Edmund Burke III and Ira Lapidus, eds., Islam, Politics and Social Movements (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988).

Shireen T. Hunter, ed., The Politics of Islamic Revivalism: Diversity and Unity (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988).

Henry Munson, Jr., Islam and Revolution in the Middle East (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).

These three recent books raise interesting questions concerning the “unity and diversity” of Islamic movements. Does “situating” the movements historically imply some historical unity of Islamic politics and culture? Can we discern common elements in a sociology of modern Islamic movements? Is there something which can be accurately be termed the “Islamic phenomenon”? To what extent has political Islam actually eclipsed secular movements and ideologies in the Middle East region?

Edmund Burke and Ira Lapidus have collected here case studies of social movements in Islamic societies during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which the preface distinguishes from the mass of other literature on the subject in terms of “methodological self-consciousness” and “historically more grounded and culturally more inclusive views.” The contributions to the Shireen Hunter collection share a commitment to the analysis of “revivalist phenomenon” “within the context of the social, economic and political evolution of Muslim societies.” Henry Munson has written a remarkably lucid account of the current situation of Islamic movements in the context of the historical and doctrinal features of Islam, followed by a sensible assessment of the different explanations of “Islamic revival.” It is an ideal book for introducing the subject to students and other interested readers.

Hrair Dekmejian’s article in the introductory section of the Hunter book attempts to trace general patterns of Islamic revivalism in terms of cycles of crisis and resurgent responses. This places the salafiyya trend and the Muslim Brothers in a line of ancestry stretching back to early Islam, and leaves the impression that Islamic history constitutes a structured unity with periodic patterns. This may encourage the view (perhaps not intended) that there are historical and cultural patterns essential to Islam and distinguishing it from Europe and the West as well as other “civilizational” areas.

In fact, there are important divergences in historical patterns. Iran in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries constituted a very different social formation from the Ottoman Empire of the same period. It is crucial to mark the distinctiveness of political-religious movements of modernity as well. Lapidus, citing the case studies in his book, contrasts the responses to early colonial intrusions in Algeria and Sudan to movements elsewhere in the Middle East, India and Nigeria. Such distinct movements, he writes, “represent an effort to generate and legitimate new forms of political and social action in radically changing societies.”

Separate Episodes

The salafiyya, the Muslim Brothers and all that followed are marked by the intellectual and political frameworks of ideas and models of the nation-state and its political fields. This point is well illustrated in the chapters by Joel Beinin and Ellis Goldberg (in Burke and Lapidus) on separate episodes in the Muslim Brothers’ attempts to organize workers in Egypt in the 1940s, in competition with communist and nationalist forces. The studies of (different) Algerian movements by Peter Von Sivers, Julia Clancy-Smith and Fanny Colonna illustrate the role of Islam in the social organization of resistance to colonial encroachments in segmentary societies where Sufi networks are the primary forms of social connections beyond lineage, and where Islamic symbols are the primary sources of ideological expression. Common elements in Islamist movements in segmentary societies such as the Algerian cases, the Sudanese Mahdiyya and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia are not the product of a unitary Islamic history but of the common sociology of that form of society in response to external threats.

Let us now turn to the sociology of the current “Islamic revival.” The country chapters in the Hunter collection offer particular explanations of the “Islamic phenomenon,” and Munson evaluates the explanations offered in the literature. But is there a common sociology of these ideas and movements? Do they constitute a single “phenomenon”?

There are some incontestably common elements, such as the context of modernity/modernization, the struggle against cultural imperialism and the search for authenticity. The social bases of Islamist politics show a predominant representation of students and other categories of the intelligentsia in the active cores of the movements. These factors, however, are not specific to Islamist activism. Their general outlines can be advanced for any modern oppositional movement, including various left and nationalist parties.

Students and the intelligentsia in Syria and Iraq, insofar as any oppositional activity is possible in these countries, are divided between the different secular ideologies of the left, with only limited appeal from Islamism. The main constituency for the Islamist opposition in Syria (Hinnebusch in Hunter) are the Sunni bourgeoisie, the ‘ulama’ and the networks of patronage they command in the urban quarters, against a secular government dominated by members of the (peasant-based) ‘Alawi sect. In Iraq (Mallat in Hunter), the Sunni-Shi‘i conflict is more communalistic (over power and resources) than ideological (over forms of “Islamic” government and society). The political field in Iraq has always been contested by communists and secular nationalists, with religion on the sidelines. The Iranian revolution and the subsequent war placed religion on the political agenda, but primarily as a Shi‘i contestation of Sunni power. There are indications that this form of opposition is confined to particular sectors of the Shi‘i ‘ulama’ and community.

Algeria (Arkoun in Hunter) presents an altogether different pattern. There Islam is fully coopted by a political system deriving its legitimacy from continuity with the army of national liberation. Islamist opposition there is an attempt to find niches in society not dominated by the state. Arkoun, however, advances certain explanatory themes which go beyond the Algerian example. The modern state, he argues, has, in a very short time, imposed radical changes on societies that have deeply affected their semiotic and symbolic universes. Islamic revival at the popular level can be seen as a response to this semiotic violence. This line of argument raises interesting questions. Is this semiotic universe a coherent unity? Or is it better viewed as a field of flux in which elements of modernity are articulated more or less successfully? A study of popular culture in, say, Egypt, where modernity has had a longer history than Algeria, may well confirm the latter picture.

Different Forces

What gives “the Islamic phenomenon” its seeming unity is not so much a common sociology but rather a common demonstration effect on the world stage. The Iranian revolution displayed, seemingly, the power of Islam to mobilize “the people” and triumph against all the odds when secular ideologies and movements had failed. This idea of popular authenticity has proved to exert a powerful appeal to many sectors of politicized opinion in the area, including many on the left who have discovered these means of fighting against cultural imperialism and Western domination. “The people” are, after all, the raison d’etre of nationalism and the left, and one which had often in the past proved to be painfully illusive. It would be sensible, therefore, to ask what role the “common people” played in the Iranian revolution and Islamic movements elsewhere.

The Burke and Lapidus book contains three essays on the Iranian revolution. The susceptibility of the people to Islamic leadership is emphasized in Hamid Algar’s eulogistic biography of Khomeini, drawing exclusively on sources in Khomeini’s clerical entourage. Not surprisingly, he attributes the success of the revolution to “the loyalty and obedience of the mass of the Iranian people to a figure seen by them as possessing the whole moral authority of Islamic tradition.” The other two essays do not wholly sustain this conclusion. Ervand Abrahamian rightly stresses the importance of the ideas of Ali Shari‘ati, and concludes that he “can be truly characterized as the ideologue of the Islamic revolution,” and that his ideas were far better known than those of Khomeini. These ideas drew widely on Marxism and other strands of European and Third Worldist radical thought, which Shari‘ati combined (often rhetorically) with Islamic themes and symbols. These ideas appealed to politicized publics, predominantly the intelligentsia. They were certainly not popular among the clerics, of whom they were critical. Nikki Keddie’s masterly analysis of the revolution gives a nuanced picture of different forces and conjunctures which played their parts. Keddie also includes an interesting discussion of the validity of general theories of revolution in relation to the Iranian case.

Munson, in his book, also recounts and analyzes the events of the revolution. It is clear from these accounts that wide sectors of Iranian society participated in these events. They were animated by different ideological and social commitments, by no means all religious. Religious forces as such were further differentiated into clerical and “modern.” And the clerics were by no means united in their aims. Though the clerics had always been able to mobilize sectors of the common people, such mobilization had not previously amounted to a revolution. It was generally reactive and defensive. Secular nationalist and leftist forces were also able in the past and on this occasion to mobilize sectors of the urban population. In any case, it would seem that the participation of the urban poor in the events of the revolution was much more pronounced after its success. The conclusion from this composite picture is that both popular participation and the ultimate clerical character of the revolutionary government have to be analyzed in the context of the particular conjunctures of forces and events, and are not essential products of Iranian or Islamic culture.

Sentimentality about “the people” and their supposed striving for Islamic authenticity is not, of course, confined to Iran. It figures in discussions of other parts in the region, notably Egypt. There is a hint of this tendency in Amira Sonbol’s essay on Egypt in the Hunter book. Sonbol attributes the adoption of the veil, for instance, to desire for simplicity and equality of appearance, as against the ostentation of modern dress. Apart from underestimating the fashion potentialities of veiled dress (which are being rapidly realized as the veil becomes routine), Sonbol also underestimates the coercion, both moral and physical, toward veiling in the universities and other spheres of public life, and the protective functions of veiling for working women otherwise exposed to harassment. The supposed anti-materialism contrasts oddly with the great accumulation of wealth by Islamic enterprises and investments, and the use of parts of this wealth for the maintenance of patronage networks based on welfare provisions, loans, jobs and housing, which bind ordinary folks to the favored forms of “Islamic revival.” This, of course, is only part of the story.

But the story has so many different parts that it ceases to be one story. Quite diverse factors in Egypt and elsewhere seem to “condense” upon common ideological themes which are prominent in current political fields. In previous decades these fields were dominated by secular ideologies of nationalism and the left. The sensational interest in Islam after the Iranian revolution may have obscured the extent to which these secular ideologies and movements continue to occupy central positions in the political life in most countries in the region. There is also a proclivity towards reading history backwards and, thus, seeing the current “revival” as the culmination of a line of development of Islamic politics, rather than as the product of recent combinations of forces and events (Algar is a good example of this tendency). The social and historical analyses of the specificity of particular countries and movements contained in most of the contributions to these volumes are a good antidote to this tendency.

Both Munson and Hunter offer advice to the US and the West on attitudes and policies toward the countries in question. The advice is sensible and liberal: to respect the patriotism and desire for independence in these countries and to favor moderate nationalist leaders as against corrupt dictators like the Shah in order to avoid or ameliorate the excesses of militant Islam. But is militant Islam necessarily inimical to Western interests? There has always been a body of Western foreign policy opinion which saw religion as a buffer against communism and the left. US policy toward Afghanistan clearly manifests this view, shared by Saudi Arabia, and Egypt under Sadat.

It is not at all clear that they are wrong. The anti-Americanism of the Iranian revolution is largely cultural and symbolic, and has not led to any strategic consequences favorable to the Soviet bloc. In any case, there are many indications that the successors to Khomeini may very well adopt different views and policies, much more favorable to the interests of the West. The correct “advice” to those in power in the West and its friends in the region should, perhaps, be to continue to foster Islamist forces, and to endeavor to steer them in conservative directions, where many of them will happily proceed.

How to cite this article:

Sami Zubaida "Reading History Backwards," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).

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