10.2 Islamism in Contemporary Contexts

Dr. Serdar Kaya

All three camps tend to prescribe a set of social and political arrangements, but public support for these arrangements varies widely. Islamist propositions do not always align well with public opinion. More importantly, Islamism is not the only game in town in Muslim-majority societies. Albeit influential, Islamism is far from being without rivals in the marketplace of ideas. In fact, none of these three camps necessarily constitute a majority even in overwhelmingly-Muslim societies. After all, not all Muslims in Muslim-majority societies are Islamists, and not all Islamists are equally close to the political center of their respective societies.

Islam and Violence: Key differenciations

  • Islam and Islamism are two different things. Islam is a 1400-year-old religion with a diverse heritage that reflects on culture, values, customs, arts, and architecture, among other things. Islamism, however, is a political ideology that took shape largely in the 1900s. Accordingly, all Islamists are Muslims, but only a minority of Muslims are Islamists.
  • Jihad is an Islamic concept that may have spiritual or violent connotations, depending on context. Jihadism, however, is a neologism. In particular, salafi jihadism refers to and underlines the fundamentalist salafi theology of most contemporary jihadist groups (Kepel 2002).
  • Most armed Islamist groups today subscribe to a salafi theology, but most salafi Muslims are not violent. Orthodoxy does not necessarily go hand in hand with violence. Therefore, when studying Islamists or other ideological groups, it is best not to combine categories. Orthodoxy, fundamentalism, traditionalism, devoutness, and piety are separate categories, and each may have their violent and peaceful variants. For example, an Islamist group with an extremist ideology may very well reject violence, and engage in peaceful activities only — for tactical or religious reasons. Hizb ut-Tahrir is one example. Yet, other groups may participate peacefully in the democratic process, while maintaining militia forces. Hezbollah in Lebanon is one example, and Hamas in Palestine is another.
  • Time is another important dimension. Like people, institutions too evolve. An Islamist group may denounce violence at one point, and become strictly peaceful. Divisions may also appear at critical junctures in time, where an emerging faction may push a more or less peaceful policy.
  • Ignoring the above differentiations and similar others may easily lead to the mistake of perceiving Islamists in fewer typologies than actually exist. Different Islamist groups exist on the violent and peaceful ends of the political violence spectrum, and in all shades of grey in between.

Almost a quarter of the world population is of Muslim background, so Muslims come from all walks of life, and it is not rare for them to politically identify as nationalists, secularists, environmentalists, liberals, or socialists, among other things. Most contemporary Muslims connect with their religion in a variety of social, cultural and institutional settings, but they do not necessarily make Islam a substantial part of their politics. Furthermore, Muslims of the twenty-first century are increasingly secular, and many are cultural or nominal Muslims only. In fact, recent surveys indicate that, even in a seemingly-conservative country like Iran, about half of the population is now religiously unaffiliated, and only 37% believe in an afterlife (Maleki and Arab, 2020). In other words, the aforementioned traditionalist, fundamentalist, and modernist camps exist merely in the Islamist sphere, which is a subset of the larger Muslim sphere that includes non-practicing and non-religious Muslims, among others. Moreover, even the larger Muslim sphere is a subset of the society as a whole, which usually includes the adherents of a variety of minority religions, as well as the religiously unaffiliated. As a result, depending on the political context, Islamists develop different strategies to increase their influence. They look for ways to respond to local realities better, and appeal to larger groups of people. That said, establishing some type of an Islamic state remains the objective of most, due to Qutb’s long shadow. Still, there is rarely if ever a consensus over what an Islamic state should and should not involve. It is the rule rather than the exception for members of even the same Islamist groups to have only a vague idea about the intricate details of Islamic governance. Yet, the dream lives on…

Nevertheless, some unexpected developments in the late 1900s have created a number of unprecedented offhoots from Qutbian jihadism. After the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, Islamists from a variety of countries traveled there to join the resistance. Upon victory, however, many felt they should remain in Afghanistan to establish an Islamic state, even though that was not a part of the plan in the beginning.

The experience of international fighters joining forces in a Muslim-majority country to create an Islamic state led to a new, global approach to jihad. It was a paradigm shift, of which Al-Qaeda was a result. Qutbian jihadism thus extended to the global level. This is perhaps best illustrated by the way Al-Qaeda differentiates between the near enemy and the far enemy. Al-Qaeda’s near enemy is the secular regimes in the Muslim world, which Qutb primarily focused on. Al-Qaeda’s far enemy is the United States, followed by other Western powers with a military presence in the Muslim world.

Al-Qaeda propagates a leaderless form of organization that guides lone wolves, or small packs of wolves, around the world to wage war on anti-Islamic targets. This method was laid out in a 1,600-page e-book entitled The Global Islamic Resistance Call (Al-Suri, 2004), which earned its author the title of “the architect of global jihad” (Lia, 2008). Along with other documents such as Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri’s General Guidelines for Jihad, a whole new perspective on Islamic revival emerged.

This method is prone to creating offshoot groups, some of which end up even more radical than their precedents. ISIS is perhaps the most extreme example to date. Gilles Kepel (2002) characterizes this new variant of jihad as Salafi jihadism, which refers to the concept of jihad, as interpreted by Salafi fundamentalists of the twentieth century. Most people know Islamism largely by this most violent subgroup of the fundamentalist camp.

Salafism (definition)

Salafism is a school of thought in Sunni Islam, according to which the Muslims of the first two centuries of Islam represent the religion in its purest form, as they learned directly or indirectly from Muhammad or his companions. Religious Muslims of all denominations have always shared this adherence to the early communities of believers, but the Salafi Movement goes beyond adherence and advocates the revival of the social, political, economic, legal and moral practices of the early communities.

To sum up, Islamism is more a spectrum than a well-defined political ideology. It is not an ambiguous idea, but it is not necessarily coherent across political contexts either. About six decades after Qutb’s Milestones, Islamism is still largely composed of a set of social and political propositions that are for the most part shaped in response to local realities, Muslim-majority or otherwise. The globalization of jihad has been the only exception to this rule, albeit a salient one that merits attention.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is Islam usually a unifying or dividing factor in the politics of Muslim-majority nations? Why?
  2. Which of the three forms of Islamism, if any, can operate peacefully and become a part of a multiculturalist society? Why?
  3. The views of fundamentalist and modernist camps on women and gender issues are less nuanced, and thus more straight-forward. The views of traditionalists, however, vary widely within and across national contexts. How do traditionalists influence policy decisions toward women and sexual minorities, especially since they are the largest and thus the most influential of the three camps? How do women and gender issues overlap with religion in Muslim communities and societies in general? And in what ways have social norms changed in the Muslim world in recent decades?
  4. To what extent do people draw their moral and ethical values from religion? How do their differences in value judgments influence the debates pertaining to the social and political spheres? What are the similarities and differences of these countless debates in different countries and cultures around the world, Islamic or otherwise? And what about the Western world, where divisive policy issues also tend to have a religious dimension?
  5. Liberal democracies involve not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion. Is it possible to simultaneously protect these two freedoms in political contexts, Muslim-majority or otherwise, where religiously-motivated voters are large enough to influence election results



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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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