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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Collective Action and Discursive Shifts: A Comparative Historical Perspective


As a world historian interested in both the history of European orientalism and modern Islamic history, I have long been struck by the similarities between the indeterminacy of our present time and that of the early twentieth century. One place where these indeterminacies come together is the Middle East. Unpredicted by all observers, an Islamic political revival is under way. Since the Islamic revolution in Iran (1978-79), secular nationalism is in retreat in the region, confounding both Left and Right alike. Why is there an Islamist movement in Algeria (the erstwhile center of Third Worldism)? Why is Egypt, which was the leader of progressive Arab nationalism under Nasser, itself increasingly exposed to an Islamist challenge? How are we to understand these developments? Do they represent a retreat from modernity? Accounting for the Islamist movement in the Middle East has thus far confounded all theories. For those concerned with theory and history this gap should induce more concern than it has so far. One way to remap the dimensions of this problem is through a consideration of the similar incomprehension that greeted the emergence of nationalisms in the area following the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

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