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Islamists as Gramscian Organic Intellectuals: Reflections on the Location of an Elusive Social Actor

Islam
Political Theory
Religion
Social Movements
Neo-Marxism
Massimo Ramaioli
German Institute of Global And Area Studies
Massimo Ramaioli
German Institute of Global And Area Studies

Abstract

The question ‘who are the Islamists?’ has been widely explored in the literature (Ibrahim 1980, 1995; Kepel 1985; Ayubi 1991; Lawrence 1995; Wiktorowicz 2001, 2006), in particular when it comes to movements’ leaders. The scholarly consensus contends Islamist leaders share a similar socio-economic background (relatively well educated, recently urbanized, lower-middle class); furthermore, they have been exposed to relative deprivation, cultural dislocation, and rapid cultural and institutional changes. This view has come increasingly under scrutiny, as available data do not seem to support this profile (Kurzman and Naqvi, 2010). Are we then to abandon any overarching characterization of Islamist leaders qua specific social and political actors? In this paper I propose a Gramscian reading of Islamists leaders. While Gramsci’s social theory has already been used to explain Islamism’s emergence (Butko 2004) and strategies of confrontation with the state (Tugal 2009, Kandil 2011), students have not deployed his foundational insights on the intellectuals to analyze the social positioning of Islamist leaders. I offer a dynamic and relational definition of Islamist leaders predicated on the continuum between ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ intellectuals (Olsaretti, 2013, 2014). Rather than looking for a shared socio-economic, educational or geographical background, I focus on the function performed by Islamist leaders as organic intellectuals within a specific ‘historic bloc’ (an institutional, economic and political configuration of class power which is historically bounded). According to Gramsci, the rise of a historic bloc will feature the emergence of class based organic intellectuals. We may thus still be able to define Islamist leaders in reference to an overarching socio-economic and political account by considering their function as organic intellectuals.