Political Islam

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Political Islam is the phrase used to denote a wide range of individuals and associations dedicated to the transformation of state and society so as to make them "Islamic." The term also refers to Islam conceived as a set of beliefs, a code of conduct, or a repertory of images and metaphors relevant to politics, as well as to various attempts to define an "Islamic state" or "Islamic order."

The "Islamic Trend"

Like any other term that is used to define the broad and heterogeneous "Islamic trend," such as Islamism, integralism, and even more so, fundamentalism, the term "political Islam" is problematic and contested. "Islamism," as the most comprehensive term, has the benefit of being largely value-free. It describes the fact that "Islamists" advocate the establishment of an "Islamic order" (nizam Islami) that is usually defined by the "application of the shari˓a," that is, the implementation of Islam's divinely ordained moral and legal code regulating all human activity, including the organization of state and society. It does not indicate how they intend to establish such an order. For example, it does not specify whether they consider the use of force to be legitimate, nor does it say whether they would use, or even privilege, the political sphere in their activities. It also says nothing specific about their concept of shari˓a, or about the precise nature of the Islamic state or system they wish to establish. While the term is mostly applied to groups and associations, including political parties, individuals can also be labeled Islamists. To the extent that Islamists engage in politics, they are part of political Islam. An alternative term, "integralism," is derived from the French, where it is more commonly used than Islamism. Both terms are, by and large, synonymous.

On the other hand, "fundamentalism" generally carries highly negative connotations, reflecting a whole set of traits and attitudes. Chief among these is a literalist, or scripturalist, reading of the normative texts (scripture or revelation; in the present case, the Qur˒an and sunna) that tends to reject all kinds of allegorical, mythical, mystical, or modernist exegesis as fundamentally wrong and illegitimate. The term also implies a common assumption that not only is there only one truth, but that the fundamentalists have a monopoly of this truth; a lack of tolerance of different opinions and interpretations flowing from this conviction; and a propensity to resort to violence if their reading of scripture and, more generally, their understanding of the faith, is challenged or threatened, be it from within the community or from without. In view of this cluster of negative attributes, it should be emphasized that a fundamentalist understanding of the faith need not be accompanied by militancy, nor does it necessarily entail political activism. In other words, fundamentalists can be either activist or quietist. If reserved for those Islamists who advocate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, irrespective of their stand on politics in general and violence in particular, "fundamentalism" can serve as a meaningful analytical term in an Islamic as well as in any other context.

"Political Islam" designates that particular segment of the broader Islamist trend (Ar. al-tayyar al-islami) that is active in the political sphere. Political Islam is not synonymous with violent, radical, or extremist Islamism, and it is not restricted to opposition groups. The spectrum ranges from advocates of an Islamic republic to sympathizers of an Islamic monarchy or a resuscitated caliphate, and from self-declared liberals to uncompromising conservatives. Some Islamists are commonly classified as moderate or pragmatic, others as radical, militant, or extremist. For practical reasons, the term is best used for organized groups, movements, and parties, keeping in mind that there may be considerable numbers of individuals who share the basic objectives and assumptions of political Islam without being affiliated to any particular group or party.

Intellectual Origins: The Salafiyya

Political Islam is one of the most conspicuous, and at the same time most controversial, phenomena of modern Muslim societies. It builds on earlier reform movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which in their turn took up core concerns of major reformers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The reformers included Shah Wali Allah (1703–1762), Muhammad b. ˓Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), ˓Uthman Dan Fodio (c. 1754–1817), Muhammad al-Shawkani (1760–1839), and Muhammad b. ˓Ali al-Sanusi (1787–1859), all of whom possessed very different assumptions, approaches, and activities. Political Islam today builds on the call to invigorate Islam through ijtihad (independent reasoning), while departing from the earlier reformers in several important ways. Among the reform movements of the turn of the twentieth century, the Salafiyya stands out as having had the most important intellectual influence on later generations of Islamists.

The Salafiyya movement was named after its objective to revive the spirit of the first generations of Muslims (Ar. alsalaf al-salih). It sought to accomplish this by recreating a vibrant Muslim society in the modern era, thereby bringing about the rebirth, or renaissance, of Islam (al-nahda) after centuries of weakness and decadence. The Salafiyya defined a number of themes that are still relevant to many Islamists today: that Islam constitutes the essence of Muslim identity; that it is more than the belief in God and the prophet Muhammad; that it provides for a specific way of life; and that, if properly understood, it is entirely compatible with modernity, notably modern science and the spirit of rational inquiry. However, the Salafiyya also believed that, in order for Islam to serve as the principal source of inspiration and guidance to Muslims in the modern age, it first had to be freed from the many misunderstandings and distortions that had been accumulated over the centuries.

For the Salafiyya, Islamic reform consisted of cleansing Islam of these misunderstandings and distortions. Only thus could the creative spirit of the early Muslim community be restored. This required not only dedication but also the systematic use of reason. Faith and reason do not contradict each other, but on the contrary, are mutually reinforcing. Ijtihad, meaning the effort to "discover" the spirit of divine law rather than blindly following the letter of traditional Islamic jurisprudence (so-called imitation, taqlid), provides the chief instrument of reform. Muslim jurisprudence, along with its rules and regulations, is not identical with divine law, for although God's law is infallible and unchangeable, humans—and the systems of jurisprudence that they may devise—are prone to error. Thus, the Salafiyya held that the jurists' law had to be critically revised in order to make it wholly suitable for modern life. This revision could be done by distinguishing between shari˓a and fiqh.

Shari˓a comprises the eternal laws and general principles that had been set down by the divine lawgiver in the Qur˒an and exemplified by his prophet in the sunna. Fiqh, on the other hand, although based on scripture, refers to the detailed rules and regulations that were later elaborated by Muslim jurists. For the Salafiyya, the shari˓a provides the best guidance for Muslims in the modern age, allowing them to regain the position of strength and confidence that they so gloriously occupied in earlier times, and from which they had been displaced by a triumphant West only because of its superior material power.

As an intellectual force, the Salafiyya exerted considerable influence on (Sunni) Muslim reformers from Morocco to Hadhramaut, India, Turkestan, and Java. Organizationally speaking, however, it was a weak, loosely connected group of urban scholars and intellectuals based in the major cities of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, as well as their colleagues, friends, and family. Major figures in the movement included Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897), Muhammad ˓Abduh (1849–1905), and Rashid Rida (1865–1935). The Salafiyya made systematic use of the newly emerging press and book market, disseminating their writings over much of the Islamic world within a relatively short period of time. However, they were not linked to any formal association or party, and consequently there was no mass support for the ideas and ideals that they espoused.

Ideologues of Political Islam: al-Banna, Maududi, and Qutb

Political Islam proper came into existence after the First World War, with the emergence of organized movements that reached beyond the limited circles of Muslim scholars, writers, and journalists. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was among the most influential of these movements, and its leader, Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949), became one of the best-known representatives of political Islam. Founded in 1928 in the Egyptian provincial town of Ismailiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood (jama˓at al-ikhwan al-muslimin) grew from a rather insignificant association dedicated to moral reform into a broad-based mass movement that made a considerable impact on Egyptian society and politics. Over a period of several decades, it also expanded into several Arab countries, from Sudan to Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Hasan al-Banna excelled as the charismatic leader of his organization, but he was not an innovative thinker, and is mostly remembered for his activism, not for his contribution to Islamic thought.

The opposite could be said of two of the most prominent figures of political Islam of the interwar and the post-World War II period: Abu l-A˓la˒ Maududi (1903–1979) and Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966). Both of these men were prolific writers, journalists, and to a lesser extent also political activists, the former in his native India and Pakistan, the latter in Egypt. Their major works continue to be read all over the Islamic world. Living under very different circumstances, in societies that had little in common except for having been under British colonial rule, these men nevertheless shared certain convictions concerning modern society, and they introduced certain key terms that have since become part and parcel of the Islamist vocabulary.

Perhaps foremost of these terms was their conception of sovereignty, which they attributed exclusively to God (hakimiyya). From His sovereign authority flows the moral and legal code that regulates human affairs. This is the shari˓a, as it is contained in the Qur˒an and sunna. Every Muslim believer is, thus, able to discover God's law by studying revelation, and is obligated to apply this law to his or her own life. From this perspective, it follows that all human attempts to create rules and laws of their own design are not only futile, but are also illegitimate. Such attempts constitute a heinous sin, for they manifest the human will to set oneself up as God's equal, if not as God's rival. Making and following laws other than the shari˓a is therefore a sign of heresy and polytheism (shirk) and must be dealt with as such. For both Maududi and Qutb, contemporary Muslims had neglected their religious duties to such an extent that they had fallen back into a state of (religious) ignorance (jahiliyya). If this ignorance could be excused at the time before revelation, it is no longer forgivable, for all men and women are now capable of hearing the truth and obeying the Lord. Contemporary Muslims therefore are Muslims by name only. In reality, they have renounced Islam and have reverted to unbelief (kufr).

Both Maududi and Qutb spoke of the possibility to practice takfir, that is, to exclude ("nominal") Muslims from the community of believers (often described as "excommunication"). Yet they were much more reluctant than many of their followers to call for violent measures against these defective Muslims, and were similarly reluctant to propagate takfir and jihad against society as a whole. They did, however, declare un-Islamic any government that imposed laws and practices not exclusively based on the shari˓a and insisted on the duty of all true Muslims to fight with all their might for the establishment of an Islamic order based on the shari˓a.

The radical stand taken by Sayyid Qutb in the late 1950s and early 1960s is often explained by the ruthless suppression that the Muslim Brotherhood in general, and Qutb in particular, suffered at the hands of the Free Officer regime. The Free Officer movement came to power in Egypt in July 1952 and quickly turned against all potential critics and rivals, including the Muslim Brothers who had initially supported their coup. The Brotherhood likened its experience of persecution, torture, and exile to the trial and tribulations (mihna) suffered by such venerated figures as Ahmad b. Hanbal (780–855) at the hands of Muslim rulers in earlier times, and they left a lasting imprint on both the collective memory and the individuals concerned. Qutb's vastly influential book, Ma˓alim fi l-tariq (Signposts), was written in prison, and Qutb himself was executed in 1966, becoming a martyr to his cause. Maududi, from whom Qutb had adopted and adapted the notions of hakimiyya, jahiliyya, and takfir had been fortunate enough to work under much more auspicious circumstances, for he endured no such hardships. State persecution can thus help to explain the attractiveness of militant Islamism to certain parts of the public, as evidenced by Qutb's radicalization, but Maududi's example shows that radical positions cannot be reduced to the effects of persecution.

Under Jamal ˓Abd al-Nasser's regime (1952–1970), the Muslim Brotherhood was severely suppressed inside Egypt. In Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, by contrast, sister organizations were mostly able to function within the given political framework. In the 1970s, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat (1918–1981) revised Nasser's course in favor of a more open Egyptian political economy. After rapprochement with the United States and ultimately peace with Israel, the Muslim Brothers were able to reorganize, though they were never granted official recognition. Their past experience of violent confrontations with the government had resulted in terrible losses, and the majority of activists opted for a return to a reformist strategy. The new focus was to be on spreading the message of Islam (da˓wa) by all possible means and in all possible arenas. The Brotherhood began to use the media and the educational system more effectively, and to engage in social and charitable work, in professional syndicates, trade unions, and other associations of "civil society." Muslim Brothers also participated in local and national elections, and for that purpose even entered into coalitions with legally recognized political parties. They did not attempt to found a political party of their own, however, even though Islamists in other parts of the Muslim world—from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia to Turkey, Pakistan, and Malaysia—were willing and able to do so.

The Islamic Revolution and Its Aftermath

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 had an enormous impact on the Muslim world, and on Islamist activists more particularly. It seemed to prove that in spite of the Egyptian experience, a system as powerful and repressive as the Iranian monarchy could be overthrown and replaced by an Islamic republic, provided that the Islamist movement had strong leadership, an effective organization, and the support of the masses. For accomplishing this feat, the revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) were admired well beyond Islamist circles. Still, Khomeini's theory of the "guardianship of the jurisconsultant" (velayat-e faqih) that vested the most qualified Shi˓ite cleric with political power, remained controversial among the highest-ranking Shi˓ite scholars, and entirely unacceptable to their Sunni counterparts. Islamists drew inspiration from the initial success of the Iranian revolution, hoping to follow its example in their own countries. However, with the exception of certain Shi˓ite organizations like Hizb Allah in Lebanon, which initially propagated velayat-e faqih but later adopted different models of an "Islamic order," most Islamists generally avoided comment on the Iranian model of government, declaring it to be suited to Shi˓ite traditions perhaps, but not to Sunni Islam.

In the wake of the Iranian revolution, Islamist opposition groups and movements grew more active even in those parts of the Muslim world where previously they had not been very prominent or visible. They arose or became stronger in the Maghrib, Lebanon and Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and different parts of Central and Southeast Asia. If previously there had been individuals and associations advocating an "Islamic solution" to the ills of state, culture, and society in all of these areas, they had not engaged in the same kind of organized, and often militant, activity that became the hallmark of the 1980s. Yet even after 1979, political Islam remained highly diversified in terms of ideology, strategy, and organization. At no point did there emerge an Islamist "International" capable of coordinating Islamist activities around the globe. While there clearly existed cross-links between various groups and individuals, individual groups mostly continued to operate within a regional order that was defined by the existing state boundaries.

In the 1980s, militant Islam was on the rise and receiving much attention. The assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981; the abortive Islamic uprising in Syria in 1982; violent clashes between Islamist activists and the state authorities in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Pakistan, and other parts of the Islamic world; the formation of Hizb Allah and HAMAS in Lebanon and Palestine, respectively, all contributed to the impression that the Islamic world might be swept by a revolutionary tide originating in Iran. It did not happen. Even in the 1980s, militant Islamism constituted only one segment of the ever-broadening "Islamic trend." The majority of Islamists continued to follow a pragmatic path, combining energetic activities in the public sphere (da˓wa) with grassroots social work as well as economic and political activities of various kinds, including local and national politics. The Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, the Islamic Tendency Movement in Tunisia, the National Islamic Front in Sudan, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Reform Movement in Yemen, the Salvation Party in Turkey, the Jama˓at-i Islami in Pakistan, the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PAS) in Malaysia, and numerous other organizations advocated a pragmatic strategy of nonviolence without completely excluding the use of force where and when it was deemed necessary.

These organizations did not necessarily shrink from using pressure or even intimidation in order to implement their ideas of proper conduct. Such measures were mostly directed against women, artists, and intellectuals. At the same time, they condemned takfir of Muslims and armed jihad against the government. Despite serious setbacks in the 1990s, when Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front was prevented from winning an electoral majority in 1992, and Turkey's Salvation Party was forced by the military establishment to dissolve and reorganize under a different name, the pragmatic or "moderate" strategy was upheld by most Islamists throughout the final two decades of the twentieth century.

The same seemed to hold true for the aftermath of 11 September 2001. The terrorist attack revealed the existence of a new kind of transnational Islamist network that was able to recruit and operate within the Islamic world as well as outside of it. Its links to existing Islamist leaders and organizations have yet to be systematically explored. What can be said is that, within the Muslim world, and not just among Islamists, the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., were admired by many for their sheer boldness and unprecedented effectiveness. At the same time, even radical Islamists were appalled by the loss of life, condemning the indiscriminate use of violence against innocent men and women as utterly un-Islamic.

The Islamic Alternative: Visions of an "Islamic Order"

Political Islam draws much of its strength and support from its critique of the existing power relations, blatant injustices, and rampant corruption both within the various Muslim states and societies and globally. More particularly, Islamists present Islam as the only alternative to the world's existing powers and ideologies, from capitalism to communism, and from liberalism to fascism. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and the West more generally have been identified as the most powerful external enemy of Islam. Within the Muslim world, secularism is singled out as the most dangerous internal threat to Muslim identity and authenticity, notions that have high priority on the Islamist agenda. Most of the themes and slogans put forth by Islamists have to be judged within the framework of this competition with other powers and ideologies, both within the Muslim world and beyond. With the spread and intensification of globalization, however, distinctions between internal and external trends and elements have become increasingly difficult to make.

With the exception of Iran and Afghanistan, Islamist opposition movements have not been able to overthrow the ruling regimes under which they have arisen, nor to replace such regimes with Islamic republics. The 1989 military coup in Sudan may have been staged with the help of the National Islamic Front led by Hasan al-Turabi (b.1932), but the resultant government was not controlled by the Islamists. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which in several respects conforms to Islamist ideas, was founded as a result of dynastic conquest, not of an Islamic revolution. In most other states with significant Muslim populations, or a Muslim majority, Islamist groups and parties have been kept under close state control and restrained as much as possible as autonomous political actors. In national elections Islamists in several instances have been able to win as much as twelve to twenty percent of the vote, but as a rule they have not been allowed to play an independent role in parliament, let alone to join the government. Turkey, Morocco, Kuwait, Yemen, and Lebanon are among the few exceptions here. The fact that Islamists outside of Iran have proved unable to stage a revolution and to capture power in the aftermath of 1979, combined with the fact that in both Iran and Afghanistan their performance fell well short of expectations, has led a number of observers to declare the "failure of political Islam."

Political Islam may well have failed, at least when politics is narrowly defined, but such a judgement completely ignores the very deep impact Islamist themes, demands, and activities have had on public debates, social behavior and legal practices all over the Muslim world and among expatriate Muslim communities. Islamist activists may have been prevented from playing an independent political role in most of their home countries, but their concerns have been adapted in various ways by the ruling elites, whether as consciously employed "Islamic" language, symbols, and imagery (using Islamic formula in their public speeches, building mosques and Islamic schools, restoring Islamic monuments, and so on), or as acts of ostentatious piety (praying in front of TV cameras, going on pilgrimage, or giving up trivial pursuits and "immoral" entertainment or alcohol) to present themselves as devout Muslims.

In a significant number of states (including Pakistan, Egypt, and Sudan, as well as individual member states of Malaysia and Nigeria), the shari˓a, or rather legal codes presented as such, were introduced in the course of the 1980s and 1990s. Women protesting the introduction of discriminating "Islamic" legislation in the sphere of family law were threatened by radical Islamists, including conservative ulema, and insufficiently protected by their governments. Critical intellectuals and academics were silenced and their works were either censored or banned by governments fearing Islamist challenges to their Islamic credentials. The adoption of so-called Islamic dress spread widely, even against deliberate government attempts to ban its use in schools, universities, and public administration. Religious practices from fasting to prayer and the hajj intensified in many areas and social milieus. In light of these developments, which affected the public as much as the private domains, Islamism in general and political Islam in particular have been tremendously successful.

This was possible because, contrary to widespread perceptions, Islamist ideas have not been restricted to militant opposition movements, but have been shared by a considerable portion of the broader Muslim public. With its combination of catchy slogans ("Islam is the solution," "application of the shari˓a," "the Qur˒an is our constitution," and the like), its commitment to social and charitable work, and its occasional application of pressure and intimidation, Islamism has appealed not just to the young, the desperate, and the uneducated, but also to many members of the urban middle class. It has found a sympathetic hearing from government officials as well as the well-educated, affluent, and widely traveled professionals, academics, and businesspeople, including active representatives of civil society. The term "political Islam" is, for practical reasons, mostly applied to organized movements, which as a rule have to work in opposition to the regimes in power, but the ideas and demands implicit in the phrase have permeated large sections of society, and have even influenced government policies, at least in the legal and social fields. Foreign policy and security affairs have been less affected by Islamist concerns, which tend to focus on Islamic solidarity, a vociferous critique of the West, and hostility to Israel. It is in domestic politics that the Islamist impact has been most deeply felt. It remains to be seen to what extent the failure of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the unimpressive economic and social record of the Islamic Republic of Iran will reduce the appeal of political Islam in other parts of the world.

See alsoBanna, Hasan al- ; Fundamentalism ; Ikhwan al-Muslimin ; Islam and Islamic Law ; Maududi, Abu l-A˓la˒ ; Qutb, Sayyid ; Revolution: Islamic Revolution in Iran ; Salafiyya ; Secularization ; Shari˓a .


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Gudrun Krämer

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