Review: Alistair Crooke, “Resistance: the essence of the Islamist revolution”

Resistance – The Essence of the Islamist Revolution is Alistair Crooke’s survey of modern Islamist thought. It would be clearer to say it is a couple of books occupying the same space; one would be a history of Islamist thought since the origins of the Iranian Revolution, with a polemic for greater understanding of such thought, and another would be a slightly eccentric, neo-Platonist rant with overtones of Ian Buruma’s notion of Occidentalism.

Well, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? Then you have to add in Crooke’s career; the book glosses him as an advisor to the European Commission on the Middle East, but makes absolutely no mention of his term as SIS station chief in Tel Aviv, in which role he negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which lasted until an unfortunate air raid resulted in the deaths of a round dozen civilians and not the Hamas man the Israelis were after. (The story is here.)

The war resumed, and Crooke was recalled; officially this was for “security reasons”, but if anything imperilled his security it was probably that after the event, the Israeli tabloids discovered his job title, identity, and photograph with un-mysterious suddenness. He eventually fetched up in Beirut, running a thinktank called the Conflicts Forum, devoted to contact between Western powers and Islamists. (Time was, it would have been a nightclub, but we live in fallen times.)

So, what upshot? Crooke makes a strong case for modern Islamism as a classical reaction to colonialism and modernisation, or rather an interwar vision of modernity. He relies on an impressive battery of reading ranging into cultural Marxism at one end and into hardcore conservatism at the other. More controversially, he tries to place Islamism since the 1950s in a context of rebellion against free-market economics drawn from Naomi Klein; but the Ba’athist and similar regimes hardly qualify as Friedmanites, with their nationalised oil companies, state military industries, and extensive Soviet influence in administration, secret policing, and military doctrine and structure.

He draws on a battery of confidential interviews, which are some of the most interesting things in the book, to illuminate current ideas and practice, specifically among Hezbollah thinkers. Notably, they argue, the Caliphate should now be seen as a world-wide network of loosely interconnected “communities of resistance”, rather than a state or any other kind of hierarchical organisation. The aim of these is to uphold the practice of an ideal, self-organising community of believers against a total onslaught by the forces of liberalism, which wishes us all to be atomised individuals.

In practice, this demands a sort of liberation theology/community-organising/vaguely anarchist drive to create base groups everywhere, drawn together by the practice of mutual aid and the study of critical texts, and if necessary to form the underground shadow-administration common to all good guerrilla armies.

Crooke is interesting on the military implications of this, but I think what he describes is less original than he suggests. Flat, highly networked command structures, with a high degree of autonomy down to the squad and the individual, are not characteristic of Islamic or Islamist warfare; what he is describing here sounds a lot like Auftragstaktik. Also, he describes the requirements of a Hezbollah leader as integrity, authenticity, reliability, personal charisma, and ability to mobilise others; would anyone at all disagree?

There is an interesting side-trip into Islamist economic ideas. He criticises Westeners who assume that the main aim of these is to find technical workarounds to make the normal course of business sharia-compliant; apparently the real thing is considerably better. However, a lot of it (as described here) consists of accepting a market economy but not letting money be the be-all and end-all of everything, etc, etc; in practice, this seems to mean a welfare state. No surprise, then, that one of the thinkers he quotes had to write an entire book to rebut the charge that his ideas were indistinguishable from European social democracy.

According to Crooke, the main distinction is in the field of monetary economics; but, in so far as his writing is a true misrepresentation of it, it seems to be distinct in a way which isn’t particularly original. Apparently, Islamist economists are very exercised about M3 broad money growth, on the grounds that this represents the growth of credit in a fractional-reserve banking system and that this is the root of the evils of capitalism. Instead, they are keen on…the gold standard, that most free-trade imperialist of economic institutions!

At this point you might want to halt briefly; Islamist Auftragstaktik applied to community organising? The Caliphate in terms suited to Clay Shirky? Dear God, Islamist monetarist gold bugs? Phew! And you could, perhaps, take comfort from the thought that however strange Iranian political thought may be, their economic thought is no stranger than Fraser Nelson’s or Jude Wanniski’s. Placing an upper bound on the strangeness, after all, is probably an important step towards international understanding.

Then we get into the second book. Crooke is always quoting Plato, specifically the apposition between the port and the city; he attacks Karl Popper, and uses a great deal of Horkheimer and John Gray. It is fair to say he accepts entirely the complex of critiques that argue that life is meaningless without a higher purpose usually decided by higher people, that the freedom offered by liberalism is no such thing, that trade (or commerce, or industry) is “mere”; it is harder to say whether he accepts this for the sake of argument, as much of the Islamist thinking he is discussing bases itself on these ideas.

And there is a valid argument that a lot of it claims to represent the up-side of such critiques – the need for a self-empowered, cohesive community, the problems of the free market – but might just as well be the downside. The economy should be directed, at a national level, towards certain “great concepts”; this could be post-war French indicative planning, and might well be, having been written in the 1950s – or it could be a Straussian exercise in National Greatness Conservatism. We should work and care for society; or is it, as one of Crooke’s interviewees says, that “life is not worth living without something worth dying for”?

None of this stuff about “false reconciliation” and “self-pacifying”, materialism, etc, etc, answers E. P. Thompson’s classic attack on “theories that assume that ordinary people are bloody silly“, either. Strangely enough, towards the end of the book, we have a sudden swerve back towards liberalism; freedom is not so bad after all, it turns out, compared with a neoconservatism informed by Leo Strauss.

Curiously, I left the book with a feeling that it had set out to make right-wing Americans feel closer to political Shi’ism.

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