In the years since 9-11 two broad narratives have emerged in the West to explain the nature of the so-called War on Terror. On the right it has become commonplace to equate Islamism - the ideology that seeks to order 21st century societies by the medieval norms enshrined in Islamic sharia law - with a long line of totalitarian threats to liberal democracy.
Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution, for instance, calls it a “foul apparition that has succeeded fascism, Nazism, and communism as the world's next bane”. The left, not surprisingly, sees the issue as a product of poverty or flawed policies toward the Middle East. Robert Fisk of The Independent blames Islamist terrorism on “political situations and injustice in various parts of the world”.
Both views are flawed. Conservatives rightly emphasise the power of Islamism as an idea and the global ambitions of its adherents, but fail to acknowledge the movement’s lack of military and intellectual heft, or its limited global appeal compared to communism in its heyday. Liberals correctly point out that talk of a Muslim takeover of Europe is delusional, or at the very least premature. But they fail to see that in the Muslim-majority societies of Asia and the Middle East Islamism remains a powerful and growing force.
Better organised, better motivated, backed by the threat of violence and protected by cultural norms that prohibit any criticism of Islam, Islamists are able to alter the nature of society even where they don’t hold formal power. Unless beleaguered moderates from Iraq to Indonesia can find a way to stand down the mob and broaden the war of ideas they’ll continue to lose ground to a tenacious movement that believes it has both God and history on its side.
At first glance the familiar comparison of the War on Terror with the Cold War appears reasonable enough. Like communists, Islamists value the group over the individual, justify the use of violence for political ends and nurture an almost visceral antipathy to a world order dominated by wealthy liberal democracies.
Moreover, in this new Cold War Moscow and Beijing can easily be swapped with Riyadh and Tehran, Karl Marx with Al Jazeera’s equally hirsute Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and the Soviet’s World Federation of Democratic Youth with the Saudi-funded World Assembly of Muslim Youth. The threat within - once symbolised by Western communist parties and their sympathisers - is now represented by such Islamist-friendly groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Council of Britain.
Moreover, the argument goes, whereas communist and capitalist proxies skirmished in such remote corners as Angola and Afghanistan, Islamists have brought their battle to the heart of the West. Suddenly New York, London and Madrid are as much battlegrounds as Beirut and Baghdad.
Plausible though it appears, this formulation exaggerates Islamist strength and underestimates the effectiveness of the West’s institutions and the resilience of its societies.
True, Islamist intimidation has curbed free speech in some places: the Dutch and the Danes must tread lightly when criticising Islam or contemplate a life of bodyguards and safe houses. But it has also spawned a generation of bold Muslim thinkers in the West - Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and Asra Nomani to name just three - who are willing to ask the uncomfortable questions that tend not to be asked in their countries of origin. Terrorism has been contained; only foiled plots make the front pages these days. Moreover, Islamism, steeped in a joyless literal reading of Islam, cannot hope to extend its appeal in the West beyond a minority of a minority - those Muslims drawn to its stark utopian vision. Osama bin Laden’s visage will never grace nearly as many T-Shirts as Che Guevara’s.
The weakness of Islamists in the West is matched by the backwardness of the Muslim world. In its prime the Soviet Union could reasonably claim to match the United States in such varied fields as chess, ballet, mathematics, Olympic sports, aviation technology and space exploration. Strip away the accident of oil wealth from Muslim lands and we’re left with societies that cumulatively boast fewer achievements than a single mid-sized Asian power, albeit an exceptional one, such as Korea.
This reality makes it easy to dismiss the Islamist threat, as do most Western liberals, or to shrink its dimensions to the activities of a handful of terrorist groups - al-Qaida or Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiyah. Yet, paradoxically, it’s precisely the sorry state of Muslim societies that makes Islamism such a formidable force. Reminded daily that they are recipients of God’s final revelation, a large minority of Muslims - perhaps between 10 and 15 per cent - embrace the Islamist idea that the cause of their backwardness lies not in a failure to embrace modernity but in a failure to fully embrace their faith. Many more, while not Islamists themselves, are broadly sympathetic to a worldview that’s steeped in conspiracy theories and compulsively blames Muslim failures on outsiders. Jews, Americans and Freemasons are favourite bogeymen.
Of course, neither religious obscurantism nor a lack of self-criticism is a Muslim monopoly. India has its Hindu fundamentalists who riot against Muslims and attack painters and scholars, America its Christians waging war against Darwin in the classroom. Nonetheless the danger to liberal democracy that Islamists pose in Muslim countries is of an entirely different order.