Language Matters: a post-election Re-reading of Islamist Political Thought



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Language Matters:

A Post-election Re-reading of Islamist Political Thought

Roxanne L. Euben

Mildred Lane Kemper Professor of Political Science

Wellesley College


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Barack Obama’s post-election rhetoric regarding the “Muslim world” has signaled a critical paradigm shift from his predecessor. The new president’s characterization of the United States in his inaugural address as a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers”; his formulation, invoked in several different contexts, that America will offer a hand of friendship to a Muslim world willing to “unclench [its] fist”; the emphasis on his own mixed lineage and experience living in Muslim countries; his pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp; his interview with Al Arabiya; and the promise to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office, all suggest a deliberate attempt to shift away from the hardening rhetoric of a new Cold War between the West and Islam and reframe American foreign policy toward Muslim societies.1 Obama’s rhetoric has enormous symbolic importance even if it has yet to issue in dramatic departures from previous U.S. foreign policies regarding, for example, Hamas or Iran’s nuclear program. At this particular juncture, its significance lies less in the specific policies it may presage or the greater sensitivity to Muslim sensibilities it reveals than in its underlying logic: implicit in these rhetorical gestures is the understanding that, as Obama put it in his interview with Al Arabiya, “the language we use matters,” that words and categories do not simply reflect but also create the world in which we live.

There is perhaps no better illustration of this point than the Manichean worldview Obama’s rhetoric aims to displace, one in which oppositions between us and them, democratic and antidemocratic, tolerant and intolerant, egalitarian and patriarchal are grafted onto a civilizational divide between the West and Islam. Paradoxically, the paradigm of “Islam versus the West” is endorsed and reinforced by those who inject radically different content into each of the opposing terms, from Islamists who see themselves as the forces of light against infidel darkness, to patriots who depict America as God’s bulwark against encroaching heathendom, to proponents of the “clash of civilizations” thesis who posit a future riven into two clearly delineated and constitutively antagonistic cultural traditions (Mahbubani 1992; Huntington 1993, 1996). As this worldview has proliferated and congealed in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to recognize, let alone make sense of, the wealth of information that challenges or disrupts it. In this way, the very opposition between Islam and the West becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, presuming and reinforcing a view of the world in which contradictory, multiple and cross-pollinating histories and identities are pressed into the service of neat binaries that distort rather than illuminate the political landscape ( R. Euben 2002a).

Social theorists, philosophers, translators and linguists have long emphasized the power of language to produce as well as describe human beings’ understandings of the world. By contrast, the polarities that have governed much of popular, policy and even scholarly discourse about Islamism have implicitly or explicitly resisted this very possibility, as has a great deal of Islamist and Muslim discourse about the West. At a moment when a new American president is calling into question many of the shibboleths of the Bush Administration and much seems possible that did not before, it is increasingly critical to ask: what would it mean to take seriously Obama’s argument about the constitutive power of language in our ongoing attempts to name, define, understand and engage Islamism politically? What are the appropriate terminologies, distinctions and methods that enable the complexities and paradoxes of Islamist politics to come into view? How might such an endeavor productively unsettle the Manichean division between Islam and the West, along with the political certainties such categories simultaneously posit and reinforce?

In this paper, I offer necessarily abbreviated and provisional answers to these questions. I do not do so, however, as a prelude to providing policy recommendations or analysis of the factors that inhibit or accelerate the transformation of American foreign policy ideas. My approach is different and my focus is elsewhere. In contrast to the largely positivist scholarship on the subject, a critical premise of the following discussion is that the terminology of “Islam versus the West,” along with homogenizing characterizations of Islamist politics and reductionist Islamist rhetoric regarding the nature and intent of the West, are not just assertions about the world but constitute complex systems of representation. Such systems articulate and define a range of categories and norms; organize human experience into narratives that assemble past, present and future into a compelling interpretive frame; specify the range and meaning of acceptable and desirable practices; and posit identities to which people feel an intense loyalty despite persistent disagreements about the precise object of such allegiance.



In Wittgenstein’s (1980, 64e) language, the grammar of these systems is “really a way of living, or of assessing one’s life...it’s passionately seizing hold of this interpretation.” So understood, the purchase and resilience of such systems depend less upon the strategic advantage they are thought to facilitate or the political interests they express than on the deeply human desire to make sense of the world and locate oneself within a rapidly shifting geo-political landscape. Expressed in and reinforced by the daily linguistic practices of ordinary people as well as pundits and policymakers, this grammar often resists argumentation and counter-evidence because “[w]hat stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it”(Wittgenstein 1969, §144). What this means is that efforts to understand and engage Islamism politically cannot simply dispense with such grammar by reference to all that it misses, distorts and excludes. Practices, commitments and policies embedded within these systems of representation are not relinquished by piling on contradictory evidence but rather, in Linda Zerilli’s (1998, 449) words, by “coming to see differently what has been there all along.”

Toward this end, in the following pages, I first navigate through increasingly confusing matters of terminology and definition. I then go on to argue that careful consideration of the heterogeneity of Islamist arguments shows that Islamists cannot simply be characterized as violent, antidemocratic and oppressive of women, labels invoked so frequently in scholarly and popular literature on the subject that they have become virtually synonymous with Islamist politics. Such characterizations do capture crucial dimensions of Islamist politics, yet they also sidestep the paradoxes its variegated and often contradictory expressions present. Instead, I want to argue that Islamist politics can be productively read in terms of and against the grain of such broad categorizations as antidemocratic, antiwoman or violent, that is, as commitments that, at different moments in various locales, both encourage and constrain broad-based political participation, disrupt and ratify hierarchical gender norms, resist and reproduce state-sanctioned brutality. The point of reading such arguments and practices in this way is not to suggest that Islamists are secretly democratic, feminist and opposed to violence. Rather, the point is to “see differently what has been there all along” by drawing attention to the complexity and contradictions erased by easy generalizations on the one hand, and the often unacknowledged fluidity and cultural adaptability of otherwise familiar political categories on the other. This further suggests that, in the context of mutually constitutive polarities between “civilizations” with supposedly antithetical politics, seeing differently must ultimately entail seeing bi-focally.
Names and Frames

The proposition that “language matters” is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in what might seem to be simple matters of terminology and definition. What I call ‘Islamism’ here has been described in the media and policy circles in numerous other ways, from “Islamic extremism” to “political Islam” to “fundamentalism,” still the most commonly used English term to refer to religio-political movements, Muslim or otherwise.2 In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the array of names for the phenomenon has only proliferated, thereby adding to the terminological confusion. A case in point is “jihadism,” a neologism derived from the Arabic jihad (to struggle, to strive) that is frequently used in the press to denote the most violent strands of Islamism, and specifically those associated with what are alternatively called–depending upon one’s vantage point--“suicide bombings” or “martyrdom operations.” Older terms put to new uses have also gained currency in the years since 9/11: such is the case with “Salafism,” which refers to contemporary Muslims who generally eschew the interpretive methods and norms of the medieval Islamic schools, and take as a guide for proper behavior only the word of God, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, and the example set by the pious forbears.

But there is perhaps no other term with which Islamism has been more closely identified in recent years than “terrorism,” so much so that the two terms and the phenomena they name are often depicted as synonymous (Desai 2007, 23; Richardson 2007, 61ff.). Some of the most violent Islamists clearly do engage in what the U.S. State Department defines as terrorism: “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” (Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d)). Yet inasmuch as many terrorists past and present are neither religious nor Muslim (Bloom 2005; Gambetta 2005; Pape 2005), and Islamists themselves are divided about the legitimacy of terrorist tactics, the terminology of “Islamist terrorism” takes a part for the whole while implicitly collapsing diverse Islamist perspectives about retaliatory action into an argument for violence against non-combatants. While such equations and assumptions have recently gathered steam, they are structured by broader cultural discourses that predate the U.S.-led “War on Terror” by decades and even centuries. As Richard Jackson argues, the field of terrorism studies, Orientalist scholarship on the Middle East, and longstanding Euro-American suspicions about Islam now interact and reinforce one another to produce a discourse on Islamist terrorism that is “highly politicized, intellectually contestable, damaging to community relations and largely counter-productive in the struggle to control subaltern violence in the long run” (Jackson 2007, 395, 397-400).

In contrast to many of these terms and the assumptions animating them, I prefer “Islamism,” perhaps the most widely used term among scholars of Muslim societies.3 I take Islamism to refer to contemporary movements that attempt to return to the scriptural foundations of the Muslim community, excavating and reinterpreting them for application to the contemporary social and political world. Such foundations consist of the Qur’an and the normative example of the Prophet Muhammad (sunna; hadith), which constitute the sources of God’s guidance in matters pertaining to both worship and human relations. In general, Islamists aim at restoring the primacy of the norms derived from these foundational texts in collective life, regarding them not only as an expression of God’s will but an antidote to the moral bankruptcy inaugurated by Western cultural dominance from abroad, aided and abetted by corrupt Muslim rulers from within the umma (Islamic community).

As opposed to those Muslims who primarily seek to cultivate a mystical understanding of the divine (which is not itself devoid of political implications) or who strive to carry on their devotional practices and scholarly pursuits indifferent to their political surroundings, Islamists may be characterized as explicitly and intentionally political, activist, and as engaging in multifaceted critiques of all those people, institutions, practices and orientations that do not meet their standards of this divinely mandated political engagement. Using Max Weber’s (1964, 166) terminology, Islamism is not defined by an “other-worldly” orientation in which salvation requires withdrawal from worldly affairs, but rather a movement in which salvation is possible only through participation in the world, or more precisely “within the institutions of the world, but in opposition to them.”

From Aeneas’ mythical founding of Rome to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to Muhammad’s migration to Medina, foundational narratives are as common to collective life as the movements that periodically arise to revive them and claimants to the mantle of legitimacy they confer. So understood, Islamists’ political aspirations to restore foundations located in a mythical past are far from unique. Nor are Islamists alone in their conviction that scriptural authority is guaranteed by its divine author—for in that all Muslims agree. Rather, what makes Islamist politics distinctive (if not sui generis) is the claim to recuperate an “authentic Islam” comprised of self-evident truths purged of alien and corrupting influences, along with an insistence on remaking the foundations of the state in its image. Given the limits of human understanding relative to God’s knowledge, Islamists simultaneously depict such fidelity to the unadulterated word of Allah as the ultimate expression of deference to divine omniscience, and portray humility as a constitutive feature of the human condition. Aspirations to fully know and master the natural and social worlds thus entail not only a human hubris deaf to the Qur’anic admonition that “Allah knows, but/and you do not know” (Q 3:66), but also a transgression against a divinely-ordained ontological order.



It is notable, however, that the Islamist emphasis on the limits of human knowledge requires humility only in relation to Allah; it rarely yields humility in regard to their own claims to speak in His name, or toward other human beings who dissent from the premise of divine omnipotence and Islamist accounts of what it requires. This suggests that while Islamist challenges to state power are obviously political, the Islamist claim to authenticity is also political in the coercive power it routinely enacts and justifies, most notably by way of the silences it imposes and the debates it forecloses. Aziz al-Azmeh (1993, 41) points out that “the notion of authenticity is not so much a determinate concept as it is a node of associations and interpellations, a trope by means of which the historical world is reduced to a particular order, and a token which marks off social and political groups and forges and reconstitutes historical identities.” Whether in the service of Arab nationalism, Christian fundamentalism, American patriotism, European romanticism or Muslim modernism, then, the claim of authenticity is an act of power that functions not just to reflect the world but to construct it by determining who is included and excluded, who may and may not speak authoritatively, what is the proper realm of debate and what is beyond contestation.

It is certainly the case that a single “Islam” captures and organizes the perspectives of millions who self-identify as Muslim (among other things), yet what travels under its rubric is inescapably diverse, multiethnic, and defined as much by disagreement as consensus. Just as the Torah and Bible lend themselves to at times radically divergent interpretations of what it means to be Jewish or Christian, the Qur’an and hadith are complex and susceptible to many different, and at times contradictory, enactments. So understood, Islam is less a fixed essence than a living tradition that captures what is imagined as continuous and unitary in dialectical relationship to those concrete articulations and practices by which it is transformed and adapted in different contexts for plural purposes. It is precisely this understanding of religion that is anathema to Islamists who seek to fix the parameters of Islamic authenticity once and for all, and thereby arrogate for themselves the right to determine who qualifies as a good Muslim; to discredit those ‘ulama (Muslim scholars) unable or unwilling to purge Islam of purported impieties; to declare nominally Muslim rulers apostates unfit to govern; and to characterize all who disagree as corrupt, heretical, guilty of unbelief, or victims of false consciousness.

These general political tendencies, however, must be carefully situated within a dialectic of the global and the vernacular, understood to reflect the ways in which unifying macrohistorical dynamics inform and are in turn transformed by diverse, contingent and fluid local circumstances. In a world stamped by Western dominance and the consolidation of postcolonial authoritarian regimes, Islamists confront a common set of constraints and challenges. Inasmuch as such constraints and challenges have made Islamist thinkers (often reluctant) participants in conversations across both culture and history, their efforts to remake the foundations of collective life reveal a shared interpretive framework and common religio-political grammar. As I will show in the following sections, however, this frame and grammar are continually being reworked in relation to the distinct public spheres in which Islamists operate and to which they carefully calibrate their political commitments.


Islamism and Democracy

Despite important differences among Islamist thinkers, they have in common a tendency to view human sovereignty as transgressive of divine law, and share the aspiration to establish shari‘a (Islamic law) as the primary or sole source of authority. As is often noted, such premises and aspirations run afoul of the assumptions about popular rule at the heart of democracy, namely, that human beings have the right to legislate rules for collective behavior and are capable of the wisdom required to devise just laws. In recent years, policy makers and commentators have been particularly concerned with the extent to which Islamist notions of divine authority throttle the spirit and practice of popular sovereignty. Some have even gone so far as to characterize Islamists as “Islamo-fascists” animated by hatred of the “democratic West,” psychologically unable to contend with the fluidity and indeterminacy that mark popular rule, and eager to convert elections into a “one-man, one-vote, one-time” mechanism for establishing an Islamic state (Murdock 2002; Rubin 2005; Kramer 1993).

Such views are echoed by those Islamists keen to portray democracy not only as antithetical to the supremacy of divine law but as a Trojan horse for Western imperialism. For many Islamists, democracy is just one symptom of a metastasizing moral and spiritual bankruptcy whereby moral transgressions are transfigured into natural urges, crass self-interest becomes the bedrock of collective life, and the divine plan for the universe and all things in it is reduced to a system of physical causality just waiting to be mastered by way of human ingenuity ( R. Euben 2007). Sayyid Qutb calls this diseased view of the world jahiliyya (age of pre-Islamic ignorance), and it signals not only human arrogance but a transgression against divine authority, the scope of which encompasses both public and private domains of human affairs as well as both visible and unseen dimensions of the universe.4 This transgression is said to be at the root of much of what passes for Muslim rule in the contemporary world, nationalist, democratic and monarchical alike. Islamists also see a pattern of such arrogance underlying a long history of unrelieved Western aggression against Islam in which the Christian Crusades, European colonialism, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, German anti-Turkish violence, the American invasion of Iraq, and Dutch cartoons of Muhammad are but a few examples.

Yet there is a range of views among Islamists about both the substance of democracy and its compatibility with the religio-political renewal they advocate. According to Yusuf al-Qaradawi (1997, 132), for example, “the essence of democracy … is that people choose who rules over them and manages their affairs; that no ruler or regime they dislike is forced upon them; that they have the right to call the ruler to account if he errs and to remove him from office in case of misconduct; and that people are not forced in economic, social, cultural or political directions that they neither recognize nor accept…”5 To him, there is no heavier burden oppressing Muslims of the contemporary world than despotism; indeed, it is through despotic governments that Muslims have been forced to submit to other ills, including the neglect of the shari`a and the coercive imposition of secularism and westernization. Democracy then recommends itself to Qaradawi as the most effective available antidote to despotism and the afflictions of which it serves as a vehicle. Where many among the Islamists and the `ulama (Muslim scholars) have seen considerable tension between Islam and democracy, Qaradawi professes to see none. The rule of the people ought to be seen, he argues, not in opposition to the rule of God, but rather in opposition to the rule of the despot. More fundamentally, Qaradawi’s view of democracy does not necessarily require that the people should be able to overturn divinely instituted norms. Rather, his assumption is that people exercise their sovereignty within constitutional bounds, and Muslims living in a predominantly Muslim democratic polity would, likewise, not wish to transgress the parameters for legitimate human action laid down in the Islamic foundational texts (cf. Feldman 2007).



Nadia Yassine of Morocco’s Justice and Spirituality Association (JSA) is another case in point. While critical of the democratic gestures embraced by a monarchy that she depicts as allergic to genuinely popular sovereignty, Yassine (2005b, 2005c) insists that the model of Muslim rule adumbrated in the umma founded by the Prophet Muhammad and, in particular, the Constitution of Medina is nothing short of democratic.6 Unlike the Muslim dynasties that arose to usurp it, Yassine contends, this community was participatory, egalitarian, committed to freedom and expressive of God’s mercy. Most importantly, it was governed always by the Qur’anic principle of shura (consultation), by which Yassine means a philosophy of power that places sovereignty in the community rather than in any individual; links virtue to deliberation rather than obedience; and exhorts believers to continually adapt Qur’anic principles through ijtihad rather than adhere reflexively to precedent (2006, 182-86, 2005b). Many scholars and journalists remain skeptical of the JSA’s as yet untested commitment to procedural democracy, and worry that Nadia and her father, Abdessalam, ultimately seek to establish an Islamic state inhospitable to tolerance, pluralism and civil liberties (Maghraoui 2001; Brandon 2007; Whitlock 2006). Yet others argue that the JSA is a genuinely populist organization that represents the unrepresented, tends to the welfare of the dispossessed, and both expresses and contributes to an increasingly vibrant civil society in Morocco (Cavatorta 2006; Entelis 2002).

Qaradawi’s and Yassine’s arguments together suggest that democracy can and has been viewed as either a cosmetic cover for despotism or an authentically Islamic check upon corrupt and arbitrary rule. At issue in Islamist arguments for and against democracy, then, are not only what counts as “authentic Islam” and the intentions of those who claim to know it, but also the content and character of democracy itself. Paradoxically, both Islamists opposed to democracy and those who take Islamism as inherently antidemocratic regard this as a simple matter with an obvious answer: democracy is an expression of, and even synonymous with, liberalism, secularism, capitalism and the West. Democracy is both more capacious and more distinct than this presumption suggests, however. The word itself, of course, derives from the ancient Greek demokratia, which means rule (kratos) of the people (demos), and many derive the equation of democracy and the West from this association with classical Greece. The extent to which the ancient Greeks may even be called Western is a matter of great dispute, however, particularly as the West is a category of relatively recent provenance through which history and geography have been retroactively organized.7 In fact, despite depictions of the Hellenic world as Western, ancient Greeks did not view themselves in these terms.8

The equation of democracy with the West also presupposes the existence of a coherent Western civilization with either culturally homogeneous roots or clearly delineated historical and contemporary boundaries, or both. Yet what is called the West is an amalgamation of multiple traditions, including the Greek, Roman, Judaic, Christian and Islamic--traditions that are themselves polyvalent rather than homogeneous—and is today characterized by porous borders, hybrid subcultures and myriad debts to diverse civilizations past and present.9 As a geographic marker, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint exactly where the West begins and ends, and this is especially so now that peoples, information, and material goods crisscross cultural and national borders at will, creating all kinds of transnational, subnational and multiple identities that shift and reconstitute themselves in unpredictable ways. Even those values identified as Western often appear elsewhere in other guises. Indeed, scholars suggest that a variety of the “standards exported by the West and its cultural industries themselves turn out to be of culturally mixed character if we examine their cultural lineages” (Pieterse 1995, 53).

Many also argue that democracy is not only distinct from but in tension with both the theory and practice of politics in “Western” societies, many of which are more accurately classified as liberal and capitalist (Wood 1994; Wolin 2001; Ball and Dagger 1999). While it is now commonplace to speak of “liberal democracy” in a single breath, liberalism and democracy are concepts and practices with very different histories and presuppositions. Unlike democracy, for example, liberalism emerged from the crucible of Christian religious wars, and in tandem with the ascendance of a middle class that presaged the end of European feudalism. The liberal nation-state can thus be viewed as both an expression and consolidation of capitalism, on the one hand, and the principle of a separation between church and state, on the other. By contrast, there is nothing about democracy either as a system of governance or a culture of participation that is inherently secular. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville famously insisted that American democracy cannot be secular, as religion helps shift attention away from immediate material preoccupations to larger concerns of community, cooperation and morality. In fact, many democratic theorists argue that genuinely inclusive popular sovereignty is antithetical to the sharp inequalities of wealth and political power that capitalism often produces and legitimates.

Such ongoing definitional and substantive debates suggest that there is much more at stake in democratic politics than procedures pertaining to government, authority and order, and point to a widespread if elusive understanding of democracy not just as a set of institutions but, as Tocqueville suggests, a way of life. Several political theorists have characterized this elusive understanding in terms of a “democratic ethos,” by which they mean both an ideal and an argument for a culture of participation, active power sharing, mutual accountability, inclusiveness and deliberation in which citizens may routinely and safely challenge not only specific policies and political institutions but also the values that govern collective life, principles of inclusion and exclusion, and the premises of authority itself (Connolly 1995; J.P. Euben 2003; Sadiki 2004). A democratic ethos is much more difficult to measure or quantify than, for example, Samuel Huntington’s (1991) parsimonious definition of democracy as a polity in which there have been two consecutive, peaceful changes of government by way of free and fair elections.10 Yet a democratic ethos makes it possible to both recognize and disaggregate the preconditions, aspirations, mechanisms and institutions bundled into “democracy,” thereby bringing into focus, for example, the frequently antidemocratic cast to elections imposed by elites or foreign powers; the felt impotence of many citizens in established democracies; and those highly-participatory civil societies that flourish even under monarchic or theocratic rule.

For my purposes in particular, a democratic ethos makes visible the paradox of an Islamist movement that seeks to mobilize ordinary Muslims against coercive power, but in the name of a religio-political order largely immunized from challenge. Qutb is an apt illustration here, as his tendency to ground his own special authority and insight in the unsullied wisdom of ordinary believers makes it possible to read his work as either a brief against democracy (among other things) or as an enactment of it. Inasmuch as democracy as a form of governance is identified with popular sovereignty, Qutb’s basic premise that the foundation of legitimate authority must be divine rather than human suggests that he is unambiguously antidemocratic. Moreover, Qutb’s efforts to pluralize religious and political authority express, not a confidence in common wisdom, but rather a desire to claim for himself the stature of a religious expert who, despite his lack of Islamic academic credentials, can clearly see what others cannot. Qutb characterizes the real Islam as self-evident, but he also assumes that only a small vanguard of believers besides himself will have the ability to recognize it and act decisively to remake the world in its image. So understood, the sign of “chosenness” is unyielding commitment to establishing a religio-political order that simultaneously presumes the supremacy of the few capable of true knowledge and promises a world in which dissent itself will become both unnecessary and illegitimate.

Yet if democracy refers not only to a system of governance or set of procedures to realize popular sovereignty but also to practices which disrupt those forces that concentrate power and establish political exclusion, the characterization of Qutb’s work as simply antidemocratic misses a crucial dimension of its significance and appeal. As the sacred texts contain the rules and regulations meant to govern both public and private affairs, Qutb’s insistence that ordinary, untrained Muslims must engage them directly is, in many ways, a democratization of access to authority. Such access can disrupt deeply entrenched patterns of power and powerlessness, particularly when conjoined to prevalent Islamist arguments that arbitrary power is un-Islamic; that religious knowledge depends on commitment rather than training or expertise; that Muslims have the right and obligation to determine when rulers are illegitimate; and that those who prefer order to justice, security to freedom, and money to piety, have forfeited any claim to authority.

This aspect of Islamism has frequently been compared to the Protestant Reformation and, more specifically, to Calvinists’ attempts to transfer “religious authority away from officially sanctioned individuals who interpret texts to ordinary citizens” (Goldberg 1991, 3; also cf. Loimeier 2005).11 Such a parallel has sparked a great deal of scholarly speculation regarding a possible “Islamic Reformation” and a range of arguments about whether and how Islamism might facilitate the democratization of Muslim societies, much as the Protestant Reformation is said to have heralded the emergence of European “liberal-democracy.” While such comparisons are evocative, a fuller understanding of Islamism requires first situating it in relation to a historical shift in the nature and locus of religious authority in Islam beginning in the nineteenth century. As scholars of Muslim societies have pointed out, the impact of mass education, new technologies for disseminating knowledge and information, and dramatically changed social, economic and political contexts have made available to amateurs what had previously been the purview of religious experts. At the same time, it has inaugurated a fragmentation of authority within the very ranks of the ‘ulama that continues to the present day.12 In this context, the ascendance and influence of autodidacts such as Qutb, Hasan al-Banna, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj and Usama bin Laden simultaneously express and accelerate an ongoing renegotiation of authority over who may speak for Islam and on what basis, the path of which is still unfolding and the outcome as yet uncertain.13

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