Discursive Struggles over World Order (Dissertationsprojekt Pfeifer)


3. Januar 2018

Discursive Struggles over World Order: Exploring Encounters between „Islamists“ and the „West“

Hanna Pfeifer, 2013-2017

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 skepticism, 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. My PhD thesis aims to challenge the view that ‘Islamists’ are merely to be seen as a violent threat and challenge to the ‘liberal‘ world order. Rather, it argues that ‘Islamists’ should be studied in terms of their own conceptions of the world order and claims that these discursive constructions of world order indeed challenge and criticise ‘Western’ ideas of world order, but simultaneously adapt and reproduce them or appropriate them to alter their meaning.

Thus, the thesis wants to answer the following question: How do ‘Islamists’ discursively construct world order and which new perspectives on international politics, conflict and cooperation arise from understanding them? More specifically, four sub-questions are addressed:

  • How do ‘Islamists’ relate to the current world order? In what ways to they challenge, criticise, reproduce and renegotiate meanings of world order?
  • How do Islamists construct their own take on world order? What alternatives to ‘Western’ discourses on world order do they offer?
  • How do images of the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’ structure constructions of world order?
  • How do Islamists make sense of the current conflicts in the world?

The thesis pursues an interpretive research strategy and takes a discourse analytical perspective on ‘world order’ and ‘Islamism’. As John Dryzek has argued, “conflicts in the contemporary international system can most persuasively be interpreted in terms of the clash of discourses” (Dryzek 2006: 155). However, a discourse analysis can also reveal if, besides conflicting interpretations and clashes, there are shared meanings and discursive overlaps between ‘Islamist’ and ‘Western’ discourses. Moreover, it allows for transcending notions of world order which are tied to tightly to a Western, liberal and secular perspective, conceptualise the discursive construction of ‘Islamists’ as important participants in a global political discourse on order and thus show how religion matters in international relations and IR.

The thesis is organised in three large parts: Chapters 2 and 3 present the state of research in the fields of Religion and Secularism as well as Islamism in IR and related disciplines. They also serve the purpose of theoretically positioning the study in the larger debates. Chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to the theoretical and methodological framework of the thesis. Chapters 6 and 7 contain the two case studies and thus the empirical part of this study. Chapter 8 summarises and compares the results of the case studies and draws conclusions for the debates the thesis draws on.

In chapter 2, the emergence of the debate on religion in international relations and International Relations will be retraced. As will be demonstrated, it largely draws on the developments in other sub-disciplines, notably sociology, political and social philosophy and anthropology. The chapter will start with a discussion of the secularisation thesis and normative secularism as well as their reconfigurations and restatements after severe criticism. The terminology as well as basic lines along which phenomena of religion and secularism were discussed there had a significant influence on peace and conflict studies as well as IR. Whereas the initial focus of both disciplines lay on religious resurgence as a violent phenomenon, the debate soon turned to the ambivalence of religion, i.e. that it can both exacerbate violent conflict and be conducive for conflict transformation and peace processes. In IR, the initial attempts of integrating religion into its great paradigms was soon replaced by the project of deconstructing the secularism inherent in the discipline itself. Notably, this debate revealed the political quality of secularism as a discourse and tried to transcend both substantialist and functionalist understandings of religion which dominated the field. It will be argued that this strand of research has opened up a space in which ‘Islamism’ can be understood as a modern and plural discourse which renegotiates the meaning of the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ as well as categories of political order.

Chapter 3 draws on this discursive notion of ‘Islamism’ and locates it in the field of other conceptualisations of ‘Islamism’ in both political and academic discourse. It starts with a meta- perspective on the academic and political construction of ‘Islamism’ as a category before tracing the historical development of both the phenomenon and the academic accounts of ‘Islamism’. It thereby shows which discursive traditions have emerged over the last two and a half centuries and how contemporary actors mobilise them. The chapter ends with a discussion of different suggestions for the classification of ‘Islamist’ actors and concludes by choosing one of them which seems most suitable for this study.

Chapter 4 argues for a discursive understanding of world order which suggests that it can be understood as an on-going struggle over meaning in three fields: sovereignty, legitimacy and utopias/dystopias. Such a notion of world order allows for a conceptualisation of the contestedness of world order both within and beyond ‘Western’ discourse. The chapter will identify and present four Western discourses in each of the three fields as present in academic discourse. While it does not claim that Western academic discourse is the same as Western political discourse, it still holds that the two are intimately connected: Academic discourse both reacts to political discourse and provides it with a repertoire of meanings. In this way, Western discourses (in the plural) are presented as the vivid contestation and struggle over meaning of the world order. At the end of the chapter, the 12 discourses will be operationalised in a matrix of deductive categories of world order which served as a starting point of the empirical analysis.

Chapter 5 explains the methodology of this study. It locates the understanding of discourse analysis pursued here in different traditions discourse analyses as well as in the field of previous IR studies with a discourse-analytical framework. This thesis is a discourse analysis which combines elements of both critical and poststructuralist discourse analysis and focuses on a micro-level of analysis, i.e. on the discursive strategies of ‘Islamist’ actors who try to stabilise and hegemonise meaning. It embraces a productive rather than deliberative understanding of the relationship between power and discourse (Holzscheiter 2014). In a second step, the chapter will show how the concrete method of Qualitative Content Analysis (QCA) can be put into the service of discourse analysis (Schreier 2012) as a means of structuring large amounts of text. The individual steps of the QCA will be presented and explained. Besides the QCA, the empirical study also used in vivo coding for assessing the identity constructions in Hezbollah’s and Ennahda’s discourses. Third, the chapter will justify the ‘case selection’ or ‘selection of selves’ (Hansen 2006) in an interpretive research design. It will argue that Hezbollah and Ennahda are both “politically pregnant” (Hansen 2006: 76) actors whose discourse can be considered as influential in the MENA region. They share some historical and many formal characteristics and notably both operate in a more or less democratic domestic context. At the same time, they not only draw on very different discursive traditions, but also differ regarding their means: While both are regular parties in their respective political system, Hezbollah is also a militant non-state actor who operates transnationally. This difference is particularly relevant for the questions of opposition to the ‘Western’-dominated world order and of potentials for cooperation and conflict. Besides the case selection, the selection of the period of analysis as well as material will be explained. Finally, the chapter will determine the scope and limits of such a discourse analysis.

Chapters 6 and 7 are the core pieces of this thesis. After introducing the historical evolvement of the two ‘Islamist’ actors, it will present the results of the analysis of Hezbollah’s and Ennahda’s discourse on world order as well as their constructions of identity and difference. The chapters will be structured along the main categories of world order and contextualise the results of the QCA in terms of both the conditions of production, dissemination and receptions of the texts and the respective political and social contexts relevant to the actors’ discourses.

Chapter 8 compares the results of the discourse analysis between the two cases and what was developed as Western discourses on world order earlier. It asks for discursive convergence and divergence and critically assesses which potentials for cooperation and conflicts emerge from them. It then locates the results of this study in the debates on religion and ‘Islamists’ in IR and formulates desiderata.


Dryzek, John S. 2006. Deliberative Global Politics. Discourse and Democracy in a Divided World. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Holzscheiter, Anna. 2014. “Between Communicative Interaction and Structures of Signification. Discourse Theory and Analysis in International Relations.” International Studies Perspectives 15 (2): 142-162.

Hansen, Lene. 2006. Security as Practice. Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War. London/New York, NY: Routledge.

Schreier, Margrit. 2012. Qualitative Content Analysis in Practice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.