'Understanding Islamism' focus of Global Agenda talk
Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics and Political Science discusses "Understanding Islam" as part of the Global Agenda series.

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3:58 p.m., April 22, 2010----Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, spoke on the topic “Understanding Islamism” as the 2010 Global Agenda speaker series continued Wednesday evening, April 21, at the University of Delaware's Mitchell Hall.

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Gerges explained that when he speaks about Islamism, he is “not talking here about Islam as you all know it -- it is Islamism as a political ideology as opposed to Islam, the religious faith of the 1.3 billion Muslims.”

Gerges said political Islamism is a “complex phenomenon” with many faces. These include the small band of fringe militant Islamists; the mainstream, or moderate Islamists; and finally, the radical, or liberal, Islamists.

Of the militant Islamists, Gerges said, “Some of you might be shocked -- 'Are you saying that Al-Qaeda and its like minded groups are just a tiny minority?' Actually, it's not even a tiny minority. It's the tiniest of minorities. Al-Qaeda, at the height of its power in the late 1990s, numbered between 3,000 and 4,000 militants or extremists. Al-Qaeda today numbers between 300 and 500 terrorists or militants.”

Conceding that there are supporters of Al-Qaeda who might drive those small numbers up, Gerges still concluded that “militant Islamists is a tiny social phenomenon. It has never had a viable social constituency; it's what I call an orphan. If we look at Islamism as a family, militant Islamism has always been an orphan rather than a major player.”

Of the mainstream or moderate Islamists, Gerges noted the Muslim Brotherhood, which formed in Egypt in 1928, is “one of the most powerful political Islamists organizations in the Muslim world. Although it was born in Egypt, it has chapters in many Arab and Muslim countries.”

Gerges said that “if today we were to have elections in the Muslim world, mainstream Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, would basically obtain between 25 and 30 percent of the electorate in Muslims societies. That's a huge number. When we say there are about 1.3 billion Muslims and mainstream Islamism garner between 25 and 30 percent, that is a major social movement and political movement in the Muslim world. What I am trying to say is that mainstream Islamists, those Islamists that have renounced use of force in the service of politics, basically represent the most important constituency.”

The radical, or liberal, Islamists, Gerges qualified as being “a very small minority but a critical minority, and it's becoming more and more critical by the day.”

Vacuum of legitimate authority

Gerges said it is impossible to understand political Islamism without understanding that “Islamism is a product in a huge vacuum of legitimate authority in the Arab world.”

Many governments in the Arab world are “oppressive, authoritarian, secular governments,” he explained, “governments that are seen as illegitimate by their population. In fact, the question of legitimacy has become deeper and wider over the last few years.”

Gerges said these governments have failed both the test of economic prosperity and institution building, so there are governments that not only are oppressive in nature to their populations but that also “have failed to provide the goods for the population. They have failed to provide good governance for their population.”

Focusing on Egypt as an example of a government that could be viewed as illegitimate, Gerges said that in 1923 that nation had one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Today, however, the government “cannot provide basic bread for its population. Egypt can't feed its population.”

Gerges said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has “mutilated” the constitution to such a degree that his reign as president is limitless and that he is grooming his son to become the next president of that nation.

Failure of post-colonial state

Gerges said Islamism came into being because of the failure of the post-colonial state. “Not only has the post-colonial state failed to create institutions, failed to deliver the goods to their societies, but the post-colonial state failed to protect the homeland,” he said.

By failing to protect the homeland, Gerges said he referred to the Six-Day War that took place between Israel and the neighboring states in the Arab world. “In 1967, as you all know, a tiny, small, dynamic Jewish state defeated all of the Arab states together in six days,” he said. “The post-colonial state was crushed in six days by the small, tiny, dynamic and vibrant Jewish state.”

While the Arab world was promised victory and deliverance, they only delivered “defeat and delivered shame,” he said.

This lead to a swell of Islamism because, as Gerges explained, societies in duress “fall on their deepest values. They fall on their cultures. When we are in duress, we fall on our basic most important values, and for Muslims, what was the most basic and important in their moment of duress? They said, 'We lost in 1967 because, basically, we renounced our religion. We lost in 1967 because we basically gave up on our most important value that is Islam. The reason the Jewish state won in 1967? Because Israel was living according to its Jewish faith.'”

Concluding his presentation, Gerges suggested that America invest political capital to engage with mainstream political Islam, making structural investments into the Arab world rather than military ones. “So far, when you look at our allies in the region, we are investing in the existing secular authority and I think it would be wonderful to begin to invest major capital in Muslim societies as opposed to Muslim governments,” he said. “This is not about money; there is money in that part of the world, there's tons of money. What I am talking about is political leadership -- I'm talking about political will, to begin the process of healing. To basically keep a healthy distance from those dictators that oppress a population. Because I'm afraid that we can really ill afford to continue on the same course, the course that has been very costly, not only for us, the United States, but also for Muslims societies, as well.”

The 2010 Global Agenda speaker series is sponsored by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication and presented by the World Affairs Council of Wilmington, the UD Institute for Global Studies, the Department of Communication and the Department of Political Science and International Relations.

The next Global Agenda speaker series program, “Political Islam: The Graphic Novel,” will be held at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 28, also in Mitchell Hall. The presentation will feature Naif Al-Mutawa, who is the creator of THE 99, the first group of superheroes born of an Islamic archetype.

The series is moderated by Ralph Begleiter, director of the UD Center for Political Communication.

Article by Adam Thomas
Photo by Duane Perry

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