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Islamists in Power

James Piscatori

Debate has swirled for several years around the question of what Islamists would do if they came to power. Islamists believe that modern societies have deviated from the "straight path" that Islam prescribes (2:213) and that the remedy lies in a range of political action, from social welfare activism through elections to violence, with the goal of creating an "Islamic state", or instituting Islamic legal rule, or at the least "Islamizing" society. While these goals are diverse and vague, Islamists are self-consciously ideological and, as such, both the product and the critics of modernity.

Two distinct views on what Islamists in power would do have emerged. The first view holds that Islamists will follow a dogmatic and intolerant agenda. "Talibanization," reflecting the experience of Afghanistan from the mid-1990s to the American invasion of 2001, serves as a metaphor for Islamists who seize power and institute what is sometimes called "medieval" or "barbaric" rule. Also in this view, if Islamists come to power through elections, it will be "one person, one vote, one time." In the words of the prominent scholar of Islamic studies, Bernard Lewis, "[Islamists] are willing to see [liberal democracy], at best, as an avenue to power, but an avenue that runs one way only" (Lewis, 54).

The second view argues that the daily demands of governing will either moderate the Islamists' idealism or, at the least, reveal a fundamental impracticality that will limit their appeal in the future or doom them to failure (Fuller, 203-204). Olivier Roy has argued that the need for consensus in governing and the enduring importance of nationalism mean that the "logic of the state" will win out over the "logic of the shariʿah" (Roy, 83). The first school of thought holds that Islamists will transform the political order; the second, that Islamists will be more changed by the political system than they will change it.

The matter is no longer academic since Islamists have come to power in several countries—Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Palestine—and at the provincial level such as in Kelantan and Trenggannu in Malaysia and the municipal level, such as Algeria from 1990 to 1992. Some would add Sudan to this list but-in light of the falling-out between General ʿUmar al-Bāshir and his former ally, the Islamist Ḥasan al-Turābī, in 2000—it seems less an Islamist regime than an old-fashioned military one. This essay will focus on Iran, Palestine, and Turkey.

While these three countries provide evidence of what Islamists do in power, their circumstances vary considerably. Revolution in the case of Iran, the paramount influence of the military in Turkey, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the case of Palestine have doubtless shaped their particular trajectories. In addition, although Islamists generally call for the implementation of some form of Islamic law, they feel as a rule that the solution to modern ills lies in political action. The current ruling party of Turkey excludes itself from this category, but its Islamist lineage and its social programming suggest that it is "soft" or neo-Islamist.


Iran has had eight parliamentary and nine presidential elections since the revolution in 1978-1979. While these may be dismissed as a merely cosmetic cover for entrenched clerical power, the thirty-year history of the Islamic republic points to a more complex politics and the need for a more nuanced perspective.

The constitution provides for an elected national assembly (Principle 62) and for periodic referenda on issues that are submitted "directly to the people for a judgment" (Principle 59). However, the Ministry of the Interior and the Council of Guardians vet and reject candidates. In early 2000, for example, they disallowed more than 775 names for the Majlis elections, and in the 2008 parliamentary elections some 2,400 potential candidates were banned. More importantly, the residual power of the Supreme Leader, following the logic of Ayatollah Khomeini's central political doctrine—vilāyat-i faqīh (guardianship of the jurist)—remains undiminished.

The presidency of the reformist Muḥammad Khātamī (b. 1943) is instructive. His election in 1997 was clearly a watershed. Graffiti had appeared on Tehran walls during the campaign cynically predicting, "we vote, you elect." But, faced with a turnout of over 80 percent with 69 percent of the vote going to Khātamī, the regime was compelled to acquiesce, if unhappily. Drawing together a formidable coalition of youth, professionals, the liberal intelligentsia, and women, Khātamī gained a mandate for measured change. He removed the head of the Revolutionary Guards, and during the next eight years of his presidency, newspapers, periodicals, and civil-society groups proliferated at home and diplomatic and trade overtures were made to Europe. But, in the face of the power of the higher religious establishment, he was ineffective in handling student riots, the jailing of his former Minister of the Interior, and the invalidated election of several of his supporters. Given the adverse political realities he faced, it was often said that Khātamī was the only president in the world who was also the leader of the opposition.

Tensions with both reformists and conservative Islamists characterize the current presidency of the populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (b. 1956), elected in 2005. Although he had had administrative experience as mayor of Tehran and provincial governor, his record points to an instinctive approach to governing that combines commitment to the religious principles of the revolution and a messianic Shīʿī worldview, appeals to the impoverished lower classes, and anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment. His policies have met with little success, generated opposition in several political circles, and at times adversely affected his relations with the Supreme Leader, ʿAlī Khameneʾi (b. 1939). It is possible that a coalition of reformists, some conservatives, and independents will be forged against his reelection in 2009, if they are not distracted by the issue of possible American and/or Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear program.

There is a temptation in analyzing Iran to conclude either that the Islamists in power in Tehran are resistant to democratization at home and normal conduct abroad because of the constancy of their revolutionary fervor, or that the logic of governing a modern, oil-rich state has moderated the revolution and impelled the regime to act in largely predictable ways. Thus, the alternating explanations on Shīʿī and geopolitical grounds for Iran's actions in southern Iraq. Both perspectives, and therefore both schools of thought about Islamists in power, appear to be correct: it seems probable, as the first school school argues, that the constitutional order will remain embedded in a distinctive ideology; and, as the second would predict, Iranians appear to have accepted some time ago that evolutionary adjustments and pragmatic adaptations would be made (Ansari, 223).


Committed to a strongly anti-Israel and anti-Zionist ideology since its inception in late 1987, Ḥamās (Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-Islāmīyah, the Movement of Islamic Resistance), has also vigorously opposed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) both as a competitor for leadership of the Palestinian movement and for its promise of a secular future. Ḥamās's Covenant offers a radically different program based on the inalienability of any part of Palestine because of its sanctified status as an Islamic endowment (waqf). Moreover, it elevates jihād against Islam's enemies to the status of an individual obligation (farḍ ʿayn), thereby intensifying the level of commitment.

Throughout the 1990s, Ḥamās was successful in student and professional association elections. These helped it both to put down deeper roots in Palestinian society and, because they revealed a level of popular support, to strengthen its hand against the PLO. There were internal debates over whether it should participate in broader elections, such as for the Legislative Council in 1996. Although it did not take part formally, some of its leaders, such as Shaykh Aḥmad Yāsīn (d. 2004), endorsed the principles of elections and popular representation. Others, however, dissented for utilitarian rather than dogmatic reasons.

Ḥamās boycotted the presidential election of January 2005, which Mahmoud Abbas (b. 1935) won. A year later, in the January 2006 ballot—the first parliamentary elections in ten years—Ḥamās won 74 out of 132 seats (with at least another four "independent" seats allied with it). The previous ruling party, Fatah, won 45 seats. Within a few months Western governments imposed financial sanctions on the new government, rival political centers emerged in Ḥamās-led Gaza and Fatah-led Ramallah in the West Bank, and fighting erupted between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, ending in June 2006 with a ceasefire that had held for sixteen months between June and November 2006 after an Israeli soldier was captured. In mid-June 2007, after a U.S.-backed campaign to replace it, Ḥamās seized control of the entire Gaza Strip. Abbas, as well as the United States and Israel, condemned this as a coup d'tat, and Palestine became divided between two geographically, ideologically, and politically distinct authorities.

Since 2006, Ḥamās has demonstrated a commitment to its core values but has also revealed the positive and negative aspects of trying to govern in highly unfavorable circumstances. On the one hand, it has periodically participated in a "truce" (hudnah) with Israel (the most recent in June 2008) and with Fatah. Moreover, some leaders have said that they are willing to accept a long-term truce following the tradition of the al-Ḥudaybīyah treaty (6 A.H./628 C.E.) when a ten-year cessation of hostilities was accepted out of necessity. Yet, on the other hand, it has not recognized Israel or engaged in direct negotiations with it, as most of the international community espouses, nor has it definitively renounced suicide bombing of Israeli targets. Domestically, Ḥamās continues to maintain an effective social welfare system, including schools and health clinics, and a communications network. But it has been accused of suppressing doctors' strikes, intimidating and controlling foreign media, and disseminating distorted and anti-Semitic propaganda. Since Ḥamās's victory and given the need to staff its institutions, women have been encouraged to enter the workforce, and according to Ḥamās, more women work in the Gaza government than in the Fatah authority in the West Bank, and women outnumber men at the Islamic University in Gaza. But there are also restrictive practices. For instance, female police officers are required to dress modestly, including the ḥijāb, and must have a male officer present when interrogating male suspects. Women's rights demonstrations have also been prohibited.

While it is formally correct to say that Ḥamās holds power, it is a rump power, facing acute political challenges: broad international criticism, a deteriorating economic situation, a seriously divided population. Such circumstances and the "system" have not ostensibly transformed it, however, as some hope and others predict on the basis of the second school of thought on Islamists in power. It could be argued that financial support (primarily from Iran) cushions Ḥamās from these kinds of structural constraints that would otherwise be expected to compel accommodation and compromise. Moreover, while Ḥamās remains the product of its values, it also faces another kind of systemic pressure in dealing with Israel-a Palestinian population that has been steadily radicalized after forty years of occupation. Ḥamās must lead, but even an Islamist movement cannot be too far ahead of popular sentiment.


A society with an intermittently functioning democracy, Turkey has seen a number of religion-based parties compete for power and other parties make explicit appeals based on Islam. Necmettin Erbakan (b. 1926) became the first Islamist prime minister in June 1996. His Refh Partisi (Welfare Party) had been steadily expanding its base since the early 1990s, securing control of key cities such as Istanbul and Ankara in the local elections of 1994. In the December 1995 parliamentary election, with a fractured vote, it garnered 21 percent of the vote and entered government. The military, self-appointed guardians of the Kemalist legacy of secularism, became increasingly nervous, however, and on February 28, 1997, served notice that it would, in effect, not tolerate Islamist politics. In the ensuing months, the party was shut down, Erbakan resigned, and the popular mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (b. 1955), was imprisoned and banned from political activism for life.

During the eighteen months it was part of the ruling coalition, Refh pursued both expected and unexpected policies. Erbakan visited Iran and Libya as part of his Islamically-oriented foreign policy and argued that the European Union and United Nations were Zionist organizations. Yet despite his pan-Islamic and anti-Western rhetoric, he also tolerated the Turkish-Israeli security arrangement and supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although there was talk of a new social-welfare-oriented, vaguely socialist Just Order (Adil Dzen), he adopted liberal economic policies with ties to the much criticized International Monetary Fund and World Bank. He officially endorsed secularism and spoke of the values of the "center," while emphasizing human rights and democracy.

The demise of Erbakan and Refh encouraged the emergence of a new generation of pragmatists, led by Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gl (b. 1950), now prime minister and president of the republic respectively. The party that they formed, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party), won 34 percent of the vote in the November 2002 elections and formed a single-party government. It was reelected by a landslide in July 2006, with 46 percent of the vote, after the military had expressed its opposition to Gl's presidential candidacy.

In power, the AKP has proved to be an enthusiastic supporter of accession to the European Union and, to this end, has embarked on the most ambitious legal reform in the history of the republic. These reforms have curtailed somewhat the power of the military and guaranteed civil liberties. Distinguishing itself from Erbakan's Islamism, the government has promoted equality of rights between men and women, criminalized violence against women, and banned discrimination and harassment in the workplace. It has attempted, so far without success, to remove the ban on women wearing headscarves in public buildings, but explicitly frames its position in the name of freedom, not traditional social values. In foreign policy, the AKP government has established warm relations with Ḥamās and other groups in the Middle East and deployed the army against Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq. But it also remains a staunch supporter of NATO, has reached out to Armenia with which its relations are complicated by deep historical animosities, and in mid-2008 used its good offices to encourage talks between Israel and Syria.

Some (e.g., Zucconi 2003) argue that the AKP is a "post-Islamist" party, whereas others (e.g., White 2005) say it has moved from Islamism to "Muslimhood." Clearly, the AKP differs generationally and programmatically from Erbakan's Refh, the result no doubt of the watchful eye of the military, competition with other parties vying for the "Muslim vote," and reactions to the rigidity and tactical mistakes of earlier Islamist parties. But what has emerged in Turkey is a hybrid political entity, neither secular in the Kemalist tradition nor demanding the establishment of an Islamic state, neither rigidly doctrinaire nor simply opportunistic. AKP policy would not have emerged as it has without the structural constraints of the system, as the second school of thought holds. But, equally, in line with the first school that says Islamists will change the political system, Turkey's political and social order is being transformed in small but discernible ways. This mutual re-formation of ruling party and political order undermines the simple idea of unidirectional influence that has dominated the subject of Islamists in power.

Power and Pragmatism

Do Islamists change the political order, for good or ill, or does the political order change the Islamists? The answer to this deceptively simple question constitutes one of the fault-lines of contemporary debates about political Islam. The examples of the Taliban in Afghanistan and, arguably, of the Pakistan of General Zia ul-Haq (r. 1977-1988) suggest that Islamist governance has the capacity not only to redesign institutions of state but to redefine social practices. Judging from these examples, the top-down imposition of standards of conduct and judgment is likely to be, at best, unsettling to the status quo and even, to some observers, regressive. The unavoidable policy implications are opposition to Islamists gaining power and their containment if they do.

A more optimistic approach is to trust in the demands of governing and the need for hard-headed responses to them. Like revolutionary states that lose their white-hot zeal over time and become responsible members of international society because they have to, Islamists can learn to modify their behavior. In a realist's version of this argument, socialization is not inevitable, however, and some Islamists will simply fail to be effective, revealing in the process the bankruptcy of their founding ideas. The policy response is equally obvious: encourage Islamists to contest elections and engage them rather than contain them, especially if they come to power.

While our review of three countries cannot resolve this debate categorically, the examples of Iran, Palestine, and Turkey offer guidelines. First, Islamists in power abandon their core values only with great reluctance and under considerable pressure, in part because these values distinguish them from competitors and in part because their constituencies believe in or accept them. These values may become abstractions—"the Revolution" in Iran—or take on specificity—the headscarf in Turkey—but are likely to retain for the foreseeable future their mobilizing effectiveness and their ability to shape the contours of legitimate political activism, as jihād in Palestine demonstrates.

Second, ideology does not constitute a straitjacket. The evolutionary path of the AKP shows that ideas change. Erdoğan famously hinted that democracy should be used to bring an Islamic order into existence when he said in the 1990s, "We see democracy only as a means. Whatever is the system that you want to establish, it is a means to elect that system." He is now the twice-elected prime minister of Turkey and is opposed to the creation of an Islamic state. Although the Iranian regime, regardless of who is president, adheres to the "Islamic revolutionary" framework, Khomeiniism has in effect been reinvented (Brumberg 2001), moving haltingly towards something between democracy and clerisocracy (Vatikiotis, 70). The case of Ḥamās is less clear, perhaps in part because of its conflict-ridden environment, but the participation of women in parliament, social services, the police, and the media is already a big step away from the view expressed in its Covenant that women are mainly the "maker[s] of men" and sustainers of family life (Articles 17 and 18).

Third, the demands of governing may not always induce transformations in underlying values and ideology, but they do tend to encourage pragmatism. The type of political system may determine whether the Islamists become more democratic—as in Turkey—or remain authoritarian, as in Palestine, or fall somewhere in between—as in Iran. But all governments, if they are to be effective, must undertake give-and-take bargaining, balance conflicting demands, manage scarce resources, build ruling coalitions, and seek legitimacy. In this regard, it matters less that Islamists have reformulated their strategic commitments and principles than that they prove to be tactically minded and practical.

According to the contours of the contemporary debate as we have seen, Islamists in power will either transform the system or be transformed by it. The inescapable implication is that the former scenario is mainly radicalizing whereas the latter is largely moderating. Although elements of both are sometimes present, the behavior of Islamists in power falls closer to that anticipated by the second school of thought. But moderation or ultimate failure—the two possible outcomes of this school—counts for less than pragmatism. To the extent that pragmatism emerges, it provides the basis for adaptation. This is certainly an important development in its own right, but there could be a longer-term effect. By following an astute, rational, problem-solving approach while holding on to a culturally distinctive identity, pragmatic Islamists may be agents of change, blending religious values with secularized ways of thinking that eventually transform their perspective on the ends, as well as the means, of power.


  • Ansari, Ali M. Iran, Islam, and Democracy: The Politics of Managing Change. London, 2000. The second edition was published in 2006.
  • Brumberg, Daniel. Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran. Chicago, 2001.
  • Fuller, Graham E. The Future of Political Islam. New York, 2003.
  • Lewis, Bernard. "Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview." Journal of Democracy 7, no. 2 (1996): 52-63.
  • Roy, Olivier. "Islamists in Power." In The Islamism Debate, edited by Martin Kramer, pp. 69-83. Dayan Center Papers No. 120. Tel Aviv, 1997.
  • Vatikiotis, P. J. "The Rise of the Clerisocracy: Islamic Resurgence." Encounter 58, no. 3 (March 1982): 68-76.
  • White, Jenny B. "The End of Islamism? Turkey's Muslimhood Model." In Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization, edited by Robert W. Hefner, pp. 87-111. Princeton, N.J., 2005.
  • Zucconi, Mario. "Turkey's New Politics and the European Union." Ethnobarometer Working Paper No. 7. Rome, 2003.

Related Content

Subject Entries

Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi
Islamic State
Islam in Iran
Islam in Pakistan
Islam in Turkey
Islam in West Bank and Gaza
Palestine Liberation Organization
Refah Partisi
Welfare Party


Necmettin Erbakan
Muhammad Khatami
Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini
Mohammad Zia ul-Haq

Primary Source Documents

Islamic Government
The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)
Turkey Faces West
Oxford University Press

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