Political Islam: Untangling the Conceptual Muddle
Mainuddin, Rolin G., Journal of Third World Studies
The literature on Islam and politics attributes various labels to the phenomenon of political Islam: revivalism, fundamentalism, Islamism, radical, militant, etc. The liberty taken to use these terms interchangeably has only added to the conceptual confusion. Also, the dynamic nature of the Islamic resurgence movement has hindered conceptual clarity. However, a careful reading of the literature reveals a continuum from successive attempts by scholars to conceptualize political Islam. This article examines three cascading concepts vogue in western literature on political Islam: fundamentalism, Islamism, and militant Islam. The resultant conceptual muddle undermines a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, interested in a comparative framework of religious fundamentalism, locates Islamic resurgence within opposition movements. Thus, religious fundamentalism is one component of anti-establishment movements. Despite sharing the socio-cultural aspects of revivalism, they add, fundamentalism is distinct in being "inherently political." (1) Sherifa Zuhur goes a step further in placing Islamic opposition movements within the set of sahwat islamiyya (Islamic awakening) movements. (2) While scholars have used both revival and reform (3) to refer to political Islam, the term that has captured most attention is fundamentalism.
Yousseff Choueiri intimates that fundamentalism is a common denominator in Islamic historiography for revival, reform, and radical groups. The third stage is a prelude to fundamentalism's transformation into a "totalitarian ideology." (4) With an imaginary spectrum from liberal to radical, Emmanuel Sivan focuses on two subgroups along the radical end that he distinguishes as "conservative fundamentalism" and "extreme radicalism." (5) Unlike Sivan's continuum, Ervand Abrahamian combines liberal and radical dimensions in identifying three subgroups of Islamic radicalism: secular, lay-religious, and clerical--actually labeling the last group "clerical populists." (6) And Luisa Giuriato and Maria Molinari find that radicalism is a characteristic of fundamentalism, with extremism as a slippery slope involving violence. (7) Whereas fundamentalism includes radical Islam for Choueiri, it is part of the radical fringe for Sivan. What is a penultimate scenario for Sivan is the worst case scenario for Abrahamian, but both view political Islam as a radical departure from the basic tenets of Islam adhered to by the Muslim hoi polloi. Giuriato and Molinari, like Choueiri, in holding a different view from Abrahamian and Sivan, subsumes radicalism as part of fundamentalism.
For Giuriato and Molinari the distinguishing feature of fundamentalism is redirecting the centrality of "infallible and inaccessible" shari'a (Islamic law) taken from the holy books. (8) Arguing that the religious and political components give fundamentalism its dual nature, Johannes Jansen emphasizes violence as a distinguishing feature of fundamentalism. (9) For Sivan the intermingling of religion and politics by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was itself radical, as opposed to mainstream Islam. Furthermore, Abul A'la Maudoodi and Sayyid Qutb revised the jahiliyya (pre-Islamic society) doctrine and took Islamic radicalism to the extreme. They shifted attention from European secular nationalism and its concomitant Pan-Arabism to rectifying the "jahiliyya within" (10)--the "modern" jahiliyya disguised as Islam, with William Shepard arguing that Qutb's emphasis on the society has subsequently been misplaced on the ruler of a Muslim-majority state. (11) In particular, Maudoodi and Qutb's glorification of jihad (holy war) and the shahid (martyr) was a significant change in strategy, continues Sivan. (12) et admitting to a return to the basic tenets of the faith, including the attachment to shari'a, John Ruedy is not even emphatic about political activism as a characteristic of fundamentalism. (13)
Even though Choueiri recognizes that the term Islamic fundamentalism is "vague," but perhaps because it is "in vogue" that he uses the phrase as the title of his book. (14) However, he is not the only one to use the word despite its shortcoming. In spite of admitting that the term is not suitable William Montgomery Watt goes ahead with using fundamentalism anyway in the title of his book. (15) By the same token, although Jansen feels imprisoned by the term fundamentalism, he also uses it in the title of his book. (16) In berating the fundamentalists for ignoring the "growth of Muslim thought" in the Middle Ages, Shaukat Ali uses the term Islamist in the title of his book to examine the "dimensions and dilemmas" of the movement, but his chapters refer to fundamentalism. (17) Critiquing the "pendulum" swing denotations by anthropologists, Bruce Lawrence accepts the reality of Islamic fundamentalism as an interlocking perception among competing ideological views. (18)
Jansen alludes to a 1976 essay in the Commentary, "The Return of Islam," by Bernard Lewis as identifying fundamentalism with Islam in western literature. Lewis does not use the term fundamentalism, but points to a recoupling of religion and power as a "fundamental attitude" in the binary worldview of the post-18th century Muslim resurgence movements. (19) While the term was given added circulation in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, what Jansen overlooks is the significance of the year 1976 in the aforementioned work by Lewis. It predates the 1979 Islamic theocracy and American hostage taking in Iran. The publication by Lewis followed at the heel of the 1973 oil embargo against the US and the Netherlands by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a group in which the Muslim countries comprised the pivotal core. And that episode was preceded by the first Islamic Heads of State Summit in 1969 in Rabat, Morocco. Even though the subsequent 1977 first World Conference on Islamic Education was not political or religious in nature, the subsequent "Islamization of knowledge" (20) did not appeal to a largely secular West, and Egypt launching the 1973 Arab-Israeli War did not add any comfort. This perceived rise (reemergence) of Islamic power was soon transformed from oil to religion with the advent of an anti-US theocratic regime in Iran. It is the anti-western element that is important to note because until after the September 11, 2001 tragedy hardly anyone in the West questioned US relations with Saudi Arabia. And Stephen Schwartz illustrates that point in his vituperation of the ruling Al-Saud family's acceptance of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. (21)
The use of the phrase Al-usuliyya al-Islamiyya (Islamic fundamentalism)--derived from the word usul (origins) (22)--is generally considered appropriate in the Muslim um'ma (community) because it is related to the search for the fundamentals of the religion. For Muslims, the negativism associated with fundamentalism is confusing because of their veneration for the five fundamental principles (23)--distinct from the five duties or pillars (24)--of Islam. In any event, among many practicing Muslims the preferred term is salafiyya, derived from the word salaf (pious tradition), (25) but Choueiri finds it also a contested concept. (26)
In the 1980s the term fundamentalism was given currency by the western media in criticizing the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. (27) While many western scholars accepted the term to underscore the inherently religious basis of the Islamic resurgence movement, Muslim intellectuals found it offensive and a misunderstanding of Islam. Also, the term tends to "homogenize" the theological schools and the pious with the political activists. Muslims generally reject the phrase as an alien concept--and Roxanne Euben, taking a constructivist perspective, notes that the label helps critiques trained …
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Publication information: Article title: Political Islam: Untangling the Conceptual Muddle. Contributors: Mainuddin, Rolin G. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Third World Studies. Volume: 24. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2007. Page number: Not available. © Association of Third World Studies, Inc. Fall 2008. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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