A New Book on the Islamic State

The Islamic State (or ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) had a meteoric rise in 2014 and at one point controlled a sizable territory in Iraq, in which it attempted to reimpose classical Islamic law, including dhimmi restrictions on Christians and other non-Muslims. The group has lost its territory since then, but no doubt plans a comeback. A new book from Stanford University Press, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, assesses the group. The author is journalist Abdel Bari Atwan. The publisher’s description follows.

Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) stunned the world when it overran an area the size of Great Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in a matter of weeks and proclaimed the birth of a new Caliphate. In this timely and important book, Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics to reveal the origins and modus operandi of Islamic State.

Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, Islamic State outlines the group’s leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. Atwan traces the Salafi-jihadi lineage of IS, its ideological differences with al Qaeda and the deadly rivalry that has emerged between their leaders. He also shows how the group’s rapid growth has been facilitated by its masterful command of social media platforms, the “dark web,” Hollywood blockbuster-style videos, and even jihadi computer games, producing a powerful paradox where the ambitions of the Middle Ages have reemerged in cyberspace.

As Islamic State continues to dominate the world’s media headlines with horrific acts of ruthless violence, Atwan considers the movement’s chances of survival and expansion and offers indispensable insights on potential government responses to contain the IS threat.

Popular Sovereignty in Islam

We start the week with an interesting-looking book from Harvard on how Islamist movements have adopted popular sovereignty–an idea unknown in classical Islam–as a main element of their political programs. In classical Islam, Islamic law was the domain of scholars, who had authority to guide the ruler, or caliph, in governing the umma. But many contemporary Islamist movements distrust, or at least diminish, the role of scholars. Instead, these movements argue that the Muslim people have the authority to instantiate God’s law and govern society in a godly way. This is a real transformation in Islamic thought, with major implications. The book is The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought, by political scientist Andrew March (University of Massachusetts-Amherst). The publisher’s description follows:

A political theorist teases out the century-old ideological transformation at the heart of contemporary discourse in Muslim nations undergoing political change.

The Arab Spring precipitated a crisis in political Islam. In Egypt Islamists have been crushed. In Turkey they have descended into authoritarianism. In Tunisia they govern but without the label of “political Islam.” Andrew March explores how, before this crisis, Islamists developed a unique theory of popular sovereignty, one that promised to determine the future of democracy in the Middle East.

This began with the claim of divine sovereignty, the demand to restore the sharīʿa in modern societies. But prominent theorists of political Islam also advanced another principle, the Quranic notion that God’s authority on earth rests not with sultans or with scholars’ interpretation of written law but with the entirety of the Muslim people, the umma. Drawing on this argument, utopian theorists such as Abū’l-Aʿlā Mawdūdī and Sayyid Quṭb released into the intellectual bloodstream the doctrine of the caliphate of man: while God is sovereign, He has appointed the multitude of believers as His vicegerent. The Caliphate of Man argues that the doctrine of the universal human caliphate underpins a specific democratic theory, a kind of Islamic republic of virtue in which the people have authority over the government and religious leaders. But is this an ideal regime destined to survive only as theory?

MacEachern, “Searching for Boko Haram”

9780190492526

Remember the Chibok girls? In 2014, the African Islamist group, Boko Haram, kidnapped hundreds of girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, instigating a world-wide campaign to prevail upon the group to “Bring Back Our Girls.” Four years later, half the girls are still missing. The world’s attention span, sadly, is very short.

A new book from Oxford University Press, Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa, by Bowdoin College anthropologist Scott MacEachern, traces the history of the group, which, he argues, has centuries-old roots. The publisher’s description follows:

For the past decade, Boko Haram has relentlessly terrorized northeastern Nigeria. Few if any explanations for the rise of this violent insurgent group look beyond its roots in worldwide jihadism and recent political conflicts in central Africa.

Searching for Boko Haram is the first book to examine the insurgency within the context of centuries, millennia even, of cultural change in the region. The book surveys the deep history of the lands south of Lake Chad, richly documented in archaeology and texts, to show how ancient natural and cultural events can aid in our understanding of Boko Haram’s present agenda. The land’s historical narrative stretches back five centuries, with cultural origins that plunge even deeper into the past. One important feature of this past is the phenomenon of frontiers and borderlands. In striking ways, Boko Haram resembles the frontier slave raiders and warlords who figure in precolonial and colonial writings on the southern Lake Chad Basin. Presently, these accounts are paralleled by the activity of smugglers, bandits (coupeurs de route–“road cutters”), and tax evaders. The borderlands of these countries are today places where the state often refuses to exercise its full authority because of the profits and opportunities illicit relationships afford state officials and bureaucrats. For the local community, Boko Haram’s actions are readily understandable in terms of slave raids and borderlands. They are not mysterious and unprecedented eruptions of violence and savagery, but–as the book argues–recognizable phenomena within the contexts of local politics and history.

Written from the perspective of an author who has worked in this part of Africa for more than thirty years, Searching for Boko Haram provides vital historical context to the recent rise of this terroristic force, and counters misperceptions of their activities and of the region as a whole.

Amanat, “Iran”

eb374ed35a2bef6b09d45e9c84080a42Looking back from the perspective of forty years, the Iranian Revolution appears more and more as a turning point in world history. The Shia political resurgence encouraged similar Islamist movements in the Sunni world as well; and those movements have shaped the politics of the Mideast, and the world, ever since. A new history from Yale University Press, Iran: A Modern History, discusses the Revolution and other aspects of Iranian culture and history since the 16th century. The author is Yale historian Abbas Amanat. Here’s a description from the Yale website:

A masterfully researched and compelling history of Iran from 1501 to 2009

This history of modern Iran is not a survey in the conventional sense but an ambitious exploration of the story of a nation. It offers a revealing look at how events, people, and institutions are shaped by currents that sometimes reach back hundreds of years. The book covers the complex history of the diverse societies and economies of Iran against the background of dynastic changes, revolutions, civil wars, foreign occupation, and the rise of the Islamic Republic.

Abbas Amanat combines chronological and thematic approaches, exploring events with lasting implications for modern Iran and the world. Drawing on diverse historical scholarship and emphasizing the twentieth century, he addresses debates about Iran’s culture and politics. Political history is the driving narrative force, given impetus by Amanat’s decades of research and study. He layers the book with discussions of literature, music, and the arts; ideology and religion; economy and society; and cultural identity and heritage.

Salazar, “Words Are Weapons”

7750a0573a62c46fce179f78d9b48006A bishop once explained to me the rhetorical appeal of Islam to the Christians of late antiquity this way. “Think of the Nicene Creed,” he said. “It goes on for paragraphs and is so complex that it takes years of study really to understand it. What does it say to the average person?” Whereas the Islamic profession of faith, the Shahada, is powerfully concise — only a sentence long. “Think how appealing that must have been to Byzantine Christians tired of theological dispute.” A forthcoming book from University of Cape Town scholar Phillipe-Joseph Salazar, Words are Weapons: Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror (Yale) addresses the power of words, including the Shahada, in the appeal of the Islamic State today. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

 The first book to offer a rigorous, sophisticated analysis of ISIS’s rhetoric and why it is so persuasive

ISIS wages war not only on the battlefield but also online and in the media. Through a close examination of the words and images ISIS uses, with particular attention to the “digital caliphate” on the web, Philippe-Joseph Salazar theorizes an aesthetic of ISIS and its self-presentation. As a philosopher and historian of ideas, well versed in both the Western and the Islamic traditions, Salazar posits an interpretation of Islam that places speech—the profession of faith—at the center of devotion and argues that evocation of the simple yet profound utterance of faith is what gives power to the rhetoric that ISIS and others employ. At the same time, Salazar contends that Western discourse has undergone a “rhetorical disarmament.” To win the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism, Western democracies, their media, politicians, and counterterrorism agencies must consider radically changing their approach to Islamic extremism.

Karagiannis, “The New Political Islam”

15749This looks like an interesting book. In The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy, and Justice, Emmanuel Karagiannis (King’s College London) argues that political Islam, notwithstanding its monolithic reputation in the West, is actually a multi-faceted phenomenon. Islamist groups, he maintains, take concepts that are current in contemporary globalist ideology, like human rights and democracy, and adapt them to local conditions. The result is a political movement with a recognizable core but different local expressions. The book will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press this coming December. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Islamist political parties and groups are on the rise throughout the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in the West. Owing largely to the threat of terrorism, political Islam is often portrayed as a monolithic movement embodying fundamentalism and theocracy, an image magnified by the rise of populism and xenophobia in the United States and Europe. Reality, however, is far more complicated. Political Islam has evolved considerably since its spectacular rise decades ago, and today it features divergent viewpoints and contributes to discrete but simultaneous developments worldwide. This is a new political Islam, more global in scope but increasingly local in action.

Emmanuel Karagiannis offers a sophisticated analysis of the different manifestations of contemporary Islamism. In a context of global economic and social changes, he finds local manifestations of Islamism are becoming both more prevalent and more diverse. Many Islamists turn to activism, still more participate formally in the democratic process, and some, in far fewer numbers, advocate violence—a wide range of political persuasions and tactics that reflects real and perceived political, cultural, and identity differences.

Synthesizing prodigious research and integrating insights from the globalization debate and the literature on social movements, The New Political Islam seeks to explain the processes and factors leading to distinctive fusions of “the global” and “the local” across the landscape of contemporary political Islam. Examining converts to Islam in Europe, nonviolent Islamists with global reach, Islamist parties in Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia, and militant Shia and Sunni groups in Syria and Iraq, Karagiannis demonstrates that Islamists have embraced ideas and practices from the global marketplace and have attempted to implement them locally. He looks closely at the ways in which Islamist activists, politicians, and militants have utilized the language of human rights, democracy, and justice to gain influence and popular support and to contend for power.

 

Wright, “The Terror Years”

9780804170031Last month, Penguin Random House released the paperback edition of The Terror Years: From Al Qaeda to the Islamic State, by journalist Lawrence Wright. Wright’s 2007 work about 9/11, The Looming Tower, deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize, and this book, which picks up from where the earlier book left off, looks very worthwhile. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

These powerful investigative pieces, which take us from the religious police of Saudi Arabia to the rise of the Islamic State, comprise an essential primer on jihadist movements in the Middle East—and the attempts of the West to contain them. In these pages, Lawrence Wright examines al-Qaeda as it experiences a rebellion from within and spins off a growing web of worldwide terror. He shows us the Syrian film industry before the civil war—compliant at the edges but already exuding a barely masked fury. He gives us the heart-wrenching story of American children kidnapped by ISIS—and Atlantic publisher David Bradley’s efforts to secure their release. And he details the roles of key FBI figures John O’Neill and his talented protégé Ali Soufan in fighting terrorism. In a moving epilogue, Wright shares his predictions for the future. Rigorous, clear-eyed, and compassionate, The Terror Years illuminates the complex human players on all sides of a devastating conflict.

Idrissa, “The Politics of Islam in the Sahel”

In June, Routledge will release The Politics of Islam in the Sahel: Between Persuasion and Violence by Rahmane Idrissa (University of the Witwatersrand). The publisher’s description follows:

routledge-logo‘Ideologies need enemies to thrive, religion does not’. Using the Sahel as a source of five comparative case studies, this volume aims to engage in the painstaking task of disentangling Islam from the political ideologies that have issued from its theologies to fight for governmental power and the transformation of society. While these ideologies tap into sources of religious legitimacy, the author shows that they are fundamentally secular or temporal enterprises, defined by confrontation with other political ideologies–both progressive and liberal–within the arena of nation states. Their objectives are the same as these other ideologies, i.e., to harness political power for changing national societies, and they resort to various methods of persuasion, until they break down into violence.

The two driving questions of the book are, whence come these ideologies, and why do they–sometimes–result in violence? Ideologies of Salafi radicalism are at work in the five countries of the Sahel region, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, (Northern) Nigeria and Senegal, but violence has broken out only in Mali and Northern Nigeria. Using a theoretical framework of ideological development and methods of historical analysis, Idrissa traces the emergence of Salafi radicalism in each of these countries as a spark ignited by the shock between concurrent processes of Islamization and colonization in the 1940s. However, while the spark eventually ignited a blaze in Mali and Nigeria, it has only led to milder political heat in Niger and Senegal and has had no burning effect at all in Burkina Faso. By meticulously examining the development of Salafi radicalism ideologies over time in connection with developments in national politics in each of the countries, Idrissa arrives at compelling conclusions about these divergent outcomes. Given the many similarities between the countries studied, these divergences show, in particular, that history, the behaviour of state leaders and national sociologies matter–against assumptions of ‘natural’ contradictions between religion (Islam) and secularism or democracy.

This volume offers a new perspective in discussions on ideology, which remains–as is shown here–the independent variable of many key contemporary political processes, either hidden in plain sight or disguised in a religious garb.

Ahrari, “The Islamic Challenge and the United States”

In February, McGill-Queen’s University Press will release The Islamic Challenge and the United States: Global Security in an Age of Uncertainty by Ehsan M. Ahrari (Strategic Studies Institute). The publisher’s description follows:

islamic-challengeOn September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden declared “global jihad” on the West. In response to the day’s attacks, the United States has waged its own global war on terrorism, which the Pentagon has described as a generational conflict similar to the Cold War.

In The Islamic Challenge and the United States, Ehsan Ahrari takes a close look at this ideological conflict, focusing on the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central Asia. Arguing that the war on terrorism is founded on secular fundamentalism (an ideology that envisions Islam as dangerous and volatile because it mixes religion and politics) and the Enlightenment narrative, Ahrari suggests that the United States sees global jihadists as absolutist, irrational, obscurantist, and anti-modern. While violence on behalf of the Muslim community – ummah – is thus framed as reprehensible, violence on behalf of the Western nation-state is seen as sometimes necessary and often praiseworthy. Unsettlingly, this framework does not encourage careful scrutiny of America’s historical dealings with the Muslim world. The belief that religion causes violence, Ahrari argues, may blind the West to its own forms of fanaticism.

A timely analysis of one of the most contested issues of our times, The Islamic Challenge and the United States is a must-read for global security practitioners, policymakers, and general readers.

Mecham, “Institutional Origins of Islamist Political Mobilization”

In January, Cambridge University Press will release “Institutional Origins of Islamist Political Mobilization,” by R. Quinn Mecham (Brigham Young University). The publisher’s description follows:

Muslim countries experience wide variation in levels of Islamist political mobilization, cup-colour-logo2including such political activities as protest, voting, and violence. Institutional Origins of Islamist Political Mobilization provides a theory of the institutional origins of Islamist politics, focusing on the development of religious common knowledge, religious entrepreneurship, and coordinating focal points as critical to the success of Islamist activism. Examining Islamist politics in more than 50 countries over four decades, the book illustrates that Islamist political activism varies a great deal, appearing in specific types of institutional contexts. Detailed case studies of Turkey, Algeria, and Senegal demonstrate how diverse contexts yield different types of Islamist politics across the Muslim world.

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