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Vacuum theory: an irrational fear of Islam?

In the weeks and months following the Arab Spring there will have been two words sure to strike fear into every foreign policy analyst from Washington to Jerusalem: ‘vacuum theory’. This is the concept that, in the absence of organized political parties, independent labour unions and civil society groups, it is religious fervour that will become the decisive factor in shaping the aftermath of revolution. The excruciating reluctance of President Obama to embrace the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was evidence that, for many in the West, John Esposito’s famed ‘Islamic threat’ was fast becoming reality.

Throughout history, religion is perhaps the one realm above all others that politicians have failed to understand. The great religious theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – Marx, Durkheim and Weber – all failed to envisage the endurance and longevity of religion in the modern world. Karol Wojtyla spent a decade planting the seeds of sedition in Poland before he became Pope John Paul II: the communists’ inability to quell the inexorable power of Catholicism led to their downfall in that country. There, religion was a liberating force. In Iran, Khomeini’s unforeseen Islamic Revolution consigned a whole nation to authoritarianism.

So which way will it go in 2011? For Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, it is far more complicated than that. Her fine book The Politics of Secularism in International Relations suggests that Western analysts have over-simplified events such as the Arab Spring by subscribing to a crude binary system where secularism equates to good and religion equals bad. She asks whether the choice for Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and so forth is really that clear cut: or whether there are other ways of understanding the relationship between politics and Islam that could prove fruitful to the West.

There is nothing irrational about a suspicion of revolution: much of what Edmund Burke had to say while reflecting on France could be fairly applied to those Arab countries attempting to throw off the shackles of dictatorship. But that justifiable suspicion should not extend to a blurring of the distinction between Islam the religion and Islamism the ideology, between the teachings of the Koran and the evils of authoritarian theocracy and jihadist terrorism.

The West is wrong if it thinks the future lies simply in either secularism or Islamism. As Hurd argues, it is vital that foreign policy analysts gain a deeper understanding of the nuances within Islam, otherwise the West is in danger of shutting off key political options and suffering the consequences later on. Caution should of course be advised in dealing with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but pragmatism is necessary too if we are to build a safe future for all.

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