Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution by Alistair Crooke

10Oct12

Book review of Alastair Crooke’s Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2009).

Crooke (2009) brilliantly argues that contemporary Western studies of “Islamism” continue the Orientalist project and misrepresent its critical potential vis a vis liberalism. Therefore such studies ultimately say more about Western societies than they do about Islamism because they fail to critically account for the historical failures of the Western colonial project that have led to present-day liberalism. Crooke (29) contends that only by recognizing the failures and weaknesses of liberalism can one see that Islamism is not just a reactionary movement, but “a distinct view of human behavior that posits an alternative method of thinking about the human being; his or her places in the natural order; his or her conduct towards others; his or her place in society; the ordering of his or her material needs. And the management of politics.” Integral to this revolutionary project is a conceptualization of rationality and faith that diverges from the Western framework and practice, interweaving the divine into every day life.

Crooke (3) looks at “why the West has been so fixated in its denial of rationality in Islamism,” and suggests that one reason is because Western conceptions of rationality have become overly instrumentalized. He thus not only presents an informed analysis of Islamism, but also an excellent critique of Western rationality. He quotes at length an Iranian cleric whose critical observations about Western rationality are worth further consideration (14-15):

In Western thought, rationality has lost its position. Instead of being directed to perceive truth and values — rationality has turned into a tool to accomplish man’s psychological and materialistic needs. Instead of seeking out the realities of society, Western thinking has been channeled into the construction of a desire-seeking and materialistic society.

By eliminating God from society, they have eliminated also the values and structures which enable man to advance and to aspire to perfection. The separation of faith from reason was contrived deliberately — to eliminate from our minds the potential to know the values and realities of the world. This severance facilitated man’s materialistic mind to dedicate itself to the ‘management of society’ — without any intrusion from God — and without ethical values. Faith then became confined only to the personal corners of man’s solitude with his Lord. The omission of God from this universal view is an omission of the ladder of values and ethics that man was destined to search out — in order to reach perfection.

Rationality therefore assumed a materialist cast; and faith became no more than an individual’s private connection with God.

The focus on both the ethics of rationality and the communal importance of faith are key, and allow for the construction of a moralized conception of rationality that challenges the instrumental one. In this way self-interest makes way for human or social-interest. Thus according to the cleric, the two key goals of the Islamist project are “on the one hand, we need to reinvest culture with its rationality; and on the other hand, to humanize politics; to make politics human. Only in this way can we limit abuse of power, and prevent the domination of man over man, of man over humanity” (6).

Although Crooke offers many philosophical insights into Islamism, and a wonderful critique of Western ideas and practices, unfortunately he fails to adopt a consistently critical lens throughout his writing. Thus while his critique of the Western framework is excellent, he fails to offer a similar critique of Islamism. This could be forgiven considering his desire to challenge previous misrepresentations of Islamism. After all he admits upfront that he is not offering a normatively “balanced” account. But occasionally his arguments about the “essence” of Islamism come across like Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis.[1] In his introduction, Crooke (Ibid, 4) even suggests that the conflict between Islam and the West is “at core a religious one,” although this statement actually undermines his subsequent focus on the historical evolution of Western philosophy where the Christian influences are only implicit in his argument. And while his critique of Western universalism is sound, he sometimes posits Western and Islamist thinking as mutually exclusive, for example in regards to “their fundamentally opposing views of the ‘essence of man’,” despite admitting that Islamists are influenced by the works of Marx, Sartre and Fanon, and suggesting that Western thinkers should also find “in some Islamist ideas the energy to revitalize their own activism” (109).

Nevertheless Crooke’s study is an important contribution to understanding Islamism, and particularly the ideology and social practices of resistance in Lebanon and Palestine. For example, he argues that Hizbullah’s social program is about capability and mobilization. He cites one supporter of Hizbullah, who believes that the party’s flat social structures create “communities of capability” that allow people to be linked by shared values and an ideology of resistance (152-153). By developing a social system where supporters are self-reliant and resilient, Crooke points out how this can foster politically mobilized communities, and where formerly marginalized individuals feel empowered. In this way Hizbullah has formulated culture itself as a site of resistance. As he explains:

Hizbullah uses its social and community activities precisely to re-politicize culture: by stressing the collective community as a set of values, norms and role models that can be emulated by Shi’i living their day to day lives, Hizbullah … articulates the collective norms — Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in pursuit of justice, for example — that politicize a collective culture as a site of resistance (180).

Hizbullah has created numerous organizations to promote cultural sites of resistance. These include numerous charities, research institutes and media outlets. For example, al-Manar is the party’s commercial television station and offers news coverage and analysis, as well as many different kinds of social, religious and political programs. One day when I was with a colleague I met a supporter of the resistance who told us that he only watches al-Manar.[2] He explained to us that when you have children, until they are of a certain age as parents you must only watch al-Manar to show your children proper morals, correct behavior and belief. Only when the children are older can you and they watch something else. For example, he reasoned that his own son is now thirteen and thus allowed to watch whatever channel he wants since he is old enough to take care of himself and to make the right choices. And in this way there is a balance between the individual and the community.

Crooke discusses how the Muslim Brotherhood also created an extensive network of organizations to promote social welfare in Palestine, but that this mobilization considerably predates the emergence of Hamas as a distinct resistance organization. Indeed Hamas is only the eventual result of the movement’s slow and gradual embrace of armed resistance. Thus the mission of Hamas is more strongly related to the psychological impact of decades of humiliating occupation. In other words, Crooke argues that Hamas is an emotional response to the ongoing horrors of Zionism. So like Frantz Fanon (2001, 74) suggested, resistance is necessary to “free the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction” because “it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.”[3] Crooke (207) concludes that Palestinian support for the resistance is not an ideological choice but the result of being human in a social world. As one Palestinian prisoner explains, he resists “… to stop feeling the shock and the trauma, to stop feeling the sadness of human beings. Insensitivity in the face of horrors, any horrors, is like a nightmare to me. It’s the measure of my will and of my refusal to surrender. To sense people; to sense the pain of humanity – that is the essence of civilization” (Ibid).


[1] Leading Islamic thinkers such as Sayyed Qutb and Grand Ayatollah Khomeini also tend towards “us” versus “them” dichotomies in their writing.

[2] Field observation in Beirut on May 22 2010.

[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Penguin Books, 2001).

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