View of Roy’s Book: The Failure of Political Islam

Question and answer details
I was just wondering if there was anyone who has read The Failure of Political Islam by Olivier Roy. And if they would possibly take the time to explain it to me because I do not understand it.
Jasser Auda
Salam, Lindsey.

You are referring to Roy, Oliver.
The Failure of Political Islam. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1994, translated by Carol Volk from the French L’Echec de l’Islam politique, Paris: Seuil, 1992. However, you should also try to read Roy’s latest book, Globalized Islam: the Search for a New Ummah, New York: Columbia University Press in association with Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, 2004, which is an extension to his views in his first book.

I will answer your question by basically re-explaining Roy’s views in non-technical language and perhaps making some brief comments, rather than making a detailed analysis of the books themselves.

The interesting point in Roy’s books is that the theory of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West is not accurate and is not likely to happen. The reason, in Roy’s view, is the fact that the West and Muslims are very diverse entities and have too many differences over issues and stands. For example, he wrote in his
Failure of Political Islam that the battle is not between Islam and the West, but “among Muslims themselves, between the secular and the fundamentalist, the modern and the conservative.”

Roy then differentiated between two streams in the current Islamic political sphere: what he labeled the Islamist stream and what he labeled the neo-fundamentalist stream. He mentioned that Islamists seek to revive the Islamic state, inspired by the history of Islam. Hence, “Islam for Islamists is a political ideology, which should be integrated into all aspects of society.” He gave examples for those he called Islamists, such as Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, Ayatollahs and their followers in Iran, and The Muslim Brothers (Al-Ikhwan) in Egypt.

Roy’s criticism of the “paradox of the Islamists” and his belief in “The Failure of Political Islam,” as the title of his book goes, is based on his view that Islamists are too occupied with their particular national issues and have lost focus of the scope of the whole Ummah (Muslim nation). He mentioned how during the Gulf War of 1991, local groups of the Muslim Brothers in various countries took different stands based on local considerations. For example, the Kuwaiti group approved US military intervention, while the Jordanian group opposed it. Therefore, Roy argues, Islamists are shaped by their local nations, not the other way around.

Moreover, Roy wrote that, “The poverty of Islamist thought on political institutions, and the Islamists impossible quest for a virtue that can never be attained. Because their political model is attainable only in man, not in institutions, therefore, the creation of an Islamist polity is almost impossible.” He further claimed that “the Islamic revolution, the Islamic state, and the Islamic economy are but myths.”

Roy differentiated between Islamism and neo-fundamentalism, the latter only seeking to create an Islamic society merely through the implementation of Shari`ah in the legal system rather than any other political or military means. According to Roy’s classification, neo-fundamentalists—such as the Saudi-sponsored version of Islam—do not have an economic or social agenda, except through the implementation of Shari`ah.

Roy also pointed out that neo-fundamentalists, unlike Islamists, do not pay attention to local issues and crises, but rather call for a new brand of supranational ideology that is more a product of modernization and globalization than of the Islamic past. He tried to prove his point by mentioning how neo-fundamentalists translate their literature to various languages and publish them on the World Wide Web to people around the world rather than in one specific country.

In summary, Roy is saying that Islamism has failed, while the apparently weaker and milder version, which is neo-fundamentalism, is meeting more success. He proposed that even if an Islamist group is to rule over a Muslim country, it “will neither unify the Muslim world nor change the balance of power in the Middle East,” but rather succeed only in making superficial changes in customs and laws.

Some researchers who have strong interests in publicizing the “clash of civilization” theory, totally disagreed with Roy’s views on fundamentalism. For example, Daniel Pipes wrote a commentary on Roy’s
Failure of Political Islam, in which he asserted that there is a lot of danger in fundamentalism and that Roy, “seems to assume that because fundamentalists have not swept the Muslim world, they cannot do so in the future.” Pipes attacked Roy, as well as some other leading American specialists on Middle East politics such as John Esposito and John Voll, for basically believing that fundamentalism has anything positive to offer.

Roy added in his
Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah that there is a new European dimension of Islamism. Roy pointed out that the 9/11 terrorists are overwhelmingly likely to have studied and lived in Europe and to have embraced radical ideas there, not in the Muslim countries where they were born. He further linked Islamic terrorism, according to his definition, to the Marxist-inspired radicalism of the twentieth century!

As for my views on the above, it is important to note that Roy defined the scope of his research in his books by saying that his study is meant to be a “social study,” which means he is discussing what is happening on the ground and what Muslims actually say and do, rather than a theological or juridical study, in which he would have to verify his and others’ opinions based on the Qur’an itself or the Islamic schools of law. Having said that, I do not think that Roy’s views are either fair or objective.

Although Roy is much milder than Pipes, one could clearly see that Roy is actually still looking at the Muslim world with outdated Orientalists eyes that can only see a narrow, Eurocentric worldview. While agreeing that some Islamic groups lose the focus of the Ummah for their local political agendas and issues, I find that Roy failed to recognize any form of civility or acceptable democratic practices expressed by any of the various Islamic groups, except for what looked familiar to him, again, specifically in Europe. One could easily notice that even the American perspective on the issues discussed is missing from his theory, let alone reformist Islamic perspectives, which he failed to include in his analysis, despite their influence across various Islamic circles and groups. Roy, instead, confirmed the “poverty of Islamist thought on political institutions.”

On Islamic grounds, one disagrees with the violence endorsed by some Islamic groups, especially when innocent civilians are unjustifiably involved, and one also disagrees with the utopian and wishful thinking of some Islamic groups, which think that the status of the Ummah will change when some laws or manners are enforced. However, I also disagree with Roy’s harsh criticism of what he called Islamism and neo-fundamentalism altogether.

First, Roy’s classification of Islamism and neo-fundamentalism itself is problematic. Many Muslim individuals and groups—across the spectrum of Islamic thought—do not believe in the separation of religion and state, while not subscribing to what Roy labeled as “Islamist ideologies.” Moreover, many Muslims also believe in the application of some form of Islamic law or Shari`ah, however, their interpretation of that form could be and also without necessarily subscribing to what Roy labeled as neo-fundamentalist customs and laws.

Finally, I do not think that Pipes’ comments, which put Roy, Esposito, and Voll in the same category, are fair either. John Esposito and John Voll showed a well respected level of understanding and appreciation of the civil and democratic reform that are expressed in different forms throughout the Muslim world, even within Islamic groups themselves, which is something that has to be encouraged rather than discredited.

Hoping the this answer is helpful and informative.

Thank you and please keep in touch.