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Political Islam and the New Global Economy: The Political Economy of an Egyptian Social Movement

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 111-139 | 10.1353/ncr.2005.0029

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CR: The New Centennial Review 5.1 (2005) 111-139

The Political Economy of an Egyptian Social Movement

Joel Beinin

Stanford University, Stanford, California

Since September 11th, 2001, much ink has been spilled discussing "Islamic fundamentalism" or, ostensibly more authoritatively but not necessarily more precisely, "Wahhabism" and its threat to U.S. national security and Western civilization. The armed radicals of al-Qa'ida and similar groups, while they have received the lion's share of public attention, are only one relatively small component of a broad movement of political Islam that has emerged since the mid-1970s. Proponents of "political Islam" or "Islamists" or "Islamic activists"—I use these terms interchangeably—are Muslims who do not necessarily accept received understandings of the Islamic tradition as the ultimate determinants of contemporary Muslim identity and practice. Rather, they self-consciously seek to refashion that tradition in response to the challenges—however defined—faced by their community and to mobilize Muslim sentiment and identity in support of their vision of a proper Islamic society (White 2002, 23; Wiktorowicz 2004b, 3). Even if that vision is presented as a return to an ideal past, it addresses modern political, economic, and cultural problems. The term "fundamentalism" is inadequate to describe this phenomenon because it suggests a Protestant literalist reading of the Bible that has no analog in Islam and because it implies a backward-looking rather than a modern social movement.

Much of what has been written about political Islam consists of studies of its ideas (Esposito 1983; Kepel and Yann 1990; Voll 1994; Baker 2003). Of course, we do want to know what Islamists think and consider seriously the distinctions among them, unlike those who launched a war on Iraq without appreciating the radically different worldviews of al-Qa'ida and secularist Ba'thism. However, such approaches may overestimate the historical continuity of Islamic ideas and practices and tend to explain contemporary Islamist activism as an expression of a religious essence abstracted from time, place, and social context.

A second current of thought emphasizes psycho-social factors in the formation of political Islam. To the extent that this approach identifies specific grievances that motivate Islamists and enhance their capacity to build a popular base by establishing institutions to ameliorate such grievances, this approach is valuable. However, some analysis in this mode tends to regard Islamism as a form of "false consciousness"—an ideology that inappropriately displaces secular political action (Ibrahim 1996, 37; El Guindi 1981; Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot 1984; Ayubi 1991). Secular nationalists and progressives, who regard the followers of political Islam among the popular classes as properly "their" people, are particularly inclined to these views. A variation on this theme is that Saudi oil money has surreptitiously propagated a radical version of Islam while infiltrating and restructuring national economies (Pipes 1983; Zakariyya 1986; Moensch 1988; Yeşılada 1988/1989). Some proponents of this viewpoint see the cadres of violent elements of Islamist movements as marginal elements of society who reject modernity and suffer from alienation or Durkheimian anomie (Ansari 1984, 123–44; Ibrahim 1996, 36).

In contrast, I argue that changes in the global and regional political economy are linked, although sometimes in unexpected ways, to the reimagination of political community, culture, and identity expressed in the resurgence of Islamism since the early 1970s. Political Islam consists of a family of diverse and even internally contradictory social movements with a broad base beyond its violent radical fringes that have recently occupied the attention of the West. People of disparate classes and geographic regions who differ in religious practices, political affiliations and voting patterns, and economic and social visions all claim the banner of "Islam."

This argument builds on the work of those who have analyzed political Islam as urban, or in the case of Upper Egypt, provincial, protest movements (Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot 1984; Fandy 1994; Ismail 2000). I also acknowledge the effort, begun in the early 1980s and then relatively neglected for two decades, to understand political Islam through the lens of network or social movement theory (Ibrahim 1982; Denoeux 1992, 1993; Wiktorowicz 2004a; Clark 2004). This method partly explains the successes of Islamist movements in mobilizing...

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