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Lesson Plan:
Political Islam: Genesis, History and Impact

B. Zeynab Ali
Columbia University


This course aims to outline assumptions and frameworks that are implicit in the commonly used term "Political Islam", using selected readings and suggested activities and discussion topics. This outline will familiarize students with the diverse outlooks and interpretations of political Islam and explore various forms of political theory and practice that define political Islam and study the dynamics of Islamist groups which seek to establish an Islamic political order. It will also address the problematic conflation of Islam the religion, with a particular political ideology which is excessively generalized and at times far too imprecise to be useful as an analytical argument.

I. The Complex Nature of Political Islam:

Political Islam will be studied as a multi-faceted phenomenon, which can be characterized by multiple voices speaking for diverse local contexts. Much of the present discourse on political Islam makes superfluous generalizations about the nature and dynamic of the Islamist movements, which are often presented as homogenous and coherent social units that can be defined by the discourse of their ideologues. This course will explore how such narratives overlook diverse variations of religious perceptions, practice and institutions between different segments of the Islamist population.

Required Reading for this section:

Mohammad Ayoob. Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World. University of Michigan Press. 2007.

John Esposito and John Voll. Makers of Contemporary Islam. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Salim Al-Awa Muhammad. "Political Pluralism from an Islamic Perspective." Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

Mahmood Mamdani. "Whither Political Islam", Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005.

Tariq Ramadan. "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim", February 2010.

Asef Bayat. "Islamism and the Social Movement Theory." Third World Quarterly, ISSN 0143-6597, 01/2005, Volume 26, Issue 6, pp. 891–908.

Olivier Roy. The Failure of Political Islam, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996.

Lila Abu-Lughod. Local contexts of Islamism in Popular Media. in Islam and Democracy: What is the real question? Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. 1. What are the distinctive features of political Islam?
  2. 2. Discuss and highlight the difference between Islam the religion and Islamism the political project.
  3. 3. Why does political Islam resonate in certain communities and not in others? What historical and social contexts seem to be conducive to political Islam?
  4. 4. Based on the prescribed coursework, students should attempt to assess whether the presence of political Islam today is "a consequence of and a reaction to political and sociological changes," or an "evidence of the permanence of unchanging values" of Islam.
  5. 5. In what ways are the original Islamic texts used to support the Islamists arguments?

II. Political Islam in the Geopolitical Context:

Students will be familiarized with the specific geopolitical contexts in which political Islam sustains itself. Brief overviews of political Islam in the countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran will be presented to give a meaningful idea about how different manifestations of political Islam exist in distinct local contexts. Through these specific case studies, the students will assess how the emergence of the state, which is seen by many scholars as a tangible expression of the fusion between Islam, nationalism, and political activism, has had a significant impact on political Islam. We will also learn how political Islam is bifurcated between Islamist parties in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Islamists in the diaspora.

Required Reading:

Sami Zubaida. "Trajectories of Political Islam: Egypt, Iran and Turkey." The Political Quarterly, ISSN 0032-3179, 08/2000, Volume 71, Issue s1, pp. 60–78.

Anwar Alam. "Islam and Post-Modernism: Locating the Rise of Islamism in Turkey." Journal of Islamic Studies, ISSN 0955-2340, 09/2009, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp. 352–375.

Ayoob Mohammad. " The Two Faces of Political Islam: Pakistan and Iran Compared." Asian Survey, ISSN 0004-4687, 06/1979, Volume 19, Issue 6, pp. 535–546.

Angel Rabasa, F. Stephen Larabee, "The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey", RAND, 2008.

Richard Javad Heydarian. "Arab Spring, Turkish Summer?" Foreign Policy in Focus, ISSN 1524-1939, 05/2011.

Hisham M. Ahmad. "The Arab Spring, the West and Islam." Against the Current, ISSN 0739-4853, 01/2012, Volume 26, Issue 6, p. 19.

Suggested activity:

After reviewing the above mentioned readings the students will be divided into four groups and assigned to review and present a discussion on each of the four countries (Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran). Students will focus on specific and general factors in each country and should try to assess what common patterns can be perceived within the different contexts. Differences and similarities between the expressions of Political Islam should be highlighted. Alternatively students will be assigned to two groups, which can present on political Islam in the West and in the Muslim countries, respectively. Both groups can conclude with comparing the nature of engagement of Islamism in these two contexts.

III. Political Islam and Jihadism:

Political Islam is often conflated with jihadism, which embraces violence as being central to political action. The association of Islamism with "fundamentalism", a religious tendency, is also problematic because it cannot fully explain the nature of Islamism since fundamentalism is a socio-religious construct which seeks salvation, while Islamism looks for political liberation. The example of the Afghan jihad and the Western influences that shaped it, will be examined in the readings below, along with the relationship between political Islam and jihadism with the madrassa networks. Islamist groups will be differentiated by their attitudes toward violence and their perceptions of politics. There are several moderate non-violent Islamist groups such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Moroccan Justice and Development Party, and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, which reject violence and endorse competition through pluralistic politics. These can be compared and contrasted with militant groups, which use violence and seek to establish theocratic states, such as Hamas, the Egyptian Jihad and the Algerian Jammaa Islamiyya and Hezbollah.

Required Reading:

John L. Esposito. Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism, or Reform? Lynne Rienner, 1997.

Amr Hamzawy. "The Key to Arab Reform: Moderate Islamists." Carnegie Endowment Report. August 2005.

John Turner. "Untangling Islamism from Jihadism: Opportunities for Islam and the West after the Arab spring." Arab Studies Quarterly, ISSN 0271-3519, 2012, Volume 34, Issue 3, p. 173.

Brian Goldstone. "Violence and the Profane: Islamism, Liberal Democracy, and the Limits of Secular Discipline." Anthropological Quarterly, ISSN 0003-5491, 03/2007, Volume 80, Issue 1, pp. 207–23.

Richard P Mitchell. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. Oxford University Press. 1993.

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. Can Jihadism be studied as a response to state repression or foreign occupation and interference?
  2. 2. How do external variables such as the nature of domestic regimes and substance of the foreign policies of major powers impact Islamism? Can the elitist nature of current regimes in the Muslim majority countries and the crisis of underdevelopment explain the situations in which jihadism thrives?

Suggested Activity:

Two discussion groups will be formed, one presenting facts on the non-jihadist groups and the other on the jihadist groups. Students will assess how the agendas of both groups overlap and diverge and what factors shape these two diverse outlooks. Students will be encouraged to use visual aids which can present statistical facts and demographic details to support their findings.

IV. Democracy and Political Islam:

In the recent times moderate Islamists have come to command mass popular support due to the fact that their agenda is rooted in the social and cultural fabric of the society. Islamists have also embraced the democratic process and have shown a strong commitment to the rule of law, although their outlook remains illiberal in many important respects. We will study the evolution of Islamist groups, who after decades of failed opposition to repressive regimes are now feeling compelled to compete peacefully for their share of political power and to work within existing institutions to promote gradual democratic opportunities. Significantly, we will see that most moderate Islamists groups do not actively seek the creation of absolutist theocratic states.

Required Readings:

Asef Bayat. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford University Press. 2007.

Marina S. Ottaway. "Islamists and Decmoracy: Keep the Faith." The New Republic, 232, nos. 4,716 & 4,717 (June 6 & 13, 2005).

Noah Feldman. The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008.

Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (eds.). Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdol Karim Soroush. New York, Oxford University Press, 2002.

James Piscatori. "Islam, Islamists and the Electoral Principle in the Middle East." In Islam and Democracy: What is the real question? Amsterdam University Press. 2007.

Amr Hamzawy. "The Key to Arab Reform-Moderate Islamists." Carnegie Endowment Report. August 2005.

Tamara Coffman Wittes. "Islamist Parties and Democracy." Journal of Democracy, July 2008, Volume 19, Number 3.

"Islamists Movements and Democratic Processes." Carnegie Endowment Report. August 2005.

V. Assessing the Future of Political Islam: Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, we will assess whether the quest to build a universal religious identity as sought by political Islam, de-linked from any specific culture, has come at a price with global consequences for the phenomenon itself. Political Islam can be seen as a fringe phenomenon that is peripheral to the actual political power struggles going on in the Muslim majority societies. Based on the relevant readings we will also discuss the possibility that the religion of Islam has somewhat become secularized by political Islam, not in the sense that it is under the scrutiny of modern sciences, but to the extent that it is debated outside any specific religious and political institution or hierarchy. The influence of the Arab Spring on political Islam will be studied along with the emerging discourse on the phenomenon of Post-Islamism.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. 1. In what ways has the Arab Spring influenced the trajectory of political Islam in the Muslim world?
  2. 2. Is political Islam becoming "oblivious to its own history" and consequently has the quest for a pure Islam also entailed a substantial "impoverishment of its original content"?
  3. 3. Discuss the merits of the arguments used to support the emerging discourse on Post-Islamism.

Required Readings:

Asef Bayat. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford University Press. 2007.

Amel Boubakeur and Olivier Roy. Whatever Happened to the Islamists?: Salafis, Heavy Metal Muslims, and the Lure of Consumerist Islam. Columbia University Press. 2012.

Graham E. Fuller. The Future of Political Islam. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Humaira Iqtidar. Secularizing Islamists?: Jama'at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa in Urban Pakistan. 2010.

SM Scott. "Does Political Islam have a Future?" Politics and Religion, ISSN 1755-0483, 04/2012, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp. 190–192.

Reza Aslan. How to Win a Cosmic War. God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. Random House. 2009.

Further Readings to Support Lesson Plan:

Amr Hamzawy, Nathan J. Brown. "The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment." Carnegie Endowment Paper, March 2010.

Vali Nasr. The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama'at-i Islami of Pakistan. London: I. B. Tauris, 1994.

Roel Meijer, ed. Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement. London: Hurst, 2009.

Kingshuk Chatterjee. Ali Shari'ati and the shaping of Political Islam in Iran. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Michelle Pace. Europe, the USA and Political Islam: strategies for engagement. Palgrave Macmillian, 2011.

An Interview with Seyyed Hossein Nasr. "Scripture, Society, and Traditional Wisdom", Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, Volume 2, Issue 1, Fall 2004.

Khaled Abou El Fadl. "Islam and the Theology of Power".

Marc Lynch. "Veiled Truth: The Rise of Political Islam in the West", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010.

Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage", The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990.

Zeyno Baran, "Fighting the War of Idea", Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005.

Salwa Ismail. Being Muslim: Islam, Islamism and Identity Politics. Government and Opposition, ISSN 0017-257X, 2004, Volume 39, Issue 4, pp. 614–631.

Thomas Heggerhammer. Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Tahir ul Qadri. Islam and Politics: A lecture by founder of Mihaj-ul-Quran.

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