John Owen IV on Confronting Political Islam, Historical Lessons
Date: January 11th, 2015

Can 16th century rebellions in Scotland, France, and the Netherlands be useful in helping us understand the international politics of ISIS, the Arab Spring, and other popular movements surrounding the rise of political Islam?  What about how the US reacted to various socialists during the Cold War?  Prof. John Owen IV, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, explores these unique historical comparisons and more as a means of understanding how the United States and Europe engage the ideological phenomenon known broadly as Islamism.  This intriguing interview is sure to be an eye-opener!

Despite discussing a book entitled Confronting Political Islam (see link below), we begin with an examination of three Calvinist rebellions in 16th century Europe involving Scotland, France, and the Netherlands.  Prof. Owen points out that the title of his book is “Six Lessons from the West’s Past” and notes how these old conflicts had several things in common that are important for understanding contemporary challenges in the world.  These three revolts all involved ideologically-committed partisans that had transnational alliances and provoked foreign interventions into the domestic landscape of where these battles were fought, much like the situations we see today in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

Tony quickly takes to challenging Dr. Owen on such an odd comparison, which might be likened to comparing apples and oranges.  This leads to a discussion on the important role of understanding the past and how history may not repeat itself, but often rhymes (with John citing Mark Twain’s quote to this effect).  We also spend a short segment on discussing the important role of ideas in motivating human behavior and international intrigue.  Tony admits he is highly partial to “interest-based” explanations and downplays the role that ideology plays in fostering human action, often seeing ideologies as ex post facto justifications for behavior.  John counters with some excellent examples where ideas motivated important change even against the interest of the individuals promoting that change, including Martin Luther.  Tony yields this point but notes how some individuals, such as Henry IV who accepted Catholicism so he could conquer Paris, have very malleable belief systems.  John agrees and we both note that there is a spectrum of individuals from those who hold fast to their ideologies and act vociferously upon them to others who willingly jettison their convictions at moment’s notice (and everything in between).

Following this theoretical and methodological discussion, we turn attention to the comparison between political Islam and various ideological conflicts in the West’s past, including the aforementioned Calvinist rebellions as well as the struggle between democratic capitalism and communism.  John spells out what he means by Islamism and denotes why he focused his book largely on the Middle East and North Africa, where the heart of a new contemporary ideological battle between Islamism and secularism is taking place. He provides a nice history of this ideological tension dating back to the 19th century, covering the push towards secular modernization that occurred first with Mutafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and then the more religiously-based pushback following the failure of many of these secular regimes.

The remaining part of the interview is devoted to several of Prof. Owen’s six lessons from history.  While we do not cover all six, we do spend significant time on four of them.  First, John reminds us not to sell Islamism short in that ideologies that seem “out of place and time” often have significant staying power and are very salient to individuals who hold them.  While those in the West may see Islamism as a throwback to a “medieval time,” partisans of this political theology see themselves as moving history forward.  He likens this to the battle for liberal democracy in the face of monarchism during the 18th and1th centuries.  Second, John points out that ideological struggles frequently involve foreign intervention so that the interveners can gain foreign allies in international struggles and so that those same intervening governments can quell domestic threats.  Here we see comparisons between the civil war in Syria with England’s action of the Calvinist rebellions in the 1560s.

Third, Prof. Owen notes that ideologies are not monolithic and foreign policy should not be made on that basis.  He introduces a new word into Tony’s vocabulary — polylithic.  Here, the historical lesson of the West comes from the Cold War era when Harry Truman pursued a policy that differentiated between various flavors of socialism in Europe and communism, finding allies amongst some of the more anti-Soviet variants.  He cautions policymakers from seeing Islamism as a single monolithic entity and notes how cooperation with Iran may be worthwhile in some instances.  Finally, John urges us to watch the exemplar cases of Turkey and Iran to see how various ideologies play out over time as there is always a disconnect between promoting an ideology and having to “pick up the garbage” (i.e., rule on a daily basis).  John pulls from his studies of The Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries to show how religious conflict was finally moderated and how the lessons of Dutch toleration were adopted by others including Britain and the US.

Prof. Owen finishes the discussion with his musings about what he learned throughout the process of researching and writing his book, including some reflections on his own biases going into the study.  Recorded: December 29, 2014.


Prof. John Owen’s bio at the University of Virginia’s Department of Politics.

Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past, by John Owen.

The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, by John Owen.

Liberal Peace, Liberal War: American Politics and International Security, by John Owen.


Ron Hassner on Sacred Spaces and Holy Conflict.

Philip Jenkins on Religion & World War I.

Kevan Harris on Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Green Movement.

Matthew Derrick on the Geography of the Umma.

William Inboden on Religious Liberty, Foreign Policy, and the Arab Spring.

Jared Rubin on Christian and Islamic Economic History.

Daniel Philpott on Religious Resurgence and Democratization.

Monica Toft on Religion, Terrorism, and Civil War.

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