Islamic Terrorism:

From Retrenchment to Ressentiment and Beyond***

Lauren Langman and Douglas Morris
Loyola University of Chicago



Using a Weberian perspective informed by Critical Theory, this paper investigates the interaction of economic, cultural and political causes and potential outcomes of Islamic terrorism. Islam’s decline vis-à-vis Christendom was constrained through three major internal moments: 1) limits to modernity, 2) religious conservativism, and 3) ressentiment of the West. Islamic societies responded proactively to the rise of the West through two strategies: 1) Westernization and 2) Islamic modernism, which have both been strongly resisted. In the 20th century, due to the internal suppression of secular political movements among other factors, puritanical fundamentalisms such as Wahhabism arose. Fundamentalisms in various religions explain reality by blaming social problems on the departure from religious morality and promise redemption via a return to an idealized community. In face of decline, colonization, and economic stagnation, ressentiment of the West became widespread in Islam. Fundamentalisms interacting with ressentiment may turn militant, as in the case of Al Qaeda. A war on terrorism is not likely to end terrorism. To solve the problem of terrorism requires addressing its roots: internal constraints, dictatorships sponsored by the West and the underdevelopment that results form neo-liberal globalization. We suggest terrorism will wane in the face of the evolution of modern Islamic public spheres that might challenge religious conservatism. In wake of 9/11, both moderate and radical religious movements are likely to remain a basis for mobilizing alternative identities to globalization.


At the end of the 15th Century, Islamic societies stood at an economic, political and cultural apex. They were affluent and philosophically, scientifically, technologically, and administratively advanced. Mighty armies and trade networks had spread the hegemony of Islamic culture from the Atlantic coast through the southern Mediterranean and North Africa to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and parts of China. Challenges were repelled. The Crusades affected a small part of the Islamic world. After the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols (who were converted to Islam within one hundred years), politically and economically, Islam more than recovered. However, religious conservatism had become a major influence in Islamic culture and Europe had just begun its Renaissance, based in large part on the intellectual heritage of Islam.

Christian Europe of the 15th Century was poor, ignorant, politically fragmented, and save the Italian city-states, less developed than Islamic society. Yet, between 1492, when Spanish imperialism moved to the New World, and 1588, when the Spanish Armada was defeated, the expanding commerce of Europe began a move from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic that would unleash the forces of capitalism. The decline of the Ottoman Empire would mark the end of Islamic hegemony. While capitalist, industrial Europe, joined with American capital become world hegemonic, the Islamic world became a number of peripheral and semi-peripheral areas. Today, with the events of 9/11, the development of conflicts between Western and Islamic societies between has been brought to the forefront of concern.

There is no singular explanation for decline of Islamic hegemony, the failure of modernization efforts, and eventually the rise of (fundamentalist) Islamisms and terrorist movements. A complex interaction of economic, political and cultural factors needs to be studied. To frame this discussion, we draw on Weberian studies, the critical, dialectical traditions of the Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic insights. We employ a comparative historical analysis of ideal typical articulations of Christianity and Islam as world religions oriented to salvation. There are, of course, vast differences within groups due to local traditions, classes, interactions with other cultures, history, etc. Yet, we will argue that contemporary terrorism needs to be understood in relation to certain broad social factors that have informed the decline of Islam since the 16th Century. One key factor is that just as the Reformation played a major role in the transformation of Christendom into modern Western Europe, the failure of Islam to have a Reformation would impose certain barriers to the embrace of rational modernity. Key political economic factors include Western domination and rise of dictatorial governments in Islamic states. Eventually, Islamic societies responded proactively to the rise of the West through two strategies that have yet to be fully realized in Islamic states: 1) Westernization and 2) Islamic Modernism. (See Part II below.) The economic decline, military defeat and colonization of Islam vis-à-vis Christendom/the Modern West served to constrain the modern cultural and political development of Islam through three major internal moments:

1) Limits to modernity. The nature of Islamic theology, ethics, culture and law limited the impact of foreign ideas and/or presented indigenous barriers to the emergence of the economic, political and cultural rationality, especially after the 16th century. (See Part I below.)

2) Religious conservativism. In face of various political or economic challenges, from the sacking of Baghdad in the 13th Century on up to the secular modernity of contemporary globalization that might change power and/or gender arrangements, there was a retreat to conservative forms of Islam like Wahhabism or other worldly Sufism that served to maintain tradition and resist social change. Wahhabism, a severely Puritanical form of Islam, emerged as the Ottoman fell in decline. It was embraced by the House of Saud to legitimate themselves as the guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Media (and was used, in part, to maintain a Saudi imperial claim on oil wealth in 20th century). More recently, in face of modernity, we have seen the growth of Islamisms (see Part II) and in some cases, dramatic religious terrorism (see Part III).

3) Ressentiment of the West. Just as Nietzsche suggested that the marginalized Christian artisans of Rome saw themselves as morally superior to the rich, powerful and debauched, Romans, so too, do many Muslim voices see the secular West as morally degenerate compared to the “superior” morality and ethical practices of Islam that promise a return to a righteous society and glorious rewards in heaven. (See Parts III and IV.)

Based on historical and current scholarship, this paper discusses some of the general causes of Islamic terrorism and possible outcomes. Fundamentalist traditions sometimes turn militant. To understand the rise of Islamic terrorism, the questions we now address are threefold: 1) how do conservative religious political/moral goals become translated into acts of terror; 2) how are these acts justified, especially when they result in large numbers of deaths to non-combatants-often the elderly, women and children; and 3) what are the possibilities for elimination of the causes of religious terrorism and moving beyond terrorism?

Part I
The Rise and Fall of Islam

The Origins of Islam

In the 7th Century, the conflicts between Persia and Byzantium fostered a southerly movement of trade routes through the deserts of Arabia that were largely populated by warring nomadic tribes ever involved in vendetta and counter-vendetta. Particularistic tribal religions stood as barriers to the expansion of the urban, merchant classes and threatened the security of caravans. These conditions would dispose the emergence of a unifying religion that would extend across many lands, uniting the populations, and securing the general conditions for aggressive commerce and trade. The trading classes were aware of Judeo-Christian monotheism yet felt scorned and in turn excluded from its teachings, yet they were wanting of a monotheistic religion (Armstrong 2001). Muhammad, an illiterate merchant articulated a divine message, attributed to archangel Gabriel. As an emissary of Allah, he would become a charismatic, prophet. The Quran, the word of Allah, God, became the foundation of a new faith that provided a monotheistic salvation religion rooted in both Jewish and Christian traditions of prophesy, incorporating their ethics and many of their customs. Muhammad, as a prophet and skilled arbiter, found a ready audience among the growing classes of merchants, whose status disposed an “elective affinity” for a salvation religion that would establish an “imagined community” of people united by faith that provided members with valorized, sacralized identities and a God ordained ethical regulation of everyday conduct conducive to commerce. As Weber noted in the case of Protestantism, ethical standards between members of the religious “brotherhood” of a “world” religion, even if strangers, were an important basis for the conduct of business in large markets.

Salvation religions tend to be expansionist, seeking both to control how people behave in this world and to ensure entry into the next. In its formative period, Islam was typically spread by conquest or jihad, holy war. It is important to note that jihad, with variable meanings, would remain an essential element of Islam along with its five pillars of faith. The central meaning of greater jihad was the inner struggle to live a spiritual life according to Quran and Hadith (holy teachings). Military conflict was considered a lesser jihad. In political economic terms, the lesser jihad empowered the expansion and defense of the largest empire of its time. Soldiers justified imperial conquests as a religious duty. For Islam, soldiers who died in jihad, martyrs would gain automatic entrance to paradise. For Islam, political control was more important than the conversion of the conquered. Indeed, compared to other religions, Islam was highly tolerant of Judaism and Christianity that the Prophet saw as preceding his work. In Islamic societies, the monotheistic religions were sometimes celebrated in same shrines. However, there was an active destruction of polytheistic folk religion and ways. There was a dialectic of Islamic imperialism in which violence was used to eliminate tribal parochialism and create and enforce religious universalism. The tolerance of the major monotheisms facilitated cultural exchange and political stability. Another factor in the expansion of Islamic political control is that converts were from powerful families (Schluchter 1999, p.79).

At the time of its origin in Mecca, the eschatological religion of Muhammad developed in pietistic urban conventicles that were likely to withdraw from the world: subsequently in Medina and in the evolution of early Islamic communities, the religion was transformed into a widespread Arabic, status oriented, warrior religion (Schluchter 1999, p. 79).

“Muhammad was both an ethical prophet and a charismatic politico-military leader. He overcame tribal particularism by surpassing its polytheism and ritualism with monotheism and a legal ethic, and by transforming feuding tribes into a national-Arabic movement of conquest... Mohamed was...not a marginalized prophet of doom, and certainly not a wandering charismatic preacher; instead, he was a religio-political leader who knew how to realize his intentions step by step, especially through the skillful use of time honored tribal practices of the creation and resolution of conflict...With the successful reception in Medina, the transformation of Islam from an eschatological religiosity into a political religion into a religion of national-Arabic warriors was inaugurated.” (Schluchter 1999, p. 85)

Early Islam as a religion of knightly warriors had little room for sin, humility, or vocational asceticism. But Muhammad was also a merchant and encouraged the expansion of trade. “Under Muhammad, Arabian society made a respectable leap forward in social complexity and political capacity” (Bellah 1970) Islamic mercantilism grew, prospered and eventually supported centers of learning devoted to art, science, medicine etc.

Weber emphasized that there was generally a relaxed relationship in Islam between faith and reason (Schluchter 1999). While Islamic societies were tolerant of secular reason, more so that Christendom (initially), the Quran and Islamic law, sharia, defined morality in a traditional way that constrained political and economic behavior. That is, Islam gave license to philosophy, generally a pursuit of elites, and technical innovation, but not to moral life. In ethical terms, Islam, in most of its expressions, is a highly codified religion that is meant to oversee many aspects of everyday life, and whether and to what extent this was practiced is highly variable. Lawyers and administrators regulated traditional Islamic society, not a clergy. Jurism in Islam was not centrally litigated or legislated. It was engaged through interpretation and local decision. It was highly important that for Islamic societies, social rationality was closely tied to the foundations of specific religious categories, beliefs, and exercises in relation to everyday life, commerce, and governance. More specifically, the legal codes of the Hanafi School, based in large part on what had been local traditions, would facilitate the rapid growth of Islamic commerce, but would eventually acquire a fixity that would act to prevent later generations from making revisions as conditions changed (Kuran 2001).

Islam Triumphant

Within 500 years, Islam had spread across vast tracts of North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucuses, India and parts of Asia from China to what is now Indonesia and Malaysia. As Islam initially spread, institutionalizing faith and laws, it established the conditions in which a new kind of society of merchants emerged. Economic trade was sponsored by religion in a number of ways. Supported by the flows of large populations making the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), an extensive trade network helped sustain an Islamic world across many cultural boundaries. Arabic became the lingua franca for the realm. A banking network (with checking system/exchange) eventually formed. Islam was spread outside of the Arab world by trade by merchants, not by wars of conquest. The fairly universal (but flexible) Islamic law, sharia, also enabled the expansion of trade throughout the region. However, Islamic societies continued the tradition of religious justification, if not mandate, for political/territorial expansion, as in the case of the imperialist armies of Ottoman Turks (Levtzion 1999). It should be noted that as Islam grew, Christian soldiers tried to wrest the Holy land from the infidels. While they established some Crusader cities, Saladin ultimately cast them out the Holy Land. Ever since, there has been a degree of suspicion toward Christians. Notwithstanding, Islam became a far more tolerant religion than either Judaism or Christianity.

Culturally, in contrast to the European Enlightenment, for Islam, there were no contradictions between the life of faith and the intellect, reason, and science. Given Muhammad’s injunction to study knowledge from many cultures, including practical knowledge, Islamic societies regarded worldly and sacred knowledge as complementary; worldly knowledge was useful and desirable. There was a drive in early Islamic societies to amass knowledge, starting with that of other civilizations (including Byzantine, Rome, Greece, Egypt, India, China and the ancient middle East). The theology and philosophy of Islam was strongly influenced by Neoplatonism and eventually Aristotelian metaphysics. Once amassed, knowledge, technology, science, philosophy, ethics, etc., was critiqued and elaborated. Eventually new forms of knowledge were created, including social theory, which advances were unfortunately usually available only to small circles of elites. The Golden age Islamic scholars of Baghdad, Cordoba, Arabic Egypt, etc., were renaissance thinkers, working simultaneously in the fields of medicine, science, philosophy, and theology. Islamic scientists developed the scientific experimental method and refined Indian mathematics and Chinese material arts and developed innovations in many of sciences: astronomy, medicine, physics, etc. Moslem performed cataract surgery almost 1,000 years ago.

As the Golden age of Islam was nearing its end, the Medieval Catholicism sustained by dynastic rule, held relatively closed, narrow cosmological worldviews and showed religious intolerance-its “holy wars” were the pontifically blessed Crusades From about the time that Islam emerged, till the Renaissance, the Church maintained the hegemony of the landed classes. Its promises of salvation appealed to knightly warrior elites while its magical practices and dramatic rituals and practices appealed to the uneducated, agrarian feudal peasants. With the growth of trade, ironically an unintended consequence of Crusades, there came a growing merchant class of cosmopolitan traders centered in Italy yet found throughout the Mediterranean-the Venetian mini-empire covered a wide area. This newly affluent class would attempt to articulate a distinct identity, valorizing difference from either the feudal aristocrats or peasantry. Their artists and intellectuals “discovered” their heritage in the Greco-Roman era. (Muslim scholars had preserved much of the legacy of Greco-Roman philosophy, arts and science.) This “rebirth” or Renaissance fostered new expressions in art, perspectivism, literature, vernacular, science, astronomy, and philosophy, eg the emergence of feudalism. Humanism, the philosophical expression of the Renaissance, was a reaction to clerical orthodoxy and its heliocentric cosmology. The intolerance of Christianity may have forestalled a more gradual transition to rational society, a more gradual secularization of ethics and/or more tolerance of other religions.

The Renaissance opened a cultural space for new ideas, and this would eventually extend to theological critiques. This began when Humanism influenced theologians such as Erasmus. With the growth and spread of the merchant classes, as well as a rising free peasantry, there emerged potential bearers of a critical theology- as was indeed evident with the teachings of Jan Huss whose “heresies” led to the stake. But in face of potential theological challenges, the Church became more rigid and dogmatic. But the growing merchant and free peasant classes would then be structurally disposed to alternatives to Roman Catholicism. The reaction of the Church to challenges was greater, intolerance and orthodoxy. Eventually, Christian exclusivity from Holy Roman imperialism and exclusive religious claims and intolerance, including the extremes of the Inquisition such as the rejection of Galileo and Copernicus, led to the Reformation as a critique of its corruption and relative backwardness, rigidity, and theological conservatism of the Catholic Church. Whereas Huss had few supporters, between the changing class structure, and availability of paper (from China via the Muslims) and moveable type, Luther became one of the major figures of the Reformation. Protestantism would have independent consequences for the growth of commerce and science. It would encourage the eventual rise of the European hegemon. The bourgeoisie would foster and embrace the Enlightenment whose doctrines were influenced by the rational traditions and sciences of Islam, as well as being reactions to the exclusivity and rigidity of Christianity as an inflexible realm of faith that resisted the development of secular reason.

The Decline of Islam: Retrenchment and Barriers to Modernity

Toynbee (1939-61), Spengler (1962) and other historians have suggested that civilizations grow, flourish, stagnate, fail to meet challenges, and eventually decline in face of other civilizations. Such analyses do not specify why this happens, nor do they explain the meaning of “challenge,” save in military terms. We argue that the same factors that led to the rise of Islam, dialectically understood, thwarted the emergence of modernity. As Toynbee (1939-61) suggested, when cultures limit variability and diversity, they lose their capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. How can this be explained sociologically in terms of classes and ideologies, etc.? In the face of challenge and threat, typically from actual or imagined competing classes or ideologies and challenges at cultural, institutional and personal levels, groups become more rigid, dogmatic and intolerant. We suggest that two moments of political economy be noted. Firstly, as we suggested, the same legal codes that had enabled Islam to flourish in its early eras, would thwart economic growth. Secondly, and perhaps due to the economic stagnation, there were military defeats and setbacks. In face of these challenges, Islam retreated to orthodoxy.

Rokeach’s (1960) now classical studies of dogmatism have shown how dogmatism, rigidity and absolute certainty are comforting positions in the face of challenge. In his studies of, he found that at the time of social or theological challenges, the Catholic Church retreated to more orthodox, dogmatic positions. We similarly suggest that in face of various assaults or challenges to Islam, from the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols to the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain, and more recently the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century, Islamic societies and leaders repeatedly embraced more conservative positions, which for reasons to be discussed below, became entrenched cultural formations. When the central scholarly community of Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongol invasion, a center of liberal, diverse learning was lost. This happened again in the Iberian Peninsula. Cordoba had been one of the primary Islamic cultural/intellectual centers, where liberal forms of Islam thought and science were practiced and developed. With the consolidation of Aragon and Seville into a unified Spain, the rising Spanish merchant classes encouraged the Inquisition that cast out infidels. With the Inquisition, an ideological justification for purifying Christianity, competition with Muslim or Jewish merchants was eliminated. Progressive alternatives to Islamic orthodoxy were lost and a need for solidarity and a sustaining ideology was needed. This resulted in retrenchment and cultural conservatism. By the time the merchant classes of Christendom became ascendant, and as Venice became a major economic power in the Mediterranean, the cultures and political economies of Islamic society began to stagnate and ossify. It might be recalled that in 1492, not only did Columbus reach the New World and begin to plunder its gold, but the Spanish Inquisition cast out the Muslims foreshadowing a gradual realignment of the world system as Christian Europe became a core and the Islamic world fell to peripheral and semi-peripheral status. Even within Islamic states, European and/or Jewish merchants and professionals began to play ever more important roles. While Islamic societies tried to incorporate some of the European scientific, technological and cultural innovations, social barriers proved too strong, the indigenous economies too weak, and the administrative apparatuses, too inefficient, though more benevolent than in Europe.

There are a number of reasons why Christendom surpassed Islam. Given the nature of Sultanism and dynastic rule, patrimonial organization, a religious orientation rooted in a warrior ethic, and other factors outlined below, Islam presented formidable barriers to the economic modernization, qua the diffusion of instrumental rationality, individualism, the embrace of democratic institutions and rational, meritocractic bureaucratic administration. We would suggest that seven factors limited the impact of foreign ideas and/or created indigenous barriers to the emergence of the economic, political and cultural rationality that enabled Christendom, and in turn, capitalist modernity qua secular nationhood, administrative rationality and a culture of critique and equality:

1) Economic barriers and the law. For Weber, the great jurists establishing the legal traditions of Islam were more “legal prophets” establishing substantive-theological “stereotyped jurists law…that opposes secularization” than formal-juridical (rational) legal codes (Schluchter 1999, p.108). Sacred law eliminates the space for predictable legal procedures. The economic practices dictated by Quranic law, Kadi justice and Hanafi codes thus precluded large-scale economic enterprises and capital accumulation (Kuran 2001). Firstly, Islamic merchant trading associations, whether or not familial, could not assume the legal form of a corporation with juridical rights independent of the owners. Second, Islamic succession and inheritance laws meant that when one of the associates died, the partnership was terminated and inheritance was divided in egalitarian ways as opposed to European laws that allowed limited inheritance, e.g., a single person could inherit a share of an enterprise that nevertheless survived the loss of a partner. Thus, a business could continue to grow and amass fortunes long after the death of a founder(s). Indeed many of the successful merchants of Italy were families such as the Medici’s. But, Islamic codes kept business small, limited and ephemeral, no great merchant families emerged (Kuran 2001). Third, proscriptions on either long-term investments or short-term usury meant that financing of economic enterprises was limited. Thus, while one could invest in a particular venture and be repaid from profits, and while there was an extensive network of banks that enabled check cashing across the Islamic world, there was not much incentive to investment banking. Hence, borrowing was not rationalized. While Islam developed an extensive banking system, it depended on personal relationships and thus never achieved either the rationality of the later Western banking nor the economies of scale that would take place in the West to finance factories, railroads etc. Commerce was regulated by Quranic laws that would limit the growth of a secular, commercial, sphere; Muslim merchants were unable to practice the kinds of economic rationality, e.g., double entry book keeping or joint stock corporations as the Italian merchants whose commerce flourished. Muslim merchants were unlikely to become bearers of a worldly ethic of practical action. Between the 12th and 15th Centuries, the diversity of occupations declined while military and bureaucratic occupations grew, Islamic economies then began to stagnate (Kuran 2001). The commercial-legal Hanafi codes that had once promoted expansion and regional trade would thwart economic growth at later periods and would need to be jettisoned, as has been done in Turkey, Malaysia or Indonesia or Egypt.

2) Islam as a decentralized religion. Islam, while a world religion, unlike Roman Christianity, was decentralized, without a singular supreme authority or centralized hierarchy. This enabled a number of competing learning centers and variations in local practices and precluded a Reformation as a form of resistance to Church control (Collins 1998). As Islam remained compatible with both its merchant and warrior traditions, there did not emerge an oppositional class that would foster a public sphere, embrace a separation of Church and state and/or foster a systematic critique of religious dogma. Indeed, to this day, many, most Islamic states openly embrace sharia law while theological dissents (and many secular acts) are often met with fatwas, religious/legal decrees to maintain orthodoxy and censure threats to Islamic society. Without a Reformation, in spite of the advanced development of science, philosophy, technology and ethical-legal thought, an Enlightenment-based embrace of modernity and its secular institutions and politics was not forthcoming.

3) A theology of determination. It is important here to note that differences between the theology of predestination in Protestantism and pre-determination in Islam. The former is based on problematic salvation in the next world and the latter on the guarantee of Allah's will in this. Thus, the power of Allah to impact this world disposed a fatalism that would stifle the attempt to control/dominate nature and other people inherent to capitalism in which salvation anxiety provided an “inner determination” that impelled economic action qua this worldly asceticism and a methodical orientation to everyday life in which each moment was part of a career. Thus guilt and turning inward were essential moments of Protestantism. Otherwise said, Islam did not generate that intense “salvation anxiety” that became a compulsive orientation to work seen as a morally based vocation, a sacralized career (beruf). Insofar as Islam fostered both a warrior ethic of paradise in heaven and a petty bourgeois orientation of booty on earth, there is an inherent avoidance of introspection. Save among elite scholars, there has been little tendency to locate causality from within. There is thus tendency to locate causality from without and deny culpability from within. This is often seen in psychotherapy as denial, the inability to see oneself responsible for ones actions, but rather to attribute ones misfortunes to others. Thus the relative underdevelopment of Islam today is typically blamed on the West, Jews, or both. This is not to ignore the many injustices of colonialism, underdevelopment, geo-politics and globalization.

4) Political centralization. It is also necessary to note that whereas ascetic Protestantism was a rational bourgeois religion from the start, Islam began as a religion of ruling stratum, Herrenreligion, and to a large extent, despite its formal egalitarianism, it disposes the acceptance of Caliphism, Sultanism and/or other forms of dynastic rule, and more often than not, legitimates suppression of democratization and pluralism. In this way, there is little difference between God ordained kings, presidents for life, and one party states. Both internal and external political forces exacerbated this trend. For example, following WWII, American policy in the Middle East, devoted to stopping communism, supported a number of dictatorial governments that, no matter how heinous, corrupt or duplicitous, were well rewarded if they opposed communism. Budding progressive, secular movements in Muslim countries from socialism to nationalism were both resisted by indigenous power arrangements and thwarted from without by American policy-read oil interests.

5) Close relations of church, dynasties and commerce. There was a seamless relation between mosque, political dynasties and the merchant classes. Indeed many mullahs and imams either came from the merchant classes, as did Muhammad, or were themselves still actively engaged in commerce and trade. The merchant classes could not find themselves in conflict with the existing political arrangements in Islamic societies, partly due to the close regulation, sponsorship, and housing of markets by political and religious authorities. Thus, merchant classes would not become a powerful autonomous class as did the Europeans, nor would they stand in opposition to the ruling classes. Thus, Islamic societies did not have social conditions disposing an ideological critique of dynastic rule or religion. There were generally no sources of resistance that might lead to the emergence of a public sphere that might be a locus for counter-hegemonic discourses of resistance, strategies of mobilization, and alternative visions.

6) Conservatism and Limits to Diffusion. In its maturity, in face of challenges and weakened by “internal” strife, Islamic societies turned to orthodoxy and resistance to change. Indeed, in sharp contrast to early Islamic societies, later societies actively maintained various barriers to external cultural influences. While this reproduced Islamic cultures and preserved social arrangements, it created the conditions that resisted the incorporation of Western innovations from factories to nationalism, etc. The highly advanced Islamic pursuit of science and philosophy ceased to develop. “Independent inquiry virtually came to an end, and science was for the most part reduced to a veneration of a corpus of approved knowledge.” (Lewis 2002, p.79) Further, Christendom was largely identified with a defeated Byzantium and a vague land of barbarians beyond. At the same time, there was a great deal of ethnocentrism in many parts of Europe against the “evil Turks”, a generic, often derogatory term toward all Muslims. In addition to having little interest in the Infidel lands, Muslims feared to live or travel there (Lewis 2002). These fears were sustained by religious edicts against living with the infidels. Hence, the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment were relatively unknown in early modern Islamic societies and the European innovations in technology, philosophy and commerce little impacted Islam.

7) Individualism and pluralism. Perhaps one of the most important moments of modernity was the rise of the autonomous, self-interested individual with the capacities to adapt to new situations. For Weber individualism emerged with Protestantism when the believer faced his/her God by him/herself. Some suggest it began earlier when the Church institutionalized confession. Still others suggest that with the rise of bourgeois commerce and the emergence of childhood, individualism was evident in the Renaissance and valorized by humanism. The importance of the individual in the West can clearly be seen in contrast to the value of the community (umma) in Islam. One of the central factors that hindered the spread of modernity in Islam has been the intolerance of individualism, the absence of a commitment to individual rights and personal freedom which serves to limit change and innovation. Consider how many academics are silenced, jailed or murdered in Muslim countries compared to the West where radical critiques are typically ignored and relegated to obscure journals, book chapters and sociology classes.

Notwithstanding the defeat of Byzantine and rise of the Ottoman Turks who would eventually assume control over much of the Arabic world, Islamic societies began a long and gradual decline relative to ascendant Christendom. Islamic cultures, as we noted, had a number of inherent qualities that limited its capacity to modernize in the Western sense. The nature of Islamic theology, ethics, culture and law limited the impact of foreign ideas and/or the emergence of the economic, political and cultural rationality. Rather, shorn of its centers of liberal thought and toleration for pluralism, without an autonomous “public sphere” there was a retreat to more conservative forms of Islam. Henceforth, in face of challenges, Islam often embraced orthodoxies such as Wahhabism or other worldly Sufism that served to maintain tradition/resist social change. The barriers to changes, the retreats to conservative theologies, together with ressentiment to the West limited the flows of people and information with the morally inferior infidel cultures and the adaptation of their technologies and secular-rational forms of governance and organization. Societies that would embrace “Westernization” would prosper .

Defeat and Domination

By the 17th Century, European military and economic powers from Russia to Portugal began to encroach upon Islamic hegemony. With the defeats in Vienna and Buda, Ottoman rule began to contract. By the 18th Century, European merchants often traveled to Muslim countries. Within Islamic states, European and/or Jewish merchants and professionals had begun to play ever more important roles in commercial life. But, rarely did Muslims come to Europe. (See Part II below for a discussion of 19th Century Islamic reactions to modernity.)

At the end of WWI, the Ottoman Empire, after a long decline, fell by virtue of its alliance with the defeated Axis powers. This was presaged by earlier defeats, such as by the expanding, modernizing Russia using more advanced naval artillery. But the end of the 19th C., following the Tanzimat reforms, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, led a secular, nationalist revolution in which Turkey embraced Western modernism and established secular law-backed by its military which has often intervened against traditionalist elements. The Europeans (British, French) colonized most of the Islamic Middle East. While modernity included many major social changes, neither the Europeans nor their sponsored intermediaries attempted to empower the Islamic people and encourage pluralistic democratic governance. Indeed, colonialism sustained both economic and political underdevelopment. Local authorities, dynastic or military, in turn gained wealth-sustaining autocracy (Lewis 2002).

The transformation of the once powerful, majestic Islamic word into fragmented, colonial, neo-colonial, or peripheral states with autocratic governments having little popular support, had a number of adverse effects, not the least of which was to foster the kinds of humiliations, powerlessness and dependencies that foster ressentiment, envy and rage (as is discussed in Part III below). Today, between rapid population growth, an obscene inequality generated by neo-liberal globalization and autocratic governments, there has been a general economic stagnation. In turn, the poor, unemployed and often even the more educated feel thwarted and/or humiliated. They often find compensatory solace and comfort in fundamentalist mosques where they embrace politicized, purified versions of Islam (see below). Many Muslims, finding means to transform the present blocked, turn to the “glorious past” to reclaim a glorious future, embracing a powerful cultural meaning system within vulnerable Islamic societies that explain social problems on the basis of lack of religious fidelity and valorizes the universal Islamic community, umma, granting dignity and recognition (Tibi 1998). Islamic societies such as Egypt, Syria or Iran with some commercial development (many cars, televisions, cell phones, skyscrapers, and the embrace of some Western technologies) remain highly traditional as seen in autocratic governments, unequal treatment of women, harsh penal systems and deplorable records on human rights. On the other hand, Lebanon was, and is again becoming, a very educated, sophisticated, urbane society, in part due to having been a trading country since the Phoenicians and in recent times, a “modern” banking center. Many Lebanese are actually Christians, not subject to the economic barriers of traditional Islam.

Part II.
Islamic Responses to the West
Westernization, Modernism, Fundamentalism

As European power expanded in the 19th Century, there were attempts by Islamic societies to modernize. The introduction of newspapers and the telegraph by Europeans in the 19th Century made widely evident the “backwardness” of the “Oriental” Other. Two major strategies were developed to proactively respond to Western power and its expanding hegemony (Davidson 1998). First, leaders and intellectuals advocated westernization and secularization as the surest way to compete with Europe. This vein won out in terms of political power. As the west carved up the Islamic world into various states, indigenous leaders led the secularization of some Islamic societies, notably Turkey, promoting western education, law, science, etc. Much like the Japanese Restorationists, modernity was backed by the military. Second, a relatively small circle of intellectuals advocated an Islamic Modernism, arguing that Western methods and key institutions, legislatures, modern administrations, banks, could be revised along the lines of Islamic law. This movement was neither able to influence either the Westward leaning, secular political elites of the day nor the conservative Islamic religious authorities. These ideas did not reach the uneducated masses. Hence, Islamic development generally became polarized between Westernizing and conservative extremes.

Theorizing in the early 20th Century, Weber was personally troubled and theoretically concerned with the negative side of modernity, its rationalization of the world that dehumanized the person and reduced everything to what could be quantified. Economic striving, detached from a religious ethic, had become an empty striving for shallow materialism. A new industrial elite was emerging. A century after Weber wrote about the moral nullity of Western civilization, mass mediated consumerism, privatized hedonism devoid of meaning, has proliferated everywhere. The globalization of capital, secularization, and rapid social and cultural changes, together with population movements, has fostered both anomie and the attenuation of social ties. In face of changes, crises and challenges, one of the typical responses has been the embrace of dogmatic, orthodox positions. In a similar way, countries with economic challenges often embrace authoritarian governments, if not fascism. Fundamentalism and terrorism are both reactions to and moments of resistance to the dominating aspects of modernity and the shallowness of secularism. And, as discussed in Part III below, ressentiment mediated through radical fundamentalism can become part of the impetus for religious terrorism.

The Nature of Fundamentalism

One of the most important religious social transformations of the last century has been the gradual rise of fundamentalism, the embrace of anti-modern religious orthodoxies. Why has there been a rise of fundamentalisms? Jurgensmeyer (2001) notes that religious fundamentalism across various religious cultures is on the rise globally for three common reasons: first, radical conservative religious movements reject the liberal values of secular institutions and blame society’s decline on the loss of religious inspiration; second, these radical religious movements refuse to accept boundaries of secular society which keeps religion a private observance and not the public sphere; and third, these conservative movements are seeking to restore religion as central to social life. As noted above, in the face of challenges, groups may become more dogmatic and intolerant. We have suggested that in response to challenges, ranging from the sacking of Baghdad to the expulsion from Spain to the decline of the Ottoman Empire, that Islamic leaders have repeatedly embraced more conservative positions. This created conservative traditions as the basis for a conservative response to Western secular encroachments. This, however, is a general global cultural phenomenon in response to rapid social change, uncertainty, attenuation of social ties, challenges to ingrained value precepts, etc.

Fundamentalisms generally require unquestioning acceptance of transcendent religious precepts, a strict adherence to compulsory rituals and a subjugation of the self to higher powers. Fundamentalism may be defined as a conservative religious reaction to secular society that typically includes the following characteristics: Exclusive truth claims are typically based on a sacred text. It often has Manichean truth claims in which non-believers are constructed as immoral and an apocalyptic view of the world. Fundamentalism seeks to restore a glorious past from which people had strayed. Fundamentalism makes exclusive truth claims grounded in canonical religious, spiritual texts and seeks to recreate an idealized religious community while paradoxically embracing modern means: mass media, bureaucratic institutions, and destructive technologies in militancy. Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic fundamentalisms more or less follow this pattern. Thus, fundamentalisms resist the usually hedonistic, secular, materialistic values of modernity. At the same time, fundamentalists are modernists in that they use elements of tradition in combination with modern methods-advanced technology, institutional forms, and instrumental rationality-to transform the political order (Tibi 1998).

Radical religious movements often position themselves to act in the public sphere as moral agents. From the viewpoint of religious radicals, it is not so much that religion has become political as much as politics has become religious. The reasons for this deep antagonism are not merely political. Secular modernity and its valorization of Reason has made an assault on religious values and worldviews that erode the impact and power of religious institutions leading to a general crisis in religious belief. As secular society is suffering a crisis of morality and meaning, there is a space for religious critiques of secular modernity and transcendental alternatives. The West, celebrating the secular materialism of modernity, spread through a political economic imperialism and mass mediated consumerism has created spaces for radical religious movements, both in the developed and developing countries.


Islamic fundamentalisms arose in various Islamic states. For example, Wahabbism was embraced in Saudi Arabia, as the Ottoman Empire declined in the later 18th, early 19th Century. As Western power grew and the division of the Islamic world proceeded, Western interests encouraged the suppression of progressive movements in the Middle East such as socialism or even nationalism. (Note that there have been intrinsic reasons why these Western ideologies were not embraced.) For example, the US has strongly supported the (oil rich) House of Saud, where Islam has turned increasingly conservative and militant in resistance. Islamic fundamentalism is a response many factors, central among which are the domination by the West, the relative poverty and underdevelopment of the Muslim world, and the lack of political outlets to express discontents.

In the 20th Century, Westernization did not yield its promised results. Modernity failed Islamic states, for a variety of reasons mentioned above, especially the conservatism of its religion, the underdevelopment inherent in colonialism and foreign sponsoring of local elites, the lack of education of the populace, and, the conservatism of religious leaders. Islamic states generally secured the wealth and power of the elites and sustained oppressive secular governments rather than seek expansions of democracy and human rights. With the failure of modernity to bring its promised benefits, conservative Islamic brotherhoods and movements, originally organized to address social justice issues attempted to reinvigorate, reform and reestablish Islam as the basis for revitalized Islamic states. As westernizing strategies in Islamic states failed and/or were suppressed in the 20th Century, conservative religious responses grew more pronounced, generating various Islamisms, Islamic fundamentalist movements. Note that in many developing nations, secular thought and autonomous institutions, especially democratically elected legislative bodies and executive are not very well formed or advanced. Religious ways of life and social-political institutions hold more public power, especially in Islamic countries. Hence, there is a strong link between religious belief and resistance to Western hegemony among radical religious movements in the Islamic world. We also note that the rigid claims and orthodoxy of fundamentalism generally prevents a group from self-examination and critical reflection. This is not likely to change as long as the educational processes in the developing world remain tied to traditional religious institutions. Studying the Quran and/or Islamic studies does not much prepare the student for science, industry, commerce or critical thought.

Conservative Islamic movements have pursued three main ends in Islamic society: reformism, revivalism, and radical defense. The main interest of these movements is to reestablish the moral and political virtues of traditional Islamic society (Choueiri 1990). Islamism is modeled on the attempt to recapture Muhammad's early role of rebel in Mecca in criticizing moral corruption and need for lifestyle and political economic reforms grounded in religious mores. For revivalists, just as Muhammad challenged false gods and immoral ways instead of a righteous life, Islamism is seen as a path to justice and equality against the Western ways of corruption and worship of its false gods. Islamist ideological analysis offers these reasons for the decline of Islam: 1) Islamic society declined due to the departure from the practice of religious values and dictates; 2) This decay made possible the Western intrusion; and, 3) The solution is to revitalize and return to Islam by a) reintroducing the Shariah, Islamic law, while purging most Western cultural influences, but not science and technology and b) re-politicizing Islam, along lines of Muhammad's role as administrator and law giver in Medina.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism was the result of many factors beginning with general factors that have also fostered the growth of Christian fundamentalism, Orthodox Judaism and even Hindu fundamentalism. But further, in Islamic societies, the barriers to modernity mentioned in Part I above, have joined together with economic underdevelopment, traditional education, and the suppression of political dissent to dispose fundamentalism. Further, various Islamic institutions have provided cheap alternatives to public education, in which young boys learn strict conservative forms of Islam, as for example the madrassas of Pakistan funded by Saudi Arabia. Islamism has often been directly reproduced through strictly enforced civic codes in which “moral police” vigorously patrol the borders of virtue as in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and the former Taliban controlled Afghanistan.

There have been wide variations in the extent to which Muslim societies have embraced Islamisms, and within particular societies, there have been wide disparities in the appeal of Islamisms. For example, Afghanistan, under the Taliban, was an extreme, even by fundamentalist standards. But so too was (is) Afghanistan one of the poorest, least educated societies in the world. In contrast, Pakistan was (is) not a fundamentalist country. After General Zia took power, he tried to impose fundamentalism from the top down. It had few adherents, not more than about five percent of the people, primarily among tribal groups-looked down upon in Pakistani society. The Saudis financed madrassas that were accepted by subsequent governments in order to divert scarce funds to nuclear weapons programs, in response to India. Islamic fundamentalism was accepted by elements within Pakistani Security (the ISI) who used these schools to provide “volunteers” to fight against India in Kashmir as well as train US-financed mujahadeen that would fight a proxy war against Russia. In Algeria, a prolonged conflict between urban, Western modernists and rural fundamentalists has cost perhaps 200,000 lives. Although fundamentalism has been widely embraced in the Muslim world, and it often promotes hatred of infidels, the vast majority of fundamentalists do not become terrorists, and not all terrorists in Islamic societies are “holy warriors”. Nevertheless, the world wide rise of fundamentalism, with its Manichean division of the world into those who are good and those who are evil, with it assertions of patriarchy and promises of redemption, creates an atmosphere in which terrorism can thrive.



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*** Used with permission of the authors and...Forthcoming in...Essential Readings On Political Terrorism. Richard Altschuler ed. NY: Gordian Knot Books (Distributed by U Nebraska Press), 2002