Bayat, Asef

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Bayat, Asef


Born in Iran; married Linda Herrera; children: Shiva, Tara. Education: University of Kent, Ph.D., 1984.


Office—P.O. Box 11089, 2301 EB Leiden, The Netherlands. E-mail—[email protected].


American University, Cairo, Egypt, teacher of sociology and Middle East studies; International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), Leiden, The Netherlands, academic director; Leiden University, Leiden, ISIM chair. Visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University, New York, NY, and the University of Oxford, Oxford, England.


Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World Experience of Workers' Control, Zed Books (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1987.

Work, Politics, and Power: An International Perspective on Workers' Control and Self-Management, Monthly Review Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Social Movements, Activism, and Social Development in the Middle East, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (Geneva, Switzerland), 2000.

Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2007.

Islam and Democracy: What Is the Real Question?, ISIM/Amsterdam University Press (Amsterdam, The Netherlands), 2007.

Contributor to works by others, including Social Policy and Development in the Middle East and North Africa, edited by M. Karshenas and Moghadam, Palgrave (London, England); contributor to periodicals, including Third World Quarterly, ISIM Review, Social Science Monthly Review, and Politique Africaine. Editor of Development and Change (journal of the Institute of Social Studies).


Asef Bayat is an Iranian scholar who taught sociology and Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and who has held positions as a visiting professor at the University of California in Berkeley, Columbia University in New York City, and the University of Oxford in England. He then became academic director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) and ISIM chair at Leiden University, The Netherlands. His academic and research interests include international development, political sociology, social movements, urban space and politics, the contemporary Middle East, and Islam and the modern world. According to the ISIM Web site, Bayat "has conducted ethnographic research in the areas of popular mobilization in the Iranian Revolution; labor movements; politics of the urban poor; development NGOs; everyday cosmopolitanism; comparative Islamisms; and Muslim youth cultural politics, primarily in Iran and Egypt."

Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World Experience of Workers' Control is Bayat's first book, a history of the Iranian Revolution. He followed with Work, Politics, and Power: An International Perspective on Workers' Control and Self-Management.

In Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran, Bayat studies a number of efforts by the poor of Iran little known outside that country. Rural-urban migration began in the 1950s, but the Shah's land reforms, which were intended to bring Iran into the world market system, had limited success. Small Iranian farms could not compete with agribusiness, and soon farm workers were forced to look for jobs in the industrial sector that offered limited opportunities. In chapter four Bayat writes of the squatter movement of 1979, during which poor Iranians for years resisted efforts by the government to evict them from unfinished apartment buildings they had occupied. In the next chapter Bayat writes of the continuing land occupation efforts through which both rural migrants and urban poor took over farmlands on the fringes of cities and built growing communities. Islamshahr, near Tehran, was first settled in 1966 by 1,000 people. In 1976, there were 50,000, and in 1990, more than 30,000. The people of Islamshahr sought and obtained official recognition and access to public utilities. In chapter six Bayat comments on the 1979 movement by the unemployed who demanded subsidies and employment. Chapter seven describes the colonization of urban public spaces by vendors who set up permanent or mobile retail businesses in spite of the protests of shop owners.

Charles Kurzman reviewed Street Politics in Social Forces, commenting that "these narratives demonstrate the resourcefulness of ordinary people mobilizing to better their lives in a remarkably fluid political situation. Bayat concludes that ‘Muslim Middle Easterners, despite cultural differences, are no different from other low-income groups in the developing world.’"

Social Movements, Activism, and Social Development in the Middle East is a paper written by Bayat for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). It is one in which he considers how institutional reform and policy change are driven by "pressure from below." Grass roots activism has been beneficial to some extent in social development, given the failure of states to be socially responsible toward their people, and particularly their poor. NGOs provide safety nets and services and offer a buffer against the spread of fundamentalism with an alternative agenda. This has been especially important in states that are essentially nonfunctional, as in times of war. Social development is necessary in the securing of economic and social rights, as well as in developing self-sustaining programs, but NGOs in the Middle East have generally failed to achieve these goals due to discrimination against religious minorities, secular institutions, and exclusivism. In an excerpt posted at the UNRISD Web site, Bayat writes: "Apart from cultural and structural reasons—such as clientelism and hierarchy—the problem is that very often NGOs are attributed with development qualities and abilities that they do not possess. However, the socioeconomic conditions of the Middle East seem to be conducive to a particular form of activism—a grassroots non-movement that I call the ‘quiet encroachment of the ordinary.’ This refers to non-collective direct actions of individuals and families to acquire basic necessities (land, shelter, urban collective consumption, informal jobs, business opportunities) in a quiet, unassuming fashion."

Islam and Democracy: What Is the Real Question? was published by ISIM and Amsterdam University Press. In this paper Bayat considers whether Islam is compatible with democracy and how the political and social struggles of modern Islam draw it closer to either democratic or authoritarian principles. In his book Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, he also pursues this topic by providing a contrast of two societies, the Iranian society to which he was born and where he lived through the 1979 revolution, and the society of Egypt, where he later lived and worked. In reviewing the volume for the New Humanist Online Web site, Sami Zubaida noted that Bayat points out that "the key is how different Muslims read their religion in relation to politics. It is only under conditions of modernity and secularisation that some Jews and Christians, and now some Muslims, have come to read democracy into their religions at all. In Muslim milieus these readings are often half-hearted and ambiguous, as is clear from the book's account, especially of Egypt."

Bayat compares Iran's active revolution and change that came from above, followed by rejection of the repressive Islamic government, with the passive Egyptian revolution that was doomed to fail under a very restrictive regime. Egypt has experienced reform, but unlike Iran, intellectual life and Islamic scholarship stagnated. Zubaida concluded by observing that it is not Islam but authority and power of these distinctive states that "continue to make democracy seem a remote prospect in these great but troubled countries." Library Journal reviewer Nader Entessar wrote: "This book should be read not only by those interested in the contemporary Middle East and Islam but by students of modern social movements generally."

During Lustrum Week, a celebration of the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Institute of Social Studies, Bayat and the ISS journal Development and Change offered a two-day symposium titled "Cities of Extremes." The event that took place on October fifteenth and sixteenth of 2007, was an in-depth examination of not only the poverty, lawlessness, and extremism of slums, but also a more complete picture of the people, including displaced professionals, who live in them. Some slums evolve into villages, but with such a designation comes responsibility, including adherence to laws and paying of taxes, which many cannot afford. Countries have different standards for what is urban and what rural, and by accepting a center as urban, the city, likewise, may have the responsibility of providing services.

An interview of Bayat is posted on the Web site of the Institute of Social Studies. He noted that in highly politicized occupied areas such as Palestine and Baghdad violence is commonly used as a mean of resistance, for example with suicide bombings. Bayat felt these two examples to be exceptions, however. "I see the norm rather as the process of ‘quiet encroachment’ in which slum dwellers encroach quietly into spaces to acquire the basic necessities. Although this process is risky, involving a constant state of insecurity, it is less so than public protestations or acts of violence, especially when the gains from such activities are not usually immediate. The process of quiet encroachment is more effective in the developing world, where the authorities or the state are either unable to control all of the city escapes, or are willing to tolerate the encroachment for the time being."

Asked if he perceived slums as spaces of desperation or innovation, Bayat replied: "Slum life is often considered to be dull, depressing and full of misery. While it is true that there exists a constant struggle for survival there is also more than that. Life and hope exists there in equal abundance. People make themselves busy by taking initiatives and aiming to fulfill personal aspirations. Parents tend to invest so much in their children to give them an education that would enable them to have a life better than they themselves had." Bayat concluded the interview by saying: "I want to highlight this other side of the informal life that includes a culture of vibrancy rather than desperation, chaos and violence."



Asian Affairs, February, 1999, Gawdat Bahgat, review of Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran, p. 87.

California Bookwatch, December, 2007, review of Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn.

Choice, May, 1998, L. Beck, review of Street Politics, p. 1613.

International Journal of Middle East Studies, November, 1999, Ali Akbar Mahdi, review of Street Politics, p. 657.

Library Journal, June 1, 2007, Nader Entessar, review of Making Islam Democratic, p. 134.

Middle East Journal, spring, 1999, Gawdat Bahgat, review of Street Politics, p. 299.

Reference & Research Book News, August, 2007, review of Making Islam Democratic.

Social Forces, June, 1998, Charles Kurzman, review of Street Politics, p. 1587.


Al-Ahram Weekly Online, (July 3, 2003), Willa Thayer, profile and interview.

Institute of Social Studies, (March 14, 2008), "Slums, Informality, and Politics" interview.

International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World Web site, (March 14, 2008), biography.

New Humanist Online, (March 14, 2008), Sami Zubaida, review of Making Islam Democratic.

Rain Review of Books, (March 14, 2008), Peyman Vahabzadeh, review of Street Politics.

United Nations Research Institute for Social Development Web site, (March 14, 2008), excerpt from Social Movements, Activism and Social Development in the Middle East.