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New Texts Out Now: Asef Bayat, Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam

[Cover of Asef Bayat, editor, [Cover of Asef Bayat, editor, "Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam"]

Asef Bayat, editor, Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?

Asef Bayat (AB): Well, for me the primary reason for producing this book was a realization that there was a major gap in the scholarship on Islamism. While so much has been written on political Islam—some of which remains solid scholarship—the mainstream perspectives tend to treat political Islam as if it were a static movement with little scope for change. Even those who did detect degrees of change in certain Islamist movements rarely dealt with highlighting their particular direction or logic behind their transformation. Originally, the idea of “post-Islamism” had been inspired back in the mid-1990s in Iran where I could observe a serious rethinking of Islamist politics coming from the ranks of both Islamists themselves and their broader constituencies. Even then, I could sense that there were perhaps similar trends in other parts of the Muslim world, though varying in scope and intensity. But these transformative trends still needed to be researched, documented, and analyzed systematically.

This book, Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam, encapsulates such an attempt. The project would have been too ambitious to be accomplished by a single person. So the cooperation of a fine group of scholars, to whom this book is indebted, made the project possible. 

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AB: The book addresses two key questions. First, how do we narrate the histories of Islamism in Muslim majority countries? Second, what do these histories tell us about the notion of “post-Islamism”? The historical narratives point to multiple ways in which political Islam in ten Muslim majority countries (Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria) has been undergoing change—whether in ideology, language, or practice. 

These narratives also point to what have been the causes of such transformations. The diverse historical experiences observed in these ten countries have produced a more complex and multi-layered picture about religious politics. The question was how to capture the logic of these trajectories. Characterizations like “radicalization,” “moderation,” or “pragmatism” have proved inadequate to describe the nature of the shifts, simply because these terminologies are basically descriptive, and thus lack analytical precision. The book suggests that perhaps a revisited concept of “post-Islamism” may be more helpful in capturing the spirit of change within Islamism in the past three decades. In fact, the complex histories of Islamist politics offered by the contributors in the book provided an extremely fruitful empirical ground within which to engage the earlier notion of “post-Islamism”; these very histories, along with the contributors’ critiques, helped me rethink the concept in order to further sharpen the idea and add layers of nuance to it.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

AB: Actually, this book continues and updates my decade-old preoccupation with the nature and dynamics of religious politics in the Muslim world. “Post-Islamism” is the thread that ties these various studies to one another over time. A 1996 short essay, “The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society,” represented an early attempt to formulate the notion of “Post-Islamism” as a way to narrate and explain the changes that Islamism in Iran was undergoing in the mid-1990s. This notion was further developed in the book Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (2007). Here I tried to conceptualize “post-Islamism” in terms of both a condition and a framework that transcends Islamism (informed by religiosity, responsibility, and a religious state) to embrace a project that is informed broadly by religiosity, rights, and civil state.

When Making Islam Democratic was published, a lively debate was already underway in Europe (the writings of Olivier Roy, among others, were important here), and also in Iran, Sudan, Indonesia, and Turkey. However, my formulation of “post-Islamism” drew primarily on the experience of the Islamic Republic of Iran since the 1990s, especially under the reformist government of Mohamad Khatami (1997-2004). The lingering question for me remained: What about other Muslim-majority countries?

The current book, Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam, attempts to address this very question. It further complicates the concept of “post-Islamism” to respond to complex and multilayered histories of Islamism in different Muslim-majority societies. It postulates “post-Islamism” in terms of the critical departure from Islamist politics—pushed internally from within or pushed externally by outside forces—compelling the religious actors to come to terms with the thinking that takes people’s rights and democratic governance seriously. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AB: The immediate readers will probably be academics, students, research organizations, and policy makers. This is certainly important, as the book provides, I think, a different angle from which to view political Islam and its shifting dynamics. I am also hoping that the book would be useful for an informed public readership in order to balance the dominant views aired in the mainstream media.

But perhaps more than any other groups, my wish is that this book is read by leaders and activists of the Islamist movements in Muslim majority countries. It is my hope that they can use the work to put their politics into a broader international perspective and see how comparable Islamist movements and states have (or have not) responded to the democratic and right-centered demands of their secular as well as pious citizens. As a result, they may come to accept the premise that there is not necessarily a conflict between piety and inclusivity, between remaining Muslim and yet embracing a democratic ethos.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AB: I am currently working on the Arab revolutions, a subject I am sure that many scholars are busy with. I am particularly interested in the role of the ordinary people, the subaltern groups, in these revolutions. What did they do during the uprisings? What has happened to them in the past three years? What have they been thinking, saying, and doing? I had been writing on the politics of ordinary people in the Middle East for some years prior to the revolutions. This new project, in some ways, continues that line of thinking, but addresses also new issues.

At the current difficult juncture, there is so much talk about defeat, demoralization, loss of hope, and, of course, counter-revolution. This is certainly understandable. But this is not the whole story of the revolutions. Indeed, it is these one-sided narratives that feed so well in the despicable triumphalism of the counter-revolution and of the old-guards like Bashar al-Asad, the Mubarakists, or the oil monarchies declaring the death of the revolutions by saying: “you see we were right; revolutions do not bring prosperity to people, they bring misery; so stop thinking about them.” I like to tell the other side of the story, to show that revolutions do matter—that they do have merit—but that they are also messy and their impact may not be immediate.

J: What is it like to have the book published during a period of tremendous contention over the state of political Islam?   

AB: It is always tempting to pass quick judgments over the present situation when everything is in flux. But hasty judgments often quickly become obsolete during the turn of events. Indeed, these days print and digital media are saturated by articles whose life-expectancy extends no more than a few days. Hopefully this book does not fall into such a category. The groundwork for the book predated the Arab revolutions, not to mention the recent contention over the state of political Islam. But the publication of the book has certainly coincided with a crucial episode in which Islamism has faced a great challenge—challenge not necessarily by violent military crackdowns as in Egypt, but rather by Islamism’s own self-limiting dynamics. This was not difficult to foresee, and the book does in fact speak to some of these internal challenges and their consequences.

Excerpt from Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam

These diverse narratives suggest that there is not one but many different trajectories of change that Islamist movements may experience. Iran’s post-Islamism developed on the perceived failure of the ruling Islamist politics to address fundamental citizen needs. Turkish Islamism “adapted” itself to meet the political realities of the country as well as its position vis Europe. While in Morocco and Indonesia (as in Iran and Turkey) the Islamist parties self-consciously departed from an Islamist past to act as players in the nations’ polities, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and Lebanese Hizbullah pursued somewhat ambivalent courses of change. They were pushed largely by the events and geopolitical realities of their own settings and the region, without, however, undertaking a systematic reevaluation of their ideologies. In Egypt, the old guard of Muslim Brothers continued to pursue an “Islamizing” agenda, while its “youths” leaned toward a post-Islamist perspective; and in Lebanon the Hizbullah changed more in practice than in rhetoric. In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, strands of post-Islamist outlooks emerged to redress what was seen as the harm that Islamism had inflicted on society and faith. Finally, the experiences of Sudan and Syria reflect the presence of some forms of post-Islamist trends long before the global rise of Islamist movements since the 1970s. Most of these trends and movements came to life in and were informed by the post-Cold War political climate, in which the language of civil society, democracy, and reform had assumed unprecedented global currency.

The narratives also show that the forms, depth, and spread of post-Islamist experiences may vary. Yet they all point to some shift in vision. In each of these cases, post-Islamism denotes a critical discursive departure or pragmatic exit, albeit in diverse degrees, from an Islamist ideological package characterized broadly by monopoly of religious truth, exclusivism, and emphasis on obligations, toward acknowledging ambiguity, multiplicity, inclusion, and flexibility in principles and practice.

[…]

At any rate, “Islamism” and “post-Islamism” constructed in this fashion serve primarily as conceptual categories to signify change, difference, and the root of change. In the real world, however, many Muslim individuals or groups may adhere eclectically and simultaneously to aspects of both discourses. The advent of post-Islamism, as a real trend, should not be seen necessarily as the historical end of Islamism. It should be seen as the birth, out of a critical departure from Islamist experience, of a qualitatively different discourse and politics. In reality we may witness the simultaneous operation of both Islamism and post-Islamism. This implies that we should perhaps rethink the historical connotation of post- in post-Islamism and, instead, attribute to it a more analytical substance. For the term needs to take account of non-evolutionary processes, simultaneity, mixture, and historical retrospection. As I noted earlier, even though we are witness to the rise of post-Islamism at the global level in current times, certain post-Islamist movements, such as neo-Mahdism in the Sudan in the early twentieth century, had come to life prior to the worldwide hegemony of Islamism in the 1980s and 1990s. Some observers have even spoken of such movements as that associated with Mohammad Abdou as resembling post-Islamism of a sort. In addition, while only a few movements, such as the Iranian one, emerged directly out of experimentation with an Islamic state, many others developed in a critical departure from Islamist activism and discourse in society, and still others emerged to redress the effects of existing Islamist trends on religion and politics. Therefore, I deploy the prefix post- in post-Islamism not simply as a marker of historicity but primarily to signify a critique from within, a “critical departure.” Thus, post-Islamism may be understood as a critical departure from Islamist politics. It describes transcending from the duty-centered and exclusive Islamist politics toward a more rights-centered and inclusive outlook that favors a civil/secular state operating within a pious society. Post-Islamism may take the form of a critique of the Islamist self or of the Islamism that others embrace; it may historically come after Islamism or may operate simultaneously alongside of it; it may be observed in contemporary times or in the past.

Yet, independent of the analytical inference of the post-, we cannot overlook the historical embeddedness of post-Islamist experience. For doing so would take us to the slippery ground of subjectivism. Simply put, post-Islamism does not emerge out of nowhere; it builds against a historical backdrop. The fact is that even though neo-Mahdist post-Islamism emerged, as El-Affendi contends, long before the recent (1980s and 1990s) wave of Islamist movements, it was built on the experience of, and critically departed from, the earlier Islamism of the Mahdi in the 1880s. Around the same time, Mohammad Abdou, a stretch to be labeled as post-Islamist, launched his “Islamic reformism” not only to fight against Western colonialism but also to construct an Islam that could accommodate and meet the challenge of Western modernity, against which the Muslim traditionalists had little to offer. And today, in a radically different age of globalization, we seem to be entering a new era in the Muslim world where Islamism—stricken by a legitimacy crisis for ignoring and violating people’s democratic rights—is giving way to a different kind of religious polity that takes democracy seriously while wishing to promote pious sensibilities in society. Ours seems to herald the coming of a post-Islamist Muslim world, in which the prevailing popular movements assume a postideological, civil, and democratic character. Iran’s Green Movement and the Arab uprisings represent popular movements of these post-Islamist times. 

[Excerpted from Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam, edited by Asef Bayat, by permission of the editor. Copyright © 2013 Oxford University Press. For more information, or to buy this book, click here.]

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