What Motivates Islamists?

On our Zoom call for subscribers this Friday, I had planned to interview Salem Barahmeh, executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy. But with the chaos in Afghanistan, I’ve decided to delay that conversation for a few weeks.  

I’m fascinated by why the Taliban—a brutal and authoritarian movement—proved better able to motivate its troops than the Afghan government, which, despite it myriads faults, was far more committed to individual freedom and human rights. Last week I suggested that the answer lies, in part, in nationalism—a force Americans often underestimate in other countries, despite being deeply nationalistic ourselves.      

But the Taliban is not only a nationalist movement. It’s also an Islamist movement. And last week I came across the most compelling brief explanation of Islamism’s appeal that I’ve ever read. It’s from the Palestinian writer and activist Iyad El-Baghdadi, co-author of The Middle East Crisis Factory.

Iyad begins his explanation this way:

“Having once been an Islamist myself (when I was much younger) I can tell you with the wisdom of hindsight that a lot of it is really about identity and very little of it is about spirituality. We feel humiliated by the West, and alienated from our own pre-colonial identities. 

Colonialism and modernity, a perfect storm that severed our connection with ourselves. We say ‘we want to bring Islam back,’ but what we really want back is our lost selves.” 

Read his entire Twitter thread here

I’m thrilled that Iyad will join us this Friday, August 27, to talk about identity, nostalgia, Islamism and the Taliban. The call will be at a special time, 11 AM ET. We’ll also send the video to subscribers. 

Subscribe and join us. 

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A few more things:

On August 11, I published a New York Times column entitled, “America Needs to Start Telling the Truth about Israel’s Nukes.” Here’s a thoughtful critique of my argument by Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on Iran. 

On August 16, I took part in a webinar hosted by Americans for Peace Now, which featured Ben and Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen and the chair of its Board of Directors, Anuradha Mittal, discussing the company’s decision to no longer sell ice cream in the West Bank. 

On August 14, I talked with Palestinian negotiation expert Nizar Farsakh about antisemitism and anti-Palestinianism in an event sponsored by American Friends of Combatants for Peace. 

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch found that Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel may constitute war crimes.

My friend, Carleton University political scientist Mira Sucharov, is conducting a survey of American Jewish political attitudes for an upcoming book. She’s asked me to share the survey in case folks are interested in taking part.

See you on Friday,

Peter