When it comes to political Islam, received wisdom contains much which is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate. The term itself has spawned a cottage industry, with the twitterati locked in perpetual cyber-spats, and the talking heads battling over who is blowing up what and why. The challenge of “orientalism” always lives large, especially in popular Western analogies, (Islam needs a Reformation, Islam needs a Pope), and the polar to-and-fro has made the whole conversation a mess.
As analogies to Western history go, however, John Owen has just written one of the more convincing, certainly provoking, entries in the catalogue. A little précis of his new book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past is up at Foreign Affairs (“From Calvin to the Caliphate”), and it won’t disappoint to spoil polite dinner conversation with religion and politics.
Owen makes two general claims: (1) understanding political Islam at all means understanding secularism, and (2) understanding the Islamist-secularist struggle means understanding how that same “secular age” came about in the history of the Western world.
It is, admittedly, a little counter intuitive to start a study of political Islam with radical Calvinists, as Owen puts it, but the basic point is one which Scott Thomas in The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations also makes: “the problem of applying the modern concept of religion to the study of many societies in central Europe, central Asia, and most of the non-Western world is that they have still not entirely made, or are struggling not to make, this transition to a modern concept of religion.” (Thomas, 27).
In other words, to understand contemporary political Islam, the content of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age rears its head again: we need to know why people are so incensed by the globalization of the Westphalian state system and its attendant political theology. Why is there such strong blowback against the “secular” organization of life and society? Unhappily, if there is a term that is used more promiscuously than political Islam, it is “the secular.” To even speak of a “secular” organization of society is about as useful as speaking of a political Islamic organization of society.
Even ideal types don’t agree, and history is never filled with ideal types anyway. This is probably the best reason that Owen’s book does the heavy comparative historical work of finding out how European society struggled to make – or not to make – this kind of political-theological consensus; a mysterious, bloody, bizarre history that rivals in violence and outright fanaticism the worst of what political Islam has to offer.