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The Islamist Dilemma: The Political Role of Islamist Movements in the Contemporary Arab World.

Reviewed by Bassel F. Salloukh

The contributions collected in this book examine the role played by Arab Islamist movements in domestic and international politics in the Middle East over the last decade. The first part of the book surveys the role of Islamist movements in the domestic political process, while the second looks at the impact of activism (Islamism) on regional and international relations. Definitionally, 'Islamism' does not connote a unitary phenomenon. Rather the term is used to indicate an ideology and to emphasize the conscious choice of Islamic doctrine as a guide in political action.

Laura Guazzone's searching opening chapter synthesizes the main contention of the book. Islamist movements, Guazzone cogently argues, are complex and multi-sided political actors, simultaneously interacting with, and reacting to, different domestic environments, political actors, and regime strategies, in addition to Western discourse and policies toward them. Their appeal is attributed to their ability to 'supply' two commodities on the 'political market' of Arab states: an organic and self-sufficient world view, and an oppositional platform against corrupt regimes. This being the case, Guazzone identifies two 'Islamist dilemmas': how to include Islamist movements advocating illiberal political views in liberalization processes while avoiding the equally objectionable alternatives of an authoritarian status-quo or an Islamist take-over? The second dilemma, of special concern to Western governments, involves reconciling the defense of short-term interests (e.g., the peace process, migratory flows toward Western Europe) with the long-term interest of a more democratic Middle East ruled by governments answerable to their citizens and capable of guaranteeing regional stability. The resolution of these dilemmas involves a paradox: It requires the integration of illiberal Islamist movements in a pluralistic political process which Guazzone hopes will help in the emergence of an alternative to Islamism, and will offer incentives for a liberal political and cultural evolution of these movements.

Most of these ideas are dealt with in greater detail in following chapters. Gudrun Kramer seeks to clarify the conditions under which pragmatic Islamism can be included in the liberalization and democratization process. She concludes that a successful accommodationist strategy requires preventing Islamists from monopolizing intellectual debate and political power. Kramer carefully shows how Islamist activists, like other political actors, base their actions on tactical considerations rather than abstract principles. The difference between the theory and practice of Islamist movements comes out clearly in the case-study chapters focusing on the experience of the FIS in Algeria (by Ahmed Rouadjia), Islamists in Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories (by Iyad Barghouti), and the Sudanese experiment (by Hayder Ibrahim Ali). In the remaining case-studies Abdelbaki Hermassi describes the series of mistakes of Tunis' al-Nahda which ultimately led to its disbanding, and Hala Mustafa describes the failure of the Mubarak regime to deal with its Islamist challenge thus enabling the latter to control the dynamics of the confrontation.

In the second part of the book, Michael Hudson presents a taxonomy of regime responses (the dependent variable) to the Islamist challenge as one way of testing the process of liberalization and democratization in the Arab World. His explanatory variables include the socio-economic environment, the structure of the leadership and ruling elite, and the regime's external relations. Classifying and comparing these responses, Hudson identifies a continuum ranging from forced exclusion (Iraq, Syria), marginalization (Egypt, Tunis), pre-emption (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan), limited accommodation (Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen), to full inclusion. Hudson concludes his chapter by advising a strategy of limited accommodation, not as an end in itself, but as a transitional phase toward the full inclusion of all parties - including Islamists - willing to play by liberal-pluralist rules of the game. From another perspective, Ali Hillal Dessouki examines the impact of Islamism on the Arab state system. His chapter suggests that while an increase in inter-regime cooperation and coordination in combating a common threat has contributed to the de-idealization of regional politics at the top (i.e., regime level), the borders of the Arab regional system remain permeable to the winds of Islamism as Islamist groups in one country cooperate and are inspired by those in another. Furthermore, it is the imperatives of raison d'etat, rather than ideological rigidity, that seem to shape relations between countries belonging to the 'Islamist' camp and those facing domestic Islamist challenges.

Remy Leveau explores the problematic of integrating the urban youth into the political process as a necessary, though insufficient, condition for the stabilization of Arab political systems. Using Morocco as an example, Leveau argues that regimes must break the Islamists' continued ability to monopolize the realm of the imaginaire among the urban youth. The remainder of the book looks at the international dimensions of Islamism. Roberto Aliboni and Sohrab Shahabi investigate the international economic implications of the emergence of Islamist movements in the Arab World. Both agree that economic co-operation between Islamic and Western countries is a viable option. Shireen Hunter's instructive final chapter contrasts Western opinions regarding the causes of the Islamists' anti-Westernism, their character, and goals. Hunter identifies two main clusters of opinion, respectively dubbing them neo-Third-Worldist and neo-Orientalist. She deftly debunks the neo-Orientalist thesis as based on essentialist cultural assumptions. Her sober analysis of this subtle topic defuses alarmist views of the potential long-term Islamist threat to Western interests.

Although its chapters are unbalanced, with some proving more rewarding than others, readers of The Islamist Dilemma will emerge with a better understanding of its complex and timely subject. Its comprehensive bibliography will also prove helpful to students and scholars alike.

William Head and Earl H. Tilford, Jr., Editors. The Eagle in the Desert: Looking Back on U.S. Involvement in the Persian Gulf War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996. 350 pp., with illustrations, abbreviations and acronyms, notes, selected bibliography, and index. Hardcover $24.95.

Bassel F. Salloukh is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science, McGill University, Montreal. He is also a research fellow at the Inter-University Consortium for Arab Studies in the same city.
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Author:Salloukh, Bassel F.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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