“The crisis of the nation-state, as well as the transformation of traditional forms of authoritarian governance in the globalized era have challenged traditional conceptions of political identity and citizenship that Islamists have built and had an important impact on how religious arguments are politically mobilized. The challenge for current scholarship is thus to identify how today’s Muslim, Islamists included, are responding to these immense global changes, using Islam to empower themselves in new ways, and according twenty-first century globalized and cosmopolitan politics with religious belief.” (p. 7)
Whatever Happened to the Islamists explores how politically engaged Muslims are addressing and adapting to these challenges in changing climate. Instructive and entertaining, this book is a collection of essays assessing the gradual evolution of an ideology through the diverse contemporary facets of what is commonly referred to as “political Islam”.
Following a three-fold track, the authors first discuss the mutating nature of political involvement, that is to say a change in the traditional classification between overtly political Islamists and supposedly a-political Salafi movements. Second, it considers how the abandonment of traditional structures of religious hierarchy is leading to a process of deinstitutionalization and decentralization. And third, the Islamic adoption of new media: an unfolding arena where the message is spread using new technologies, from the e-jihad by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood youth to Muslim pop idols or comedians, and in so doing, how the old ways of Islamist activism are making room for alternative modes of production and diffusion of ideas.
To map this wealth of diversity, Whatever Happened to the Islamists is divided into three groups of chapters. The first part asks what is left of the old Islamist ideas, starting logically with the debate around the very notion of “Islamism” and its political identities. Olivier Roy and Roel Meijer, clearly lay out the groundwork and narrate how the scholar of Islamism ends up besieged; on his left, progressive critics who consider him as a post-colonial neo-Orientalist and, on the other side, culturalist right-wingers who see him as a useful Idiot, as Lenin put it.
“The problem is there, Olivier Roy explains: if the conceptualization by Western scholars of the protest movements waged by the “Other” is irrelevant, alienating and aiming at depriving the “Other” of his or her authenticity; that is, if it is the continuation of a colonial approach by other means (neo-Orientalism), then how are the political practices of the actors to be defined? This question is often left unanswered: the protest of the “Other” is hypostasized as a sort of moral category, because they fight against imperialism, they cannot be “deconstructed” by sociology and political science; the righteousness of the “Other”s’ struggle makes him immune to categorization. The debate between the deconstructionism of academic discourses and a militant debate on right and wrong is in constant flux. The Western scholar cannot speak for the “Other”, the (true) subaltern cannot speak (as Gayatri Spivak said), and the Muslim intellectual who uses the concepts of the West is driven by false consciousness.” (p. 23)
One of the key elements of that debate is therefore the political nature of these movements and R. Meijer assesses this question through the competing trajectories of Jihadi Salafism, Muslim Brotherhood branches and the quietist Salafist:
“It seems safe to say that on the whole political consciousness of the [Muslim Brotherhood] has grown, as is apparent from its concern with “reality”, which includes the interests of its following, the preservation of the organization, the complexity of the struggle with the state and the keen awareness that violence is a dead-end that will end in destruction not only of the own organization but also of the prospects of Islam as a whole. […] The rise of this new attitude is not an accident; it is linked to the emergence of a professional class that emphasizes an Islamic identity, has acquired vested interests and has become part of a new middle class that entertains new ambitions and new ways of attaining these ambitions. […] At the same time, it is clear that this trend has not succeeded and is heavily contested. A strong imaginative jihadi (youth) culture has emerged that has given violence a new impulse. As is apparent, not all Brotherhood-inspired movements have laid down their weapons.” (pp. 57-58)
To add weight to this theoretical approach, the chapter of Mohamed Mosaad Abdel Aziz guides us through the current shifts of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Jean Marcou describes the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s gradual conquest of the main centres of power in Turkey.
“Since 2002 there has been a new cycle with the coming to power of the AKP, a party that emerged from the Islamist movement but no longer defines itself as Islamist. This party’s political success, and especially its electoral success, seems to be breaking the vicious circle of controlled democracy [that has for long characterized the Turkish politics]. The AKP victory in 2002, involving a spectacular defeat of the traditional parties, was also the outcome of a spectacular change in Turkish Islamism.” (pp. 61-62)
“[…] It is too soon to say whether these changes will lead to a deepening of democracy or to the coming of an AKP state to replace the previous Kemalist state. However, it is important to note that the changes that have occurred in Turkey during the second AKP-controlled parliament have been the fruit of social and political dynamics proper to Turkey, rather than initiatives linked to Turkey’s EU application.” (p. 77)
The second part tackles the “new Islamist landscapes” with an analysis of the disengagement of Islamists in Europe by Amel Boubekeur, the historical trajectory of Political Islam in West Africa by Muriel Gomez-Perez and the Netherlands version of Salafism by Martijn de Koning.
“Often, de Koning writes, the Salafi movement is seen as a cultural movement without a clear political program, which shies away from becoming involved in the political fray while the Islamist movement, in contrast has politics at the heart of its ideology and aims to transform society into a “true” Islamic society. The Salafi movement claims not to be involved in political negotiations with states and does not engage in the public sphere in defense of Muslim interests, let alone attempt to build an Islamic state. […] Nevertheless in the Netherlands the very presence of the Salafi movement and its practices are experienced as a challenge to Dutch culture and political rule while at the same time the Dutch-Islam debate creates a platform on which its constituent networks are able (or even have to) engage with the Dutch state and in the public sphere.” (pp. 153-154)
“[In this context], categorizing the Islamist movement as political and the Salafi movement as cultural, creates a dichotomy that is more blinding than revelatory. Trying to build up and protect a status as a minority group by definition means dealing with the state. The Salafists have constructed their movement much the same way as in the past was done by Christian organizations during the time of the pillarization [that is, the vertical organization of the society into several religious or ideological segments or “pillars” with their own media and social institutions], through the establishment of mosques and Islamic schools.” (p. 174)
The final part of this book offers a glimpse into how new forms of Islamism are entering the daily lives of Muslims. Valentina Frate describes how veiled Egyptian artists are increasingly embodying and serving as new living icons, competing with Western or nationalistic representations of beauty. Mark LeVine tackles the artistic rise of a post-Islamist public sphere, and Patricia Sloane-White analyses the trajectory of corporate Islam in Malaysia.
“The veiled artists, writes V. Frate, are certainly one part of a group who have entered the already existing Western-dominated aesthetic-expressive sphere that, according to Habermas’ theory, occupies a central place. The artist’s is the first tool of expression of this new Islamic project […].” (p. 196)
“Ultimately, continues M. LeVine, the dynamics of the metal and larger extreme music scenes across the MENA reveal more than just the mutual embeddedness of art and politics, but equally point to the implicate relationship between the public sphere and popular culture. That is, how popular culture can serve as a crucial site for the performance of “publicness” when the ore formal locations, such as newspapers and other media, clubs and associations of civil society, are too heavily monitored or policed to allow for free expression and exchange f ideas, identities and visions by all class of society.” (p. 221)
Whatever Happened to the Islamists is indeed a rich melange, but with a clear direction: how Islamists and their fellow activists are adjusting to national and global changes. And how we can understand these transformations. There is no doubt that the layman will find himself compelled to broaden his vision and realize the diversity and range hiding under the Islamist carpet. Conversely, it is also very likely that the specialist will find a refreshing mapping of the current conversation and the trajectories of a hotly debated political specimen.
Amel Boubekeur and Olivier Roy (eds.), Whatever Happened to the Islamists? Salafis, Heavy Metal Muslims and the Lure of Consumerist Islam, London / New York, Hurst / Columbia University Press, 2012, 224 p.