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Political Islamthe Revival of Islam in the Middle East: Trends, Dynamics and Implications

Essay by review  •  December 31, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  5,784 Words (24 Pages)  •  1,671 Views

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Introduction

There is currently a large scholarly literature exists on all aspects of political Islam in the Middle East, but it is very rarer to see any explicit theorizing intended at explaining the Islamist revival in the Middle East and remains partially unexplained despite a number of theories seeking explanation for its growth and popular appeal. In general, most theories contend that Islamist revival in the Middle East is a retort to relative deprivation , especially social inequality and political repression. While, alternative theories locate the answer of the Islamist revival within the precincts of religion itself and the powerful, evocative potential of religious symbolism. A general problem with all these postulations is that they may explain the revival in some countries in the Middle East but not in others. At present, it appears that there is not a single theory that can explain the many faces of Islamic revival in such diverse settings as, for example, democratic Islamism in Turkey, revolutionary Islam in Iran, Islamist opposition in Egypt and Islamist terror in Algeria.

This also fits in with the fact that we know comparatively little about the grassroots members of the Islamist movements and the popular sentiments they embody. There is, hence, a need to continue along the lines of Saad Eddin Ebrahim’s pioneering study of the populist bases of Egyptian Islamists as well as more recent work on the socio-spatial dimension of contemporary Islamism. Such studies may also contribute to developing theories of Islamist movements in general.

In particular there seems to be a need for studying the dynamics of contemporary social movements as vehicles of the Islamist revival. While the study of Islam and social movements is not a novel theme, and in fact Islam began as a social movement, more attention needs to be paid to modern Islamic movements. Especially, it seems important to engage in a comparative analysis of Islamic movements in the Middle East. Although, there is a range of competing theories as to what are the driving forces behind the Islamist revival. None of them is capable of accounting for the diversity of the popular support for political Islam throughout the Middle East, but each seeks to explain them as an outcome of a combination of social (injustice), political (oppression) and religious (secularism) factors. Most probably the revival is caused a number of contingent factors, hence the importance of cautioning against simplistic accounts of what is in reality highly complex phenomenon. Research that attempts to highlight this complexity would therefore be particularly important.

The Revival of Islam: A Theoretical Perspective

In this part a number of theories are presented under three broad headings: civilizational, social, textual. The first set of theories aims to explain the dynamics of Islamic civilizations internally and externally. Second set of theories focuses on social practices and finds the Islamic revival in the social and political context. Whereas the third set of theories locates the revival in Islam’s founding texts and doctrine as well as religious worship. In the first instance, Islam is considered a shared discourse (beliefs, rituals and symbols) that is shaped by local socio-political conditions. Alternatively, the starting point is that Muslim activists are united by a shared belief in Islam as an alternative to secular ideologies, creating a compelling socio-political force.

Civilizational Theories

The foundations of the Islamic state and the tension between political (royalty) and religious leadership (caliphate) was developed by the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun (1333вЂ"1406) in his masterpiece, Muqaddimah. In this book he developed a sociological and historiographic account of the cyclical rise and fall of urban civilizations. Ibn Khaldun argues, that each dynasty (or civilization) has within itself the seeds of its own downfall. He explains that ruling houses tend to emerge on the peripheries of great empires and use the much stronger asabiyya present in those areas to their advantage, in order to bring about a change in leadership. As they establish themselves at the center of their empire, they become increasingly lenient, less coordinated, disciplined and watchful, and more concerned with maintaining their new power and lifestyle at the centre of the empire (i.e., their internal cohesion and ties to the original peripheral group, the asabiyya, dissolves into factionalism and individualism, diminishing their capacity as a political unit). Thus, conditions are created wherein a new dynasty can emerge at the periphery of their control, grow strong, and effect a change in leadership, beginning the cycle anew. Importantly, Khaldun argued that the only way to create an enduring state was to find a lasting alternative to asabiyya, one that was based not on social solidarity but on the religious authority of the Sharia. Nonetheless, we find in Khaldun’s work an early argument in favor of “the differentiation between religious and secular leadership”, a philosophical problem that had engaged Muslim thinkers since the end of the reign of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (632вЂ"1258).

Alternatively, the idea of clash between civilizations was developed by Samuel Huntington in which he interpreted the Islamist revival and the Islamic Middle East as a predatory civilization threatening the West. The theory was originally formulated in 1993 in a Foreign Affairs article titled The Clash of Civilizations? , as a reaction to Francis Fukuyama's 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. Huntington later expanded his thesis in a 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Though the term itself was originally coined by Bernard Lewis in an article in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly titled The Roots of Muslim Rage. Huntington lists a total of eight discrete civilizations and proposes that conflict between them will result in a cataclysmic endgame threatening world peace. This in particular will occur along the fault lines between the “Islamic” and the “Judeo-Christian” civilizations. Huntington’s thesis has been deflated both on normative and empirical grounds. In order to understand the normative aspect of Huntington’s position it seems important to consider Michael Salla’s distinction between “essentialists” and “contingenists”. In short, Salla argues that “essentialists” give prominence to the textual interpretation of Islam, which they consider

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