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Maintaining True Believers: The Evolution and Moderation of Extremist Movements


Despite contextual conditions unique to every manifestation of political Islam, there exist certain commonalities among movement identity politics which allow for an analysis of how collective action changes over time. The initial formation of group identity in these movements is frequently exclusionary - interpersonal networks are a primary source of recruitment and members of these organizations craft an "us versus them" mentality through which like-minded individuals are brought into the organization. Armed with a common grievance, members of these movements will attempt to achieve change through micro-level activities.

While many organizations are content to affect this micro-level reform of society from within, other organizations will seek more comprehensive reform through a strategy of macro-level change. When such organizations are embedded in a society with free and fair elections, many will turn to the political arena in an effort to express their grievances, compete for resources, and bring about macro-level changes that are somewhat consistent with their initial goals. Success in the political arena, however, requires any exclusionary movement to soften their discourse in an attempt to capitalize on the sentiments of a wider segment of the population.

Engaged in an act of "speech distancing" from the exclusionary rhetoric that marked their roots, these movements carve out a new political space in which their new recruits are a far more heterogeneous mix of different ethnic, religious, and ideological groupings. Ultimately, if this inclusionary process continues, this new generation of recruits can bring about a moderation of the movement's foundational political platform and political outlook.

Alternatively, a subset of hawkish members of the group may believe the organization has compromised its core values. This new set of individuals, defining itself as the organization's "true believers," may form a splinter movement which returns to extremist ideologies and possibly violent acts.

This process is neither unidirectional nor deterministic for all exclusionary movements. Yet all radical organizations exist on a point somewhere along this continuum. An analysis of how organizations progress within these stages is therefore important towards improving our understanding of social movement dynamics.

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