As the sociopolitical structures of Islamic societies are radically different from those of Western democracies, so too are the nature and dynamics of Islamic movements. Both in Australia and in the Western world, the Essentialist and Orientalist approaches have dominated attempts to describe and understand Islamic movements. This has led to the view that if you know one of the Islamic movements you know all of them – they are all reactionary, irrational, anti-democracy and anti-secularism.
However, in reality, as Husnul Amin observes:
Islamic social forces in Muslim societies, engaged in multiple social and political activities, have also undergone substantial transformations in terms of strategies, modes of activism and global connectivity.
Such an ‘astonishing variety of currents and counter-currents’, as aptly remarked by Edward Said, can no longer be captured with reductionist and essentialist approaches.
Western accounts have often overemphasised the religious characteristics of Islamic movements and ignored their sociopolitical dimensions. As such, Islamic movements have been presented as unique, senseless collective actions outside the realm of history, “an expression of primordial loyalties” in the words of Asef Bayat.
The construction of ‘unique’ Muslims is not new; it has been the hallmark of the so-called Orientalist outlook which Edward Said and others have so remarkably and critically taken up. For Said and other critics, Orientalism represented a discursive apparatus that produced knowledge as an instrument of power, as a means to maintain domination.
Bayat proposed the theory of “Imagined Solidarity” to understand Islamic movements. This has applications in Australia, where a long history of hostility to Muslims, intensifying since the turn of the century, has generated a sense of Islamic solidarity that extends even beyond the domestic community.
Bayat notes that Western approaches have over-emphasised the role of Islamic ideologues in shaping Islamic movements. These attempts have studied Islamic movements through the language and discourses of ideologues such as Abu Ala Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, Musa Sadre, Rachid Qanoushi and Ali Shariati.
While Islam has been used as a catalyst to generate popular support, the concerns and issues of Islamic movements are much broader and more complex than concern about Islam and the discourse of the above ideologues.
Diversity defies Western categorisations
The Islamic world represents many multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual, multi-political and multicultural societies. Unlike Western societies, they lack liberal democratic political systems. They are often subject to tight political control with limited access to means of communication.
Besides presenting Islamic movements as homogeneous and coherent bodies, Western media and scholars tend to present Islam in a fixed and coherent form. There is ignorance of the historical reality of Islam as a religion and as an ideology. During its 1400 years of history, there has never been one dominant and widely acceptable interpretation of Islam at any given time.
Western scholars have used numerous terms to describe Islamic movements since their “discovery” of the phenomenon in the 1970s. But most of the so-called “Islamic movements” have been political parties or political associations and institutions, without a broader basis within society or any success in creating the sense of common and collective purpose necessary for shaping a social movement.
The numerous terms used are not only testimony to confusion among Western scholars but also to the complexity and diversity of Islamic movements.
Initially, the term “Islamic fundamentalism” became popular in Western media and scholarly circles. It soon lost its attraction among academics as they discovered not all these movements are scripturist and that besides religious considerations they may also have a radical political agenda.
Attempts were made to rescue the term and it was soon replaced by “radical traditionalism”. But this term did not become popular as further “discoveries” proved that many of these movements are quite critical of past traditions and offer modern interpretations of Islam and the Koran.
Thus, the trend of adopting new terms such as “political Islam”, “Islamic activism” and “Islamic revivalism” continued. It did not take long for these, too, to lose their appeal as such terms referenced the political nature of these diverse movements at the expense of their religious elements.
To resolve the “dilemma”, Nikki Keddie proposed “new religious politics” to cover both religious and political aspects of the phenomenon. And, you guessed it, this term was also replaced – by “Islamism”.
However, László Csicsmann notes another development:
Recent literature on Middle Eastern political developments shows a certain kind of transformation within Islamist movements, called … ‘Post-Islamism’ by the French scholar, Olivier Roy.
… Most of the Islamist organisations have turned toward a different alternative: deradicalisation and moderation. Islamists realised that armed struggle against the ‘infidel’ autocrats failed to achieve the desired political system based on Islamic legislation. Many Islamists dropped the idea of establishing an Islamic state from their agenda and focused more on society rather than politics (deradicalisation).
Omar Ashour defines the process of moderation on two levels: 1. On an ideological level, Islamist movements accept the principle of democracy; and 2. On a behavioural level, they participate in electoral politics if they can.
To this end, I suggest that Bayat’s application of the theory of “Imagined solidarities” is the most powerful attempt to analyse Islamic movements so far. Bayat insists that Islamic movements are very dynamic – like other social movements, they are in constant flow and motion as a result of both internal and external factors.
By describing a social movement as an evolving process, we are emphasising its historical dimension. One cannot discern much about Iranian Islamism, for instance, if one does not recognise its historical dynamics.
Islamists in Egypt vs Iran
Most scholarly writings on post-revolutionary Iran have overestimated the strength of Islamism before the revolution. Compared with Egypt, Iran did not have a strong Islamist movement. Bayat writes:
… an Islamic movement was in the making when it was interrupted by an Islamic revolution.
As the result of the writings of people such as Said Qutb, Ali Shariati and others, a generation of Iranian youth was shaping the early stages of an Islamic movement. But no Islamic political parties were in a position to create a serious challenge to the regime.
Bayat argues that the absence of a strong Islamist social movement generated a favourable environment for an Islamic revolution in Iran. In Egypt, by contrast, the success of a strong Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in creating pressure for reforms during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s avoided an Islamic revolution similar to the one in Iran.
In Iran, the Islamic parties such as the Fedahion of Islam and the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, despite a long history of existence, had little success in becoming popular movements. They remained largely intellectual groups without a strong social base of support that could force the system to reform itself.
This contrasts with the Muslim Brotherhood, which since its founding in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna has successfully spread and deeply influenced Islamic societies and movements around the world. Aside from creating an atmosphere of intellectual discourse and engagement with Islam, the movement has inspired militant Islamic movements such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Gamaat Islamiyah.
At the height of its success, the Muslim Brotherhood had more than half-a-million active members in Egypt alone, representing wide segments of the society from professors at universities to factory workers and farmers.
‘Imagined solidarity’ in Australia
Bayat argues that, in forming a social movement, a wide range of constituencies, activists and actors with many differences among them may become united in the desire to achieve a particular goal.
Such goals, and the ways these may be achieved, are not often well known and defined. Yet there are some common elements and a general desire, which can induce different players to underestimate their differences and form alliances. Recognition of this common purpose or “ambiguous desire” is an essential aspect of understanding Islamic movements.
Applying Bayat’s theory in Australia, I can say that a long history of hatred, discrimination and rejection of Muslims in Australia at all levels of society has generated a sense of imagined solidarity among Muslims.
On an informal level, the engagement of the people with Muslims has too often involved physical attacks and harassment on the streets, parks, public transport and beaches. On a formal level, the Australian state has had hardly any meaningful and intellectual engagement with Islam and Muslims, except at the level of investigating terror and terrorism.
You can read other articles in the Roots of Radicalisation series here.