In World War II and the Cold War, the Western democracies had the luxury of focusing on a single threat to the exclusion of others – a luxury we lack today, as Dr. Douglas E. Streusand noted in his discussion of totalitarian Islamism at The Institute of World Politics on 30 March 2011. His lecture concentrated on examining the intellectual challenges presented by this ideology to Western scholars and national security analysts. Dr. Streusand emphasized that his goal was to provide a new definition of the threat, not to downplay its gravity.
A key theme of Dr. Streusand’s remarks was the “otherness” of Islam and Islamic culture, and the tendency of Western scholarship to overlook key details as matters of oversight. For instance, he said, the ideology of totalitarian Islamism appears at a point of weakness between several academic disciplines.
Totalitarian Islamism, he said is a utopian revolutionary ideology formed by a fusion of twentieth-century Western totalitarianism, and the revolutionary ideology of traditional Islamism. It does not, however, represent a continuation of Islam’s dominant strains of political thought. According to Dr. Streusand, the literature of totalitarian Islamism shows significant signs of influence by Western totalitarianism, and is marked by elements of Manichaeism and Gnosticism.
Manichaeism and Gnosticism have not, however, dominated Islam throughout its history, he said. This, and other key characteristics of totalitarian Islamism, demonstrates that today’s ideology is distinctly at variance with the mainstream politics and thought of historical Islam. Indeed, said Dr. Streusand, “totalitarian influence not only extends Islam, it distorts it.”
Dr. Streusand also identified several weaknesses of Western scholarship and analysis of Islam and Islamism that have contributed to misunderstandings of totalitarian Islamism’s threat. “Islam had been considered a conservative barrier to Communism” during the Cold War, and such concepts as convergence theory and development theory – even though discredited by Cold War events – continued to influence scholars’ approaches erroneously. He suggested that Western students expand not only their study of the historical, political, and philosophical underpinnings of their own culture, but of non-Western cultures as well.
He concluded with a call to define the enemies of the West as narrowly as possible: that the West is not interested in perverting or attacking Islam itself, but rather the latest iteration of a dangerous totalitarian ideology.