Islamic Terrorism: From Retrenchment to Ressentiment and Beyond

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Islamic Terrorism:

From Retrenchment to Ressentiment and Beyond

Lauren Langman and Douglas Morris

Loyola University of Chicago
Abstract: Using a Weberian perspective informed by Critical Theory, this paper investigates the interaction of economic, cultural and political causes and potential outcomes of Islamic terrorism. Islam’s decline vis-à-vis Christendom was constrained through three major internal moments: 1) limits to modernity, 2) religious conservativism, and 3) ressentiment of the West. Islamic societies responded proactively to the rise of the West through two strategies: 1) Westernization and 2) Islamic modernism, which have both been strongly resisted. In the 20th century, due to the internal suppression of secular political movements among other factors, puritanical fundamentalisms such as Wahhabism arose. Fundamentalisms in various religions explain reality by blaming social problems on the departure from religious morality and promise redemption via a return to an idealized community. In face of decline, colonization, and economic stagnation, ressentiment of the West became widespread in Islam. Fundamentalisms interacting with ressentiment may turn militant, as in the case of Al Qaeda. A war on terrorism is not likely to end terrorism. To solve the problem of terrorism requires addressing its roots: internal constraints, dictatorships sponsored by the West and the underdevelopment that results form neo-liberal globalization. We suggest terrorism will wane in the face of the evolution of modern Islamic public spheres that might challenge religious conservatism. In wake of 9/11, both moderate and radical religious movements are likely to remain a basis for mobilizing alternative identities to globalization.


At the end of the 15th Century, Islamic societies stood at an economic, political and cultural apex. They were affluent and philosophically, scientifically, technologically, and administratively advanced. Mighty armies and trade networks had spread the hegemony of Islamic culture from the Atlantic coast through the southern Mediterranean and North Africa to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and parts of China. Challenges were repelled. The Crusades affected a small part of the Islamic world. After the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols (who were converted to Islam within one hundred years), politically and economically, Islam more than recovered. However, religious conservatism had become a major influence in Islamic culture and Europe had just begun its Renaissance, based in large part on the intellectual heritage of Islam.

Christian Europe of the 15th Century was poor, ignorant, politically fragmented, and save the Italian city-states, less developed than Islamic society. Yet, between 1492, when Spanish imperialism moved to the New World, and 1588, when the Spanish Armada was defeated, the expanding commerce of Europe began a move from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic that would unleash the forces of capitalism. The decline of the Ottoman Empire would mark the end of Islamic hegemony. While capitalist, industrial Europe, joined with American capital become world hegemonic, the Islamic world became a number of peripheral and semi-peripheral areas. Today, with the events of 9/11, the development of conflicts between Western and Islamic societies between has been brought to the forefront of concern.

There is no singular explanation for decline of Islamic hegemony, the failure of modernization efforts, and eventually the rise of (fundamentalist) Islamisms and terrorist movements1. A complex interaction of economic, political and cultural factors needs to be studied. To frame this discussion, we draw on Weberian studies, the critical, dialectical traditions of the Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic insights2. We employ a comparative historical analysis of ideal typical articulations of Christianity and Islam as world religions oriented to salvation. There are, of course, vast differences within groups due to local traditions, classes, interactions with other cultures, history, etc. Yet, we will argue that contemporary terrorism needs to be understood in relation to certain broad social factors that have informed the decline of Islam since the 16th Century. One key factor is that just as the Reformation played a major role in the transformation of Christendom into modern Western Europe, the failure of Islam to have a Reformation would impose certain barriers to the embrace of rational modernity. Key political economic factors include Western domination and rise of dictatorial governments in Islamic states. Eventually, Islamic societies responded proactively to the rise of the West through two strategies that have yet to be fully realized in Islamic states: 1) Westernization and 2) Islamic Modernism. (See Part II below.) The economic decline, military defeat and colonization of Islam vis-à-vis Christendom/the Modern West served to constrain the modern cultural and political development of Islam through three major internal moments:

1) Limits to modernity. The nature of Islamic theology, ethics, culture and law limited the impact of foreign ideas and/or presented indigenous barriers to the emergence of the economic, political and cultural rationality, especially after the 16th century. (See Part I below.)

2) Religious conservativism. In face of various political or economic challenges, from the sacking of Baghdad in the 13th Century on up to the secular modernity of contemporary globalization that might change power and/or gender arrangements, there was a retreat to conservative forms of Islam like Wahhabism or other worldly Sufism that served to maintain tradition and resist social change. Wahhabism, a severely Puritanical form of Islam, emerged as the Ottoman fell in decline. It was embraced by the House of Saud to legitimate themselves as the guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Media (and was used, in part, to maintain a Saudi imperial claim on oil wealth in 20th century). More recently, in face of modernity, we have seen the growth of Islamisms3 (see Part II) and in some cases, dramatic religious terrorism (see Part III).

3) Ressentiment of the West. Just as Nietzsche suggested that the marginalized Christian artisans of Rome saw themselves as morally superior to the rich, powerful and debauched, Romans, so too, do many Muslim voices see the secular West as morally degenerate compared to the “superior” morality and ethical practices of Islam that promise a return to a righteous society and glorious rewards in heaven. (See Parts III and IV.)

Based on historical and current scholarship, this paper discusses some of the general causes of Islamic terrorism and possible outcomes. Fundamentalist traditions sometimes turn militant. To understand the rise of Islamic terrorism, the questions we now address are threefold: 1) how do conservative religious political/moral goals become translated into acts of terror; 2) how are these acts justified, especially when they result in large numbers of deaths to non-combatants—often the elderly, women and children; and 3) what are the possibilities for elimination of the causes of religious terrorism and moving beyond terrorism?

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