Political Islam is composed of
countless phenomenon visible in many different appearances and is derived from
wide-ranging social bases across the globe. Political Islam describes the
various kinds of political movement which have taken place throughout the past
100 years as a way to face politics in domestic, regional and international
settings. Such movements are found in all aspects of the world of politics,
i.e. on the street, across the region of the Middle East, Islamic ideologues
have been extremely influential in terms of a strong opposition to Middle East
populism, problems of dependency, indebtedness and poverty (Milton-Edwards,
2011). On the other hand, nationalism in the Middle East, and in particular
Arab nationalism, can be best seen as a 20th-century spectacle linked with
numerous of influences such as anti-colonialism, romanticism, state-building,
self-determination, socialism and religion (Tibi, 1997). Nonetheless, political
Islam has always been in conflict with their political opposites, the secular
nationalists, which have held a strong ideological stance over the Middle East.
In response, Islam has developed their own notions of pan-Islamism and Islamic
nationalism, to reject this threat of secularised nationalism. Therefore, in
this essay, I will be presenting two sides to the proposed question that
political Islam has been identified as a form of religious nationalism
supported by Jueregensmeyer point that, “many Muslim movements are indeed
nationalist… many Muslim activists seem happy to settle for Islamic
nationalism” Juergensmeyer, 1993, p. 47) – for example, Hassan al Bana, the
founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who adopted a gradual reformist approach. On
the contrary, I will be further presenting that the call of contemporary fundamentalists
“becomes a call for an Islamic order opposed to the order of the secular
nation-state” (Tibi, 1992, p. 183) – for example, the Islamic State of Iraq and
Syria, who completely reject the secular state in order to restore the
Caliphate through the use of jihad.


The involvement of Muslims in the
political life of a society is seen as entrenched in the heart of Islam itself.
For example, The Prophet Mohammed asserted his political attributes to the
government of the city-state of Medina, putting together the rules for a
political as well as religious community which would later stretch its
authority over other parts of Arabia, and eventually across the world
(Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 147). The political growth of Islam was undoubtedly
connected with the spread of the religion itself, embracing not just the act of
worship but every feature of life, including political, legal, economic,
cultural and social relations which all contributed to this universalist
system. Islam ensures this sense of unity, known as tawhid, to the Muslim and
his or her community, known as the umma (Milton-Edwards, 2011, p.147). Due to
this assumption, it has been discussed, that religion and politics merged
together, with no separation between the state and the mosque, as there was no
separation between the state and church before the reformation in Europe
(Milton-Edwards, 2011, p.147).


However, this concept of
relations between religion and politics has faced criticism from Eickelman and
Piscatori, who argue that, empirically, such a relation was just not current.
Moreover, Muslim thinkers have wide-ranging views about the relationship
between Islam and politics; regardless, “the indivisibility of the two realms
persists in the study of Islam”, establishing three crucial problems,
“exaggerating the uniqueness of Muslim politics, inadvertently perpetuating
‘Orientalist’ assumptions” (Eickelman and Piscatori, 1996, p. 56). But Islam
has always advocated a tradition of ijtihad (interpretation) and tajdid
(innovation), and doctrinal differences and splits have caused differing
political practices and methods.

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By the late-nineteenth and early-
twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire had ruled over the territories of the
present-day Middle East, ruling the region for more than four centuries. Yet,
the force and effect of global political changes had damaged its defences and
its hold on the Islamic way of life. The well-being of Islam was at threat by
western political notions that were introduced as a consequence of colonialism
which had been recognised in the region. For example, the British and the
French imposed ideologies and the mode of thought that contested the
traditional belief of Islam to its very core (Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 149).
The traditional western mode of thought consists of the secularisation of
society, the breaking of bonds between religion and politics, the concept of
rule by the people for the people and the promotion of capitalism and other
economic agendas (Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 149) – all of which contradicts the
very tenets of political, religious, economic and social means which had ruled
the Islamic world. As a response, Muslim thinkers urged for the reforms of
Islamic law to encounter the challenge of European colonialism.


The emergence of a modernist
trend within political Islam was the outcome of such reforms to challenge the
threat posed by European imperialists. Three religious scholars, al-Afghani,
Abduh and Rashid Rida are the central figures of late 19th century debates over
such reforms. Al-Afghani had imagined a revived caliphate to unify the entire
Muslim world under one political and spiritual leadership (Teti and Mura, 2016,
p. 87). Despite his political failures, al-Afghani is important for various
reasons, firstly, his work had a significant impact on later figures like
Rashid Rida and Hasan al-Banna; secondly, because he was the very first
scholarly to respond against European powers by articulating a political
opposition on the basis of original religious grounds; and finally, because in
order to achieve that he looked back to a theoretical ‘Golden Age’ of early
Islam, a move which, although empirical rather than ‘creative’, has since then
highlighted all efforts to think about intense issues such as the connection
between Muslim societies and secular states (Teti and Mura, 2016, p. 87).
Whereas Muhammad ‘Abduh was a gradualist reformer, in favour of adopting some
European institutions. While seeing the need for an advice-giving government,
‘Abduh believed that rather than ‘importing’ from Europe, Muslims should
rediscover shura (Teti and Mura, 2016, p. 87). Rashid Rida, who was a student
of both ‘Abduh and al-Afghani, symbols a turning point in Islamist thinking and
in the outlooks of intellectuals towards foreign powers. Writing during the
British occupation of Egypt between 1882 and 1922, he supported active
resistance to imperialist invasion by arguing that jihad should be used more
often as a defence mechanism against political as well religious oppression
(Teti and Mura, 2016, p.87).


The development of nationalism
derives from a Eurocentric standpoint. The theories of nationalism are,
therefore, associated with traditions in western political ideologies,
including the discussion about liberty, democracy, individual sovereignty and
secularisation. In the Middle East, the idea of nationalism or watan was
described in two ways. The first talks about the western notion of nation
acknowledged as a nation-state, which by the 1920s had been recognised in many
parts of the region (Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 53). The second draws attention
on Arab and Muslim concepts of the umma (community) and fitting into a tribe,
clan, religious or ethnic groups (Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 53). For example,
the population of Jordan still refers the Jordanian monarchy as Banti Hashem,
which means from the tribe of the Hashemite, a group which existed long before
the creation of the Transjordan state by the British in the 1920s. The
Jordanian people also come from other groups such as Circassians, Palestinians,
Bedouins, Muslims, Christians and Turkic peoples. Jordanian national identity
anticipated increasing political importance in a fragile demographic balance of
power that led to the Palestinians in the state having a majority
(Milton-Edward, 2011, p. 53). Therefore, the ‘Jordan First’ campaign was the
state’s comeback to this opposition demanding loyalty to the Hashemite kingdom.


The emergence of Arab nationalism
resulted from a national consciousness, and in particular of an Arab identity,
which arose from tensions between the Arab people and their Turkish rulers.
Even though the Ottoman Empire was Muslim, it demanded that Arab people must
learn the Turkish language, swear an allegiance to Turkish governors and rulers
and to carry the coin of the Turkish rulers. The Arab people began to resent
the Ottoman Rule, despite reforms within the Empire, in particular amongst the
educated urban Christian and Muslim elites of cities such as Cairo, Damascus
and Beirut (Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 55). These elites played a crucial role in
articulating Arab nationalism with an anti-colonial mindset; this is recognised
by Breuilly, who claims that “such intellectuals have played a prominent part
in Arab nationalist politics… The importance of nationalist intellectuals in
Arab nationalism’ can never be misjudged (Breuilly, 1993, p. 149). On the other
hand, Aziz al-Azmeh, argues that Arab nationalism emerged from neither the Arab
Revolt of 1917 nor of direct western influence. He believes that Arab
nationalism is the “product of the Ottoman reforms (tanzimat) of the nineteenth
century… the incipient regime of modernity and… small elite class
intellectuals” (al-Azmeh, 1995, p. 7).


A new Arabic language was
accordingly fictitious to represent an independent cultural identity, while
also expressing the vocabulary and terminology of modern science and political
life. Hence, the Arabic language was modernised and new terms were invented in
order to portray the definitions of political ideas and institutions, or
scientific creations and philosophical notions (Choueiri, 2008, p. 302). Such a
procedure could be seen as an attempt by Arab scholars to create a term for
expressing the republican system of government in the wake of the French
revolution, or the idea of democracy and parliamentary elections (Choueiri,
2008, p. 302). Nonetheless, language was used as a national tool of
communication, modified to examine and keep up with the complex developments of
the modern world, in order to enter its hidden and clear meanings and gain
access to its novel intellectual, scientific or institutional characteristics
(Choueiri, 2008, p. 302). This new language resulted from the joint efforts of
Syrian, Egyptian and Tunisian writers. They were the main teachers at newly
well-known schools, editors of newspapers or journals, and civil servants
working for modernising leaders. Furthermore, new Arab dictionaries were
gathered in order to update and reinsert Arabic in order to fulfil a much wider
cultural awakening (Choueiri, 2008, p. 302).


After the successes of the many
revolutions for Arab independence in the 1940s and 1950s, Arab nationalism was
intensified as the new era of the Arab world used the notion of nationalism in
order to fulfil the unification agenda to the whole next level. Some suggest that
the success of Arab nationalism in attaining independence at the level of
nation-states motivated some tendencies to encourage the nationalist agenda to
supranational levels (Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 69). As Breuilly claims, “one
would have expected Arab nationalism to recede in the face of increasingly
important territorial nationalist movements, especially once these had acquired
independence” (Breuilly, 1993, p. 283). Others have also suggested that,
alongside the Palestinian issue which united the Arab nation, the rise of
Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was the other important force, analysing the
strength of pan-Arabism in the region. In Egypt, after the 1952 Free Officers
revolution led by Abdel Nasser, an agenda of pan-Arabism and the unification of
states was in force. Under the circumstance of the Cold War and superpower
rivalry in the Middle East, any arrangement of an alliance between Arab states
under the influence of pan-Arabism was observed as positive within the region
(Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 69).


 After Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez
Canal in 1956, Arab nationalism became widely accepted in the Middle East and
pan-Arab ideas became the core principles of political fusions between states.
It was argued that pan-Arabism would allow Arab leaders to exceed state
boundaries, many of which had been insincerely enforced during the colonial
era, in order to acquire the best of Arab unity. In 1958, Nasser formed the
United Arab Republic, a union between Egypt and Syria, which was a clear example
of fulfilling political, economic and social objectives under the concept of
pan-Arabism. The development of Nasser’s power was coinciding with the rise of
Arab nationalist Ba’thism, specifically in Syria and Jordan where Ba’athists
had entered the political scene by 1956-7. However, the new Republic proved to
be a political and economic disaster. This attempt to enforce Arab unity on the
basis of pan-Arabism failed for three particular reasons: first, Nasser was not
willing to share power with the Syrians, the UAR became an experiment in
Egyptian imperialism. Second, the union only strengthened the Egyptian state
but only by weakening the Syrian state at an institutional level, and as a
consequence, there was no equality of political power. Thirdly, the UAR was a
failure due to Nasser’s effort to present rapid social and economic change and
his failure to find an appropriate political outline to back this procedure
(Milton-Edwards, 2011, p. 70).


The Muslim Brotherhood, founded
by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, was the main force behind the revival of Islam and
the renaissance of Muslim political mode of thought. As Zubaida claims, “This
movement has been the most prominent fundamentalist current in Sunni Islam”
(Zubaida, 1993, p. 47). The main objective of the Brotherhood was to promote
Islam politically, religiously, economically, socially, legally and culturally
as the only alternative to oppose the powers of westernisation, secularisation
and materialism that had entered Muslim communities within the Middle East.
They believed that the threat of the West could be overcome by a new adoption
of Islam. Under the leadership of al-Banna, the Brotherhood adopted a
gradualist-reformist tactic which emphasised the need, prior to Rida’s
acceptance, to return to the origins of Islam, to the Koran, the Prophet and
the Golden Age of rule under the “rightly guided caliphs” (Milton-Edwards,
2011, p. 154). Their approach was not modernist suggesting that they should
accept the western political thought, innovation or technological knowledge and
rearticulate itself; instead, they encourage the rejection of these western
trends and in the promotion of traditional Islam.


After the assassination of Hassan
al-Banna in 1949, the Brotherhood took a radical turn during the 1950s and
1960s under the influence of Sayyid Qutb. Despite helping Nasser come into
power and establish his rule, under him the Brotherhood was not only deeply
suppressed by the state but also disregarded politically by Arab nationalism.
Nasser’s single-party chose, disregarded or suppressed his main rivals
including the Brotherhood, large-land owners, and the Communists (Teti and
Mura, 2016, p. 89). This led to Qutb radicalising the organisation when he was
arrested in 1954 under Nasser and later executed in 1965. Whilst in prison,
Qutb felt the severity of Nasser’s suppression, and wrote his most significant
tract piece, ‘Milestones’. According to Qutb, the complexity of present-day
corruption was such that society should be labelled as being in a state of jahiliyyah
(pre-Islamic ignorance), and so rejected completely, requiring a radical
overhaul to be imposed ‘from above’ (Teti and Mura, 2016, p. 89).


During the 21st century, the
Middle East witnessed some regimes topple due to succession crises and the energies
of political Islam capitalised by playing crucial roles in shaping the future
of such states. For example, Egypt, after the overthrow of President Hosni
Mubarak, saw the rise of populist Islamist forces, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood
who came into power when Muhammad Morsi was elected president in 2012. However,
the Brotherhood was weakened when they came face to face with the view of
actual power; their political stances appeared unstable on specific key areas
such as the economy. Additionally, the emergence of ISIS as a consequence of
the Arab Spring witnessed important developments within political Islam. Led by
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organisation took control over massive territories
from northern Syria to central and northern Iraq. The Arabic denomination for
the movement is Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. ISIS’ use of media
and editing techniques for terror and propaganda videos and successful military
operations have contributed to the expansion of the group. They use symbolic
targets in maintaining the victorious image of ISIS, while also symbolising the
rejection of nationalism (Teti and Mura, 2016, p. 94).


As mentioned beforehand, the fall
of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 and the removal of the caliphate by republican
Turkey led to the modern-day Islamist movement. Muslims outraged by colonialism
and the failures of nationalism, under which home-grown autocrats attempted to
appoint Islam for their own benefit, waited so long for an alternative that was
important in a world of nation-states and elections (Economist, 2017).
Therefore, the Brotherhood presented them with one. Democracy was not part of
the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, hence why al-Banna rejected it as an alien
tendency (Economist, 2017). Al-Banna saw the development of the Islamic state
happening in stages, each requiring different approaches. So, Islamists might
put less emphasis on their divine objective early on, and even take part in
elections, if it improved their position in the long-run (Economist, 2017). For
example, when Erdogan founded the AK Party in 2001, he appeared to represent a
new of form of Islamism, known as “Islamism-lite”, which concentrated on
freedom and free markets (Economist, 2017). After winning the parliamentary
elections in 2002, the party enforced democratic reforms, restrained the army,
and strengthened the state’s perception of human rights. The AK opened up a
promising pathway for other Islamist parties to enter the political arena.


The years of inter-Arab conflict
widened the political division and set out layers of uncertainty over the
formative period of pan-Arabism and its difficult association with the
Arab-Islamic reform movement (Nafi, 2008). Both the Arab Islamists and Arab
nationalists advanced to legitimise their influence by reaffirming their own
history in isolation from the history of others, even by de-legitimising the
other (Nafi, 2008). The defeat of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 marked the end
of an era for pan-Arabism. The defeat was not only seen as the critical failure
of the Arab state but also saw the beginning of the end for the alliance
between Arab nationalist intellectuals and the ruling elite. For many Arab
intellectuals, disengagement from the state appeared to be the only solution
for survival (Nafi, 2008).


Overall, the rise of political
Islam was adding a new foundation to the Arab political and intellectual
divisions; however, despite having the support of the masses, the Islamists
could not influence the Arab elites and were unable to break the political stalemate
hindering the progression of democratic transformation in many Arab countries.
Nonetheless, the influence of the Arab nationalists and Arab Islamists has
begun a new era in modern Arab history. Both sets of ideologies have been, and
arguably still are, the most dominant forces in Arab political and cultural
life (Nafi, 2008). 

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