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Conference Papers Year : 2011

Ulama, intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Islamist Mobilisation


Ulama, intellectuals and the struggle for authority within Islamist movements The struggle for authority between the ulama, upholders of tradition, and the intellectuals, products of modernity, in the contemporary Middle East has been analyzed abundantly. In the eyes of many, the Islamist project was precisely intended to bridge the gap between the two groups, by creating a new socio-political category – the “Islamist activist”. Yet, contrary to most assumptions, the same conflict continued to pervade Islamist movements, representing one important weakness that has only seldom been noted by observers. Islamist movements count within their ranks different categories of individuals who perform distinct functions. Roughly speaking, there are, on the one hand, the “Islamist intellectuals” (in the general sense), who are experts in secular domains – they may be doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc… – and who are closely acquainted with modern techniques and ideas, and thus generally function as the movement’s “technicians” and strategists; and the “Islamist ulama”, who have studied religion and are typically more traditional, and whose role is essentially to uphold the movement’s Islamic legitimacy. To mobilize effectively, Islamist movements have had to rely on those two categories of actors, who possess complementary resources. Yet, although they share common ideological beliefs, the fact that they come from very different backgrounds and pertain to distinct “fields” (in Bourdieu’s sense) with their own values and logics, has generated conflicts for authority and leadership between them. This paper will explore those struggles in the case of the Saudi and Egyptian Islamist movements. I will argue that they explain, to some extent, the ultimate failure of the mobilizations initiated by those movements in their respective contexts. I will also show that some of the recent developments within Islamism – especially the rise of new “post-Islamist” movements – can partly be accounted for by those conflicts.
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hal-03415496 , version 1 (04-11-2021)



Stéphane Lacroix. Ulama, intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Islamist Mobilisation. Language, Literacy and the Construction of Social Authority in Islamic Societies, Mar 2011, Stanford University, United States. ⟨hal-03415496⟩
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