Al Azm on Islamism

In an important new essay in the Boston Review, Time Out of Joint, the Syrian philisopher Sadik Al-Azm looks at some of the root motivations behind the nihilist Islamist movements exemplified by Al Qaeda and predicts that the current violence around the world is its death throes:

I predict this violence will be the prelude to the dissipation and final demise of militant Islamism in general. Like the armed factions in Europe who had given up on society, political parties, reform, proletarian revolution, and traditional communist organization in favor of violent action, militant Islamism has given up on contemporary Muslim society, its sociopolitical movements, the spontaneous religiosity of the masses, mainstream Islamic organizations, the attentism of the original and traditional Society of Muslim Brothers (from which they generally derive in the way the 1970s terrorists derived from European communism), in favor of violence. Both were contemptuous of politics and had complete disregard for the consequences of their actions.


That thesis is not new -- it was expressed by French arabists and "Islamologists" Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel in the 1990s -- but Azm's essay adds to it in his eloquent essay the anxiety and urgency that comes from a Muslim intellectual writing about his own intellectual heritage and future. When he writes about Arabs and Muslims perceptions of their role in history and their attitude towards modernity, he writes we, not they. It is an important difference.

In the marrow of our bones, we still perceive ourselves as the subjects of history, not its objects, as its agents and not its victims. We have never acknowledged, let alone reconciled ourselves to, the marginality and passivity of our position in modern times. In fact, deep in our collective soul, we find it intolerable that our supposedly great nation must stand helplessly on the margins not only of modern history in general but even of our local and particular histories.


Read and re-read it all.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.