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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
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Monday, 30 November -1

If Islam’s Militants are Sons of the West

Faisal Devji, Oxford University

“The problem with the notion of dialogue when thinking about global forms of Muslim militancy is that there appears to be no integrity, either on one side or indeed on the other”, explains historian Faisal Devji from Oxford University. “When you think about people like the brothers Tsarnaev in Boston, you have figures who are completely American and Americanized. It is impossible to think about them as somehow belonging to a closed ideological world of their own. Indeed, you can look at their violence entirely within the context of American forms of teenage or young-male violence, which includes school shootings or other forms of great damage. So how do they in fact differ from something, from a form of violence that is actually quite intimate to the United States?”. We interviewed Professor Devji during our Istanbul Seminars 2013


Interview: Nina zu Fürstenberg
Film: Anna Fanuele

Full transcript of the interview


Since these conversations we are having are about dialogue, I thought I’ll say something about what dialogue might mean in the context of Muslim militancy. Dialogue generally presupposes the existence of at least two separate parties, who have an integrity each to his or her own. The problem I have with this notion of dialogue when thinking about global forms of Muslim militancy is that there appears to be no integrity, either on one side or indeed on the other. Because when you think about people like the recent bombers, the brothers Tsarnaev in Boston, here you have figures who are completely American and Americanized. It is impossible to think about them as somehow belonging to a closed ideological world of their own. Indeed, you can look at their violence entirely within the context of American forms of teenage or young-male violence, which includes school shootings or other forms of great damage.

So how do they in fact differ from something, from a form of violence that is actually quite intimate to the United States? Of course they are, or they were, particular in a number of ways. But the point I am trying to make is, whether we are dealing with them or we are dealing with other forms of Muslim militancy whose claims are global, is that none of these people seem to have any notion of a separate world, one that is hermetically sealed, one that has its own form of integrity. Indeed, whether you look at the statements of someone like Osama Bin Laden – or now of his heir Ayman Al Zawahiri and any of the minions who follow them – what comes through very clearly is the fact that they draw all their categories and indeed forms of debate from their enemy, from the West that they fight, which is why they claim to be so intimate with this West. They talk about things like global warming, the power of corporations, the hurt that the power of such corporations and the governments who support them do to the environment, the nuclear threat from the cold war etcetera.

All of these themes are perfectly familiar to, would I argue, every citizen of western Europe or North America. And this is how they make sense. So my suspicion is that what we need to think about when we think about engaging with [them] in however mollifying or aggressive way, is to consider for one moment that an engagement of this sort must be an internal one. Because I want to argue that it is in fact internal to these figures I have been describing. They see themselves as part of a single global context. They see themselves as being intimate with the West and in some senses belonging to it. Which is why their most spectacular form of resistance or aggression or terrorism is a negative one, is suicide, the suicide bombing or the lane oneself opened to certain death, as was the case with the Tsernaev brothers.

This negative form of aggression, I think, does nothing more than signify and illustrate their internality to the world of their own enemies. I’d like to close by suggesting that the only way in which one can engage with, whether in dialogue or in other forms of engagement as I said, is to also reflect upon one’s own world, one’s own vocabulary and one’s own political categories. There has to be a kind of internal dialogue, because that is the only form in which militancy itself makes itself felt in the world that it seeks to destroy.

Readers' comments
Christian W. Troll SJ, Phil-Theol Hochschule SJ, Sankt Georgen, D-60599 Frankfurt am Main

Regarding the views expressed by Faisal Devji. Dear Madam/Sir I agree that elements of the worldview of those who actively pursue the IS caliphate are identical or at least comparative to elements of the worldview of secularists of the so-called West. However, 1. the so-called West comprises for instance also adherents of non-Islamic religions, as, to take just one example, Roman catholics living in the West (who are part of a world-wide religious community, comparable in numbers and expansion to Islam). The wordview of such poeple is not exactly the same as that of agnostic ar of militantly anti-religous secularists. For instance, a roman-catholic individual or institution, after Vatican Council II (1962-65), cannot, as long as they wish to be considere cathoic believers, identify with attitudes towards religious others as they are owned and furthered by the promotors of the Iraqi caliphate. 2. The promotors of the caliphate argue from texts and models that in their view pertain to the foundational scripture and model of Islam. There are of course many Muslim individuals and institutions who clearly and vehemtnly reject the hermeneutics of those promoting the caliphate, but they do not seem to command the authority that can be compare to teh autority of a Church synod or an ecumenicla council or teh Pope in Rome. The old question of a viable and effective ijma' remains unanswered., so it would seem to me. dem5ti

Thursday, 28 August 2014
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