The Economist: A convenient adversary?

The emergence of violent Islamism in the heart of the Western world, and the “war on terror” proclaimed against it, led to some interesting ideological trends. One might be described as progressive Islamophobia: a school of thought which, from a left-of-centre perspective, insisted that militant Islam was really a reactionary force, despite its claim to be fighting for the wretched of the earth. It was this school which devised the term “Islamofascism”—to stress the threat which fundamentalist Muslims seemed to pose to many things which the progressive camp held dear, from sexual equality to freedom of scientific enquiry. The British writer Nick Cohen has taken up this argument, and the late Christopher Hitchens took it further than almost anybody.

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Arun Kundnani, a British-born scholar who is now an adjunct professor at New York University, is a different sort of leftist. He is not Muslim, either by background or conviction, but he maintains that “Islamophobia” is a thinly disguised form of racial prejudice, and that on both sides of the Atlantic, the war on terror has been an excuse for governments to ratchet up surveillance and harassment of people who are “guilty” of nothing worse than critical thought about their countries’ domestic or foreign policies. He has been touring his new and old homelands with a book entitled “The Muslims are Coming.” As the title implies, he thinks militant Islam has become a convenient bogeyman; it serves an ideological purpose, just as (from the viewpoint of a suspicious leftist) an exaggerated Soviet threat sometimes did during the cold war.

Well, the bombers who attacked New York, Washington DC, London and Madrid were more than bogeymen, and the same applies to the Soviet invaders of Czechoslovakia. Mr Kundnani does (albeit only fleetingly) acknowledge that police forces have a legitimate interest in warding off terrorist attacks. But he also has some fair points to make about the counter-productivity of some of their efforts. In Britain, a well-funded government programme called “Preventing Violent Extremism”—intended to foster moderate Islam—had some weird unintended effects. The project known as Prevent was exploited by cynical “community leaders” and resented by ordinary Muslims who felt the government was trying to make them into compliant Uncle Toms. I came across Mr Kundnani when I was reporting on the Islamic scene in northern British cities, and I found that his analysis of Prevent rang true, as did other objections from a more conservative viewpoint.

Even if you don’t share Mr Kundnani’s relentless scepticism, it’s worth engaging with his critique of the lazy thinking that is sometimes called “culturalism” or “essentialism”—the idea, simply put, that militant Islamism simply reflects something fundamental about Islam, and its propensity to inspire violence, rather than anger triggered by the realities of life in Gaza, Kashmir or Chechnya. Mr Kundnani isn’t a theologian and he refuses to enter theological debate; he assumes that Islam, like almost any other religion, can in different contexts be an inspiration either to violence or peace—and that religion itself is not the main variable. His approach may under-play the importance of religious teaching and its interpretation, but many other approaches go to the other extreme—by maintaining that Islam, or certain readings of lslam, are a gratuitous, self-generating source of violence, regardless of what may be happening on the street.

Max Weber (who stresses the importance of religion as an independent factor in human affairs) wasn’t right about everything, any more than Karl Marx was.