Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World

By Cesari, Jocelyne | The Historian, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World


Cesari, Jocelyne, The Historian


Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World. By Tarek Osman. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. Pp. xx, 366. $35.00.)

This study discusses different angles of analysis to restitute the polymorph reality known as Islamism, by looking at ideology, sociology, and trajectories of militant radical activists in different Arab countries, as well as geopolitical factors. It is a very elegant synthesis of the existing knowledge, which can appeal to a broad audience with no particular expertise on the subject. The downside of such features is that the book does not bring any novel insights and leaves unanswered these crucial questions: Why is Islam relevant to political mobilizations across countries, and why is it such an influential vehicle for collective identities?

Of course Tarek Osman joins the long list of scholars who insist that political Islam should not be confused with Islam as a religious tradition. And like them, he does not provide any comparison between Islam as a lived religion and the political message of Islamism that would validate this position, implicitly assuming that there is no relationship between Islam as a religion and political Islam. In other words, like the majority of books on Islamism, this one relies on a rather narrow scope of analysis, focusing exclusively on political movements opposed to "secular" states. Consequentially, it takes for granted the opposition between secular and religious and religious and politics that unfortunately is not reflective of the modern history of Muslim countries.

In order to understand the resilience and centrality of political Islam, it is necessary to take into account the specifics of Arab political cultures that go back to the nation-state building phase (if not before then). Since that time, state rulers appropriated Islam by nationalizing and transforming religious institutions, mosques, and clerics into elements of the administration, even in "secular" countries like Turkey. …

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