There is an interesting piece in the current Strategic Insights by Anne Marie Baylouny: Emotions, Poverty, or Politics: Misconceptions About Islamic Movements.

One-by-one, Baylouny disposes of the ideas that most of the people who join these groups are irrational, desperate, culturally angry, poverty striken, or particularly religous. Instead, she explains that political motivations are the key:

Theories of contentious or adversarial politics, of which social movement theory is the most prominent branch, are well placed to address these issues. Social movement theory has long tackled the question of terrorism and violent conflict. Through the lens of social movement theory, the conundrum of Islamism, so difficult for other perspectives to solve, becomes clear. Beyond the demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns common to democratic systems, contentious politics span a continuum from riots to revolutions and terrorism.[15] Non-violent movements more typically recognized as social movements are included, but these are rare in authoritarian systems.

Despite the claims of movement adherents, the real motivating grievances of Islamism are local issues. Like other social movements, including the anti-globalization campaign, the concerns that motivate Islamists center on their town, their state, and their local economy. Islamist movements differ considerably from each other, having been molded by the states they oppose, the resources available to them, their networks, and other specifically local factors. Even within states, movements can have radically opposed motivating agendas. Some even compete and attempt to defeat other Islamist movements.[16] Statements by group leaders and Islamist charters should thus be viewed in light of their actions in response to concrete changes. Publicly, Hamas may well adhere to its goal of eradicating Israel, yet when has it moderated its behavior in practice? What conditions will bring about a truce, or alternatively a willingness to establish a legitimate political party and participate in democratic elections? As Tilly stated, the “rhetoric of rebellion” does not equate to the actual grievance. Viewing the entirety of movement practices, not their statements, reveals an alternative logic.

Acknowledging Islamism as oppositional politics indicates that its trajectory is not random, but governed by political considerations and strategic calculations. It can develop into different forms of protest and organizing, including civil society and social welfare associations, given appropriate and credible incentives. The relevant influences for the movement are the array of political opportunities it faces. The key questions for policy makers are what are the prevailing power relations, how does the group want these relations to change, and what paths to inclusion in the political system are open or blocked? The latter includes splits among elites that movements can exploit, opportunities to partake in electoral politics, and the character of repression by the state.

Read, as they say, the whole thing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.