According to Olivier Roy—the renowned political scientist—the study of Islam has always represented a substantial challenge for Western academia. One aspect however that always lent itself readily to analysis was the political dimension of Islam. The political element of this phenomenon offered a component susceptible of “being analyzed separately from the other processes” (Volpi, 2010: 1). This focus on the politicized nature of Islam gained traction in Western academia, and Islam came to be described “as a political religion, a religion in which politics and religion are difficult to separate” (Mutman, 2014:1). This exclusion of all the other features in favor of its political characteristics led to the prevalence of Political Islam as a favorite topic in the study of Islam within Western academia.

“It is commonplace, particularly in Western analysis, to associate the emergence of Islamism with an “Islamic revival” that began to gather force in the 1970s, reaching its zenith with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.” (Mandaville, 2007:58). Western literature devoted to Political Islam or Islamism often reiterates three major assumptions. “These are, first, that the intermingling of religion and politics is unique to Islam; second, that political Islam, much like Islam itself, is monolithic; and third, that political Islam or Islamism is inherently violent” (Ayoob, 2008:1). Western thinkers writing on the subject have frequently been accused by their critics of reducing Political Islam to a “despotic oriental foil” to Western liberal democracies, as well as modernity itself.

One of the main reproaches leveled against this body of knowledge is its reliance on an Orientalist Grand Narrative. An essential Orientalist bias central to these contemporary readings of political Islam is the “binary opposition between Islam and the West” (Volpi, 2010:32). In this rather Manichaean worldview, the West represents modernity, secularism and democracy, while the Muslim world embodies stagnation, orthodoxy, and despotism. This idea of a cleavage between a Christian West and a Muslim East is not only one that defines Orientalism, it also introduced amongst Western notions about Islam the idea that an Islamic civilization can only inspire undemocratic governments. “This idea has a pedigree of many centuries, and the classic term for what it refers to is oriental despotism” (Kalmar, 2012:1). It is said that Western contemporary readings on political Islam approach the subject of politics in Islam from an Orientalist perspective in which they try to build a comprehensive and systematic picture of what constitutes an Islamic civilization, while at the same time analyzing and explaining it “through the lenses of western concepts and methodologies” (Volpi, 2009:22).

In the following essay, we will explore the challenges faced historically when discussing religion and politics in the context of Islam within Western academia, and particularly the historical advent of Orientalism. By taking a closer look at some of the major works often used as a reference in the study of political Islam, we will examine how Orientalist discourse influenced and shaped current Western literature on Islamism. We will analyze the three main tendencies found in contemporary readings of political Islam—traditional Orientalism, Neo-Orientalism, critical Neo-Orientalism—in an attempt to understand how each one attempts to provide a unique analytical perspective, while struggling with serious epistemological obstacles.

What is Islamism?

The term islamisme first appeared in the French language in the mid-eighteenth century. It was used at first as a synonym to mahométisme, which referred to the “religion professed and taught by the Prophet Muhammad” (Kramer, 2003:65). The usage of mahométisme became pervasive across Europe in the early seventeenth century. While the term reflected a desire to recognize Islam as a religious system akin to Christianity, it nonetheless rested “upon the erroneous presumption that Muhammad stood in relation to Islam as Christ stood in relation to Christianity” (Kramer, 2003:65). In 1734, George Sale wrote in his English translation of the Qur’an: “It is certainly one of the most convincing proofs that Mohammedism was no other than a human invention, that it owed its progress and establishment almost entirely to the sword” (Daniel, 1960:300).

According to Martin Kramer, by the eighteenth century attitudes toward Islam had shifted drastically. The term Mahommedism was rapidly falling out of favor as more scholars in Europe sought to use the term utilized by native Muslims when referring to their religion. “Western study of Islam made enormous strides, and polemical denigration no longer informed every Western pronouncement” (Kramer, 2003:66). The thinkers of the enlightenment wanted to devise a term susceptible of classifying Islam as “a religion appreciated in its own terms” (Kramer, 2003:66). Voltaire who had a lifelong interest in Islam found a solution to this issue by coining the term islamisme. He rectified the previous understanding of Prophet Muhammad’s role in Islam by stating: “this religion is called islamisme” (Versaille, 1994). Throughout the nineteenth century, this new term gained in popularity. While islamisme did not completely displace the usage of the term mahométisme in scholarly writings, it nonetheless established Islam as being the religious system to which Muslims adhere. In fact, both Alexis de Tocqueville and Ernest Renan chose to use islamisme in their works pertaining to Islam. “But Islamism also began to disappear from the lexicon from about the turn of the twentieth century” (Kramer, 2003:67). Islam steadily started to replace islamisme as many scholars showed a preference for this “shorter and purely Arabic term” (Kramer, 2003:67).

“In 1946, the British Orientalist H.A.R. Gibb wrote an introduction to Islam in the same series that had included Margoliouth’s Mohammedanism thirty-five years earlier. The publisher wished to keep the same title. Gibb assented, but he was quick to disavow the title on the very first page (…) In the text that followed, Gibb referred to the believers as Muslims and to the faith as Islam” (Kramer, 2003:67)

Much like its initial birth, the resurrection of the concept of islamisme in the late 1970s occurred in France. While its nineteenth century iteration did not refer to the political utilization of Islam, it was now in the twentieth century being used primarily as a way of addressing the emergence of an Islamic political program. Grappling with the advent of Islamic movements throughout the Muslim World, French scholars found in this term not only a concept possessing “a venerable French pedigree going back to Voltaire” (Kramer, 2003:71), but also one that could be retrieved and deployed to describe these newly emerging movements.

Maxime Rodinson was one of the few French scholars who criticized the rehashing of the term islamisme. According to him, if one chooses this term, the reader may become confused between a fanatic who wishes to kill everyone and a rational person who believes in God in the Muslim manner (Burgat, 1988:14). Instead, he favored the term intégrisme, which offered a greater nuance in its distinction between Islam and a more fundamentalist fringe of extremist religious fervor. By the late 1980s, islamisme came to be understood as only one thing: “Islam as a modern ideology and a political program” (Kramer, 2003:71). It even gained traction in the English language where it gained popularity at the expanse of the previously used Islamic fundamentalism.

“In the foreign affairs community, we often use the term “Political Islam” to refer to the movements and groups within the broader fundamentalist revival with a specific political agenda. “Islamists” are Muslims with political goals. We view these terms as analytical, not normative. They do not refer to phenomena that are necessarily sinister: there are many legitimate, socially responsible Muslim groups with political goals. However, there are also Islamists who operate outside the law. Groups or individuals who operate outside the law— who espouse violence to achieve their aims—are properly called extremists” (Pelletreau, 1994:2).

Political Islam or Islamism—that is Islam as a political ideology instead of a religion or theology—is a relatively contemporary phenomenon in the history of the Muslim World. Although Western Academia coined the term, the distinctive forms of Muslim politics that later came to define Islamism emerged in the nineteenth-century as European colonial incursions into Muslim territories increased. These encounters with “European domination” sparked fierce reactions amongst Muslim populations toward what they perceived as “subjugation by infidel powers” (Ayoob, 2008:9). “It is no wonder, then, that political Islam speaks the language of resistance to foreign domination not only in the political but in the cultural and economic spheres as well” (Ayoob, 2008:9).

Broadly speaking Political Islam refers to “those ideologies and movements that strive to establish some kind of an “Islamic order”—a religious state, shari‘a law, and moral codes in Muslim societies and communities” (Bayat, 2013:4). For those movements who adopt an Islamist agenda, religion is regarded as “a holistic, totalizing system whose prescriptions permeate every aspect of daily life” (Mandaville, 2007:57). However, despite having a common goal these groups often differ in their strategies. While some prefer to adopt a gradual approach toward their primary goal, others tend to be more revolutionary.

“Islamism covers a broad spectrum of convictions. At one extreme are those who would merely like to see Islam accorded proper recognition in national life in terms of national symbols. At the other extreme are those who want to see the radical transformation of society and politics, by whatever means, into an absolute theocracy” (Barton, 2005:28).

Political Islam could also be described as an instrumentalization of religion by certain individuals and groups pursuing specific political aims. In this perspective, Islamism seeks to provide “political responses to today’s societal challenges by imagining a future, the foundations for which rest on reappropriated, reinvented concepts borrowed from the Islamic tradition” (Denoeux, 2002:61). The intense focus of Islamist groups on concepts such as the Islamic state arose from a need to provide a response to the proliferation of autocratic regimes in the Muslim World.

Since the twentieth century, Political Islam has mainly been characterized by the quest for an “Islamic public normativity within the context of modern nation-states” (Mandaville, 2007:58). As such, it can be argued that the advent of nation-states in Muslim lands triggered the rise of Islamism in the Muslim political landscape (Mandaville, 2007:58). The emphasis of contemporary Islamism on the significance of the state as “the instrument of God’s (and the Islamists’) will sets the Islamists apart from Muslim traditionalists, who are usually wary of too much state interference in matters of religion” (Ayoob, 2008:10).

The Orientalist narrative in contemporary readings of Political Islam 

The goal of Orientalist accounts pertaining to Muslims and Islam is to provide a comprehensive and systematic picture of Muslim societies’ historical evolution “in relation to a relatively unchanging Islamic theological core” (Volpi, 2010:26). Islamology endeavors to provide a reliable hermeneutic link between past and present Islamic tradition. “As Mahmood Mamdani put it succinctly, orientalist scholars assume that every culture has a tangible essence which defines it, and then explain politics as a consequence of that essence” (Volpi, 2010:26). Despite the diversity intrinsic to Islam, Orientalists seek to uncover the “one Muslim mind, always lurking in the background and shaping the evolution of Muslim societies” (Volpi, 2010:25).

In order to unearth the inner workings of this Muslim mind, Orientalist scholars use Islamic history to interpret Islamic theology. This approach reiterates the idea that one can consistently attribute specific features of Muslim societies—in different historical contexts—to existing quintessential characteristics of Islam. “This argument, it seems has littled evolved despite an increasing sophistication between the time when Ernest Renan wrote his essay on ‘Islam and Science’ and the present-day views detailed in Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong” (Volpi, 2010:25). The end of the cold war revitalized Orientalist scholarship particularly in the political field. Three main tendencies dominate today the Orientalist landscape: traditional Orientalism, neo-Orientalism, and critical neo-Orientalism. The first and oldest of the three is comprised of traditional Orientalists.

“The most emblematic figure in the field today is probably Bernard Lewis, who began to write on this topic in the 1950s and who has hardly deviated from his initial political analysis of a civilizational struggle ever since” (Volpi, 2010:29).

I) Traditional Orientalism

In the early days of social science research of the Middle East, it is undeniable that traditional Orientalists possessed a vast and “sophisticated knowledge of many aspects of the fields they studied” (Volpi, 2009:22). This rendered difficult any attempt made to move beyond Orientalism. The breakdown of the Grand Narrative—a distinctive feature of postmodern approaches—sweeping through Western academia from the 1980s onwards, triggered amongst Orientalists in the field of Islamic studies a fierce resistance to the demise of the Orientalist Grand Narrative (Volpi, 2010:30). Traditional Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and Elie Kedourie have largely contributed to the survival of this narrative. Lewis particularly has been instrumental in repositioning Orientalist assertions about Islam “at the forefront of the intellectual debate due to the propitious circumstances created for them by 9/11” (Volpi, 2010:32). As historians, Lewis and Kedourie have used their knowledge of Islamic history to reiterate the cultural paradigms of the Orientalist Grand Narrative, especially the binary opposition between Islam and the West.

Lewis specialized in Islam and the history of the Ottoman Empire. By the 1960s, he emerged as an authority on the issues of the modern Middle East. In his analysis of contemporary political issues pertaining to the region, he remained faithful to the traditional Orientalist narrative when describing Muslims and Muslim civilization. Much like Hegel, he attributed the West’s rise to hard work, while ascribing the decline of Muslim civilization to the lack of similar dedication and labor. “For many centuries, while Europe was rising to greater and greater heights of achievements, the East was sinking in the comfortable torpor of decay (…)” (Lewis, 1994:42). Lewis maintained that by the nineteenth century, any illusions of superiority and sovereignty fostered by Muslim societies were shattered by Western colonial incursions threatening “their countries, their resources, their civilizations, their very souls (…)” (Lewis, 1994:42).

Therefore, the previously dazzling Muslim civilization was now being subjugated by a rich and powerful Europe that had successfully developed a Weltgeist through the intense work undertaken since the middle ages in order to form a European political and cultural consciousness. According to Lewis, even Muslim resistance to Western domination was shaped by “the lessons of liberty and human self-respect that the West had taught” (Lewis, 1994:43). Lewis created a problematic West vs. Islam dichotomy in practically every aspects of his historical analysis. When explaining the success of Western incursions into Muslim territories, he often mentioned the weakness of the Ottoman military when confronted with the advances of Europeans in matters of warfare, without however specifying what these advances were, or what prevented the Ottomans from adjusting to these changes.

“At about that time, we have an Ottoman document (…) in which Muslim and Christian methods of warfare are compared, to the advantage of the latter, and the previously unthinkable suggestion is advanced that the true believers should follow the infidels in military organization and the conduct of warfare.” (Lewis, 2003:20).

Yet, contrary to Lewis’ assumption of innate European military superiority, comparative historians have long stated that Western Europe’s innovations in warfare technology during this period was due to the constant warring between small states vying for power and influence within Europe, while the Ottomans remained more complacent because they faced fewer powerful challenges susceptible of triggering an arms race in the region (Ansary, 2010:220). The European penetration of Muslim lands was a slow and complex process, and not so much the ferocious military onslaught Lewis presented in his analysis. “The process was so slow, however, and so pervasive and so complex that it was hard for anyone going through the history of it all day by day to make a connection between the European encroachment and the burgeoning decay” (Ansary, 2010:220).

The Ottoman Empire did not go down in flames to conquering European armies. Despite an increasing European penetration and the growing military, economic, and administrative challenges facing them by the end of the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire remained a military and political giant (Hanioglu, 2008:42). In fact, “long after the empire was totally moribund, long after it was little more than a virtual carcass for vultures to pick over, the Ottomans could still muster damaging military strength” (Ansary, 2010:221).

When it comes to Political Islam, Bernard Lewis stated that it owes much of its success and perseverance to the long tradition of undemocratic governments in Muslim societies. “In the struggle between democracy and fundamentalism for power in Muslim lands, the democrats suffer from a very serious disadvantage” (Lewis, 2011:13). Since islamists dispose of a vast political vocabulary that is both familiar and intelligible to Muslim populations who are—according to Lewis—still unaccustomed to the precepts of democracy, it is not surprising that they are more likely to heed a message calling for a return to the original, authentic way of Islam, than the programs proposed by the “exponents of democracy” (Lewis, 2011:10). An Arabic loanword like dimuqratiyya (democracy) will always lack the resonance of something far more familiar like shari’a” (Lewis, 2011:11).

For Lewis, Islamism is simply the latest phase in an ongoing clash between the West and Islam. From the moment of its birth the latter adopted a belligerent attitude toward Christendom, seizing vast lands from Christian nations and integrating them into Dar-al Islam (the realm of Islam) (Lewis, 2011:13). Therefore, the crusades and even the Reconquista became in Lewis’ historical analysis reactions to Muslim belligerence and their continuous encroachment into Christian lands. “After several centuries, Christianity—a religion with a pacifist core—at last reacted with a jihad of its own, variously known as the Reconquest and the Crusades” (Lewis, 2011:13). He posited that contemporary “Muslim triumphalism and militancy” could trigger a new reaction from not only Christianity but also other religions (Lewis, 2011:12). “A triumph of Islamic fundamentalism would have far reaching consequences outside as well as inside the region and would evoke sharp responses from other religions” (Lewis, 2011:12).

Lewis views Christendom and Islam as civilizations that have been in perpetual collision ever since the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Ignoring the often long and rich history of peaceful contacts between Europe and the Muslim World, he reduced Muslim sentiment toward the West to an attitude marred with hostility and hatred. “But most of all, the wave of hostility was due to the crisis of a civilization reacting at last against the impact of alien forces that had dominated, dislocated, and transformed it” (Lewis, 2003:20). In his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990), he argued that this perpetual struggle between the West and Islam was gaining in strength. It was in that essay that he coined the phrase “clash of civilizations”, which later inspired Samuel Huntington.

Elie Kedourie—much like Lewis—specialized in the history of the Middle East, and took on an Orientalist posture to study the region. When speaking about political culture in the Middle East, he stated that the very idea of constitutional and representative government is anathema to the political traditions of the Arab and Muslim World. “What is remarkable about it is that there is nothing in the political traditions of the Arab world—which are the political traditions of Islam—which might make familiar, or indeed intelligible, the organizing ideas of constitutional and representative government” (Kedourie, 1994:5). In a nutshell, the precepts of democracy are in essence “profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition” (Kedourie, 1994:6). Remaining faithful to the traditional Orientalist Grand Narrative that deems despotism to be the default setting of the Orient in matters of politics and governance, Kedourie posited that the “ancient traditions of Oriental despotism (…) served immeasurably to magnify the position of the Muslim ruler (…)” (Kedourie, 1994:7). Much like Aristotle who claimed that surrender to the tyrant is a deeply ingrained custom amongst Orientals, Kedourie postulated that passive obedience to the ruler is akin to religious duty amongst Muslims who fear anarchy more than tyranny.

“In the political theory of Islam, as it has remained to the present day, the caliph is the sole political and military authority within the umma, and all civil officials and military officers are his servants and derive their powers solely from this, the highest public office in Islam. The reason for such an injunction is that anarchy is to be feared above all else, since anarchy makes impossible the pursuit of a godly life, and thus endangers eternal salvation which is the ultimate goal of all human endeavor” (Kedourie, 1994:7).

Traditional Orientalists remain firmly rooted in classical Orientalism, which attributes the troubles of Muslim societies to Orthodox Islam’s natural penchant for political quietism. In other words, by promoting the abandonment of one’s own will as a form of religious edict, and encouraging the submission of Muslim masses to the will of the ruler, Islam favors fatalism, lack of critique, and most of all despotism. This argument is often the cornerstone of traditional Orientalists’ claims pertaining not only to Islam’s inability to foster the development of vibrant civil societies and sound political traditions, but also its supposed incompatibility with modernity. The influence of Lewis and Kedourie was instrumental in propagating these Orientalist assertions about Islam beyond the field of Islamic studies, and can be felt today in the work of authors such as Huntington and Barber.

Samuel Huntington is amongst the scholars who in the 1990s “sought to propose new over-arching paradigms and who found comfort in the stability that orientalists proposed in their cultural paradigms” (Volpi, 2010:31). In fact, his notion of clash of civilization is connected to and inspired by Lewis’ earlier argument pertaining to the ongoing struggle between The West and Islam. Huntington suggests, that when cultural groups are thriving they almost always try to use their power to “extend their values, practices, and institutions to other societies” (Huntington, 1996:91). During the nineteenth century, the blossoming of European culture and economy led to European colonialism and the consolidation of Western hegemony politically, culturally, economically, and militarily. However, in a post-Cold War world where non-Western societies are emerging as economic and political rivals, there is an increasing movement in their part to generate “the revival of non-Western cultures throughout the world” (Huntington, 1996:91).

What Huntington refers to as the indigenization effect is a desire on the part of non-Western societies to revert back to “their ancestral cultures, and in the process at times changed identities, names, dress, and beliefs” (Huntington, 1996:93). He postulates that indigenization has been increasingly taking place all over the world since the 1980s and 1990s, and has since increased in its intensity and scope. In the Muslim World, the resurgence of Islam often based on the question of the re-Islamisation of Muslim societies has been “the prevailing trend in the rejection of Western forms and values” (Huntington, 1996:94). Indigenization and the resurgence of religion throughout the world are the leading causes of the civilizational dynamics at play since the last quarter of the twentieth century. Asia and Islam (the Muslim World) represent in Huntington’s view two cases of strong cultural assertiveness and challenge toward Western civilization. “The Islamic challenge is manifest in the pervasive cultural, social, and political resurgence of Islam in the Muslim world and the accompanying rejection of Western values and institution” (Huntington, 1996:102). The advent of Islamism, via the appearance of transnational Islamic networks and political parties validated, in Huntington’s eyes, the existence of an Islamic challenge to the very ideals of Western civilization.

“Benjamin R. Barber’s explanatory scheme in Jihad vs. MacWorld is also organized on some grand binary division of tradition and modernity” (Volpi, 2010:31). Much like Kedourie, he adheres to an exceptionalist thesis in which Islam is incapable of fostering the “values, culture, and institutions that make up liberal society” (Barber, 1996:206). Since Islam rests on a worldview where the Islamic faith and the Islamic state it inspires are deemed sacred and indivisible, it leaves very little space for secular ideals to emerge. This, according to Barber, creates in predominantly Muslim societies an environment detrimental to the advent of democracy and human rights. While he recognizes that fundamentalist tendencies can be found in every major world religion, he nevertheless believes that “in Islam such tendencies have played a leading political role since the eighteenth century” (Barber, 1996:206). After all, nothing proves more the lack of affinity between Islam and democracy than the repeated failed attempts throughout the Muslim World at creating democratic regimes (Barber, 1996:207). Much like Lewis and Kedourie, Barber reiterates the notion of Oriental despotism by asserting that Islam creates a unique environment in which democracy, liberal values, as well as the very idea of enlightenment are all but impossible.

Feminist scholarship was another field throughout the 1990s that surprisingly embraced the Orientalist Grand Narrative when tackling issues pertaining to Islam and gender (Volpi, 2010:32). The very first Western representations of the Muslim experience came primarily from travelers, adventurers, and crusaders whose depictions of the Muslim world formed the bedrock of Western ideas about Muslims and Islam (Curtis, 2009: 15). These representations often reiterated the strangeness of these far away lands, their cultures, and peoples. It is not surprising that the colonial narrative borrowed—and based—much of its depiction of Islam as the “ultimate inferior other” from these pre-existing impressions. In the colonial context, feminism was frequently used to illustrate the specific inferiority of colonized cultures. In the case of the Muslim world “the thesis of the new colonial discourse of Islam centered on women” (Ahmed, 1992:151). This new centrality given to the issue of women was yet another way of showcasing the innate and immutable nature of Islam as an oppressive force to women. The veil and the segregation of the sexes particularly were cited as examples epitomizing this oppression.

In the 1990s Western feminism recreated these artificial clashes between the oppressed women and the oppressive tradition by focusing on practices inherent to Islam but deemed detrimental to women’s rights by feminist standards (Volpi, 2010:32). Blanketed statements about Islam being unfavorable to the emancipation of women became pervasive both in feminist literature and the policy-making community. Despite the rise of intersectional feminism, the idea that certain customs are the primary reason for the “backwardness of Muslim societies” continued to endure in feminist thought. After all, “the peculiar practices of Islam with respect to women had always formed part of the Western narrative of the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam” (Ahmed, 1992:149).

It was not only the Orient or the Muslim World that were deemed problematic, but also Muslim communities in the West who were often seen as an extension of the Orient itself. The veil or Hijab, seen as a primary marker of Muslim identity and values, has often been the object of feminist ire as the supposed symbol of female oppression. “In the late 1980s, for example, a sharp public controversy erupted in France about whether Magrebin girls could attend school wearing the traditional Muslim head scarves regarded as proper attire for post pubescent young women” (Okin, 1999:9). The same debate re-emerged again in 2003 and eventually culminated in the enactment of a law officially banning the hijab (and other conspicuous religious signs) in public schools (Fernando, 2010:19).

The Burkini debacle of 2016 in France is a prime example of the persistence of this narrative affirming the veil to be a symbol of Islam’s inherent oppression and degradation of women. A central Orientalist prejudice found in many of the debates amongst feminist scholars is often rooted in the binary dichotomy between Islam and the West. The latter is said to be progressive and represents an advanced stage of women emancipation, while the Muslim World is essentially seen as hostile to women’s advancements. Muslim women particularly are depicted “as passive agents and victims of socio-political transformations and not as productive agents of change” (Volpi, 2010:32).

“While virtually all of the world’s cultures have distinctly patriarchal pasts, some—mostly, though by no means exclusively, Western liberal cultures—have departed far further from them than others” (Okin, 1999:16).

Although the origins of the narrative pertaining to the supposed primitive treatment of women in Islam can be traced back to the colonial context of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in the context of the war on terror. This new framework rests on the Manichean representation of the Muslim world as a barbaric and misogynistic entity that must be civilized by a liberal and enlightened West. Feminist discourse played a major role in the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of Liberal imperialism. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was widely framed as a righteous war to liberate Afghan women from oppression (Ahmed, 2012).


Understanding Orientalism Series

Understanding Orientalism and its genesis: Read here



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8 thoughts on “Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 1)

  1. Finally got a chance to read the essay. Another great article! Wasn’t aware that Lewis inspired Huntington. Have you read the latter’s work in full? I’m glad you quoted Roy. I actually did read him and based one of my papers on many of his arguments. What are your thoughts on Leila Ahmed?

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    1. Bernard Lewis remains a reference when it comes to Middle Eastern Studies, and Islam by extension. He influenced a whole slew of writers such as Huntington, Pipes, Kramer, and many more. I’ve had to read Huntington extensively since his clash of civilization theory (which was at first rebuked by most of academia) has gained a great deal of traction in the post 9/11 context. He is essentially a proponent of Liberal Imperialism. His opinions on Western exceptionalism (which is basically his entire argument in his clash of civilizations thesis), on immigration, and his support of South Africa’s apartheid regime reiterate his beliefs on the matter. Leila Ahmed did a great deal to debunk Western Feminism’s rhetoric of benevolence. She was instrumental in documenting the role feminism played in the colonial project and its discourse. Her work offers a great overview of how Feminist rhetoric was utilized to advance colonial and imperialist Western interests in the Muslim world. As an academic, her work is top notch. However, while she is critical of Western colonialism, she is also very much a proponent of Westernization as a tool for modernization. I’m afraid that is where her and I part ways though.

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      1. I asked that because I am not sure what to make of her. I know she’s interpreted hijab differently than most traditional scholars, but I was pleasantly surprised to find her name cited in your essay. I’m reading a book on the Israel lobby in US foreign policy and was a bit dismayed to find Huntington cited as an inspiration for the authors. The book btw is critical of lobby, not a proponent, so I was confused about Huntington’s involvement. Of course, I suppose I should not judge a person based on one book they’ve written.

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      2. When it comes to Leila Ahmed, I tend to be very selective. Her criticism of Feminism’s inherent biais toward Islam is on point. Her analysis on that matter is very well researched and offers a wealth of information about the colonial discourse pertaining to the hijab, and Muslim women. Anything past that though, I have serious reluctance about her. She looks at the hijab through very liberal and secular lenses, which in my humble opinion leads to an erroneous understanding of what the hijab is and entails. She is someone who (much like you and I) is versed in Western centric knowledge, and very little in traditional Islamic knowledge. Despite her criticism of Western Feminism, she is still beholden to a colonial script that reiterates the centrality of Western civilization and its values. About the book you are reading, did the authors mentioned how Huntington inspired them? What is the name of the book?

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      3. “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Huntington was just mentioned in their acknowledgements for his support of this project. I was rather surprised to see him name. The authors are not anti-Israel in anyway, but they also are not uncritical, blind supporters either.

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  2. All I wanted to say is that I love you and will provide my comments (and many questions) once I can get some time to read this! I seriously look forward to it! ❤

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