Islamic Activism is a collaborative study of the intersection of social movement theory and political Islamism. It is an edited book that brings various disciplines and important articles under one roof, from comparative politics, security and terrorism studies to cultural and ethnographic pieces. The book also brings key figures of their areas together, including Quintan Wiktorowicz, Charles Tilly, Mohammed M. Hafez, Glenn E. Robinson, and Hakan M. Yavuz. The editor, Quintan Wiktorowicz, is a leading comparative politics scholar who has written on the Middle East, civil society, conflict and terrorism.
According to Wiktorowicz, Islamic activism is “the mobilization of contention to support Muslim causes”, which he argues is a “purposefully broad” definition to make it “as inclusive as possible”. In his introduction, he argues that the book is concerned with presenting a social movement theory approach to the study of Islamic activism. He holds that the social movement theory approach is not interested in sociopsychological approaches to how belonging and empowerment through Islamic movements are achieved. Rather, Wiktorowicz draws on resource mobilization theory (RMT), which puts its emphasis on how resources are used for mobilization. In this sense, there is more of an emphasis on opportunities and constraints within the movements concerned. This does not mean that there is no cultural side to the story. The culture and framing of the movements are considered; however, the emphasis is on the use of cultural structures in presenting opportunities for activism. Therefore, the link between movements and ideas are examined, not ignored.
One of the authors, Glenn E. Robinson, further details social movement theory, situating social movement theory between structural theories and rational choice theory. He explains that the unit of analysis in structural theories is the international system and the states within it, while the unit of analysis in rational choice theory is the individual. In contrast, the unit of analysis in the social movement theory is the group. He writes how opportunity structures, mobilizing structures, cultural framing and networks are the key terms that social movement theory uses in order to analyze the movements under study.
Therefore, the book’s main argument, in a nutshell, is that Islamic social movements should be analyzed in terms of structures, resources and networks; not in ideational terms such as beliefs and worldviews. In a sense, this approach serves as a corrective measure to Orientalist stereotypes that became prevalent in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
That being said, the book’s aims remain too ambitions to achieve. It seems like on the one hand, the scope of Islamic activism is widened, while on the other hand, the scope of the theoretical insights into it is narrowed. The definition of Islamic activism used, which Wiktorowicz describes as broad but inclusive, make the articles sometimes too vague when it comes to determining who the agent is. Social movement theory has uneasy categories to work with, which are movements and groups. Nevertheless, in the book, states, political parties, women’s gatherings, violent mobilizations, etc. are all subjects of the study of Islamic activism. Therefore, there is a need for theories other than social movement theory to address Islamic activism in other cases, such as – for instance – when it acquires state power. Also, there is a delicate balance when it comes to narratives between structures and individuals, and that balance is hard to maintain. Instead of demonstrating the links between structures and individuals, sometimes the narratives overemphasize the structures in such a way that it becomes hard to pinpoint where the social movement theory is.
The book includes extensive fieldwork in the Middle East: Clark’s study on Islamist women in Yemen, Smith’s piece on collective action in Iran, and Wickham’s study on the Islamist outreach to universities in Egypt. These studies are based on immense fieldwork carried out in the region and would be helpful in giving an in depth insight into the 1990s Middle East.
The book provides a strong theoretical background and does succeed in what it attempts to do. It is a good introduction to Islamism, Islamic activism through from the social movement theory approach. It attempts to present a rather clear, yet perhaps too broad, definition on what Islamism is. However, there is repetition in some of the chapter’s theoretical sections on social movement theory, resource mobilization theory and definitions of Islamism.