Islam itself, are to a great extent contextspecific, the result of the interpenetration of religious precepts and local culture, includ-ing political culture.
It is true that there is an Islamic vocab-ulary that transcends political boundaries.However, this vocabulary is normally em-ployed to serve specific objectives in discretesettings. Thus, although the Islamic idiommay appear to be the same everywhere tothe uninitiated observer, it differs from set-ting to setting. As the anthropologist DaleEickelman and the political scientist JamesPiscatori note, politics becomes “Muslim”by “the invocation of ideas and symbols,which Muslims in different contexts identifyas ‘Islamic,’ in support of...organized claimsand counterclaims.”
Since such claims andcounterclaims, and the contesting that ac-companies them, are normally specific to aparticular sovereign state, the political ac-tivity engendered by such claims—oftencarried out in the name of Islam—is gener-ally confined within the boundaries of thatstate.It becomes clear that the Islamist polit-ical imagination is largely determined bycontext when one looks at the politicaldiscourse and, more importantly, the activi-ties of the various Islamist movements. Jamaat-i-Islami is as Pakistan-specific asthe Islamic Salvation Front is Algeria-spe-cific. The strategies of the Muslim Brother-hood, which was founded in Egypt and hasbranches in various Arab countries, differfrom country to country. The Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian variants have adoptedradically different political strategies in re-sponse to local challenges. Indeed, the par-ent organization in Egypt has itself mutatedover time, its leadership in the early 1980sunequivocally rejecting the more radical andmilitant ideas associated with Sayyid Qutb,its chief ideologue of the 1960s.
A Modern Phenomenon
Political Islam is a modern phenomenon,with roots in the sociopolitical conditionsof Muslim countries in the nineteenth andtwentieth centuries. It is a product of theMuslim peoples’ interaction—military,political, economic, cultural, and intellec-tual—with the West during the past twohundred years, a period when Westernpower has been in the ascendant and Mus-lims have become the objects, rather thanthe subjects, of history.Modern Islamist political thinkers de-vised the term “Islamic state” in order toreconcile their romanticized vision of the Is-lamic polity with the existence of sovereignstates on the European model that wereproducts of the twin processes of coloniza-tion and decolonization.
In practical terms,the Islamists’ preoccupation with the Islam-ic state has meant the attempt to Islamizeexisting Muslim states. Only a very smallminority of Islamists thinks that mergingthe Muslim world into a single Islamiccaliphate is a feasible proposition.
Mostly,the search for the pristine Islamic state hasled to the emergence of what the Frenchscholar Olivier Roy has called “Islamo-nationalisms.”
Many such Islamo-nationalist move-ments, from North Africa to Southeast Asia,were fashioned in the crucible of resistanceto colonial domination. During the colonialperiod, the Islamist movements had to sharethe stage with secular nationalist forces thatwere in most cases the leading vehiclesthrough which the anticolonial struggle waswaged. However, Islamist resistance move-ments, like their Marxist counterparts, oftendeparted from the exclusively political pre-occupations of the more secular groups bydevising strategies for social as well as polit-ical transformation. Unlike the Marxists,however, the Islamists were less interestedin socioeconomic change than with moraland cultural transformation.This emphasis on the cultivation of cer-tain cultural traits and moral values that aresupposedly in conformity with Islamic pre-cepts continued in the postcolonial era. Inseveral cases, Islam had already underpinned