Immanuel Wallerstein is one of the most important yet controversial thinkers and activists of our time, writing on a wide range of topics, from global economics and international politics, to the decline of the United States, the antisystemic movement, multiculturalism, and the role of religions in the modern world. Despite the fact that he had a large following among Muslims, Wallerstein’s academic interest and engagement in Islam and Muslims remained limited. By way of introducing an edited volume of his essays (Chaotic Uncertainty: Reflections on Islam, the Middle East and the World System), this short article aims to review Wallerstein’s take on Islam and the Middle East.
“Despite the fact that he had a large following among Muslims, Wallerstein’s academic interest and engagement in Islam and Muslims remained limited. By way of introducing an edited volume of his essays (Chaotic Uncertainty: Reflections on Islam, the Middle East and the World System), this short article aims to review Wallerstein’s take on Islam and the Middle East.”
Wallerstein is currently a Senior Research Scholar at Yale University. His first scholarly work was on McCarthyism in the United States during the Cold War era in the 1950s where he argued that McCarthyism was only marginally opposed to communism and was more a program of the “practical right” against “sophisticated conservatives.” With his PhD thesis, he shifted his attention to non-Western societies, particularly those in Africa. Since the 1970s, however, his main interest has broadened, encompassing the working mechanisms of world history over the last five hundred years. The first volume of his magnum opus, The Modern World System, which laid the foundation of “the world-systems approach,” was published in 1974. In this ongoing study, Wallerstein developed a broadly defined Marxian systemic argument, proposing that a unique capitalist world-system has emerged in Europe in the last five hundred years. Wallerstein’s world-systems theory reflects his profound conviction that understanding global inequality requires thinking on a global scale.
This world-system, unlike previous imperial economic-political systems, evolved almost independently from any particular empire or state, and the core heritage of the system is (western) European and Christian. Inherently connected to modern European colonialism, this process helped generate three types of countries in the nineteenth century: “core,” “periphery,” and “semi-periphery.” While the core countries represent “developed” western countries such as England, France, and the United States, the periphery and semi-periphery countries represent nearly all of the non-Western “underdeveloped or developing” countries whose main function/purpose is to provide the core countries with the raw materials. Under this rather deterministic and pessimistic system, it is almost impossible for a country to graduate from the periphery to the core.
According to Wallerstein’s own testimony, Franz Fanon, Fernard Braudel, and Ilya Prigognine were three great minds who had a profound impact on modifying his line of arguments in later years. Although Wallerstein’s theory can be considered a Euro-centric one, it is still inherently anti-Orientalist as it does not represent the world in essentialist, racial, and culturally stratified civilizational categories. In that regard, he opposes the idea of classifying nations as “third world,” arguing that there is only one world integrated by complex economic and cultural networks. As Samman and Al-Zo’by suggest, “the world system-analysis challenges this highly essentialized notion of difference by positing that all civilizations are the invention of one modernity.”
To Wallerstein, this capitalist world-system, whose main ideology was and remains liberalism, has been going through a deep structural crisis since the world revolution of 1968. Wallerstein maintains that the system will be replaced by other and perhaps better systems in the mid-to- long run. In his recent writings, Wallerstein has devoted almost all of his energy and time analyzing and explaining how the capitalist system can be replaced. At the end of most all his writings, he ties his discussions back to the issue of the systemic crisis of the world-system and repeats his quasi-prophesy about the irreversible downfall of said system. His syndicated commentaries that he began publishing bimonthly on his website (https://www.iwallerstein.com) in the early 2000s touch upon different aspects of global affairs, ranging from the Middle East, Africa, as well as Asia, Europe, and North and South America. Every political and economic conflict in the contemporary world is yet another sign demonstrating stagnation and promising the eventual downfall of the system. Wallerstein’s commentaries reveal how his theories can explain day-to-day affairs, as well as how he closely monitors contemporary global economic, political, and cultural events. Browsing the acknowledgements in his book calls attention to how his knowledge of different countries comes to him through his personal and active friendships established in all four corners of the world, from Asia and Latin America to the Middle East. Our numerous personal exchanges with him over the last six months and his prompt responses are sure signs that Wallerstein is a humble, down-to-earth, approachable scholar who is open to learning and revising his ideas even at his advanced age.
The power of Wallerstein’s analysis stems from his deep knowledge of political history as well as from his almost impeccable, self-referential and self-perpetuating mega-theory. On the website where his previously mentioned commentaries are published, he explains that they are “intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.”
This volume contains one of Wallerstein’s articles on Islam, his introduction to the Turkish edition, as well as his fifty different commentaries on Islam and Middle Eastern and global affairs, all of which have been published since the Arab Spring. The selected commentaries fall under four headings: Islam, the Middle East and Africa; the United States and Latin America; Europe and Asia; and the World-System. Before introducing Wallerstein’s writings, we would first like to briefly discuss his ideas about Islam in relation to his world-system theory. His commentaries and three articles—published in 1999, 2006, and 2008 respectively—that are devoted to Islam and the Middle East will be the basis of this summary.
Wallerstein and Islam
Although a prolific writer, Wallerstein’s engagement with Islam and Muslims has been somewhat limited. Only in the last two decades or so has he turned to Islam and the Middle East, publishing several articles on their place in his world-system theory. As his theory is primarily an economic one, he treats Islam in most cases as a dependent variable rather than a self-motivated independent variable. It seems that Wallerstein was not convinced by John O. Voll’s seminal article in Journal of World History that challenged his economy-based world-system and proposed a discourse-based world-system which had been created by the Muslims in pre-modern times: “The modern capitalist world-system was not the first long-lasting world-system without a world-empire. The Islamic community had already developed such a world-system in the centuries following the collapse of the Abbasid state by the tenth century c.e. This non-imperial world-system was not based on a world-economy. Instead it was a discourse-based world-system tied together by interactions based on a broad community of discourse rather than by exchange of goods.”
Initially, Wallerstein regarded Islam as one of the antisystemic movements within the world-system. According to him, the modern antisystemic movements of the oppressed began to emerge in the nineteenth century and continue today. To Wallerstein, Islamic movements (or Islamism, political Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism, terms that he uses interchangeably) are some of the latest resistance movements against the system. Here, interestingly enough, Wallerstein disregards earlier anti-colonial Muslim figures and movements, such as Jamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Muhammad Iqbal, instead situating Islamic resistance mainly in the twentieth century. For example, as shown by Ganesh Trichur, political Islam and political Hinduism are reactions to the effects of self-regulating market systems in the new world-system, imposed by European powers on Ottoman and South Asian geographies. Although Wallerstein makes some factual mistakes in presenting the history of past and present Islamic societies, he has remarkable insights about their trajectories and the stories of their people, particularly when those stories fit into his grand scheme of world-system theory.
“Although a prolific writer, Wallerstein’s engagement with Islam and Muslims has been somewhat limited. Only in the last two decades or so has he turned to Islam and the Middle East, publishing several articles on their place in his world-system theory. As his theory is primarily an economic one, he treats Islam in most cases as a dependent variable rather than a self-motivated independent variable. Initially, Wallerstein regarded Islam as one of the antisystemic movements within the world-system.”
Wallerstein maintains and argues that Islamic movements are destined, like other antisystemic movements such as communism and anti-colonial independence movements, to be incorporated into the world-system sooner or later. In other words, Islamic political movements follow the same patterns that previous antisystemic movements followed. He finds certain similarities in their “historic rise, relative and/or full success, their real political failure, the subsequent disillusionment, and the search for alternative strategies.”  To him, all of these developments are indeed part and parcel of the historical development of the modern world-system.
Unlike Samuel Huntington, who sees “the West and Islam as two antithetical civilizations,” and Edward Said, who sees “Orientalism as a false construct erected for ideological reasons by the Western world,” Wallerstein approaches Islam with a different question: “Why is it that the Christian world seems to have singled out the Islamic world as its particular demon, and not merely recently but ever since the emergence of Islam?” He then asks, “Can the West do without a demon?” and answers, “I doubt it at the moment.” Although one needs to historicize the validity and universality of these questions, it is without a doubt that Islam and Christianity have been historically at odds, competing with missionary zeal to spread their own form of universal truth claims.
As Wallerstein asserts, however, there was another source for the tension between Islam and Christianity that was less about ideas and more about power and resources:
In the rolling back and forth of conquests—the eighth-century Umayyad thrust into Iberia and France, the Christian Crusades into the Holy Land, the Saracen pushback of the Christian conquests, the Reconquista of Spain, the expansion of the Ottoman empire, the eventual pushback of the Ottomans—it is true that the Christian world and the Islamic world were struggling over the control of vast areas of land, their resources, and their populations, and that for each the other represented the main military threat.
To Wallerstein, all of these historical developments set the scene for the modern world-system. What is the role of religion in the world-system theory? Between 1500 and 1970, Wallerstein maintains, the world-system worked well, with a steady decline of religious affiliation and a large measure of secularization in political structures. In the early modern period, particularly during the heyday of Ottoman power, Islam was seen as an extra-European power that was besieging Europe. Europe, however, avoided direct confrontation with the East. Because of that policy:
The initial expansion of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tended to jump over the Islamic world, or at least its Middle Eastern core. European powers went west, they thought to India, but came instead to the Americas. And they circumnavigated Africa, again to reach out to Asia. In part, this was because they sought what they thought to be the wealth of Asia. But in part this was because it was easier. The Islamic world seemed a hard nut to crack.
During the European Enlightenment, westerners had other agendas and Islam was still not “at the center of political discourse in Europe.”
The Changing Role of Religion in the Twentieth Century
In the twentieth century, the role of religion was further curbed in the public sphere and politics mainly in European countries, communist regimes, and other new nation-states across the world. In the meantime, according to Wallerstein, the pan-European world was challenged by three “semi-colonized” regions: the Soviet Union, the Chinese People’s Republic, and Islam. They were the “demons” in the imagination of European discourse.
The retreat of religion from the public sphere climaxed in the post-World War II era, lasting until the early 1970s. “The period between 1945 to the 1970s was one both of extremely high capital accumulation worldwide and the geopolitical hegemony of the United States. The geoculture was one in which centrist liberalism was at its acme as the governing ideology. Never did capitalism seem to be functioning as well.” The weakening of religion in this period could be observed in three major episodes: the Cold War, when things were formulated primarily in terms of political ideologies rather than religious faiths; in “non-aligned” countries where national liberation movements were mostly secular and anti-clerical; and lastly in the collapse of resistance to the process of state secularism as in the case of the Roman Catholic Church.
To Wallerstein, something critical happened to the modern world-system in the 1960s and 1970s, reversing a five century trend in the decrease of the centrality of religion in politics. This major shift gave birth to religious fundamentalist movements across the globe among Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic circles. The crisis was both the birth pang of the coming of a new system as well as the triumphal return of religion to politics.
The world revolution that took place in 1966-70 had two major results: “One was the end of the very long dominance of centrist liberalism (1848-1968) as the only legitimate ideology in the geoculture, and the second was the worldwide challenge to the Old Left by movements everywhere that asserted that the Old Left was not antisystemic at all.”
After the 1970s, Wallerstein maintains there were three fundamental changes in the world-system: the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Old Left antisystemic movements, and global economic stagnation. The end of the Cold war brought the end of traditional alliances forged by the US and USSR, with new forms of alliances taking their place. Secondly, the Old Left, which came to power either through communist regimes or social-democratic movements, as well as national liberation movements across the world, all failed to create a better society. In fact, the Old Left helped sustain the existing system; this failure was at the heart of the 1968 world revolution. Finally, the capitalist and liberalist world-economic system began to undergo a deep structural crisis, replacing its ideology with “neo-liberalism.”
To Wallerstein, this chaotic environment gave rise to religious fundamentalism among Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Additionally, Wallerstein thinks that religious fundamentalist movements share some common characteristics despite their historical and doctrinal differences. For example, they each have a very “complex relationship” with state apparatuses. This is because although they claim to derive their legitimacy from religion and espouse anti-secular and anti-statist principles, they paradoxically “seek by every means conceivable to obtain state power” in order use this power to impose their doctrines on others. They assert that states have “failed in their obligations to provide basic social services” to people and they create alternative “para-statal institutions” such as schools, hospitals and charity organizations to help and indoctrinate the masses in every way possible. Islamist organizations are especially notable for providing extensive social services to those in need.
If one looks at the ways in which these Islamist groups have mobilized politically, one can see that they have not merely put forth an alternative rhetoric, and hence an alternative analysis of the mode of functioning of the modern world-system, to the modernist movements they have been opposing, but they are also saying that these modernist regimes have failed in the primary task of modern states, providing for the minimal ongoing welfare and security of the citizens.
Though fundamentalist movements are often labeled anti-modern, Wallerstein argues this is a misnomer because these movements are “perfectly adept at the use of ultra-modern technologies.” “They recruit extensively and successfully among students in technical/scientific branches of the universities, and then make use of their skills in advancing their cause.”
The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism
If religious fundamentalism is flourishing amongst world religions, why should we obsess specifically with Islamic fundamentalism? For example, members of the Hindu Tamil movements “more or less invented the idea of suicide bombers,” but still everyone “associates suicide bombing with Islamists” because an unrelenting political Islam stands out as the most interesting phenomenon across the globe.
“Wallerstein thinks that Islamism serves multiple audiences with different needs. For example, for the United States, it offers a new unifying enemy or ‘demon’ in the absence of communism. For those who were disillusioned by national liberation movements, it offers a better alternative; and for those who suffer ‘amidst increased economic fears,’ it provides a ‘symbol of hope.'”
Wallerstein thinks that Islamism serves multiple audiences with different needs. For example, for the United States, it offers a new unifying enemy or “demon” in the absence of communism. For those who were disillusioned by national liberation movements, it offers a better alternative; and for those who suffer “amidst increased economic fears,” it provides a “symbol of hope.” These factors can explain why much attention is devoted to Islam and Islamic fundamentalism today.
To Wallerstein, the relation between Islamism and the West is particularly important because the former considers the United States as the “guiding evil force in the world” and looks for opportunities to attack it. In return, the United States and other oppressive regimes use the notion of “Islamic terrorism,” which is “inherently a blurry concept,” in order to justify their actions against Muslims and Muslim nations. Here it is important to note that Wallerstein’s general opinion about the decline of the United States as a hegemonic superpower has some major implications for the future of its relationship with the Middle East. He thinks “whatever the United States tries to do in the Middle East today, it loses. At present none of the strong actors in the Middle East (and I do mean none) take their cues from the United States any longer. This includes Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan (not to mention Russia and China).”
The powerful presence of Israel in the region exasperates Muslims’ anti-Western feelings since Israel is “regarded as primarily an outpost of the West, a settler state akin to the Crusader states of the Middle Ages.” Finally, we now pay so much attention to Islamists, because states with large Muslim populations utilize Islam as a “mode of national identification and reinforcement” as in the case of the Ba’ath regimes in Iraq and Syria. Although the regimes were inherently secular and nationalist, Saddam Hussain and Hafez Assad did not hesitate to use Islam as a reinforcing and self-perpetuating force in their causes and political ideologies.
What is the future of religious fundamentalist movements in general and political Islam in particular? This is a recurring theme in Wallerstein’s writings. In 2006, he asked, “Are we perhaps discussing this matter too early? As these Islamist movements begin to assume state power in more and more states, will they be coming into more direct conflict with secular left movements?” And he answers by comparing the Islamic antisystemic movements to the Old Left movements that tasted state power and lost their charm for the masses in the 1950s and 1960s.
To Wallerstein, political Islam will follow the same trajectory of the previous antisystemic movements, and their success in capturing state power will be the very reason for their decline.“It is no doubt far too early to say the religious fundamentalist movements have passed their prime and have begun to decline as central political forces in their countries. But it does seem to me likely that this point will come, and perhaps sooner than we think.” When the Arab Spring broke out in 2010, Wallerstein believed that it had great revolutionary potential, not only for the Middle East, but also the whole world, something akin to the 1968 revolutions: “The initial spirit of 1968 regains force, and both Tunisia and Egypt become again beacons of social transformation for themselves, for the rest of the Arab world, for the entire world.” In his later writings on the Arab Spring, however, he seems to think that the Arab Spring lost its potential revolutionary character. When we reminded him in our personal communication of his earlier prediction about the decline of political Islamic movements and asked whether he still held the same opinion regarding the future of religious fundamentalism and political Islam, he replied “Yes, I still maintain the same view.”
 Khaldoun Samman and Mazhar Al-Zo’by, “Islam, Orientalism and the World-System,” in Islam and the Orientalist World-System, ed. Khaldoun Samman and Mazhar Al-Zo’by (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008): 3-24.
 Immanuel Wallerstein, “Islam, the West and the World,” in Journal of Islamic Studies 10, no. 2 (1999): 109-125; Wallerstein, “Islam in the Modern World-System,” in Sociologisk Forskning 43, no. 4 (2006): 66-74; and Wallerstein, “The Political Construction of Islam in the Modern World-System,” in Islam and the Orientalist World-System, ed. Khaldoun Samman and Mazhar Al-Zo’by (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008): 24-36. The third source is a revised version of the second article.
 Ganesh K. Trichur, “Political Islamism and Political Hinduism as Forms of Social Protection in the Modern World-System,” in Islam and the Orientalist World-System, ed. by Samman and Al-Zo’by (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008): 154-184.
 It is interesting to note that Wallerstein revised this strong statement in his 2008 chapter “The Political Construction”, stating, “Of course one should not exaggerate this, as religion still played a role, but often as little more than a marker of class affiliation.” This would yet be another example demonstrating his evolving ideas about religion in general and Islam in particular in the context of the world-system theory.
 Wallerstein, “Turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt: Beginning or End of the Revolutions?” Commentary No. 347, Feb. 15, 2013.
 Personal communication with Wallerstein, on March 17, 2018.