Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism, or Reform? – Review

Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism, or Reform? – Review – book reviews

Antony T. Sullivan

John L. Esposito, Editor. Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism, or Reform? Boulder: Lynne Riener Publishers, 1997. 281pp., including bibliography and index. Hardcover $55.00.

It is only on rare occasions that one encounters an edited volume whose varied contributions are uniformly of excellent quality. Perhaps even more unusual is the edited collection of essays which makes both an important contribution to Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and at the same time deserves assignment as required reading by those charged with the formulation of American foreign policy. On all counts, Political Islam qualifies as that rare compendium deserving of the most careful attention by scholars and government officials alike. In assembling and tightly editing these papers, John L. Esposito has once again rendered a signal service to objective understanding of the relationship between religion and politics in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

In discussions of the relationships between state policy and Islamic radicalism and those among Islamic groups themselves, Lisa Anderson and John O. Voll do much to dissipate the cant that so often deforms discussions of these subjects. Especially during the past decade, Anderson notes, most Arab regimes have opted to repress all varieties of Islamist opposition rather than attempt to vitiate that opposition by including in public policy formulation those Islamist moderates willing to trade in the political souq. This policy of repression, she notes, has been adopted despite the experiences of such countries as Tunisia and Egypt during the 1980’s, where qualified toleration of al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood contributed to the ideological moderation of both movements. The “closer [such] movements were to the prospect of sharing power,” Anderson states, “the more pragmatic they appeared to be” (p.26). The recent wave of persecution by Arab regimes which refuse to accept the uncertainty of political outcom es inherent in democracy and treat all dissent as illegitimate, she argues, is likely to result only in radicalization of “illegal” Islamist opposition and increase the likelihood of a “desperate resort to violence on the part of the regimes and their opponents alike” (pp. 28-29).

Rejecting the working assumption of beltway geostrategists that the relevant linkages among Islamists are those between Iran and Sudan or such putatively “terrorist” groups as Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, John Voll argues that what is truly important in contemporary Islamism is the way in which modern communications have enabled moderate Muslim intellectuals and scholarly organizations to interact in a sustained and intensive fashion. From institutional bases in such distant locations as the United States, Kuala Lumpur, and London, the “really effective Islamist linkages today,” he observes, “are those that are changing the whole worldview of political Islam” (p. 244). In this regard, Voll mentions the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia, the International Islamic University in Malaysia, and the Islamic Foundation in the United Kingdom (note might also have been taken of the School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Virginia). In addition, Voll cites the contributi ons of organizations with such different priorities as the World Muslim League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to the increasingly cosmopolitan wasatiyya of the revolution made possible by technology which is now sweeping the Muslim world. (Here also, the annual Janadriyyah Festival and conference program in Saudi Arabia deserves mention). In particular, policy intellectuals in Washington should take to heart Voll’s observation that to understand terrorism in Algeria or Egypt one may far more usefully focus on political conditions in those countries than search for some “secret Iranian payroll” or “terrorist training camp in Sudan” (p. 244).

Outstanding articles on Islam and politics in Algeria, Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the West Bank and Gaza are contributed, respectively, by Dirk Vanderwalle, Peter Woodward, S.V.R. Nasr, Barnett R. Rubin and Jean-Francois Legrain. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad thoroughly discusses Islamist attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Of perhaps greatest value to scholars and policymakers alike, however, may be essays by Mohsen M. Milani on Islamic politics in Iran, John Esposito on political Islam and Gulf security, and Raymond William Baker on Islamic Centrism in Egypt.

Since 1979, Milani points out political participation in Islamic Iran has consistently been higher than it ever was after 1953 under Muhammad Reza Shah. Contested elections have been held annually since 1979, and through the twin phenomena of “factional rivalry” and “limited popular sovereignty,” Milani argues, the Iranian Majles now trails only the Israeli Knesset and the Turkish parliament among regional fora in the scope that it allows for substantive debate on issues of moment (pp. 78, 89). Only those who reject the Islamic Revolution itself remain excluded from the political arena. In this regard, Milani’s discussion of the implicit but unmistakable rejection of the institution of the velayat-e-faqih in the work of Abdolkarim Soroush, an important thinker who continues to live and write in Iran, suggests that there may exist a possibility that even enemies of the Revolution may one day be permitted to re-enter the Iranian political game. Nevertheless, Milani makes clear that the “ministate” created by A yatollah Khomeini, consisting of the only legal political grouping, the Islamic Republican Party, the “komites” (committees) which serve as vigilante police, the revolutionary courts and Revolutionary Guards, and such large and wealthy philanthropies and social service agencies as the Mostazefan Foundation, remains very much alive and is unlikely to disappear any time soon (p.84).

In his article focusing on Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the lesser Gulf States, John Esposito discusses the difference in Western reaction to Saddam Hussein’ s invasion of Iran in 1980 and his conquest of Kuwait in 1990. He notes that the change of attitude by Islamists in many Arab countries from censure of to support for Hussein after he seized Kuwait was occasioned by America’s decision to take the lead in ousting Iraq from that country. “Saddam Hussein might be wrong,” Esposito quotes U.S. Muslim leader Abdurrahman Alamoudi as observing, “but it is not America who should correct him” (p. 58). In this context, Esposito notes the inconsistency of American insistence on rigorous implementation of all U.N. resolutions concerning Iraq and its prevention of similar resolutions from being enforced that have been directed against Israel.

Perhaps the most important part of Esposito’s essay is that in which he discusses the indigenous Islamist opposition to Gulf regimes. In Saudi Arabia, Esposito notes especially the anti-government campaign mounted by Safar al-Hawali, Dean of Islamic Studies at Umm al-Qura in Mecca. He details the proliferation of demonstrations and manifestos against Saudi government policy during the early 1990’s, but suggests that by 1995 Saudi authorities had succeeded at least temporarily in containing dissent through mass arrests, the seizure of cassettes, and a ban on public speaking. Similar opposition in Bahrain, and the similar reaction of the Bahraini regime, are also detailed. Esposito echoes the criticisms of Lisa Anderson concerning the policy of repression of all Islamist movements which has typically been adopted by Arab regimes. For the moment, he believes that the Gulf states have won the battle with their Islamist enemies, but expects Islamist opposition to both resurface and expand in the future.

Raymond Baker makes an important contribution to Western understanding of Islamic wasatiyya in his highly informed discussion of moderate Islamism in Egypt. Unfortunately, Baker errs seriously in suggesting that Islamism is inspired by visions congruent with those of such Western Leftist groups as the German Greens. Quite the contrary is the case: the Islamic revival is in fact a conservative and culturally traditionalist phenomenon philosophically in tune not with European Leftism but with Western traditionalist thought as articulated especially by such thinkers as Eric Voegelin, Robert Nisbet, Gerhart Niemeyer and Russell Kirk. Indeed, it is precisely the conservative nature of cosmopolitan Islamism which recently led Muslim and Western intellectuals of conservative inclination to make common cause against the dark side of modernity by founding a new organization, The Circle of Tradition and Progress. [1] Nevertheless, Baker does merit only kudos for his thorough discussion of which the Islamist Centrists in Egypt are, and what they have accomplished.

According to Baker, Islamic wasatiyya in Egypt includes (1) the Labor Party and the newspaper al-shaab, the outlook of both of which has been shaped by Adel Hussain; (2) such professional associations as the Medical Association which, through the efforts of Essam Eryan, now provides a range of health and social services and constitutes a platform for national dialogue; and (3) the “New Islamic Trend” represented by such distinguished religious intellectuals as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Kamal Aboul Megd, and Fabmy Huwaidy (pp. 125-127). [2] Baker observes that although these moderate Islamists have written an “entire library of books and articles,” their contributions remain “virtually unknown” in the West (pp. 125, 115). Perhaps Baker’s own work, and that of The Circle of Tradition and Progress, will contribute to a rectification of that unfortunate situation.

In addition to their many other virtues, any of the articles in this volume can appropriately be assigned to undergraduates. On all counts, this book simply represents a five- star performance.

Antony T. Sullivan is an associate with the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


(1.) For the Circle’s Statement of Principles and a list of members of its Steering Committee, see MESA Newsletter, August 1997, p. 11.

(2.) It is worth noting that Adel Hussain, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Kamal Aboul Megd and Fahmy Huwaidy were all among the founders of The Circle of Tradition and Progress, and all serve as members of its Steering Committee.

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