Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam

cover image

By: Richard C. Martin
Abbas Barzegar , Editor

Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 200pp. $20.95 (paperback). ISBN-13: 978-0804768863

Volume: 4 Issue: 12

December 2016

Review by:

Justin D. Leach, PhD

Troy University

Washington, D.C.

Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam presents itself as a meditation on the very term “Islamism”, reviewing the baggage and restrictions said to be associated with the word in order to determine what alternatives may be available for describing the political dimensions of Islam. Donald K. Emmerson and Daniel M. Varisco are the principle essayists and their arguments – in favor of and against usage of the term respectively –  dominate the book’s content and form its first section. These opening essays are followed with a series of critical discussions of the topic comprising the large middle section of the book. To conclude, Emmerson and Varisco return to discuss the responses to their initial essays.

As Varisco and others explain, the modern history of “Islamism” as a common term begins with Fazlur Rahman’s attempts in 1970 to distinguish right-leaning writers on Islam and governance such as Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Mawdudi from those on the left end of the spectrum. The dilemma some authors pose with the term is the associations it has developed with extremism. Amir Hussein considers the term problematic in that – by its very name – it allows a connotation between extremism and mainstream Islam that is a disservice to Muslims worldwide.

In addition, it is submitted that “Islamism” does little to clarify many contemporary conflicts within Islam. Feisal Abdul Rauf notes that the term muddies the water regarding ideological debates within the Muslim World; in the rivalries of Ahmedinejad and Khatami in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda on the Arab Penninsula, and Sunni and Shia militias in Iraq, Islamists are to be found on all sides. Nadia Yassine also argues against the conflation of nonviolent modern Islamists with Islamic clerics, and terrorists. Bruce Lawrence cites Sudanese-American scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im’s caution against using language to create false dichotomies. Graham E. Fuller hits similar notes in his article stressing that terms should not be used to denote “good guys” and “bad guys”.

Other authors in the collection put forth a case for keeping the term in usage. As Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Richard Tapper explain in their article, Varisco’s shirking of the term allows ideological critics of Islam (political or otherwise) such as Daniel Pipes to define how terms are used, thereby ceding to them control over the conversation. Anouar Majid provides some perspective with the observation that these debates are more the concerns of academics rather than the average Muslim looking to proceed with their own lives. Hillel Fradkin explains that Rahman initially devised the term to distinguish radical Salafi writers from mainstream Islam.

While “academic word games” (the title of Fradkin’s essay) is perhaps too much, the potentially esoteric premise of the book has the potential to make it of limited interest to those not fully prepared to wade into a debate over semantics. The best pieces in this collection use the semantic premise as an opportunity to explore the history of “Islamism” as a concept rather than simply a term. Rauf’s essay expands to discuss the nature of and debates within the earliest Muslim community. Angel Rabasa’s substantive, rewarding contribution traces the history of modern political Islam from relatively liberal modernists of the 1800s such as Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani and Mohammed Abduh to their more conservative twentieth century counterparts such as Rashid Rida and Hassan Al-Banna.

The unwillingness to engage the issue of political Islam beyond the narrow question being asked can hinder some efforts. Hassan Hanafi’s dismissal of the debate as one between orientalists comes off as incurious if not indifferent. Syed Farid Alatas’s warning that Muslims should be treated less as “objects of study” than purveyors of ideas worthy of study is a much more thoughtful approach to the same perspective. Alata notes that Islamism is really a variant of modernism, disregarding the traditions and ambiguities of Islam in favor of a perceived precision untainted by actual human history.

While the concerns of many writers that use of “Islamism” may unfairly draw a connection between Islam and violence have merit, Emmerson’s submission of a revised definition of the term by James Piscatori demonstrates that good faith efforts to preserve it for academic and popular usage can be achieved. Piscatori defines Islamists as “Muslims who are committed to political action (Emmerson substitutes “public action”) to implement what they regard as an Islamic agenda”. While such common sense solutions are ideal, Varisco’s argument rightly demonstrates that the power of words and their potential association with negative, inaccurate characteristics are a constant. Zuhdi Jasser effectively proves Varisco’s point when he defines Islamism in terms of transnational objectives synonymous with the work of Hassan Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, therein seeming to argue against the possibility of an Islamist having more constrained political objectives. However, Jasser’s point that the term is necessary in order to allow Muslim liberals and secularists more space to actually have the debate about the role of religion is intriguing.

Ultimately, this collection edited by Richard C. Martin and Abbas Barzegar elevates itself above the topic at hand to examine issues of political Islam from a wide range of perspectives.

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