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Why academics can't get beyond moderates and radicals

- February 12, 2015

Protesters from the Islamic Action Front Party and other opposition parties gesture with their chained hands as they demand political reforms in Amman, Jordan, on Oct. 5, 2012. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.
For much of the past decade, analyses of Islamist groups have been organized around a distinction between moderates and radicals. Analysts and scholars have never agreed on precise definitions of either, but the distinction has largely been used as a point of departure. In the post-Arab-uprisings Middle East, with sectarianism increasingly salient and the Islamic State (also called ISIS) altering the landscape of jihadism, scholars should ask whether these categories continue to provide the kind of analytic traction that made them valuable in the past. The constant pressure on scholars of Middle East politics to respond to a growing wave of Islamophobia has complicated efforts to rethink these categories. Public engagement is a vital part of the academic mission, but has our need to constantly reiterate in public that all Muslims are not Islamists and that most Islamists are moderate constrained our scholarly analyses by forcing us to retreat into the language of moderates and radicals?
Much of my own work on Islamists has embraced the idea that the distinction between moderates and radicals is both analytically useful and empirically accurate. In 1996, during an early stage of my research for “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen,” a member of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood expressed exasperation with then-recent “regulations” promulgated by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including a law that a man must have a beard at least a fist in length. I hadn’t raised the topic, but he conveyed that he had been speaking with colleagues about the Taliban earlier that day, and he said to me, “Well I guess this means that I’m not a good Muslim!” Indeed, by that standard, most male members of the Muslim Brotherhood – for whom a mustache seemed to be a favored aesthetic choice for facial hair – were not “good” Muslims. For the whole of my period of field research in the mid- and late-1990s, moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, were easily distinguishable and also highly antagonistic toward the other.
Hamas and Hezbollah raised a small conceptual bump: Critics who opposed describing them as moderate were quick to point to their use of violence, which therefore must put them into the radical category; others, myself included, noted that they were largely moderate in their domestic context and used violence only (at that time) against an external occupier (Israel). (In recent years, Hezbollah has turned increasingly toward using violence against domestic challengers.) Conceptually, most groups could still be situated fairly easily in the moderate-radical binary that held currently in the literature.
These concepts were then put to use in a range of analyses about moderate and radical Islamists. But many of the “puzzles” that animated that larger research agenda actually resulted from of the construction of the concepts themselves. By this I mean that once we (as scholars) settled on a common-sense distinction between moderates and radicals, a whole set of research questions flowed forth, largely about the morphing, transition or evolution from one to the other. Moderates and radicals were no longer concepts that facilitated understanding: They were empirical categories, and our scholarship focused on a range of questions stemming from that distinction. We examined the inclusion-moderation hypothesis, the exclusion-radicalization hypothesis, the exclusion-moderation hypothesis, auto-reform, the conveyor belt, the firewall, de-radicalization and so on. Each of these was primarily concerned with explaining either a group’s characterization and/or its movement from one position to another. My April 2011 review essay in World Politics underlined the staying power of this paradigm in scholarly literature, and the mass of manuscripts sent to me for review by journals and publishers suggests these debates are still thriving.
Great stuff, to be sure. But I have always felt uneasy with those categories and debates – even as I participated actively in them – because the empirical reality felt more like a complex spread of positions across multiple issues than a single continuum with moderate at one end and radical at the other. But because these analyses also spoke to policy concerns as well as liberal anxieties about “them” – anxieties sometimes held by scholars as much as policymakers and publics – the language of moderates and radicals thrived. At the very least, it worked well to distinguish groups that posed threats (to us or our beliefs, whatever that means) and groups that did not.
Along the way, of course, other concepts emerged, some taking a cue from how Islamists described themselves and others were devised more exclusively by scholars. Of the former, for example, we started employing the concept of jihadis (rather than radicals or extremists) for groups that prioritized a particular interpretation of jihad – some self-described as jihadi while others did not. Concepts like Asef Bayat’s use of “post-Islamism” emerged to capture what he argued was a significant change in Islamist politics in Iran: a form of political Islam that differed significantly from conventional definitions of Islamism as political actors who frame their projects in terms of the implementation of sharia in all aspects of life, including at the government level. Instead, Bayat saw a public that wanted religion to play a central role in public life but that embraced an Islam of pluralism and individuality rather than obedience and duties. When our existing concepts were not doing the heavy lifting, if you will, in capturing particular phenomena, we tried out new ones: quietist, Salafi-jihadi, quiescent jihadi, Wahhabi, Ikhwani, literalist, contextualist, accommodationist, non-accommodationist, centrist, wasati, reformist, revolutionary, conservative, traditional, pro-regime conservative, Islamo-liberal, state Islamism, official Islam, post-Islamism and so on. But despite all this conceptual innovation, the moderate-radical conceptual universe still dominates the discourse.
So why have these concepts stuck? In part, they have enabled us to produce an important and interesting set of debates, and they continue to make good sense analytically. But their persistence is also affected by the Islamophobia spreading rapidly if largely outside of the academy – on conservative news and talks shows, by certain think tanks and among a public aware (if not watching) the spectacles of fellow nationals being beheaded. (Beheadings, like many punishments adopted by the Islamic State, are also carried out by the regime of Saudi Arabia, a point not lost on academics but systematically overlooked in the mainstream U.S. media, as if posting a video of the event makes the act itself less barbaric.)
When people see the Islamic State they see “Islam,” and they are afraid. In response, we feel rightly compelled to use our positions in the academy and as published professors as platforms to fight the demonization of an entire faith due to the horrific acts of a tiny minority. Ethically, it is right that we should do so, and perhaps it is even our responsibility. But when I speak against Islamophobia to media, at public events, in student forums and so on, I find myself pretty consistently falling into the language of moderates and radicals, noting (correctly) that most Muslims are not Islamists and that most Islamists are moderate and not radical. It makes me sad and exhausted to even need to assert, yet again, that the vast majority of Muslims reject jihadi extremism – just as the vast majority of people of any faith reject similar violence done in the name of their faith. But extremist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been a game-changer in terms of public debate, and we may sadly need to speak against Islamophobia for years to come.
Have the ways in which we frequently seek to respond to Islamophobia – that is, by reasserting the distinction between moderates and radicals – also unintentionally ensured the dominance of that framework in our scholarship? Put plainly, do the best terms for engaging as public intellectuals also provide the most promising frameworks for advancing scholarly analysis? I think probably not. Scholars already overwhelmingly agree that jihadi views are accepted by only a tiny portion of all Muslims, so we do not need to reassert that point in our scholarship. I have previously argued that we should stop citing Islamophobic arguments as if they reflect legitimate and respectable arguments put forth by serious scholars. Although it still has currency in some circles outside of academia, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” for example, is a sloppy piece of scholarship that has been taken to pieces in numerous reviews for its innumerable historical inaccuracies and its spurious causal assertions about clashing civilizations. When scholars cite such works in our scholarship, we elevate its status by treating it as if it demands a serious scholarly engagement. We need to stop allowing our responses to Islamophobia to hold back our scholarly work.
If we can put aside Islamophobia and have a conversation among scholars (who are not limited to those employed in academia or think tanks, or even to those with advanced degrees), where do we start? I see much happening in the region for which I do not find our existing frameworks and concepts entirely satisfying. In no particular order, here are some issues with which I think we need to contend:
The Islamic State: I am confident in labeling the Islamic State a radical and extremist organization. But there seem to be important distinctions among groups in the radical category that we want to attend to in our analyses. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are at odds with each other, so is “jihadi” still the right category? Should we speak of “caliphi jihadis” for IS and its followers and “non-caliphi jihadis” for al-Qaeda? Or should we just note that IS sparked a division among many jihadis around questions relating to shura and the caliphate? To pose a familiar but extremely useful research question, “What is IS a case of?”
Public support for the Islamic State: What do we make of the public opinion from the region that a non-trivial percentage of “ordinary” (non-Islamist) Muslims do not view the Islamic State as a terrorist organization? While scholars largely reject “terrorist” as a category of actors and speak instead of political violence as something certain actors do, we should not overlook the data itself. Do our existing frameworks really help us understand complex positions of public opinion? We might fall back on explanations of how terrible U.S. foreign policy decisions have played a role in the growth of certain such groups – a connection that is pretty unquestionable. But those arguments do not really advance our understanding of what is happening now.
Salafi political parties: One striking development during the Arab uprisings that began in 2010-2011 was the organization of Salafi groups into political parties, notably in Tunisia and Egypt. But as formerly quiescent groups that do not espouse the use of political violence, I am not sure how to categorize them other than as simply “Salafi political parties.” They meet the criteria for “moderate” of most if not all of the definitions, but it hardly feels right to put them into the same analytic cluster as the Muslim Brotherhood. Do we need new categories, or just more adjectives?
Internal Muslim Brotherhood dynamics: We have long known that the Muslim Brotherhood groups in different countries do not constitute a monolith, but all of them have been characterized as moderate. Scholars who follow the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have long asserted the need to distinguish between different generations or trends within the Brotherhood; scholars of the group in Jordan have written about the tensions and internal battles between Hawks and Doves. Do these internal dynamics render the overall term moderate less useful? As these groups are pulled in different directions, are different categories needed? If many of the wasati (centrist) and progressive members have left the Egyptian and Jordanian branches of the group, for example, is the remainder still “moderate” in the same way?
State-led Islamic politics: Numerous scholars have written about state-led Islamization, but this literature has not yet cohered into a larger set of propositions. How might we think of Islamist politics internal to states? For example, does it make sense to compare strong state Islamism (e.g., Iran, Saudi Arabia), weak state Islamism (e.g., Morocco, Turkey, Jordan) and the Islamic State’s attempt to actually create a new Islamist state? That sentence took me about 30 minutes to write because I was struggling with how to categorize different kinds of state-led “Islamist” projects. I am not sure that my categorization is adequate, but I think some intellectual effort in thinking this through could be very exciting and fruitful.
Official Anti-Muslim Brotherhoodism: What are we to make of the vilification of the Muslim Brotherhood by so many regimes in the region? With Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates branding the group as a terrorist organization and supporting the violent repression of the Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan’s Brotherhood is struggling to hold itself together and maintain a “positive” relationship with the regime – a relationship that has never really been good since King Abdullah II took the throne. Following the burning to death of a Jordanian pilot in a cage by the Islamic State, the king may well find good reason to keep the Brotherhood closer in order to marginalize Islamic State supporters as threats to the regime. But the longstanding tolerance of the Brotherhood by some regimes is definitely breaking down. Does it still make sense to think of oppositional Islamist groups separate from the analysis of state-led Islamist projects? Can we speak of Islamized state repression?
Sectarianism: Sectarianism is on the rise and not going anywhere soon, sadly. Here is a hypothesis: States play as large a role in the production of sectarian tensions (think Saudi Arabia and Iran) as do non-state actors. Is that assertion correct? We have largely bracketed the discussion of sectarianism (e.g., studies of Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain) from discussions of political Islam, focusing instead on power rivalries (at the state and non-state level) and the impact of institutional arrangements in exacerbating sectarian tensions (the structure of parliament and other governing institutions, for example, in Lebanon and Iraq). Is it a mistake to drop the discussion of political Islam from discussions of sectarianism?
Tribal conservatism: I was always uncomfortable distinguishing “Islamist” and “tribal” branches of the Islah party in Yemen because many “Islamists” have tribal connections and many tribal members, hold highly conservative religious views. With the discussion of tribes growing due to events in Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Iraq, should we think more about the relationship between tribal and Islamist politics? As the Houthis take control of the Yemeni government, is this a case of competing power groups? Of contending visions of Islam in politics? Tribal politics? All of the above? None of the above?
Repression: The literature on repression and radicalism tells us to expect that President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s extreme repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will likely lead to the emergence of a radicalized and militant underground Islamist movement over the next several years. Perhaps it might result from members who break away from the group, as it did in the 1970s with the Islamic Jihad groups departing from the Brotherhood’s moderate commitments to gradual reform. Or perhaps it will emerge from entirely outside of the Brotherhood. The collective wisdom of decades of scholarship on exclusion and radicalism tells us, however, that some kind of extremist movement will emerge. Is an end to state repression the only way to stop this process? What specific mechanisms might push trends in the other direction?
Beyond groups: The focus in the scholarship on groups and how they compare has produced important insights but also obscured many other processes. Here I want to reiterate a point that I have made previously: We should not exclusively make groups and movements the object of our studies of Islamist politics. It is certainly useful to distinguish differences between, for example, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State, but if we really want to shake up our assumptions, categories and theories – and thus generate the kinds of new insights that we can use to build and text new theories and propositions – we would do well to not only explore new typologies for Islamist groups, but to instead make different kinds of practices and processes as our objects of analyses. For example, we might study protests in general and allow the role of Islamists to emerge more organically in our analyses. We could examine questions of gender, neoliberal reforms and the spread of social media and see when and how Islamist groups or Islamist politics emerge into our analyses, rather than study Islamist views on gender, Islamist views on neoliberal reforms or Islamist use of social media.
I am not sure that our concepts and propositions should be abandoned entirely, nor am I arguing that no one should ever make groups and movements the focus of their analyses. Rather, I am hoping we can make explicit the ways in which certain categories have dominated our analyses and think through whether or not there is more insight to be gained by refining or by abandoning them. The uprisings have provided fascinating cases to advance the existing set of debates, but they have also afforded us an opportunity to shake up our approaches and, in particular, to ask whether many of the common-sense distinctions and concepts that structure our analytic frameworks should be revised or even retired. At the very least, we can weaken the effects of Islamophobia on our scholarship, even if we are forced to contend with it in other realms.
Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is author of “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen” (Cambridge University Press, 2006), editor of “Understanding the Contemporary Middle East” (Lynne Rienner, 2013) and co-editor of “Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion” (Hurst, 2010).