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ISLAMIC “NEW SOCIAL MOVEMENTS”? RADICAL ISLAM, AL-QA’IDA AND SOCIAL MOVEMENT THEORY * Philip W. Sutton and Stephen Vertigans European new social movement (NSM) theory was developed to describe and explain the apparently unique character of the wave of collective action that began in the 1960s and continues to this day. Key characteristics of NSM theory are a post-industrial orientation, middle-class activist core, loose organizational form, use of symbolic direct actions, creation of new identities, and a “self-limiting radicalism.” The theory’s claims to movement innova- tion were later criticized by many as exaggerated and ahistorical. However, the filtering down of key NSM elements into social movement studies has led to changing definitions of what social movements actually are and opened up new opportunities for the integration of religious movements into the social movements mainstream. Using the case of radical Islam, and with particular reference to the terrorist social movement organization al-Qa’ida, this article argues that drawing on key features of NSM theory should lead to a better under- standing of radical Islam as well as a more realistic explanation of its continuing development and transformation. The field of social movement studies has, until very recently, not shown much interest in either moderate or radical Islamic movements. As Kurzman (2004: 289) argues, “Over the past generation, the fields of social movement theory and Islamic studies have followed parallel trajectories, with few glances across the chasm that has separated them.” Evidence for this assertion can be found in the lack of integration of Islamic movement studies into the social movements mainstream. In introductions and edited collections of the last decade, studies of Islamic movements are conspicuous by their relative absence. McAdam, McCarthy and Zald’s (1996) collection draws on many secular movements but not Islamist mobil- izations. Tarrow (1998: 185) rightly identifies Islamic fundamentalism as one of three “trans- national social movements,” but does not pursue the characterization. Della Porta and Diani’s (1999: 22) introduction is inspired by “the experience of ‘new movements’” but these do not include religious movements and there are no indexed references to Islam or Islamic move- ments. Similarly, Crossley’s (2002) introduction has no indexed reference to Islam and his list of representative social movements has no room for Islamic movements (2002: 1). Finally, Goodwin and Jasper’s (2003) recent volume includes just one selection on Islam, Kurzman’s (1996) analysis of the Iranian revolution, the one “Islamic” subject that has attracted the attention of social movement research, presumably because of its geopolitical significance. 1
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