New Book Offers Perspective in West’s Clash with Political Islam

February 27, 2015

Alas, there is no simple solution to the conflict between the West and Islamic extremists.

That is the takeaway from John M. Owen IV’s “Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past.” Owen, the Ambassador Henry J. Taylor & Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, looks at several approaches to the current relationships between the West and Muslims.

Owen outlines the history of Islam as a movement and an ideology and compares it with periods of Western history when the Christian church in Europe was a political power, but also splintering into different divisions. Then and now, both were social and political movements to correct the world.

“We are talking here about ideas about the ‘right’ way to order society,” he said. “How to lay out a vision of a good society.”

This, he said, was a central issue of the Cold War between the capitalist Western world and the Communists, an ideological battle that raged during much of Owen’s early life that helped form his belief that ideas matter.

Many countries in the Middle East are struggling with the idea of secularism versus Islamism, a struggle many thought was settled years ago.

“Among the elites, the doctors, the lawyers, the engineers and military officers, secularism was all the rage,” Owen said. “For much of the 20th century, [Middle Eastern] governments were imposing secularism on their countries because they had seen it working in the West. They were making a lot of claims that through secularism, they would be able to beat the West.”

This changed with the Six-Day War, a 1967 conflict between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. “The Arabs saw Israel as an arm of Western imperialism and after their defeat in the Six-Day War, they turned on the secularists,” Owen said. “The Islamists had been waiting in the wings, and they were starting to get a bigger following.”

He said that the Arabs want their countries to be respected and the imams have authority. While the fervent Islamists talk about restoring the caliphate, an Islamic government over large territories ruled by a religious leader, organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt, simply want to restore Islamism to their own countries, which Owen thinks appeals more to rank-and-file Muslims.

Owen notes that a variety of conflicts exist within Islam, such as the separation between the Shia and Sunni branches.

“Islamists do share the general goal of making sharia the actual positive law of their societies,” he wrote in the book. “But Islamists come in many different varieties. Some are Arab, others Persian or Pashtun or Bengali. Some are Sunni, others Shia. Some practice terrorism, others work through peaceful means. Some are nationalists, others internationalists or imperialists. Cutting across all of these groups are deep disagreements  as to who has the right version of sharia, and who gets to say so.”

Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and potentially Iraq comprise the Shia crescent, Owen said, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia are Sunni. But groups such as the Islamic State see the House of Saud, which has run Saudi Arabia for years, as corrupt.

“Islam is in a legitimacy crisis,” Owen said. “People have been killing and dying for years to find a right way to order society.”

Owen thinks the United States needs to forge temporary alliances in the Middle East, such as the current tacit agreement with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to work together against the Islamic State, which they see as a common enemy. He said that divide and conquer has been a part of U.S. foreign policy for years, citing the example of President Harry S. Truman, who courted Socialists in post-World War II France as a way keeping the French Communists out of power.

One thing that has surprised him has been how frequently Western commentators have dismissed Islamism.

“I was surprised how often even the experts said Islamism is on its last legs,” he said. “They [the experts] often see terrorism, such as the 9/11 attacks, as a sign of desperation, when in fact such attacks are taken by some Muslims as a sign of success.

“This is a long-term, powerful ideological conflict. The Muslim Brotherhood has been around for almost a century and it is not showing signs of going away.”

He said that while the Islamic State still has to prove it can actually run a territory, he cautioned that the West should not underestimate the Islamists.

One problem is that Americans feel compelled to “fix” things, but Owen noted that the problems of the Middle East cannot be easily “fixed” with a simple formula of guns and money.

“I don’t think we should withdraw, but I don’t think we can ‘fix’ it on our own,” he said. “Many devout Muslims fear they will lose their identities in a pluralistic culture.”

Owen said the average Muslim wants a quiet life, and might be attracted to a United States that models a secular state with religious diversity, but he said that the West has its own cultural fractures, and these are played out in a public way. This influences how the country appears to the rest of the world.

“What happens in America doesn’t stay in America,” he said.

He also is more convinced than ever that many states’ goals are shaped by ideology, even if they pursue those goals rationally. He cited the example of the Electoral Palatinate, a state within the Holy Roman Empire that enjoyed unmatched prestige in the 16th century. Its ruler was the second-highest-ranking secular prince in the Holy Roman Empire. Lutheranism was declared the Palatinate’s official religion in 1544 and several of the princes, all named Frederick, were devoted Calvinists. The leaders would push against the Holy Roman Empire until they met firm resistance, then stop.

“The Counts Palatine were rational ideologues, pursuing the triumph of Protestantism and elimination of Catholicism in Europe, but doing so through careful calibration of means with ends,” Owen wrote in his book.

Things went this way for years, until one of the Fredericks imprudently overreached, and the Palatinate was laid to waste.

“It shows that an ideological state may for decades conduct itself prudently, pushing at soft spots and pulling back from hard ones, and achieve some successes,” Owen wrote. “But the story also shows that under some leaders, such a state may lose its prudence and take on foolish risks, holding when it should fold and bringing catastrophe upon itself and others. It is difficult to evade the conclusion that in the end, the Palatinate’s rule became an irrational ideologue.”

In writing this book, Owen, who has taught at U.Va. since 1997, said he realized that he resists easy solutions to problems.

“I tend to see the complexity in things and while it is helpful to have clean, simple solutions, when I look at the facts and patterns, I can’t in good conscience give a simple solution,” he said.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications