Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Historicizing Jihadi Islam: Labels Revisited

In blogging about the MESA session on "The Global Spread of Saudi Islamism," I expressed frustration with the way labels were being seemingly tossed about with different and conflicting implicit meanings. This was not a problem at the AHA session "Historicizing Jihadi Islam," which came close to being all about getting at a way of talking about the various phenomena which fall within the field of Islamic political activism.

First, because it came up, a word about the use of "jihadi" in this context. The commentator, UCLA's Patrick Geary, castigated the panelists for discussing only the militant aspects of jihad. When one looks at what was actually presented, however, they very clearly dealt with the phenomenon that within the Muslim world is popularly called "jihadi," regardless of the theological precision with which the term is bring used. In fact, in the wake of the 18th and 19th century reform movements, groups which practice an aggressive military jihad are likely to oppose Sufism, the strain of Islam within which non-violent jihad has the greatest prominence.

That said, the first speaker was David Commins, whose work on Wahhabi history I blogged about here, talked about "The Changing Form of Jihad in Wahhabi Islam." His argument was much the same as in his book, that al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers from within Wahhabism owe more ideologically to the Islamic revivalism of Sayyid Qutb than to the religious teachings of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab, though in this paper he seemed to avoid the tendency of his book to portray them as actually non-Wahhabi. The key distinction as far as military jihad goes is that for Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the goal was to expand the domain of the Wahhabi community so as to reform religious worship and practices, whereas Qutb's primary nemesis was internal non-Muslim rulers, and the goal was political sovereignty for a community in which Islam was the source of all law. He also talked about the importance of 1980's Afghanistan in bringing Qutbists and Wahhabis together. He also noted that the distinctions he was drawing often blur in practice, which I underlined in my notes even though I'm no longer 100% certain of its context.

Another interesting note is that Commins talked about someone (Nasr al-Fahad?) who is portraying Osama b. Laden as a new Ibn al-Wahhab with the Taliban as the Saudis. Like Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Bin Laden was forced to flee until he found supporters, and like the original Saudi state founded in the 18th century, the Taliban were defeated, temporarily being the implication, by an invading major power.

Thomas Hegghammer's paper was an attempt to define the terms everyone keeps using for Islamic activists, as well as propose a new schema based off the rationales for the activities of various Islamist groups around the world. He began by discussing the four terms which come from within debates within the Islamic world and the meanings they seem to have. "Jihadi" conveys a general sense of militancy, and is usually applied to Sunnis whose goals aren't limited to a particular nation. "Takfiri" is always derogatory, and used to denote extremism. "Salafi," meanwhile is the opposite of "takfiri," and used by people to claim a "primal purity" for their agenda. As I've noted in previous posts, even though it can be and is used by a number of actors, it has come be strongly favored by more literalist and puritanical groups. Finally, there is the "jihadi salafi," which generally refers to transnational militants.

In place of this Hegghammer proposed a fivefold division into groups which had as their primary area of activity the state, nation, umma, moral reform, or the interests of a particular sect. He also drew a cross-cutting division between violent and non-violent groups. This does seem like an analytic advance that could lead to better thinking about these issues among social scientists, of which Hegghammer is one.

Because of the make-up of the crowd, I felt that this was one session where I could learn more from asking my own question than listening to those of others, and so raised the point of whether the fact all three panelists were doing their work in Arabic sources was creating distortions given the diversity of the Muslim world. Hegghammer gave a solid answer than pan-Islamism aspires to Arabness and that the major transnational conversations take place in Arabic. There is perhaps a slight hole here in that it doesn't take into account recruitment conversations, in which a member of Abu Sayyaf tries to get people from a Philippine village to sign on, but its defensible. When you look at the web site of an international group like Hizb ut-Tahrir, Arabic has pride of place.

At the same time, however, the more I think about it the more it seems like trying to label something like "Islamic activism" is too broad. Take, for example, the Gulen Movement. This is one of the largest Islamic movements in the world today, and its leadership deliberately avoids the Arab world. What about Sisters in Islam, the Malaysian Muslim feminist group? Among transnational conservative groups, Hegghammer's typology may work, but the range to which it applies needs itself a clear statement of definition lest we wind up with simply a modified form of the monolithic Islam that the media often seems to talk about.

I haven't mentioned the third panelist, James Gelvin. He mostly talked about his anarchism thing, which is, I gather, not that popular, and seems to be part of a misguided attempt to find what he calls "rules of history." He did, however, call upon scholars to abandon the framework of "terrorology" in looking at militant Islamist movements. This is a call we would do well to heed.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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