Small Wars Journal

The West’s Freedom Problem and the Root of Islamic Militancy

Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:02am

The West’s Freedom Problem and the Root of Islamic Militancy

Mbaye Lo


The 19th century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that, “one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom." Although Tocqueville is primarily associated with his seminal work on Democracy in America, this remark provides a valuable explanation of the current conflict between the West and militant Islam.

Islam’s fondness for equality in servitude has been awakened by neoliberalism’s record of inequality.

While neoliberalism is the driving doctrine of economic freedom, it is the reason why there is structural inequality and systematic poverty. Many Muslims who are experiencing the negative effects of neoliberalism are turning to Islam’s equality under divine servitude.  Current conflicts with militant Islam manifest the dichotomy between the two values.

Believers in Islam are called to surrender to and serve God Almighty. At its inception, the Prophet of Islam reached out to ‘Europe’ with his message of justice: which was equality in servitude to God. Muslim historians documented Muhammad’s earlier communiqué with the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, inviting him “to submit your will to God; submit your will to God and you will be safe, and God will double your reward, and if you reject, you bear the sins of persecuting Arians.” This concept of “equality in servitude” sanctifies sacrifice  of wealth or self in the pursuit of liberating the oppressed, the downtrodden and the poor. In so doing, morals associated with serving the poor and the battered are valued. And it is said in a Hadith (prophetic saying) that the Prophet of Islam asked Allah to keep him poor in this life and raise him “at resurrection among those who are poor.”

Christianity also values lives lived in poverty and deems wealth to be evil; however, in Islam valuing poverty has an additional purpose tied to other facets of the faith. It enriches Islam’s zeal towards rectifying unjust acts and expanding the righteous community. Islam’s appeal to ‘righting the wrong’ ignites the flame of justice that pervades Islamic teachings and ethics. The Egyptian scholar Gamal al-Banna refers to justice as “truly, the virtue of Islam, and its superior value.” The word justice alone has been relayed about 300 times in the Quran and words with a functional relationship in framing the concept of justice, such as oppression and rights, occur almost 1,000 times. It is unanimously accepted in classical Islamic philosophy that justice is the political currency of Islam, and political freedom is not. The latter is rarely mentioned in the Quran, and in fact the concept of freedom (hurriyyah) has received scarce attention in legal works albeit it is occasionally mentioned in reference to enslaved people.

The Roots and Appeal of Militant Islam

Two current, competing developments have dramatized the encounter between the two values: the Western colonial legacy with its offshoot of globalized neoliberalism and the rise of Islamism with its brainchild of militant Islam. Inherent to the Islamist’s discourse is a rejection of colonial hegemony of ‘spreading freedom’ as well as a current neoliberal freedom that expands global economic inequalities. Militant Islam draws on the ‘righting the wrong’ appeal to condemn normalized inequalities that characterize the current post-colonial world order, while the West, led by the US, brandishes the defense of freedom and its neoliberal manifestations in marshaling its war on militant Islam.

Equality in the servitude of God has been the lure of militant Islam’s call for justice. The Indian-Pakistani theologian Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi (1903 –1979) calls it Hakimiyyah (Divine Governorship), while the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) added two sympathetic ideas to Maududi’s conceptualization; they are ‘ubudiyyah (Divine Servitude) and Jahiliyyah (Metaphor for the disbelief of modern societies). These are the intellectual founders of militant Islam. Their ideology was the vanguard for canonical texts referring to modern jihadists who practice militant Islam.

The list of militant theologians includes the Palestinian Abdullah Yusuf Azam (1941-1989); the Egyptian Muhammad Abdessam Faraj (1954-1982); the Saudi, founder of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011); and the Libyan theologian Abu Yahya al-Libi (1963-2012). Currently active theologians working in the same tradition include the Syrian Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri, the Egyptian Abu-Bakr Naji and the Egyptian-born Afghan mujahid Abi Abdullah Al-Muhajir. It is to these figures that one attributes the intellectual corpus of jihadism. This corpus idealizes equality in servitude against the West’s global order of inequality in freedom.  Jihad is sensibly branded as the only way to readdress the problem of inequality in freedom.

It is no wonder that militant Islamists have a fascination with Aḥmad ibn Taymiyyah (a thirteenth century Sunni theologian), who declared that “God would grant victory to the just state even if as an infidel, and He would suppress the unjust state, even if is a believing Muslim.” Recurring stories and anecdotes supportive of the claim of Islamist justice persist. On March 9, 2015, Dr. Tareq Mohammed al-Suwaidan a  popular Muslim Brotherhood member and a former General Manager of the Saudi-founded al-Resalah Satellite TV —reminded his followers that justice is the objective of Islam, encouraging all Muslims to pray for the return of peace in Iraq and Syria. He reminded them of the story of the Tabi’ii, (a contemporary of the prophet’s companions)Rabi’I Bin ‘Amir when he summarized the goals of Islam: “ …[to] liberate subjects from worshiping of people to worshiping the Lord of mankind; and [to liberate them] from injustice of religions to the justice of Islam; and [to liberate them] from the adversity of the world to the amusement of both here and the hereafter."

This background reflects the grounds for militant Islam’s claim of justice taking precedence over the neoliberal freedom agenda.In a world characterized by ever-increasing inequality caused by the woes of corruption meshing with capitalism, through which disparities in income, wealth and national origin is the de facto outcome, the appeal of militant Islam will intensify, and the loyal base of hopefuls for its promised equality through servitude will continue to expand. For the outcome of this neoliberal freedom is widening inequality, and the desired outcome of this violent justice is curtailing the root causes of inequality.

This is not an abstract issue. The evidence to this claim is forthcoming. Militant Islamists draw from the downtrodden castes, persons who were largely displaced in the making of the new world order following World War II. International inequalities and marginalization of individuals and communities were intensified by the rise of globalized neoliberalism. Most foot soldiers of militant Islam come largely from the Northern Caucasus nationalities of the Russian Federation, the Northwestern regions of Pakistan and India, Pakistan's tribal areas, the disenfranchised Sunni Triangle of Iraq; the alienated youth of Libya and Tunisia, who were regularly exiled under the regimes of Muammar Gadhafi and Bin Ali; the forgotten tribes of the Egyptian Sinai and the dispossessed southern Yemenis who have been fighting for autonomy and citizenship rights since the making of modern Yemen in 1960s. Many scholars would argue that Palestinian Islamists have been at the intellectual helm of Islamic militancy.

Earlier this summer a student at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco asked me why the most extreme militant groups in Africa are drawn from the former slave castes. The answer I gave was consistent with the claims made in this article. The student was right in observing the new African phenomenon in which extremist groups have successfully penetrated the oppressed classes as fertile recruiting ground. It may be true that in some areas, these groups have historically descended from the slave castes. Examples included Ansaruddin fighters in northern Mali, who merged with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to set up an Islamic Caliphate in Northern Mali as well as Al Shabaab’s quasi-caliphate among the local Bantu and Bajuni people who have been long associated with the oppressed.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram members can be easily identified as belonging to the diminished social status of its founder Muhammed Yusuf’s ethnic group. Boko Haram does not recruit from the eminent groups of the Fulani-Hausa clans of the North. But rather its overwhelming membership in Nigeria draws mostly from the Kanuri clan and its subgroups in the states of Yobe, Kanuri and Borono. The rise of democratization in Nigeria in the 1990s shifted political power and its entitlements from the Northerners to the tribal groups of the country’s Southwestern region. Herein lies the striking similarities between the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Both are a product of a shift of political power from their co-regional groups to other co-citizens; in both cases, colonial entitlement to wealth and prestige were stripped away in the newly introduced political transitions of liberal democracies. And in both cases, the response of waging violent Jihad to right ‘the wrongs of electoral democracy’ was the common appeal.

The powerful appeal of militant Islam is simple: the psychology of victimhood finds the language of justice enticing. The powerful appeal of justice is derived from its flagrant righteous claim to equality, and the strength of freedom is in its adventurous spirit in optimizing equity. Justice is superior to freedom in its appeal to the victims, the dislocated and disenfranchised persons. While freedom promises the doing of what one likes, chooses or ought to, it encompasses no moral duty towards disenfranchised communities and individuals. On the other hand, justice presents the moral duty to question existing disparities and inequalities as well as challenge the structural arrangements in which they exist.

Neoliberalism upholds individual freedom in its extreme form — the pursuit of happiness and with it, wealth monopoly. The growing inequality among citizens and between nations doesn’t seem to raise too much concern and is seen by many as a rather routine casualty of the laissez-faire economy. However, structural inequality, which is becoming an increasingly adverse effect of neoliberal freedom does not serve those at the margins of Western societies, nor does it benefit citizens of dysfunctional states. Muslims in Western Europe are mainly comprised of North Africans in France, Turks in Germany and Indo-Pakistanis in Great Britain. Since they are mostly at the margins of Western societies with no stake in the modern nation-state order, it is understandable that they would find a sense of purpose in the equality in servitude championed by militant Islam.

The American Muslim Experience

Certainly, our argument remains incomplete without considering the experience of American Muslims and their stake in this compounded conflict in which the US is the catalyst. American Muslims are a demographically diverse group, and therefore differ from the European counterparts, in which colonial legacy tends to demarcate the ethnic background of the Muslim communities. There is a complicated relationship between descendants of colonized populations and the institutions of the former colonists. Historical grievances of subjugation linger in European Muslims’ daily interactions with a militant secularism that is increasingly intolerant to religious freedom.  This is not so in the American case, where Islam finds some historical roots in the African-American community (whose trajectory with Islam differs from that of other groups).

One of the most underrated African-American contributions to the US popular democracy is not this community’s ever-ongoing sacrifices for the sake of a perfect union, but rather the group’s enduring role in leveling the ground on which newcomers learn how to assimilate and integrate into the mainstream society. African-Americans constitute one third of the American Muslim community, and rely heavily on non-Middle East oriented religious inspirations that are often rooted in the black nationalism of the Civil Rights era. They enjoy independent institutions extending back to the Nation of Islam, and its offshoot group led by the late W D Muhammad. In addition, there is the African-American tradition of non-violent resistance, dating back to the resilient resistance against the peculiar institution of slavery. In Blues People, Amiri Baraka narrates how this resilient heritage was transposed into new forms of artistic expression, such as jazz and blues that have significantly influenced American culture. It is this arrangement that explains the peacefulness of the African-American Protest Movement from Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the weight of inequality in freedom.  The resonance and desperation that arise from these types of non-violent cultural expressions create a free-culture zone for newcomers — the non-Europeans as well as the Europeans —in which their aspiration of longing and belonging to America is molded. For American’s newcomers, African-American non-violent tradition is the place to go in times of protest against the injustice.

Toni Morrison once asserted that, “If there were no black people here in this country, it would have been Balkanized... But in becoming an American, from Europe, what one has in common with that other immigrant is contempt for me — it’s nothing else but color. Wherever they were from, they would stand together. They could all say, ‘I am not that.’ So in that sense, becoming an American is based on an attitude: an exclusion of me.” This is true for European immigrants of yesterday as well as for other immigrants of today. People integrate from the bottom-up of society, and certainly not the other way.

In my four years of field research on Muslim communities in Cleveland, Ohio, I have observed how Muslim immigrants from the Arab world learn about America from their daily encounter with the inner-city dweller, the African-American. It is in this experience that one’s true journey to America’s class system begins. This is the secret of the US’ relative success in assimilating Muslim immigrants, and certainly not (a characteristic of) what some term ‘the US’ upward mobility.’ For this reason, as illuminated by Masha Gessen’s study of the Boston Marathon bombers (The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy), and also in the San Bernardino terror attacks, the culture of mobility does not make the US an island sheltered from the realities of violence projected by her confrontation with militant Islam.

In the aftermath of 9/11 President Bush promised that the US will do whatever it takes to secure victory against militant Islam, noting that, “freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.” Challenges faced by the warring factions are clear: is the prevailing neoliberalism’s focus on freedom, with its adverse effect of compounding inequality, reconcilable with Islam’s emphasis on servitude in equality? Does militant Islam’s obsession with ensuring justice over freedom require a different kind of political approach, beyond the West’s taste for military interventions in the name of defending freedom? The French philosopher Pierre Manent has recently inquired in his newly published book on French Muslims (Situation de la France) whether the problem is Muslims’ proclivity towards servitude of God versus the West’s Judeo-Christian associational attitude towards God. Clearly this is a long-standing orientalist claim that still deserves examination; however, there are new realities that require new ideas and approaches if we are to improve the human condition beyond the sluggish polemics. As long as we cohabite the same global community our destinies can no longer be kept apart.


There is one slippery slope in the recent development in the human condition. Its objective reality complicates any double standard in political judgment. The newly minted global community is the product of the ever-expanding digital world, in which the human condition has been empowered through unprecedented access and awareness. Access eradicates distance and boundaries by globalizing the human experience and allowing people to objectively realize their capabilities and rights. The global rights movement has transformed the disenfranchised poor from immigrant communities to refugee communities, from persons to citizens and in particular from residents of the poor South to dwellers of the rich North. This has policy implications for modern democratic governance.

Transparent democracies are said to care for the humanity of individuals beyond the norms of self-serving national politics. Struggling fishermen in West Africa understand the role of large-scale commercial fishing in their displacement, and consequently consider moving to Western Europe as migrant workers a rite of passage, owed to them by those venture capitalists whose illicit behaviors robbed them of their livelihood. Likewise, a displaced person in Syria is also familiar with the regional proxy wars that destroyed his or her country, and the protective rights entitled to them across the globe. Disenfranchised Muslims in the West share a common experience of awareness and victimhood within a wired world of co-religiosity, where the appeal of militant Islam is unique in its material proposition and ‘divine’ reward.

This is a world of closely-knit communities. It signals the end of closed border politics, the irrelevance of the politics of containment and the risks of double-standard politics. Allowing a territory for the Islamic State to materialize in Iraq and Syria questions the validity of the nation-state model in the region; likewise forcing the Syrian people into a voluntary resettlement by allowing the continuation of the conflict does nothing but problematizes the normalcy of citizenship in the neighboring countries.

It is striking how many similarities could be drawn with equal reasoning to President Obama’s selective responses to militant Islam’s recent attacks. He describes the attack on France as an “attack on all of humanity,” while remaining silent on IS’s attack on Southern Beirut few days earlier or the group’s claim to have downed the Russian airplane weeks prior.

There has to be a shared moral reasoning behind condemning the act of violence perpetuated by militant Islam.  President Obama’s attitude reflects the problem of neoliberal freedom: its claim of a fundamental right to normalizing of inequality and the unequal treatment of the human experience.  The language of this freedom allows for omission of the un-wanted, yet in sharp contrast the language of justice is plain, uncomplicated and absolute. The latter is about what "ought to be," and it is intensely appealing to a growing segment of marginalized Muslim populace in the global order. This intriguing certitude of militant Islam’s message is what I consider the West’s Freedom Problem.

About the Author(s)

Mbaye Bashir Lo teaches at Duke University, NC. This article highlights key elements in his current book project entitled Justice versus Freedom: the Problem with Militant Islam.  He is currently a visiting scholar at l’Institut d'études de l'Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman (IISMM) & Institut des Mondes Africains (IMAF) at EHESS, Paris.