Review: `The Muslim revolt: A journey through political Islam'

By Rupen Savoulian

June 25, 2011 --, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Since the September 11, 2001, twin tower attacks, there has been renewed interest in the questions of Islam, political Islamism and jihadism. Books have been published by the truckload, seminars bringing together various political scientists and experts have been held, reams of paper analysing the origins and trajectory of political Islam have been published, and the airwaves resonate with talkback from pundits about the impact of Islam and Islamism in the world. How can one make sense of all this? Where does one begin?

A great place to begin understanding this engaging topic is the slim, well-written, evocative and powerful volume by Roger Hardy called The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam. Hardy is a veteran correspondent with the BBC World Service, and has published articles in many major newspapers such as the Economist, International Affairs and the New Statesman. Hardy travelled around the Middle East and various Islamic countries to gain an insight into their culture, political grievances and responses to the West’s incursions.

Hardy’s volume avoids all the prejudicial stereotypes, the fear-mongering portrayals of bomb-throwing head-bobbing mullahs on the verge of overrunning "our" Western civilisation. Instead, he approaches his subject with humanity and understanding, seriously addressing the grievances and issues that have fuelled a Muslim revolt in our times.

Defining features

Hardy begins his study by tackling the difficult yet necessary task of defining what Islam is, its basic features, distinguishing it from the modern incarnation of political Islamism. What are the defining features? Hardy suggests that Islam is above all a religion of justice, commanding the faithful to do right and forbid wrong. How do you interpret rightful behaviour? That is where the interpretations of Islam begin to differ. While the Quran does state that "there is no compulsion in religion", many mullahs have interpreted the Quranic texts in a more authoritarian spirit, as Hardy goes on to document.

The debate between Islam and the West did not remain purely ideological for long, because the domains of Islam expanded enormously since the passing of Muhammad, its founding philosopher-leader. European Christendom had to confront an alternative civilisation rapidly becoming a superpower in its own right across the Mediterranean. Europe’s first, fiery encounter with Islam, the Crusades, left a bitter legacy and poisoned relations between the two great civilisations for hundreds of years. The First Crusade in 1095 AD in particular, set the foundation for enduring animosity. We can hear the echoes of this conflict right down to today; when George W. Bush was president, contemporary jihadists referred to him and his administration as "crusaders", intent on a clash of civilisations. Interestingly, today’s evangelical Christians interpret the Muslim world through a similar "clash of civilisations" prism, although arriving at different conclusions.

As the Islamic Arabs spread out from the Arabian peninsula with their new doctrines, transformed from warring tribes into a reasonably united confederation, Islam became a superpower. But as Hardy points out, “contrary to popular belief, the Arabs did not as a rule impose Islam at the point of a sword”. The Arabic language and religion spread, particularly between the 10th and 13th centuries, as a practical response to the pressing needs of administering an expanding empire. Having conquered the Byzantine and Persian empires, the religion of Islam was one surefire way of uniting all the disparate ethnic groups under the Arab authority.

European attacks

While Islam remained largely confined to the Middle East, European powers felt they could contain its spread. However, with European colonisation, direct encroachments in Muslim territories and countries provoked the first political Islamist response. Direct European attacks on Muslim lands – starting with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition in 1798 – compelled the Muslims of Egypt to produce a concerted response. What was that response? At first, as Hardy says, it was a mixture of puzzlement, fear and resistance. Napoleon brought with him not only soldiers and engineers, but also scientists intent on studying this new, fascinating civilisation. They analysed Egypt’s extraordinary history, documenting its wildlife, making maps and introduced electricity.

The big question of the day for Egypt’s Muslims was how to respond? After going through the reactions of fear and puzzlement, one suggested response was synthesis. Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) was an Egyptian reformer who stated that while the religion of Islam must be followed closely, Islamic teaching is not incompatible with the modernisation introduced by the Europeans, and indeed science must walk hand in hand with religion. Here we can see the beginnings of a political response to European colonisation and the germination of political Islamism. While Abduh admired European education, he strongly opposed European colonisation.

Abduh, while studying at Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent Islamic university, advocated reforming Islam and modernising Egypt. One can observe the combination of religious piety and nationalist political sympathies in Abduh, which are the defining characteristics of political Islamism. While he desired Egypt to remain true to the Muslim precepts, he proposed that Muslims must revive and expand the practice of ijtihad, independent reasoning. Abduh had a great influence on subsequent reformers, but did not make much headway in making an organised effort to confront European colonisation. Other nationalist parties took the lead in confronting French and British colonialism in Egypt.

The first organised political Islamist group was the Muslim Brotherhood. This organisation, founded by Hassan al-Banna (1906-49) in 1928, was the first overtly Islamist group. Banna viewed Islam not just as a religion and a way of life, but also a political and social philosophy. Out of the Muslim Brotherhood grew various other Islamist groups, and Muslim thinkers from other countries travelled to Egypt to study the example and doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood. While advocating Islamic rule in Egypt, it opposed the secular nationalism of the political left and the regime of Gamel Abdel Nasser. The Muslim Brotherhood has been used by the Egyptian authorities at various times as a weapon against the organised left, but the brotherhood has always maintained its ideological and organisational independence. Banna succeeded in creating a modern, coherent social movement in competition for influence with the socialist and nationalist parties.

Saudi Arabia

Hardy dedicates different chapters of the book to various Islamic countries that he has travelled through; chapter five is called "The Pious Ancestors" and examines the history and politics of Saudi Arabia.

Hardy analyses the doctrine of Wahhabism, the official state ideology of that state and its role in incubating and exporting jihadist extremism. Saudi Arabia, being the cradle of Islam and the site of its most revered places, is based upon an alliance of convenience between the House of Saud, the ruling royal family, and the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab. Wahhabism has gained a deserved reputation for intolerance and authoritarianism, and one of its most important thinkers, Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), intended to purge Islam of what he believed were heretical ideas.

What is interesting is that since the foundation of the modern Saudi state in 1932, the principal ally and benefactor of Saudi Arabia has been the United States. The main reason for this alliance of convenience is to be found in the mutually beneficial commercial exploitation of the massive oil reserves beneath Saudi Arabia’s feet.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many people wondered about the role of the Saudi state, its personnel and ideology, in creating a sinister climate where radical jihadism could flourish. After all, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, so naturally interested observers began to ask how such a jihadist mindset could have taken hold, and what role if any Saudi Arabia played in propagating a fanatical worldview. After much investigation, the 9/11 Commission appointed by the US government issued a balanced verdict – while finding no direct evidence of Saudi state involvement, the extreme religious viewpoints expounded in Saudi Arabia contributed to a fertile ground for the recruitment of jihadist extremists. As Hardy states “Even if they (the Saudis) were not directly responsible for the rise of Al-Qaeda, they cultivated the soil from which it sprang.”

Back in 1979, a young Saudi prince by the name of Osama bin Laden was studying at Jeddah university. Saudi Arabia offered its services to help organise an anti-communist jihad in Afghanistan, in response to a socialist revolution in that country. The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan galvanised the Islamic countries in the Middle East to increase their organised assistance to the anti-communist Afghan mujahideen, assistance which had begun six months prior to the Soviet invasion.


In chapter three, "Culture of Jihad", Hardy examines the role of Pakistan and the United States in creating the largest anti-communist, religious insurgency of the 20th century. Pakistan, created specifically as a homeland for Indian Muslims, has always had a troubled relationship between its religion and politics. While Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a secular liberal viewing Islam as part of the cultural heritage of the new nation, the subsequent military rulers of Pakistan embarked on a strong program of Islamisation.

General Zia ul-Haq, whose 11 years in power saw the application of Islamisation to all aspects of Pakistani life, also made Pakistan (along with Saudi Arabia) a frontline state in the jihad against "atheistic communism" in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was just one of thousands of participants in the anti-communist Afghan jihad. While the role of Pakistan in nurturing and exporting jihadist fanaticism is well known, Hardy examines the internal impact of Zia’s Islamisation program. Zia introduced punishment by amputation for theft, and public flogging for adultery. Instilling Islamic values into the education system, he enmeshed the educational institutions with the religious schools, the madrassahs.

Zia was drawing his inspiration from the one of the foremost Islamist ideologists of the 20th century, Abul-Ala Maududi (1903-79). Maududi was born prior to the partition of the Indian subcontinent, and envisioned an independent India under an Islamic system. He created an alternative political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, (the Islamic Party) to promote a political system based on Sharia law, opposed to what he saw as the false idols of nationalism, secularism and socialism. The Jammat-e-Islami is one of the strongest political parties in Pakistan until today.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 had far-reaching consequences for that country, the region and the world. Afghanistan was left to the tender mercies of the mujahideen groups, who proceeded to turn on each other in a vicious civil war from 1992 in which Kabul itself was decimated. The city had been untouched during all the years of Soviet occupation. They imposed their version of Sharia law in Afghanistan, which among other things, forced women out of the workforce and compelled them to veil themselves. The protagonists in the Afghan mujahideen sought to Islamise Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then export their doctrine to the rest of the world. While Hardy explores the background of this jihad, he is careful to avoid the simplistic stereotypes that have become the popular image of Islam and Muslims in the mainstream, corporate-controlled media.


Saudi Arabia is not the only Islamic country to have aligned itself strongly to the Western orbit. Turkey has been a longstanding ally of the United States, one of the oldest countries of the NATO alliance, and is (in theory at least) a secular republic. Its constitution expressly forbids any interlinking between the state and Islam. Turkey has no official state religion, and wearing the burqa is banned. No political party is allowed to represent any form of religious belief. However, Islamist parties have formed and gained representation in the Turkish parliament. Hardy examines the trajectory of the Turkish example, beginning with the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the Westernisation program implemented by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He reformed the country’s judicial system, abolished the caliphate and revised the alphabet to take on Western characters. However, the most important and ongoing battle in Turkey between the Muslims and secularists is in the classroom.

Hardy relates an interview, among many in his book, which demonstrates the underlying cultural tensions between secularism and Muslim identity. Hardy describes his visit to a state-run school, which is well furnished, adorned by a bust of Kemal Ataturk, and the slogan "Science is the true guide in life". Hardy asked the biology teacher how she deals with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, who peremptorily responds that it is in the state-approved curriculum, and so she teaches it. Many in the Muslim world (like many Christians) refuse to accept the theory of evolution, and there is strong cultural resistance to it. Hardy then visits another school, known as an imam-hatip school. This type of school was originally intended to produce imams and hatips, religious preachers. Upon asking the head teacher in the second school how it differs from the original state school, Hardy obtains the response that the curriculum is exactly the same, except they add religious instruction,

Hardy persists with his questioning, and asks how they handle the theory of evolution in the school. The head teacher says he disagrees with evolution, but teaches it anyway according to the curriculum. The students in the school then learn about Islamic philosophy, and how God created the world according to religious precepts. This underlying kulturkampf – culture-struggle is the word Hardy uses – is occurring throughout the Muslims world, and has familiar undertones in the West. We are undergoing our own kulturkampf, with the creationist/intelligent design lobby to push for strict biblical inerrancy to be taught in schools. The struggle is far from over. The creation-evolution controversy is hardly confined to the Muslim countries, and is being played out in Turkey paralleling the similar debates in Christian-influenced Europe, Australia and the United States.

'Cartoon affair'

While there are many interesting chapters in the book, the most engaging and riveting for me was chapter eight entitled "The Bomb in the Turban". This chapter examines the polarising and often acrimonious debate around the so-called "cartoon affair". This refers to the 2005-06 publication by a conservative, rightwing Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, to publish a number of cartoons lampooning Islam and the prophet Muhammad in particular. The publication of the satirical cartoons provoked a backlash among Europe’s Muslims, many protests and demonstrations resulting in violence. Hardy re-examines the cartoon affair, which was in many ways a re-run of the 1989 controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Both involved cultural materials deemed blasphemous to Muslims, both involved issues of free speech. Should a cartoonist or author be free to publish materials that are openly mocking of any religion? Are the members of the offended religious group entitled to respond to the way they see fit, including sanctioning those who republish and re-broadcast such materials?

Hardy goes into some depth regarding these issues. Muslims have been living in, and emigrating to, Europe since the 1950s and 1960s. Many commentators saw the cartoon affair and the resultant Muslim response as evidence that Islam is inherently incompatible with Western values, and that Muslims in Europe form a kind of Trojan horse for the infiltration of Muslim ideas and eventual implementation of Sharia law in the countries in which they live. Hardy does not go into such "sharia hysteria", but offers a more nuanced view. The Rushdie affair not only highlighted Muslims' presence in Britain and Europe, but also ignited the idea that Muslims were a potential recruiting ground for radical jihadist groups.

Any author or publisher has the right to freedom of speech, and I think that religion is a legitimate target of satire. With the cartoon affair, I think that the newspaper editors of Jyllands-Posten deliberately orchestrated a campaign to further whip up xenophobia. The cultural editor of the newspaper, admitted seeking to deliberately provoke Muslim sensibilities, thus poisoning relations between the Islamic and non-Muslim communities. When the initial publication of the cartoons in September 2005 failed to produce the anticipated response, the editors of the newspaper continued their inflammatory campaign, inciting the more fundamentalist sheikhs and groups in Denmark to protest.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister until 2009 and head of the conservative Liberal Party, is also responsible for failing to resolve the issue, and instead escalating tensions. As head of a rightwing coalition government with the anti-immigrant populist Danish People’s Party, he needed the votes of openly racist and anti-immigrant voters to stay in power. Rasmussen turned down appeals by the ambassadors of Arab countries to discuss and resolve the issue. Even after Danish politicians urged him to reconsider, he still refused. His failure to reduce tensions, even after explicit overtures made to his government, is a monumental failure on his part. Under Fogh Rasmussen’s leadership, Danish politics has stampeded to the right, with Danish troops participating in the US war on Iraq, and further restrictions placed on the country’s immigration.

As a result of issues like the cartoon affair, the anti-Rushdie demonstrations and the terrible terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, relations between Europe’s Muslim and non-Muslim populations are dominated by fearful, prejudicial stereotypes, media headlines of "honour killings", headscarves and seeming irreconcilability of Islamic values with the broader European societies. Hardy’s book goes a long way to critically examining the political and social grievances that alienate many of today’s Muslims – unemployment, discrimination and xenophobic attacks by anti-immigrant populist European parties. And the editors of Jyllands-Posten got what they wanted; mobs of angry Muslims, goaded by fundamentalist mullahs, attacking Danish embassies in Europe holding signs with slogans such as ‘behead those who insult Islam’.

Hardy ends the chapter on an optimistic note; integration is a daily reality he says; perhaps uneven and incomplete, but a reality nevertheless. Hardy invokes his readers not to succumb to the "politics of fear", and recognise that the vast majority of Muslims successfully integrate into their respective host countries.

I think it is imperative to address the same "bread-and-butter" grievances of Muslim populations, issues that concern all people of the working class: unemployment, working conditions, education, health care and so on. I think uniting with immigrants and Muslims on the basis of our common working-class issues will go a long way towards breaking the bigotry and stereotypes that so often distort our thinking. In the defence of democratic rights, including the right to worship freely, the Muslim communities will realise that a common humanity unites all of us who wish to live in a more just, equitable, humanitarian and socialist society.

There is so much more in Hardy’s rich and absorbing volume: the Sunni-Shia schism, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Muslims archipelago of Malaysia and Indonesia. Including all these subjects here would only make this review unwieldy and cumbersome. Suffice it to say that Hardy’s main message from the book is that while Muslims around the world feel aggrieved, there is no one universal Muslim uprising from Palestine, to Iraq, to Kashmir, to Afghanistan, to Europe. The base of each case are local grievances, unresolved political and economic issues, and social exclusion. While the uncritical support of the United States for the Zionist state of Israel and its denial of Palestinian human rights is a "hot-button" issue, each national case has its own peculiarities and solutions.

Hardy quotes Douglas Hurd, the former British foreign secretary, stating that “we feed terrorism … by killing a lot of people, whether in Gaza or in Fallujah or in Chechnya”. Foreign occupation and killings perpetuates and inflames a sense of injustice, thus providing oxygen for fundamentalist mullahs and their jihadist platform to breathe and gain recruits.

Hardy’s book is an indispensable volume for anyone wishing to understand the fraught relations with the Islamic world, and move beyond the simplistic bigotry and prejudice of so much hysterical media commentary.