The Essence of Islamist Resistance: A Different View of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas

Alastair Crooke

Article posted in New Perspectives Quarterly, June 2, 2009

Most Western analysts of political Islam make the same mistake. They instinctively assume that conflict with the West has mainly to do with specific foreign policies, particularly of the U.S. with respect to Israel, the Arab world and Iran, and, if those changed, all would be well.

In fact, my intensive contact over the years with Iranian clerics, Hezbollah and Hamas suggest that the conflict with the West is much deeper. It is rooted in radically different worldviews about human nature and the good society.

Failing to grasp this reality, the West continually misreads what is going on in the Muslim world. At root, the West is about individualistic, instrumental rationality and materialism; the Islamic resistance movements are about a communal and spiritual approach to life.

It has been 30 years now since the Iranian Revolution, and 50 years since the first Islamist resistance movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was formed in Egypt. Yet many in the West remain bemused: Why is there an Islamist resistance at all? “Against what are Muslims in revolt?” Westerners ask.

Even now, more shockingly, there seems still no clarity about the Iranian Revolution: Was it nothing more than a populist kick against power, and the Shah’s heavy-handedness that was hijacked by the Ayatollahs — as many assert?

Such explanations seem blindingly inadequate to account for events that were — and still are — mobilizing and energizing hundreds of millions of Muslims. In my book “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution,” I argue that the Revolution is essentially a “Refusal” — a grand refusal to accept an understanding of the self or of the worlds dominated by contemporary secular Western consciousness.

Islamism, in short, is not irrational — it is no whimsy of divine caprice; it is accessible to reasoned explanation. And it seeks to evolve an alternative to the ways of the West.

Western modernity essentially has stood on two pillars:

The first has been described by historians as the “Great Transformation.” It began in Europe in the 18th century and was based on a moral philosophy that saw human welfare yoked to the efficient operation of markets. Humans, pursuing private desires and needs, would intersect with others, through the market mechanism, to maximize not just individual welfare but community well being, too.

Closely associated with this was another idea, taken up by English Puritans, that had its roots deep in Anglo-Saxon history: It saw the “invisible hand” of Providence also at work in politics to bring about another “ideal” outcome.

This view held that the jostling and hurly-burly of political contention between the Anglo-Saxon tribes in the earliest society had given rise to a spontaneous harmony and political order. From this political “market,” English Puritans believed that the Anglo-Saxon institutions representing the epitome of personal freedom and justice had spontaneously emerged.

Such key ideas about politics and economics were transported to the Americas with the Pilgrim fathers to become the archetype for the U.S. system of government. The concept of the nation-state, democracy and human rights all flowed from this Protestant current.

Of course the “Great Transformation” did not come about either naturally or spontaneously. The creation of a market system required massive state intervention to subordinate other important social, communal and political objectives to this overriding end. This brought stresses that took 19th-century Europe to the brink of revolution and, by the 1920s, left Islam in crisis, holding on by its fingernails.

In the century leading up to Islam’s crisis in the 1920s, the “Great Transformation” had been exported to the Muslim world. There was a rush by the West to create ethnically unitary nation-states in the former Western provinces of the Ottoman Empire. A powerful nation-state was seen as the only structure with enough instrumental strength to force through the social changes required to impose market liberalization on Muslim societies.

As in Europe earlier, the impact of “transformation” was truly traumatic. Approximately five million European Muslims were driven from their homes between 1821 and 1922 — as the West created nation-states in former Ottoman provinces.

The Young Turk determination to emulate Europe’s secular liberal-market modernization in Turkey came at terrible cost: One million Armenians died, 250,000 Assyrians perished, and one million Greek Orthodox Anatolians were expelled. Kurdish identity was suppressed, and finally Islam was demonized and suppressed by Kemal Ataturk. Islamic institutions were closed; and the 1,400-year-old Caliphate was abolished.

Paradoxically, it was the Kemalists and Turkey’s transformation, which Westerners so admire, that inadvertently, by severing the links to the Caliphate superstructure that had provided stability to the Islamic world for centuries, created the conditions in which Islamism at the popular level could transmute and evolve into a revolutionary movement from the bottom up, including from the margins of the Shiite minority.

There is a clear line leading from the secularization of Turkey to the Iranian revolution more than a half century later.

Part II

Disorientated and demoralized, the Islamic community in the early 20th century was under siege from enforced secularism in Turkey, Iran and elsewhere. With Marxism filtering away its younger members, it began a journey of discovery. It sought a solution to its problems by finding a new “Self.”

Islamists returned to the Quran for insights. The Quran is not a blueprint for politics or a state: It is, as it states frequently, nothing new. The Quran is a “reminder” of old truths, already known to us all. One of which is that for humans to live together successfully society must practice compassion, justice and equity.

This insight lies at the root of political Islam. It is a principle that represents a complete inversion of the “Great Transformation.” Instead of the pre-eminence of the market to which other social and community objectives are subordinated, the making of a society based on compassion, equity and justice becomes the overriding objective — to which other objectives, including markets, are subordinated.

It is revolutionary in another aspect: Instead of the individual being the organizational principle around which politics, economics and society are shaped, the Western paradigm again is inverted. It is the collective welfare of the community in terms of such principles — rather than the individual — that becomes the litmus of political achievement.

In short, Islamists are re-opening an old debate — one that is at the root of both Western and Islamic philosophy. Posed by Plato, that debate questions the purpose of politics. Some Westerners are troubled that after 200 years of settled opinion, the Western paradigm is being questioned anew. One American conservative commented to me recently that with Descartes, the West had discovered “objective truth” through science and technology. It had made “us” rich and powerful and Muslims could not bear that. They knew that ultimately they would be forced to acquiesce to Western “truth.”

But the Islamist revolution is more than politics. It is an attempt to shape a new consciousness — to escape from the most far-reaching pre-suppositions of our time. It draws on the intellectual tradition of Islam to offer a radically different understanding of the human being, and to escape from the hegemony and rigidity of the Cartesian mindset.

It is a voyage of discovery to a new “Self” that is far from complete. It has many shortcomings, but its intellectual insights offer Muslims (and Westerners) the potential to step beyond the shortcomings of Western materialism. This is what excites and energizes. As a Hezbollah leader replied to me when asked what the Iranian Revolution had signified for him, he said unhesitatingly that Muslims were free to think Islamically once again.
It is not possible therefore to make sense of the Iranian or wider Islamic resistance without understanding it as a philosophic and metaphysical event, too. It is the omission of this latter understanding that helps explain repeated Western misreadings of Iran, its Revolution and events in the region.

Of course, there is another side to Islamism: Islam, like Christianity, has witnessed, from the outset, a struggle between a narrow, literalist and intolerant interpretation in opposition to the intellectual tradition grounded in philosophy and reasoning and in transforming knowledge. Though not at all perceived by most Western analysts, who see them only through the prism of opposition to Israeli occupation, movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas are part of the latter, intellectual tradition.

Perversely, for the past 50 years, it is to the literalists, often called Salafi, that the West has looked to circumscribe “threats to its interests” in the Middle East — emulating Cold War containment thinking.

The Saudi orientation of Salafism has been used by the West to counter Nasserism, Marxism, the Soviet Union, Iran and Hezbollah; but in so using the literalist puritan orientation, the West has misunderstood the mechanism by which some Salafist movements have migrated through schism and dissidence to become the dogmatic, hate-filled and often violent movements that really do threaten Westerners, as well as other Muslims, too.

Ironically, the West of the Enlightenment is situated on the wrong of the divide — backing dogma versus the open intellect of religious evolution. It is perhaps not surprising that a literalist and dogmatic West has contributed to literalism in Islam also. But the West, by holding on to this flawed perception that it is supporting docility and “moderation” against “extremism,” paradoxically has left the Middle East a less stable, more dangerous and violent place.


  1. Susil Gupta wrote:

    Alistair Crooke’s explanation of the rise of Islam is based on an overarching theory that argues that Islam is a social and political movement which opposes collective and directed principles of social organization to the individualism and laissez faire of the West.

    Firstly, one needs to be weary of all simple, mono-causal, overarching theories spanning centuries or decades and applied to a wide variety of countries with very different social structures. While intellectually enticing that rarely turn out to be true.

    Secondly, the theory simply does not square with the facts in ways too numerous describe comprehensively. The thesis falls foul of history: the tension and confrontation between Islam and the West predates the advent of capitalism. It was at its highest during the Middle Ages when European societies might mistakenly be called ‘collective’. Few Islamic societies are in any way ‘collective’, and those that are, turn out to be backward communities that are not confronting the West. Most of the ones that are, turn out to be very ‘vertical’ semi-feudal societies with a very strong paternalistic and repressive ethic. There is nothing ‘collective’ about society in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, etc. These are highly divided and divisive societies which is why the West has found it relatively easy to manipulate them.

    Islamic societies today are no more ‘collective’ that European societies before the advent of capitalism. In addition, the populations in these countries – including those that are hide-bound Islamists – are all pro-capitalists. None of them are opposed to individualistic money-making, and in the pursuit of making-money they have no qualms about exploiting, ripping-off, and degrading their fellow Muslims. Indeed, apart from foreign policy, the reason why Islamic population are ‘anti-West’ is a product of the frustration of attempting to do what cannot be done: be successful as capitalists while clinging to the privileges of a traditional paternalist society. They want to have their cake and eat it. They do not understand that to create a free labour market and to have the ‘freedom of contract’ one must also free law of religion and free men and women from traditional constraints.

    The problem with Crooke’s thesis is that it is a dialectic of ideas – a history of ideas – rather than a dialectic of realities.

    Susil Gupta
    World Politics and Imperialism Study Group

  2. Kathleen Barnett wrote:

    Is it possible to discuss this topic, “The Essence of Islamist Resistance,” without even mentioning Israel-Palestine? The article begins in an extremely insightful way, with an important perspective to offer, but isn’t it ture that the Palestinian situation has provided the clearest evidence to many muslims of the immorality and injustice of the West and the higher morality of Islam?

  3. Moe Shreif wrote:

    This article explains it all. Yet there is a danger to humanity when the individual is not released; the spiritual will be lost in communality. A friend once said to me: I am bungee jumping into hell and every time I spring out of it I pull someone with me. The material is like this hell. It is essential. The spiritual cannot be “good” unless it is a choice – individual freedom. The spiritual is reduced to mere ritual when it is taken up by communality. Maybe the West misreads what is going on in the Muslim world, but the fact that it is an issue means that at least they are trying. The West is prejudged and demonized by Islamists who see in its destruction the only solution – a solution to their own failures and their fear of releasing the individual.

  4. Nasim Islam wrote:

    Atomic and sub-atomic particles in a system, if looked closely, seems to point a chaotic environment; however, while if looked as a system, it is understood to be indeed in a very stable form that is essentially the building block of each and every physical object around us. Western ideology of social order & stability built on the actions of an individual, which they allege should lead to the stability of the system, i.e. society, nation, etc. – is antithetical to the natural system of the universe. On the other hand, collective individualism – society, a stable system – which is based on the premise that, for an ever-lasting stable system one has to further the societal agenda at the expense of individualism – but why??. It is a system hard to swallow from a western mind-set; however, for an individual who put forth “Real-God” – not the money-God in western mind-set – and thus equality at every sphere of life, for a life, life after death, which is far more enticing than the life of this world, forms the spirituality of a real Muslim, thus forms the basic building block of an Islamic society, where consumerism is regarded as a sin-like action because Islamic society prohibits hoarding wealth, which promotes consumerism!

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