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The New Political Islam

Islamist political parties and groups are on the rise throughout the Muslim world, constituting a new political Islam that is global in scope and yet local in action. Emmanuel Karagiannis explains how various Islamists have endorsed human rights, democracy, and justice to gain influence and mobilize supporters.

The New Political Islam
Human Rights, Democracy, and Justice

Emmanuel Karagiannis

2018 | 280 pages | Cloth $69.95
Political Science / Religion
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Activism of European Converts
Chapter 2. The Activism of Hizb ut-Tahrir

Chapter 3. The Politics of Islamo-Democracy in Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia
Chapter 4. The Politics of Electoral Salafism in Egypt and Tunisia

Chapter 5. The Militancy of Shia Groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria
Chapter 6. The Militancy of Sunni Groups in Iraq and Syria


Selected Bibliography

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The rise of political Islam has attracted great public, government, and academic attention in the West. It is fair to say that Islamism has been largely viewed by many with dismay and fear due to its perceived anachronistic and totalitarian nature. In an era of globalization, the blurring of politics and religion seems antimodern and irrational. In 2012, Farhad Khosrokhavar, a prominent scholar of the Islamic world, observed confidently that "the age of Islamism is over, not as an ideology or a credo among minority groups, but as a motto that could convince the people of its feasibility." Yet Islamism in its various forms has reached almost every Muslim community in the world and Islamist groups are still on the march.

The term political Islam in itself is contested by both academics and Islamists. Some critics say that it is a redundant term because the distinction between political and nonpolitical domains of social life is not relevant anymore; the modern state has significantly expanded its functions to influence every aspect of organized life. For many Islamists, the term is problematic because Islam is inherently political; thus din (religion) and dawla (state) depend on each other. But such views tend to ignore the diversity that exists within the Muslim faith. In particular, Sufism and its mystical beliefs constitute an important part of Islam that is often despised by those who favor the politicization of the faith. This is not to say that Sufism is apolitical; actually, Sufi orders have been involved indirectly in politics (e.g. the Gülen movement in Turkey). Sufism is rather nonpolitical in the sense of avoiding political interpretations of Islamic concepts, rituals, and practices.

Therefore, it is essential to distinguish ontologically the religion from its political expression. So what is political Islam and what is Islamism? The two terms are often treated as synonymous. Nazih Ayobi defines political Islam as "the doctrine and/or movement which contends that Islam possesses a theory of politics and the state." Guilain Denoeux describes political Islam or Islamism as "a form of instrumentalization of Islam by individuals, groups and organizations that pursue political objectives." Finally, Frederic Volpi argues that Islamism "refers to the political dynamics generated by the activities of those people who believe that Islam as a body of faith has something crucial to say about how society should be organized."

This book will maintain the use of the term political Islam to describe a global social movement that seeks to mobilize Muslims into activities that have political ramifications. It is a diverse and nonhierarchical collectivity of different actors who share some ideas and perceptions. Accordingly, Islamism refers to the ideology and practices of parties, groups, and prominent individuals that claim that Islam must regulate every aspect of public and private life. It is a fluid and unsystematic set of beliefs and practices that is open to change and adaptation in accordance with local conditions. Due to its broad character, "Islamism should not be linked exclusively with political violence and militancy."

Political Islam has expanded on all continents, but its internationalization is politically and culturally localized. It is a movement of movements that revolve around the interplay between the global and the local. The interconnectivity of societies has contributed to the spread of Islamism but at a great cost: different versions of this ideology have emerged based on specificities.

In today's world, however, it is necessary to move beyond the global-local dichotomy because there is growing overlap between them. Paul Lubeck has observed that "the new global infrastructure integrates the disparate members of the global umma by encouraging Muslims to communicate, study, travel to fulfill the diverse Muslim obligations." The umma now consists of Muslim communities that interpret political and social realities in their own distinct ways. In this context, Islamist parties and groups have adopted universal political and social norms bypassing the nation-state. Political Islam is the embodiment of a synthesis between global ideas and local applications. Indeed, it is a social movement that must be studied from a new angle.

Political Islam's Manifestations of Glocalization

Islam is projected to be the religion of one-third of the world's population by 2050, reaching parity with Christianity around 2070. The content of Islam is determined by the relationship between universality and particularity. It is a religion of 1.7 billion people worldwide and professes a single message about submitting to God and worshipping him alone. Yet it is practiced differently in many countries and communities. In fact, Islam is divided both horizontally and vertically. The Sunni-Shia divide has raged since the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632, generating dissimilar theological beliefs, rituals, and traditions. In addition, each of the two denominations contains schools of jurisprudence (madhahib) that offer different methodologies of setting Islamic rules and regulations. Ethnic and cultural elements have also significantly diversified the Muslim faith. It has been suggested that one of the reasons why Islam has come to be a global religion is its ability to become local. Many scholars have recorded how Islamic tenets have been blended with native practices and customs. As a result, there is an Ethiopian Islam, a Kazakh Islam, a Thai Islam, and so on. To put it simply, Islam is as highly varied as any major religion.

Similarly, political expressions of the Muslim faith are vastly divergent because they accommodate local circumstances. Islamist parties and groups have utilized a variety of political methods to achieve their aims, ranging from engaging in peaceful activism to participating in the electoral process to using violence and coercion. Political Islam does not exist as a single and homogeneous movement because it constantly incorporates new political realities, different identities, and dynamic cultural influences. Although its extraordinary dynamism is connected to the globalization processes, political Islam has become more fragmented in recent years.

This glocalization of political Islam and, subsequently, of Islamism has accelerated during the post-9/11 era for a variety of reasons that I discuss later. The term glocalization was put forward during the 1990s by Ronald Robertson to describe the relationship between the global and the local. I return to the history of the term in the Introduction. The book attempts to link the concept of glocalization with the framing theory that derives from the social movement paradigm. Islamists of different varieties have consciously syncretized religion, culture, and politics by using certain schemata of interpretation. The book's central claim is that there is a new political Islam consisting of activists, politicians, and militants who have acted as glocalizers by transferring global ideas and norms to local Muslim communities. This categorization of Islamists is based on their preferred method of engagement with Muslim communities. It does not necessarily describe the ideological content of their action, which can be anything from reformism to fundamentalism.

To begin with, Islamist activists have increasingly used human rights language to question the socioeconomic and political status of Muslims living in the West and elsewhere. More specifically, they have employed the master frame of human rights to explain and criticize the marginalization and targeting of fellow Muslims. Religious freedom and respect for Islam are themes that have been at the core of Islamist activism. Simultaneously, some of them advocate the establishment of an Islamic state as the ultimate defender of Muslim rights. With the use of this master frame, they can gain ethical legitimacy over their opponents and undertake a moral obligation to help fellow Muslims.

For instance, Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist group with neocaliphate aspirations, has often used the language of human rights to criticize Western governments for their policies vis-à-vis Muslim communities. In September 2013, the group accused Belgian authorities of violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance because they launched an antiradicalization initiative. It supported the view that "Muslims . . . are not entitled to the rights of thought and expression to maintain their cultural identity and uniqueness, as well as their difference in behavior and appearance as regarded obligatory for them in their religion." The use of this master frame could allow Hizb ut-Tahrir to become more mainstream and acceptable to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

While every situation is unique, the human rights master frame can bridge and connect Muslims in different locales and communities because concerns over rights and freedoms are a source of social stress and political upheaval. Therefore, it has been observed that the need to respect individual rights and civil liberties has featured highly on Islamist agendas. The instrumentalization of human rights by Islamist activists is a development that indicates the exposure of political Islam to broader ideational frameworks. Islamist activists function as agents of glocalization since they seek to apply a human rights framework to local contexts.

In addition, the universal idea of democracy can be found, perhaps unexpectedly, in many Islamist discourses. It is true that the standard view of many Islamists is that the parliament is not supposed to legislate like the Sharia; this is a privilege left to God. Nevertheless, Islamist parties and organizations have accepted elections as the only method of coming to power in their countries. As a consequence, there are Islamists who have embraced the master frame of democracy, which emphasizes political equality and majority rule, while offering to them important political legitimacy.

In Egypt, for example, the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak led to the first democratic election in the history of the country. Despite its long history of clandestine existence, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party formed a government in 2012, supporting political reforms in Egypt. After the outbreak of protests against President Mohamed Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party declared its intention to "safeguard ballot-box legitimacy, defend the principles of democratic process, and affirm that the people's choice for president and MPs are red lines." Following the military coup of July 3, 2013, the Brotherhood stated that "the restoration of the democratic process certainly means respecting the will of the Egyptian people as expressed in all the elections which the whole world affirmed were free and fair." The arrested president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was even portrayed as "an icon for democracy." Hence one of the world's most important Islamist organizations borrowed and utilized the global idea of democracy during different phases of its engagement in Egyptian politics.

The political participation of Islamist parties has given rise to a new form of Islamism, the Islamo-democracy, which employs Islam as a force of democratization. It does not deny the importance of particular political and cultural elements and traditions. In fact, it aims at combining communal realities with Islamic tenets and beliefs. Islamo-democracy is a new trend that has changed the nature of political competition in some Muslim-majority countries.

Finally, Sunni and Shia militants have exploited the concept of justice to deliver their belligerent messages locally. The justice master frame is a powerful cognitive schema that resonates well with different Islamic tenets and traditions. Islamist militants have tapped into certain moral and ethical principles to utilize the virtue of justice for the purpose of mobilizing support. They tend to stress equality among Muslims, although they largely follow sectarian policies. In this way, militants claim a responsibility to protect Muslim communities in order to justify actions against their opponents.

For example, Hizb'allah has built its narratives around the idea of justice. The Lebanese group has defended the view that justice can only be achieved by pursuing muqawama (resistance) against Israel and other countries or movements. Moreover, General-Secretary Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah holds the view that "peace based on injustice and violation of rights cannot be a true peace and will immediately collapse"; consequently, peace and stability in Lebanon or any other place in the world is conditioned on achieving justice. The group has assumed a responsibility to protect those who suffer from injustice; thus, on the thirteenth anniversary of the Resistance and Liberation Day commemorating the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon, Nasrallah stated that "we in the Islamic resistance will continue to assume our responsibility. . . . I say to the people that trust the Resistance and bet on it: your Resistance will stay with you defending you!" In other words, the group has utilized the justice master frame to achieve its goals inside and outside Lebanon.

The theme of justice can appeal to wide Muslim audiences because it has a religious base. Islam proclaims justice to be a God-given virtue and of supreme significance. Muslims must live under a just system. It is not a coincidence that both Sunni and Shia groups have relentlessly pursued justice-seeking and justice-making aspirations. In spite of their sectarian differences, Islamist militants of all sorts have declared their intention to restore justice against evildoers who persecute Muslim communities.

The book explores several case studies of individuals, groups, and parties that function as Islamist agents of glocalization. These cases represent the new political Islam that is on the rise. Each one has its own significance in size, popularity, or influence. European convert-activists have become increasingly important as (often uninvited) interlocutors between authorities and Muslim communities; Hizb ut-Tahrir has led the way in international Islamist activism due to its ability to initiate actions in different locations worldwide; Turkey's Justice and Development Party, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and Tunisia's al-Nahda are mass political parties and organizations that have participated in the political system advocating the convergence of Islamic and certain democratic values; nonviolent Salafi groups, like al-Nour and the Reform Front in Egypt and Tunisia respectively, have entered the electoral process, breaking a long-standing taboo against political participation; Hizb'allah and the Mahdi Army are the two most powerful Shia militant groups in the Middle East; and finally, al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have made international media headlines for their violence and fanaticism.

Methodologically speaking, the book is largely based on a qualitative analysis of discourses deriving from statements, speeches, and interviews, as well as materials produced by Islamists. In addition, I obtained data from online videos and social media in order to understand the dynamics of the new political Islam. Finally, the book draws on the existing literature on social movements, globalization, and political Islam.

Structure of the Book

The Introduction describes the phenomenon of glocalization, which includes constant interactions between the global and the local. Given the multidimensional nature of globalization, I argue that the concept of glocalization is more suitable for describing the particularization of universal ideas, discourses, and practices. The chapter describes the transformation of political Islam into a global social movement with many local components. The glocalization of Islamism has been achieved by three types of agents: the activists, the politicians, and the militants. With the help of master frames, the new Islamists have transferred global ideas about human rights, democracy, and justice to local audiences.

Part I comprises an introduction and Chapters 1 and 2. The part introduction briefly discusses the origins of human rights and explains the content of the human rights master frame. It also describes the growing tendency of Islamist activists to utilize human rights discourses in order to promote their political goals.

Chapter 1 analyzes the activism of European converts to Islam who have attempted to promote Islamist agendas in their countries. It first describes the experience of conversion for Europeans who have embraced Islam. The chapter focuses on organizations run by converts and prominent convert-activists that have propagated a hybrid Islamism. While these Islamists have different backgrounds, orientations, and goals, they have all utilized the master frame of human rights to gain support and transmit their messages to their communities.

Chapter 2 examines Hizb ut-Tahrir, known for its international activism. The chapter first describes its ideology and strategy, then analyzes Hizb ut-Tahrir's activities in Western countries, South and Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union and China, and the greater Middle East. Due to its global presence, the group has to take into account different political and cultural settings. Finally, the chapter assesses how Hizb ut-Tahrir has functioned as an agent of glocalization by adopting the master frame of human rights and adjusting it to local needs.

Part II consists of an introduction and Chapters 3 and 4. The part introduction describes the evolution of democracy and the content of the democracy master frame. Then it discusses briefly the relationship between Islam and democracy from the viewpoint of Islamic thinkers.

Chapter 3 is dedicated to Islamist parties that have entered the democratic process and come to power through elections. They have espoused a new version of Islamism that combines pluralism with Islamic values, namely the Islamo-democracy. The chapter focuses on three parties that represent this political movement: Turkey's Justice and Development Party, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and Tunisia's al-Nahda. While they have different origins and perspectives, these Islamist parties have recognized democracy as the preferred political system. I argue that they have utilized the master frame of democracy to mobilize support and gain legitimacy.

Chapter 4 analyzes electoral Salafism in Egypt and Tunisia. Newly established Salafi parties tend to have ultraconservative views on social issues, but they have denounced the use of violence. They have chosen to campaign through the parliaments and within the constitutions. The al-Nour party in Egypt and the Reform Front in Tunisia have advocated the implementation of Sharia by democratic means. The chapter first describes the characteristics of electoral Salafism in North Africa, then explains how and why Salafis have applied the democracy master frame to their local environment.

Part III comprises an introduction and Chapters 5 and 6. The part introduction focuses on the concept of justice as developed by religion and philosophy. Also, it discusses the substance of the justice master frame and the Islamist perspective on justice.

Chapter 5 examines Shia militancy in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The chapter concentrates on Hizb'allah and the Mahdi Army, which are the two largest groups fighting against Sunni militants in the Middle East. It examines their history, evolvement, and strategy. Both have portrayed themselves as defenders of Shia power. I argue that their understanding of justice derives from Shia history and theology. Finally, the chapter analyzes how the two groups have acted as agents of glocalization by adopting the master frame of justice.

Chapter 6 analyzes the militancy of Sunni groups in Syria and Iraq. It describes the origins and evolvement of al-Nusra and ISIS, which have attempted to overthrown Shia-dominated regimes in the Middle East. Both groups are of the Jihadi-Salafi movement. The chapter examines their effort to establish a polity where justice will prevail; this can be achieved only with the implementation of Sharia (as they interpret it). Sunni militants have functioned as glocalizers of Islamism because they have utilized the master frame of justice to achieve their local goals.

The Conclusion briefly discusses the emerging relationship between the West and the new Islamists. It offers some thoughts as well about a more constructive approach to the rise of the new glocalized political Islam.

Note on Transliteration and Spelling

The book includes texts originally published in Arabic, French, German, Greek, and Turkish. I have tried to limit the use of diacritics and adopt the most common English spellings of Arabic names and terms. Non-English words have been italicized on first use, apart from the most commonly used terms such as Quran and Sharia. When Islamic terms are included in a quotation, I have provided the translation in brackets. I have used Maulana Muhammad Ali's English translation of the Quran and Richard Netton's A Popular Dictionary of Islam.

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