10.1 Varieties

Dr. Serdar Kaya

Islamism takes many shapes and forms. When broadly defined, it refers to any social, political or economic policy position inspired by Islamic texts, traditions, or values. Accordingly, in the same broad sense, an Islamist is someone who “believes that Islam has something important to say about how political and social life should be constituted and who attempts to implement that interpretation in some way” (Fuller, 2003, p. 47).

Common misconceptions debunked.
  • “Most Muslims are Arabs.”

Less than a third of Muslims are Arabs, but people often hear about Arabs and Islam in the same context for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to wars in the Middle East, and the way these wars are usually covered by the mainstream media or Hollywood movies. Regardless, Arabs are a large linguistic community with diverse groups of members around the world, though Arabic is spoken predominantly in the Middle East and North Africa. Most Arabs are Muslims, but many belong to a variety of other faiths, primarily Christianity. It is important to remember that Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all born in the Middle East, so a large number of Arabs being Christian is common knowledge in the Middle East.

  • “Muslims live in the Middle East.”

The majority of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, although there are Muslims in all parts of the world. Only 20 percent live in the Middle East and North Africa. Indonesia in southeast Asia has the largest Muslim population at 230 million. Then comes India, which is an interesting case in that it is not a Muslim-majority country, but is home to more than 200 million Muslims. About a quarter of the world’s Muslims live in Indonesia or India.

  • “Muslims are violent.”

On the one hand, many people are violent, and some of them happen to be Muslims, but on the other, some of the violence in the world is religiously inspired, and Muslims have their share of violent adherents. Violent Muslims do exist, but they are almost categorically a subset of fundamentalist Islamists, who are a subset of Islamists, who are a subset of all Muslims, nominal or devout.

  • “Muslims subdue women.”

Abrahamic scriptures are not always friendly to women by modern standards. They advise women to be quiet (1 Corinthians 14: 34, 1 Timothy 2: 11), to be obedient (Ephesians 5: 22-24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:3-5, 1 Peter 3: 1-6), and to dress modestly (1 Corinthians 11: 2-7). The Quran follows the same tradition (Baqarah 228, 282, Nur 31, Ahzaab 59). It is largely modernists who argue for a non-literal reading of the above texts. Modernists are not necessarily feminists, but all feminists are in the modernist camp. In all, Islamist positions on this issue also vary significantly by country and camp, as the spectrum of Islamism is quite large. The sex slaves of ISIS are not urban legends. They are real, albeit extremely rare and shocking to people, including most Muslims around the world. Yet, there are also feminist Muslim women who choose to dress modestly, and some of them wear a headscarf. People sometimes attach very different meanings to the same phenomena, and accordingly come to interpret the same things very differently. A careful study of Muslim cultures is thus key to a more accurate understanding of these meanings and perspectives, as well as the political ideologies they sometimes translate into.

This general framework covers most Islamists in the world. However, there is no consensus on a particular interpretation of Islam, let alone a particular method to implement that interpretation. There is rather a wide variety of movements that derive their inspiration primarily from Islam, yet vary in terms of their teachings, activities, organizational structures, and goals. Nevertheless, most groups exhibit specific types of family resemblance, allowing us to place the vast majority of Islamists in one of the following three camps: traditionalists, fundamentalists, and modernists.

Traditionalists are the largest of the three camps. Islam is important to traditionalists, because they consider it a part of their culture and identity, and respect it as such. Traditionalists are aware the times have changed, so they accept most contemporary social and political arrangements, and do not react to them, unless these arrangements are fundamentally opposed to their religious values. Traditionalists are not violent, and they distance themselves from Islamist groups that aim to disrupt the political order.

Fundamentalists and modernists are much smaller in size, but some of those in the former camp are more widely known around the world, as they are under the spotlight more often, due to their controversial views and activities. Fundamentalists are the most puritanical, the most orthodox, and accordingly the most socially conservative of the three camps. They are not necessarily violent, however. Puritanism and orthodoxy often come in a variety of violent and peaceful forms. Still, it is important to note that Sayyid Qutb’s emphasis on an Islamic state have led to a degree of radicalization in some streams within the fundamentalist camp in the mid 1900s, followed by other similar influences in the following decades. (For more on Qutb, and his critical importance to Islamism, see Box 10.2.)

Box 10.2 – Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)

A photograph of Sayyid Qutb, Egyptian theorist.
Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)

Qutb was a thinker from Egypt. He was a central figure in the development of Islamism as a political ideology. He is the author of the influential book Milestones (Ma’alim Fi Al-Tariq), which was published in 1964, and has since shaped the way Muslim generations around the world think about Islam, as well as its place in their lives and the world.

What Qutb essentially did in Milestones was share his interpretation of the world as a Muslim thinker. The world Qutb saw around him was an unjust one, so he prescribed an Islamic response to it. The 1960s was a time when most Muslim lands were gaining independence after long and exploitative periods of Western colonialism. This anti-Western climate had a major influence on Qutb’s ideology.

From Qutb’s perspective, the West was the enemy for more reasons than one. The West was the colonizer. It was the Crusader. It was the wellspring of materialist and secular ideas. It was the place where the authoritarian secular governments in the Muslim world drew their inspirations from, and imposed secular laws on Muslims. To Qutb, this was unacceptable, embarrassing, and anti-Islamic. Yet, most Muslims of the twentieth century did not see things as he did, and Qutb argued that they were merely sociological Muslims who actually knew little about Islam. He claimed that they were in ignorance (jahiliyya), which is a mental state the traditional Islamic narrative attributes to the pagan Arabs of the pre-Islamic era. Furthermore, Qutb believed that his Muslim contemporaries were too ignorant to even have a problem with the unIslamic policies of their authoritarian secular governments. Why would they otherwise be complacent to live in nation-states, which Qutb considered a form of idolatry? Why would they otherwise identify primarily with their respective nations, which, to Qutb, were unIslamic communities based on ethnicity? Why would they abide by secular laws, which Qutb believed constituted a rebellion against the authority of God? Qutb believed that only Islam could set Muslims free from this state of ignorance, but he stressed that this could not happen, unless Muslims experienced an intellectual awakening, overthrew their authoritarian governments, and established an Islamic state that would replace secular laws with Islamic ones (Qutb 1964).

In all, Qutb’s Milestones was a manifesto of Islamism. It was a call for offensive jihad. It convinced Islamic movements in different countries of the need for an Islamic state, and led them to embrace that objective. The book did not invent Islamism. Many before him had ascribed a central role to Islam in social and political life. Still, Qutb left his mark, and Islamism has never been the same after him, and especially after Milestones.

Qutb died at the age of 59. The Nasser regime in Egypt had him executed by hanging in 1966 by hanging. He was accused of participating in the assassination attempt on Nasser. Qutb’s execution at the hands of a secular authority elevated him to the level of martyr in the eyes of many devout Muslims around the world. His ideas influenced many if not most Islamic movements worldwide, and brought issues that revolve around Sharia law and the Islamic state closer to the centre of debates. (For a more detailed account of Qutb and his life, please see Calvert, 2009).

Finally, the modernist camp has its roots in the early efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity. Commenced in Egypt and India in the late 1800s, these efforts involve the reinterpretion of Islam’s primary sources through contemporary lenses so as to formulate a political ideology that protects civil rights, and promotes social and economic progress. After about a century and a half, the propositions  of modernists are now more varied in content. Most modernists still try to remain within an Islamic framework, but some tend to be reformists, and thus have less conservative views on social issues. Despite these differences, generally speaking, modernists today tend to emphasize the importance of reason, and favour at least some degree of separation between politics and Islam. For example, contrary to fundamentalists, modernists argue that imposing authentic Islam on contemporary societies is problematic for a variety of reasons, including Islamic ones. They quote from the Quran, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2: 256). They indicate that historical reports from the first century of Islam are often inaccurate, if not outright fabrications. They underline that contemporary Muslims and Muslim-majority societies vary in terms of religious faith, denomination, piety, and practice. They recognize that not all members of Muslim-majority societies are Muslims, not all Muslims are religious, and not all religious Muslims consider it a requirement to live the way the first Muslims did about 1,400 years ago. Based on the above facts, modernists argue that a liberal democracy is the best form of government available for contemporary Muslims, as it protects religious Muslims against secular dictatorships, and nominal Muslims, non-conforming Muslims, non-Muslims and others against Islamic theocracies. After all, a liberal democracy imposes neither religion nor non-religion on citizens. (For more on the three camps, see Fuller, 2003, p. 47-60.)


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Serdar Kaya is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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