‘Resistance’ is the Essence of Islamism

Rami G Khouri

The Daily Star, April 22, 2009

Once in a while a wave of ideas sweeps across societies and countries, and when combined with political and social activism it changes global history for a time. We are living through such wave now in the global Islamist movement that has swept across much of the Arab world and Asia, as well as pockets of other societies since the late 1970s. Many different forms of Islamist movements have come and gone; some have endured for decades; most have embraced non-violent change that starts within the hearts of pious men and women; a few have veered off into violent confrontation or terrorism; and all have generated significant opposition, especially after the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda against the United States.

Islamism broadly defined encompasses many dozens of different forms of nationalist, local, religious, charitable, social, economic, military resistance-based, and the occasional terror movements.

It is also controversial, misrepresented and misunderstood.

We are fortunate in this respect to have available a new book that provides, in my view, one of the most comprehensive, accurate and useful analyses of the core philosophy and motivating political principles of political Islamism that is available to English-speaking readers. The book is titled “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution“, by Alastair Crooke. It cuts through much of the ideological venom, post-9/11 vengefulness, neo-Orientalist stereotyping, or mere nonsense that characterizes much of what is said and written about Islamist movements in much of the Western world and Islamic societies alike.

Crooke, who is based in Beirut, knows the Islamist movements intimately. He has worked or interacted with them in various capacities in the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan for the past three decades, whether in his long service with the British government or the European Union, or more recently as founder and co-director of the Conflicts Forum, an NGO that focuses on meetings and exchanges between Islamist movements and interested parties in the Western world.

The book’s strength, aptly captured in its title, is that it distills into 10 chapters the most important core motivating forces of Islamism as it has developed in our generation, especially since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Though Crooke traces Islamism’s historical roots to the early 20th century and beyond, he concentrates on systematically analyzing its philosophical, ethical, cultural, religious, economic, psychological, national and political values that are important in two respects: First, they explain why and how Islamism, through the lens of “resistance,” has mobilized hundreds of millions of individuals seeking to change the way their societies, politics, and economies operate; and second, they clarify the essential differences, even the confrontations, between Islamic values and the drivers of “Western” values deriving largely from the Euro-centric nation-state anchored in its brand of democracy, secularism, individualism and materialism.

Crooke focuses heavily on philosophical and ethical differences between Islamism and Western traditions. He writes that the West keeps misreading events in the Islamic world, “because the West interprets Islam as a simple struggle over power and sovereignty. It is not. It is a distinctive view of human behavior that posits an alternative method of thinking about the human being; his and her place in the natural order; his and her conduct towards others; his or her place in society; the ordering of his and her material needs, and the management of politics.”

The heart of the Islamist revolution is the revival of the radical Koranic message about social justice, centered on the divine command to individual Muslims to struggle and fight daily for justice and for human respect and compassion. These philosophical perspectives were translated into operational politics and mass resistance by a string of powerful personalities in the 20th century (and to this day) that included Sayyed Qutb, Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, Musa al-Sadr, Ali Shariati, Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and others. Crooke’s chapters on Hamas and Hizbullah explore how those two groups, reflecting their local conditions, translated their Islamist values into strong movements that are locked in ideological and military battle with some of their foes.

A critical common element for all Islamist movements, heavily sparked by the Iranian Revolution, is the sense of empowerment and action, as well as the refusal to acquiesce to others who enjoy superior power or who claim superior rights over other human beings. Resistance changes the balance of power and the terms of debate among parties that had suffered severe power and rights disparities.

Islamist movements will succeed or fail largely “on the basis of their ability to offer a clear alternative social and economic vision from the Western model for the distressed and poor in their societies,” he writes. The Islamist revolution is in its early days, he concludes, and the coming period will see considerable fluidity, tension and change.

This is one of the most substantial and useful books on Islamism to appear in a generation. It may not change many minds among those who support or oppose Islamist movements, but it will provide a combination of clarity and factual information about this phenomenon that has been sorely missing from the debate.


  1. Caroline Pym wrote:

    Although Alastair is open about his decision not to discuss women and gender and Islam in this book.
    p32 “it is a fascinating area:feminism flourishes within Islamism; but not in a way usually understood in the West”.
    I am disappointed because the treatment of women in some Muslim countries is perceived by the west as a block to the understanding of Islam. Perhaps he will write another book on the subject.
    I have just returned from visiting a women’s organisation in Pakistan; the director and other staff repeatedly emphasised that the more extreme restrictions on women are not based on the Koran.
    Caroline Pym

  2. Antonio Ruiz wrote:

    I believe the author, Mr. Crooke, and the commentator , Mr. Khouri, err in their analysis of the conflict between the western and Islamic views of the world.

    Western thought and its implementation through a very long struggle that finished in two internal world wars was the way to enter into a modern age distinct and separated from the tribal age that has lasted at least for 8000 years.

    The conflict is thus between a modern world and another one anchored in ideas at least 1400 years old and older, in the idea of the tribe.

    Western thought has no Pope or King as a guide. Its citizens do not follow a unique system of ideas, nor a unique authority. We adjust ourselves daily to what we discover daily, we change our books and adapt, we innovate, we don’t have a unique guideline written by people that say they speak as the voice of a supreme commander, and we don’t acknowledge the existence of any chief, however exalted, that can order us around. We are free persons. It has taken 2000 years of fight to free us from bosses that burn people (Giordano Bruno in Rome, Miguel Servet in Geneva) and are supreme commanders or hereditary. Our administrators now are chosen and can be in office for a limited period of time. There is a balance of power between different institutions in our countries. Our characteristic is freedom.

    Islam defends the idea of a supreme commander who everyone in society must obey following a fixed set of unchangeable very old rules. Islam is the opposite of freedom.

    The commentator, Mr. Khouri says: “ …on the basis of their ability to offer a clear alternative social and economic vision from the Western model for the distressed and poor in their societies” but that alternative, in Islam, is compassion and charity, not law and employment for the poor.

    The conflict nowadays is between the modern world and the entrenched old one, guided, as in the middle ages of Rome, by clerics that want to continue telling their fellows citizens what to do, instead of simply allowing them to do as they better decide. Censorship, the role of women, the private ownership in the hands of the kings in lands like Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the obligation to follow one religion and the lack of freedom to follow another or none, etc. etc.

    A conflict between modern freedom and old subjection.

    The resistance of an old tribe to enter a new world.

  3. Re:Antonio Ruiz wrote:

    Have you not read the following verse of the Qur`an?
    [2:256] There is no compulsion in religion

    How can you say Islam is the opposite of freedom?

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