Rethinking Political Islam

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Shadi Hamid, William McCants
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the course of the last few years after the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, aspirations for the integration of Islam and politics have led to diametrically opposing ends: the despicable rise of ISIS in Iraq and the Levant in 2014, and the official de-liking of religious and political activities in 2016 by Elnnahda, one of the oldest Islamist movements in North Africa. After these watershed events, Islamism is not the same as before, and thus, deserves re-thinking. To address this, several books have been written in the last few years, one of the best of which is Rethinking Political Islam.

Despite what its generic title suggests, the book focuses mainly on Muslim Brotherhood affiliated (in a loose sense) political activism or, in the words of its editors, “those that operate within the confines of the institutional politics” (309). Rethinking Political Islam is composed of twenty chapters in three parts in addition to a concise yet erudite introduction written by its Brookings-affiliated editors, Shadi Amin and William McCants. Part 1 offers eleven country studies covering the Middle East and North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya); Pakistan; and Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia). The subsequent six chapters in part 2 are given over to engaging Islamists, including five chapters by senior members of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan; Jamaat-e Islami in Pakistan; and Ennahda in Tunisia. Part 3 is composed of three short chapters covering more theoretical aspects of religion, ideology, and organization.

Writers with diverse backgrounds and expertise have contributed to this book, from senior academics and researchers in prominent think-tanks, to members of the movements themselves. These manifold theoretical perspectives as well as diverse methods and materials used, together with the expansive geographical range of the book, make it difficult to summarize it in a single argument or a set of short passages. Instead, it is more useful to mention some recurrent themes in the book that come up in several chapters and reveal their centrality to the master narrative of the book.

Authors frequently mention the “twin shocks” of the Egyptian coup of July 2013 and the rise of ISIS in 2014 as the main events shaping the course of action for the Islamist movements under study. The first event resulted in a chain of initiatives by the supporters of autocratic regimes and their representatives in the new political structures to outfight their rival Islamists. Islamists, in turn, adopt more inclusive and reconciliatory approaches to avoid Egypt’s Muslim Brothers’ fate after the coup. The rise of ISIS also made it compulsory for Islamists to draw clear lines between themselves and militant Islamists. In the case of Tunisia it resulted in identifying themselves as “Muslim Democrats” rather than “Islamists” because they deemed it “a waste of time to constantly distance” themselves from ISIS as Sayida Ounissi, one of the Ennahda parliamentarians points out (237). Another recurrent theme is how the inclusion-moderation hypothesis is being affected in contradictory ways, for example in the cases of Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. Avoidance of violence in most Islamist movements, even in response to extreme cases such as the massacre of Rabaa al-Adawiya in August 2013, is another common feature of these movements. A major emphasis is also put on the increasing separation of social transformation (movement or haraka) and political activism (party or hizb) in a range of different contexts.

A fundamental weight of the book is its inclusion of the views of so-called Islamists (albeit as respondents). Western academics have always sought to get distance, to disengage themselves from the “objects” of their studies. Against this, in Rethinking Political Islam, subjects rise to speak for themselves instead of always being “discovered,” “interpreted,” and “explained” by outsider observers. Further, in Rethinking Political Islam we have more than a simple juxtaposition of different views, but instead a meaningful dialogue over the course of the two years that went into the preparation of the book. More than merely a book, Rethinking Political Islam has been a process of mutual influence and conversation through which its interlocutors have also been changed.

Despite the extensive geographical range covered in Rethinking Political Islam, Bahrain, Iraq, and Iran are functionally absent and one cannot find any substantive reference to them. This is especially noteworthy because more remote areas such as Malaysia and Indonesia have individual chapters dedicated to them. The Iranian revolution has both been highly influenced by Brotherhood ideology (the existing Supreme Leader has translated Qutb’s books into Farsi and is an admirer of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Muslim Brotherhood) and has influenced it respectively. Ḥizb al-Daʿwa of Iraq also had ideological and intellectual as well as organizational links with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. This indeed is intertwined with the fact (mentioned also by contributor Jacob Olidort (288) that sectarian politics are not discussed sufficiently in the book, except briefly by Toby Matthiesen in the chapter 7 on Saudi Arabia.

In general, Rethinking Political Islam is admirable and inspiring, and undoubtedly a substantive contribution to the literature. It significantly adds to our grasp of the post-Arab Spring politics of Islamism in the wider Islamic world. It might have benefited, though, from allocating more space for discussing the ongoing interplay of Islamism and sectarianism, and political Islam in the Shia context.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mahmoud Pargoo is a Doctoral Student at Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism and Temptations of Power.

William McCants is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World. He is the author of The ISIS Apocalypse and Founding Gods, Inventing Nations.

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