Since the end of the cold war, when a lot more collapsed than walls and regimes, many of the large-scale concepts by means of which we had been accustomed to sorting out the world have begun to come apart. East and West, Communist and free world, liberal and totalitarian, Arab, Oriental, underdeveloped, third world, nonaligned, and now apparently even Europe have lost much of their edge and definition, and we are left to find our way through vast collections of strange and inconsonant particulars without much in the way of assistance from finely drawn, culturally ratified natural kinds.
After the bolt-from-the-blue attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001 further disturbed our sense that we understood what was going on in the world and could handle it, “Islam,” about which we had, in any case, only the most general of notions, began to undergo the same sort of decomposition for us. It, too, has rather fallen apart as a settled and integral object of knowledge about which it is possible to have a view and a theory. Introductions to Islam, and bottom-line evaluations of it as a religion, a culture, a society, a weltanschauung, or a civilization, continue to be written and continue to be consumed.1 But they seem to be of declining force, relics of a time when things were, so we thought, more of a piece and better arranged.
More than any other single thing, it has been the rising tendency to ideologize faith in so much of the Mus-lim world that has made it increasingly hard to arrive at summary accounts of what is happening there. The movement from religion to religious-mindedness, from Islam to Islamism, from a rather quietist, withdrawn, and scholastic immersion in the fine details of law and worship, the ordinary piety of everyday life, to an activist, reformist, increasingly determined struggle to capture secular power and turn it to spiritual ends, has transformed what once was, or seemed to be, a historical macro-entity to be set beside Christianity, the West, science, or modernity, into a disorderly field of entangled differences about which it is difficult to say anything at all except that it seems at once various and volatile. “The militant Islamic movement,” the French political scientist Gilles Kepel writes in his Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam,2 perhaps the most detailed, and certainly the most comprehensive, examination of it that has thus far appeared, “[is] a phenomenon whose emergence was as spectacular as it was unforeseen”:
At a time when the decay of religion in the private sphere appeared to be an irreversible trend of modern life, the sudden expansion of political groups proclaiming the Islamic state, swearing by the Koran alone, calling for jihad, and drawing their activists from the world’s great cities was an event that cast into doubt a host of previous certainties. Worldwide, the initial reaction was dismay. To leftist intellectuals, Islamist groups represented a religious variant of fascism. To middle-of-the-road liberals,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.