RAYMOND W. BAKER
Trinity College, Connecticut
Political Science Quarterly
RAYMOND W. BAKER argues that although violent extremism flows from radical Islamic movements, the Islamic mainstream has effectively adapted to the globalized world and will shape the future of Islam in ways open to principled accommodation with the West. He claims that mainstream assertiveness, unencumbered by Western interference, provides the most effective way to counter destructive radicalism.
ISLAM TODAY PRESENTS ITSELF CLOAKED IN A PARADOX. By all
economic and political measures, the late twentieth century was a time
of dramatic decline for the Islamic world, particularly its Arab heartland.
The deterioration continued through the first decade of the twenty-first
century, accelerated by the American shattering of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sober voices from the Islamic world now regularly and accurately describe
their current state as the worst in the 1,400-year-old history of Islam.
Not surprisingly, Western analysts routinely speak of Islam’s decline, particularly
in terms of its political dimensions. Only Marxism rivals “political
Islam” in the number of times it has been pronounced dead, dying, or in
some obscure “post” state. Yet, again and again, Islam appears at grave’s
edge to renew itself in unexpected ways. It does so today in the form of a
worldwide Sahwa Islammiyya or Islamic Awakening that has been in the
making for a generation or more.
Precisely in these times of unprecedented material vulnerability, Islam of
the Awakening has emerged as a powerful wave of world-historic change
that is sweeping through communities of Muslims around the world. Islam
has established itself as the only transnational force able to resist America’s
homogenizing power on a global scale. It has inspired the most successful
Arab resistances to the American-backed expansion of the Israeli state.
Extraordinary popular revolutions in the spring of 2011 in Arab lands,
though not led by Islamists, evinced a distinctive Islamic coloration. Everywhere
the Islamic presence in public life has been strengthened in the wake
of uprisings. The ordinary Muslims who made these revolutions, notably
in Egypt and Tunisia, framed their mobilizing calls for freedom and justice
in an Islamic idiom rarely appreciated or even understood in Western
commentary. As people took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands,
calls celebrating the greatness of God mingled with those demanding
the end of tyranny. This improbable assertiveness of Islam in so many
unexpected ways is the central and little-understood paradox of Islam in
our time: How at a time of such unprecedented weakness has Islam made
itself such a powerful transnational force? How has an Islamic world in
decline and under attack succeeded in initiating a centrist, global wave
for renewal? By what alchemy does Islam translate the visible weaknesses
of Muslims into a formidable wave of Islamic resistance?1
THE MAINSTREAM AND THE ISLAMIC AWAKENING
The simple and straightforward answer to all three questions is the constantly
renewed capacity of the Islamic mainstream, the Wassatteyya,
to energize and guide the Islamic Awakening. The Islamic mainstream
draws as no other force on the inherent strengths of the revelation. It is
mainstream Islam that is safeguarding the faith in these difficult times.
It is the mainstream that will ultimately shape the future of Islam and
Islamic societies. The obsessive focus of the West on contemporary Islamic
extremism has obscured and at times even obstructed and delayed this outcome.
The horrific violence used to combat extremism has had the effect
only of augmenting its role at the expense of the mainstream. Military
invasions and occupations radicalize the Islamic world in destructive ways
and temporarily crowd out the mainstream. In the end, when calm returns
to Islamic lands, mainstream Islam will more effectively assert itself.
Consistent with well-established historical patterns the mainstream will
reabsorb the extremists into a re-centered and inclusive Islamic body.
What exactly is the Islamic Wassatteyya and how does it work these
effects? It is most useful to start with the provisional definition that the
Wassatteyya is what its adherents say it is...
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