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Fault Lines of Islamism: Negotiating Progress, Participation and Patriarchy (completed)

The project explored the tension between Islamism and political and social modernity as it is normatively understood in the West as a condition characterised by freedom, democracy and equal rights.

About the project

This research project took as its point of departure an understanding of Islamism as a modern social movement for reform.


Through in-depth studies conducted in specific countries, the project aimed to present new material that addresses these questions:

  • How thorough is the Islamists’ adoption of democracy as a governing principle?
  • What conditions the choice of violence or peaceful activism as the operational tool for recruitment?
  • How do Islamists picture the role of non-Muslims in a state governed by Islamic principles?
  • How do Islamists view the role of women in society and politics?


Bjørn Olav Utvik: Islamism and Gender (Morocco and Egypt)

This project analysed how the question of gender relations is handled in the discourse and praxis of moderate Islamist movements operating in contexts where they can express their point of view relatively freely.

Both Morocco and Egypt have strong Islamist movements enjoying broad popular support. In Morocco, the focus of the survey was on the legal political party PJD (The party for Justice and Development) and the social movement Al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Beneficence) and in Egypt on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Centre Party (Hizb al-Wasat).

Primary research-questions:

  • On discourse-level, how is the contradiction between the Islamists' stated recognition of women as equal political actors and the acceptance of a traditional view that the man is the head of the family, handled?
  • To what degree is there a difference in the discourse of men and women in the particular movements and how has this developed over time?
  • To what extent are men and women equal, in practice, in the inner life and work of the organization?

In the process of critically analyzing the Islamists' views as they appear in publications and interviews with leaders of the movement, this study incorporated interviews with local scholars who study Islamism and with members of secular feminist organizations.

Tilde Rosmer: The Islamic Movement in Israel

The perceived tragedy of the Palestinian people and the Israeli occupation of the third holiest Muslim site, the al-Aqsa Mosque, located on the Haram al-Sharif (known to Jews as the Temple Mount) in East Jerusalem, are at the centre of the ideology and rhetoric of all Islamist groups. Palestine and al-Aqsa are the foci of much global attention (and contention) and their symbolic value to Muslim communities worldwide cannot be over-estimated. This positions the Islamic Movement in Israel in a particularly central situation, as Muslims and as self-appointed custodians of this holy site, in what used to be their land and what is now occupied by the state to which they hold citizenship. Thus, the Islamic Movement in Israel is conducting its political and religio-cultural struggle in the religious and geographical nexus of Islamic movements worldwide. By examining this movement in its context, this case study intended to enhance understanding of the relationship between rhetoric and action and between universal ideas and particular circumstances in Islamic movements in general.

Rosmer's survey focused especially on understanding the Islamist movement in Israel as a movement within the Israeli political and social landscape, and examined the movement's relationsip with the political process in Israel and the self-relient society of the movement. The research is based on interviews with the movement's leaders and activists, the movement's websites and review of Israeli literature on the movement.

Truls Hallberg Tønnessen: Islamism between Violence and Politics (Iraq and Egypt)

Tønnessen focused on what conditions the choice between a peaceful and an armed strategy from the perspective of Islamists. To a certain extent, one can identify clearly defined alternative trends within Islamism where one of the dividing points is the view on the use of violence. 

Major questions was:

  • What was the reason the Islamist groups Jihad and Gama’a Islamiyya in Egypt in the 1980s and early 1990s insisted on the use of armed struggle as the only effective vehicle for political change, and why did a majority in the same groups from the end of the 1990s reach the opposite conclusion?
  • What conditions the fact that different political groups in Iraq have made different choices following the American invasion on whether to take part in parliament and government, or to boycott the political system or to fight it through armed rebellion?

Mona Abdel-Fadil: Living 'the Message' and Empowering Muslim Selves: A Behind the Screens Study of Online Islam (Phd)

The project examined different aspects of the work practices and counselling services of the Arabic language Social Section of the former and current

The study draws on a combination of online research and seven months of fieldwork in Cairo amongst the Social Section, who specialize in topics related to family, society and counselling. By virtue of this study’s ethnographic methods and thematic focus, it provides ‘thick descriptions’ and analysis of topics that hitherto have not been the focus of research on internet Islam.

On the one hand, this study focuses on what Krüger (2005) has called the ‘hidden knowledge’ of religious websites, such as work practices, meaning-making activities, the institutional narrative and organizational values. On the other hand, this research provides in-depth empirical data and analysis about counselling services (other than fatwas), which can be seen as part of what Hoover (2006) refers to as ‘the culture of therapy’ and dedication to ‘the project of the self’.

One of the major findings of this study is that the counselling philosophy of former Islam Online and current On Islam is based on an adaptation of Western, and in particular American, secular counselling models and therapeutic knowledge to local Arab contexts and Islamic ethics. An interconnected finding is that contrary to what a number of cross-cultural counselling theorists propose, the adaptation of counselling models into non-Western contexts need not entail abandoning the counselling goals of self-autonomy and self-reflexivity (Gerstein et al., 2009). On the contrary, in the case at hand these counselling goals are among the attractive components of American counselling.

This study discusses the overall shared counselling philosophy that underpins the website’s counselling services, yet it also reflects on the individual differences of perspectives, positions and counselling styles among the counsellors. The latter also pertains to positions on gender. In addition, the thesis features a discussion of the marital counselling services and illustrates how ‘micro’ relationship problems are perceived by my research participants as the effects of ‘macro’ societal problems. So the proposed remedies may target two levels at once: the level of the individual and the level of society.

Another important finding is that there appears to be a strong institutional narrative at play, which in addition to constructing a strong identity as ‘Islamist, wasatiyya, professional and pioneers’, is also explicit about the goals of the enterprise, or ‘the message’, namely cultivating self-awareness, social awareness and political awareness. Ultimately, then, the aim is to empower Muslim selves.

Finally, while this organization may be considered an example of ‘activist Islam’ or Islamism, I argue that in order to understand this particular expression of Islamism and organizational context, it is vital to acknowledge the multitude of influences that inspire their institutional narrative, work practices and world-views.

Master's theses

  • Kai Kverme: Does Hizballah exercise a hegemony over Shiite Lebanon?  (MA)
  • Jenny Holmsen: Islamism: A Modernizing Agent on Gender Relations? A Case Study of the Algerian MSP (Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix) (MA)
  • Vegard G. Wennesland: The political organization of the Palestinians in Lebanon (MA)


Conference in Oslo 9.-10. November 2009 (pdf)

Summary of Activities 2008 (pdf)

Democratic Reform in the middle East as Seen from the Opposition
Oslo 7.-8. October 2008. Program (pdf)


Bjørn Olav Utvik & Truls Hallberg Tønnessen: Islamist Movements in the Middle East: Challenging the autocrats (pdf). Report June 2008.

Published Apr. 8, 2021 1:44 PM - Last modified May 28, 2021 3:06 PM


Project manager:
Bjørn Olav Utvik
47-22856808, +47-97133256


  • Bjørn Olav Utvik
  • Tilde Rosmer
  • Kai Egon Kverme
  • Mona Abdel-Fadil
  • Truls Hallberg Tønnessen
Detailed list of participants