Culture / Ethnic Conflict / International Relations / Nation Identity

The Rise of Islam: Reality or Myth?

The size of the Muslim population in the world has been on the rise for the last 20 years. Statistics for the year 1973 indicate that the world population of Muslims was 500 million; now, it has reached 1.5 billion. 1 in 4 people are now Muslim, and this has raised questions concerning the status quo of the international system and how it will be affected. A large concern that is withheld by many is not that there is a growing number of Muslims in the world, but that the belief in Islam by these Muslims is also on the rise. It is the (mis)perception of Islam and the queries regarding its nature (especially after September 11, 2001) that has caused the Western world to become more wary of not only Muslim states but the surfacing of ‘Islamic’ states. It is key to analyse the ways in which Middle Eastern foreign policy is shaped; by domestic policy, instability and violence, by their own perceptions of the West, but also by Western perceptions of the Middle East. In examining all of these factors, one may come to the reality that it is not necessarily true that Muslim-majority countries have become more ‘Islamic’, but instead they are perceived to be more ‘Islamic’ by others.

The word „Islam“ is defined as submission to Allah. However, the more important term is ‘Islamism’, which is not only a religion but a political system. Islam is no longer a mere religion, but a political ideology that could reshape all aspects of society. Sami Zubaida argues that, “Islam has been political since its inception”(Islam, the People and the State). It is only recent events, such as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the attacks of September 11 that have caused speculation as to the nature of Islam. However, despite common belief, not many Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East actually have an Islamic government, with the exception of Iran.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 had a massive impact on the already multi-dimensional relations between ‘the West’ and ‘the Islamic world’. Before these attacks, it was assumed that violence and terrorism were generated out of a lack of wealth and education, and notions of religious extremism and political causes were not given so much attention. The attacks forced citizens and politicians worldwide to reconsider Samuel Huntington’s prediction of relations between different civilizations. He wrote, “Conflicts between the West and Islam thus focus less on territory than on broader intercivilizational issues”(The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order). Huntington foresaw a change in international rivalry from border disputes, to conflicts concerning belief. After September 11, the security of the Western world had disintegrated and there were three views of how to proceed with relation with Islam: to launch a War on Terror, which was only against those who had abused Islam; that the West was superior to Islam; or to denounce Islam as a religion that encourages terrorism. None of the options were particularly favourable to the Islamic world, which caused further tension between the two civilizations. This Islamic frustration with the West was increased even more so after Bush’s description of the War on Terror a “crusade”, reminding Muslims of the brutality against Muslim Arab in Jerusalem. The attacks of September 11 and the reaction of the West do not necessarily reflect the foreign policy of Islamic republics in the Middle East, but the increased hostility towards this region certainly had an impact on Muslim views of the West and their attitude to Islam.

Western perceptions of an Islamic threat have played a large role in shaping their own foreign policy, which in turn has created a security dilemma, a term coined by John Herz. The idea behind this term is that security for one state reduces security for the other. After 9/11 the security of the US was breached and so it has (re)acted to restore this security, for example, through the War on terror. Meanwhile, countries in the Middle East in turn, are acting to defend their states and their beliefs, creating a vicious circle. However, the problem may be that it is more than a case of merely defending oneself, but that tensions between ‘the West’ and the Middle East derive from a lust for power. Barry Buzan (1991, cited in Huntington 1997) prophesized that the next civilizational ‘clash’ would be between these two regions because of Middle Eastern “jealousy of Western power”. This is based on the realist concept that “the drives to live, to propagate, and to dominate are common to all men”(Morgenthau, 1955). To use the realist theory of international relations here, the US (although currently still the global hegemon) will be looking to maintain this power, and will see any rising power as a threat. This may be the reason why the recent demographic growth in the Muslim population and their widespread belief in Islam have caused the misperception that Muslim-majority countries have become more ‘Islamic’, when in fact the truth is not that Islamism is spreading, but that the Muslim population is.

However, the attacks of September 11, not only changed opinions in the Western world, but also in the Middle East. Four views emerged in the Muslim world concerning September 11 and its aftermath. The first comes from those moderate Islamists, who have an utter belief in Islam and its validity, but reject any form of violence unless their religion, life and liberty are seriously threatened or invaded. This reflects the overall view of Islam concerning jihad, meaning struggle. Amin Saikal explains that the Western equivalent of jihad would be described as “just war”, indicating that it is the defensive nature of jihad which is given primacy in Islam. If this is taken to be true, then the so called ‘Islamic threat’ hyped up by the West, particularly the US, is not entirely true, as the opinion on violence of Islam is the same as that of Christianity and Judaism: that it is forbidden to take life “except for a just cause”(as is written in the Koran). The second Muslim interpretation of Islam is concerned with faith, and those that fall under this category believe that Islam can be political or apolitical, depending on whether they feel their security is threatened or not. They often fall to the mercy of neo-fundamentalists and radicals, the violence-oriented of the four opinion groups aforementioned. This proves that not only is Islam not a religion that always advocates violence, but that many interpret it to be a non-violent religion and political way of life.

It seems as if the world has failed to recognise that the terrorist attacks, which have occurred in the last decade, were conducted by extremist groups such as Al Qaeda, and not the governments of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. In fact, the BBC released a documentary entitled ‘Generation Jihad’ in which Peter Taylor claims that the problem of terrorist violence no longer stems from large organisations such as Al Qaeda, but rather “home-grown” domestic terrorist groups all over the world. Members of these groups can be categorized under the more violently opinionated Islamists, neo-fundamentalists and radicals. Radicals wish for Sharia (Islamic Law) to be reinstated, and for neo-fundamentalists, what matters to them most is the text rather than the context. These Islamist movements are aiming for a more Islamic society, and claim that Islam should be relevant to all aspects of life: politics, culture, and economics. The fact that these Islamist movements occur on a domestic level and rise from local regimes does not mean that the foreign policy of the state in question is not affected. It is a well known fact that domestic politics actually play a large role in determining a state’s foreign policy. Islamists not only directly challenge the state, but also challenge counter measures introduced by local regimes. The reality is that hardly any Muslim-majority countries actually present themselves as ‘Islamic’, Iran being one of the exceptions. It is this disturbance in domestic politics that can often affect not only the foreign policy of the state in question, but this domestic instability might trigger fear or at least caution in other countries when interacting with said state.

This concept greatly reflects Immanuel Kant’s ‘Democratic Peace Theory’, in which he claims that democracies are less likely to go to war with other democracies. It is a common misconception that Muslim states in the Middle East are not democratic. The truth is that Islamism is in fact, compatible with some form of democratic system (in particular electoral democracy). However, that is not to say that the system adopted is a liberal one, and this is from where the misconceptions emerge. The question at hand therefore, is whether this increased understanding and (in some cases undertaking) of democratic systems has meant that the Middle East is less ‘Islamic’. Globalization has played a large role this query. It is globalization that has presented the Middle East as more ‘Islamic’ because in an age where states are interacting more, and countries are merging together as entities (e.g. generalisations such as ‘the West’) Muslim-majority countries are deciding not to conform to this and are keen to retain their own culture and identity.

However, many states are adopting the system of electoral democracy and this indicates that Muslim states in the Middle East are perhaps taking a step towards the Western model of the state system, but on the other hand, this does not mean that the system of democracy works in the same way in the West and in the Middle East. This is to say that the Middle Eastern idea of democracy is different to the Western ideal, and therefore Kant’s ‘Democratic Peace Theory’ is flawed. The idea that like-minded states will not go to war with one another is true, but if the idea of democracy is broadening and there are different perceptions of it across the globe, then democracies might in fact go to war with other democracies. This is to say that Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East are not becoming more ‘Islamic’ than they were before, but that they are keen to stick to their set of beliefs, rather than follow Western ideals.

Looking at the case of Iraq can prove this argument. Relations between the US and Iraq are far from amicable, as the ongoing Iraq war demonstrates, despite the fact that Iraq is described as a parliamentary democracy. This is largely to do with Iraq’s foreign policy over the last few decades and the readiness of the Iraqi government to use military force as a major foreign policy instrument. Due to the fact that Iraq has presented itself as aggressive and as an enemy of the US, the US is cautious as to its relations with Iraq. However, Iran, which is defined as a theocratic republic and has a legal system based on sharia law is also not on good terms with US. The US is very wary of Iran’s nuclear programme despite the fact that Iran’s leadership has specified that its goal is to “generate electricity without dipping into the oil supply it prefers to sell abroad, and to provide fuel for medical reactors” (The New York Times. 25 April 2010). Iran has not presented itself in the same way as Iraq, and yet the US is still wary of its relations towards Iran. The question to ask is whether this attitude has anything to do with the ‘Islamic’ nature of the Iranian regime.

The question of whether or not Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East have become more ‘Islamic’ is ultimately very subjective. It is dependant on one’s definition of Islam and is also an over-generalisation, because as this essay has detailed, not all Middle East countries have the same outlook on foreign policy, nor are they the same domestically. However, the nature of Islamism, and how ‘Islamic’ a country is, not only derives from the behaviour of that country but also derives from the perception of the country by others (in this case, the West). The events of September 11 have certainly magnified the nature of Islam and the nature of countries in which Islam is withheld as a common belief, but these events have not proven that the foreign policy of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East is more ‘Islamic’ but that the Islamic movement are in fact, domestic. The current situation is not that countries have become more ‘Islamic’ but that the world, in this age of globalization, has attained a greater interest in the Middle East and there has been increased focus on the common belief of the Middle East, Islam.

Here is a short video on Muslim demographics. It is a very shocking example of how the growing Muslim population is seen by many:


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