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Thematic Guide to Islamism

William Shepard, Professor Emeritus, University of Canterbury (New Zealand)


The terms "Islamist" and "Islamism" have been used increasingly by scholars since the late 1980s to refer to movements that are also variously designated as "fundamentalism," "political Islam," Salafism (only for Sunnis), "militant Islam," "Islamic radicalism," "Islamic extremism," and "Islamic activism." Those who use the term "Islamism" consider it to be more precise and generally less pejorative than the others, but since 2001 "Islamism" has come into common usage among journalists usually with a pejorative sense. Most scholars, however, still use the term in its nonpejorative sense, and that is the usage followed here.

"Islamism" refers to movements in the modern Muslim world that call for the application of Islamic norms and prescriptions (i.e., the Shari'a) to all aspects of community life, in particular law and government, but also economic and social life and, for some, science. These movements, which typically call for an Islamic state, have arisen in reaction to secularism and to the Muslim secularist and modernist responses to this, which they consider too infected by Western influence. Nevertheless, they are part of the same historical tradition of renewal and reform as modernism, and they generally reject the "innovations" (bid'ah) associated with traditional ways, including Sufi practices. Though presenting themselves as anti-Western, Islamists openly accept Western material, science, and technology and do not escape the influence of other Western ideas and practices. Perhaps the most significant example is their acceptance of the modern state as an institution, though not its secularist version.

Islamists differ to some extent in their interpretations of what an Islamic society might be. Some, for example, reject "democracy" as putting human laws in the place of divine ordinances and will speak only of shura, ("consultation," a Qur'anic term), but others, such as Sudanese Islamist Hasan al-Turabi, allow that many aspects of democracy are consistent with Islam. More prominently, they differ on the means to their goal. Some Islamists are willing to work gradually within the existing system and may be willing to accept a partial implementation of their goal. Others opt for more dramatic action, coups d'état, assassinations, terrorism, or revolution. Some are mainly focused on political action, but others have extensive social service and educational networks. Most accept nationalism, as a value or goal subordinate to Islam, though others reject it as a form of shirk (idolatry), worshipping the nation along with God. Islamism has generally appealed to members of the urban middle classes, especially students and to those with a technical education.

The first Islamist movement was the Muslim Brothers (al-ikhwan al-muslimun), founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, a school teacher. Initially it was mainly a social and educational organization, but it soon began to engage in political action, though without formally becoming a political party. In the violent politics of post– World War II Egypt, some of the Brothers engaged in assassinations, and al-Banna was assassinated in turn in 1949. The Brothers had contact with some of the military officers who took over the Egyptian government in 1952 under Abdel Nasser, and briefly supported his government. The group was banned, however, in 1954 after an attempt on Nasser's life, and some members were sent to prison or exiled.

The movement then divided along two lines. A radical faction, influenced by the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, who called for a revolutionary jihad on the grounds that all so-called Muslim societies were jahili (anti-Islamic and ignorant), was responsible for a number of violent actions in the following decades. These included the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, carried out by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, and a number of killings in the 1990s by this group and the Jamaah al–Islamiyyah, al– (the Islamic Society).

The majority of the Muslim Brothers have taken a less confrontational approach, however. Those in prison were released in the early 1970s and were allowed unofficially to reestablish the organization. Candidates connected with the Brothers, but running under other labels, have contested almost every parliamentary election in Egypt since 1984, and they have become the strongest opposition group. They have also sought to take over or influence various professional syndicates and have continued their social and educational activities. During the Cairo earthquake of 1992, the Brothers and other Islamists were quicker to act than the government. In 1996 some of the more liberal Brothers formed the Ḥizb al-Wasaṭ ("Middle of the Road" party) as a pluralist party with an Islamic frame of reference, but they have not been allowed to register officially.

After World War II the Muslim Brothers spread to other Arab countries. In Jordan they have cooperated with the government and sometimes participated in it; in Syria they revolted against the government and were brutally suppressed in 1982. In Palestine the Brothers were for some time considered by the Israeli government as less dangerous than the secularist PLO. In 1987, however, during the first intifāḍah, an offshoot of the Brothers, Hamas, came to the fore as one of the main resistance groups; the organization soon came to be seen as a terrorist group, but it also has a considerable social and educational program. In elections in 2005 Hamas gained control of the administration of Gaza. Another Palestinian Islamist group, Islamic Jihad of Palestine, has a more strictly political focus. The Brothers also played a significant role in the politics of the Sudan and supported the coup that put an Islamist government in power there in 1989. Its leader, al-Turabi, was influential for a time but was later imprisoned.

Separate from the Muslim Brothers is the Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami), founded in 1952 by Palestinian judge Taqi al-Din Nabhani (1909–1977). The party is highly structured and is focused on establishing a caliphate over the whole of the umma, considering the current state system to be the "Abode of Unbelief" (Dar al-kufr). It has spread widely, especially among students, and is found in several Western countries, although it is banned in most Arab and Central Asian countries.

In Algeria the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was formed in 1988 and was so successful in the first round of national elections in 1991 that the government cancelled the second round and banned the organization. In response, some Islamists waged an extremely bloody but ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the government for several years that was marked by atrocities on both sides.

In Turkey the Millî Görüş (National Vision) movement, led by Necmettin Erbakan, has had to function within a strongly secularist environment. It has formed political parties (e.g., the Welfare Party) that have regularly contested elections since 1969 and almost as regularly have been banned by the government and re-formed under a new name. Millî Görüş differs from most other Islamist movements in having a strong nationalist element in its ideology and in having Sufi connections. In 1996–1997 Erbakan briefly governed in coalition with a secularist party. Later some of the members split away and formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is formally secular but has a strong Islamic ethos. The AKP came to power in 2002 under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. One may see in the AKP and the Ḥizb al-Wasaṭ in Egypt a "post-Islamist" phenomenon that could be repeated elsewhere.

Historically, the second Islamist group to be formed was the Jamaat-i Islami, founded in 1941 in what was then British India by the journalist Abul A'la Mawdudi (1903–1979), who is probably the most widely read and influential of all Islamists. Among the prominent Islamists influenced by Mawdudi was Sayyid Qutb. Mawdudi favored the movement to create Pakistan but opposed the secularism of its leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. After Pakistan was formed he worked to make it a truly Islamic state according to his ideas. The Jamaat has not been a mass movement and has been fairly selective in its membership. It has participated in elections with limited success, but it has still had considerable influence, which was probably at its greatest during the military rule of Zia ul-Haq from 1979 to 1988.

In Afghanistan the mujahidin who resisted the Soviet invasion included secularists, traditionalists, and Islamists such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Taliban, who ruled from 1996 to 2001, are best seen as initially traditionalist, having a strong orientation to their local version of Pashtun tradition, but becoming more Islamist later on under force of circumstance and the influence of al-Qaeda.

In recent years al-Qaeda has achieved the greatest notoriety of all Islamist groups, certainly out of proportion to its numbers and activities. It is distinctive in many ways: in addition to its focus on violence, al-Qaeda is globalized to a degree that few others are, its organization is loose and flexible, and its anti-Western focus is striking. Many Islamist groups argue that they must fight the "near enemy"—i.e., their own rulers—before the "far enemy," the West. Al-Qaeda has reversed this logic on the ground that the "near enemy" depends on "the far enemy." Ayman al-Zawahiri, often seen as the intellect behind Osama Bin Laden, was a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization and merged his part of that group with al-Qaeda in 2001.

In Malaysia the revival movement known as dakwah, which began among students in the 1970s, has been influenced by Mawdudi and Qutb. Although it incorporates Islamist elements, dakwah cannot not be labeled Islamist as a whole; many of its leaders, such as Anwar Ibrahim, are better labeled modernists. The older Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan Malaysia Islamic Party), which has governed some states, was earlier as much Malay-ethnic as Islamist but became more strictly Islamist in the 1980s; it is largely 'ulama'-led. The close relation between Malay ethnicity and Islam conditions all Muslim politics in Malaysia.

In Indonesia the Masyumi, a major political party in the 1950s, was Islamist, though pragmatically so. Neither of its main component organizations, the Nahdatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah, can be considered Islamist, but a smaller group, Persatuan Islam (Persis), is Islamist in its teachings though it is not involved in politics. Some members of the Masyumi participated in the separatist Darul Islam revolt (1948–1961), which was clearly Islamist. Islamism was repressed under the Suharto regime (1968–1988), but several small Islamist parties have contested elections since then. Violent Islamism has appeared in the form of groups such as the Laskar Jihad and the Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda–affiliated group that was responsible for the bombing in Bali in 2002 and other bombings.

Shi'i Islamists differ from Sunnis in several respects. Their movements are usually led by members of the 'ulama', while Sunni movements tend to be led by "laymen." Additionally, for Shi'is, the figure of the third Imam, Husayn, provides a potent model for martyrdom. Islamism played a role in the politics of Iran in the 1940s and 1950s, primarily in the activities of the Fida'iyan-i Islam (Devotees of Islam). This group was best known for assassinations, but it also produced a detailed plan for an Islamic government and had contact with the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. From the 1960s Islamist opposition to the Shah grew increasingly widespread, and after the revolution of 1978–1979 an Islamic Republic was established under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. This, the first Islamist state, has successfully institutionalized itself and has a more lively parliamentary life than most other regimes in the Middle East, but its record is problematic in many ways.

Since the revolution, the Iranian regime has sought to encourage Iraqi Shi'i Islamists, who were severely suppressed by Saddam Hussein. After his removal they have played a major role in events, especially the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. Hizbullah in Lebanon has also received help from Iran and has come to be one of the major political players and leaders of the resistance against Israel. In this case an Islamist group has to play politics in a very complex sectarian scene. While Sunni and Shi'i Islamists often seek to transcend their differences in an "ecumenical" way, the presence of Islamists in places where there are tensions between Sunnis and Shi'is tends to exacerbate these tensions.

Some claim that Islamism has failed, since there are in 2010 only two states that could be considered fully Islamist: Iran and Sudan. It may be that the future lies with "post-Islamism" such as that of al-Wasaṭ, the AKP, or Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss grandson of Hasan al-Banna. The Islamist ideal is still very much alive, however, and the possibility of future Islamist states cannot be discounted.


Further Reading

  • Barton, Greg. Indonesia's Struggle: Jemaah Islamiyah and the Soul of Islam. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2005.
  • Bergesen, Albert J., ed. The Sayyid Qutb Reader: Selected Writings on Politics, Religion and Society. New York and Oxon: Routledge, 2008. Good selection of Qutb's later, more radical writings.
  • Burke, Jason. Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003. A very perceptive study.
  • Chehab, Zaki. Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement. London and New York: Nation Books, 2007.
  • Esposito, John L., and John O. Voll. Islam and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Includes good studies of Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Algeria, and Egypt.
  • Euben, Roxanne L. Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. Analysis of the development of Islamic fundamentalism, placing it in historical context, with considerable attention to Sayyid Qutb.
  • Hilmy, Masdar. Islamism and Democracy in Indonesia: Piety and Pragmatism. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010. Good study of contemporary Islamist groups with a focus on the issue of democracy.
  • Husain, Ed. The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. London: Penguin, 2007.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh; Muslim Extremism in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Important study of the Islamic groups influenced by Qutb.
  • Kepel, Gilles, and Jean-Pierre Milleli, eds. Al-Qaeda in Its Own Words. Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap, 2008.
  • Khomeini, R. M. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Trans., H. Algar, Berkeley, CA: Mizan, 1981.
  • Maududi, Syed Abul A'la. The Islamic Law and Constitution. 5th ed. Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1975.
  • Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Classic work on the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Musallam, Adnan. From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Excellent study of Qutb's whole life and thought, including his earlier secular period.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Norton, Augustus Richard. Hezbollah: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. An overview of the political mobilization of the Shi'i community in Lebanon and rise of the "Party of God."
  • Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Beirut: Holy Koran Publishing House, 1978. Qutb's most radical and influential work. There are other editions and translations; the title is sometimes translated Signposts.
  • Roy, Olivier. The Failure of Political Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. By one of the leading analysts; sees what he calls "neo-fundamentalism" as replacing Islamism.
  • Taji-Farouki, Suha. A Fundamental Quest: Hizb al-Tahrir and the Search for the Islamic Caliphate. London: Grey Seal, 1996. Authoritative and thorough study.
  • Victor, Barbara. Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers. New York: St. Martin's, 2003. Very striking material about the motives and actions of these women (not all are Islamists).
  • White, Jenny B. Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. Good study of social forces related to Islamism in Turkey.
  • Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Good study of background and recent activities of Islamists.
  • Tessler, Mark A. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1994.

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