Islamism versus Post-Islamism? Mapping topographies of Islamic political and cultural practices and discourses

The Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders” at the Goethe-University in Frankfurt/Main enquires into the dynamics of social change, as well as into the justification narratives used in rationales given for the legitimacy or illegitimacy of normative orders. Within this research program, one group of researchers focuses in particular on transformation processes in Muslim-dominated countries and countries with significant Muslim minorities.

The general view seems to be that in these countries the cultural space shaped by Islamic discourses poses a challenge for Max Weber’s thesis that the world is becoming increasingly secularized and disenchanted. Islam is not only a vital religion attracting more and more followers, it has also undergone a number of adaptations to modernity in the course of the past 100 years. In countries with laical or pluralist political traditions, scores of young people join Islamist organizations, Islamic lifestyles are immensely popular, and Islamic utopias are serving as models for social reform. In many countries of the Muslim World, recent political developments have opened a political space to transform utopian Islamic political visions into policy, developments that seem to support some scholars’ assertions of a crisis of liberal democracy and the coming of a post-secular age.

Yet, the political and civic landscapes in which the actors are (re-)negotiating socio-political orders are far more variegated and not in the least limited to purely secularist or post-secular Islamist visions. In practice, Islamic and Islamist discourses as well as reform efforts are characterized by a great deal of diversity, as well as by ambiguities and paradoxes that touch on all fields of social, economic, political, and cultural activity. Not least among the ambiguities and paradoxes are how Islamist movements have been and currently are positioning themselves vis-à-vis central principles of liberal democracy, such as pluralism, gender justice and unconditional equality before the law. This has led several scholars to suggest that Islamist movements are not necessarily anti-democratic. Rather, such movements may figure as important forces in the political transformation of regimes in the Muslim World from authoritarian to democratic, a development they identify as a “post-Islamist” turn, the most prominent cases of which are presently Tunisia and Egypt following the “Arab Spring”.

At the same time, polysemic signifiers such as “democracy”, “justice” and “pluralism” are in practice interpreted in highly contrastive ways, with competing actors ascribing substantially different meanings to them in their struggles for social hegemony and political power. Our conference seeks to link empirical research with theoretical debates about contemporary social, political and legal changes in the Muslim World, including developments not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in Central and South Asia, as well as the Muslim-majority countries of the ASEAN region. In what direction are the dynamics of the contestations in the countries of these regions taking political and social developments? To what extent are analytical claims of post-secularism and “increasing Islamization”, or a “post-Islamist turn”, sufficient to capture the multidimensional processes at play in the various country-specific settings? Can concepts such as post-secularism or post-Islamism provide useful lenses through which to illuminate the empirical findings of on-the-ground analysis of these processes? Or, if the ideal-typical narratives in which these concepts are embedded appear unsatisfactory, what alternative modes of explanation appear more adequate to describe the social and political topographies presently taking shape?

The aim of the conference is to elucidate the complexities and ambiguities of these competing discourses and efforts of cultural and political reform [and to identify and contextualize some recurring features of the political landscapes currently undergoing transformation]. The organizers welcome paper proposals from researchers and practitioners doing empirical work in the Muslim World or in societies with significant Muslim minorities that focus on the following themes:

  • Movements and Civil Society
  • State and Nation (Building), Government & Governance
  • Modernization and Reform
  • Sexuality, Body, and Personhood

We welcome contributions that address the following important cross-cutting issues as they pertain to one of the above themes: violence, (new) media, youth, gender, art & aesthetics,  law(s), legal pluralism(s), and comparisons of  rural and urban contexts. Since the conference will also feature an early-career scholar’s forum, we particularly look forward to receiving paper proposals from early-career researchers.

Abstracts (in English or German) should not exceed 350 words and may be submitted to Prof. Dr. Susanne Schröter ( by 30 August 2013.