In the media and political space, the “Islamist” label serves above all to disqualify those it designates. However, its use in the scientific field continues to make sense. A recent compilation with a long-term perspective incorporating a comparison of Islamist mobilisations tries to explain the scope of this label and its analytical interest, despite all the controversies. In their History of Islamist Mobilisations, François Burgat and Matthieu Rey bring together some 20 researchers. Together they explore, in a variety of ways, the expressions of Islamism for two centuries. The contributors, from several generations, are among the best international specialists, for example from the universities of Oxford and Oslo, via the Collège de France and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
Such an approach offers the advantage of getting out of a debate that too often appears to be Franco-French and driven by quarrels. The contribution of the book, accompanied by an extensive bibliography that we will agree to qualify as “ecumenical”, is to avoid falling into this trap. It follows an analytical and scientific crest line, oriented in particular towards international works made accessible to the French-speaking readership for the first time. The historical focus is also particularly valuable, as is the desire not to stop at the Arab world alone. The incursions into Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa indeed reveal dynamics that are often overlooked, including specialists, without ever slipping into hyper-specialisation.
Islamism a reaction to colonialism?
From the beginnings of Islamism in the face of European domination in Egypt and the Maghreb in the mid-nineteenth century to the seemingly unlimited violence carried out by Isis, the approach developed in the book is chronological. Five sequences (each introduced by a short text written by François Burgat and Matthieu Rey) make it possible to underline the evolutions of the Islamist movements in their various expressions, making in particular of the colonial period the main adjuvant of their structuring. By emphasising their essentially reactive nature, the book describes Islamism as an affirmation of identity and the promotion of a particular lexicon and symbolic universe. Thus, the chapters deal as much with violent movements like Boko Haram in Nigeria as with the reflections of North African reformists such as Sheikh Ibn Badis. What do they have in common, if not the desire to revalorise a religious norm that they consider as abused and relegated by their own era?
By multiplying the focal lengths and the fields, this work constitutes a relevant entry for the general public, in particular the students, in search of synthesis. Approachable and highlighting sometimes forgotten trajectories, such as the parliamentary experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in the middle of the 20th century in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, the chapters present concrete cases to reflect the diversity of these mobilizations.
Admittedly, such a publication is not intended to be exhaustive. It would nevertheless have been interesting to find a reflection on the mobilisations in societies where Islam is in a minority situation, such as in Western Europe. On the one hand, insofar as the identity dimension of Islamism is singular there; on the other hand, because it is on European grounds that the most questionable approaches have been concentrated for a few years, rising sharply from phenomena marginalised and making the use of violence by Islamists the norm.
Far from any polemical approach in which the media often tends to confine his works or interventions (notably on the social networks which he uses abundantly, sometimes by encouraging “clashes”), the work presented here has the merit of highlighting highlight the scientific relevance of the approach developed by François Burgat over the past 30 years. Admittedly, the contributors probably do not all share the same interpretations or conclusions. The work is thus not the product of a school, a network or a university clique based on the principle of the so decried “mandarinate”. The variety of profiles of authors, including Henry Laurens, Anne Wolf, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould-Mohamedou and Brynjar Lia, as well as their international influence, testify to this. However, by adopting the presupposition that Islamism is above all an identity-based and reactive phenomenon, they agree on a reading that is certainly minimal, but fruitful in terms of methodology.
Indeed, such a bias makes it possible to point out the adaptability of Islamist mobilisations and their dependence on context more than on ideology. By pointing out their historicity as well as the recompositions that go through them, the approach shared by the successive chapters highlights the political variables — repression, elections, freedoms, inequalities or domination. This plasticity makes it possible to understand how much the death of Islamism, announced for a long time, is not recorded despite the severe crisis that its various expressions have been going through since the Arab Spring.
Based on the translation from Laurent Bonnefoy’s review, “Les racines profondes de l’islamisme” — of the book Histoire des Mobilisations Islamistes by authors François Burgat et Matthieu Rey — by Surajit Dasgupta