illustration of two figures facing each other with shadows made of many small figures extending away from them in opposite directions


Toward a New Cold War

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Emran Qureshi

The term “cold war” has a most unusual and unlikely philological pedigree. The Spanish writer Don Juan Manuel (1282–1348) first used it in the fourteenth century to describe the protracted conflict between Islam and Christendom on the Iberian Peninsula.

With the demise of the Soviet Empire and the denouement of the last Cold War, it would have seemed unlikely that conflict would once again be reconfigured between the West and the Islamic East. But the al-Qaeda suicide bombers of September 11, 2001, ushered in a new, grimmer era in relations between sibling civilizations. One resulting challenge that confronts humanity is a new set of borders and  fissures, along with the construction of new tribal identities that view the Other as a menacing and existential threat.

Michael Sells, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has defined fundamentalism in the following manner: “A stubborn belief in an unchanging, essentialist, monotonic identity for both self and other that refuses to acknowledge any counter evidence, an irrational inability to see the diversity of identity in each of us. Fanaticism might be defined as the collapsing of identities into a single association.”

This definition is sufficiently broad to allow scrutiny of both religious and nationalist exclusionary ideologies. Moreover, it helps us to understand how the nationalist ideologue and the fundamentalist share the same construction of identity—one that is reactive, resistant to pluralism, and visceral in rejecting the larger currents of societal change (for example, demographic shifts of Muslims in Europe, and the globalization of Western culture in Muslim societies).

Ironically, gratuitous generalizations about Islam shield Islamic radicals from critical scrutiny.

In the Muslim world, the war on terror is perceived as a war on Islam. The proposition might seem far-fetched but is a received truth within Muslim constituencies. Part of the problem is how the war on terror is framed: it is often described as a war on “radical Islam.” There are two Western understandings of this war. The first is that it is a war against a small number of radicals who have besmirched Islam’s reputation. The second is the understanding that Islam is inherently violent. Often there is an easy slide from the former to the latter. This strengthens the hands of jihadis who posit a conflictual understanding of relations with the West and pose as the defenders of Islam against modern-day “Crusaders.” Thus, ironically, gratuitous generalizations about Islam shield Islamic radicals from critical scrutiny.

Today, polarizing Occidentalist and Orientalist caricatures and stereotypes have become ascendant within both the Islamic and the Western worlds. Both sets of stereotypes attempt to explain behavior through “traits” that can be ascribed to a negative reading of the Other’s religion or national culture.

One illustration of this trend is the writings of Bat Ye’or, the author of the recent book Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis. This book is a lengthy diatribe against European Arabs and Muslims. The author compares European and Arab immigrant communities to an earlier fascist presence in Europe. Her earlier work was used to legitimize the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, a long-standing indigenous European Muslim population whose presence actually predates the rise of the Protestant faith. These ideas have increased receptivity in the aftermath of the recent Danish cartoon affair, in which dormant fears rose to the surface about European Muslim immigrant populations.

Islamist ideologues similarly fear the encroachment of an alien, menacing West. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Pakistani earthquake, Kurshid Ahmed, head of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami party, stated that God was punishing Pakistanis for their sins. Later the party decried the NATO airlift and the presence of NATO troops that were assisting in relief efforts. In the eyes of party faithful, it would be better that Pakistani earthquake victims die or suffer rather than accept aid from the West.

To complicate matters further, there is a contestation of Islamic traditions taking place within the Muslim world. Much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Islamic intellectual thought was framed by the encounter with the colonizing West. Liberal Islamic thinkers believed that the West’s strengths needed to be emulated or indigenized: whether in reference to the struggle for gender equality, human rights, or constitutionalism, as democracy was called in the early part of the twentieth century. The Islamist/fundamentalist felt that Western influences needed to be expelled along with the colonizer.

Islamist and liberal Islamic thinkers are the flip side of the same coin: the twentieth-century engagement with the West and Western colonization of Muslim lands. Revivalists ironically borrowed liberally from illiberal Western traditions. Consider Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979) the enormously influential Islamist intellectual who argued, “I wanted to rid them [Westernized Muslim intellectuals] of the wrong notion that they needed to borrow from others in the matter of culture and civilization.” His definition of jihad, however, is worth examining: “In reality Islam is a revolutionary ideology and programme which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals. ‘Muslim’ is the title of that International Revolutionary Party organized by Islam to carry into effect its revolutionary programme. And ‘Jihad’ refers to that revolutionary struggle and utmost exertion which the Islamic party brings into play to achieve this objective.”1

Here Mawdudi borrows from a European vocabulary. In a very real sense Islam is redefined, and new meanings are poured into familiar vocabulary. Is it any wonder that traditionalist contemporaries of Mawdudi considered his understanding of Islam to be errant and akin to a new religion?

However, it is the liberal Muslim reformer who has been derided as inauthentic, a phenomenon that the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote about so presciently in the 1950s. The Islamist also defined much of contemporary Muslim society as being un-Islamic. We thus need to understand that the Islamist’s claim to authenticity is at the very least suspect and that there is a contestation of Islamic tradition taking place.

It is also in the modern era that the charge of apostasy is increasingly used as a political tool by revivalists against their liberal Muslim rivals. We see this clearly in the case of the Cairo University professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. Islamist lawyers filed a legal proceeding against Abu Zayd accusing him of apostasy for his modernist writings on Islam. The Cairo Court of Appeal condemned Abu Zayd as an apostate and ordered him divorced from Professor Ibtihal Yunis, his wife (a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim). The couple fled to the Netherlands.

Today, those attempting to scale or tear down these newly constructed walls are viewed as traitors to their tribe. What is needed instead are voices reaffirming the shared humanity transcending our fears and differences, and binding us together. Finally, it may be worth recalling Don Juan Manuel’s chilling warning about the last time these sibling civilizations fought: “Cold War neither brings peace nor gives honor to the one who makes it.”


  1. Syed Abul A’la Mawdudi, Jihad in Islam, 7th ed. (Islamic Publications, 2001), 8. This is an address that was delivered on Iqbal Day, April 13, 1939, Lahore.

Emran Qureshi is a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and a resident at Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions. He is a co-editor, with Michael Sells, of The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy (Columbia University Press).

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