Islamic Studies Political Islam
by
John O. Voll, Tamara Sonn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0063

Introduction

The term Political Islam refers generally to any interpretation of Islam that serves as a basis for political identity and action. More specifically, it refers to the movements representing modern political mobilization in the name of Islam, a trend that emerged in the late 20th century. Political Islam is a distinctive aspect of a broader 20th-century development that is often called Islamic Resurgence, in which Muslims worldwide seek to strengthen their understanding of and commitment to their religion. Not all Islamic Resurgence movements can be characterized as Political Islam, however. The Tablighi Jamaʿat, for example, has expanded greatly since its beginnings in northern India in the 1920s. The movement resolutely avoids political activism, however, and many Sufi brotherhoods displayed renewed dynamism in the final decades of the 20th century without advocating programs of Political Islam. Similarly, Muslims engage in many different types of political activities that are not included in discussions of Political Islam. Thus, the term is usually used to identify a specific kind of political program and is not just a generic label for any political activity in the Muslim world.

Introductory Works

An early analysis of the modern significance of what would come to be called Political Islam was presented by Arthur Jeffery in 1942. Scholarly recognition of organized movements of Political Islam came later, however. The organized political manifestations of Islamic Resurgence arose in the context of the failure of secular nationalist movements throughout much of the Muslim world in the mid-20th century. The enthusiasm and energy created by the charismatic leadership and nationalist programs of the 1960s faded with economic stagnation and political setbacks, most notably the defeat of Arab forces in the 1967 Six-Day War. New groups with more explicitly Islamic identifications began to replace the radical leftists as the voices of political opposition. By the end of the 1970s, scholars were beginning to recognize new modes of Islamic expression and association that were nontraditional and based in the political arena. Terminology for the phenomena characterized as Political Islam varies among scholars. The first scholar to introduce the term Political Islam was Martin Kramer in 1980. Some scholars use the term Islamism for the same set of phenomena, or use the two terms interchangeably. Dekmejian 1980 was among the first to place the politicization of Islam in the context of the failures of secular governments, although he uses the terms Islamism and fundamentalism (rather than Political Islam) interchangeably. Dekmejian 1995, still using fundamentalism and Islamism, is an influential treatment of Political Islam as increasingly mainstream and moderate. Some scholars, using descriptive terms such as conservative, progressive, militant, radical, or jihadist, distinguish among ideological strains of Political Islam.

General Overviews

Recent discussions of Political Islam generally identify the 1978–1979 period of the Islamic Revolution in Iran as the coming of age of Political Islam. Since then, the most visible movements of the Islamic Resurgence have been political, sharing an affinity for Islam as the motivating force, if not the defining characteristic, of their proposed political systems. They share as well the goal of transforming Muslim-majority countries from Western-style nation-state structures into recognizably Islamic entities. The majority of serious treatments of the subject of Political Islam recognize that the definition of the desired political system covers a wide spectrum, ranging from the uniquely structured Iranian republic, dominated by religious scholars, to a state structure basically similar to the nation-state model but that enforces a particular code of Islamic law. The methods for achieving the goals of Political Islam also vary, from militant revolution or violent jihad to a democratic conversion of the people and state. In view of the violent aspects of some groups associated with Political Islam, however, some scholars, characterize all Political Islam as militant and even dangerous. Lewis 1990 famously suggested that Political Islam represents a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim and Western worlds. More commonly, scholars recognize tension within Political Islam between mainstream moderate groups and those that are more radical (e.g., Kepel 2004). Olivier Roy’s 1994 suggestion that Political Islam was failing by the mid-1990s was highly influential, prompting some scholars to speak of post-Islamism (e.g., Lauziere 2005). However, the term Political Islam remains current, although the continued political failures of groups associated with it, particularly those in Algeria, Egypt, and Afghanistan, have prompted some scholars to speculate on changes necessary within Political Islam (e.g., Fuller 2004, Roy 1994). This recent scholarship also reflects a broadening of the meaning of the term, from the specifically state-oriented movements of the 1980s to a more generic definition that includes any Islamist movement that has political significance.

Textbooks

The study of Political Islam developed in the context of widespread scholarly acceptance of modernization theory. According to this theory, as societies become more “modernized,” or technologically and economically developed, they inevitably become more secularized. In this perspective, religion is seen as a force for traditionalism, and is therefore not helpful in the kind of development necessary for modernization. Modernization is seen as actually creating a polarity between nationalism and religion as bases for identity and incentive for political mobilization. Because of that, and because of the academic segregation of the study of politics and religion in discrete disciplines, many scholars who dealt with politics in the Muslim world marginalized Islam or treated it as a force for traditionalism rather than development. But with the development of interdisciplinary studies, scholars began to make intellectual space for religion as a factor in political development. Among the first to do so with regard to the Muslim world was Rahman 1979. His description of “political modernism” recognized the challenge faced by Muslim reformers as they sought to articulate authentically Islamic bases for governance. Since the Iranian Revolution, a number of scholars have produced textbooks that transcend modernization theory and survey the dominance of Political Islam throughout the Muslim world. Esposito 1980 and 1998 and Voll 1994 are among the influential scholars in this regard.

  • Ayoob, Mohammed. The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

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    Coverage of contemporary developments from Morocco to Indonesia, with a clear presentation of historical context. A useful survey textbook as well as an in-depth analysis.

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  • Esposito, John L., ed. Islam and Development: Religion and Sociopolitical Change. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1980.

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    The first textbook to recognize and survey the role of Islam in sociopolitical development. Still a useful introduction to Political Islam.

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  • Esposito, John L. Islam and Politics. 4th ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

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    In its various editions, this volume is a standard source for analysis of the political dimensions of contemporary Islamic life. First published in 1984.

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  • Beinin, Joel, and Joe Stork, eds. Political Islam: Essays from “Middle East Report ” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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    Useful introductory text stressing the diverse manifestations of Political Islam and the complexity of various groups’ positions on issues such as democracy, civil rights, and gender issues.

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  • Mandaville, Peter. Global Political Islam. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    Accessible and most recent survey of mainstream Political Islam in the early 21st century, including case studies of movements in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Also includes useful discussion of the global jihadi movement al-Qaeda.

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  • Rahman, Fazlur. “Modern Developments.” In Islam. 2d ed. By Rahman, Fazlur, 212–234. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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    Referring to early Political Islam as “political modernism,” this is the earliest and, arguably, still the best text to provide the context for understanding the context and significance of the rise of Political Islam. For advanced students. First published in 1966.

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  • Voll, John O. Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World. 2nd ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

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    Traces the development of Islamic reformist thought from the 18th century, describing in detail its development in various state contexts from Africa to Southeast Asia. For the advanced student, this text gives full voice to multiple manifestations Islamic political paradigms.

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Bibliographies

Some of the most convenient bibliographic sources are available online. For example, Oxford Islamic Studies Online, available through library subscription, includes bibliographic search accessible by author, title, subject, country region, and era. In addition, Mount Holyoke College maintains a sourcebook with a section on Political Islam, with links to full texts. Many textbooks contain useful bibliographic notes as well.

Journals

Many different periodicals and journals publish articles on Political Islam, but few are devoted exclusively to the subject. Different types of journals provide important analyses of Political Islam. Among these are journals of scholarly associations, either defined by discipline or area studies, such as the journal of the Middle East Studies Association. Other journals are topically defined, concentrating on Islamic subjects, while others focus on regions of the world (Asian studies, Middle Eastern studies, etc.). Some research institutes and centers covering Islamic matters also publish journals that give at least some coverage to Political Islam. Finally, there are the journals that cover world politics and global relations in more general and policy terms, such as the influential American journal Foreign Affairs, and publish important essays on Political Islam. The following journals publish materials primarily or solely in English. Journals in other languages also provide important analyses of Islam and politics but are not listed here.

English Editions

The works of major voices of Political Islam are increasingly available in English, either in translation or by leaders who write in English. Important texts and translations are available online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, accessible through library subscription and searchable by author and title, provides full texts of works by such major voices of Political Islam as Rachid Ghannouchi, Anwar Ibrahim, Mawlana Mawdudi, and Sayyid Qutb. Older print versions of translations of significant texts are often incomplete, with selections made in order to highlight or promote specific political agendas. More recent translations, published by university presses, tend to be more accurate and complete. Listed below are works of a representative group of the most influential ideologues of Political Islam.

  • Azzam, Abdullah. Join the Caravan. 2d English ed. London: Azzam Publications, 1988. Translation online.

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    This is a major work by a leader involved in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation. It provides early foundations for the definition of global jihad in the 1990s.

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  • Ibrahim, Anwar. The Asian Renaissance. Singapore: Times Books International, 1996.

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    A collection of essays and speeches by one of the leading Islamic voices advocating pluralism and intercivilizational dialogue. Ibrahim is the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia and, as of 2009, the leader of the opposition.

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  • Khomeini, Ruhollah, and Hamid Algar. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1981.

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    A thorough presentation, clearly translated and contextualized by Algar, of the range and development of the views of the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.

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  • Lawrence, Bruce, and James Howarth. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. London: Verso, 2005.

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    Brings together diverse and often contradictory statements by bin Laden, expertly translated by Howarth and introduced by Lawrence.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abul Aʿla, with Khurram Murad. The Islamic Movement: Dynamics of Values, Power, and Change. Edited by Khurram Murad. Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1984.

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    One of many statements of goals and programs by an important early ideologue of Political Islam.

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  • Nabahani, Taqiuddin an-. The System of Islam. London: Al-Khilafah Publications, 2002.

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    Translation of Nidham ul Islam, a foundational statement of the position of Hizb al-Tahrir, with a proposed constitution for the Caliphal state that the organization advocates.

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  • Qutb, Sayyid. Maʿālim fī al-tarīq. Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-Sharuq, 1964.

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    One of the numerous translations of this important work is Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, Cedar Rapids, IA: Unity Publishing, 1981. [ISBN: 9780911119428] It is one of the foundational books for the intellectual positions of Political Islam, written by a leading figure in the more militant strain of Political Islam that developed within Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood following Nasser’s crackdown on the organization. Milestones calls for jihad to overthrow current governments deemed un-Islamic and replace them with a new Islamic sociopolitical order.

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  • Turabi, Hassan al-. “The Islamic State.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam. Edited by John L. Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

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    An early definition of the Islamic state by one of the major articulators and activists in Political Islam during the 1980s and 1990s.

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Works on Specific Groups

In the evolution of the diverse manifestations of Political Islam, some groups are related historically, factions having split over ideological differences and become separate groups. Thus, Egypt’s mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, as analyzed by Mitchell 1993 may be seen as the ancestor of more militant groups such as al-Takfir wa al-Hijrah, al-Gamaʾah al-Islamiyyah, and Islamic Jihad. Others are related intellectually, taking inspiration from the same ideologues. This is the case with al-Qaʿida (al-Qaeda), the radical international jihadist movement studied by Bergen 2002, whose leaders claim the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb as an ideological forefather. Some groups are transnational, such as al-Qaeda, which calls for global jihad, and Hizb al-Tahrir, a small multinational group working for the establishment of a global caliphate by non-violent means. However, most organizations focus their efforts on particular countries, as is the case with Hezbollah (Norton 2007) and Hamas (Tamimi 2007). Manifestations of radical Shiʿi Political Islam are the older Iranian Mujahidin group (Abrahamian 1989) and the recent movement of Moqtada Sadr in Iraq (Cockburn 2008). Because the positions of many groups change over time, it is important to identify the historic context in which specific interpretations of Political Islam emerge. Listed below are the best introductions to a representative list of the most significant groups representing Political Islam.

  • Abrahamian, Ervand. The Iranian Mojahedin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

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    An older but still useful description of an Islamist group that was a major opponent of the Shah and then became a militant Islamist opposition to Khomeini—and that is still active at the beginning of the 21st century.

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  • Bergen, Peter L. Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

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    A frequently cited authority on al-Qaeda, Bergen interviewed many in the organization, including bin Laden.

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  • Cockburn, Patrick. Muqtada al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq. New York: Scribner, 2008.

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    An account of the most important movement of Political Islam in Iraq by an experienced and well-informed journalist.

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  • Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    The classic work on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, considered the oldest organization of Political Islam. Based on primary sources and extensive interviews, it provides detailed description of the evolution of diverse elements within the Muslim Brotherhood from its origins through the 1950s. Originally published in 1969, with another edition released in 1969.

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  • Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    Examines the life and thought of Mawlana Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaʿat-i Islami in pre-partition India. Jamaʿat-i Islami is the second oldest organization representing Political Islam (after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood) and the most influential such organization in South Asia.

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  • Norton, Augustus Richard. Hezbollah: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

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    A clearly written historical account of a major Shiʿite organization that places the movement both within its local Lebanese political context and in the broader arena of Islamic movements.

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  • Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

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    A comprehensive study of the origins and development of one of the major militant movements of Political Islam in the late 20th century, Afghanistan’s Taliban. Rashid provides important first-hand information and detailed descriptions of significant transitions in concepts of Political Islam since 1980.

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  • Sidel, John Thayer. Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

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    Places the specific militant groups in Indonesia in the broad historical contexts of the development of the Indonesian state.

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  • Tamimi, Azzam. Hamas: A History from Within. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2007.

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    Provides a historic look at the development of the Palestinian Hamas from its origins in Muslim Brotherhood thought in the 1980s, providing an insider’s perspective on the group’s goals, motives, and rationales.

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Political Islam in Specific Countries/Regions

Political Islam developed in the context of failures of secular political movements to deal effectively with the challenges of socioeconomic and political development facing colonized and formerly colonized countries. The countries involved span the globe and manifest profound differences in culture and socioeconomic circumstances. Countries in North Africa alone, for example, were colonized variously by Spain, France, Italy, and England, resulting in vastly differing postcolonial conditions. Similarly, Spain’s colonial holdings in Africa and Southeast Asia (Philippines) manifest a broad diversity, as do, for example, England’s colonial domains in Africa and India, or France’s in Africa and the Middle East. Responsible analysis of Political Islam therefore requires extraordinary expertise in the languages, culture, and history of specific countries or regions. Many of the most important works on Political Islam, therefore, are produced by scholars who specialize in a single country or region. The following list provides a basic coverage of Political Islam as it developed in major regions and countries.

Africa, Sub-Saharan

Premodern jihad movements, especially in West Africa, created important Islamic states, like the Caliphate of Sokoto in northern Nigeria. However, in the 20th century, movements of modern-style Political Islam were of limited significance in sub-Saharan Africa. While they had some impact, especially in East Africa (DeWaal 2004), Sufi brotherhoods, which adapted to modern conditions, as in Senegal (Villalón 1995), or theologically puritanical movements, as in Nigeria, (Kane 2003), have had greater political significance.

Central Asia and the Caucasus

Before the end of the Soviet Union, there were few overt manifestations of Political Islam in the Muslim communities under Soviet control. However, the newly independent Muslim countries in Central Asia (Rashid 2002) and the Caucasus (Gammer 2007) face the challenges of being transformed from minorities in a large authoritarian system into Muslim majority states. In these new contexts, Political Islam has some appeal and support (Jonson and Esenov 1999).

Egypt

Egypt is an important intellectual and ideological center for the development of Political Islam in its 20th-century forms. Movements inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb have had great influence throughout the Muslim world. At the beginning of the 21st century, the “new Islamists” in Egypt, as analyzed by Baker 2006 and Shahin 2007, illustrate the possible new directions of Political Islam.

  • Baker, Raymond W. Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

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    Groundbreaking and detailed study of the thought of the most influential voices of Political Islam in 21st-century Egypt, highlighting what Baker calls “new” or “centrist” Islamists.

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  • Shahin, Emad El-Din.Political Islam in Egypt. Working Document No. 266. Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies, 2007.

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    A useful study of Muslim groups in Egypt, reflecting both the new nature of the movements and the more generic analytical conceptualization of Political Islam.

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Indonesia

Indonesia, with the largest national Muslim-majority population in the world, provides examples of the full diversity of Islamic movements in the modern era. These range from some of the largest “modernist” movements (Barton 2004) to examples of militant jihadist groups. This diversity of experience shows the wide range of movements that have political significance in the modern Islamic world (Hefner 2000 and 2002).

  • Barton, Greg. Indonesia’s Struggle: Jemaah Islamiyah and the Soul of Islam. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2004.

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    Extensively researched description of the rise of the militant organization held responsible for the terrorist bombing in Bali, as well as an assessment of the level of support for Political Islam in Indonesia.

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  • Hefner, Robert W. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

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    An important historical and conceptual analysis of the changing nature of Political Islam in contemporary civil society.

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  • Hefner, Robert W. “Varieties of Muslim Politics: Civil VS. Statist Islam.” In Islam in Indonesia: Islamic Studies and Social Transformation. Edited by Fuʾad Jabali and Jamhari, 136–151. Montreal: Indonesia-Canada Islamic Higher Education Project, 2002.

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    A significant analysis that examines the development of “the largest civil democratic movement in any majority-Muslim country,” (p. 151) identifying important dimensions of post-Islamist Islamic politics.

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Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran, established by the Iranian Revolution in 1978–1979, is the best-known example of Political Islam in practice. The Revolution itself involved a complex coalition of opposition groups and it was only after the overthrow of the Shah that the religious leadership came fully into power (Arjomand 1988). Although it has had difficulties, the survival of the republic reflects the power and durability of Political Islam in the contemporary world (Milani 1994).

Maghreb (North Africa)

The former French-controlled states of North Africa present a very important spectrum of movements of Political Islam. The histories of these movements provides a useful introduction to the diversity of Political Islam in the 20th century (Burgat and Dowell 1997), with distinctive styles developing in Algeria (Malley 1996), Tunisia (Hamdi 1998), and Morocco (Zeghal 2008).

Malaysia

The Partai Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) are two early and contrasting examples of Islamic organizations adopting programs of Political Islam in the second half of the 20th century (Liow 2004),. They make Malaysian politics a significant example of the interactions between movements of Political Islam and postcolonial regimes (Bakar 2008).

  • Bakar, Osman. “Malaysian Islam in the Twenty-first Century: The Promise of a Democratic Transformation?” In Asian Islam in the 21st Century. Edited by John L. Esposito, John Voll, and Osman Bakar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    A clear in-depth analysis of the role of Islam in establishing political legitimacy in Malaysia, providing historical context as well as an informed discussion of possible future developments.

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  • Liow, Joseph Chin Yong. “Exigency or Expediency? Contextualising Political Islam and the PAS Challenge in Malaysian Politics.” Third World Quarterly 25, no. 2 (2004): 359–372.

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    A clear summary of recent developments in Political Islam, with special attention paid to the long-established Islamist party, the PAS.

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Muslim Minority Activism

Political Islam within Muslim-minority communities is limited. When the Muslim minorities are recent immigrants, such activism is usually related to political developments in the original homeland or to transnational political militancy (Akbarzadeh and Mansouri 2007). When Muslim minorities are indigenous in their societies or are part of a long-established but distinctive group within the society, as in South Africa (Tayob 1998), some Islamically identified political movements may develop. However, much identity-related activism in large minority communities, like those in India or China (Millward 2004), is communal rather than an overt expression of Political Islam. Sometimes, as in southern Thailand (McCargo 2008) and the Philippines McKenna 1998), regional and ethnic separatism has a religious dimension that manifests itself in advocacy of Political Islam (Yegar 2002).

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi state has its roots in the movement of activist Islamic revival established by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. Since then, including the monarchy established in the 20th century within the ideological tradition of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the Saudi state has been a self-identified Islamic state. However, this political tradition was firmly established long before the Political Islam of the late 20th century, and it thus provides an important counterpoint to the more contemporary movements. See Ayoob and Kosebalaban 2008 for a recent survey.

South Asia

The Muslim communities in the vast Indian subcontinent share the heritage of Muslim rule under the Mughal sultans, an era that was brought to an end in the 19th century by the British. The partition at independence in 1947 created Pakistan and the Republic of India, and East Pakistan became independent as Bangladesh in 1971. In the late 20th century, Political Islam took dramatically different forms in each of the three countries (Knudsen 2002). Muslims in India, as a large minority community, have seen little local advocacy of programs identifiable as Political Islam. The major Muslim political issue is the control of Kashmir (Bose 2005), which, despite a Muslim majority at the time of partition, became part of India. Kashmiri militants represent programs of Muslim separatism, often with tones of Political Islam. Major political groups in Bangladesh have strong Islamic components in their platforms, but advocacy of formally Islamist programs has been limited (Riaz 2004). It is in Pakistan that the strongest movements of Political Islam have developed, with the largest being the Jamaʾat-i Islami, established by the ideological pioneer of Political Islam, Mawdudi (Nasr 1994).

Sudan

Sudan has a long tradition of Islamic political movements going back to the Mahdist state of the late 19th century (Warburg 2002). In the mid-20th century, it had one of the largest national Muslim Brotherhood organizations (Affendi 1991), and at the end of the century it was an unsuccessful example of Political Islam in power. This history provides an important case study of Political Islam for more than a century.

Turkey

In the early modern era, the Ottoman sultanate-caliphate was the major global symbol of the Islamic state, and its abolution in 1922–1924 marked the end of old-style “political Islam.” The Turkish successor state established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was resolutely secular, but a new mode of Islamic identity developed in the second half of the 20th century (White 2002). A series of Islamically identified political parties were organized and subsequently declared illegal. By the beginning of the 21st century, a new style of Islamically identified but self-declared secularist political party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) became a major power in Turkish politics (Aydin and Rusen 2007, and Rabasa and Larrabee 2008). This transformation is an important part of the development of Political Islam.

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