Islamist Internationalism

My current research project, tentatively titled Islamist Internationalism Between the Cold War and Globalization, explores the history of attempts by Islamist activists—above all Shi’a actors from Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq—to overcome the bipolar order of the Cold War and establish a just international order. Scholars of international history have long recognized the importance of internationalism for the history of the Global South, pointing to events like the Afro-Asian Conference in Indonesia in 1955, the Non-Aligned Movement launched in Yugoslavia in 1961, or the New International Economic Order championed by Algeria in the 1970s.

Yet, we have tended to overlook the ways in which Islamist actors saw themselves as active participants in efforts to reform the international system in the interests of the formerly colonized world. Particularly following the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79, Islamist activists saw the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the words of one Lebanese intellectual, as “the base for a global movement that can achieve what the People’s Republic of China failed to achieve in the international arena, and what the Afro-Asian Bloc, the Bandung Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement, the peoples of the Third World, the Palestinian, Arab and African liberation movements began in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.”

My research brings international history methods to bear on an eclectic source base in Persian, Arabic, Russian and other languages to explore how Islamist actors saw themselves contributing toward an “international Islamic revolution” or “the globalization of Islam.” My work is engaged in conversation with several fields. Historians have recovered the history of anti-colonial internationalism, yet research on Islamism has not always taken into account its internationalist dimension. Recent scholarship on the Cold War has emphasized the centrality of the Global South to the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, but fewer works have explored how transnational movements and non-hegemonic states sought to realize their visions of international order in the face of the superpowers. Finally, by following actors who moved between states like Iran, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, my work seeks to bring fields like Iranian history and the history of Afghanistan out of nation-state centric frames and in conversation with one another.

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Cover of Issue 0 of Islamic Ummah, an Iranian magazine devoted to liberation movements. Relations between Islamists and national liberation movements form a core theme of my ongoing research.

Parts of the research related to this project have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals. In 2020, I published an article in the Journal of World History on how Shi’a Islamist activists viewed existing internationalist institutions like the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement as part of a broader special issue on liberal and illiberal internationalisms. I also have a forthcoming article in the Journal of Cold War Studies on relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

I have carried out this research thanks to the generous support of a Freigeist Fellowship from the Volkswagen Foundation, as well as funding from the Hoover Institution and the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies. Support from these institutions has allowed me to make research trips to work with the Afghan Partisan Serials collection at the Hoover Institutions Archives and to make research trips to archives and collections such as the former Soviet archives in Moscow and the Institut Afghanica in Switzerland.

The support of the Freigeist Fellowship has allowed me to lead a research group at the Free University of Berlin titled “The Cold War’s Clash of Civilizations” since October 2016.

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In March 2019, I was able to use funding from the Volkswagen Foundation to host an international workshop, “Cold War Islamisms,” that gathered scholars from around the world working on topics such as the continuities between pre-World War I pan-Islamism and Cold War-era Islamist internationalism; the relationship between Saudi Arabian Islamist internationalist institutions and Iranian revolutionary Islamism; and the role of individual figures such as Abdullah Azzam.

One highlight of the conference was a “keynote conversation” between Pankaj Mishra and Danny Postel.

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Beyond my own work, since 2019 the research group has included a post-doctoral scholar, Dr. Siarhei Bohdan, whose work focuses on the history of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Dr. Bohdan has recently published a peer-reviewed article on the history of relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Khomeinist movement in the Middle Eastern Journal.