Islamism Reconsidered

By Kepel, Gilles | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Islamism Reconsidered


Kepel, Gilles, Harvard International Review


A Running Dialogue with Modernity

The last quarter of the twentieth century saw the rise of an unexpected phenomenon: Islamism. Emerging in the Middle East in the early 1970s, it quickly propagated across the Muslim world and became the object of universal fascination--and widespread disquietude. Though undeniably one of the major social upheavals of our era, the Islamist movement has been difficult to interpret because the issues it raises defy categorization of the sort typically used to analyze contemporary societies. Islamism's vocabulary is religious, but the force with which it expresses political objectives and social tensions is felt by all.

Islamism seems inscrutable because it juxtaposes confusing and contradictory issues. Is it a reactionary movement, or a progressive one? Those with the former view cite the status of women, application of shari's (religious law), and the proliferation of moral strictures associated with the movement's emergence in predicting a fantastic rollback of civilization should Islamists take power, a return to an obscure era before liberty and modern democracy were known. Supporters of the latter stance see in Islamism the expression par excellence of the claims of oppressed social groups and a reaction to westernization imposed on Islamic societies by colonialism and its aftermath.

In rushing to pass judgment on Islamism, we condemn ourselves never to understand a phenomenon that is by nature full of contradictions. We become unable to analyze its true characteristics, the reasons for its emergence, its present objectives, and the strengths and the weaknesses that will cause it to grow still more or decline. The same type of questions were posed through the 20th century about two movements at least as controversial: communism and fascism. The majority of writings about these movements during the period of their greatest development were of a normative character. By galvanizing partisans and adversaries without necessarily promoting reasoned debate, they impeded useful interpretation.

"Islamism" is in effect nothing but a name among others. The label remains contentious despite having gained broad acceptance in describing a movement. Where do the borders of Islamism lie in relation to Islam in general? How are its political, religious, cultural, and social dimensions articulated? How should order be brought to a confused public perception built on television images of Ayatollah Khomeini, veil-wearing in French schools, the Algerian civil war, and contentious Saudi control over pilgrimage to Mecca?

A generation now separates us from Islamism's beginnings in the 1970s, and the utopian visions of that era have been replaced by concrete realities. Islamist political movements have come to power in a few countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan. They have failed politically but proliferated socially in others like Algeria and Egypt. In still other places, the Islamist platform has been co-opted to varying degrees by nominally secular governments: witness Malaysia, Pakistan, Jordan, s Indonesia, and even Turkey. And all across the Muslim world, Islamism has deeply impacted cultural practice. A quarter-century after its birth, Islamism is in a position to be evaluated. Does it still have the capacity to galvanize the masses and to win over elites, or has it been the victim of its own internal contradictions? Has it been oversimplified as a system merely supported by those who gain from it and contested by those it excludes?

Growing Pains

In order to step outside the prevailing black-and-white characterizations of Islamism and develop a more nuanced approach, we must consider its history as a political movement. During its gestation phase in the 1970s, Islamism stood in opposition to various nationalisms around the Muslim world. It experienced state repression that encouraged the growth of religious networks onto which its nascent politics were grafted. …

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