Stefan Malthaner, Mobilizing the Faithful. Militant Islamist Groups and their Constituencies

Stefan Malthaner, Mobilizing the Faithful. Militant Islamist Groups and their Constituencies(Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 2010) 273 pp.; ISBN 978-3-593-39412-1;Euro 32.90; US$ 49.-

Reviewed by Joost Augusteijn

This book is to be welcomed for many reasons, but primarily for providing a new focus in terrorism studies. It is one of the first works dealing explicitly with the responses of the societal surround of militant groups to their actions and ideas, which in a recent issue of this journal (vol. V, no.1) was placed first on a list of fifty un- and under-researched topics. Studies that incorporate support relations between terrorists and the population have so far focused exclusively on the way the terrorists or the state dealt with the small circle of people directly around the terrorists who provide recruits and practical asssistance. Malthaner widens the scope of existing research by focusing on dynamics of interaction and patterns of development in relationships between terrorists and their constituency. His definition of ‘constituency’ is based on reference group theory: ‘real social groups whom the militants address and to whom they refer, with whom they are actually involved in some form of relationship, and who – at least to a certain degree – actually sympathise with and support the militant groups’ (p. 29).

For his analysis, Dr. Malthaner looks at three Islamist organisations in the Middle East: (i) the Lebanese Hizbullah, (ii) al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and (iii) al-Jihad – both of them Egyptian. In the process, he successfully challenges the idea that religious terrorists execute their acts for no audience but themselves and therefore, unlike other terrorists, allegedly feel no constraints. He makes clear that even suicide bombings were for the perpetrators not primarily a direct way to paradise but a tactical weapon in a struggle with a political objective. Malthaner thus convincingly shows that religion-based terrorists also have a social context and a political objective (e.g. liberate people from oppression) and that their interactions with their constituency had a direct effect on the goals and orientation of these militant groups. Consequently, he concludes that theoretical insights and concepts developed in the study of nationalist and socio-revolutionary movements are also applicable to religious terrorists; in other words: there is no Islamist exceptionalism.

As can be expected from a doctoral study supervised by Peter Waldmann, the book has a very strong and impressive theoretical and methodological introduction; it covers almost half of the volume. In the other half, the type of support relations are analysed and then traced from the beginning of violent conflict in the 1980s to a stabilisation at the end of the last century, first for the Egyptian cases and then for Hizbullah. This balance between theory and fundamental research, however, also highlights a number of the few weaknesses of this study. While the fact Malthaner actually went to Egypt and Lebanon to do primary research is admirable, his use of local sources is limited and somewhat uncritical. For the opinions of the constituency he relies on secondary literature and some newspaper headlines, supplemented by personal observations and interviews he conducted himself. Remarkably, there is no use of material produced by the constituency itself. The only instances where their actual opinion is represented, consists of quotations from interviews, in which the statement of one person is uncritically presented as reflecting the feeling of villages with 10,000 or neighbourhoods with 750.000 inhabitants! The names of the interviewees are also not disclosed nor are the interviews themselves in the public domain. This makes their status as evidence even more problematic. The fact that there are some opinion polls and election results available in the Lebanese case makes his representation of public opinion somewhat more convincing for the case of Hizbullah.

 Since Malthaner deals with developments over a long period in a small number of pages, this means that we learn very little about the reaction of the constituency to specific events or the substance of their reactions. The inclusion of a study of al-Jihad -  although on a theoretical level understandable as an example of an organisation which turns away from its constituency once it encounters opposition -  is in practise odd as there is virtually no further attention paid to this group. The book is essentially a comparison between al-Jawaa and Hizbullah. Malthaner’s desire to see support relations between the population and the organisations under investigation occasionally also leads to inconsistencies. For instance, when he argues that the Islamists received support from shopkeepers and traders after showing how a conflict between them led the Islamists to burning down their shops for selling items the Islamists disapproved of. Or his claim that the Islamists relied on family support and the social standing of their families rings odd as he also writes that they were instructing new recruits to sever the ties with these same families.

Despite these criticisms, Malthaner is convincing when showing the importance of the relationship with the constituency for the understanding of the behaviour and success of terrorist movements. He does provide the first systematic analysis of the structure and development of support relationships, indicating the constraints under which a successful movement has to act to obtain and maintain public support. As long as a militant movement provides economic support and social services, maintains order through policing services as well as mediation, it can be expected to be widely accepted. If, on the other hand, the movement actively starts to enforce its own moral code of conduct on the population, acceptance becomes much more problematic. He also shows that repression by the security forces after a support relationship has been established is dangerous - unless it is done with overwhelming force. However, in the case of repression by a foreign government as in the case of the Israelis in south Lebanon, even extreme force appears to have been counter-productive.

The question whether the results of Malthaner’s research apply to terrorist movements in the Western world remains unanswered in this book. Many of the support relations such as those based on traditional loyalties or utilitarian exchanges are less relevant in most Western countries. The similarities in support relations between these religiously inspired movements and the nationalist IRA nevertheless raises the question whether the absence of such relations accounts for the lack of success of socio-revolutionary organisations in the 1970s. Fortunately, the author is aware of the limitations of his study and its ability to sustain definitive conclusions. While one cannot generalise on basis of this study, it does provide informed suggestions on patterns of interaction and basic forms of support relationships. All this put together makes this the most illuminating work on terrorism this reviewer has read in a long time.


About the Reviewer: Joost Augusteijn is Lecturer at the Department of History of Leiden University, The Netherlands, and member of the Editorial Board of Perspectives on Terrorism


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Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies

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