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The Dialectic of the West and Political Islam: Opposition in Power, Support in Opposition

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Eng. Saleem Al Batayneh

In 1996, the English Marxist Chris Harman wrote an influential article titled “The Prophet and the Proletariat,” attempting to decipher the complex relationship between the West and political Islam. Harman’s observation that “the West is with the Islamists when they are in opposition and against them when they are in power” continues to resonate today, encapsulating the shifting dynamics and contradictions in this relationship.
Lebanese thinker George Corm, in his book “The Religious Question in the Twenty-First Century,” highlights the impenetrable wall of preconceived ideas and superficial notions that divide the East and the West, fostering mutual hostility and withdrawal into their respective spheres.
However, the problem lies not only in the nature of the relationship but also in the perception of it. The West’s decisions and actions are driven by calculations of profit and loss inherent in its thought process. Conspiracy theories, confusion, and obsessions further complicate the relationship between the West and political Islam.
Francois Burgat, the French sociologist, emphasizes in his book “Maghreb Political Islam” that political Islam is undeniably the legitimate successor to national liberation movements. He further argues that the racist rhetoric against Muslims is an international industry shared with Arab authoritarian regimes.
To understand the complexity of the West’s relationship with political Islam, we must revisit history. During the Cold War, the capitalist West instrumentalized political Islam as a strategic tool, exploiting it to counter communism, Arab nationalism, and national liberation movements. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, disposing of political Islam proved challenging. Islamic movements were allowed to flourish and present themselves as political alternatives in many Arab Muslim countries.
The West, driven by the need for a perceived threat, has historically created enemies. Fascism and communism were successively portrayed as existential dangers. In the post-communist era, Islam was demonized, replacing the threat of communism with the specter of Islam. However, Islam does not pose a political or military threat to the world or the West, despite the demonization it has endured.
Opinion polls in the Middle East consistently indicate the resurgence of political Islam in Arab countries, with Islamic parties gaining electoral strength. The recent conflict in Gaza has further solidified the role of religion in politics, garnering acceptance among the people in the region.
The dialectic between the West and political Islam remains complex and multifaceted. The West’s historical utilization of political Islam as a convenient ally during the Cold War has given way to apprehension and suspicion in the post-communist era. However, it is essential to recognize the nuances and avoid generalizations that perpetuate misperceptions and hinder meaningful dialogue.
Moving forward, a more nuanced understanding of political Islam is necessary to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by this relationship. By engaging in open and informed dialogue, the West can foster a more constructive approach that respects the aspirations and agency of Muslim-majority countries, while Muslims can challenge and overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions perpetuated by the West.
In conclusion, the relationship between the West and political Islam is characterized by contradictions and shifting dynamics. Acknowledging the historical context and complexities of this relationship is crucial for fostering understanding and moving towards a more constructive engagement. By transcending preconceived notions and engaging in dialogue, both sides can work towards building mutual respect and cooperation in a rapidly changing world.

Al Batayneh  is a former member of the Jordanian Parliament.