Aijaz Ahmad: from 'Islam' to 'Islamisms'

I've become increasingly frustrated in recent years with how we, in the 'West', have responded to the spectre of Islamic extremism. I feel that we talk too much about 'Islam' as a totality - a body of religious belief that is thought to form the basis of all terrorist attacks (only if they're carried out by brown people) - instead of doing the hard work of interrogating the historical, political and societal conditions that have helped produce them.

The essay below reviews Aijaz Ahmad's work on 'Islam, Islamisms and the West'. In short, he attempts to reintroduce history and politics into the discussion, and outlines the evolution of political Islamisms across a number of sites. His essay is pretty lengthy at 37 pages, but I believe it's perhaps one of the most important works on the topic. So you should either read it, or read my (much shorter) attempt to engage with it below. Or both!


Ahmad, A., 2008. ‘Islam, Islamisms and the West’. Socialist Register.

Reading Aijaz Ahmad’s essay ‘Islam, Islamisms and the West’ in the aftermath of the Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks of November 12-13, 2015 was a welcome, if somewhat disconcerting distraction from the multiple reports of rampant Islamophobia and predictable far-right demonstrations that followed the events. Welcome in the sense that it provided useful intellectual grist for a soul ever-angered by simplistic, ahistorical commentaries on what had transpired in both cities, disconcerting in the implications of Ahmad’s arguments for how we might explain the emergence of extremist Islamism into Western imaginaries over the past two decades.

For Ahmad, the ahistorical, simplistic commentaries I mentioned above are examples of a much wider problem when it comes to Western renderings of Islam and its purported adherents. This problem, discernibly at play in much of the popular reactions to the attacks on both conservative and progressive sides of politics, privileges in some way the idea of Islam as a ‘totality’. To complicate and challenge this assumption is the first concern of Ahmad’s essay (2):

To refer to all these people as ‘Islamic’ is to occlude the specificity and novelty of Islamism in general, to posit hyper-Islamicity of Muslim peoples, and to succumb to the idea, propagated by the religious right as well as the Orientalists, that religion is the constitutive element of a culture, and hence also of its social existence and political destiny.

Against the mass stereotypes that collapse Islamisms into ‘Islam’, Ahmad asserts that, with exceptions, many of the ‘various Islamicist groupings which started becoming so prominent in diverse countries from mid-1970s onwards’ grew and developed within the sociopolitical milieux of the respective nation-states they sought to transform (3). Furthermore, the development of these groupings was accelerated by the imperial strategies of the United States of America. Ahmad first cites the example of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a case par excellence in which the US intervened in domestic political affairs (i.e. against the communist regime), facilitating the material, organisational and ideological formation of the mujahideen to conduct jihad as ‘freedom fighters’, only to then be de-commissioned at the conclusion of the anti-communist war and left to create mayhem in their countries of origin. The public veneration of these ‘freedom-fighters’ by US leadership gave the mujahideen a global legitimacy and aura, which would ironically be reproduced in the appeal of the ‘new jihad’ for new generations of Muslim youth come 2003. Set up as a ‘globalised civilisational war’, the War on Terror has proved the single most potent factor in the recruitment drives of extremist Islamic organisations, leading the previous so-called ‘freedom fighters’ to then become ‘haters of freedom’.  In this regard, Ahmad goes to great lengths in order to emphasise that ‘joining the jihad had been made fashionable by the US itself; the fashion now continued, against the US itself’ (5).

Ahmad carries a similar argument into his rendering of the development of today’s seemingly-perpetual civil unrest in Iraq. He argues that, after invasion in 2003, the US ‘moved swiftly to communalise [Iraq]… along sectarian lines’ (5). Systems of power and patronage were forged along these lines, which in turn ‘led to a competition of all against all, by all means fair or foul, to gain as much advantage as possible during this period of dire uncertainty’ (6). This was made all the more catastrophic by the dismantling of the Iraqi state - its military and security forces, its civilian institutions - via the program of ‘de-Baathification’. This process of comprehensive dismantling and putative rebuilding engendered total social breakdown, and the formation of a power vacuum into which Sunni extremist organisations like Islamic State would eventually pour themselves. In sum, the key point Ahmad wishes to make in his discussion of the formation of extreme Islamisms in Afghanistan and Iraq is that arguments that partake in ‘eschatologies of primordialism and cultural differentialism’ miss political and historical conditions which make such formations possible. Instead, ‘whole peoples get essentialised in terms of their religious particularity… and religion itself, thinly understood, becomes the explanation for why certain Islamic extremist groups, of the fascistic kind, become prominent in politics in particular historical conditions.’ (9-10).

This tendency towards primordialism and cultural differentialism is similarly evident within Western multicultural societies. Here, diverse migrants are collapsed into the imagined totality that is ‘the Muslim community’ - having already lost their original national identity, they ‘cannot find in the race-ridden country of their adoption an identity at part with the identity of their white compatriots’ (11). Thus, these diverse groups must forge for themselves a ‘fictive collective identity’ which spans across dress code, meeting places, food rites, rituals, and social bondings. This collective identity is reinforced by governmental and media representations of their countries of origin as ‘Islamic’, along with the power that Islamicist groups in their countries of origin have gained in an age where US imperialism has crushed the remnants of the secular left in said countries. The dehistoricised, depoliticised rise of a ‘forceful Islamism’ is thus lifted into ‘something of a perennial marker of a transnational civilisation’ - not only in the imaginaries of Western politicians, bureaucrats and foreign policy intelligentsia, but also in the ‘self-consciousness of these newly-branded ‘communities’ (12). In tracing out the implications of this, it is worth quoting Ahmad at length (12):

Diverse people migrating into a new, threatening environment imagine for themselves a permanent shared past that never was. They are branded and stigmatised anyway, and stigmatised even in phrases of patronising neglect (‘not all Muslims are terrorists’, as if a substantial number, possibly a majority, are). The daily stigmatising strengthens, in turn, their rage, resolve and sense of civilisational difference. The hardened Islamic identity then serves as a vehicle for exiting proudly what they had once desired and no longer hope to become: just normal Westerners… like their white neighbours or classmates, which is what their new citizenship papers had promised. In the process, those great numbers of secular individuals of Muslim extraction within Western countries who do not adopt an Islamic identity and do not participate in multiculturalist community claims get sidelined and occluded.

Is it any surprise, then, that all of the individuals involved in the Paris attacks were not recent refugees as many claimed, but born in France and Belgium to migrant parents? Ahmad’s evocative words render understandable the difficulties of gaining a sense of homely belonging for those profiled as ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’. It should be no surprise that some, having experienced a perpetually racialised existence in Western liberal democracies, and witnessed their countries of origin being torn apart and interfered with by these same democracies, would drift into Islamicist ranks. As long as ideas of ‘civilisational difference’ with their roots in simplistic notions about the ‘Islamic East’ and its discursive opposite, ‘the West’ prevail, this pattern will be reproduced.

There is much material in Ahmad’s essay that this review has not covered in depth. The remaining pages see him take on the imaginaries within the West of its unique, monopolised secular, liberal democratic and Judeo-Christian character - as emblematised in the speeches and works of Pope Benedict XVI, Ronald Reagan, and Samuel Huntington (15-22). Ahmad then proceeds to trace the historical evolution of diverse Islamisms in Iran, Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon, Indonesia, and Afghanistan (22-32) in an effort to crush the tendency within Western discourses to ‘[divide] the world of Muslims into a simplistic binary of secularists and Islamicists, [looking] at all Islamicists as belonging to the same conceptual and ideological universe’ (22). To Ahmad, the remedy to this dehistoricising tendency is to

undertake a dialectical analysis so complex as to be almost impossible: to take the full measure of the histories that have produced such points of view, make distinctions between one tendency and another, not succumb to any of their various modes of comprehension or their conclusions or their favoured lines of action, and yet attempt to see those histories through their eyes… so that, at the very least, they do not appear to us as just so many primitives that need to be contained, disciplined, perhaps even annihilated, selectively, in ‘just wars’ waged by us, the civilised. (26)

Finally, Ahmad traces the suppression and destruction of communist, Marxist and secular ideas throughout most Muslim societies (except Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms) in the decades following the Second World War (32-37). He marks the destruction of Nasser’s forces by Israel in 1967 as the moment at which the Arab world saw the dominant Egyptian ’secular-nationalist, authoritarian-socialist current’ supplanted by the authority of the ’oil-rich, monarchical, Wahhabi-puritanical, desert kingdom’ of Saudi Arabia (32). He singles out the ambitions of US imperialism in the Middle East as responsible for the demise of secular, nationalist alternatives to Islamisms, noting the involvement of the CIA in the restoration of the Shah in Iran in 1953, the aforementioned Six Day War of 1967, and the Indonesian anti-communist coup of 1965, amongst others. The point here is to note the constitutive role such interventions played in the formation of much of the West’s so-called foes today. Ahmad closes off his essay by memorably drawing together his arguments, and identifies what needs to happen if the appeal of extremist Islamisms is to wane (37):

Suppose then, that the consideration of Islam and Islamism starts not from primordial and ageless belongings but from the precariousness of a present so bereft of secular justice that one finds no meaningful way of belonging to it, or in it; the sheer multiplicity of malignant contexts within which all sorts of cancerous growths become possible. Another way of putting this is that when human beings took upon themselves the task of managing the affairs of the material world, they also made the claim that they were capable of dispensing justice, a justice more whole than what the various monopolists of the holy books offer. The secular world has to be just twice over: in terms of what it has defined for itself, and also to ward off the claim that God would have given better justice. That is to say, the secular world has to have enough justice in it for one not to have to constantly invoke God’s justice against the injustices of the profane. A politics of radical equalities, so to speak.

We would do well to attend to history, in order to avoid incessantly repeating and reproducing the mistakes of the past.