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Typologizing jihadi movements, historicizing their emergence, tracing their ideologies

A selection from Abdallah Azzam's manifesto Jihad Sha`b Muslim (Jihad of the Muslim People) arguing that jihad is an individual duty incumbent upon all Muslims

An all-day workshop on November 13, organized by UCLA History Professor James Gelvin, brings together leading scholars to take stock of the various approaches used in the study of jihadism and jihadi movements, discuss the assumptions and methodological problems encountered by researchers, and propose alternative approaches that conform to more broadly applicable historical and social science practice.

In the six years that have passed since the events of September 11, 2001, many books and articles have appeared on jihadism and jihadi movements such as al-Qaeda. Some of this literature could be categorized as policy analyses that use terrorism and counterterrorism as fundamental units of analysis. Other examples employ an idealist history-of-ideas approach— from ibn Taymiyyah to Qutb to Farag to Azzam to Zawahiri— to account for the lineages of contemporary movements. Still others emphasize the role played by contingent factors— American support for the Afghan mujahidin, the rise of petro-Islam, the radicalization of Egyptian Islam in response to the policies of Nasser and Sadat, or any combination of these factors— to explain the appearance of jihadism and jihadi movements. A common thread running through most of these accounts is their underlying assumption of Islamic or Middle Eastern exceptionalism.

"I was reading about al-Qaeda and terrorism, said Gelvin, and as a historian, I thought it was time to sit down and take a stab at figuring the thing out. I had written on al-Qaedatype jihadism before, as well as mass-based Islamist groups and the problem historians have when dealing with the category of religion, and I wanted to bounce around some ideas with others who had written about those topics and who probably felt the same way about the problem as I did. In other words, some serious discussion among serious social scientists about what the phenomenon is all about, its roots, and the reasons for the timing of its emergence."

The conference begins at 9:00 am on Tuesday, November 13, at the UCLA Faculty Center. CNES Director Susan Slyomovics will open the proceedings, and Bruce Lawrence of Duke University will present the keynote address titled Osama bin Laden as Media Star: The Making of an Information Age Anti-Hero. His presentation will be followed by David Dean Commins of Dickinson College who will consider The Wahhabi Factor in Jihadi Islam, and Rola El-Husseini of Texas A&M University who will analyze Jihad in Modern Shi`a Thought. The afternoon panel consists of presentations by Mark LeVine of UC Irvine, speaking on Jihad of the Song: Music and Struggles for Social Change in Muslim Majority Countries, and James Gelvin, presenting a paper on Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historians Reply to Terrorology. UCLA historian Patrick Geary will engage the panelists and audience in discussion.

In his paper, Gelvin critiques a variety of attempts to categorize jihadi movements. Terrorology (which uses the concept of terror as a transhistorical analytical category) he finds wanting (if not downright silly). He ends up comparing al-Qaedastyle jihadism with anarchism: both might be seen as episodic, defensive, and anti-systemic discourses. 

Podcasts of all the presentations will posted on the CNES website, and several of the papers are available as PDFs.

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