Associate professor of political science Carrie Rosefsky Wickham has been studying Islamic movements for more than fifteen years—long before four hijacked airplanes thrust the subject to the forefront of national consciousness.

“But in a post 9/11 context,” Wickham says, “the perceived significance of research on political Islam has dramatically increased.”

Wickham has been named one of thirteen new Carnegie Scholars by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the first Emory scholar ever selected for this prestigious honor. Carnegie Scholars receive up to $100,000 over two years to pursue pathbreaking research in their fields, which in turn will be communicated to the broader public.

Wickham plans to use the grant to research and write a book, The Path to Moderation: Lessons from the Evolution of Islamism in the Middle East. She hopes to explore the origins and development of a new strand of Islamist political thought that departs from prevailing revivalist (or “fundamentalist”) views on issues such as democracy and human rights. Toward this end, Wickham seeks to identify the conditions and policy choices that encourage certain Islamic leaders to forge a moderate political agenda based, in the words of one advocate, on a “humanist” reading of Islam.

“What I want to discover is, who are the voices which are promoting new interpretations of Islam, which provide a rationale for support of pluralism, democracy, and human rights?” Wickham says. “Why have these voices gained more support from some mainstream Islamist groups than others? And what are the domestic and regional conditions likely to enhance or diminish the resonance of their message in the future?”

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist radicals and the ensuing war in Iraq, centrist leaders are struggling to keep their footing. Never a widely popular position, moderation is even more precarious now, Wickham says.

“These moderate Islamists are not liberal democrats,” Wickham cautions. “But they do represent a trend that is qualitatively different from the more scripturally literalist trend which has dominated Islamist discourse for much of the last century.”

Wickham will conduct a comparative study of Islamist opposition groups in five Arab states as well as Turkey to analyze how different sorts of political and civic participation have influenced Islamist goals and behavior. She particularly wants to explore whether those who advocate a more flexible and inclusive form of faith-based politics do so merely to speed their rise to power or because they have experienced a profound shift in their core beliefs.

“The strategic explanation would imply these leaders are like wolves in sheeps’ clothing, taking a position just for show,” Wickham says. “But there is also the possibility of a learning explanation, in which experience drives change in people’s values and beliefs. I want to look at whether the practice of democracy within institutions can help promote democratic values, even when democracy is absent at the level of the regime.”

Wickham studies the politics of developing countries with a focus on the Middle East and Islamic groups, specifically looking at the cultural foundations of social and political protest. She is the author of Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt (Columbia University Press, 2002). Her article “The Path to Moderation: Strategy and Learning in the Formation of Egypt’s Wasat Party” is due to appear in the journal Comparative Politics this winter in a special issue on the Middle East and Democratization.

“Carrie Wickham is among a group of talented scholars at Emory who are working on some of the most difficult and important issues of our time,” says former Provost Howard O. Hunter. “She is a gifted teacher, a great citizen of the university, and she is rapidly developing into one of the most important political scientists studying the Middle East.” Wickham joined the Emory faculty in 1994 and received the William H. Fox Award for Emerging Excellence in Teaching and Service to the Emory Community in 2001. A graduate of Harvard and Princeton, she is fluent in Arabic.

The Carnegie Corporation selects scholars doing leading-edge work in its particular program areas, which include the implications of Islamic politics and identity. “As the Carnegie Scholars program approaches its fourth year, the announcement of the new class of scholars underscores the importance of the role the creative intellectual plays in a democratic society,” says Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation.

For Wickham, the most exciting possible outcome of her work would be to make not only an academic contribution in her field but to influence public policy as well, by helping U.S. political leaders better understand how to strengthen moderate voices within the Islamic movement as part of their broader strategy for coping with anti-Western Islamic extremism. One key aspect of the moderate strand of political Islam, Wickham says, is that it is rooted within the local culture, and therefore have a much greater likelihood of attracting support than a set of ideas and institutions imposed upon Muslim societies from the outside.

“My aims are very ambitious,” Wickham says. “I’m excited and grateful to be pursuing a project of this scope, and despite the challenges I’m sure to encounter, I’m hopeful that I can do it justice.”—P.P.P.



© 2003 Emory University