Letter from the Editor
John L. Esposito, Editor in Chief
One of the most renowned scholars in the field of Islamic studies in the United States, Editor in Chief John L. Esposito provides a regular commentary for visitors to the site. These letters discuss topics pertaining to this resource and the Islamic world, developments on the site and other issues.
The past decade has witnessed political developments in the Islamic world that have been extraordinary, unprecedented, and—in the case of the ongoing conflict in Syria and other places—deeply troubling and in need of serious attention from the international community. With mixed results, and for a variety of reasons, the Middle East has begun a long transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, throwing into question many of the convenient assumptions that observers held about the region for decades. No single factor can explain this turn of events—and yet many still view the situation exclusively through the lens of religion. At the same time, this process has not happened in a vacuum—and yet it has been so easy to ignore the influence of globalization, Western foreign policy, the so-called war on terror, and the ubiquity of social media.
While this political transition is in its infancy, so too are the attempts within the academic community to reorient itself, and to articulate this new status quo to a larger audience. Perhaps the most unpredictable factor facing scholars and journalists would be the underground nature of youth movements, led as they are by people whose voices have been marginalized, and who still do not get enough attention in international media outlets. Indeed, in many cases, the most pivotal actors are people who, for their own safety, must stay out of the public eye in order to continue their work. And with the ongoing counterrevolutions—most notably in Egypt—international access to the situation on the ground has grown even more limited and unreliable. Making matters more difficult, for most of 2014, the violence in Iraq and Syria has dominated the conversation in the popular media, providing fodder for shouting matches on cables news. Not only have these events threatened to discredit the very idea of a democratic Middle East, but they have provided an opportunity for critics to link the numerous obstacles to democracy to the core principles of Islam itself. Such simplistic narratives ignore the political oppression and economic turmoil that have driven the demands of the democratic movements, including those led by Islamist parties and leaders. Islamists in particular have resisted the expectations of many Western observers. As Asef Bayat points out in his book Post-Islamism, engagement with the democratic process has compelled many Muslim political parties to undergo a radical transformation of their own as they attempt to address human rights concerns, economic reform, and women's rights within an Islamic framework.
It is within this muddled and nuanced context that we have completed two large reference works on political Islam, both of which will appear on Oxford Islamic Studies Online in 2014. These titles are the product of years of commissioning and editorial work, much of which had to adapt to the rapidly changing political situation. The first of these is The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics, edited by Emad El-Din Shahin. This reference work expands the 2009 Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, adding more than 200 new articles while revising and updating many others. Among the new topics are a new article on the Arab Spring along with regional overviews of Europe, North America, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Though intended to cover both classical and modern issues—from the Muslim empires to contemporary concepts of social justice—the project takes into account some of the new directions political Islam has taken in the wake of the uprisings in the Middle East, and how these developments affect Islam on a global scale.
The second project is The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics, also edited by Emad El-Din Shahin and myself, a sourcebook of over 40 in-depth essays focusing on the contexts and intellectual responses of political Islam; the main ideologues of contemporary Islamism, including Hassan al-Banna, Ali Shari'ati, and Sayyid Qutb; the interaction of Islam and politics at a regional level; and specific case studies, such as the rise of the AK Party in Turkey, the evolution of Hizbollah in Lebanon, and the emergence of jihadist groups in Iraq. The goal with this book was to merge overarching themes such as legal interpretation, modernism, and reform with major figures, important events, and movements
While these books have greatly expanded our coverage of these timely issues, our work continues to grow in response to these developments. As events unfold, so too do the opportunities for people to caricature the situation, to leave critical analysis to talk shows and agenda-driven publications, and to revert to simple generalizations that ignore the everyday realities of the Muslim community. It is our hope that by bringing together a diverse collection of scholarly viewpoints, we can steer the conversation toward a more informed understanding. As we have seen in the recent past, the price of miscalculating the political trends in this part of the world can be very high. At the same time, there has never been a better opportunity to engage with the activists and scholars who are building a new future for the Muslim world.
John L. Esposito
Editor in Chief
Oxford Islamic Studies Online