Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Author: Tarek Osman
Hardcover: 328 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (February 23, 2016)
About the Book
A political, social, and cultural battle is currently raging in the Middle East. On one side are the Islamists, those who believe Islam should be the region’s primary identity. In opposition are nationalists, secularists, royal families, military establishments, and others who view Islamism as a serious threat to national security, historical identity, and a cohesive society.
This provocative, vitally important work explores the development of the largest, most influential Islamic groups in the Middle East over the past century. Tarek Osman examines why political Islam managed to win successive elections and how Islamist groups in various nations have responded after ascending to power. He dissects the alliances that have formed among Islamist factions and against them, addressing the important issues of Islamism’s compatibility with modernity, with the region’s experiences in the twentieth century, and its impact on social contracts and minorities. He explains what Salafism means, its evolution, and connections to jihadist groups in the Middle East. Osman speculates on what the Islamists’ prospects for the future will mean for the region and the rest of the world.
“Osman’s book is essentially the antithesis to the reductive worldview typically imposed by Western thinking. Instead it traces the trajectory of Islamism — that is, Islam as an ideology which is a political, economic, cultural, and social tool, as well as a religious and moral one — all the way back to the prophet Mohammed in the seventh century, right up to the present day… extremely well-researched and written in lucid, crystal clear prose.”—JP O’Malley, Irish Examiner
"Osman paints a colourful and convinging picture of the decline of Mubarak's rule. . . . A compelling account of how the various combustible ingredients of revolution came together, awaiting the final spark."—Times Literary Supplement on Egypt on the Brink
'This exceptional book lucidly explains Islamism, not from Western perspectives, but as seen by Muslims themselves. By doing so Osman provides fresh insights into what has unleashed the religious ferment in the Middle East and the profound challenges Islamists face in trying to reconcile the Muslim faith with the realities of a rapidly changing world.' - Gordon Barrass, author of The Great Cold War: A Journey Through the Hall of Mirrors
'Tarek Osman is a writer of impressive scope, reporting on politics from Morocco to Iran with a deep understanding of history, an enviable ability to interpret contemporary dynamics, and above all a profound respect for common humanity. Especially in a time of dangerous misunderstanding about the place of Islam in the world, Islamism is essential reading.' - Scott MacLeod, Managing Editor, Cairo Review of Global Affairs
‘Tarek Osman presents a grounded and well-crafted account of Middle Eastern Islamism in its myriad forms. He masterfully demonstrates the intersecting social and political processes whereby Islamist movements, Muslim dissent, and outside reactions ramify and shape each other. In doing so, he trenchantly identifies what many have overlooked – the social and ideological challenges that Islamist success has ironically created. The need for such a serious and balanced study has obviously never been greater, and the accessible insight it offers to the current and future turmoil of the Muslim world will have an enduring relevance.’ – James Piscatori, co-author of Monarchies and Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf
“The book provides useful context as it strives to be comprehensive, considering perspectives from Turkey, Iran, Gulf countries, secularists, and non-Muslim minorities; this analysis of the interplay among various countries in the region is truly fascinating. . . . A helpful and clear introduction.”—Publishers Weekly
"Writing as a reporter-historian of the highest order, Osman provides a masterly overview one of the most important political currents in the world today."—Booklist, Starred Review.
Osman: New Militant Islam Hard to Eradicate
April 25, 2016
Tarek Osman, author of a new book, Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World, emphasized that militant Islamism is not an entirely new phenomenon, but the Islamic State (ISIS)’s particular brand of it is.
Militant Islamism dates back at least half a century, he said, but what has changed in the past five years are the ambitions of groups like ISIS. Today’s militant Islamists have transitioned from opposition group politics—using terrorism to undermine a state—to actively seeking to replace state institutions, he said.
These groups demand submission from those in their occupied territories, and derive legitimacy from providing them basic services, he said. For that reason, they are difficult to combat. “It is one thing to deal with groups that are underground, that try to assassinate and blow up,” he said. It is more challenging to “eliminate groups that control parts of land, with inhabitants and political structures.”
He outlined two problems presented by this “new type of challenge.” In the Syrian conflict, “there are some countries that are able more or less to use groups such as ISIS to deploy them for some resources.” Eliminating such a group would not only require massive resources that no “power in the world, in the West or Middle East, would want to commit.” But also, it is not a choice we can expect to be supported by the very states benefitting from manipulating militant Islamists to their own ends.
Further, regional tensions are high, he said; referring to the deepening cleavage between Sunnis and Shias, as a Saudi-Iran shadow war rages. For these financial and geo-political reasons, “militant Islamism as we see it today,” will “be with us for some time.”
In his book, Osman writes, “The large Islamist groups and the serious Islamist thinkers will have to defend the idea of Islamism against the charge of being fundamentally equated with violence and terror.”
He elaborated that the key challenge for non-violent Islamists will be demonstrating political Islam’s compatibility with modernity, especially in light of the region’s “youth bulge” population. This huge population of young people made use of new technology to mobilize in record numbers and usher in the Arab uprisings, he said, but their faith has been shaken as the Islamists they brought to power failed to govern.
Osman rejected the notion that there was a universal Islamism that could be easily transplanted, describing instead national experiences. Islamism may hold particular influence in Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But its national forms have not turned out to be workable models when they are exported to other places in the Arab world, he said.
Osman offered the observation that “Gulf states oppose political Islam because it threatens their top-down state management.” Saudi Arabia’s monarchy relies on obedience from its citizens, he elaborated, and therefore, Gulf leaders reject a version of Islam that tries to demonstrate its relevance by promising elections and state government.
*The April 25, 2016 event was held as part of IPI’s Distinguished Author Series. Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, moderated the conversation.
About the Author
Tarek Osman is the author of “Islamism” (Yale, 2016) and the international bestseller “Egypt on the Brink” (Yale, 2010 – which was published weeks before Egypt’s 2011 uprising). He has appeared as a commentator on most major international news networks and is a regular contributor on the Arab world and Islamism for many leading newspapers and magazines worldwide. He wrote and presented the BBC documentary series “The Making of the Modern Arab World” and“Sands of Time: A History of Saudi Arabia”. He is the political counsellor of the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) for the Arab world. Tarek has 16-years experience in strategy consulting, political-economy advisory, and investment banking and management. He studied at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. His twitter account is @TarekmOsman.