Ideas, Networks, Islamist Movements (2007) by Cathleen Collins is informative and insightful because the author studies Islamist movements that are not exclusive to the Arab world, as is often assumed. The article focuses on the successes and failures of these movements in mobilizing and growing, regardless of the political and religious conditions of the region. The author compares and analyzes three Islamist organizations in Central Asia and South Caucasus regions of the former Soviet Union. The article has two research questions: How can the relative success or failure of Islamist groups in mobilizing a social base be explained? What is the role that Islamist ideas pay in attracting support in local contexts?
The independent variable is Islamism as a social movement, which the author defines as a “collective challenge, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities.
” The dependent variable is the relative success or failure of the movements to grow a social base and attract recruits, as well as being able to survive and sustain themselves regardless of the religious and political conditions that surround them.
The dependent variable is defined as relative, due to various reasons; one of them being that the organizations within secular authoritarian states often operate underground. This, the author argues, does not help in clearly defining membership.
I would acknowledge the author’s point that in most cases, under authoritarian regimes, membership for opposite political (and religious) parties and groups can never be a fixed and defined one. Oftentimes, for either political or misinformed reasons, the Muslim world and Islam in general is regarded as intrinsic to the Arab world, and especially the Middle East region.
In this case, the author is interested in learning about Islamist movements outside of the Middle East region, I believe for a few reasons. One of them would be because research has already been done in that region and on the like movements and organizations. The West tends to focus on that region for multiple reasons, and by associating Islamist movements solely with the Arab region, we are missing out on research that informs us of much more.
This article does just the opposite. The author specifies three hypotheses: first, that Islamism can emerge as a powerful idea under secular authoritarianism and socio-political uncertainty that generates social appeal; second, that in order for Islamism and other movements and organizations to be successful, they must adapt their ideas and agendas to their target populations and local contexts, and lastly, that informal and inclusive networks are crucial to organizational growth and the spreading of the ideologies. In other words, the author hypothesizes that non-institutionalized ideas (Marxism-Leninism in early 20th century, Islamism since postcolonial period, and recent Evangelicalism) interact with society differently, and those like- interactions have helped for successful or failure successful mobilization. The author claims that common research done on Islamist movements is done in the Middle East, yet that region has the smallest percentage of the world’s Muslim population. Instead, the author focuses on three Islamist groups active in central Asia and south Caucasus.
The sample that the author uses individuals in four countries in the region. Collins and her teams conducted fifty interviews in Uzbekistan, fifty in Kyrgyzstan, fifty in Tajikistan, and forty in Azerbaijan. The author also conducted semi-structured focus group discussions (FDGs): fourteen in Kyrgyzstan, twenty-four in Uzbekistan, fourteen in Tajikistan, and ten in Azerbaijan. The FDGs were organized by age and gender, among blue-collar workers, white collar workers, migrant workers, small entrepreneurs, and students. The focus group discussions were all between 2-3 hours each and all questions were open ended. The author specifically said that Membership and support of illegal Islamist movements was not asked of the participants, as to protect their identities. Looking at the sample, one cannot help but wonder how the author was able to reach out to these participants and how exactly does this ensure that they weren’t providing false information.
Considering the fact that these countries are in fact under authoritarian regimes, I found it very considerate towards the study and the participants that the author didn’t directly ask the participants about membership and/or affiliations with illegal Islamist movements in their respective countries. I believe that if the author had been able to ask directly about memberships and affiliations, that would have simply reinforced the hypotheses done by the author. The study is a comparative historical analysis, informed by qualitative interviews, textual sources and ethnographic data that covers the period from the late 1980s to the present. The three case studies that the author focuses on are three Islamist organizations that have engaged in political activism that has promoted some political form of Islam. All three parties (Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (HT) of the former Soviet Union, the Islamic Renaissance party of Tajikistan (IRP), and the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) identify as Islamic political parties.
The author is comparing these three Islamist organizations and their abilities to mobilize and grow, and especially espousing different ideologies regardless of the political and religious conditions (which in this case are very similar). I believe the author’s research method tests very well for the specific organizations that she was comparing. However, I believe this study would have been a bit different had Islamist organizations in the Middle East, such as the Islamic Movement of Hamas and Fatah had been included in the sample as well, or even perhaps, Islamist movements in the Balkans.
The author does not necessarily find what she was looking for. Only one of the Islamist organizations (HT) is found to be recruiting and growing, despite the political conditions. Only HT was able to develop its opposition ideology and adapt it to the local context. The other two failed to either recruit and grow or being able to sustain its existence over time. The author states that we as researchers must instead focus on the independent role of ideational and network variables, as they contribute to a movement’s sustainability overtime, and that for future research, “we need to understand whether and how Islamist movements can bring political change under secular authoritarianism without either sacrificing their ideas or resorting to violence.”
The results are consistent with the author’s hypotheses to a certain extent. The Islamist movements do seem to resonate with people that they’re based on social justice, but not everyone is comfortable with them being politicized, such as in Azerbaijan for example. In this case, failure to convince the local people with Islamist ideas beyond religion makes for a failure of Islamism as a movement. The results might be fairly different if Islamist movements in the Arab world had been included in the sample, so a larger, more diverse sample might’ve been more useful. I do think the limitations of the study may have weakened the result of the study, because if people had been asked for their memberships, we might’ve had a clearer idea on whether or not the IPA and IRP have in fact disappeared or are being more effective underground. Again, including more diverse (ethnically, politically, regionally) Islamist movements in the study could extend this study furthermore and make their results more impactful in international affairs. I would also be curious to know where the division line between Islam and Islamism for the religious folk in these regions is.