The New Political Islam

Human Rights, Democracy, and Justice

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Emmanuel Karagiannis
Haney Foundation Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , December
     2017.
     280 pages.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812249729.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Emmanuel Karagiannis’ book The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy and Justice examines the phenomenon of political Islam and its transformations using the lens of glocalization, a distinct strand of social theory focusing on the processes through which global ideas are adapted, applied, and transformed in local contexts. In this process, they paradoxically shed some of their universal appeal and aura, necessarily resulting in the particularization of Islamism. The book takes up the concept of glocalization, along with social movement theory, to delve into the vast domain of Islamist politics, while using framing theory to dissect the conceptual apparatus of Islamists. 

To do so, Karagiannis constructs an analytical matrix which operates on two different levels. First, he focuses on the Islamists themselves, shifting the emphasis from the normative level to that of agency: the Islamist field is divided into activists, politicians, and militants who act as glocalizers by transferring global or universalist ideas to their respective local Muslim communities. Regardless of their practices or orientation, these agents are all considered to be third generation Islamists or communitarians, whose imagined community (despite transcending national borders) is determined by necessarily local and therefore particularist variations of Islamist universalism. The author identifies the second generation as that of Islamist globalists of transnationalist political orientation and practices, and the first generation as that of Islamist nationalists who strove for political liberation from colonial powers or local tyrannies within their respective national borders.  

Secondly, Karagiannis identifies three master frames which are used respectively by these agents to organise their political and rhetorical strategies and motivate their Muslim publics. It is particularly interesting to follow the deployment of such narratives depending on the local context: human rights, and the associated ideas of discrimination on the basis of Islam, are being mobilized by activists who operate in highly modern, Western contexts where values such as democracy or justice have been institutionalized and successfully embedded in political life. The narrative of human rights is employed in contexts where the political culture has moved beyond the basic level of establishing the rule of the majority and equality before the law, beyond the level of liberal tolerance to the level of recognition and respect of cultural and religious difference engendered by identity politics in Western democracies. Consequently, the democracy frame used by politicians - the Islamo-democrats – is mobilized in contexts where democracy, albeit invoked and recognized as the desired governance system, it is yet to be properly embedded and to overcome the tendency to resolve tensions between social and political groups by having recourse to military coup-d’états, like in Turkey or Egypt. Finally, the master frame of justice seems to be mostly used in contexts where systematic and historic persecution has been taking place against significant minorities (e.g. Lebanon), or in contexts where the war and subsequent anomie have reverted political life into conditions one could call ‘pre-political’, where the entire modern political edifice has collapsed (e.g. Syria).

The heuristic value of the matrix constructed by Karagiannis is both analytic and political. On the one hand, it allows for tracing the political trajectory of seminal concepts and values of modernity, such as human rights or democracy, which have been adapted and have become constitutive of the new Islamist discourse as such. On the other hand, it questions the supposed incompatibility between the West and Islam at this crucial moment in history when the logic of inevitable clash seems to prevail. By demonstrating the modern, rather than traditional, intellectual dynamic embedded in such movements, and by examining Islamist agents as localizers of universalist ideals, the book dispels Orientalist myths about the immutable, unchangeable, or deeply traditional nature of political Islam.

Yet it is regretful that the book has left unexplored the context of colonialism, postcolonial misery, cultural racism, and other exacerbated inequalities brought upon the populations under consideration by globalization, which would allow for a deeper understanding of the causes of Muslim discontent and its political manifestations, such as Islamism. The trope of anti-Westernism in Islamist discourses is not merely rhetorical or performative. It mobilizes Muslim publics because these historical wounds are still very much open. Contextualization of the proposed frames into the colonial legacy—a central element cutting across all three master frames—could have shed light on the processes making Islamism an appealing political solution today for Muslims across the world. Similarly, the process of globalization, from which the main analytical instrument of the book is derived, is not only a process that gives access to communication and new technologies and, therefore, the possibility of further spreading the message of Islamism. It is also a process with important economic ramifications for those on the other side of the Western fence. Likewise, cultural racism in the form of Islamophobia and the systematic dehumanization of Muslims in recent years, albeit recognized as such, is not sufficiently explored as a constitutive element of the Islamist discourse. Last, but not least, the consideration of the realities of war and Western interventions for those who live in devastated countries, as well as for those who share the same imagined community abroad, could have provided further insight into the ways the universal, abstract ideals of human rights, democracy, and justice are instrumentalized simultaneously by Islamists and Westerns alike. 

Overall, this is a sophisticated, erudite, and illuminating book. It is a necessary read for anyone who wishes to explore the persistent relevance of political developments in the contemporary Islamic world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rosa Vasilaki is Teaching Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emmanuel Karagiannis is a Senior Lecturer in King's College London's Department of Defence Studies.

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