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Social Movements and Politics  in the islamic world

(Written by Francesco Pagano) –  Social movements studies have historically been separated from different modes of contention. The most possible justification lies in the relatively contained conflict decade: traditional nation-state wars went extinct. Their substitute rose through violent (and non) movements fluctuating within society’. Targets, repertoire of contention, actions and ideals have drastically changed. Gaps between the different studies have been filled through the collaboration between scholars such Doug McAdam and Charles Tilly. Political sociology and neighboring subjects like political science converged towards the study of ‘’contemporary collective action’’.

Is it necessaire to stand with the latter perspective? Modern history shows us a number of contemporary collective actions that have changed the world politics, economies and people’s lives. Social movements and their contentious dimensions have been the causes of recent civil wars, global terrorism, guerilla movements and transnational actions such as the 9/11 attack.

Contentious and small power politics was able to come down to the establishment’s concerns through media. It has taken over big-power relationship. The last Palestinian intifada has destabilized part of the Middle East, making Gaza a virtual prison. Sidney G. Tarrow (2011,3) states contentious actions have somehow changed their patterns of propagation. January 2009 ‘’operation’’ led by the Israel against the radical Hamas group demonstrated this. Governments around the world and civil society groups have sided with Hamas through suspension of diplomatic relations and boycotting activities towards Israel. Hamas is a demonstration of the importance of radical social groups in contemporary history. Sidney G. Tarrow analyzed the consequences of such a radical change through a contentious politics perspective: social movements and contentious politics are able to interfere within different interactions between states and divergent actors. Modern networks and mobilization techniques might have an explosive effect in international politics.

Theoretical Framework  – Contentious politics lies within the base of social movements through collective actions. Contentious politics has been regarded in last decades as a main tool of contentious means against the establishment or the state. Forms have varied within the large diversity of different modes of contentious actions: environmental movements had little in common (in ends and means) with feminist movements, which themselves had nothing in common for example with Islamist movements. However, what remained in common would be the masses of people demanding for a change. Similar to revolutions, contentious politics may lead to either success or failure. In both circumstances, consequences would however lead to salient changes in the political, cultural and international sphere. Politics in general has a well-connected bridge with contentious politics, which in turn has a direct relationship with social movements. Social movements are characterized by contentious collective action. Collectivity lies at the heart of changes in society. Contentious actions may take different forms: they may be brief, peaceful, disruptive, tedious or institutionalized. Leadership is also a fundamental element of social movements.  Often, leadership and charisma may result an advantage for institutionalization.

Institutionalization of a movement may be the last step of a contentious politics’ cycle. The reasons lie in contentiousness: McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (2001) states that collective action becomes contentious because of a lack of regular access to representative institutions due to unaccepted claims.

Social movements are the product of a series of complex mechanisms: building the organization, elaborating ideologies, socializing and mobilizing represented and representativeness. Such inputs structure collective identities. Mobilization of identities is operated by a set of strategies playing their role between the movement and the power holders. It is important to keep in mind that social movements are generated by a collective concept of solidarity demanded by ordinary people. Therefore, they differ from representative democracies or lobbying activities. Managing to create such a social pattern requires the drawing of a strong social network in order to link common purposes.

The advent of the internet gave birth to new important opportunities for social network’s drawing. For example, online social participation through the use of Facebook and YouTube increased the core of contentiousness. Social media for example were and are (more than before) able to promote causes and share activities such as the boycotting civil policy towards the state of Israel. Detrimental impacts of internet gave an important subsidy to protests. For example, social media deeply influenced 2011-2012 protests in Iran. Perhaps not by chance Iran’s government has recently decided to pull the plug on the Internet to close any possible channel of contentiousness within the state and within the region.

Leadership is a key point for what concerns the expansion of deep-rooted feelings of identity and solidarity. At the same time, radicalization is a salient step of identity formation. Extremism may be a consequential dimension of social movements. The exaggerated form of dramatization has led to deprivation and violence as an aggravation of collective challenges. Debates about the nature of collective challenges poses the question of whether contentiousness lies within violence. According to G. Tarrow (2011,10) violence may be the product of lack of stable resources such as money, organization, access to state. However, this may change within the complex variety of social movements: Tehrik-i-Taliban and the suicide bombings policy in Pakistan found their nature in violence. Anyway, for a clear non-bipartisan and unbiased analysis, we should underline the fact that violence may be the consequence of externalities such as elites and institutions’ reactions.

Islamism and Islamic social movements. The brief introduction of various shades and nuances of social movement theory may lead towards a deeper understanding of Islamic Movements. Simultaneously we shall keep in mind the possible limitations of the prevailing social movement theory’s axioms due to the complex sociopolitical situation which characterizes Muslim societies and democracies.

 Islamist Movements – Fundamentalism has characterized Islamic social movements. However, because of its Christian origin and its neglect to national and social reasons, scholars coined the term Islamism or Islamist movement instead of Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, such movements have been sponsored by revolutionary, intellectuals, teleological and political movements within different Muslim states. Anderson (1993, 96) states that Islamism movements agenda had often in common the utopian aim of regressing towards a previous historical moment. In fact, a large variety of Islamist Movements refused what characterized modernity (especially western in nature). The common aim of all Islamic movements lies in the foundation on the idea of Ummah: a community of Muslim brothers. The concept of Ummah includes territorial, cultural and political delineation of the community. The islamic axiom derives from the holy book, Quran. Ummah consequently divides territories in Dar-al-Islam (territories under Islam’s control) and Dar al-Harb (territories under heretic’s control).

Repertoire, used by Islamist Movements for the realization of the Umma, includes Jihad and Dawa. Jihad, being the holy struggle against the infidels, can be labeled as a form of contentious collective action. Al-Qaeda, for example, through the complex network of Islamic cells and foreign support managed to initiate Jihad against Soviets during the Afghan War. Dawa is the propaganda tool structured in the form of invitation to the pure concept of Islam. It is referred as a propagation or the call to Islam. Dawa grounds from non-violent measures such as indoctrination, systems of education and social solidarity. The XII century has given birth to Dawa 2.0 with the use of Internet. Social media were fundamental for the radicalization of European foreign fighters combatting in Syria with the Islamic State (ISIL).

Different environments and different socio-political frameworks give rise to contrasting mobilization and repertoires. However, social movements’ repertoire and mobilization activities depend on resources, wealth, soft power and the geopolitical situation of the region. In this respect it is fundamental to differentiate Islamic social movements on three patterns: first, movements dealing with the state such as the Taliban in the Islamic State of Afghanistan till 2011. Second, movements dealing with the society such as Hezbollah and its development programs. Last, movements fluctuating between society and state like the Turkisk Islamism. They denied a direct contact with the State and rather focused on a re-schedule of the Turkey’s state and economy through a daily mobilization of the society. This stock of actions would be a clear pattern before dealing with the state.

Islamist social movements fascinated the west after the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and scared it after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Sharia governance modelling social justice.

However, as it has been stated before, movements and their foundations vary greatly throughout the region of the world. Their core may resort to terrorism, leftist political and economic programs, Marxism or conservatist approach. The common element remains the conformity to a code of conduct based on the literal interpretation of the Quran. As a consequence, religion embraces different sphere of life. Religion and politics may not be divided. As a result, Islamist ideology clashes against the West for two main reasons: the first results as a radical rejection of modernity, which may be encompassed by all fundamentalist movements. The second reason is the indignation of Western political, economic, military and ideological dominance and oppression of the Middle East.

Hamas was founded in 1987 to resist and fight the occupation of the Palestinian land by Israel and in one breath seek for the creation of an Islamic state. It is necessary to highlight the nationalist character encompassing the Islamist program of Hamas. The repertoire of action evolved around jihad for the discharge of Israeli’s presence from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean and from Lebanon to Egypt.

Differently, dynamics and frameworks have been different. Instead of nationalist jihadis, Iranian unemployed youth was the center of the Islamist movement against the ruler Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The social-economic situation was able to give rise to a clash between religious pillars and politics axioms outlining the Iranian Revolution. In exile, Khomeini coordinated the opposition for the resignation of the Shah. Institutionalization as a last step of the movement cycle conceived Khomeini as the new political and religious leader for life.

Social Movements may have centralized or decentralized structures and may evolve over time. Hezbollah was founded from a group of Lebanese Shiite clerics with the aim of establishing an Islamic State in Lebanon immediately after the Israeli invasion in 1982. Hezbollah has been analyzed by geopolitical analysts as a decentralized body of the Iranian Islamic establishment, which generously gave substantial logistical and weaponry support. The movement transformed into a militia group represented by a political party. The repertoire of actions diverged into a binary system: violent terrorist attacks including kidnappings and suicide bombings against Westerners from one side, to the other introducing a comprehensive complex system of social services network for the Lebanese needs. As a final step, institutionalization turned the group into an important political party in the post-civil war in Lebanon. Its leader Hassan Nasrallah

Hassan Nasrallah

was fundamental for such a transformation. His commitment made him of the most important leadership in the Arab world.

Osama bin Laden

Al-Qaeda was founded from its leader Osama bin Laden in the 1980s. Its origin was of a logistical network supporting the jihadis fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Its innovative approach evolved into a global network of recruitment. Ended the Afghan War in 1989 Al-Qaeda became a global opposition to what they perceived as corrupt Islamic regimes and foreign hegemonic presence in the dar-al Islam.

The movement’s ideology lies in the concept of Jihad against who rejects the tenets of Islam. Recruitment operated through a system of paramilitary camps training Muslim militants for a set of violent actions. Repertoire of action resulted in the attacks to the U.S. embassies in Kenya, Nairobi, Tanzania, and later in the 9/11 attacks. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 deeply weakened al-Qaeda’s logistical and financial resources. For the same reasons, the repertoire evolved into a franchising model. The methodical system decentralized the group into grassroots independent groups and autonomous cells encouraged to coordinate Al-Qaeda’s attacks. For example, such a model gave rise to the Taliban, a conservative political and religious faction emerged in the 1990s. Taliban emerged from madrasahs in the northern areas of Pakistan made for Afghan refugees. They rapidly became a movement for social order based on Islamic elements and made Afghanistan a regime for Islamic militants throughout the globe. The ideological set of norms embraced fundamentalist shaped Islamic norms. The repertoire of action culminated into exclusion of women from public life, systematic destruction of non-Islamic sides and the execution of harsh punishments towards non-supporters.

The Islamic State as an exclusive Islamic movement –  Linking Islam and Islamic fundamentalism aggressive movements is a huge mistake which has been further believed in the west after the 9/11. We shall remember that Islamism had a non-linear historical pattern which encompassed different types of Islamic movements including the Islamic Revivalism, moved by Hidden Imam or statesmen like Muhammad Ali Jinnah. On a similar pattern it experienced Islamic Reformism emanated by Salafist or the Muslim Brotherhood. Why is it important? Because confusing Islamic Movements with the violence of the Islamic terrorist movements such as the Islamic State could not only be an academic failure, but also an ignorant statement. ISIS is just a drop in the ocean of what concerns Islamism: it is clearly and probably the darkest side of the Islamist movements. However, since it remains a risk for the stability of the Middle East and other fertile grounds such as African states the case study will focus on this violent movement.

The IS modelled differently from other terrorist social movements: we shall keep in mind how the recruitment for the holy war in Iraq and Syria was managed from over 90 different countries (Levitt, Youkilis, 2015). From different perspectives, The Islamic State power was influenced by geopolitical, social and technological trends typical of the twenty-first century. The Islamic State, being came off from wastes of older terroristic movements adopted to such changes with new narratives. Indeed, due to the complex geopolitical and political situations in Iraq and Syria, IS showed up as a possible substitute of the nation-state. Anti-secular and anti-Western rhetoric have been at the base of the propaganda machine of the group. Internet, how stated at the beginning, radically transformed opportunities for social movements. For example, the online magazine Dabiq was of enormous importance in the recruitment and radicalization processes. Through the propaganda machine, IS was able to present itself as a solution to globalization’s problems.

The horizontal dimension of social media was able to propagate IS’s message throughout the globe. Not only it spread its ideology, but it rather bypassed the mainstream media through an innovative and more dynamic rhetoric. Such a model had two different consequences: a decentralization of the ideology through ‘’lone wolf’’ attackers in their home nations and a centralized recruitment of foreign fighters joining the holy war in Iraq and Syria. Such a repertoire aimed at the formation of the Islamic caliphate substituting the western concepts of nation-states. IS promoted the fusion of Islamic religion and politics. Social media served the purpose: as G. Tarrow stated (1998), print and association are factors that disseminated social movements, allowing geographically distanced people to ‘’know of one another’s actions and join in national social movements’’.

The Islamic State indeed used and uses social media as a ‘’tool of offensive psychological warfare’’ for basically no cost (Klausen, 2014, 20). IS propaganda machine led by Al Hayar media group, forecasted a message of transnational unity of a Muslim community. The globalization of Islamic State recruitment was of unique nature as it managed to substitute radical masques with social networks. Resources unspent could be maximized on other different activities leading IS to be the real alternative of the nation-state. At the same time, as McCants (2015, 153) explains ‘’the major reason why the Islamic State was so successful from 2013 to 2014 was that it was left alone’’. Consensus and followers, in captured areas, were provided through tangible political goods such as food, water and electricity the national governments were not able to equip. Governing economic affair of the area through sale of captured oil and ancient relics, ransom of foreign hostages and alternative tax system has been the final step of the institutionalization of the social movement.

Obviously IS success shall not be found only in social media marketing skills. Indeed, the Middle East has always been fertile ground for fundamentalist movements activity. Such a fertility will not be focused on this paper for its complexity. Briefly, causes shall be found in unnatural historical state divisions, secular nationalism’s struggle, nation-state failures and Islam as a possible answer of globalization and western agitators’ elements. Success of IS shall be found in the combination of various elements. No other jihadist movement has ever been able before to seek such a vast territory implementing sharia law and at the same time marketing its product in such a powerful way. Making meanings has always been the biggest challenge of social movements: the Islamic State has functionally and modernly appealed to the establishment of the Ummah in the region of Iraq and Syria. As Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi,

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

Iraqi leader of the Islamic State has claimed: ‘’God willing we will break the barriers of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and all the countries. This is the first barrier of many barriers we will break’’.

In conclusion, the paper seeks to ensure a comprehensive analysis of social movements and their possible evolutions. We briefly gave a theoretical framework of what a social movement is. Focusing on certain particular aspects was necessaire for a better understanding of movements’ foundations. The linkage between contentious politics and social movements encompassed the different shades of movements. Repertoire of actions print and associations, contention against capitalism and states, organizations and networks and symbols have been analyzed therefore with different degrees. In modern and contemporary history, Islamic movements have been an important element of political science’s studies on social movements. However, the heterogeneous nature of Islamism requires a complex sociological analysis. The journey ends with an evaluation of the uniqueness of the Islamic State as an Islamic movement in recent years through a macro analysis of their contentious nature and repertoire of activities. We shall remind once more, the case study has been a radical alternative. Such a decision was made for two main reasons: on one hand, the contemporary importance of IS threat for European citizens and our beloved sisters and brothers’ liberty in the Middle East. On the other hand, for the international community’s commitment against the Islamic State.




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