Political Islam: Background, New Islamism and Future Prospects

Scientific Essay 2011 10 Pages

Politics - Miscellaneous


1) Political Islam: Background, New Islamism and Future Prospects

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, countries in the Muslim world had roughly two options on which policy to adopt in order to defend themselves against the Western imperial powers. The first option was to revive the Caliphate which Ottoman Empire abolished as institution and embrace a new way of Islamic Political Universalism. This seemed rather a hard task during early 20th century and it still seems does in contemporary context. Second one was to create nationalist secular states in which language, territory and shared history was the determinant of defining identities. This second option, although not very much compatible with the expectations of the majority of Muslims, was chosen (if not dictated) in core some of the core Muslim countries such as Turkey and Egypt. Secularism, especially in French version which is called ‘laicism’, strictly divides the religion and issues concerning state governance. State secularism is the term to define state’s invention to religious affairs to diminish the role of religion on a general level. In some countries like Turkey, this went into an extreme phase as secular nationalist elite wanted to eliminate influence of Islam even in the private sphere and secularism was backed by military in order to avoid any reactions against secular policies. Due to its close historical ties with the West which is unique in a Muslim country, Turkey’s secular system more or less embraced by an important percentage of its citizens. In many other countries of the region, secular nationalism could not fulfill its promises of bringing full independence, prosperity and a proud national identity. In this regard, Mandaville argues:

“Islamism can be understood as an intellectual and political movement in response to the perceived Westernization of the modern regimes and their failure to deliver on the promises of modernization” (Mandaville, 2007).

Moreover, national-secular elites perceived as overly secular and understood as being people who concerned primarily with furthering the existing interests of them and their allies. With the humiliating military losses against Israel and attempts on close ties with the West such as Sadat’s open door policy, the anger against national-secular elites increased. Political Islam, thus, claimed to be the remedy for the problems that occurred under the rule of national-secular elites. Political Islam aimed to turn people away from Western modernity and embraced ‘Islam is the solution’ as its slogan. It then evolved into being a worldview or an ideology which has lots of supporters within the Middle East. Thus, political Islam became influential on the Middle Eastern politics and on the lives of Muslims living outside of the region over the last few decades (Mandaville, 2007).

The rise of political Islamism can be attributed to some historical and social internal factors as well as Western influences on region’s politics. The internal factors are mostly related with the incompatibility between region’s social structure and secular-national model which is a result of Western experiences. First of all, Islam can be distinguished from its biggest counterpart, Christianity, on its lack of hierarchy. Unlike Christianity which has a Catholic Church, Islam never had a pope or a centralized governing structure. Although the Caliphates were used to be influential on propaganda for ‘Jihad, wars against the enemies of the Muslim world, there clearly was no formal church in Islam which similar to that of the Holy See. Thus, there is no clear head of religion in the Islamic context or at least not in the Sunni tradition which constitutes over 90 per cent of world’s Muslim population. Thus, even every single Muslims living in the world made a consensus on the necessity of an Islamic Reformation; it would be hard to decide where to start to from. This situation creates a wholly different societal structure than that of Western Europe which experienced reformation and a process of secularization. Thus, Muslim countries never gave birth to an event which is similar to reformation or French Revolution. Due to these differences, although some countries in the Middle East tried to imitate similar governing and social structures to that of the West, Islam still means both religion and state in the politics of the Middle East. It can be conluded that Islam’s role in the international relations of the region long predates the formation of nation states, forming the background for political Islamism even independent of the failures of secular-nationalist governance (Mandaville, 2007 & Linjakumpu, 2007).

As anti-modernity largely contributed to the emergence of Islamism as a political ideology, it was not the only reason for Islamist ideas to develop. International actors, especially United States, favored political Islamism in the region against the development of communist ideas. Moreover, the attempts on preventing the legitimate participation of Islamists in political life created anger against governing elites which helped political Islamism to develop. However, political Islam’s conflictual relationship both with the secular elites and the West does not necessarily mean that Islamists are against every product of modernity. In general, technical side of modernity such as science and technology are desired to be maintained by political Islamists. This makes it hard to make clear that which features and products of modernity should be used and which should not. As status symbols such as luxurious cars, Swiss watches and expensive turbans are generally welcomed in the Middle Eastern societies; some other modern ideas such as having a girl/boyfriend or wearing miniskirts are defined as unacceptable. Many different parties which have Islamist agendas differ in their look to women, non-Muslims and Western modes of consumption. Therefore, there is no consensus on to what extend Islam should be the determinant of life among the Muslims across the region. While some claim that Islamic model of governance which is based on Qur’an and Hadith[1] should be the type of governance, the others argue any model of governance which is compatible with the moral principles of Islamic teachings can be accepted (Linjakumpu, 2007).


[1] The word Hadith is used to denote sayings and approval of the Prophet Mohammed. There are many Hadiths in Qur’an which are used as reference and guidance by Muslims.


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Title: Political Islam: Background, New Islamism and Future Prospects