brutal and Islam posed an existential threat to Christendom until it was stopped at Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732, was halted on multiple occasions by the walls of Constantinople until 1453, and was turned back by Catholic forces at Vienna in 1529, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna once again in 1689. After these events in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Islam – under the organ of the Ottoman Empire – experienced a slow decline which earned it the nickname “The Sick Man of Europe.” The Ottoman Empire may be gone, but the European Union is the sick man of Europe and the Muslims of Europe are on the ascendancy.
Islam, in its modern form, is much less attached to its origin as much as it is a product and reactive force against modernity. Unlike Christendom, or post-Christendom, the Islamic World never experienced the anti-religious militant secularism and moral relativism that is plaguing the Western World. Instead, it suffered from foreign rule (British and French, also Italian) and Ba’athist socialism. The latter of which was always friendly to Islam (and to a lesser extent Christianity). Modern Islam, or perhaps “Islamism”, is a two-sided reaction against the failures of Arab Nationalism (domestically) and the encroachment of Western materialism, secularism, and relativism (externally).
As such, we’ll skip to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War (1914-1918). In the 1930s and 1940s, a group of Arab intellectuals studied and obtained doctorates in theology, philosophy, history, and sociology at European and American universities. While there, they were exposed to the ideas of Romanticism: the ideas of language primordialism as the root of the nation, the idea of organic evolutionary historicism, and the consummation of nation, culture, and people in history.
To briefly go over, Johann Gottfried von Herder (one of the most important of the German romantics and historicists) maintained that the roots of a nation and constitutions is in primordialism – language – not religion, ethnicity, or anything else. Language is the basis of the nation and of culture. After all, Germany had a wide religious heritage at the turn of the 1800s, it had Lutheranism, Calvinism, Catholicism, and Pietism, but was slowly envisioned as coming together as one nation. What makes the French nation the French nation? Their language. So on and so forth. This represents a shared cultural heritage found in language, more than anything else.
Having now been exposed to this conceptual notion of the origin of civilization and destiny, the Pan-Arabists looked back to the Middle East and saw a people’s united in language: Arabic, but not united in nation. In fact, the Arab speaking peoples were scattered in many nations. This became an embarrassment for the Pan-Arabists. If what the romantics were saying was true, how could this great civilization united by the Arabic language have fallen on such hard times? (Of course, there’s other motives to this story, politics, anti-imperialism, sovereignism and so forth that adds another layer to the story, but we won’t cover that here.)
Returning to the Middle East, the Pan-Arabists began promoting a politicized romanticism that is remembered as Pan-Arab Nationalism. It was consciously and deliberately modeled after European Romanticism. Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, was the leading intellectual of the movement (PhD, Sorbonne). As were other prominent Syrian writers and intellectuals: Constantin Zureiq (also a Christian, PhD Princeton), Sati’ al-Husri (a classicist by training), Zaki al-Arsuzi (an Alawi, PhD Sorbnne) and Salah al-Din al-Bitar (Sunni, PhD Sorbonne). The Sorbonne connection was also strong,as all these Sorbonne students got to know each other and all studied philosophy together; when they returned home they formed their intellectual circle akin to the Viennese and Parisian café philosophical societies they had grown accustomed to being part of as graduate students.
We start to see something very common among these intellectuals, they generally belonged to religious minority groups, though not exclusively. This will become important later on for Islamism’s understanding of Pan-Arab Nationalism.
These thinkers and their ideas became the basis for the Ba’athist-Revolutionary parties that propped up in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt following the end of the Second World War. It is important to know that the word Ba’ath means “renaissance.” The Ba’athist parties incorporated Romanticist historicism into their understanding of history and married this with elements of Marxist-Leninist Vanguard progressive revolutionary ideology to achieve their goals. As Lenin said in What is to be Done? (1901), a revolutionary political vanguard had to go to the masses to spread their ideas. Hence, we see an astonishing rise of education, literacy, philology, philosophy, and cultural studies in many of these Arab nations at the same time – they are bringing their ideas to the people to make them more amenable to their political goals. The lead thinkers often incorporated the ideas of Hamann, Herder, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Spengler into their ideology. (They were extremely well-read but rejected Marx’s Dialectical Materialism).
Aflaq published the important work The Battle of One Destiny, which outlined his thoughts on Pan-Arab nationalism. Exploring a romaniticst reading of Arabism as leading to a collective destiny for the Arab peoples, he explored how historicism was leading the Arab people to a three-fold ideology of: unity, freedom, and socialism. Aflaq ended his treatise by claiming Euro-American imperialism and corporate interests in Middle East oil and Israeli Zionism were the two greatest threats to Pan-Arab unity which sought to keep the Arab world divided (rather than united), oppressed (rather than free), and commercialized export-based economies (rather than national socialist). The divided Arab world would be easy pawns to control unless they united under a single regime; hence the battle for one destiny and the trans-national Ba’athist ideology.
Al-Arsuzi’s most important work was The Genius of Arabic in its Tongue, another treatise of primordialism and the importance of language as the basis of civilization and how Arabic gave rise to the great flourishing of Arabic culture and civilization. Zureiq, equally, rejected philosophical monism, positivism, and the Whig view of history in his writings. For Arsuzi, the Arab future rested on realizing the unity of a peoples based on tongue, or language. Most of the other nations in the world (with the exception of the Anglosphere and former Spanish colonies) had national entities not premised on religion but on language. As such, the Arab people shared a culture, history, and destiny because of the Arabic language – Arsuzi also believed there was a religious dimension to this reality because the holy language of Islam was revealed in the Arabic tongue but the Arab people were not exclusively Muslim (and Arsuzi himself was an Alawi).
This movement found its prime in Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, the public face of the Pan-Arab nationalist movement. Nominally, the movement was “secular” insofar that it promoted a separation of religion and state (remember, many of the leading intellectuals of the movement were Christian or various “heretical” Islamic offshoots like Alawism, so they had much invested in freedom of religion against the Sunni majorities; some 20-25% of the populations of the prospective Arab nations were also Christian back in the day). However, all the pan-Arab intellectuals were ardent anti-atheists and opposed state atheism; this was because they were also moralists of a sort – atheism was the road to moral relativism and liberalism. Befitting their romantic and quasi-Marxist heritage, the movement was also largely “socialist” (social-democratic really) in political-economy. (Fearful of the atomistic nature of capitalism.)
The Pan-Arab aspirations of this movement met its demise in the Six Day War in 1967 which fragmented the movement. It splintered off into three sections: Iraqi Ba’athism (generally dominated by the Christian pan-Arab intellectuals like Aflaq), Syrian Ba’athism (generally dominated by the Alawi pan-Arab intellectuals like al-Arsuzi), and Egyptian corporatism (generally dominated by the Egyptian military elite). Nevertheless, the Six Day War shattered Pan-Arabist thought and ideology. With this knowledge in mind, we should also see why most religious minorities, today, strongly support (or supported) the “authoritarian” heirs of the Ba’athist Pan-Arab movement, especially in Syria and Iraq.
At the same time as Pan-Arabism was destroyed, another movement arose from the ruins to replace it: Islamism. Islamism’s most important thinkers were Sayyid Qutb, Abul A’la Maududi, and Muhammad Iqbal (all Sunnis). Islamism has antecedent roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, but the MB is not an Islamist movement (Hassan al-Banna was the movement’s founder, also a Sunni). We find, here, a link with Islamism just as we did with Pan-Arab Nationalism. Just as most of the Pan-Arab nationalists were Christians or minority traditions in Islam (like the Alawites whom the current Assad Family is in Syria), the Islamists tended to be Sunnis (and not Shi’a). (Shi’a Revolutionary Islamism has its roots more in Marxism which is another story.)
The story of the rise and fall of the Pan-Arabists is important to understanding the rise of Islamism. The Islamist writers, themselves well-read and many trained in American and European academies in the 1930s-1940s. Sayyid Qutb, for instance, studied here in America at the University of Northern Colorado, A’la Maududi studied philosophy, sociology, and history in British India. Muhammad Iqbal studied philosophy and sociology at Cambridge University in England, eventually gaining his PhD at the University of Munich.
In their studies, they too were influenced by the ideas of romanticism – but owing to their Sunni beliefs, they didn’t adopt Romanticism in the same way that the Pan-Arabists did. Instead, they read into Islamic history the ideas of Romanticism with a particular, and novel (if not modern), hermeneutic and sociology of understanding Islam and Islamic history. Contrary to the news media, the Islamist movement is extremely modern, it is a modern phenomenon that grew in the intellectual milieu of European reaction to the so-called Enlightenment.
The core of Islamist thought revolved around certain Romantic ideas about nationalism and historicism. Unlike the Pan-Arabists, whose romantic nationalism was rooted in language and shared culture, the Islamists’ nationalism was rooted in the Sunni Islamic tradition. To these thinkers, the reason why Pan-Arabism failed was because it was insufficiently Islamic. God, therefore, destined the movement to fall to allow a growth and awareness of the consciousness of Sunni Muslims as to why they had fallen on hard times (by adopting insufficiently Islamic philosophies and ideologies). Hence, they championed a “return to the Qur’an.” But their reading of the Qur’an was not part of older Islamic hermeneutical traditions, and the irony is that their reading of Islam and Islamic history was deeply influenced by European philosophy and sociology.
The greatest of these works was from Sayyid Qutb, who was jailed in Egypt and wrote his multi-volume exegesis of the Qur’an called In the Shade of the Qur’an. It’s published in multiple languages, including English for those who have the time and money and runs over 7,000 pages in 18 volumes. In the work, Qutb outlines, verse by verse, a reading of the “essence” of each Qur’anic verse and links it to Islamic history and esoterically to modern problems that beset the Muslim people. He outlines the importance of how to live, where Muslims went wrong, and how they can once again be faithful followers and gain the blessings of God.
In the work, Qutb takes aims at improper governments that are oppressive to Sunni interests. Here, he attacks the Pan-Arab nationalists and notes how they are almost all non-Sunni (some exceptions). Because, again, the Pan-Arabists were mostly Christian or heretical Muslims (like the Alawi), they must oppress the Sunnis in order to maintain their power and control. Hence Classical Islamism is born with the ideal of overthrowing the insufficiently Islamic domestic governments and replacing them with sufficiently Islamic governments.
The classical Islamists looked back to the past to find examples of how one should act in the present. Here, they returned to classical Islamic political theology. The Abbasid Caliphate was an example of a past manifestation of the blessings God handed to his people. Islamists, however, do not want to return to the past despite the usual depiction of this being the case by the media. Instead, the classical Islamists are working to create a new, modern, and modernist Caliphate. (Hence why ISIS was very good at social media work.) It amounts to what political philosophers call “reactionary modernism.” The barrier to this project remains the domestic insufficiently Islamic States. This is why Islamist movements have, historically, operated only within the countries of their origin and have sought a sort of neo-national independence (from these insufficiently Islamic and authoritarian States). The more associated figures with contemporary classical Islamist thought include Abu Musab al-Suri (another Sunni and Salafist) who wrote The Call of the Global Islamic Resistance and Abu Bakr Naji (again, Sunni and Salafist) and his book The Management of Savagery.
In men like al-Suri and Naji there are calls for the toppling of local governments and for them to be replaced by governments committed to Fiqh (legal jurisprudence), promotion of collective welfare, and establishment of an Islamic civil society. The goals are readily visible and apparent: 1) topple insufficiently Islamic domestic governments; 2) replace them with “proper” Islamic governments; 3) allow the organic consummation of Sunni Islamism to occur which is the equivalent of the “restored Caliphate.” We see then, the true romantic inheritance of the Islamists who see the evolutionary historicism having got derailed and they are emerging to fix the tracks and allow Islamic historicism to return to its proper evolution and consummation to its rightful destiny. There is no “going backward” and everyone who studied philosophical historicism knows this – it’s just the media that has never read a work of philosophy of history so misunderstands because of its ignorance the notion of rooting out the poisonous germ so to “reset” on the right path of development.
A second school of Islamism emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s which is sometimes called “Revisionist Islamism.” Unlike Classical Islamism, which attempted to overthrow the remnant Pan-Arab Ba’athist governments that supposedly oppress Sunni Islamic life and idealism, the revisionist Islamists made an even further claim. They feared that the monism, rationalism, and capitalism of Western Europe, and especially America, would perpetuate a universal globalism that would threaten Islamic culture just as much as these insufficiently and oppressive local governments. Why save the garden when the weather is poisonous?
This is where al-Qaeda emerges, the pristine revisionist Islamist organization. And ISIS and al-Qaeda hate one another because they have fundamentally different goals in mind – this is outlined in detail in Will McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (2015) in some detail, and I highly recommend the book to be brought up to speed with some basic aspects of Islamist thought even if the Islamic State has now mostly been defeated. As McCants states, “This is not Bin Laden’s jihad.”
Islam was stopped by Christians in Europe because Europe, when it was threatened, was spiritually confident and vigorous in its defense of its homeland and spiritual soil. The real crisis of the West is not political. It is spiritual. It is moral. The hedonistic relativism of mere life, what the Greeks called zoe, is no life at all.
Classical political philosophy maintained that life was best in community. The aim of politics was to instruct and inculcate virtue (what Aristotle called phronesis) which would make the city “excellent” when all persons became excellent in their vocation. To the ancients, life was about virtue, pietas, and manifesting the summum bonum in life. Self-pleasuring oneself in endless leisure and rolling around in cash was never seen as “the good life” and rightly identified by intellectual luminaries like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero to be dangerous and corrosive to the political society.
The natural law, to the pre-Christian world, was founded on pietas (piety, or duty) to the gods, to your family, and to your country. With the advent of Christianity, Christianity added love to the cornerstone of natural law and became, through the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (most especially), natural moral law where moral joy would be consummated by a loving discharge of the natural law to God, family, and community. Anyone who has read Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially The Inferno, should now understand why treachery is considered the worst sin and punished in the ninth circle of hell. In many ways, German idealist thought sought to revive this outlook but without the appeal to revelation as was the case with Christianity.
If the concept of the political rests on the bios-zoe distinction, or more radicalized and bluntly stated by Carl Schmitt as “friend-enemy,” the moral life demands closed communities. The moral life also demands rootedness. This is not an endorsement of xenophobia as ignorant and illiterate liberals immediately devolve to in their apoplectic ignorant indignation; what is asserts is that humans are rooted ethical participators but to be rooted ethical beings means one must have a home, roots in that home, and relations in that home in a manner similar to what Hegel explained in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right.
Leo Strauss, the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century, noted that “German Nihilism” was not nihilistic at all; instead, it was a deeply moral movement. It said no to the emptiness of modernity and therefore had a destructive and combative end to it. But there was a deep moral core to it as well:
German nihilism desires the destruction of modem civilisation as far as modern civilisation has a moral meaning. As everyone knows, it does not object so much to modem technical devices. That moral meaning of modem civilisation to which the German nihilists object, is expressed in formulations such as these: to relieve man’s estate; or: to safeguard the rights of man; or: the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number. What is the motive underlying the protest against modem civilisation, against the spirit of the West, and in particular of the Anglo-Saxon West?
The answer must be: it is a moral protest. That protest proceeds from the conviction that the internationalism inherent in modem civilisation, or, more precisely, that the establishment of a perfectly open society which is as it were the goal of modem civilisation, and therefore all aspirations directed toward that goal, are irreconcilable with the basic demands of moral life. That protest proceeds from the conviction that the root of all moral life is essentially and therefore eternally the closed society; from the conviction that the open society is bound to be, if not immoral, at least amoral: the meeting ground of seekers of pleasure, of gain, of irresponsible power, indeed of any kind of irresponsibility and lack of seriousness.
Moral life, it is asserted, means serious life. Seriousness, and the ceremonial of seriousness the flag and the oath to the flag, are the distinctive features of the closed society, of the society which by its very nature, is constantly confronted with, and basically oriented toward, the Ernstfall, the serious moment, M-day, war. Only life in such a tense atmosphere, only a life which is based on constant awareness of the sacrifices to which it owes its existence, and of the necessity, the duty of sacrifice of life and all worldly goods, is truly human: the sublime is unknown to the open society. The societies of the West which claim to aspire toward the open society, actually are closed societies in a state of disintegration: their moral value, their respectability, depends entirely on their still being closed societies.
The crisis of the West is that it is a society in disintegration. This disintegration is the result of a moral crisis. The rise of relativism is not the cause of this disintegration. Rather, it is the animalistic life, zoe, which is the cause of the crisis which has culminated in the rise of moral relativism. Thomas Hobbes argued that concepts like “good” and “bad” had no transcendent meaning. Instead, we simply used language to denote bodily feelings. Stimulating and pleasurable feelings were called good. Painful and harmful feelings were called bad. From Hobbes and Locke and Spinoza, up through Mill and Rawls, the liberal tradition of philosophy asserts that there is no summum bonum, no moral law, and that the highest good in life is to avoid physical pain through material prosperity.
Knowing that this is the true seed of Western secularity and liberalism, the Islamists (and Pan-Arab nationalists) who rebelled against this encroachment – like their European intellectual godfathers (the romantics) – saw that the mere life, zoe, offered by “modernism” would culminate in a disintegrative crisis of Arab and or Islamic society. This was to be avoided at all costs, as Sayyid Qut’b explained in In the Shade of the Quran. Modern Islam, Islamism, is a moral protest against the emptiness of modernity (especially as it emanates out of the cancerous seed of the “West”).
Because the modern “West” has opted for a first principle with nothing higher than the lowest common denominator in human nature: the want for material comfort, the formerly ordered Western World directed to the stars of the heavens, the country, and the family, has been obliterated in the fantastical and illusory dream of individualistic abolitionism. As C.S. Lewis noted, this project would culminate itself in the abolition of man. As Jonathan Swift satirically prophesied nearly 300 years ago, such a life would lead to the degradation of mankind. Or, perhaps most well-known, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World captures the madness and stupidity of the current trajectory of Western hedonistic and technological, and technocratic, nihilism.
Humans are intensely moral creatures. Humans want a life of meaning and moral meaning more than anything else. Humans crave the moral life. This is what Nietzsche fundamentally understood and what is at the center of his concept of self-overcoming (Selbstüberwindung). While Nietzsche’s solution is no tenable solution, Nietzsche’s deeply moral philosophy of continuous self-overcoming, which is a form of engagement in the world, puts its thumb on the present crisis of modernity. For Nietzsche’s outlook gives man something to strive for, something to ascend to, something to wake up and get out of bed for.
Because Christianity has largely sold its soul to nihilistic hedonism, resigning itself to be the merciful prostitute of the culture of death with nonsense like “death with dignity,” the moral esprit de corps of the Westerners has no where to turn in its own pastures. Its moral pasture has been utterly and totally eviscerated by the anti-political, and therefore anti-moral, ideologies of liberalism and Marxism and the liberal and crypto-Marxist clerics and pastors who dominate the face of contemporary Christianity. Liberalism and Marxism are anti-political and anti-moral because they reject the proper understanding of man; their utopianism dreams, in their own forms, of a withering away of the state, all closed relationships and boundaries, all attachments to and with others, and to arrive at that leisurely end state utopia where one can live like a beast in the field choosing to be whatever the hell he or she wants to be at any given time of the day. As Strauss commented about the romantic vision toward liberalism and socialism, “That [moral] protest proceeds from the conviction that the root of all moral life is essentially and therefore eternally the closed society; from the conviction that the open society is bound to be, if not immoral, at least amoral: the meeting ground of seekers of pleasure, of gain, of irresponsible power, indeed of any kind of irresponsibility and lack of seriousness.”
The lack of seriousness offered in the end goal lifestyle (utopian garden) of liberalism and socialism is, definitionally, the antithesis of the political which is rooted in well-defined boundaries, borders, closed societies, friends and enemies, nations, peoples, and kinsmen to whom you direct the energy of the soul to actualize phronesis and contribute to the common good. The end-state, end of history, end of politics, utopian dream of a life of perpetual leisure is one giant masturbation party until you finally come to your finite extirpation. As George C. Scott’s General Patton said in the biopic film, “War is the only place where a man lives.” How Nietzschean.
The point of the political is to gather people into a defined, and closed, community where people work with one another in rooted lives of ethical participation to actualize moral joy. All other forms of “politics” are, in fact, anti-political. Since the end of the Cold War we have not been living in the end of history, but the stasis of the end of politics. The boldness of Islam, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of rightwing populism, all portend a return to politics in its classical and most traditional form. A moral life in closed community with defined friends and enemies. Islam, as such, situates itself perfectly to counteract the crisis of modernity; it is moral, it is spiritual, it is closed. It offers everything that decrepit Western man longs for.
The decadence of the relativistic West has yet to run its course though it has exhausted itself. There is nothing left but for the lifeless corpse to be left behind by the moral soul of the World Spirit. The next revival in the West may very well be an Islamic one because Islam is a strong opponent to the stupidity of the relativism of Western man. Since Christianity continues to backslide to being the prostituted whore of relativism, giving it a false veil of humanistic dignity in the name of Christ, there are two soulful movements that offer a return to strict moral, and political, living: nationalism and Islam. Since nationalism seems to be trashed the only option left for serious men is Islam. (Plus, Islam has a sort of protected status from criticism being a “minority” religion.) And that is already happening.
In Europe, the existential threat poses no possibility of cooperation with Islam to tackle the problem of moral relativism. Europe will either return to its Christian roots or die. In death, the crescent will triumph. Only naive idiots believe atheism and secularism are the future. North America is another story. Until the September 11 attacks, Muslims used to be a strong Republican voting bloc on account of Islam’s moralism. If Muslims in America are corrupted by the acidic poison of liberalism, then there isn’t much to discuss. But Islam remains a deeply moral movement in the United States. Islam doesn’t threaten the cultural and institutional integrity of the United States. Islam’s moralism may even become its ticket to a safe return into American society when American conservatives and traditionalists – not the ilk like David Harsanyi and others – see Muslims as their friend in the struggle against relativism. After all, serious moral politics is about identifying friends and enemies. The enemy is moral relativism. Muslims are therefore natural friends to conservatives and traditionalists across North (and South) America because Muslims are not a cultural and integralist threat. Europe is a different story where relativism in the enemy, but so too is Islam if culture, history, and heritage matter to people. (And any sensible person not blinded by the anti-politics of utopianism knows that.)
Islam, from this metaphysical reality, is not a danger to the West. On the contrary, from just a purely moral perspective, it is the energy that the West needs to overcome the malaise of modernity. But this raises the question of whether in overcoming this crisis of relativism the West will still be “the West” after successfully overcoming the anti-political and moral relativist tsunami currently engulfing it. Ironically, Islam and its vigorous optimism may just well lead to the real rebirth of the political. On this account alone Islam is a welcome force in the modern world and going forward into the brave new century.
 You can read my essay exploring Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a political and theological allegory about the devolution (or fall) of man: “The Fall and Degeneration of Man in Gulliver’s Travels.”