The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World, by Mohammed Ayoob

The purpose of Mohammed Ayoob’s book, The Many Faces of Political Islam, is to “fill a major gap in the literature on political Islam”. He argues that this can be achieved through an introductory text that provides a comprehensive overview of the different entities within political Islam, while dispelling many of the misconceptions and stereotypes about political Islam. One common misconception that is consistently discussed and refuted throughout his book is the issue that political Islam (as well as Islam) is monolithic. On the contrary, it is very diverse with multiple voices all expressing their vision and version of Islam, an Islamic state, and political Islam. Ayoob successfully proves this by exploring a number of Islamic entities throughout the Middle East to show that each organization is different from the next – in terms of their views and beliefs about Islam, their implementation of those beliefs, their relationship with other institutions, and so on. He begins with the comparison between Saudi Arabia and Iran and shows that these two countries, who both claim to be an Islamic State, could not be any more different and in turn cannot be replicated because of a number of cultural, historical, national, and ideological (among many others) differences and distinctions.

Ayoob then moves on to Egypt and Pakistan, who each have an Islamic faction working within their respected political system trying to achieve certain goals through moderation and constitutionalism, rather than violence or extremism. Similar to Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Jamaat-i Islami of Pakistan are very different and yet have learned to work within the constraints imposed on them by their country’s government in order to achieve some sort of success and/or longevity. The next two countries Ayoob discusses are Turkey and Indonesia, in which he explains that two different Islamic countries have been able to develop a democratic government, thus showing that Islam and democracy can coexist. Once again, Ayoob provides another example of two distinctively different countries that achieved a similar outcome through different paths. Next, Ayoob discusses Lebanon and Palestine who, similar to Egypt and Pakistan have an Islamic faction participating within their political structure. A major difference is that the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are a national resistance movement trying to free their land from foreign occupation which places them in a unique position of being a nonviolent political group as well as a violent nationalist group with Islamic undertones. Although they are violent at times, Ayoob does not categorize them with the fringe/transnational Islamic groups like al-Qaeda. The purpose of discussing these countries is to demonstrate that although the rhetoric of Islam is used in all the above mentioned countries, each approach is very different from the next, thus making it impossible to present an essentialist view of Islam or political Islam as monolithic.

Furthermore, the stereotype that these Islamic groups are inherently violent is also disputed by Ayoob. He argues that although there are a number of violent Islamic groups, they are in fact a very small percentage of the entire Muslim population. Their views, beliefs, approaches, and tactics do not represent the majority of the Islamic community. Unfortunatly, this stereotype has developed due to their horrendous acts of violence that have garnered more media attention than the majority of Islamic organizations who have achieved certain levels of success through nonviolence and working within their respected governmental frameworks. Ayoob points out that these fringe groups that have engaged in violence have been unsuccessful in attaining their goals but have painted political Islam, as well as Islam as a whole, with a bad name. Moreover, the issues that these fringe groups are concerned with are antithetical, unimportant, and irrelevant to the concerns that mainstream Muslims are concerned with. Thus, the limited impact that these fringe groups have had is a result of their lack of relevance to the nation-specific agendas and strategies that the majority of Islamic movements pursue within their own country.

In his closing remarks, Ayoob states that “political Islam in the contemporary era is by and large a national phenomenon and that is trajectories, while subject to international influence, are primarily determined by factors that are discrete to particular contexts”. These factors could range anywhere between political, economic, social, and national. However, the international influence is also important, and it is here that Ayoob mentions the United States and the importance of their interaction with the Middle East. He explains that the US needs to be less hypocritical between their rhetoric of democracy and their foreign policy towards the Middle East. This recommendation could not be more true today with the current rebuilding phases of many Middle Eastern countries, post-Arab Awakening.

In conclusion, Ayoob is arguing that every single Islamic group, organization, institution, party, entity, and the like, either within the same country or not, are all different. They each possess their own identity which has been shaped by a plethora of factors that cannot be duplicated or replicated. And because of this, political Islam is a national phenomenon and is not monolithic. Furthermore, Islam is not the only driving force behind Islamist groups but also issues such as nationalism, socials concerns, political concerns, equality, and things of that nature also play a major role. Moreover, the vast majority of Islamic groups are nonviolent and cooperative within their governmental parameters. And finally, all of the above mentioned issues have not originated from Islam but have existed under different religions and different situations. Ultimately Ayoob was successful in his attempt to provide an introductory book that analyzes comparatively the different types of Islamic political groups as well as clarify some misconceptions and stereotypes of political Islam.

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