Understanding Political Islam

This paper, which has been delivered as a speech to the “Challenging Capitalist Modernity—Alternative Concepts and the Kurdish Quest” – Conference in Hamburg 2012, is a valuable contribution to understanding political Islam.It was written under the political circumstances of the year 2012, in the meanwhile the AKP regime has put an end to the negotiation process with the Kurdish Liberation Movement represented by Abdullah Öcalan and launched a violent annihilation campaign against democratic forces and the Kurdish people and other minorities. Since 2018 the Turkish Army is invading Syria, breaking international law, aligned with jihadist forces. In the occupied territories Sharia rule is being implemented and systematic ethnic cleansing, demographic change and massacres are being comitted.

We have all felt the winds of change in the Arab world. Changes which have given the society in that world another face. Through this upswing there has clearly been the development of activity which now determines that the old situations can never be returned to.

Nevertheless, although many people from different political directions have taken part in and influenced these protest movements, we know that in general one of these directions has secured itself as the main winner: political Islam.

The so-called political Islam (arabic: Al Islam Al Siyasi) is one part of a socio-cultural current, in which religious principles stand in the service of politics. The goal is no longer the realisation of religious teaching and obedience to Islamic writing and ways of life, but the gaining of power and political domination.

Many interpretations of the phenomenon of political Islam in the Arab world with respect to Islamic society are quite one-sided, and forget that there is a large combination of factors which have brought this situation into being. In other words: the politico-religious movements are a reaction to the dominant conditions in the society of the Islamic world; they are reactions to the inability of the established political parties, solutions which have been found for the problems of people in those countries. Whether the religio-political movements are able to remain in this position is doubtful. Nonetheless they continue their political work in the assumption that the regression to a “true” religion will be the solution to all of society’s problems.

History shows that the origin of the political-Islamic movement goes back to the Muslim Brotherhood (Alikhwan Almuslimun), a backward-looking organisation which was founded in 1928 by the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) as a reaction to the dissolution of the Caliphat after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Hassan al-Banna had the support of many powerful Egyptians who had their own interest in the foundation of such an organisation. The Egyptian writer and thinker Tarek Heggy has written that the British secret service, MI6, helped Hassan al-Banna in 1928 to form the organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. That was the year after the death of the Egyptian national leader Saad Zaghloul. The British government and the Egyptian King Fouad saw the founding of this movement as the means by which to win over the Egyptian people in the name of Islam and thereby to put a stop to the nationalist Wafd party, which had just lost Zaghloul, its main thinker and leader.i

The Egyptian Hassan al-Banna was the spiritual father of the “puritan” Mohammad Raschid Ridha, from Syria. This was the bond between Hassan al-Banna and Abdul Aziz Al Saud, who, with the help of the English in 1925, became the King of Hijaz.ii

The second most important movement was founded by Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1978) in Pakistan under the name “The Islamic Group” (Jamaat-e-Islami) at the beginning of the 1940s. The groundwork they laid in Egypt was continued by the most important representative and theorist of political Islam, Said Qutb (1906-1966). His ideas have defined the directions of all political-Islamic organisations. After the death of Qutb there was a long period in which there was no appreciable impulse for a political Islam. Only after the triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 did politico-religious organisation gain new support through the new power there, above all with its enormous financial resources through the production of Iranian oil.

The development of these movements has taken on other dimensions. The different organisations fight more and more for the realisation of their own political interests. In much of Islamic society the politico-religious organisations insist on the correctness of their positions and try, despite their different and varied directions of belief and religious creed, to present their ideas as the only true defence of Islam. Thus the different attitudes develop, in many cases, into an armed struggle between the different factions.

Each claims, nonetheless, that they fight for religion and the spreading of religious ideas and principles. They attempt therefore to wage the war not only at a national but also at an international level, because they all start with the universalist claims of Islam. It creates a situation in which everything which does not fall into the way of thinking of the different groups, is defined as un-Islamic. This rejection includes the thought and culture of other societies. The achievements of humanity, human rights, freedom of thought, religious freedom or scientific knowledge is opposed because it does not derive from Islamic society. This ignores that these so-called “enemy” ideas have a strong relationship to Islamic teaching.iii

All these politico-religious movements, wherever one finds them, always argue by Islamic principles and treat them as a political program that has the solutions for all the problems of mankind, and not only problems of Islamic society. If one nonetheless asks which of the directions of the various Muslim currents do these principles represent, they only ever have one answer: that Islam is everywhere the same.

Double meanings and contradictions in the thought of the religio-political movements

In his book “Islam and Politics: Critique of a religious discourse”, Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid (1947-2010) provided well-researched information on the Islamic discourseiv. His philosophical and historical analysis of political Islam contains a wealth of valuable information on this subject. I want to speak about the pragmatic side of this discourse and the reactions it has provoked, both inside and outside of Islamic society.

Even a fleeting analysis of the phenomenon of political Islam shows us that the ideological alignment can split into several parts, with contradictory forms. We can account for the religious and the political as the two main directions. Since these deal with the conditions of people in two different areas, those of religion and of politics, the religio-political movements fall into ever more contradictory situations. Their great problem is that they do not have a clear definition. If they appear as religious movements, then they try to define a religious discourse. However, if they take up a political organisation, they must operate with a political language, which is not necessarily identical with religious forms of expression. The position of their role in society, whether socio-political or religious, represents a problem for these movements.

It might be that in the Western world people make no great distinction between these roles, because in the West the separation of state and religion has existed for so long. In Islamic thought, one views the mixing of religion and politics in a different way. A practising Muslim treats his religious rules as something from which he truly cannot break. These rules relate to, for example, honesty, keeping promises and other virtues which are not truly welcome in political work, because in politics one is reliant on tactical forms of interpretations of political statements and promises. If we read one Muslim teacher, associated with politics, to take an example, we can imagine the following picture. The teacher preaches in his capacity as a religious man, and his speech relates to that discipline, that is, with religious considerations. If this man however steps onto the political stage and advocates a political party, something seen by many as untrustworthy, the preacher will consequentially be criticised for his participation in this party. And now one sees the contradictions in the condition of the teacher. Every critic of his political person he himself understands as an attack on his religious integrity, which in his eyes becomes an attack on the religion of Islam. He instrumentalises the religious for political ends and struggles against his critics in both fields of his activity. Some influential teachers even call for punishments, on the basis that the critics have offended the religion. We can see a good example of this in relation to the dictator in Iran. The critics of Khomeini and his theory of the “state of teachers” (arab. Wilayat al Faqih) were described as enemies of Islam and therefore punished.

At the same time, with the claim that “Islam is the solution”, Islamists attempt to revitalise the Caliphate system, and established a new Caliph through a spike in political power. In this endeavour they ignore the realities of today’s world and the contradictions entailed therein. One can illuminate this through the history of Islam and in the contemporary development of Islamic society. In Islamic history, by 1924 the Caliphate represented a political force for the whole Islamic world. Indeed, it was an Islamic area with local leaders, but this area was one part of the whole Islamic regime, at the top of which was the Caliph or Sultan.v The restoration of the Caliphate is today the most important goal of political Islam. The problem, however, is that these days the Islamists longer have no political centre. They cannot create a unified new Islamic world, because the Islamic areas are so varied that no-one — as was the case before 1400 — can speak of a single unified empire, quite apart from the impossibility of realising this idea and, indeed, if anyone could take the role of the Caliph. Which nationality should the Caliph be?

From what denomination of belief will he hail? Where will his seat be? The entire problematic of the restoration of the Caliphate reveals rather simply that political Islam is an attempt to shake up people’s emotions for the realisation of an entirely unachievable plan.

On the opposite side from this, in the Muslim world, are those Muslims who reject the entire concept of political Islam and its discourse, and even fight against it. Alongside these stand the moderates and liberal teachers as well as many scientists, politicians, writers and artists, and people with different views of Islamic society. As these people fight the theses of Islamism and its discourse, they also try to wage this struggle by civilised, liberated and scholarly religious means.

They have already found some success in this. That you can find publications in book shops nowadays which are openly critical of the discourse of political Islam is itself to be considered a great step forward in the enlightenment of this movement. On this basis one can say that the religio-political organisation with their discourse, their interpretations of the text of the Koran and their behaviour have represented a great hindrance to the development of Islamic society. The danger remains for all, however, that the simple people in these societiesvi cannot understand the twisting and varied methods of these discourses and practices.

On one side, many of these movements propagate the use of violence and oppression in order to spread their ideas to others. On the other side other organisations and parties try to manifest their movement through peaceful means. Both, however, have the same goal, which is to establish a theocracy.

For an example of these two methods, we can look to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the AKP in Turkey.

The violent methods of the Taliban is clear to everyone, and therefore we don’t need to broach any discussion about it. Less clear to many, however, and here lies the danger, is the so-called ‘institutional path’. The AKP, which is represented by may researchers as the good path of institutional Islam, plays its own role in the total project of political Islam. This method of religious party knows that violence makes the people slowly but surely distance themselves from and eventually abandon the party. They therefore decide on a deceptive strategy whereby, by demonstrating their belief in democracy, they accomplish the first step of their plan and win an election. The programs for these elections have a mixture of religious and political slogans, and in this manner again shake up the emotions of people. Within democracy, they only believe in the polls. Everything else related to the concept of democracy, such as freedom in all areas of life, social equality, the secular state, etc., does not play an important part for these parties. And exactly this phenomenon can be found played out today on the political level in Turkey.

If the AKP speaks of recognising democratic freedoms, they should also manifest this recognition and respect and accept the ambition of the Kurdish people to gain their freedom, rather than oppose them, as it does today. If the AKP speaks of the secularisation of the state, then it should also be neutral with respect to non-Islamic organisations. One cannot find this neutrality today in Turkey, as the entire country is centred around the ministry for religious affairs, namely Islamic affairs, which confiscates property from Christian communities, and sends out hundreds of young Muslim preachers abroad with taxpayers’ money.

Through this model, the AKP is creating a particularly defined social structure, through a mix of old and new elements. Indeed, as Abdullah Ocalan has written:

Elements of modern and medieval thought, and even archaic elements, create a dubious marriage. Therefore, it is the spiritual structure of the middle East which needs to be attacked. Rather than attacking the physical structure, one has to attack the political, social, juridical and economic structure, as this leads, as we have seen, unfortunately only to massacres, terror and torture, in both its official and unofficial dimensions.“vii

What does this mean? It means that political Islam, even if today it presents itself as a moderate movement, has the aspiration to establish a theocracy tomorrow.

This kind of ambiguity in the religio-political organisation must be exposed and opposed. And in this war against the discourse of Islamism, there is much to be done. Here are some important steps in this direction:

  1. Confront the Islamists on their own sources, so that they should explain their own theses. These sources are above all the Koran and the Sunna, which can be understood and interpreted differently.

  2. The confrontation with the discourse of political Islam ought not be limited to the level of elites. It must be played out on the streets, for ordinary people. Only with arguments on the basis of reason can one convince people of other views.

  3. All opponents to the discourse should speak with one voice and work with a common conception. They must organise their work well, even though they surely have fewer means at their disposal than the other side. Political Islam, especially its most reactionary form, namely the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, is supported by huge financial power and has by these means spread throughout the whole worldviii. The liberal and progressive thinkers in Islamic societies have no such support.

  4. The Islamists are against half of Islamic society, because they oppose the rights of women, who are oppressed, and regarded as inferior beings. This area is one of the most important in the war against Islamists and their theses. Women’s organisations and associations, especially here, must actively participate.

  5. The struggle must also play out on a pedagogical level and establish curricula and school systems. The entire scholarly structure in Islamic society must be newly built and transformed. Today’s curricula is almost completely counter-productive.

  6. Through the new teaching program can ordinary Muslim people can learn about their religion in a better manner. Their own religion will no longer be left in the hands of the discourse of Islamists.

  7. And not last, one must try to create a dialogue within society through tools of debate, and repeatedly request that the Islamists present their theses openly for public discussion.

When we speak of these measures it should be clear that contact and dialogue with Islamists cannot be avoided. Thus the question is: on which basis will these discussions take place? Islamist thought is concentrated on particular themes and sources. They aren’t interested in the themes and sources of others. Therefore, it is vital that one discuss with them on the basis of their own sources. One extremely important source, therefore, is the holy book of Islam, the Koran.

Sadik Hassan Itaimish was assistant professor at the University of Mosul/Ninive, Iraq. He fled to Germany in 1982 where he studied Islamic Sciences. He is associate professor for Islamic Sciences at the Protestant University for Applied Sciences in Freiburg.


iHeggy, Tarek: http://www.ahewar.org/debat/show.art.asp?aid=228787, Essay in Arabic, 12.09.2010

iiibid. (Today, Hijaz is an area of the kingdom of Saudi-Arabia)

iiiHassan, Sadik: Der politische Islam: Interkulturell, Heft 4, Jahrgang 1998, S.102-103

ivAbu Zaid, Nasr Hamid: Islam und Politik, Kritik des religiösen Diskurses, Frankfurt

vThe term Caliph (Arabic for ‘successors’) means the successor to the prophet and therefore has a religious meaning for political power. The term Sultan was used in the Ottoman Empire and had a more political significance for the ruler, who was nonetheless also a religious leader of the Muslim community.

viPeople in these societies had to live for centuries under the Ottoman Empire, and among the so-called national governments, in oppression, illiteracy, poverty and injustice. The necessity of dealing with everyday problems have people no opportunity to deal with other problems, such as the claims and slogans of religious organisations and parties.

viiÖcalan, Abdullah: Jenseits von Staat, Macht und Gewalt, Mezopotamien Verlag, 1st edition 2010, S.

viiiSpiegel Online Panorama, 28 October 2003