Islam as a political movement

Islam as a political movement has a history as long as the faith of Islam itself, and a diverse character that has at different times incorporated elements of many other political movements.

A common theme in the 20th century was resistance to racism, colonialism, and imperialism, as the Ottoman Empire, British Empire, and today what some call oil imperialism and global economic monoculture challenge traditional Islamic culture. Feminism and Marxism are often thought of as categorically opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, but this has not always been true.

Militant Islam and its influences are dealt with in another article on that topic. Modern Islamic philosophy is also covered separately.

Table of contents
1 The term 'Islamist'
2 Islam is inherently political
3 History of Islam as a political movement
4 Modern debates
5 The many strains of 'Islamism'
6 Sources
7 External Links

The term 'Islamist'

Islamic parties exist in every democracy with a Muslim majority. These often call themselves Islamist, meaning an advocate of Islam itself as a political movement (not "Islamism as a political movement" nor "Islamic fundamentalism as a political movement". This term has many different meanings which this article will explore, along with links to other political trends.

The propaganda term Islamofascism is used mostly by non-Muslims to describe the political and religious philosophies of some militant Islamic groups and those of the Islamic parties and political movements that they seek to categorize as moral equivalents to those groups. The term Islamism is so heavily used in advocacy with so many different definitions, that there is no neutral point of view on its use. These terms lump together very different movements that have in common perhaps a resistance to specific demands of the West, but not much else. The articles on militant Islamic groups, Islamic parties and modern Islamic philosophy explain their actual views in detail, and avoid one over-arching term to describe them all. Many debates and conflicts have led to the perception of a singular Islamic movement, Islamist movement, or Islamism, and these are dealt with here.

The most appropriate neutral way to interpret the term Islamism is as representing a debate on how Islam applies in the modern world as a political philosophy, and not as representing any one particular program.

Islam is inherently political

There is no separation of church and state responsibilities in any branch of Islam - many civic responsibilities are an inherent part of the religion. Essential elements such as the definition of umma, ijma, zakat, khalifa and Islamic economics are basic to Islam as a political movement.

It is a basic principle of Islam that the problems faced by Muslim societies can be solved only by adhering to these and other tenets of Islam, with varying degrees of adaptation to custom and usage (called al-urf) in the societies it is adapted to. This process of ijtihad is also a core element of Islam. The various movements called Islamist tend to be those that have quite poorly accommodated to other societies, and cling to a fiqh that originated in late medieval times. See list of Islamic terms in Arabic for an overview of other important principles.

It is also not possible, as another tenet within Islam, to stand idly by as fellow Muslims are oppressed, attacked or colonized. Accordingly, any actual practice of Islam as a faith requires political activity - Islam itself is a political philosophy and requires among other things an active opposition to colonialism.

Accordingly, adding "ism" to the term Islam adds nothing useful to Muslims, and to non-Muslims, seems to imply that a "tame" or "colonizable" Islam can exist which does not involve political activity. There are movements which are mildy to strongly Islamist, but this can mean almost anything.

The Islamic State

When the term Islamist is used by Muslims, it refers almost exclusively to their own specific and positive program to establish an Islamic state. There are many more movements to establish such states than are recognized as Islamist by the West, thus the use is not very uniform. The association of one term to lump terrorism in with these autonomy, secession, self-sufficiency or independence movements would seem to be designed to discredit them. In the same way, Iraqis attacking U.S. occupation troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq were and are very often described as "terrorists", despite the fact that they are natives resisting an invasion not authorized by the United Nations.

What is actually meant by Muslims who refer to themselves as Islamist is the establishment of Islamic Law with formal status. Ziauddin Sardar wrote in 1994 that "In recent times, a number of Muslim countries declared themselves to be Islamic states and ostensibly established the shariah. But what is actually put into practice is a small number of classical juristic rulings concerning punishments, status of women and other spectacular aspects of classical jurisprudence. Thus, great show is made of 'Islamic punishments' or huddud laws, and floggings and amputations are advertised. These are in fact 'outer limit' laws to be carried out only under extreme conditions and after certain basic requirements of social justice, distribution of wealth, responsibilites of the state towards its citizens, mercy and compassion are fulfilled. What we thus get is an austere state operating on the basis of obscurantist and extremist law, behaving totally contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an and spirit of Islam, yet justifying its oppressions in the name of Islam! The self-declared Islamic states are thus nothing more than cynical instruments to justify the rule of a particular class, family, or the military."

As an example, he notes that "traditional Muslim thought has been very unkind and oppressive to women. While religious scholars constantly recite the list of women's rights in Islam, they have been systematically undermining these very rights for centuries... For example, the Qur'anic advice about modesty in behaviour.. has been interpreted exclusively in terms of the behaviour of women. 'Modest' and 'decent' behaviour for women in public has been interpreted as a rigid dress code despite the...deliberate vagueness which [is] meant to allow all the time-bound changes that are necessary for social and moral growth of a society. In a total perversion of the Qur'anic advice, dressing modestly has thus been interpreted to mean dressing like a nun, covered from head to foot, showing only a woman's face (in some circles only the eyes), wriests and feet. An injunction meant to liberate from the oppressions of 'beauty' and 'fashion' ends as an instrument of oppression."

The grounds for more liberal interpretation of Islam are not in dispute. As of its origins, Islam granted women the right to own property, choose their own partners, divorce, to abortion when necessary, education and sexual satisfaction in marriage. For these very reasons, Christians denounced Islam as sensuous, licentious and perverted through the 19th century and associated it with sexual looseness.

In the 1917 during the Russian Revolution, when hold on the Muslim hinterlands from Moscow was drastically reduced, some local movements declared constitutions based on Islamic Law. A common pronouncement in them was that women were equal to men and would have the same democratic rights. These were crushed by the Soviet Union which subordinated Muslim countries into itself. What Islamic politics that existed, was local and quite suppressed.

Islam is sometimes militant

Today Islamic political movements are usually at least somewhat more conservative than their secular counterparts in the Islamic World.

Furthermore, some movements within Islam hold that a much more interventionist militant Islam is required to eject and prevent corrupt influences on children, women, and the young in particular. The term radical Islamist has come into use in propaganda to deliberately confuse the difference between radical and fundamentalist views, and militant actions.

Radical, as an adjective, implies a return to fundamentals. So does the term fundamentalist. Neither implies militant stances or violent actions. The Mennonite sect in Christianity, for instance, is both radical and fundamentalist, but is neither militant nor violent.

It is always problematic to assign any one ideology to a religion, whether in advocating or opposing it. In part what makes a religion durable is its ability to bend with the political times. In the United States in the 1960s for instance there was deep convergence between liberal white Christian churches, more conservative black churches, and civil rights movement activism - all saw racism as a common enemy. By the 1980s however more conservative religious forces had rallied (or been rallied by the Moral Majority, televangelism, and the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan) and had chosen abortion as their common opponent. However, on other issues, like the death penalty, these proponents were often strongly split, with Roman Catholics opposed, and most Protestant abortion opponents favouring state killing of "guilty" adults, as opposed to "innocent" unborn children.

Such shifts are just as prominent in the history of Islamic militancy. Examining militancy alone says little or nothing about the character of Islamic principles carried into political life.

History of Islam as a political movement

Historically, there were many competing strains of interpretation of Islam in politics:

Local cults, cliques and revival movements have always been a part of Islam and have characterized its spread as a faith, and its resistance to outside colonization. In G. H. Jansen's Militant Islam (book), published in 1980, he explored among other things the many different strains of that movement, and the role of tarika, or secret societies, in both spreading and defending Islam. The roots of these movements go back to medieval times, and it is thus simply not correct to argue that there is a separate movement called Islamism that emerged only by reaction to the West in the 20th century. The article on tarika establishes the roots of these societies and their relation to the modern groups that are in some ways based on them.

Some scholars hold that the tarika developed into the more modern militant Islamic movements in reaction to several forces:

Before World War I Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and his ally the Ottoman Empire, sought to enlist Islamic and Turkish imperialist movements in general support of resistance to the British Empire - Germany, he claimed in propaganda, had historically been the European defender of Islam as a faith, and had never participated in suppressing it. This was technically true as the country was only formed in 1870 and had few colonial possessions. "The German Kaiser was even prayed for in the mosques of Syria as Mohammed William or Hajji (Holy) Gilliom. Clearly it was only a matter of weeks before Turkey fell completely into the trap and joined with Germany in the so-called jihad (holy war) for which Berlin was calling." (Anthony Nutting, Lawrence of Arabia, p. 184).

Alarmed, Lord Kitchener in September 1914 struck an alliance with the Grand Sherif of Mecca, and on 31st October pledged that "If the Arabs assist England in this war, England will guarantee that no intervention takes place in Arabia and will give the Arabs every assistance against external foreign aggression." This agreement served as the basis of the Arab Revolt which generally aligned Arabs with the British Empire. Islam as a political force in that war was not unified, as the Ottoman Turks were resented oppressors of Arab populations. There were scattered objections to the idea of uniting with non-Muslims to defeat nominal Muslim Turks but these were relatively muted. At least, until the British recanted on all their important promises:

Following World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent dissolution of the Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (founder of Turkey), At the same time, France had managed to gain control of Lebanon and Syria, contrary to explicit agreements (with the British) that Arabs would have self-rule. This was a direct swap to gain British control of Mosul, Iraq, and its oil reserves. These losses and betrayals were very disheartening, and many Muslims perceived their religion as in retreat, and felt that Western ideas were spreading throughout Muslim society, along with the influence of Western nations.

There was some minor resentment of Jewish immigration and influence on the European empires, although this was not due to the Balfour Declaration as such. Feisal Hussein, the Grand Sherif's son, in 1919 "asserted the claim to independence of all Asian Arabia - the Hejaz, Nejd, Transjordan, Palestine, Syria and Mesapotamia - on the grounds that geographically and racially these areas were inseparable. He raised no difficulties about the Balfour_Declaration and affirmed he was all for Jewish immigration into Palestine, although opposed to the concept of a Jewish state on the same grounds of the inseparability of Palestine from the rest of the Arab world." (Nutting, ibid). When French and colonial interests prevailed, resentment of all forces that had conspired to deny Arabs control of their own lands increased, and was exacerbated when Hitler indirectly gained control of Syria via Vichy France in 1940. The Baath Party was created in Syria and in Iraq as a movement to resist and harry British, using some elements of Nazi, Islamic, socialist doctrines, and anti-Semitic propaganda. After the war, this party shifted to the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. Stalin had by then become an opponent of Zionism, having like the Arabs initially found it compatible, and then rejected it as bourgeois, racist, and colonial.

Any Arab tendency to anti-semitism was drastically magnified after World War II when Israel was created, at literally the crossroads of all traditional Arab lands. The fact that the Jews had not fought for the land, but the Arabs had, and that the promise made to Arabs had been broken, while that to Jews had been kept, was often ascribed to racism. A religious focus for rhetoric became more common, and more mullahs became involved in politics. The Palestinian Diaspora stressed social structures in Arab states, which expelled many Jews. Zionism was identified as the opponent, and some argued a coherent Islamism was required as a response.

However, Islam was still not the dominant trend in resisting colonialism or even Zionism. During the 1960s, the predominant ideology within the Arab world was pan-Arabism which deemphasized religion and emphasized the creation of socialist, secular states based on Arab nationalism rather than Islam. However, governments based on Arab nationalism have found themselves facing economic stagation and disorder. Increasingly, the borders of these states were seen as artificial colonial creations - which they were, having literally been drawn on a map over tea by people who lived in London.

Also during the 1960s, the rise of convert movements such as Nation of Islam and the identification of racism as a common scourge of Muslims (who have had historically more racial variety than any other major religion) refocused Islamic political movements. As Malcolm X put it, on haj to Mecca, "I realized that if all the different races snore in the same language, they must be equal before God."

Modern debates

Once the common opposition to colonialism, corruption and racism was established as a focus, debates on political Islam became generally focused on three core questions through the 1970s:

  • status of women and integration of priorities of feminism into a renewed fiqh
  • Islamic economics and the role of debt in oppression and stagnation of Muslim states
  • Zionism and the capacity of Muslims for self-governance, control of oil revenues, etc.

United Nations cooperation was pivotal in this view - as was cooperation with secular forces and allies. The agenda of secular and Islamist movements during this period was all but indistinguishable. However, some rural movements were finding progress made here to be symbolic and unsatisfactory. In 1979 the political situation drastically changed, with Egypt making peace with Israel, the Iranian Revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - all three events had wide-ranging effects on how Islam was perceived as a political phenomenon.

To understand this, consider the variety of attitudes Muslims with a fervent belief in Islam as a universal solution to political problems, took to the events of the 1980s and the 1990s:

Perception of persecution

Some Muslims place the blame for all flaws in Muslim societies on the influx of "foreign" ideas including debt-based capitalism, communism, and even feminism; a return to the principles of Islam is seen as the natural cure. This is however interpreted in very many ways: socialism and Marxism as a guide to adapting Islam to the modern world was in decline by the 1980s as the USSR invaded Afghanistan and polarized attitudes against Communism and other secular variants of socialism. Capitalism was often discredited by plain corruption.

One persistent theme that both proponents and opponents of Islam as a political movement note is that Muslims are actively persecuted by the West and other foreigners. This view is of course not distinguishable from a critique of imperialism including oil imperialism, since many Muslim nations are sitting on relatively vast oil reserves. Colonialism is often identified as the force which is 'against Islam', and seems to neatly encompass British Empire experiences as well as those of modern times - the long Ottoman domination being more or less forgotten.

Reactive Islam

It was largely through reactive measures that the movement that is labelled Islamist came to be visible to the West, where it was labelled as being a distinct movement from Islam, pan-Arabism and resistance to colonization. The legitimacy of this kind of distinction is very much in doubt. Olivier Roy, a top advisor to French President Jacques Chirac, holds that the primary motive of all of this activity is resistance to colonialism and control of the Islamic World by outsiders. In this view, the movement called Islamist is wholly reactive and incidental, just a convenient rationale used to justify what is in fact resistance of a cultural and economic sort.

However, there are many overt similarities. Those militants who follow a version of shariah based on the classical fiqh ("jurisprudence") as interpreted by local ulema ("jurists"), were the most prominent of several competing trends in modern Islamic philosophy in the 1970s and 1980s. It was at this time that they became visible - and a concern - to the West, as they challenged the modernist dictators that the West had generally put trust in.

See militant Islam for a detailed review of some modern movements that are often labelled Islamist by their opponents. This article is only about the reactive definition of the West, leading to the label. Trends which led to this are summarized by Ziauddin Sardar as follows:

"1. The excesses of modernist leaders who have maintained their power in Muslim societies largely by coercive means and have ruthlessly persecuted the traditional leadership, including imprisonment, torture and execution of religious leaders and thinkers." Many of whom sought to refine and spread a more modern Islamic philosophy and an associated modern polity including most norms respected in democracy.

"2. The spectacular failure of the economic and development policies of the modernist leaders which have led to the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands." Usually in direct defiance of traditional Islamic economics and obligations such as zakat and khalifa.

"3. The continuous abuse and ridicule since the 1950s of traditional thought, lifestyle and everything associated with it." This is often symbolized by the modern dress of secular folk which is viewed as scandalous by traditionals.

"4. The policies of Western powers to deliberately undermine Islamic oppositions in Muslim countries, demonize Islamic leaders, prop up oppressive, westernised regimes, and reduce Muslim states to economic paupers and debt-ridden societies." Which is very similar to accusations made against globalization in general by anti-globalization movement and advocates of creditary economics (which includes Islamic economics).

The many strains of 'Islamism'

While the trends leading to the response can be summarized, the response to these trends is far less uniform, and has included a wide range of different ideologies fully as diverse as those observed in non-Muslim nations.

Despite the assertion that somehow all so-called Islamism is related, more moderate trends were well-funded, especially from nominally Wahabist Saudi Arabia which funded many departments of Muslim World Studies in the US. This funding was instrumental in making many of the more moderate trends in modern Islamic philosophy visible to the West - and further developing them. As Allan H. Weiner relates in his 1997 book Access to the Airwaves, his college experience in Maine was largely shaped by this kind of contribution to the American scholarly culture: "Dr. Shakir was an amazing man. He could speak four or five languages. He was incredibly intelligent and was versed in just about everything. You could go to him day or night for either an academic problem or a personal one. He taught me a lot, influenced my life a lot, and generally raised my awareness and my consciousness. He was not only the Director of Muslim World Studies, but the Director of the Political Science department as well - which was a pretty big department at Ricker College. He taught me more about the political process and the essence of the human being than anyone else. I remember one day I was lamenting to him about how we just seem to be destroying ourselves - human beings just can't get along, the political systems are so corrupt, and everything is such a mess. He said that change happens very, very slowly because the level of awareness of a human being takes a long time to raise. The only time that you get an extremely significant change in any type of a social structure, he said, is when the level of awareness of human beings raises up a step." Nor was this kind of interaction restricted to the classroom or counselling, but continued into elements of administration: "The corruption at the school was just disgusting. Dr. Shakir, myself, and a group of other faculty members knew this, and we tried to what we could to change things..."

Cold War exploitation

But such cross-cultural exchanges, polite activism and moderate views were very often suppressed by the funders of more militant strains who sought to exploit them against the Soviet Union. The United States, for instance, in the 1980s supplied university-authored textbooks to the mujahedeen of Afghanistan that encouraged militant attitudes and even taught arithmetic using examples involving hand grenades and "dead infidels".

There was also pressure against secular socialism in the Islamic World, and especially in Iraq, Syria and Iran, until the Iranian Revolution of 1979 proved it could well be counter-productive and lead to backlash that put regimes in place that would be hostile to the Western, secular, world.

Role in terrorism

Some militant Islamist forces have been implicated in terrorism and have become targets in serious of military initiative justified by the US rhetoric of "War on Terrorism", which has been adopted by Russia, Israel and other countries. This has led Muslims and the opponents of these initiatives (in the peace movement) to characterize it sometimes as actually a War on Islam.

As part of this war, they claim, literally every political interpretation of Islam, from classical fiqh to Marxist to such moderate views as those of Dr. Shakir, are all being classified as part of one "enemy" movement.

Movements described as 'Islamist'

The following are considered by most Western governments to be Islamist movements. Some of them have formal ties, some have suspected ties, and some deny ties:

What these groups have in common tends to be opposition to the United States and Israel. They vary widely in terms of the form of Islamic Law they prefer: Hamas for instance is close to secular in tone, the Taliban nearly medieval. Some include Saudi Arabia's dominant ideology, Wahhabism, on this list, but, interestingly, not the nominally Islamic governments of Pakistan or Turkey. This appears to be largely motivated by geopolitics, and a purely Western idea of "who we can work with, and who not."

Another profound bias of such classifications is that it is quite rare to include nominally Christian or Jewish or Buddhist guerillas in any analysis of those faiths' views of politics, but quite common if it is Islam under discussion - and likely being criticized.


Along with many other cultural phenomena, Islamic political thought has undergone its own globalization as adherents of many different strains have come together. Even in such strictly controlled, secretive groups as Al-Qaida, there were believing Muslims of drastically varying backgrounds coming together, some of whom accepted the tactics and priorities of the group, and some not. While violent fanatics deployed by cynical leaders (who often act more like gangsters than political leaders) make highly visible attacks on Western interests and even on 'homelands', this is thought by many to be no more than backlash for an entire 20th century full of cynical attempts by German, British, and American Empires to deploy Islamic idealists as a mere tactic.

When Russia joined the Council of the Islamic Conference in 2003, it emphasized that it had a long history of successful co-existence with Muslims, and a large integrated population of Muslims (few of which are in any sense Islamist). President Vladimir Putin, despite a long and bloody confrontation with rebels in Chechnya, offered to act as a bridge or neutral broker in dealings between Muslims and NATO, the EU and USA. This was a quite different rhetoric, a more pragmatic one likely reflecting the reality that the ex-Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan had substantial Islamic political movements - similar to those in Turkey and Pakistan, relatively modern in tone and willing to participate in the US War on Terrorism to some degree, although not as direct combatants.

Some analysts believe that the old Cold War battlelines have been redrawn, with Russia choosing new allies - those with a record of success in forcing US withdrawals from strategic territories (Beirut, Somalia and - depending on interpretation - Afghanistan and Iraq) with Muslim populations. In this view, the old Marxist alliance against colonialism is the dominant rhetoric.

Others accept the Russian pledge as sincere, and believe that Islamist movements of all stripes will eventually come to accommodation with domestic secular forces, and Islam as a global anti-corruption, anti-colonialism, and anti-racism movement, less focused on Zionism and Palestine. George W. Bush for instance has noted the real need as economic development in Muslim countries, to break the cycle of poverty that tends to feed into extremist movements. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq, the Bush administration has worked closely with nominally Islamic forces and ruling political parties in government. It denies intensely that it is involved in a War on Islam. However, polls of Muslim nations indicate these denials are not trusted. Any accommodation will not be quick in coming.

The Internet is also playing a role in the globalization of Islam as a political movement - in Iran in particular, Shia clerics respond to many thousands of requests for fatwa, or rulings on religious matters, by email. A younger generation of Shia clerics in Iran and Iraq are actively involved in politics, and seeking to restate the principles of the Islamic revolution of 1979, perhaps more in line with the modern debates that took place in the 1970s, prior to the interjection of the prolonged West Bank occupation, American provocateurs and funding for extremists (including Osama bin Laden) in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Collapse of the Soviet Union, and other distractions that have tended to reinforce only the more extreme movements.

Some analysts also note some luddite or anti-globalization movement convergence within some Islamist groups, especially those who very strongly reject biotechnology or persuasion technology or the use of modern technological weapons against people whose only weapons tend to be small arms, explosives and their own bodies, often sacrified simply to strike.


The following sources generally prescribe to the theory that there is a distinct 20th century movement called Islamism that exists independently of Jewish/Christian observers and motivations:

However, the following sources very strongly challenge that assertion:

  • Edward Said, Orientalism (book)
  • Merryl Wyn Davies, Beyond Frontiers: Islam and Contemporary Needs
  • G. H. Jansen, Militant Islam, 1980
  • Hamid Enyat, Modern Islamic Political Thought

These authors in general locate the issues of Islamic political intolerance and fanaticism not in Islam, but in the generally low level of awareness of Islam's own mechanisms for dealing with these, among modern believers, in part a result of Islam being suppressed prior to modern times.

External Links

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