The global pan-Islamic, transnational Islamist movements envision an idealistic global order where popular sovereignty will be supplanted by an Islamic Sharia based state.
Imbued with traits of modernity, Islamism is a modern day ideology that attempts to reinterpret the Islamic doctrine into its desired mold while vigorously resisting any liberal interpretations or efforts of cultural modernisation.
The Islamist thinkers castigate the “man-made” nation-states while suggesting the Islamic system as an alternative to socialism, nationalism, and the cultural and political hegemony of the West.
Where it all started
The fall of the Ottoman empire and the subsequent abolition of the Islamic Caliphate created a sudden pandemonium in the Muslim world. In 1928, it was against this backdrop that Hasan Al Banna (1904-1949), a school-teacher from the British-controlled town of Isma’iliyya in Egypt, formed the youth club Muslim Brotherhood to resist what he deemed “orientations to apostasy and nihilism” which was engulfing the Muslim youth.
It was in response to the British mandate and Zionist colonialisation in 1936-7 that the Muslim Brotherhood transformed itself into a political entity. It declared Islam as: (1) A “self-evolving system” and the ultimate path of life that (2) emanates from “the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition” which is (3) applicable to “all times and places.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, buttressing its position as a resistance movement in opposition to the Nasserite state ideology of “Arab nationalism,” the Brotherhood extensively propagated their staple slogan “Islam is the solution.”
It eventually evolved into the most controversial Islamist political organisation to this date.
Bitter squabbles between the conservative and reformist bents have often hindered the Brotherhood’s ability to develop a more cohesive strategy. The creation of the military wing Nizam al-khass and the advent of the radical ideologue Sayyid Qutb as a higher echelon dented its status of a non-violent movement.
Indicted for treason, Qutb was eventually hanged to death by the Nasserite regime in 1966 which impelled the Brotherhood to take a more conciliatory approach. The extremist bent formed small spin-off groups and one of them, Al-Jihad assassinated the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
The glory days of Tahrir
Sheikh Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, founder of the global Islamic political party Hizb-ut-Tahrir (The Liberation Party), considered the Islamic system as unique to its right and rejected the ideas of Arab nationalism and Ba’athism, which he believed are stripped off Islamic ideology.
Prioritising the Arabic language and ethnic Arabs as essentials parts of Islam, Al-Nabhani envisaged the revival of Islam among the Arabs, which would subsequently be embraced by other non-Arab Muslim populace.
Officially established in Jerusalem in 1953, Tahrir earned a reputation for its neutral stance in the sectarian conflicts among Muslims and its explicit refusal to the use of violence. But it struggled to face the growing tide of Arab nationalism and failed in its attempt to overthrow the Jordanian regime.
The apparent bleak prospects in the Arab political climate forced Tahrir to shift its focus beyond the boundaries of the Middle East. It faced the same fate, and, as of today, Tahrir is banned in at least 13 countries worldwide.
In the Indian sub-continent, the Islamist philosopher and jurist Syed Abul A’la Maududi founded the political group Jama’at-i-Islami (People of Islam) in 1941. He wrote a pamphlet titled “Human rights in Islam” where he castigated the Western society and argued for the superiority of the Islamic civilisation over the West.
Fearing that remaining Muslims will lose their identity in the Hindu state of India, Maududi initially opposed the creation of the state of Pakistan. After Partition, a humbled Maududi moved to Pakistan and worked to shape the contour of Pakistan as an Islamic state. The party’s East Pakistan chapter was heavily involved in war crimes during Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971.
Islam and war
The Islamist denominations worldwide hold a Manichean proposition where the world is divided between the Dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) and the Dar-al-Harb (abode of war). Considering the presence of a vibrant Muslim diaspora in the West, such binary division seems archaic and redundant.
They claim to have exclusive access to God and hurl their critics with charges of illegitimacy and blasphemy while purporting to have found an unadulterated version of the teachings of Islam.
Ironically, most of the Islamists are graduates of secular educational systems and lack formal training in Islamic jurisprudence.
Islamist pioneers like Banna and Nabhani branded their movements as “social and cultural puritanical movements” in contrast to the status quo. Nevertheless, the Islamists actively participated in the democratic apparatus they vouched to uproot. When they fail to change the system from within, in such occasions, they often seek support from the military apparatus to stage coups in support of their cause.
Ironically, most of the Islamists are graduates of secular educational systems and lack formal training in Islamic jurisprudence
The Islamists believe in a border-less supra-national community, or Ummah, yet, in reality, they have mostly confined their activities within state boundaries.
Despite its rigid stance against popular sovereignty, the Muslim Brotherhood often adopted politically-expedient policies over the course of time. It participated in the parliamentary elections it vowed to abolish and flirted with the military regimes in times it deemed necessary to stay relevant in the political context.
Following the Arab spring, the Brotherhood galloped to power despite its timorous absence in the early days of anti-Mubarak protests, fearing a backlash from the Mubarak regime. It’s Palestinian offshoot Hamas distanced itself from the pan-Islamist ideas, concentrating solely on the cause of Palestinian independence. Hamas seeks to emulate the “Erdogan Model” in Turkey which is a blend of Islamism and conservative nationalism.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) are Ottoman nostalgists who are ideologically aligned with the Brotherhood -- they have shown a remarkable level of adaptation with the secular state apparatus. The Tunisian Ennahda (Renaissance) party formed a coalition government with the secular Nidaa Tounes party. The Jordanian Brotherhood has a parliamentary wing, Jabhat al’-Amal al-Islami (The Islamic Action Front).
Does the accommodation of Islamists in the mainstream politics mean that once in power they will honor the supremacy of the popular will? Will they cease to be Islamists and give up their dreams of establishing the Islamic state order?
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Guardian Council calls the shots in every major decision, thus crippling any popularly elected legislature. A newly passed referendum in Turkey has made president Erdogan effectively a dictator. Conversely, the Tunisian Ennahda is trying to ditch its Islamist heritage.
The Brotherhood’s chief benefactor Qatar is facing a blockade from its previous patron and friend-turned-foe Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
All these events point to the fact that, rather than a static ideology, the Islamist movement is a constantly evolving social phenomenon which deserves rigorous studying. In the absence of a liberal alternative, the Islamists are often successful in tapping into the grievances of the ordinary people and channel those to their benefit.
But they also find it extremely difficult to accommodate the nuanced Muslim voices worldwide in their black-and-white moral absolutism. One thing is for certain, the Islamist panacea to solve all the quandaries of the 21st century proves to be more fragile than ever.
Siddhartha Dhar is a Sweden-based Bangladeshi blogger, writer, and translator.