The Islamic world is currently in the midst of a great historic convulsion. This process is giving birth to political trends and movements of a murderously violent nature. These movements offer a supposed escape route from the humiliation felt at the profound societal failure of the Arab and to a slightly lesser extent the broader Muslim world.
The escape is by way of the most violent and intolerant historic trends of Islam, into a mythologized and imagined past. The route to this old-new imagined utopia is a bloody one. All who oppose or even slight it must die. The simple and brutal laws of 7th century Muslim Arabia are re-applied, in their literal sense. The events of last week in Paris were a manifestation of this trend.
These trends exist not only in the Arab and Muslim worlds themselves. Because of mass immigration from the Arab and Muslim world to western European countries, they are also powerful and present in immigrant communities in these countries. The Kouachi brothers and Amedi Coulibaly are the latest, and no doubt not the last representatives of this political world to impose themselves on us.
The political trend in question is called political Islam. It manifests itself in its most extreme form in the rival global networks of the Al Qaeda movement and the Islamic State. But these, alas, are only the sharp tip of a much larger iceberg.
Political Islamists are not all, or mainly, young men from slums.
Political Islamists are not all, or mainly, young men from slums. On the contrary, its adherents include heads of state, powerful economic interests and media groups, and prominent cultural figures. Some of these, absurdly, were even present at the "solidarity rally" in Paris.
They rendered this event an empty spectacle by their presence.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, for example, came to offer his solidarity to the victims of journalists murdered by Islamists in Paris, just two days after the Turkish courts sentenced a pianist to a 10 month prison sentence, suspended for five years, for the crime of "denigrating religion (ie Islam)." More urgently, Turkey has been an active supporter of both Islamic State and al-Qaeda forces in northern Syria over the last three years. That is, Davutoglu was marching in condemnation of forces to which his own government has offered support.
Political Islam is a reaction to profound societal failure. It is also a flight into unreality. It has nothing practical to offer as an actual remedy to Arab and Islamic developmental problems. Economic, legal and societal models deriving from the 7th century Arabian desert are fairly obvious impediments to success in the 21st.
Where they are systematically imposed, as in the Islamic State, they will create something close to hell on earth. Where they remain present in more partial forms — as in Qatar, Gaza, Iran, (increasingly) Turkey, and so on — they will merely produce stifling, stagnant and repressive societies.
But the remedy for failure that political Islam offers is not a material one. It offers in generous portions the intoxicating psychological cocktail of murderous rage and self-assertion, and the desire to strike out and destroy those deemed enemies — infidels who transgress binding religious commandments, Jews and so on.
This is not the first time that Europe has encountered political phenomena based on murderous rage and utopias buried in the magical past. The European fascist movements produced precisely such a mix. But of course, this time around, the rage and the utopia derive not from European culture, but from an alien culture which has implanted itself among the Europeans.
Arab and Muslim societies may be basket cases, but they retain an exceptionally strong and vivid sense of themselves.
Here is the second part of the problem. Arab and Muslim societies may be basket cases, but they retain an exceptionally strong and vivid sense of themselves. It is the irony of history that this sense of self is precisely of a type that is bound to keep their societies mired in failure. But history favors irony, and this sense nevertheless remains powerfully experienced and hence politically potent. In this respect, the modern Islamic world resembles western Europe of 80 or 90 years ago, but not the contemporary continent.
In contemporary western European societies, political Islam meets a human collectivity suffering, by contrast, from a profound loss of self. No one, at least in the mainstream of politics and culture, seems able to quite articulate what western European countries are for, or what they oppose — at least beyond a sort of vapid belief in everyone doing what they want and not bothering each other.
The result is that when violent political Islam collides with the satiated, lost societies of western Europe, the response is not defiance on the part of the latter, but rather fear.
This fear, as fear is wont to do, manifests itself in various, not particularly edifying, ways.
In contemporary western European societies, political Islam meets a human collectivity suffering from a profound loss of self.
The most obvious is avoidance ("the attacks had nothing to do with Islam," "unemployment and poverty are the root cause," "the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state," etc etc).
Another is appeasement — "maybe if we give them some of what they want, they'll leave us alone."
This response perhaps partially explains the notable adoption in parts of western Europe of the anti-Jewish prejudice so prevalent in the Islamic world.
The ennui of the western European mainstream will almost certainly prevent the adoption of the very tough measures which alone might serve to adequately address the burgeoning problem of large numbers of young European Muslims committed to political Islam and to violence against their host societies.
Such measures — which would include tighter surveillance and policing of communities, quick deportations of incendiary preachers, revocation of citizenship for those engaged in violence, possible imprisonment of suspects and so on — would require a political will which is manifestly absent. So it wont happen. So the events of Paris will almost certainly recur.
And lastly, since the elites will not be able to produce resistance, it will come from outside of the elites. Hence the growth of populist, nationalist parties and movements in western Europe. But Europe being what it is, such revivalist movements are likely to contain a hefty dose of the xenophobia and bigotry which characterized the continent of old.
None of this can, at present, be discussed in polite European society. But all of it is fairly obvious. For this reason, Europe's Jews are at present warily eying the door. As someone who was born in western Europe, and left it 25 years ago for Israel, I am happy to conclude that as a result of the efforts and sacrifice of many, Europe's Jews are this time around neither defenseless nor alone. Nor will their blood be free to be taken with impunity.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).