Beyond Islamist Groups: Suggestions for a New Research Agenda on Islamist Politics

By Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College, City University of New York

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Islamist Politics” conference, January 24, 2014.

In the past decade, the study of Islamist politics has flourished with detailed case studies and the exploration of hypotheses about the formation and evolution of Islamist movements. Substantial attention has been directed to such debates as the emergence of “post-Islamism,” the inclusion-moderation hypothesis, and the cooperation of Islamist groups with liberal, leftist, and secular groups.[1] As a result, we now have rich empirical material studies of a wide range of movements as well as a growing number of studies that examine variations across movements. In what follows I am going to suggest two new directions for our research, but I wish to stress that I am not arguing against the value of studying individual movements. 

I want to suggest some ways in which we can build substantively and theoretically on this work in ways that were not possible before this existing body of work had reached its current advanced stage. What I propose is that we should no longer prioritize the study of individual movements as the objects of our case studies. This is because by identifying “movements” as our primary object of study, we prioritize the sorts of questions central to the study of social movements, parties, and other social groups: how they formed, leadership, recruitment, membership demographic, activities and goals, ideology, success or failure, relations with other groups, and so on. We then structure our studies around how and why each of these and other factors evolve (or not) over time. These are great and important questions, but they also limit the scope of our knowledge and are unlikely to substantively advance our knowledge theoretically. Not all studies of Islamist politics conform to the “life-cycle” model, but a very large proportion of them do, including most of my earlier work in this area.

Of course there is always a need for new empirical information about movements and for detailed studies of movements that haven’t yet received close attention, such as many Salafi movements and aspects of Muslim Brotherhood groups that have received less attention (charities, local and municipal activities, scouting groups, internal debates, engagement with newly emerging groups, etc.). These studies are essential to maintaining and expanding our knowledge, but they are less to produce new insights or theoretical innovations.

Instead, I think we might advance our knowledge by pushing in two directions. First, I think we need to de-center movements, so they are not necessarily the object of our analyses. Instead of making the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt the object of study, we might for example explore a different sphere of activity and then see when, where, and how various Islamist actors (attached to groups or not) emerge in our analyses. For example, in my current work on protests in Jordan, instead of studying the protests that the Islamic Action Front (IAF) organizes or in which it participates, I shift my attention to make protests themselves the object of study. Using an ethnographic lens, I examine particular locales of protest activities and note (among many other factors) when the IAF and other Islamists are (and are not) part of that sphere of activity. The protests around the Kaluti mosque in West Amman, for example, often include large numbers of IAF, Muslim Brotherhood, and unaffiliated Islamist participants and are thus frequently characterized as “predominantly Islamist” in character. But as confrontations with general police (Amn al-Amm, the Public Security Directorate) or the gendarmerie riot police (darak) approach, virtually all Islamists have exited the scene, leaving only a small number of leftists and secular activists, who stay on to push the envelope with the security agencies. Viewing those protesters as “predominantly Islamist” is correct in moment when the crowds are largest, but not at the (more crucial) moment of confrontation with security forces. Even though I have studied Jordan’s mainstream Islamist movements for more than 15 years, this dynamic did not become evident to me until I began to ethnographically study the dynamics of protests themselves; as a result, I unexpectedly learned something new about the Islamist movement that I had not recognized while I was studying the movement itself per se.

Another example might be to examine disaster relief activities. Rather than asking what Islamists are doing in this sphere, we might study the sphere of disaster relief activities itself and see when and how those who self-identify as Islamist or others of various ilk emerge and what role(s) they play. It may be that medical professionals who identify as Islamist organize relief efforts, but that the initiatives did not emerge from the formal groups or parties themselves. This sort of approach also helps to untangle — or perhaps move beyond — the tricky question of membership: who is and is not an Islamist. We know from many earlier studies, but particularly Carrie Wickham’s seminal Mobilizing Islam (2002), that the question of membership is not easily ascertained: Of the many people who occasionally attend Muslim Brotherhood events and even of those who share substantial portions of the movement’s positions many are not “members” of the organization. But then how are we to think of those gray zones? I think that by putting these and other questions about “groups” aside for a bit, we could do well to explore these boundaries or gray zones at the “edge” of the movements, to explore what it means to identify with a movement, to join, to break off, etc. We do already note that most groups have internal factions or trends, but we do less well at following those flows in and out of groups and into and across other spheres.

As these examples illustrate, I think a “de-centering” of Islamist groups in our studies may provide rich ground for advancing our understanding not only of what Islamists do (or believe), but of the boundaries of the various groups and activities that we tend to routinely characterize as “Islamist” without much careful reflection.

A second way in which I think we should de-center the study of Islamist groups is to think about the politics of “Islamic” and “Islamist” politics, particularly but not only in a geographical sense. Here I want to think about the salience of religious identities and rhetoric across the region and indeed, globally. Thinking about Islamist politics from this perspective has less to do with the rise or decline of particular groups and more to do with the dynamics of various power struggles and institutional arrangements. Unquestionably, religious identities and affiliations are being invoked — and thus evoked — by a wide range of actors, each of who has particular and often clearly identifiable reasons for framing the region’s priorities and conflicts along religious or sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, and Jordan, for example, all have clear reasons for interpreting regional conflicts in terms of a Sunni-Shiite rivalry. A strong Iran, from this perspective, is scary not because it challenges the Saudi-centric (and, importantly, pro-U.S.) pole of power, but because it threatens to create a powerful Shiite alliance stretching across Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq that the Saudi-U.S. pole will necessarily view as hostile. The war in Syria has become a proxy locale for some of these struggles, so the outcome of that conflict is seen to have profound significance for the future of the religious makeup in the region. The conflicts in Iraq are similarly represented as sectarian and religious in nature, rather than as the result of concrete and historical political struggles in which certain actors actively sought to create such cleavages for their personal advantage.

Of course our goal is not to accept or reject particular positions — it is hard to tell someone who feels threatened because they are Sunni or Shiite that they are “wrong” to feel so, particularly when their families and neighbors have been attacked for their religious affiliation. But we can certainly identify the power struggles undergirding these perceptions, illustrating the extent to which “Islamist politics” is less about religion than about other kinds of power struggles. Thus while Islamist movements are involved in these struggles, it is crucial to note that the relevant actors include not only opposition movements but a wide variety of state actors — among them the United States. This is not to suggest that something such as “Islamist politics” does not exist — although we might rightfully question that — but to not assume that everything to do with Islamist politics is fundamentally about the activities of Islamist groups.[2]

In sum, I think that it is clear that a wide range of socio-political groups have emerged to claim different kinds of spaces that can also be called religious, many entailing everyday practices or frames of reference.[3] The challenge is not to track the rise or decline of individual movements, but to think about precisely what is changing, where, and for what sets of reasons, without producing reductionist narratives, such as “Islamism is in decline” or “Sunni-Shiite rivalries are increasingly bloody.” Sweeping characterizations are appealing in their simplicity, seeming to provide a clear explanation for a range of complex problems. We might do well to ask instead, who stands to benefit from narratives such as a rise or decline of “Islamism,” “the intensification of Sunni-Shiite rivalries,” and so on. More often than not, the answers will be less about the goals and beliefs of any particular group than about conventional struggles for power among a diverse range of state and non-state actors, within states, across the region, and internationally.

Finally, for the study of Islamist politics and indeed all of our studies of Middle East politics, I think we need to get out of cities and spend more time in smaller towns and in rural and semi-rural areas. This work is difficult to do on short research trips, as it is difficult to identify and make contacts on short notice, to build trust, etc. This work is also logistically challenging as there are few if any hotels, the ability to commute regularly from urban areas can be costly or challenging, etc. But we know so much about certain movements because 1) they will talk to us and 2) they are accessible to places we already know or like to live. For those of us who are currently unable to invest long periods in the field — due to children, partners, work commitments, financial constraints, etc. —  we should encourage our graduate students to take on this work.

Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at Hunter College of The City University of New York. She is author of Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (2006), editor of Understanding the Contemporary Middle East (2013), and co-editor of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (2010).



Abdelrahman, Maha. 2009. “ ‘With the Leftists? — Sometimes. With the state? –Never!’ Cooperation Between the Left and Islamists in Egypt,” British Journal of Middle East Studies 36, no. 1 (April): 37-54.

Bayat, Asef. 2013a. Ed., Post-Islamism: The Changing Face of Political Islam (Oxford University Press).

______. 2013b. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, 2nd ed. (Stanford University Press).

______. 2007. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamic Turn (Stanford University Press).

Browers, Michaelle L. 2009. Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Brown, Nathan. 2007. “Pushing Toward Party Politics: Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement,” Carnegie Paper no. 79, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February.

Clark, Janine. 2006. “The Conditions of Islamic Moderation: Unpacking Cross-Ideological Cooperation in Jordan,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 38, no. 4 (November): 539-560.

Deeb, Lara, and Mona Harb. 2013. Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut (Princeton University Press).

Dupret, Baudouin, Thomas Pierret, Paulo G. Pinto, and Katherine Spellman-Poots. 2013. Eds., Ethnographies of Islam: Ritual Performances and Everyday Practices (Edinburgh University Press).

Roy, Olivier, and Carol Volk. 1998. The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Schwedler, Jillian. 2013. “Roundtable on the Future of Islamism,” Jadaliyya, November 14, available at:

______. 2011. “Can Islamists Become Moderates? Unpacking the Inclusion-Moderation Hypothesis,” World Politics 63, no. 2 (April): 347-376.

______. 2006. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Tezcur, Gunes Murat. 2010. The Paradox of Moderation: Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey (Austin: University of Texas Press).

Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. 2002. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press).



[1]On the emergence of post-Islamism see, Roy and Volk 1998 and Bayat 2007; 2013a; on the inclusion-moderation hypothesis see Schwedler 2006, 2011; Browers 2009; Tezcur 2010; and on the cooperation of Islamist groups see Clark 2006, Brown 2007, and Abdelrahman 2009.

[2]See Schwedler 2013.

[3] See Bayat 2013b, Dupret et al 2013, and Deeb and Harb 2013.

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