The Rise of Islamism in the 20th Century

1 January 2017

Islamism is by now a powerful force. It runs governments in Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan. It is an important force of opposition in Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and the Palestinian authority. The paper at hand is going to analyze what conditions and events allowed for the rise of Islamism as an ideology in the later 20th century? The first part is going to introduce the concept of eurocentrism. Following this, Kemalism and its effect on Islamism is going to be discussed. In the last part of the paper post-modernism and Khomeini and their role in the rise of Islamism are highlighted.

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EUROCENTRISM Eurocentrism can be described as a phenomenon establishing the West as the center of the world by equating it with modernity and as a result make it the destiny of the world to become westernized, since this is equal with being modern. This development is based on the idea that “the West knows best” (Sayyid, 127). This concept has its historical roots in European colonialism and imperialism. “The discourse of eurocentrism is one of the major strands with which the network of western global power is held together “(p. 129), since it provides them with a sense of nity and power, which serves as legitimacy for claiming to be the center of the world. Opposition that wants to resist this hegemonic order, can do so only in the terms of that hegemony. This leads to another assumption of eurocentrism: “there is nothing outside the Western project”. (p. 135) KEMALISM After the post-colonial order and the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim world was dominated by Kemalist discourses. Influenced by eurocentrism, Kemal’s vision was to mimic the European way of building and reigning a nation to become like the West and as a result become modern and reach political efficacy (Sayyid 155).

This aim to become like the West resulted in major changes in Turkey and other countries being influenced by the Kemalist discourse. Before being abolished by the Kemalist regime, the caliphate constituted the nodal point, around which the Muslim unity and identity was built. At the same time it was the centre of the Muslim political structure, attaching Islam as a master signifier to the state. (p. 57) Abolishing the caliphate separated the link between state and Islam. The goal of Kemalism was to disconnect Islam from the state to be able to establish a hegemonic discourse without having to integrate Islam.

Being aware of the fact that the Kemalist government could not neglect Islam altogether, since the possibility of using it to mobilize support still existed, Kemal tried to tie it in into his discourse. Acts like the abolishment of the caliphate and putting all educational institutions under direct state control to avoid Islamic concepts being taught, sought to distance and even exclude Islam from the Kemalist Turkey. (pp. 63-64) The effect of Kemalism on the role of Islam was different than expected. Instead of depoliticize Islam the policies of the Kemalist reactivated it.

By removing it from the centre of their construction of political order, they politicized it. Unsettling it and disseminating it into the general culture made it available for reinscription. The rise of Islamism was enabled through the possibility to articulate it into a counter-hegemonic discourse. (pp. 72-73) Additionally, the social crisis, in which the discourse of Kemalism was in, was severe enough to make Kemalism appear unstable and Islamism, because at this time seeming to be the only discourse that was structured in an otherwise unstable environment, could emerge as opposition to Kemalism.

It provided Muslim societies with social order and stability. Nevertheless, the existence of Islam alone cannot account for Islamism, since it is not a reflection of the religion, but it becomes a political discourse that makes use of Islam to undermine the Kemalist regime. Islamism makes use of the availability of Islam and increases its availability at the same time. Through this relationship a two-way process evolves in which Islam and Islamism are organized around each other. (p. 2) The most important task for Islamism was to establish Islamism as a counter-hegemonic discourse through the construction of order to be able to rule in opposition to Kemalism. Hence, overall the emergence of Islamism was equally dependent on the availability of Islamism and the erosion of Kemalism. (p. 77) The new hegemony of Islamism was only able to emerge because the old one began to unravel. Reasons for the failure were among others that the project of Kemalism failed to constitute all social relations and was not able to make all subjects within the Kemalist regimes fully internalize this discourse.

It was not evenly represented in all Muslim societies and was therefore not able to impose it totally. (p. 85) This incompleteness of the discourse resulted in the politicization of Islam, which at the same time was also based on the inability of the Kemalists to make their picture of Islam as the backward, superstitious and traditional discourse seem natural. (p. 86). On top the Kemalist regime had difficulties to suppress existence of an Islamist opposition. All together these factors weakened the Kemalist’s hold as a hegemonic discourse.

The only emergent counter hegemonic discourse readily available to substitute the crumbling anciens regime appeared to be Islamism, despite its uneven presence. (p. 86) POST-MODERNISM Around the 1970s, after the decline of Kemalism, the situation began to change. It became possible to articulate political demands using a vocabulary centered on Islam, without any attempt to associate Islam with the West (Sayyid 155). This period, called post-modernism, constitutes a critique of modernity, which tries to abolish the view of the West and modernity being synonyms.

It aimed at breaking the substitutability of the West and modern. Decentring the West meant the weakening of this constructed western identity. If the West ceased to exist as an unified entity, it could not provide the unity to constitute modernity. (p. 110) Post-modernism did not see the West as continuing to be the nodal point of the discourse of modernity and decentred the West. (p. 110) This post-modern mind-set further spurred the emergence of Islamism, since it was only able to exist in a world in which there was suspicion of a western meta-discourse (p. 18). This possibility of rejection of westernization depended on the recognition that there was no historical necessity of the western hegemony; and after two world wars, decolonization and the decline of Kemalism there was enough support for this assumption. Only in a context in which it was possible to disarticulate and re-articulate the relationship between the West and universalism in a way that it was no longer seen as the center and equal to modernity, could Islamism emerge. (p. 128)

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