The Project on Middle East Political Science and the TOI: ‘Bringing in the Other Islamists’ project held a virtual two-day workshop on January 6-7 entitled “Changing Warscapes, Changing Islamists? Religion, Organization, Strategic Context and New Approaches to Jihadist Insurgencies.” The workshop brought together more than two dozen scholars from different academic fields, including those studying (Sunni) jihadism, Shia Islamism, peace and conflict studies, civil war studies, religion & politics, cultural anthropology of conflict and more. The workshop discussed a framing paper authored by Jeroen Gunning, Marc Lynch and Morten Valbjørn, and laid the groundwork for a series of workshops, conferences and collaborations in the coming years.
We aimed to put multiple academic literatures which do not always engage with each other into dialogue. First, we put the large literature on Islamist political environments in nonviolent contexts into dialogue with the literature on jihadist insurgencies to investigate which of those advantages – and disadvantages – might translate into warscapes. Second, we put the literature on jihadist insurgencies into dialogue with the general conflict and civil war studies literatures. Finally, we put the literature on Sunni jihadism into dialogue with literature on Shi’a Islamism. Each section also focused on how this debate might be affected by empirical and conceptual changes since 2011.
The first panel focused on the debate about the role of religion in conflict and how it intersects with strategic context. What can the changes from the past 10 years and a greater focus on the Sunni/Shia dimension tell us about the role religion plays and whether/how Sunni or Shia groups differ from each other and/or from non-religious counterparts? More meta-theoretically, what can it tell us about how we should define religion and strategic context and what aspects we should focus on (e.g., beliefs, institutions, practices etc. for religion; or the nature and intensity of the conflict, state characteristics, the militant organizational field, local vs. regional etc. for context). Under what conditions should religion be seen as a causal, an epiphenomenal or an intervening factor, and how do religion and strategic context intersect under different conditions and with different actors?
The second panel focused on debates around typologies and whether different types of Islamists are implicated in causal mechanisms in different ways. Much of the typologising has been Sunni-centric, and the last decade has seen a greater blurring of typological boundaries as groups have moved between types. How should we rethink typologies to take both Shia Islamists and changes from the last decade into account? How should our discussion on the role of different aspects of religion in conflict affect our typologies?
The third panel honed in on the debate around micro vs. macro analyses, and how to bring in meso dynamics more effectively. The role of charismatic leaders vs. structural changes was one sub-topic, including what role religion – and any differences between Sunni and Shia beliefs, practices and institutional structures – might play in charisma. Another was the role of organisational dynamics and whether attention to meso dynamics can bridge macro structural studies with micro-level studies focusing on ideology, individual motivation, etc. Here too we sought to link the discussion back to the previous two sessions and reflect on how our discussions on the role of different aspects of religion in conflict and different types of religious actors affect the way we conceptualise micro, meso and macro dynamics and the way they interact.
The final panel concerned the role of external-local interactions for Islamists participating in violence. We emphasized three debates in this section: state sponsorship of local or transnational Islamist groups; transnational connections between local Islamist groups; and the role and dynamics of foreign fighters. As with the other themes, the post-2011 years have offered massive amounts of new data, divergent trends, and new theoretical innovations; while a greater focus on Sunni/Shia distinctions in an overall more sectarianised context might offer up new insights into whether, and if so how, Sunni/Shia transnational dynamics differ.
List of Panelists