Why “Islamism” does not help us understand the Middle East

By Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

Many of the categories we use to talk about Islamists—moderates, radicals, jihadis, and so on—no longer make much sense. Nor is it helpful to think of “Islamism” as an ideology that some groups have and others do not. Yet the scholarly and policy literatures continue to broadly define Islamists as Muslims who believe that all aspects of life should adhere closely to sharia, while “ordinary” Muslims, by contrast, do not insist that sharia be so strictly applied. Islamists are thus portrayed as more hardcore, doctrinal, and conservative. They are less willing to accommodate alternative perspectives, be they socialist, communist, secular, or democratic. In a broad sense, we see Islamists as ideological, whereas other Muslims embrace their religion to varying extents but are not so intransigent or closed-minded in their beliefs. This view of Islamists needs to be revised, as it no longer provides much analytic traction for understanding the politics of the region.

As I have argued elsewhere, this view also establishes Islamist groups as the object of study, with different groups possessing different sets of beliefs and adopting and advocating for different policies. Thus Muslim Brotherhood groups follow the teachings of founder Hassan al-Banna; Salafi groups follow the teachings of other founding thinkers, and so on. These sets of beliefs are assumed to be crucial for understanding what these groups believe. This approach dominates because it seems so self-evidently true: there are groups that espouse different beliefs, and they talk about the differences among themselves quite vigorously. And because many of them self-identify as Islamiyyun, we have external confirmation for the validity of classifying some groups as “Islamist.”

It is hard to argue with a conceptual framework that distinguishes groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda from ordinary Muslims. Those distinctions make good sense given that most Muslims resoundingly reject extremist thinking and such uses of violence. In the policy world, the stakes of such categories have as much to do with western anxieties as they do with understanding the complexities of Muslim societies. With Islamophobia reaching a fever pitch in the U.S. presidential primaries, emphasizing those differences can also do important political work by undermining arguments that treat Muslims as an undifferentiated monolith. But this approach also enables the creation of policies that treat “them” differently—the “them” just becomes Islamist extremists rather than all Muslims. This is the thinking behind policies that seek to wipe out groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. But as a political project, targeting jihadi Islamist groups is a losing game, one that even some mainstream policy analysts view as flawed because it ignores the broader conditions that allow such groups to flourish.

The range of ideas and beliefs that distinguish Islamists from ordinary Muslims cannot be easily situated on a single continuum (let alone through a binary), nor are they unchanged over time. Of course most scholars recognize that concepts are abstracts that never fully capture empirical reality; however, some of the concepts used to describe Islamists have become so ingrained that we almost treat them real. In actuality, a wide range of actors—groups as well as individuals—engage quite seriously with narratives of Islamist legitimacy, justice, norms, and obligations, with explicit reference to sharia. Thinking and talking about what sharia requires is a practice in which many Muslims engage seriously and regularly. Debates about Islam are hardly limited to Islamiyyun.

Furthermore, the centrality of discussions of faith and religious obligations wax and wane in public discourses circulating in Muslim communities. Some of the key debates over the past few years include: the ways in which justice is perceived to be connected to Islamic values; whether anti-Islamic and Islamophobic discourse from the United States and elsewhere deserve a serious response from Muslim communities; the ways in which some segments of Muslim communities reflect more deeply on their religion at certain times, be it weekly or during Muslim holidays or in time of personal or national crisis.

Many regimes in the Middle East also frame their own legitimacy, and the legitimacy of their actions and policies, in terms of what they argue is the most correct or most authentic version of Islam, but this practice does not make it into most discussions of Islamism. Ostensibly Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran are not the only ones to claim to be acting in accordance and on behalf of Islamic values. Repressive regimes like Sissi’s in Egypt prosecute individuals for “offending Islam,” even as they repress the Muslim Brotherhood for its “wrong” version of Islam.

The question of Islamist politics therefore is about not only Islamist groups, but also the degree and type of ways that people discuss and feel the role of Islam in their lives, which of course varies over time. I am calling this process of connecting and feeling “Islamistness,” a term that is intentionally awkward to remind us that as a category it does not work seamlessly. Thinking about the dynamics and degree of Islamistness can help us to evaluate the importance of particular ideas or debates to policies, affiliations, affect, identity, and alliances, without treating those debates as relevant only to those labeled Islamist.

By arguing that many groups and regimes engage with what we used to categorize as Islamist ideas at some point, I am not claiming that all politics in the region has some degree of Islamistness. To the contrary, it does not explain, for example, why Saudi Arabia’s King Suleiman has forged a close relationship with Egypt’s Sissi—both vilifying the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—while Suleiman allies with the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. But I do think that our conventional categories of actors fail to help us understand the complex and changing role of ideas and beliefs in shaping the region’s politics.

We can think about the Islamistness of particular spheres or discourses, waxing and waning over time, and talk less about the “ideological” commitments of different groups as if those ideas were fixed and stood outside of time. We might also strive to recognize more directly in our work the ways in which differing sets of commitments to Islamistness shape political practices and alliances and when those commitments are subsumed by other political logics.


Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.


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