Hybrid pathways to resistance in the Muslim world: Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Mali (HYRES)

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By Tine Gade*

Why do some Islamist groups pursue their political and religious project within the state to which they belong – while other Islamist groups refuse to accept these borders, seeking instead to establish new polities, such as restoring the Islamic Caliphate? This is the main question asked in my new research project, Hybrid pathways to resistance in the Muslim world: Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Mali (HYRES). The project studies the interaction between Islamist movements and the state in the cases of Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Mali.

HYRES began in October 2017 and will last three years. It is funded by the Research Council of Norway (RCN) through the research programme FRIPRO, ‘independent projects’. I wrote the project proposal before I started at the Max Weber programme, and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo is therefore the lead institution. The partner institutions of the project include the European University Institute in Florence, Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Middle East Research Institute in Erbil and Alliance pour Refonder la Gouvernance en Afrique (ARGA) in Bamako).

In concrete terms, HYRES studies the political pathways – medium- and short-term goals and strategies for political action – that Islamist groups can pursue. We follow Olivier Roy’s classic definition of Islamism as being ‘a contemporary political movement, which conceives Islam as a political ideology’ and ‘a political system’. It is a very heterogeneous movement which includes but is not limited to, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Of course, most Islamists are peaceful and do not resort to the use of violence. Jihadism can be seen as a sub-category of Salafism, which as Stéphane Lacroix writes, in turn is part of the broader Islamist field.

Islamist groups and individuals in practice have to choose whether to focus on the state level or on the transnational level (the Umma, or the community of Muslims worldwide). Islamists following the state-centred pathway do not put state borders into question, but call for an increased reference here and now to the Islamic Sharia. They may or may not present candidates for national elections and may or may not vote. They tend to focus on domestic political issues; that is, they seek political and symbolic power for Muslims within the framework of the domestic political system. This may lead them to create pragmatic alliances with non-Islamists at the domestic level. They may also sing the national anthem or wave the national flag during religious celebrations to show symbolic attachment to the territorial state.

The transnational pathway, on the other hand, implies turning the back on the state, either by calling for the redrawing of state borders or by ignoring the state. Islamist groups or individuals who follow the transnational pathway identify more with the Islamic Umma than with the territorial state. Moreover, their political behaviour and rhetoric focus on transnational issues, such as morality, foreign policy or solidarity with oppressed Muslims abroad. Symbolically, transnationally oriented Islamists will attempt to avoid nationalist symbols, such as flags or national anthems. The idea is that Muslims, to maintain their power and influence, should not be divided by any other cleavage than religion.

Although solidarity with believers across borders is part of most religions, Pan-Islamism in its modern form emerged in the late-19th century and was then promoted by the Ottoman sultan Abdel-Hamid II, who ruled between 1876 and 1909. Pan-Islamism was later re-actualized with the spread of modern communication technology, from satellite TV in the 1990s to social media in the 2010s. An example of pan-Islamism is when a Lebanese religious leader told me during an interview in 2016 that  ‘If a Muslim is oppressed in the Philippines, Burma or in Kenya, this is relevant to me as a Muslim.’ (interview, Tripoli, October 2016).

Groups certainly follow several political pathways at the same time, but one generally leads over the others. We presume that pathway choice is constantly discussed inside groups, and we hope to access some discussions through our contacts. Moreover, actors are constantly moving between and transcending categories. In our research, we will however use our categories not as empirical cases but as ideal types between which real-life actors move. (For similar accounts, see my former supervisor Bernard Rougier’s work). We will assess how and why changes occur, and expect this to occur partly as a result of a modified balance of power within sub-groups.

Moreover, we expect that Islamist groups and individuals tend to be more transnational in their ideological production than in their day-to-day work and behaviour. However, although it is possible to identify both with the territorial state and with the Islamic Umma at the same time, one of the identifications generally tends to supersede the other. We will assess this through a thorough analysis of a number of indicators, including symbol use, political priorities and issue areas in focus, extent of voting and candidacy in national elections, explicit mention of the territorial state.

Importantly, we consider that both pathways can be expressed in a peaceful and in a violent version. Schematically, the four possible choices can be represented as follows:



This is an academic research project, and it does not, as such, depart from any pre-conceptions about the ‘state-oriented’ pathway being more desirable than the transnational. We acknowledge that religion per se goes beyond state borders, and that a function of this is that practicing believers will associate and identify with other believers abroad. However, in the same way as communists maintained their ideological association with Moscow or China but acted mainly within the framework of the state, we expect most Islamist groups and individuals to situate their day-to-day workings within the framework of the state.

Our contribution to the literature
We wish to remedy insufficiencies in the literature on the relationship between Islamist movements and the state, which has focused too much on either domestic variables such as the degree of inclusion/exclusion of certain population groups or on Islamic theology, and not on actual behavior of Islamist groups.

We see that a reference to Salafism is not enough to explain the actual behaviour of Islamist groups. Salafism is, in theory, transnational, but since 2011 Salafi groups have entered parliament in many Arab countries, including Egypt and Kuwait. Moreover, we consider that, in one country, different Islamist groups pursue different political pathways, meaning that the degree of inclusion or exclusion is insufficient to explain these groups’ choice of political pathway.

Moreover, we wish not only to generate empirical knowledge about contemporary Islamist groups, we also aim at theory-building. Most of the literature so far has been generated by area scholars, who have applied mainstream political science concepts to their case studies. This literature analyses Islamist groups not as monolithical groups driven by a theological reference, but as contentious political actors that face similar dilemmas as other non-religious groups. We wish to build on this literature, but to use our systematic analysis to generate more theoretical knowledge about why Islamist groups chose one political pathway rather than another and how pathways interrelate.

In terms of our hypotheses, we will explain why some groups choose to be part of the state or to identify with competing polities with reference to 1) intra-Islamist rivalries, 2) logics of (inter)action and situation and 3) transnational diffusion of ideology. First, we believe that internal competition may induce Islamist groups to seek external resources by allying with transnational actors as a means to improve their own position within the Islamist field.

Secondly, we observe that today’s borders in Near East, Mali and Libya were drawn by colonial powers (in 1920-1921, 1890 and 1911). Yet, we do not believe this is a sufficient condition to explain refusal of state borders more than a century later.

Instead, we believe that negative interaction with state security services can lead an Islamist group to turn its back on the state. Thus, we will look precisely at how the state reacts to social movement claims and how movements interpret state reactions. We will adapt this framework for each case. For instance, in the Mali case, we will assess how actors interpret, comment upon and situate themselves vis-a-vis the current crisis.

Thirdly, local Islamist groups may adopt transnational slogans as a result of transnational diffusion, networking and learning. Moreover, transnational mobility and social media often facilitate transnational activism. Yet, transnational hybridization is more likely if global claims have a local resonance. Thus, part of our research will be to analyse the transnational mobility of activists and how Islamists use social media. In addition, we will look at how Islamists re-interpret and mobilize local history in order to be perceived as legitimate in the population.

Our case studies: Lebanon, Iraq, Mali and Libya
We will examine four cases, structured in two work packages (WP). WP1 consists of the two cases of Lebanon and Iraq, while WP2 includes the cases of Mali and Libya. Our empirical analysis takes our two-by-two table as a common point of departure. We have chosen a minimum of four groups in each case, that is, one group for each of our four possible choices of action : non-violent and state-centred (NSC), non-violent and transnational (NVT), violent and state-centred (VSC), violent and transnational (VT). I am responsible for the Lebanon and Iraq cases, and in the following I will specify only how we intend to research these two. My colleagues Virginie Collombier (EUI) and Morten Bøås (NUPI) are responsible for the Libya and Mali cases, respectively.

On the Iraq case, we study both Sunni and Shia groups, but separately, since we consider these to be partly in competition with each other. My collegue Kjetil Selvik (NUPI) will analyse Shia movements in Iraq.

When analysing the Iraqi Sunni case, we will limit our analysis to Islamist groups in the cities of Mosul and Sleimani. Mosul, Iraq’s second city, located in the north, was seized by the ‘Islamic State’ (or ‘Daesh’) in June 2014 and liberated by the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga militias and Shia militias three years later. Sleimani, in the northeast near the Iranian border, is the largest urban centre in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and has a tradition of peaceful Salafi activism. We will study Naqshbandi Sufi groups, peaceful Salafi activists, and Iraqi jihadis who supported or still support Daesh. I will work alongside the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) based in Erbil, and conduct my second fieldwork journey in Iraq in April and May 2018.

In the case of Lebanon, we will select four different groups, one for each category of political pathway (SCV, SCNON, TV, TNV), and attempt to understand why each group chose their particular pathway. The actors studied will include actors who changed political pathway over time, thanks to internal or external pressure. One example to be studied, by Are J. Knudsen, is Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a charismatic religious leader who moved from peaceful political protest to armed confrontation with the Lebanese army and Hizbullah.

In both our Lebanon and Iraq cases, we will study Islamist movements in specific cities rather than in the country as a whole. I will study Islamist groups based in Tripoli, Lebanon, and Mosul, Iraq. This micro-approach will make it easier for us to study individual militant trajectories and to account for conflict within groups, which seems essential to understand movement change over time. We will connect with the urban sociology literature (our two favourites are both French – Michel Seurat’s classical account of Bab al-Tebbaneh in Tripoli and Patrick Haenni’s description of Embaba in Cairo. Among newer books, we can cite Pascal Ménoret’s analysis of car-sharing in Riyadh). Moreover, we use the the contentious politics literature, especially authors such as Donatella della Porta, Janine Clark, Quintan Wiktorowicz and Olivier Fillieule.

In my study, I will compare how the cities of Tripoli and Mosul have related to their territorial states since the 1920s. Indeed, secondary cities, such as Mosul and Tripoli, have resented the new states because they have been dominated by new capitals, in our cases Baghdad and Beirut. Moreover, secondary cities may have more homogenous Islamic identities than capitals, which tend to be more cosmopolitan. Mosul and Tripoli are both known as the capital of Sunnism in their respective states.

All in all, HYRES will propose a general conceptual framework and apply a systematic, comparative analysis, informed by recent advances in the literature on contentious politics. By identifying variations across the cases studied, we aim to contribute to the broader literature on social movements in non-democratic/semi-democratic contexts. To conclude, I am very eager to begin this new research project, which is a natural continuation of my PhD research as well as the postdoctoral research conducted in the context of the Max Weber Programme.

*Tine Gade is a Max Weber Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre at the EUI. She is a political scientist by training and an Arabist. Her research interests include Sunni Islamism and sectarianism in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as well as the regional struggle between Iran and the Gulf monarchies. @tinegade

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