Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg

Hanna Pfeifer

M.A. Hanna Pfeifer

Bereich Politikwissenschaften (PW)

Gebäude 40, Zschokkestr. 32, 39104, Magdeburg,

PhD Project

Discursive Struggles over World Order: Exploring Encounters between "Islamists" and the "West" 
(pursued since August 2013, last updated January 2016)

Throughout the last 20 years, the phenomenon of the resurgence of religion in international politics has challenged both decision-makers and academics. In particular, there is a growing public attention for political Islam after 9/11 and, more recently, the “Arab Spring” that is often characterised by scepticism, sometimes fearfulness: The perception that "Islamist" actors act violently and irrationally and endanger a peaceful global order is common not only in Western publics, but also among politicians and scholars.

This PhD project will deal with the discursive encounter between so-called “Islamist” actors and the current world order marked by "Western" hegemony. More specifically, it will try to answer the following questions: How do “Islamists” understand, criticise and challenge the current world order? Which alternatives of world order do they imagine and pursue? Which potentials for cooperation or dangers of conflict arise from their positioning without or within the "Western" discourse?

Goals of the Project

Theoretically, I would like to gain a better understanding of the role of religion in international relations by trying to bridge the gap between the hitherto secular vocabulary of International Relations theory and “Islamists’” non-secular language - or rather first explore whether and to what extent there is a gap to bridge. I would like to argue against an understanding of "Islamists" as both irrational fundamentalists caught up in an opaque world of religion and rational utillity maximisers that use religion as a cover for their actual interests. In order to understand them, we should take them seriously as political actor - not least because this might direct our attention to common discursive ground rather than eternal incongruity.

Empirically, I will explore how “Islamist” actors as the alleged “Other” of the "West" deal with and frame their encounters with the current world order.  This includes both criticism of the current as well as visions of an alternative world order. What I am interested in is thus the space where arguments are made that relate to each other in both positive and negative ways - the discursive encounters between the "West" and "Islamists" where both somehow and unavoidably talk about the same issue, are capable of understanding each other, sometimes even use the same semantics, but do not necessarily agree - even though they might do more so than the public image of "Islamists" would suggest.

On a meta-level, I would also like to contribute to the attenuation of the "West-Islamism" antagonism that sometimes overwrites the "West-Islam" divide that has often been discussed. Such strong divides are dangerous not only because they lead to premature and unreflected normative judgments and often have disastrous political consequences, but also because they tend to guide or at least unconsciously structure our academic analyses and thus cloud our judgment.

Structure of the Thesis

In a first step, I will show that the "Islamist-West" divide is a reiteration of the "religious-secular" binary that has recently been deconstructed by several contributions to an interdisciplinary debate. The effects of this divide are an alleged incommensurability between the "Western" and "Islamist" discourse on world order, whicht produces the "Islamist" as the eternal enemy of modern statehood, democracy and pluralism the "West" is said to have brought about. I will argue that this binary can only exist if both the "Islamists" and the "West" are imagined as unitary subjects without inner differentiation. This already points to the way to go if one wants to deconstruct this antagonism: Show that both the "Islamists" and the "West" as well as their respective discourses on world order are plural and look for discursive connectivity, but also conflict between those plural discursive threads.

In a second theoretical part, I will develop a model of world order that consists of sovereignties (things that are ordered), legitimacies (principles of order) and teleologies (goals of order) and identify four main paradigms respectively that charaterise the current debate on world order in "Western" academia. On the one hand, this will lead to a differentiated picture of the "Western" discourse of world order; on the other hand, these twelve paradigms also allow for a detailed, specific and careful search of connectivity and conflict with other discourses of world order - instead of simply assessing general opposition.

The third empirical part will present three case studies of "Islamist" actors the selection of which is based on the different discursive traditions in "Islamist" discourse in the dimensions of goals, means and theological-ideological position. The goal is to cover the most broad range of actors that are usually called "Islamists" possible. I will thus analyse an-Nahda ("post-Islamist", participation, modernist sunni), Hezbollah ("traditional Islamist", participation and violence, revolutionary shiite) and daesh (neo-fundamentalist, violence, Salafi).

Steps of the Analysis

The discourse analysis will consist of three steps. In a first step, an Atlas.ti-supported qualitative content analysis will be conducted in which the identified paradigms serve as deductive categories in order to detect convergence and divergence between the "Islamist" and "Western" discourse on world order. Where an argument or an utterance to not fit the deductive categories, they serve as the basis for an inductive category that, in the process of analysis, will be further developed into a paradigm. In this first analysis, all speeches, programmatic statements, manifestos etc. delivered and issued by the mentioned actors since 2011 (i.e. the beginning of the "Arabellion") will be coded. The result of this step is a selection of texts and parts of texts that contain (surprising) points of convergence or conflict and thus deserve further attention.

This is why, in the second step, an intra-textual contextualisation will help decipher the meaning of certain utterances and help elaborate on and form a more comprehensive picture of the paradigms of world order that indeed operate outside the matrix made up by the "Western" discourse on world order. It will also help identify the status of such conflicting arguments and their (relative) importance in relation to converging arguments. This contextualisation will be guided by questions such as in what textual contexts does the arguments appear? Does it appear most often in relation to other arguments from other paradigms? At what location in a closed text does it appear – at the beginning, at the end? Is it related to particular actors that are mentioned?

The final step of the analysis is an inter-textual contextualisation that is occupied with the broader picture of the production, dissemination and consumption of the texts: For what purpose has the text been produced? What was the political context of the production? What audience is addressed directly and indirectly? How are the texts disseminated, for whom are they available? Such a contextualisation is crucial for the interpretation of the status and relevance of the paradigm and the arguments made in it. It can help determine, for instance, whether it has rather a rhetorical function or is a politically programmatic point. It gives clues about the severity of the discursive rupture and, most importantly, as to whether it could translate into (violent) conflicts.

Expected Results

In conclusion, I hope that this study will help us develop a new interpretation of ongoing conflicts between and within the regions of the West and the Middle East: Following Dryzek (2006), they can be understood as clashing discourses or discursive struggles over the question of world order. However, this understanding should not cloud the view for common discusive ground at places where we did not expect them. Rather, revealing connectivity as well as rupture between different discourses of world order can alter normalised interpretations of conflict.



Research Interests

Letzte Änderung: 08.10.2015 - Contact Person: M.A. Hanna Pfeifer