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Assembling the puzzle: Violence in the contemporary Islamic world

Feb 17th, 2015 | By | Category: Features, Front Page

We have lived with Islamic violence in the contemporary world for some time now.  We have also lived with television analysts offering their take on the etiology of that violence. Three universes of content can be found in their causal narratives.  For the most part these analysts are informed people: some are scholars, some are ideologues, and some are pundits. There is some insight to be found in what the majority of them profess.  But as an explanation, their narratives fall short of real “insight.”  This failure to achieve insight is a consequence of several characteristics of their method including their propensity to reduce their narratives to simple and sole causes, their failure to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, and their failure to recognize one important puzzle piece.

What are these three universes of content offered by the analysts?  The first sees the cause in Islam itself.  The nativists among us tend to express this as an inherent tendency in Islam and its teachings.  Others within Islam view it as an emerging historical debate concerning the interpretation of sacred teachings. The second universe is one that is not as widely expressed, but significant nevertheless, and definitely in the mix.  That universe blames American military intervention in the region.  The logic here is that such behavior incites (or at minimum exacerbates) a reaction.  The third universe is that the violence is constituted from the acts of criminals, madmen, or the disenchanted acting as individuals.  Sometimes these three universes are combined in a recipe, but not mixed well; and consequently, our appetites are not well-fed.

Let’s stir the ingredients and then we can dine well. First, and most importantly, we need to add the missing ingredient. We need to recognize two important frames that constitute the context in which the emergence and growth of this violence has occurred.  The first frame is the continuing and growing threat of the Western world to traditional Islamic cultures.  It is unarguable that this violence is emergent from peoples whose world is traditional and not one defined by modern western rationality and worldviews.  Make no mistake that this is the world to those who embrace it—it is real, it is moral, and it demands a longing to keep and protect it.  In the past half century, a leviathan has roamed the globe and corralled all in its path. Globalization not only travels with global commerce, but it also travels with western values, western behaviors, western morals, and all the sensitivities of modernity in its baggage.   The pace of globalization has increased exponentially in the past half century, and especially so in the last quarter century.  As a consequence, those in traditional societies see this monolith as usurping their way of life.  This is the important frame that sets the parameters for the definitions that develop among and about those whom it affects.  The second frame is concerned with the nature of religion.  For those who are traditionally religious, it is the pervasive defining feature of life.  This is not only true of traditional Muslims but is more universal and includes even the more devout evangelical Christians within the U.S.  As such, it is bound to be the vehicle by which discontent is translated and manifest.  In this case, the discontent is cultural as well as political, but largely expressed as religious.  Additionally, religious teachings and text are inherently ambiguous and theologically malleable.  These two contexts are the defining frames in which the current emergence of violence is taking place and they are the missing ingredient in the analysts’ narratives.  Let’s look at what happens within these contexts to produce violence. When we do this, the incomplete ideas of the analysts will gain greater meaning.

First, the violence is partly emergent from Islam itself.  As a consequence of the encroachment of Western rational culture,  Islam is being forced into an internal conversation.  One must not forget that the violence we are observing is more within Islam than directed at the West.  This is a conversation that is about the encroachment of the west, but is expressed in the language of religion.  The importance of religion in life makes this transformation unavoidable, while at the same time, the ambiguity and malleability of religion makes it a likely vehicle for the transformation. Faced with an external threat to their definition of the world, some Muslims secure their footing by hyperbolizing their sacred values.  This has been occurring for some time and had begun even before the more recent military incursions by the Soviets and the Americans.  These incursions have certainly solidified and have helped define the return to more traditional religious authority. Violence is always a potential option in developing a strategy for the protection of tradition via religion.  The texts of all the major religions include narratives of violence.  Consequently, if one chooses to do so, violence can be invoked and legitimized through the ambiguity found in religious texts.  Who will make this choice of embracing violence in their effort to develop a program to protect traditional values?  It is difficult to categorically determine all who may choose do so, but the angry, disenfranchised, self-interested and criminally minded are likely to be among them.

So we now have a complete story.  The story goes like this.  Globalization and the encroachment of the West have threatened the way of life of traditional Islamic peoples.  This has been exacerbated by the military interventions of Western nation states.  This threat has been a significant factor in the emergence of a conversation within the indigenous cultures about religion in the presence of this new rationality.  While some have accepted Western influence (in part), others have become further entrenched in their sacred traditional ways.  In so doing, they have channeled their defense through religion, the most powerful definer of meaning in their lives.  Those who have become the most entrenched have chosen violence as its expression, among those are individuals acting qua individuals.  This phenomenon can best be defined as a defensive one, i.e., protecting a culture that is being threatened by an external force. ISIS originated in this manner but has developed to become more evangelical and territorially expansionist.  The response is still defensive, but not quite as purely so.

After locating the missing piece and assembling the puzzle, we can achieve a more complete understanding of the current circumstance.  Unfortunately, this endeavor may result in a more pessimistic posture. The two important contributing frames are not going to change and, consequently, are likely to facilitate the continuation of violence. Religion is what it is and the context of religion will remain. The Western world has the capacity to leave traditional societies alone, but that is not going to happen. Globalization will march on. Confounding this inevitable march to a neo-liberal world, the elites in these societies have already accepted and participate in Western globalization. By so doing, they have taken the rest of their nation along for the ride. This is particularly true in parts of Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula.

What can we do? We can stop meddling and warring. That should slow some of it down. We can also relinquish the ultimate paradox guiding our policy: If the most important defining frame of the current rise of violence is a threat of Western rationality to traditional cultures, why must we develop policies that are designed to impose more Western culture on these peoples? Unfortunately, that paradox is the core strategy and ideology of the neo-liberal armies and it is unlikely to change.   In the final analysis, the response will be left up to the conversation within these nations.

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  1. There is an extant and vibrant literature, both academic and popular, that reflects the themes presented in this essay. However, it has failed to be included in the public and popular discussion of these issues. Although there are a variety of conclusions emerging from this literature, they share a common conception of globalization as a hegemonic influence on traditional culture. Some see it as a neo-colonization and most see the United States as taking the lead in the intrusion. All understand the critical influence of globalization within Islamic culture. Some view the globalization trend solely as a negative force, while others view it as a mixed blessing. The literature often makes a call for an introspection by Muslims concerning the future course of faith, religion, and culture. Concomitantly, there is often a call for a Western reinterpretation of the meaning and effects of the globalization and the Western war on terror. One can peek at this literature via an internet search using the relevant terms, “globalization, Islam.” The following is a link to one academic paper:

  2. The current Summit on Violent Extremism has rekindled my awareness of the proscriptions in the essay above and the reasons why existing policies and positions miss the mark. This poem may reflect the President’s position and why our Chauvinsim blinds us to the meanings embraced by others.

    The President says the terrorists are few,
    The problem lies with those who may wait in the queue.

    A clash of civilizations is believed by those who wait,
    He says, “That’s folly, it shouldn’t be on your slate.”

    There need not be a clash,
    If to our way you will dash.

    Just follow us there,
    And you will not despair.

  3. Here is an article that analyzes post-military intervention in traditional societies. It sees its source as the neo-liberal globalization march and concludes its consequences are not positive for the indigenous culture. One can easily extend the scenario described to basic neo-liberal expansion and general foreign economic development. It is written by my namesake, who is a noted sociologist and the son of my undergraduate teacher, Janet Schwartz. It is offered as an illustration of critical thinking embracing the themes in the essay above that is not considered in the public debate.

    The abstract:

    M. Schwartz/Societies Without Borders 6:3 (2011) 190-303 Sociologists Without Borders/Sociologos Sin Fronteras, 2011

    Military Neoliberalism:Endless War and Humanitarian Crisis in the Twenty-First Century
    Michael Schwartz Stony Brook State University

    This article seeks to understand the dynamics of twenty-first century military intervention by the United States and its allies. Based on an analysis of Bush and Obama administration policy documents, we note that these wars are new departures from previous interventions, calling on the military to undertake post-conflict reconstruction in ways that was previously left to indigenous government or to the civilian aspects of the occupation. This military-primary reconstruction is harnessed to ambitious neoliberal economics aimed at transforming the host country’s political economy. Utilizing the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions as case studies, the study analyzes the dynamics set in motion by this policy. The key processes are two concatenated cycles of military pacification and economic immiseration in discrete localities operating through varying paths of causation. Pacification by the military as well as subsequent military-primary introduction of neoliberal economic reform generates immiseration; locally based resistance. As well as ameliorating efforts aimed at reconstructing the old system subsequently generates repacification. Each iteration of the cycle deepens the humanitarian crisis, and assures new rounds of local and sometimes national resistance.

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