Rethinking Political Islam

Publication Year



Edited by William F. McCants, Ph.D. 2006.


  • Shows an in-depth understanding of the ideology and goals of Islamist movements
  • Features the original field research of leading specialists who interviewed Islamist leaders and activists in 12 countries across the Middle East and Asia
  • Provides a nuanced and thorough analysis of contemporary political Islam in light of the "twin shocks" of the Egyptian coup against the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of ISIS

For years, scholars hypothesized about what Islamists might do if they ever came to power. Now, they have answers: confusing ones. In the Levant, ISIS established a government by brute force, implementing an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tunisia's Ennahda Party governed in coalition with two secular parties, ratified a liberal constitution, and voluntarily stepped down from power. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's oldest Islamist movement, won power through free elections only to be ousted by a military coup. The strikingly disparate results of Islamist movements have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam, forcing experts and Islamists to rethink some of their most basic assumptions.

In Rethinking Political Islam, two of the leading scholars on Islamism, Shadi Hamid and William McCants, have gathered a group of leading specialists in the field to explain how an array of Islamist movements across the Middle East and Asia have responded. Unlike ISIS and other jihadist groups that garner the most media attention, these movements have largely opted for gradual change. Their choices, however, have been reshaped by the revolutionary politics of the region. The groups depicted in the volume capture the contradictions, successes, and failures of Islamism, providing a fascinating window into a rapidly changing Middle East. It is the first book to systematically assess the evolution of mainstream Islamist groups since the Arab uprisings and the rise of ISIS, covering 12 country cases. In each instance, contributors address key questions, including: gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the nation-state; and how ideology, religion, and political variables interact.

For the first time in book form, readers will also hear directly from Islamist activists and leaders themselves, as they offer their own perspectives on the future of their movements. Islamists will have the opportunity to challenge the assumptions and arguments of some of the leading scholars of Islamism, in the spirit of constructive dialogue. Rethinking Political Islam includes three of the most important country cases outside the Middle East-Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan-allowing readers to consider a greater diversity of Islamist experiences. The book's contributors have immersed themselves in the world of political Islam and conducted original research in the field, resulting in rich accounts of what animates Islamist behavior.


Egypt / by Steven Brooke -- Tunisia / by Monia Marks -- Morocco / by Avi Spiegel -- Syria / by Raphaël Lefèvre -- Yemen / by Stacey Philbrick Yadav -- Libya / by Omar Ashour -- Saudi Arabia / by Toby Matthiesen -- Kuwait / by Courtney Freer -- Jordan / by David Patel -- Pakistan / by Matthew Nelson -- Southeast Asia / by Joseph Chinyong Liow -- Islamism and U.S. foreign policy / by Peter Mandaville -- Amr Darrag, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader, in conversation with Steven Brooke -- Sayida Ounissi, Ennahda member of the Tunisian Parliament, in conversation with Monica Marks -- Ammar Fayed, Muslim Brotherhood youth activist on the state of the Brotherhood today -- "How much do organizational structures matter?" / Jacob Olidort in conversation with Raphaël Lefèvre -- "The relationship between religious literacy and religious motivation" / by Andrew Lebovich -- "Does islamism have an intellectual deficit?" / by Ovamir Anjum.

Reviews and Endorsements

"This collection is a remarkable and probably unique overview, historically grounded but also looking towards the future of the conflict-torn Middle East. We are shown how the balance between religious, political and welfarist motivations for Islamist movements has been highly variable, but some recognition is allowed here, which many other commentaries withhold, of the long-standing element of ethics and public service." -- Jonathan Benthall, Times Literary Supplement

"The contributors look at expressions of political Islam in 12 Middle Eastern countries with a view to highlighting the wide range of approaches adopted by Islamist actors, and the widely differing outcomes these approaches have produced. Space is given to the views of Islamist activists and leaders themselves." -- Survival: Global Politics and Strategy Vol.60.2

"Rethinking Political Islam is admirable and inspiring, and undoubtedly a substantive contribution to the literature. It significantly adds to our grasp of the post-Arab Spring politics of Islamism in the wider Islamic world."--Mahmoud Pargoo, Reading Religion

"This text provides a critical space for conversation among experts, insiders, and the general public. Indeed, by putting together the perspectives of such a varied group... the collection may very well help all parties interpret (and reimagine) how Islamist groups are seeking alternative methods for success. This is a must-read for academics of Middle Eastern studies as well as anyone interested in the political state of the Islamic world."--Publishers Weekly

"A tremendous body of scholarship - at a pivotal juncture - on the ever-evolving spectrum of Islamist movements."--Robin Wright, author of Rock the Casbah

"This will be the go-to source for students of Islamism and politics. Essential, required reading for anyone interested in the future of the Middle East and indeed the world."-- Noah Feldman, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

"This collection is easily the best scholarly work on Islamist politics since the oubreak of the Arab Uprisings." -- Jillian Schwedler, Professor of Political Science, Hunter College

"This collection accomplishes something quite rare: it focuses on a moving target and sheds light on its past, present, and future. And they include the voices of some of whom they study, pinning down Islamist leaders to account for changes in their own movements." -- Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science, George Washington University

"This amazing collection of 20 essays augmented by extensive bibliographies provides an intense and erudite examination of Islam in a contemporary setting... Highly recommended."--CHOICE Reviews

"A thoughtful and useful collection of essays."--Olivier Roy, Foreign Affairs

Oxford University Press
New York
Cloth: 9780190649197; paper: 9780190649203