An important contribution to the ongoing discussions on Arab politics and Islam is the research done by Ibrahim Karawan of the University of Utah in Islamist Impasse. Karawan examines the political significance of Islamist movements in the Arab world, the reasons for their growth, and the nature of their confrontation with the governing regimes. Karawan's study addresses not only academics, but also the wide range of policy planners and non-specialists.
This comprehensive analysis is a product of Karawan's research while a senior fellow for the Middle East at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 1995-97. It consists of four chapters enriched with a map and figures, in addition to an introduction, a conclusion and an appendix. In the introduction, Karawan focuses on the defining characteristics of Islamism, such as the primary interest in gaining political power. He outlines limits and specifications of the study with a particular reference to the domestic, regional and international politics of Arab countries vis-a-vis Islamism.
The first chapter, entitled "Islamist Challengers," analyzes the relationship between politics and religion in the Arab Middle East. In his view, "Politics and religion intersect in the Middle East in two main ways: one aims to maintain the status quo; the other to undermine it" (p. 14). Arab rulers attempt to base their legitimacy on Islam and to maintain the status quo. Islamist activists accuse them of deviating from true Islam and aim to transform society by implementing Islam in its entirety. Karawan divides activists between militant and political Islamists. The militants aim to undermine the state's principal foundation, demonstrating the failure to protect leaders and strategic installations; to weaken its main revenue sources; and to provoke the ruling elite to strike back indiscriminately regardless of legal norms (p. 16-19). Political Islamists reject violent struggle and pursue two strategies to establish an Islamic state: establishing socio-economic institutions (schools, clinics and day-care centers) and taking part in elections whenever possible (p. 20-24).
In the last section of the chapter, the author discusses the predicament of both gradualists and militants despite their success in influencing the language of Arab politics. He concludes that the failure of Islamists to reach their goals is "partly the result of internal differences and failure to form a united opposition front" (p. 27).
In the second chapter, "State Strategies," Karawan analyzes the strategies employed by Arab regimes in dealing with the Islamist challenge. The first strategy is repression and exclusion (p. 29). He does not seem to consider current doubts on the massacres in Algeria, in which some military officials may be involved, arguing that 2,000 people were killed by Islamist militants between August and October 1997. The second strategy is religious legitimization, whereby the regimes tighten their control over religious institutions, appoint closed-minded leaders and use Islamic symbols to stress their loyalty to Islamic principles. The third strategy is state-centered clientelism, which aims to create "a trade-off between political consent or acquiescence and access to resources, jobs and services" (p. 33). The fourth strategy, controlled pluralism, is an attempt to manage political process by allowing a margin of political expression for some Islamists. In the last section of this chapter, Karawan discusses the selection and implementation of a policy and the shifts in coping with Islamists. The perception of the leader and structural limitations such as financial constraints and the legitimacy problems of regions mostly determine the selection and implementation of policy. He concludes that "regimes have failed to eradicate Islamist movements, but they have succeeded in preventing Islamist takeovers in the Arab world" (p. 37).
The third chapter, "The Regional Setting," deals with Islamist movements as a regional phenomenon going far beyond domestic politics. The author focuses on region-wide political and economic opportunities such as Arab military defeats at the hands of Israel and petro-dollars from state and private sources. Interestingly, he refers to Western scholars (known as anti-Islamist) rather than regional sources in supporting the argument of petro-dollar aid to Islamists.
In the fourth chapter, "Islamists and the West," Karawan argues that the rise of Islamist movements and the increasing Western military, economic and political presence is not a mere coincidence (p. 51). He continues with valuable analysis on Islamist and Western perceptions of each other. He also notes the converging interests between the West and Islamists and their tendency to cooperate as seen in the case of the Afghan Jihad. Another important contribution of this chapter is Karawan's emphasis on diverging interests within the Western camp. He is also correct in pointing out Western concerns about maintaining the status quo, which sometimes means tolerating violations of human-rights - and worse - as in the cases of Algeria and the Taliban movement.
In conclusion, he puts forward the idea that the assumption of an "Islamic essence" is false. "Islamic teachings and beliefs have been the subject of many, often diametrically opposed, interpretations in the Arab world" (p. 65). Arab regimes adopt these interpretations to legitimize their positions. He deserves praise for bringing attention to the idea that "Islamists do not represent the force of the future in Arab politics. Their increased social presence has not translated into political power'' (p. 66).
This book is a valuable contribution to the field, for its organizational framework, ideas and insights, and the challenges it poses. It will be a key source for further studies in this field.