The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam by Roger Hardy (Columbia University Press, 2010) Reviewed by Hicham Safieddine

Written by admin on October 22nd, 2010

In his introduction to The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam, Roger Hardy asks the hard and pertinent question “Why another book about political Islam.” As a journalist who has covered political Islam for decades, he hopes his book will explain political Islam to a public that remains “perplexed” and “maddened” by this subject matter.  The author offers a succinct and informed summary of the political and intellectual history and present-day conditions of the Islamic world. His argument is the culmination of three decades of travels and encounters in the Islamic World and Hardy weaves his intellectual and physical journey into two intertwined narratives. The first is that of exploring the role of Islam in local and regional states and societies such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, East Asia and East Africa. The second is a much more daunting task: building an “overarching narrative” that tells the “story of Islam” from its beginnings in the time of European colonialism to the emergence of what he terms the global jihadists of today.

Assuming the existence of such an overarching narrative creates an unresolved tension in the book. Hardy is empathetic to several of the political struggles across this world and exhibits a keen sense of understanding of the nuances shaping them. He recognizes the problem of such an endeavour is the unavoidability of generalizations while trying to shun, as he puts it, endorsing Muslim exceptionalism that both critics and apologists of Islamism fall into.  This exceptionalism is the assumption that Islamic societies are uniquely afflicted by some condition that separates them from the rest of the global society and they cannot be understood within the same socio-economic and political frameworks applied to other non-Muslim societies. Yet, it is not clear how Hardy can avoid such exceptionalism when he employs the concept of a “Muslim Revolt” to refer to phenomena as wide-ranging and disparate as the intellectual revival movement of the late 19th century by reformers like Muhammad Abduh and the domestic strife in Indonesia in today’s world.

Moreover, Hardy’s suggestion that the age-old adage of Muslims revolting due to some unfinished business of accepting modernity reinforces the erroneous notion of the Islamic World’s exceptionalism. Early attempts at modernization in the 18th and 19th century resulted in numerous clashes between Islamic communities and the West but it was not on account of irrational resistance to change. What sparked local reaction to Western-styled modernization was mainly the question of control and power. For example, laying out a railway across Greater Syria was not an issue in itself under the reign of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. It was who got to control the railway and the impact it had on routes of trade, surplus extraction, and the autonomy of local powerbrokers.

Much of the same can be said about today’s conflicts. Framing these conflicts within their political and economic dimensions would have gone a long way to dispel the exaggerated notion of Muslim exceptionalism. The language and discourse by which these conflicts are articulated in the Islamic world may very well be different compared to other societies. But why turn this into the defining feature, as Hardy does? Identifying problems common to Muslim and non-Muslim countries caused by globalization would have countered beliefs – that Hardy clearly rejects – that Muslim societies are incapable of democracy or orderly social change.

Hardy explores the colonial role of the Dutch for example in Southeast Asia but tells his reader very little about the specific interests and operations of British colonialism.  Discussion of the current American Imperialism does not go beyond the general reference to oil and security.

One of the thorniest and most contested conflict that is central to addressing the roots of the “Muslim Revolt,” is the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Hardy admits that. Yet, it is conspicuously absent from the book. Islamic movements engaged in this conflict, such as Hizbullah and Hamas, have captured the attention of Islamic and political scholars as well as the public imagination. But they are mentioned only in passing. Chapters on other movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamists of Turkey and Iran, or the salafis of Saudi Arabia do provide informative analysis and interesting anecdotes about the people behind these movements. But they indirectly privilege the notion that the problem between the “West” and “Islam” is one of understanding and not a complex clash of interests and ideologies often couched in ethical and moral paradigms easier to justify and defend than the driving forces beneath them.

Shortly after 9/11, one might have welcomed Hardy’s book as a starting point to explore the question of political Islam among a shocked and apprehensive public in the West. But one decade – and a plethora of books and articles on the subject – later, readers might expect a lot more than that, something Hardy commendably aims for but falls short of.

Hicham Safieddine is a journalist and researcher of Middle East based inToronto, Canada.

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