The Strategic Choice of Violence in Islamist Groups
Sharifi, Arian M.
Abstract: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY In this dissertation, I study the causes behind Islamist groups' strategic choice of violent contention against states in pursuit of their political objectives. I seek to understand why an Islamist group, that has political goals, engages in violent action against a state to meet its objectives, or, alternatively, why it would only use nonviolent means for the same ... read morepurpose. My main research question, therefore, is: Why do some Islamist groups engage in anti-state violence while others use nonviolent methods of contention in pursuit of their objectives? What make(s) established nonviolent Islamist groups to turn into violent organizations, and what lead(s) organized violent Islamist groups to shun violence, even if temporarily, and cooperate with the state? As implied in the research question(s), the focus of this dissertation is on Islamist groups that have a national agenda and operate within the geographical boundaries of a state; not transnational Islamist organizations with a global focus and trans-border operations, i.e., al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Most traditional studies of Islamism focus on the centrality of ideology as a driving force behind Islamist groups' choice of the method of contention. The general argument in these studies posits that Islamism as an ideology sanctions the use of violence to promote itself. As a result, the degree of an Islamist group's ideological orthodoxy determines its course of action. The stronger the group's belief in Islamist ideology, the more prone to violence it is; and vice versa. In contrast to the traditional approaches, I utilize Political Process Theory (PPT), which privileges structural factors as determinants of Islamist groups' methods of contention. I argue that Islamist groups are not very different from other social movement organizations when making strategic choices. Therefore, I reject the "Islamic exceptionalism" of the traditional studies, which view Islamist groups as ideology-driven, fanatic, even irrational actors. Instead, I treat Islamist groups as rational actors, which make strategic choices based on cost-benefit calculations, and choose a method of contention that maximizes returns on their efforts. I argue that an Islamist group's choice of the method of contention is a function of its motivations and capabilities at any given time. The convergence of a group's motivations and capabilities determines whether a violent or a nonviolent strategy would maximize returns for the group, leading the group to choose the most cost-effective option. A group's motivations and capabilities are, in turn, determined by the confluence of three main factors: (1) the degree of a group's relative access to political power; (2) the nature of government repression of the group; and (3) the degree of a group's access to war-making resources. The causal mechanism for these arguments will be fully explained in the theory chapter, but here the summary of the argument suffices: For the first variable (the degree of a group's relative access to political power), initially, the more access a group gains to political power, i.e., influence over public policymaking, the less prone to anti-state violence it is likely to become; and vice versa. But there is a threshold to this access to political power. Once that threshold is hit, i.e., the group gains too much control over public policymaking, it is likely to become more prone to anti-state violence. Thus, a group's propensity to anti-state violence vis-à-vis its degree of access to political power follows a U-shaped graph. The movement along this U curve follows four stages - deficient access, moderate access, optimal access, and hyped access -, each describing specific levels of access to political power by a given Islamist group, and causing a commensurate effect on its strategic stance. The second variable (the nature of government repression of the group) takes two forms - effective government repression (rapid and decisive), and ineffective government repression (sluggish and lenient). For the former, the argument is that state repression and anti-state violence are correlated in a curvilinear way. Initially, the more the government represses an Islamist group, the more likely the Islamist group is to engage in anti-state violence in reaction; and vice versa. But this entails a threshold. Once state repression reaches a high peak at a fast pace, it is likely that anti-state violence decreases because the repression campaign possibly defeats the Islamist oppositions and takes the group, more or less, out of the contest. In this situation, a group's propensity to anti-state violence vis-à-vis state repression of the group follows an upright V-curve. Thus, in the face of effective government repression, Islamist groups have a low propensity for violence. Ineffective government repression, on the other hand, is weak and lethargic, likely causing the first effect - the upward slope -, increasing the group's anti-state violence propensity, but never reaches the needed threshold to cause the second effect - the downward slope -, to decrease the group's anti-state violence propensity. This is likely to cause prolonged anti-state violence. In the face of this, Islamist groups are likely to have a high propensity for violence in what can graphically be shown as an S-curve. For the third variable (the degree of a group's access to war-making resources), war-making resources include fighters, money, weapons, sanctuaries, supply routes, combat skills, intelligence capabilities, etc.; essentially the elements needed for the manifestation of violent activities. The argument is intuitive and straight forward - the more access a group has to such resources, the more prone to anti-state violence it is likely to be; and vice versa. This access is measured at three levels - no access, insufficient access, and sufficient access -, each describing specific amounts of access to war-making resources by a given Islamist group. It is critical to take the model at its entirety, i.e., the three above-mentioned variables together, and not separately, in order to draw a reasonably sufficient picture of an Islamist group's strategic inclinations. This is because the independent variables interact with each other, and collectively affect the dependent variable. Interaction among the three independent variables means the effect of one of the variables on the dependent variable is not constant within the integrated model - the effect differs at different values of the other variables in the model. In other words, the impact of each independent variable on the dependent variable is different in a standalone form than while mixed with other independent variables. As a result, variations within the variables impact each other, leading to different outcomes than when they are in effect on their own. Thus, while each of the variables has sufficient explanatory power in a standalone approach, the thesis in this dissertation is based on an integrated model of the three independent variables. Given the integration of the independent variables, the model specifies four possible scenarios for an Islamist group on the use of violence as a method of contention. These are: (1) motivated, but incapable of fighting; (2) unmotivated and incapable of fighting; (3) unmotivated, but capable of fighting; and (4) motivated and capable of fighting. Scenarios 1, 2, and 3 are likely to yield no probability of violence, as a group lacks the motivation, the capability, or both, for violence in any of those scenarios. Probability of violence exists only in scenario 4, as a group has both the motivation and capability to engage in violence. In that scenario, three levels of probability of violence - low, medium, and high - are estimated. In the empirical part of the dissertation, I use a case study method, tracing the evolution of political Islam in Afghanistan since the second half of the 1800s, but focus mainly on the activities of the Afghan Islamist groups over the past seventy years. This entails reviewing the inception of political Islam as a result of King Abdur Rahman Khan's state-building efforts in the 1880s through the first half of the 1900s, and showing how the centuries-long social Islam in Afghanistan gradually became political. The formal case-studies for the test of the theory starts with the emergence of formalized Islamist groups in country, i.e., with the Shia Union Party in the late 1940s, moving onto the development of the Afghan Muslim Youth Organization (MYO) in the 1960s, following the latter's evolution after the abolishment of the monarchy and the establishment of the republic in the early 1970s, continuing onto the jihad in the Soviet war era in the 1980s and concluding with the ongoing Taliban's war against the current Afghan regime and its Western supporters. I test the proposed theoretical framework against the empirical facts on the strategic conduct of the various Afghan Islamist groups in each of these four periods - four cases for the empirical test of the model. The cases I study share similar backgrounds and characteristics, but differ on the study variables - the dependent and independent variables. In other words, the statuses of the three independent variables discussed earlier, as well as that of the dependent variable (violent or nonviolent Islamism) entail sufficient variation across the four cases. This allows me to conduct multiple tests of the theory through the test techniques Process Tracing and Congruence Procedure, making theory testing harder, hence, the theoretical argument empirically stronger. I utilize multiple sources to gather data on the empirical side of this research. These include: (1) library research on secondary sources in English, Dari and Pashto; (2) primary source research in the form of over 40,000 pages of newspapers and magazines published by the Afghan mujahideen groups in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as, books and articles written by individuals involved at the highest ranks of decision-making within the groups studied; and (3) in-depth interviews with various stakeholders in the field. The interviewees include former insurgents who have surrendered to the government over the past decade, members of the High Peace Council, mosque mullahs (clerics), as well as, persons from various professional backgrounds in multiple provinces across Afghanistan. I conclude by suggesting that studying the ideology of Islamism and its various types and interpretations is necessary, but insufficient in providing a complete understanding of Islamist groups' choice of violent contention. Hence, other structural factors must be taken into account in order to provide a fuller and more accurate explanation of why Islamist groups engage in violence and otherwise. This research has four main objectives. The first and the primary one is to develop a theoretical model that would enhance our understanding of Islamism and how Islamist groups make strategic choices in their repertoire of contention. This will help us to better appreciate the causes behind anti-state Islamist violence, and prepare more suitable recommendations on how to prevent, decrease or cope with it. The second objective is to provide a succinct historical analysis of political Islam in Afghanistan and the development of the Afghan Islamist movement; a phenomenon that is seriously under-studied in the existing literature on Islamism and on Afghanistan. The third objective is to expand the empirical frontiers of Social Movement Theory to include Islamist groups, particularly Afghan ones, into its traditional constituency of mostly secular or non-religious movements and groups. Finally, the fourth objective is to draw a set of policy recommendations, based on the theoretical framework and the empirical evidence, that could potentially help guide the Afghan government's and its international partners' approach in pushing the current war to a potential end. It is important to note that this research is built upon the works of many scholars, namely David Snow, Susan Marshal, Rhys Williams, Quintan Wiktorowicz, Mohammad Hafez, Omar Ashor, John Foran, Meriem Verges, Anthony Shadid, Carrie R. Wickham, Henry Munson Jr., Edward Schatz, and others who have used various frameworks within Social Movement Theory to explain Islamist activism in various parts of the world. This trend, however, is relatively new and further theoretical and empirical research is needed to develop better frameworks that would provide more accurate explanations of Islamism.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2018.
Submitted to the Dept. of Diplomacy, History, and Politics.
Advisor: Robert Pfaltzgraff.
Committee: Andrew Hess, and Richard Shultz.
Keywords: International relations, and Southeast Asian studies.read less