The prevailing image of Islam in Western media and intellectual circles is one that reiterates the political nature of this religion. Islam is said to embody an authoritarian polity in which concepts such as freedom, democracy, and openness, have very little place (Bayat, 2007:4). Political Islam especially is perceived as the main vehicle of this brand of politics predicated on a revival of an authentic Islamic political tradition. This sociopolitical phenomenon embodies for many Westerners what they fear most about Islam.

By the early twentieth century, the autonomy of Muslim societies was greatly diminished due to the consolidation of colonial power in the Muslim world. Strong central governments, answerable to foreign imperial regimes, had replaced the old political system. In this new reality, “the traditional forms of Muslim religious organization were often suppressed” (Lapidus, 1988:7). Massive economic changes, unprecedented migration to the cities, and the emergence of new social strata accompanied the collapse of the old sociopolitical system. “The new era was marked by efforts to define new modes of political action as well as new modes of Islamic religious belief” (Lapidus, 1988:7).

Although there is a general consensus in Western academia that the historical roots and the development of this Islamic revival should be studied, the overwhelming majority of these studies tend to focus only on certain aspects of it, at the detriment of all others (Burke, 1988: 18). While the diverse political projects of Islamist groups is often discussed at length, almost nothing is said about their underlining social agendas. The capacity of these groups to mobilize consensus by addressing social grievances, while redefining the political spectrum, makes them at once political and social reform movements.

“As one engages this issue, one notes important differences over even so basic a matter as the definition of the subject. Is it Islamicpolitical movements? Or socialmovements in Islamic societies? These contracting questions frame a basic difference in the field” (Burke, 1988: 18).

The emergence, development, and diversification of Islamism correspond to the trajectories of state formation and socio-economic development in the Middle East. The popularity of modernization theory, and class analysis in the 1960s and 1970s, eclipsed any possible focus on Islamism in the political analyses of the Middle East and other Muslim majority countries. “When it was considered, it tended to be dismissed as rear-guard battle from traditional social forces heading for the dustbin of history” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 278). In the wake of the Iranian revolution, Islamism was defined primarily as a political phenomenon concerned mainly with “the establishment of an Islamic state” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 278). Often compared to movements from the left and the right, it was described as a nationalist and revolutionary movement implementing a top-down approach to seize the institutions of the state in order to establish a new social order (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 278).

Statist Islamism and political activism

“In its high degree of generality, Islamism emerged as the language of self-assertion to mobilize those (…) who felt marginalized by the dominant economic, political, and cultural processes in their societies (…)” (Bayat, 2007:6). For these individuals neither capitalist modernity, nor socialist utopia offered concrete answers to the political and economic woes of their nations. It was not however the working class that brought Islamism to the center-stage of Muslim politics; it was rather the Muslim middle-class that sought to find within Islamist discourse a viable dissident narrative. It was a way for them of rejecting the increasingly rigid control of the elite, while proposing an alternative to their western-centric political, economic, and social project. “In a quest to operate within an authentic nativist ideology, Islamists tried to articulate a version of Islam that could respond to their political, economic, and cultural deficit” (Bayat, 2007:7). Therefore, Islamism was conceptualized as a system with a distinctive political project, a religiously inspired cultural code, and a strong populist language.

“Two simultaneous but contradictory processes pushed Islamism toward its hegemonic position: opportunity and suppression” (Bayat, 2007:7). In the 1950s and 1960s throughout the Muslim world massive educational growth, economic expansion, increase in wealth, and social mobility co-existed with “continuous political repression, marginalization, a sense of humiliation, and growing inequality” (Bayat, 2007:7). The members of this highly educated middle-class increasingly became aware of their marginalization in their societies where a small but affluent elite held all the political and economic power. Often allied with Western powers, these elites enjoyed the protection and the support of these nations. Political repression and social control were widely used by these regimes in order to quell any attempt at political dissidence. Political Islam became widely popular amongst those searching for an alternative to what they perceived as the rapid decay of their societies. Through its populist rhetoric and religious sociopolitical project Islamism quickly gained traction.

The term statist Islamism refers to the brand of Islamism that implies an “institutionalized participation in the politics of the nation state” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 281). In this category, one can find groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood who seek to reconcile Islamic doctrine with liberal forms of democracy. Their variant of Islamism evolved over time to become a reformist discourse. It appealed equally to members of the middle class and the working class eager to find a “broader popular constituency” to challenge the assertions of the more affluent, more secularized establishment claiming to speak for the nation (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 281). The model of political action and the ideological program detailed by the Muslim Brotherhood served as an example to follow for a wide range of organizations throughout the Muslim world. Groups such as Ennahda in Tunisia, the Salwa movement of Saudi Arabia, and Islah in Yemen, have “Brotherhood roots or links” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 281). Socially, these movements have often emerged within the middle class and are fundamentally linked to the spread of education and urbanization in their respective societies.

Statist Islamism sought to improve rather than destroy the existing system. Their narrative was not so much predicated on challenging social hierarchies and the economic model, but rather on attacking corruption and moral laxity seen as the very cause of the socio-economic ills plaguing the community. “The economic problems were to be solved not by a drastically new system of governance or redistribution of wealth but by elites recognizing and acting upon their obligations to Islam and sharia” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 281). What explains the resilience of statist Islamism is its capacity to adapt its aim and strategies to the shifts in models of governance and forms of social activism.

Non-statist Islamism and grassroots activism

The major models theorizing collective action never really focus on how collective action can transform into a revolution. They mainly explain the causes of social discontent without however pondering on how these same causes trigger revolutionary crises. James Davies claims that when prolonged periods of economic and social development are followed by a period of sharp decline, revolutions are more likely to occur (Bayat, 2007:18). According to Ted Gurr’s relative deprivation thesis “what seems to mediate between these objective processes and the occurrence of revolution is the psychological mood of the people, their expectations, and frustrations” (Bayat, 2007:18). Resource mobilization theorists have stressed out however that the people’s mood and their frustrations may not be enough to trigger action “unless they are able to mobilize the necessary resources by creating appropriate opportunities” (Bayat, 2007:18).

Popular frustration can give rise to two types of mobilization. One type seeks to dismantle the existing order and replace it with an alternative structure. This was the case in Iran where shortly after the revolution a process of massive Islamization of the nation was undertaken. Through a top-down process driven by the state a concerted effort was made to “Islamize the nation, state apparatus, public space, and individual behavior” (Bayat, 2007:50). The second type of mobilization seeks to revamp and amend the dominant order through the action of social movements. These movements are attempting to create “alternative institutions and value systems before a total change” (Bayat, 2007:18). Whereas in Iran Islamization spread through a top-down process, in Egypt the Islamic revival was born of a bottom-up social movement that first appeared in the 1920s (Bayat, 2007:33).

The economic restructuring of the 1970s diminished tremendously the state’s capacity to care for the marginalized and vulnerable groups within many Muslim societies. To compensate for this exclusion at the state level, vast sections of these societies relied increasingly on “self-help strategies, kinship networks, and other informal mechanisms” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 283). This created an environment conducive to the rise of a type of Islamism rejecting any institutionalized participation in politics in favor of changes in lifestyles and individual behaviours.“Non-statist Islamismis not so much apolitical as it is infra political: local-level organizational, preaching and charitable activity” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 282). Grassroots activism is central to their brand of Islamism. While groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have also centered their activism on charity work and preaching, non-statist grassroots Islamism tends toward a more conservative interpretation of the Islamic doctrine. Salafism, which over the past decades became the most popular movement in the grassroots Islamist phenomenon, encourages its adherents to focus on the community rather than the state. “Salafis tend to promote an ascetic lifestyle and consider consumerism to be a distraction from religious duties” (Volpi and Stein, 2015:283).

The Salafi’s eschewing of all forms of political engagement has worked in their favor at the grassroots level. Unlike statist Islamists and Jihadists who often attract the ire of the state, Salafis are generally tolerated by these regimes. The post 9/11 crackdowns on Islamic organizations in the Middle East were mainly targeted toward politicized, and armed Islamists. “In allowing or facilitating the expansion of Islamist grassroots infrastructure, regimes signalled their limited capacity to govern peripheral, rural or informal urban areas” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 283). This has allowed Salafis to have a greater control over the social field. Governments have actively encouraged members of politically active Islamists groups to join instead the less overtly militant Salafi movement. The contemporary Salafi movement arose from the student movements of the 1970s in Egypt. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Salafism was often promoted as the safer alternative to the more militant Islamist movements. “Yet, even if many grassroots activist, for principled or pragmatic reasons, eschew politics, their activism has played a role as part of a broader Islamist movement in building constituencies for Islamist parties” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 283).

Jihadi movements differ form both statist Islamists and non-statist groups like the Salafis by their endorsement of violence as a mean of establishing an Islamic state. Some of these groups call for violent tactics in their attempt to further the cause of an idealized form of Islamic community. Many more however are not motivated by a desire to promote armed struggle as a meaningful strategy, but are rather forced to adopt violent actions as a response to state repression; as it was the case in the Algerian civil conflict of the 1990s (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 284). These types of movements tend to find a fertile ground in areas where the state power is greatly diminished, and communities are marginalized. They usually emerge in places where the legitimacy of the state is widely contested, and its presence is all but absent or greatly undermined (Volpi and Stein, 2015:284).

 

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