Islamism: Contextualist or Essentialist? Or Both?

My new article for Providence Magazine.

Islamism Contexualist Essentialist

Photo Credit: Mosque in Tunisia. By Tarek, via Flickr.

In an excellent review of Shadi Hamid and Will McCants’ Rethinking Political Islam, Olivier Roy says there are generally two ways to think about Islamism.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he first briefly introduces three important shockwaves—the Arab Spring, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS)—that have affected the debate.

As Hamid and McCants write, “After decades speculating on what Islamists would do when they came to power, analysts, academics—and Islamists themselves—finally have an answer. And it is confusing.”

The confusion tends to be filtered into analysis based on one’s predisposition.

There is a contextual approach, as Roy explains: “The policies and practices of Islamist movements are driven less by ideology than by events and sees such groups as reactive and adaptive.” He elaborates:

Contextualists believe that Islamist groups seek to adapt to circumstances and country-specific norms (for example, by recognizing the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco). The groups’ main goal is to survive as coherent organizations and political actors. And their use of religious rhetoric is often little more than “Muslim-speak”—a way to express a unique identity and articulate grievances, especially against the West.

There is also an essentialist approach: “Islamists are fundamentally ideological and that any concessions they make to secularist principles or institutions are purely tactical.”

A corollary to this argument is the idea—extolled by critics of Islamism but also some of its adherents—that Islamic theology recognizes no separation between religion and politics, and therefore an authentic Islamist cannot renounce his ideological agenda in favor of a more pragmatic or democratic approach.

The presentation is skillful, and after researching Islamist movements and parties across the Muslim world, Roy offers a conclusion…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Providence Magazine.

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