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Review: Globalised Islam

Commentary, 13 December 2004
Olivier Roy, one of the world’s great experts on Islamism and the Middle East, brings fascinating news from the front in the battle of civilisations.

Globalised Islam: the Search for a New Ummah

Olivier Roy, (London: Hurst, 2004) ISBN: 1-85065-593-6

Olivier Roy, one of the world’s great experts on Islamism and the Middle East, brings fascinating news from the front in the battle of civilisations. In his latest book translated into English, Globalised Islam, he tells us the West has won. Western globalisation has conquered the Middle East – not just in the fizzy drinks market of Saudi Arabian bazaars, not merely in the Arab world’s ambivalent but nevertheless widespread desire to emigrate to Europe or the US – but in the very core of Middle East tradition and culture. Roy tells us that Islam itself has globalised and consequently Westernised. We all share the same world.

The twentieth century saw a rise – well-documented by Roy himself in a variety of texts – in the importance and influence of a phenomenon widely described as ‘Islamism’, or actively political Islamic movements. If Ayatollah Khomeini’s take-over in Iran in 1979 sent shock-waves the world-over and goaded an Islamist resurgence in the Sunni world thereafter, Roy identifies another side-effect – more subtle, but just as important. As Islam pitched headlong into the active political world, so it detached itself from its role as guardian of culture, tradition, social mores and values in the Muslim world. Islam became a place of competition. Different forms of Islam were heralded as the only ‘true’ Islam, and the hairline fracture between Islam and what anthropologists call the ‘pristine cultures’ of the Middle East, turned into a crack. Islam, in Roy’s words, “de-territorialised” – it moved into a virtual, ideologised realm, only helped by the presence of 1/3 of the Muslim world living outside traditional Muslim lands. And in the process, its shape mutated to become far more like the shape of Western Christianity today – a “shift from religion to religiosity”, where “the individualisation of religiosity” emerges out of the “crisis of the social authority of religion”. And Roy attributes these changes to all the currents in contemporary Islamic thought today – from neofundamentalism to spiritual and liberal Islam.

If the form of Islam has mutated to echo more closely Western forms of religion, the content has followed. Roy gives countless examples, but one serves the point. Muslim conservatives have taken their cue from Christian conservatives. Roy sees the sudden legal prosecution of homosexuals in Egypt in 2000 as a paradoxical “sign of the Westernisation of Muslim religious conservatism.” The Egyptian ulama had forever turned a blind eye to it, but when “the issue became one of ‘cultural authenticity’ against the West (and Israel)”, policy turned volte-face. Muslim conservatives railing against the evils of Western mores borrow the language of Western conservatives doing the same, and in the process reformulate their religion along Jerry Falwell lines.

What is true of social and intellectual movements in contemporary Islam holds true for its more violent extremes. Roy writes: “Fundamentalism is both a product and an agent of globalisation, because it acknowledges without nostalgia the loss of pristine cultures, and sees as positive the opportunity to build a universal religious identity, delinked from any specific culture, including the Western one perceived as corrupt and decadent…”
What this tells us in the defence arena is complex, but it boils down to the following, according to Roy. Because today’s anti-Western fundamentalism is so split from actual, territorial societies, because it functions only in the virtual sphere, “al-Qaeda is not a strategic threat but a security problem” – or put differently – “the war on terror is a metaphor not a real policy.” I would tend to agree, and add – along with Roy – that the war we are currently facing (and we are a world at war) is one that will be fought far more efficiently at GCHQ and in Langley than it will in Falluja, Hebron or Bushehr.

By Turi Munthe

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