Trying to theorize about revolution with no understanding of Islam

Developing Just Leadership

Laila Juma

Ramadan 11, 1430 2009-09-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma

Revolution and World Politics: the rise and fall of the sixth great power by Fred Halliday. MacMillan Press, Basingstoke, UK, 1999. Pp: 402. Pbk: £15.99.

Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, introduced the ideas presented in this book at a seminar on the Islamic Revolution in Iran organized by the Islamic Centre of England late last year. His object was to show how the Islamic Revolution had much in common with other, earlier revolutions and was not in reality particularly radical at all. (He is known in Britain for his opposition to the Islamic movement generally and Iran in particular.)

His presentation was short and consisted of a list of features of revolutions. Most of these were commonplace: they claim to represent ordinary people against élites; they claim solidarity with oppressed people everywhere; they oppose the existing world order; they see themselves as the leading edge of a greater movement; that they aim to ‘export’ the revolution; etc. One student attending the seminar commented that he had thought that Halliday was still on his introduction, when suddenly he concluded and sat down. (The same student also asked why an Islamic organization would invite such a person, which remains a mystery beyond the bounds of this review.)

Reading this book, one hopes and expects to get greater insight into the thought of a man who is, after all, a recognised authority on international relations. Unfortunately there appears to be no greater insight to be gotten. This book, like that presentation, adds up to little more than general observations of no great perspicacity, dressed up to look like academic insight.

The focus of the book is, of course, less directly on the Revolution in Iran. Instead Halliday traces the origins of the ‘modern concept of revolution’ before going on to explore internationalist ideologies of revolution and, in particular, their commitment to promoting change elsewhere (which is how they impact on international relations). He ultimately sees the phenomenon of revolution as a part of internationalised social conflict and a challenge to the state system, with the substance to constitute a ‘sixth world power’ in the existing system.

His understanding falls down, however, when the theory is applied to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and revolutionary Islamic movements generally, on which he is supposedly an expert, but actually understands very little. As a former Marxist, Halliday sees things in strictly secular terms, and in strictly selfish terms. This makes him totally unable the understand the spirit of Islam, the motivations of Islamic activists and leaders, and the ethos of Islamic movements. This failure shines through his every work, this book being no exception. One suspects that this may be an inevitable limitation of western minds generally, which Muslims must learn to live with.

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