Islamism from piety politics to party politics

Authored by: Roel Meijer

The Routledge Handbook of Religion, Politics and Ideology

Print publication date:  August  2021
Online publication date:  August  2021

Print ISBN: 9780367417826
eBook ISBN: 9780367816230
Adobe ISBN:


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In this chapter, I will analyse the ideological transformation of Islamism during its politicization over the past century. Islamism or political Islam emerged with the foundation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Its branches later spread to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Kuwait in the Mashreq; from the 1970s, the organization had counterparts in Morocco, Algeria, Libya and especially Tunisia. My main argument is that the term “political Islam” is a misnomer. Although Islamism laid claim to being political and this process started in the 1930s, only in the 1980s did its politicization developed in earnest, when Islamist movements established political parties and severed their ties with their movements. Political Islam started out as a social movement focused on spreading the word and organizing Muslims in a society (jama‘a) in order to live according to God's word (McCarthy 2018, 5). It is not that the movement eschewed power, but it was not focused on gaining power either; until the 1980s, it did not have an analysis of power and did not develop a strategy on how to gain it or how to wield it. Its goal was to gradually Islamize society in response to secularization. Only after it became a social force to be reckoned with and drew the attention of the powers that be (Mitchell 1994, 12) did it start to act politically. For countries in the Middle East, modern politics with its mass mobilization, elections and parliaments was quite new at the time. The confusion in the West about the nature of Islamism derives from its claim that Islam is a “comprehensive system” (shumuliyya), covering all aspects of life, personal, social, economic and political. Islamism assumes that Islam is a “complete system” (nizam kamil) and that if believers follow Islam, they will produce a perfect society. This idea is expressed in the well-known dictum “Islam is religion and state” (al-islam din wa dawla) (Mitchell 1994, 14; Al-Anani 2016, 54–6, 111–13; Kandil 2015, 85–6; Conduit, 2019, 45). Its translation to a populist electoral slogan in the 1980s was that “Islam is the solution” (al-islam huwa al-hall). This ideological claim has been called “totalitarian” (Mozaffari 2007; Soage 2008), but perhaps a better, more neutral term, coined by Shepard, is “Islamic totalism” (1987, 307–8). Entertaining a moralistic, idealistic, even utopian notion of politics based on individual and collective virtue was the foundation of Islamism. The main function of the Islamic state was to uphold and enforce this moral order. In fact, Islamism's emphasis on faith, unity and harmony, and its condemnation of strife (fitna) and conflict and its rejection of finding ways of solving a clash of interests would be considered by political philosophers as Mouffe (1993, 4) and Lefort (1981, 85–106) as “politicide” (Meijer 2017; Meijer 2012c). Others like Saba Mahmoud call it “embodied politics” (Mahmoud 2012). But the nature of this type of politics is that it reduces political, economic and social issues to a religious identity and morality. As a consequence, political opponents are regarded as sinners and religious deviationists (munharifun) rather than representatives of different political views (Kandil 2015, 49–50). It was only after parliamentary politics, formerly condemned as partisanship or “partyism” (hizbiyya), was accepted that politics came to be valued in its own right. Indeed, this step marked for Islamism a revolutionary transition from a utopian notion of politics as an ideal to the recognition of politics as a separate field and the acceptance of formal politics. To adjust to the new situation, Islamism not only had to end its dichotomous concept of the world, redefine its enemies and friends, draw up feasible political programmes and enter alliances with the “lesser enemy”, it also had to rethink Islam and the doctrine of its comprehensiveness. This entailed a major ideological shift to an ethical concept of Islam as providing guidelines to live by, the so-called principles of Islamic law (maqasid al-shari‘a).

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