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Reviewed by:
  • Political Islam: A Critical Reader
  • Issa J. Boullata (bio)
Political Islam: A Critical Reader, ed. by Frédéric Volpi. London and New York: Routledge, 2011. 471 pages. $49.95 paper.

“Political Islam” and “Islamism” are used interchangeably in this book to refer to the phenomenon in the contemporary world whereby some present-day Muslims believe that Islam as a faith calls for a specific way to organize society and that they should seek to implement it politically, using violence if needed. This phenomenon has attracted the world’s attention, notably since the spectacular 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, with their symbolic effects on international public opinion and the rise of the so-called “war on terror” thereafter. Scholars have studied this phenomenon in many recent works, concentrating on various aspects of it.

Frédéric Volpi of the University of St. Andrews has done a great service in editing this book by selecting the finest scholarship on the subject published in the last ten years or so. The post-publication events of the Arab Spring in 2011 may call for an emphasis on some notions in this book, but the volume remains a most comprehensive overview of political Islam to date and is of great help to students at all levels, and even to some bewildered politicians and diplomats.

After an enlightening general introduction by Volpi, the book has seven other thematically-arranged sections, each beginning with a sectional introduction by him, followed by several excellent selections from recent journal articles and books by renowned writers on political Islam, and ending with a relevant list of sources for further reading on the section’s topic. In turn, each section deals with a specific theme: an explanation of the nature and aims of Islamism, a history of the rise of Islamist groups, a description of the political responses to them, an analysis of how these groups fare in societies where democracy and multiculturalism are the norm, and a description of their resort to political violence and terrorism; after a section discussing the present-day globalization of Islamism, the book ends with an assessment of its future, giving an idea that political Islam, as it readjusts to changing conditions, is not as dire as many suspect.

The 30 essays are interesting to read. The contributors have new things to offer — some by their data based on field research and the latest press; others by their analysis based on the most recent theories of sociology, religious anthropology, and political science; and others by their insights based on long experience and historical investigation. As may be expected, there are diverse points of view, and this makes for enlightening perspectives on the scholars’ methods as well as on the complex phenomenon of Islamism in the contemporary world. The lists of sources for further reading after each section are a veritable treasure trove for learners. [End Page 382]

Two sections in particular are intriguing: Section Five on “Islamist movements in multicultural settings” and Section Seven on “The globalization of Islamism.”

The former has five selections discussing the situation of contemporary Muslims in Western countries, where they are minorities wanting to be part of those countries and also to retain their religious identity. John R. Bowen, author of Can Islam be French? (Princeton, 2009), describes how Islam struggles as a transnational public space in a secular society and how it negotiates a successful ambience. Other scholars in this section show how Islam in the diaspora develops new imaginaries, and others how it often makes efforts to achieve and accept disconnection between religion and culture.

The latter section on globalization has four selections. In one of them, Peter Mandaville, starting from the fact that Islam from its inception has been conceived as a global ummah, shows how IT (information technology) is used by contemporary Muslims in the West — and now increasingly in traditionally Muslim-majority regions — to reimagine the ummah and change the boundaries of political Islam. Other scholars in this section show how IT is used not only to buttress the belief in the unity of the world’s ummah but also to instill civic virtue and to impart religious reason...


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pp. 382-383
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