MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS
Political Islam: A Critical Reader, ed. by Frédéric Volpi. London and New York: Routledge, 2011. 471 pages. $49.95 paper.
Reviewed by Issa J. Boullata
"Political Islam" and "Islamism" are used interchangeably in this book to refer to the phenomenon in the contemporary world whereby some present-day Muslims believe that Islam as a faith calls for a specific way to organize society and that they should seek to implement it politically, using violence if needed. This phenomenon has attracted the world's attention, notably since the spectacular 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, with their symbolic effects on international public opinion and the rise of the so-called "war on terror" thereafter. Scholars have studied this phenomenon in many recent works, concentrating on various aspects of it.
Frédéric Volpi of the University of St. Andrews has done a great service in editing this book by selecting the finest scholarship on the subject published in the last ten years or so. The post-publication events of the Arab Spring in 2011 may call for an emphasis on some notions in this book, but the volume remains a most comprehensive overview of political Islam to date and is of great help to students at all levels, and even to some bewildered politicians and diplomats.
After an enlightening general introduction by Volpi, the book has seven other thematically-arranged sections, each beginning with a sectional introduction by him, followed by several excellent selections from recent journal articles and books by renowned writers on political Islam, and ending with a relevant list of sources for further reading on the section's topic. In turn, each section deals with a specific theme: an explanation of the nature and aims of Islamism, a history of the rise of Islamist groups, a description of the political responses to them, an analysis of how these groups fare in societies where democracy and multiculturalism are the norm, and a description of their resort to political violence and terrorism; after a section discussing the present-day globalization of Islamism, the book ends with an assessment of its future, giving an idea that political Islam, as it readjusts to changing conditions, is not as dire as many suspect.
The 30 essays are interesting to read. The contributors have new things to offer - some by their data based on field research and the latest press; others by their analysis based on the most recent theories of sociology, religious anthropology, and political science; and others by their insights based on long experience and historical investigation. …