The West and the Challenge of Radical Islam: An Interpretation (ARI)

The West and the Challenge of Radical Islam: An Interpretation (ARI)

Theme: This paper proposes an interpretation of the rise of radical Islam and its clash with the West based on the tensions within Muslim countries as a result of their modernisation.

Summary: The difficulties in the relations between the Western and Islamic worlds derive largely from the rise of radical Islam, which sees the West as a threat to Islamic religion. At the same time, in the West the rise of radical Islam is interpreted on the basis of various paradigms which lead to opposing political conclusions. This paper is a critique of two of the most widespread paradigms, namely that of an inevitable clash of civilisations and that of Islam understood as a response to Western imperialism, like other movements born in the Third World. On the other hand, it defends the paradigm of a troubled modernisation, which sees the current crisis not as a conflict between the West and Islam, but as the result of internal tensions in the process of modernisation in the Islamic world.

Analysis: The perception that relations between the West and Islam are not going well has become firmly rooted among the citizens of both worlds, as made evident for example by a survey by the Pew Research Center last year (The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other, 2006). Most of those surveyed in both Western and Muslim countries agreed that relations are not good. That is the opinion, for instance, of 61% of Spaniards, but it is interesting that of all the groups surveyed in 13 countries, the most optimistic are the Muslims resident in Spain, almost half of whom think relations are good. According to the same survey, the main defects which Muslims perceive in Westerners are that they are selfish, violent and immoral, while the main defects which Westerners see in Muslims are that they are fanatical and violent.

In strictly religious terms, according to another survey conducted in 2005 by the same institution, 63% of Turks, 58% of Moroccans and 57% of Indonesians said they had an unfavourable image of Christians, not to mention the large majorities who in all Muslim countries say they take a poor view of the Jews (Islamic Extremism, 2005). The opinion of Muslims among Westerners is not as bad, although 51% of the Dutch, 41% of Germans and 34% of Spaniards said they had a poor image of them in that survey, while much lower percentages were recorded in the UK and the US.

Naturally, contrasting the values and perceptions of Western and Muslim countries as a block is an oversimplification, because some values are common to all of them, while in other respects there is a great diversity among Western countries and the same is true of Muslim countries. Democracy, for example, is a shared value, since although very few Muslim countries enjoy it, most of their citizens coincide with Westerners in approving of it. According to the World Values Survey, the percentage of those who approve of democracy tends to range between 85% and 98% in both the Islamic and Western worlds. As regards religion, the differences are greater, but although Muslims tend to stand out for their religious beliefs, no less noticeable is the difference between Europeans and Americans. To the question of how important God was in their lives, on an ascending scale of 1 to 10, averages for Muslim countries are above 9, but the same is true in Mexico and in Chile, Argentina and the US the average is above 8, while in Spain it is below 6 and in the UK, France and Sweden it is below 5 ( To verify the differences between Muslim countries we can do no better than to look at the average number of children per woman: more than six in Afghanistan and Yemen, more than five in Palestine and more than four in Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but only two in Iran and Tunisia and just over two in Indonesia, Algeria and Morocco. For comparative purposes it is worth recalling that the figure is 2 in the US, 1.9 in France and 1.3 in Germany, Italy and Spain (World Population Data Sheet 2006, Accordingly, contrary to what one might have thought, in such a crucial aspect of people’s private lives, Americans, French and Iranians share very similar patterns of conduct.

But with all the nuances required by this internal diversity in both worlds, it should be admitted that the current conflict between the Western and Muslim worlds is a serious problem, because relations between them are crucial to our future. From the specifically European viewpoint, relations with Islam are fundamentally important for at least four reasons: (1) the conflicts in the Islamic world; (2) Europe’s energy dependence; (3) migratory flows; and (5) Jihadist terrorism.

Of all of them, the one which has led relations between Islam and the West to become a matter of utmost importance has been the internationalisation of Jihadist terrorism, which has translated into indiscriminate attacks against Western civilians. This factor also impacts on the other three. Recourse to terrorism has made the Israeli-Palestinian, Lebanon and Algerian conflicts all the more bloody, and now the same is occurring in Iraq. The terrorist threat is a potential danger for oil facilities in the Middle East. And the involvement of European Muslims in attacks in Europe and elsewhere is the most worrying aspect as regards Europe’s Muslim communities. The terrorism which we call Jihadist –ie, terrorism which seeks to act in compliance with the divine mandate of defending Islam– represents the most violent manifestation of a wider movement, which is usually referred to in various ways: Islamism, Islamic fundamentalism and radical Islam. Its aim is to submit Muslim societies strictly to the principles of the original Islamic texts and this aim of returning to the origins implies the head-on rejection of most of the essential values of modernity, which radical Islamists present as innovations of the West that are incompatible with Islam.

To assess the threat for the West from radical Islam, particularly Jihadist terrorism, it is crucial to establish the interpretative paradigm which might best explain the phenomenon. To simplify somewhat, it can be said that three have been proposed, which I would call ‘The Clash of Civilisations Paradigm’, ‘The Third World Response Paradigm’ and ‘The Modernisation Troubles Paradigm’.

Clash of Civilisations
This paradigm interprets Jihadist terrorism against the West as a continuation, using other means, of the Islamic expansion which began with Mohammed. Al-Qaeda is resuming the struggle against the West which was once fought by Omayyads, Almoravids, Almohads and Ottomans. This paradigm underlines that the ideology of Bin Laden is rooted in the Koran itself, which contains explicit calls for holy war on the infidels. Those who defend this paradigm tend to consider that all Islamists share the same aim and to see a potential fifth column in all Muslims in Europe. This would then be a clash between the West and Islam comparable to the previous clash between the West and the Soviet Block.

The response to the threat should, therefore, focus on rearming, in the threefold sense of military rearming, with intervention forces that match current demands, legal rearming, with new laws to combat the new terrorist threat, and moral rearming, in the sense of a re-assertion of the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This latter point is important because those who defend this paradigm tend often to also defend the thesis of Europe’s decline. They sustain that a Europe that turns its back on Judeo-Christian values, which is in the midst of demographic decadence, which is losing economic competitiveness and which lacks sufficient moral conviction to defend itself, will be vulnerable to the Islamic threat. They even evoke the spectre of ‘Eurabia’, in other words, a Europe submitted to Islam.

The Third World Response
This second paradigm reflects the frequent tendency among significant segments of Western culture to blame the West for all the world’s ills. From this standpoint, Islamism is not so much a religious phenomenon, and much less a continuation using other means of traditional Islamic expansionism, but a response to Western imperialism. The original sin was European colonialism, and the problem was further compounded by the creation of the State of Israel, by Western intervention in the Muslim world and by the support which the West lends both Israel and some reactionary and corrupt Arab governments which hamper their countries’ progress. In short, Islamism represents, under a religious guise, a new manifestation of the anti-imperialist conflict, and therefore responds ultimately to the injustice of the world order imposed by the West. Since this paradigm tends to be associated with cultural relativism, it is often associated with a criticism of the pretence that universal values upheld by the West are superior to those of Islamic tradition.

These paradigms point to some real elements of the problem. There is no doubt that radical Islamist and even Jihadist terrorists base their doctrine on the holy scriptures of Islam and that calls for Jihad found in them are calls for war on infidels. Furthermore, it is also true that the sympathies aroused in broad Muslim sectors by both radical Islamism and even anti-Western terrorism are largely explained by a sense of grievance against the West which is not entirely misplaced. I believe, however, that these paradigms are fundamentally wrong and that they would lead to very harmful results if they became the basis for Western policies. The first one would lead to the invention of an enemy and the second to paralysis deriving from a guilt complex.

The clash of civilisations paradigm turns a set of difficulties in mutual relations into a confrontation without a solution. There is, in fact, no such global clash. The conflicts in the Islamic world are not mainly the result of a clash between Islam and the West, but are in fact civil conflicts in Muslim societies themselves. The current conflict in Iraq, for example, was certainly unleashed by the unfortunate decision to intervene by President Bush and his allies, but today it is essentially a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias: it is sufficient just to look at the victims of the attacks to realise this. Neither do Muslim communities in Europe represent hostile fifth columns, although there are no doubt processes of minority radicalisation in their midst. And, above all, to combat Jihadist terrorism we should not agree that it is right by asserting that Islam and the West are incompatible. Quite the contrary, police cooperation with Muslim governments is very useful.

Police cooperation with Muslim governments is, however, a typical example of what should not be done if the Third World paradigm is accepted, since it would be tantamount to cooperating with repression by authoritarian and corrupt governments. The problem is that, in accordance with this paradigm, Western governments would have their hands almost completely tied. To foment economic links with the Muslim world would be to further globalisation, which is considered harmful. To intervene in peace missions in conflict zones, like Afghanistan, would be a kind of imperialism. To support Muslim governments would be to become their accomplices. And to criticise the reactionary message of radical Islamism would be to show Western ethnocentricity. This is why this paradigm is more useful as a target for intellectual criticism than as a guide to government action. The problem is that, as it increases in cultural and media influence, it could undermine any effective policy.

Modernisation Troubles
In my view, to understand the problem we must resort to the third paradigm, according to which radical Islamism and Jihadist terrorism emerge from the tensions in Muslim countries themselves, but can extend within the framework of a world-wide process, that of modernisation. In the last two or three centuries Mankind has been undergoing a radical change in the basic structures that shape our lives, which necessarily leads to a re-adaptation of the traditional systems of values and patterns of conduct. At the same time, this crisis encourages all-encompassing ideologies which seek to restore the traditional uncertainties or impose new ones through recourse to violence and authoritarianism. In Spain, the early Franco period was an attempt to re-impose on a plural society the values of imperial Spain and the Roman Catholicism of the Council of Trent; and in twentieth-century Europe the new-world utopias that broke with the humanistic tradition of the West led to the horrors of Stalinism and Nazism. Neither in the case of Europe nor in that of East Asia has the modernisation process been an uninterrupted and peaceful process, but rather, throughout the twentieth century, it was accompanied by conflicts which were characterised by an extraordinary degree of violence.

From this historic perspective, it is hardly surprising that in the case of many Muslim countries, though not necessarily all, the modernisation process, which only really gained momentum well into the 20th century, is accompanied by a proliferation of conflicts and a rise in extremist ideologies. It is true that, unlike Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism, radical Islamism is based on traditional religious values and its utopia does not appeal to the future but to an idealised past. Yet it is worth recalling that in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries it was religious conflict that bloodied the continent, perhaps thereby paving the way for the rise in secularisation which began in the 18th century. In particular, Calvin’s Geneva was a theocratic experiment which, in its attempt to control people’s private morality, was not too far removed from the most radical Islamic aims.

Why is all this happening? Experts have pinpointed many reasons for the rise of Islam and it is not easy to assess each one’s importance. No doubt important factors are the feeling of failure and nostalgia for a glorious past, the unpopularity of the leaders, fear of certain consequences of modernisation, an identity-related reaction to the West’s hegemony, a lack of prospects for the younger generations, the use of new information technologies and, in the case of European Muslims, feelings of a lack of real roots in the societies in which they live.

Feelings of Failure and Nostalgia for the Past
The Islamic world in general and the Arab world in particular have few motives, except for the godsend of oil, to feel satisfied with their achievements in the last few decades. The standard of living for most of their populations is mediocre, since the only Muslim countries with a high level of human development are a handful of small oil-rich states (Human Development Report, 2005). Their economic growth has been modest, in stark contrast with the spectacular development in East Asia. Furthermore, the Islamic world has no superpowers on the international stage and its relevance in the fields of science, technology, culture and sport is scant. Finally, the feeling of failure is compounded, particularly in the case of Arab countries, by the humiliation that Israel, a small state populated by a religious community previously disdained by Arab societies, has managed to consolidate itself at the expense of the Palestinian population. All of this generates a sentiment of collective frustration, particularly in a community that feels that it is in possession of the universal religious truth and that recalls its glorious past. Furthermore, the great victors in today’s world are the heirs of the rival religious tradition, Christianity.

Unpopular Leaders and Discredited Rival Ideologies
Leaders have always tried to channel these sentiments to the best of their advantage, either through nationalism, as in Nasser’s Egypt, or through religious fanaticism, as in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, these options have lost much of their appeal. It is natural that, after decades in power, regimes tend to be blamed for all the difficulties facing their people. Nationalistic regimes such as Egypt’s have reaped few rewards, while the religious purity of the Saudis is compromised by their alliance with the US. At the same time, the possibilities of political alternatives consolidating are very low, due to the prevailing authoritarianism. According to the Freedom House survey, the only Muslim country which can be considered to be fully free is Indonesia, whereas Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria are among the world’s least free countries (Freedom in the World, 2007). Accordingly, Islamists, who might be persecuted or tolerated but who always have the support of religious legitimacy, look like an option for change.

Fear for the Consequences of Modernisation
In Arab and Muslim countries as everywhere else, modernisation calls into question many traditional certainties. Western-style freedom of customs, for example, is seen by many not only as contrary to religious principles but also as being against the very foundations of life in society. In particular, women’s emancipation is viewed with hostility from a tradition based on an undisputed patriarchal authority. Insofar as all of these novelties can be attributed to the West, it will be easier to condemn them all together.

Identity-Related Reaction to Western Hegemony
The West is seen by many Muslims as a dual threat. On the one hand, because of its economic and military power, particularly in the case of the US. But also because of its cultural influence, which is seen as a hotbed of moral corruption. It is significant that, according to a survey by the Pew Center, around 60% of Jordanians, Egyptians, Indonesians, Turks and British Muslims see Westerners as immoral, while this proportion is 30% in the case of Spanish, French and German Muslims (The Great Divide, 2006).

Lack of Prospects for the New Generations
The appeal of radical Islam and even Jihadist terrorism increases because of the lack of prospects for the new generations, who encounter serious difficulties in finding work in line with their aspirations. This is a result of the mediocre pace of economic development and also of the demographic transition, which has been much more abrupt in Islamic countries –as in the Third World as a whole– than it was earlier in the West. Mortality rates have plummeted and although fertility rates are starting to fall too, the current situation is one of an oversized young population. In other words, the new waves of young people entering employment each year are too numerous in relation to the economic system’s capacity to generate work for them. However, according to a study conducted globally, this overabundance of young people is the factor with the highest statistical correlation with the appearance of armed conflict (The Security Demography, 2003).

Development of Communications, Especially the Internet
Lastly, it should be pointed out that radical Islam does not reject the technological components of modernity. On the contrary, it knows how to use them for its own ends, particularly new information technology. Internet is an ideal media to reach young Muslims who, all over the world, are trying to give some meaning to their lives.

The Case of European Muslims
The phenomenon, admittedly no doubt a minority one, of Muslims resident in Europe and in some cases even born in Europe joining the ranks of Jihadist terrorism, as we are now seeing, is particularly worrying for us. In this case, the breeding ground for radicalisation is the feeling of not belonging to European society. Thirty-seven percent of French Muslims, 28% of British Muslims, 25% of Spanish Muslims and 19% of German Muslims told the Pew survey in 2006 that they had personally experienced hostility for being Muslim. Furthermore, the vast majority of them feel Muslim before feeling citizens of their country, except in France, where 46% feel Muslim first, but 42% feel French first (Muslims in Europe, 2006). This is helped by the fact that European Muslims, who come mainly from successive waves of unskilled immigrants, have a lower average economic level than their fellow citizens. According to a recent report by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, Muslims tend to live in areas with poor housing conditions, their schooling levels are lower, their jobs are worse paid and their unemployment rates are higher (Muslims in the European Union, 2006).

The future of relations between the Islamic world and the West hinge to a great extent on whether or not the rise of radical Islam and Jihadist terrorism is sustained. This, in turn, depends on many other factors, including the future trends in economic development, demographic transition, democratisation, armed conflict, the efficiency of efforts to fight terrorism and the integration of European Muslims.

Economic Development
The economic performance of Muslim countries has been disappointing in recent years. Between 1990 and 2003, GDP growth has been 1.0% yearly in Arab countries as a whole, 1.1% in Pakistan, 1.3% in Turkey, 2.0% in Indonesia and 2.1% in Iran, well below the figures posted in South and East Asia (Human Development Report, 2005). In principle, the explanation is simple: Islamic countries, unlike China, India and the smaller Asian countries, have failed to integrate into the global economy, except to export oil and gas. It is, for example, worth noting that the countries of the Maghreb do not trade with each other. If efforts are not made to open up their economies, their future does not augur well, and in this respect the ideological factors count too, since the rejection of Western modernity which we have mentioned is not the best recipe for opening up to the global economy. At the same time, sluggish economic performance is a factor of radicalisation.

Demographic Transition
One reason for optimism in the medium term is that the demographic pressure on the labour market and the ensuing lack of prospects for the younger generations is starting to lose steam. A very important fact, which is often overlooked, is the drastic reduction in the fertility rate in Muslim countries. If thirty years ago the average number of children per woman in these countries was six or seven, in the early 21st century the situation is totally different, as we have seen, and it is therefore likely that in the not-too-distant future quite a few Muslim countries will be in a much more favourable demographic position.

The democratisation scenario, in contrast, is not encouraging. With a few exceptions, the most important of which are Indonesia and Turkey, the Islamic world remained on the sidelines during the wave of democratisation of the last quarter of the 20th century. The level of political rights and civil liberties is, in general, poor or very poor, and there do not seem to be immediate prospects of advances in democracy. The holding of free elections could lead to the paradox of a triumph of radical Islamists, whose doctrines are opposed to democracy, but the absence of democratisation will continue to help channel discontent in undemocratic ways and ways that are hostile to the West.

Armed Conflicts
The peaceful resolution of conflicts is of course an important factor in progress and it is also crucial to defusing Muslim hostility to the West. In the short term, though, it is difficult to feel optimistic. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to continue, in Iraq it will probably take some time to reach an understanding to end the civil war and Iran’s nuclear programme is causing serious tension. The Western powers should therefore have to face some tough decisions.

Efforts to Combat Terrorism
Elimination of Jihadist terrorism is a joint goal for Muslim and Western countries and, although cooperation on this matter is not always forthcoming, it is certainly desirable. Further attacks on the West like those of the past would damage the image of Islam here beyond repair and would perhaps trigger a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment which would hamper the desired integration of European Muslims. It is difficult to make predictions in this connection, but a lot depends on the skill of the police to thwart a specific attack. However, we can afford to be cautiously optimistic, on two counts: first, either because they are trying less or because the attacks are being frustrated, the fact is that the frequency of terrorist attacks in the West appears to be tending to decline; and, secondly, because the popular support for Jihadist terrorism appears to be starting to wane.

Integration of European Muslims
European Muslims, who are straddling both worlds, can help build bridges, but there is also a danger of minority radicalisation which can hinder integration and act as a breeding ground for terrorism. There must therefore be an effort which, in my view, should combine three elements. First, the defence of the values of freedom, including, naturally, the freedom of Muslim women to make their own decisions, with no kind of oppression by men, and also freedom of speech, which was faint-heartedly defended by some during the Danish cartoon crisis. Secondly, the promotion of Muslims in Europe in terms of education, employment and the media, to prevent their religion from becoming an obstacle to their social advancement. And, thirdly, an effort on the legal and political fronts to nip any terrorist initiative in the bud, as indeed is already the case.

Conclusion: If the diagnosis set forth in this paper is correct, we can safely say that in the future relations between the Islamic world and the West will be less conflictive as Muslim countries make headway on the road to modernisation. Today’s difficulties emerge largely from the feelings of frustration of Muslim populations which, too often, tend to blame the West for their problems. Encouraging understanding and cooperation between the two worlds will therefore be in the best interests of both of them.

Juan Avilés
Professor of Modern History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia