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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 21.1-2 (2001) 125-131

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Violence and Terrorism:

Feminist Observations on Islamist Movements, State, and the International System

The horrific events of September 11, the discovery of a transnational network of Islamic extremists, and the U.S. bombardment of Afghanistan compel us to think seriously about the causes of religious terrorism, the broad implications of violence and militarism, the nature of Islamic fundamentalist movements, and the gender dynamics of political violence. What are the religious, ethnic, political, social, and economic factors behind the deployment of terrorism as a political strategy? Why do Muslim countries produce movements that seek religio-political objectives through violent means? What link, if any, is there between terrorism as a political strategy and militarism as a state strategy? How might the violence of political movements and the violence of states reflect not only dysfunction in domestic and international relations but also highly problematic concepts of masculinity? Finally, what are some urgent alternatives to terrorism and militarism?

These are, I believe, some of the pressing questions that confront and require serious attention from researchers, policy-makers, and decision-makers.1 I cannot begin to provide answers or explanations to all of the above questions and issues.2 I will, however, address the gender aspects of terrorism and violence and describe some feminist alternatives. And because political Islam has been implicated in the events of September 11, I will briefly explore the roots, gender dynamics, and some characteristics of Islamist movements.

Fundamentalist Movements: Modernization, Globalization, and Gender

The Islamic fundamentalist movements of the 20th century may be understood first in terms of general historical and sociological concepts that pertain to similar movements and then in terms of the specific historical, social, and political contexts in which they emerged.3 Like the Protestant fundamentalist movements of the United States in the early twentieth century, Islamic fundamentalist movements have resulted from the contradictions of modernization and social change, including urbanization, proletarianization, secularization, and religious and social marginalization. In a social order that seems to be turning upside down, certain social groups experience anxiety that leads them to seek to recuperate the more familiar values and norms. The (re)turn to religion and the family are typical responses to rapid social change and to the disruptions and uncertainties that modernization brings about. Religious fundamentalists are almost by definition extremely conservative on moral, cultural, and social issues, and in almost all cases they are situated on the right wing of the political spectrum.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Islamic fundamentalist movements emerged in the 1970s, expanded during the 1980s, and peaked in the early 1990s. Certainly they reflected the difficult transition to modernity underway in the region and the conflict between traditional and modern norms, relations, and institutions. Moreover, in common with radical movements elsewhere in the developing world, Islamist movements grew from political and economic dysfunction, insecurity, and alienation. In particular, we may identify several factors in their emergence.

National and global economic factors loom large in the causes of religio-political revolts. These include distorted development, the unrealized promise of national development, and the persistence or growth of domestic and international inequalities. Some fundamentalist movements (e.g., in Iran, Egypt, and Algeria) have targeted both their own nation-states and the world capitalist order as sources of injustice—and claimed that the solution would be an Islamic order.4 Disparities and inequalities within countries have been associated with corruption or declining oil revenues or misguided resource allocation priorities (such as huge military purchases). They also resulted from the austerities that accompanied the adoption of structural adjustment policies. It should be noted that political Islam emerged as the global political economy shifted from Keynesian to neoliberal, and it followed the collapse of talks on a new international economic order (NIEO).

Salient political factors include authoritarian rule, the absence of democratic or participatory political institutions, limited alternatives for pursuing political reform, and...


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