The global pan-Islamic, transnational Islamist movements envision an idealistic global order where popular sovereignty will be supplanted by an Islamic Sharia-based state (dawla Islamiyya). Imbued with traits of modernity, Islamism is a modern-day ideology that attempts to reinterpret the Islamic doctrine (aqidah) into its desired mould while vigorously resisting liberal interpretations and efforts of cultural modernisation. The Islamist thinkers castigate the ‘man-made’ nation-states while postulating the Islamic system (nizam Islami) as an alternative to socialism, nationalism, and the cultural and political hegemony of the West.
Islamism is a shrewd attempt to reinvent the tradition of Islam. By reinterpreting Islamic history hermetically, the Islamist ideologues often decontextualise events from time and space and re-imagine a future that would serve their ultimate purpose: the establishment of an Islamic State. This ahistorical approach puts the Islamists at odds with the traditional interpreters of Islam, the ulama, whom, alongside Muslim rulers, they hold responsible for the decline of the Islamic civilisation (Ayoob, 2007, p. 2). They claim to have exclusive access to God and hurl charges of illegitimacy and blasphemy at their critics, while purporting to have found an unadulterated version of the teachings of Islam (Tibi, 2012, p. 9).
Islamists are not a monolithic block. The Islamist denominations worldwide run the gamut from self-proclaimed non-violent political groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir to death cults like ISIS. The focus of this article is on the Islamists who compete in the political spheres of Muslim-majority countries, in other words, on Political Islam.
Despite sharing many common traits, Political Islam should not be mistaken for Salafism, nor should it be regarded as inherently violent. Within the spectrum of Islamist ideologies, what sets Political Islamists apart from Salafi-Jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda is the fact that Salafi-Jihadi militants are primarily concerned with bringing an end to the military presence and political influence of the Western countries in the Islamic world through an armed struggle. Unlike the Political Islamists, militant ideologues like Osama Bin Laden have not laid out a blueprint of a future Islamic State (Wright, 2007, p. 107). However, it is important to note that not all Salafists are violent, either; some Salafists do not harbour any political or militant ambitions.
Political Islam, nonetheless, strays away from Salafism on three key issues. Unlike the Salafists, it advocates for societal change through a political revolution. At the helm of this revolution are young intellectuals from secular institutions, who use religious jargon and claim to be religious to convince their audience.
Furthermore, when it comes to the application of Sharia law and the status of women, Political Islam’s worldview is different from that of the Salafists. Political Islamists harbour less enthusiasm for the rigid application of Sharia law. They argue that the transformation of the society into an Islamic mould should take precedence over the mere application of Sharia law. Only after the Islamisation of the society can Sharia law justifiably be applied.
Political Islamists put particular emphasis both on the education of women and their participation in social and political life—barring the transgression of certain Islamist caveats, such as mandatory gender segregation. Islamist parties have always maintained women’s wings. Woman activists continue to play important roles not only within Islamist party structures but also in public engagement (Roy, 1998, p. 39).
The origins of Political Islam can be traced back to the colonial period. The fall of the Ottoman empire and subsequent abolition of the Islamic Caliphate created sudden pandemonium in the Muslim world. In 1928, it was against this backdrop that Hasan Al Banna (1904-1949), a school-teacher from the British controlled town of Isma’iliyya in Egypt, formed the youth club Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimmen) to resist what he deemed the ‘orientations to apostasy and nihilism’ engulfing the Muslim youth (Hiro, 1988, p. 60).
In response to the British mandate and Zionist colonialization in 1936-7, the Muslim Brotherhood transformed itself into a political entity. It declared Islam as (1) a ‘self-evolving system’ and the ultimate path of life that (2) emanates from ‘the Quran and the prophetic tradition’ which is (3) applicable to ‘all times and places’ (Hiro, 1988, p. 61).
In the 1950s and 1960s—buttressing its position as a resistance movement in opposition to the Nasserite state ideology of ‘Arab nationalism’—Brotherhood extensively propagated their staple slogan: ‘Islam is the solution’ (Al-Islam huwa al-hall). It eventually evolved into the most controversial Islamist political organisation to this date.
Bitter squabbles between the conservative and reformist bents have often hindered the Brotherhood’s ability to develop a more cohesive strategy. The creation of the military wing Nizam al-khass and the advent of the radical ideologue Sayyid Qutb in the upper echelon dented its status as a non-violent movement. Indicted for treason, Qutb was eventually hanged to death by the Nasserite regime in 1966, which impelled the Brotherhood to take a more conciliatory approach. The extremist bent formed small spin-off groups and one of them, Al-Jihad, assassinated the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Sheikh Taqiudeen al-Nabhani, the founder of the global Islamist political party Hizb-ut-Tahrir (The Liberation Party), considered the Islamic system as unique and rejected the ideas of Arab Nationalism and Ba’athism, which, he believed, were stripped of Islamic ideology. Prioritising the Arabic language and ethnic Arabs as essential parts of Islam, Al-Nabhani envisaged the revival of Islam among the Arabs, which would subsequently be embraced by other non-Arab Muslim populace (Pankhurst, 2016, pp. 46–47).
Officially established in Jerusalem in 1953, Tahrir earned a reputation for its neutral stance in the sectarian conflicts among Muslims and its explicit refusal to the use of violence. However, it struggled to face the growing tide of Arab Nationalism and failed in its attempt to overthrow the Jordanian regime. The apparent bleak prospects in the Arab political climate forced Tahrir to shift its focus beyond the boundaries of the Middle East. It faced the same fate, and as of today, Tahrir is banned in at least 13 countries worldwide (Counter Extremist Project, no date).
In the Indian Sub-continent, the Islamist philosopher and jurist Syed Abul A’la Maududi founded the political group Jama’at-i-Islami (People of Islam) in 1941. He produced a pamphlet titled Human rights in Islam, in which he castigated Western society and argued for the superiority of the Islamic civilisation over the west (Mayer, 2012, p. 33). Fearing that remaining Muslims would lose their identity in the Hindu state of India, Maududi initially opposed the creation of the state of Pakistan. After the partition, a humbled Maududi moved to Pakistan and worked to shape the contour of Pakistan as an Islamic state (Jackson, 2010, p. 71). The party’s East Pakistan chapter was heavily involved in war crimes during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971.
The Islamist denominations worldwide, both political and militant, hold a Manichean proposition where the world is divided between the Dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) and the Dar al-Harb (abode of war). Considering the presence of vibrant Muslim diasporas in the West, such binary division seems archaic and redundant.
Ironically, most of the Islamists are graduates of secular educational systems and lack formal training in Islamic jurisprudence. The French political scientist Olivier Roy observes, “Modernity and the ideas of the West are inextricably part of the Islamic movement.” Political Islam’s insistence on “the rationality of religious prescriptions” is a “sign that modernity has worked its way into the very heart of Islamist discourse,” Roy argues (1998, p. 21).
Islamist theorists like Banna and Nabhani branded their movements as “social and cultural puritanical movements,” in contrast to the status quo. Nevertheless, the Islamists actively participated in the democratic apparatus they vouched to uproot. When they failed to change the system from within, they often sought help from the military apparatus to stage coups in support of their cause.
The Islamists believe in a borderless supra-national community, or Ummah, yet in reality, they have mostly confined their activities within state boundaries (Akbarzadeh, 2011, p. 18). Brotherhood’s international body Tanzeem al-Dawli has no significant function of its own. Its founder al-Banna always focused on local Egyptian issues and believed that the Cairo branch possessed a moral authority (Pargeter, 2013, p. 15).
Despite its rigid stance against popular sovereignty, the Muslim Brotherhood often adopted politically expedient policies since its inception. It participated in the parliamentary elections it sought to abolish and flirted with the military regimes in times it deemed necessary to stay relevant in the political context. Following the Arab spring, Brotherhood galloped to power despite its timorous absence in the early days of anti-Mubarak protests, fearing a backlash from the Mubarak regime (Akbarzadeh, 2011, p. 21). Its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, distanced itself from the pan-Islamist ideas by concentrating solely on the cause of Palestinian independence. It seeks to emulate the “Erdogan Model” in Turkey, which is a blend of Islamism and conservative nationalism. Despite being popularly elected, it runs an autocratic regime in the Gaza Strip and violently suppresses any popular discontent.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) are Ottoman nostalgists who are ideologically aligned with the Brotherhood. AKP has demonstrated a remarkable capability for adaptation with the secular state apparatus. The Tunisian Ennahda (Renaissance) party formed a coalition government with the secular Nidaa Tounes party. The Jordanian Brotherhood has a parliamentary wing, Jabhat al’-Amal al-Islami (The Islamic Action Front).
Does the accommodation of Islamists in mainstream politics mean that once in power they will honour the supremacy of the popular will? Will they cease to be Islamists and give up their dream of establishing the Islamic state order? In the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRP), the Guardian Council calls the shots in every significant decision—crippling any popularly elected legislature. A newly passed referendum in Turkey has made president Erdogan effectively a dictator.
Conversely, the Tunisian Ennahda is trying to ditch its Islamist pedigree. Brotherhood’s chief benefactor Qatar is facing a blockade from its previous patron and friend turned foe Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. It remains to be seen how the demoralised Egyptian Brotherhood extricates itself from the difficult situation under the military rule in Egypt, which has become even more perilous since the death of its leader—the country’s former President Mohamed Morsi.
All these events point to the fact that rather than a static ideology, Political Islam is a continually evolving social phenomenon that deserves rigorous study. In the absence of a liberal alternative, the Islamists are often successful in tapping into the grievances of the ordinary people and channel those to their benefit. However, they also find it extremely difficult to accommodate the nuanced Muslim voices worldwide into their black-and-white moral absolutism.
The few Islamist parties who managed to form governments through democratic elections undermined the principles of democracy once they consolidated power. They often find it challenging to extrapolate their 14-century-old idea of an ideal state to the modern state apparatus. The task of creating a borderless global Ummah becomes even more daunting given the Islamist denominations worldwide are yet to shear off their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural biases. One thing is for sure: the Islamist panacea to solve all the quandaries of the 21st century turns out to be more fragile than ever.
Akbarzadeh, S. (ed.) (2011) Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. 1 edition. Abingdon, Oxon ; N.Y., N.Y: Routledge.
Ayoob, M. (2007) The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World. 1st edition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Counter Extremist Project (no date) Hizb ut-Tahrir, Counter Extremism Project. Available at: https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/hizb-ut-tahrir (Accessed: 8 July 2019).
Hiro, D. (1988) Islamic Fundamentalism. London u.a: Paladin.
Jackson, R. (2010). Mawlana Mawdudi and Political Islam. London ; New York: Routledge.
Mayer, A. E. (2012) Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. 5 edition. Boulder, Colo: Routledge.
Pankhurst, R. (2016) Hizb-ut-Tahrir: The Untold History of the Liberation Party. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
Pargeter, A. (2013) The Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition to Power. Reprint edition. London: Saqi Books.
Roy, O. (1998) The Failure of Political Islam. Translated by C. Volk. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Tibi, B. (2012). Islamism and Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Wright, L. (2007) The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Reprint edition. New York, NY: Vintage.
Siddhartha Dhar is a writer and translator; currently a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden.