Political Islam:
Essays from Middle East Report

Joel Beinin + Joe Stork (editors)

University of California Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996 http://dannyreviews.com/
The term "fundamentalism" is problematic enough at the best of times; the combination with "Islamic" is badly abused. The individuals and movements to which it is commonly applied are driven by concerns that are principally secular and political rather than religious (let alone theological). Hence Beinin and Stork's choice of Political Islam as the title for their collection of articles on Islamist politics in the Middle East. This contains twenty six essays and interviews (mostly taken from Middle East Report) divided into five thematic sections, along with introductions to each section and to the volume as a whole.

The subject of the first section is the relationship of Islam to civil society and democracy. A historiographical essay sets the tone for the whole volume with an attack on essentialist approaches to Islam and neo-Orientalist claims that it is inherently antithetical to democracy. This external view is complemented by an essay on Islamic notions of democracy. There are two essays on the situation in Egypt: one describes the actual balance between civil society — in the form of professional associations, religious and secular organisations, and private enterprise — and the state, the other the ideological debate over the status of the shari`a and the political role of Islam. And an interview with one of the editors of Middle East Report presents a feminist view of issues raised by the application of Western notions of civil society to the Arab world.

Four of the essays in part two describe attempts by Islamist movements to gain control of the state: the "Islamic Republic" in Iran (and the extent to which it should in fact be called Islamic), the Reform party in Turkey, the Muslim Brothers and the Islamic Trend in Egypt, and Hizb Allah in Lebanon. Two essays look at economic questions: one is a broad overview of Islamist economics, the other a study of the role of finance in the rise to power of the Sudanese National Islamic Front.

Section three (on gender relations) begins with an overview of the relationship between women, Islam and the state. Two essays describe how wearing of the hijab became a political issue in Gaza and Algeria. An essay on family planning in Iran illustrates the essentially pragmatic stance of the Islamic Republic on women's issues, with debates over reproductive choices motivated by political and economic considerations. The section concludes with a study of women leaders within Sudan's National Islamic Front.

Two of the essays in section four are about popular culture in the narrow sense: one is on the role of Rai and Rap music in French Arab youth identity and the other on the changing portrayal of Islam in drama serials on Egyptian television. Another essay and an interview explore grassroots mobilisation by the FIS in Algeria, in the struggle over public space at the local neighbourhood level and in the contestation of patriotic myths about the independence struggle. The final section, "Movements and Personalities", contains interviews with an Egyptian academic denied tenure after accusations of heresy, the leader of the Egyptian al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya (responsible for attacks on tourists), and a Tunisian intellectual, along with essays on the rise of Hamas in Gaza and the Shi`i movement in Lebanon.

With their focus on individual countries, leaders, and movements, the works in Political Islam do an admirable job of capturing the complexity, diversity, and historical specificity of Islamist politics. Though the interviews provide some variety, the essays are scholarly — most have full references and a majority of the contributors are academics. They avoid jargon, however, and assume neither background knowledge nor complex theoretical frameworks: the result is accessible to the educated layperson with a general knowledge of Middle Eastern politics. I only wish that writing of this quality — and intelligence — were more common in newspapers and magazines.

December 1996

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%T Political Islam
%S Essays from Middle East Report
%E Beinin, Joel
%E Stork, Joe
%I University of California Press
%D 1996
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0520204476
%P x,395pp