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When ideologies tangle 19 janvier 2015

Posted by Acturca in Books / Livres, History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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Financial Times (Asia Ed) Monday, January 19, 2015, p. 8

Review by Borzou Daragahi

Once the roles were reversed. Four hundred years ago, as Christian Europe became engulfed in religious conflict, a stable, prosperous Muslim superpower looked on with interest. The emergence of Protestantism threatened the hegemony of the Ottoman Empire’s longtime Catholic rivals as well as the stability of Istanbul’s trading partners. The Ottomans teamed up with the Protestants, fighting Poland on behalf of rebellious Bohemia, and providing others with indirect covert support in wars against common enemies.

Even in the 20th century Middle East , the secular Gamal Abdul Nasser sought to overthrow the Islamist Saudi monarchy in the 1960s and launched a war in north Yemen against Saudi-backed rivals.

The point, among the six « lessons » drawn from a wide-angle view of history by John Owen in Confronting Political Islam, is that foreign interventions are inevitable at times of grand, transnational ideological upheaval. They are not simply the result of imperial ambitions but of rational self-interest. « When one or more countries is undergoing civil unrest that could produce a regime change, outside countries often have a strategic or material stake in the outcome, » he writes.

Owen, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, applies lessons gleaned from the great western conflicts to what he describes as the decades-long conflict between secularism and Islamism in the greater Middle East. In an animated, ambitious and thoughtful book, he focuses on the unrest that engulfed early modern Europe with the rise of Protestantism, the century-long struggle between absolute monarchy and republicanism in western Europe and North America; and the often-bloody struggle between liberalism, communism and fascism that ravaged the 20th century.

He describes the struggle between secularism and political Islam as similar in scale and stakes to those three epochal conflicts, with secularists holding the upper hand from the 1920s to the 1960s and Islamists gaining ground since.

In dealing with the rise of political Islam, he cautions policy makers never to underestimate the longevity of what they may consider a « backward » ideology, noting the constant flare-ups of Europe’s sectarian wars and the broad appeal of communism and fascism even among intellectuals in the liberal west.

Policy makers must step carefully before trying to co-opt Islamist moderates and isolate radicals. He cites US policy in cold war Europe, where Washington partnered with French socialists but wrote off Italy’s as hopelessly wedded to Moscow.

In the west’s three grand ideological battles, he writes, twice there was no winner. Europe transcended its sectarian conflict by adopting a secular model, like that of Holland, over papist or protestant rule. Battles between republicanism and monarchy led to Britain’s hybrid model, neither absolute monarchy nor radical republic. In the battle between fascism and communism, liberalism eventually won out, with the US defeating Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Why? Owen says the success or failure of bellwether states determines how an ideological conflict will turn out. American capitalism won out, for example, because it was economically and internationally successful.

In the battle between Islamism and secularism Owen identifies Islamist Iran and secular Turkey as the bellwether states to watch. This is problematic. Though they have been heralded at times in the past decade, both countries are mistrusted by many Sunni Arabs, who make up the bulk of the Middle East.

Owen’s book is stimulating and useful but it cannot account for the indecipherable tangle that emerges when ideological, national and local actors and interests become jumbled.

In today’s Middle East hundreds of local forces are at play, from the Berber of north Africa to the Kurdish resurgence in the Levant; from al-Qaeda in the Maghreb to Hizbollah in Lebanon – not to mention tribal and regional conflicts within countries.

It is a limitation Owen knows well. « There is no substitute, » he writes, « for the deep study of Muslims and Islam on their own terms – their theologies, cultures and histories. »

« Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past » by John Owen, Princeton University Press (£19.95 $29.95)


Introduction [PDF]


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