Confessions of a lapsed Islamist

Is Islamism, Islam ?

I define Islamism as the twentieth century political movement to instill “Islamic” governments in Muslim countries. The intellectual architects of this movement were Sayyid Qutb, Maududi, Ayatollah Khomeini and Hassan al-Turabi, amongst others. They have formed the political and governance template for movements in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Somali, Sudan and Pakistan. The Islamist movements begin with a small, religiously purified elite of the wider group of believers that are welded into a group that form the nucleus for political and community action. It is interesting to observe that this type of Qutb Islamism is now employed as a modus operandi for Christian groups who wish to transform their community support into political power. The RNC’s flirtation with the evangelicals has parallels with Ikhwan’s links to the Nasserites, right down to the betrayal, (but not the executions).

Islam is of course what we all understand it to be, the religious belief and codified ritual practice contained in the Quran and Prophetic (PBUH) Sunnah. It is the basis of what a Muslim does.

Although there is wide religious diversity amongst the proponents of Islamism there is surprising unity in political method and public governance. Khomeni for example is a “twelver shia”, Maududi founded the Jammat e Islami and Qutb was the spiritual source for movements as including the Muslim Brotherhood at one end and Al Qaida at the other. There are fundamental theological differences between these movements, but the chronology of their rise, the method of their political action and the similarities of their governance suggest that they are surprising similarities.

Islamist governments are one party structures with weak or non-existent alternative voices. Although they reach power via the ballot box they are disdainful of the transformative power of public participation in community governance. They also shun transparency, media freedom and gradualism. The governments have strong social justice commitments and high standards of personal public official accountability, although over time these are eroded by the corruption of unchecked political power. There is always a concentration of power amongst the spiritual elite, such as the Iranian the revolutionary guardian council.

Islamist governments concentrate disproportionately on the outward manifestations of Islamic observance, women’s dress, alcohol consumption, prostitution, etc. They seem less willing to understand or rectify other more important systems of government. There is no standard Islamist economic policy, but there are strong trends to a determinist economic model, although this is widely recognized as a failed model, and is ironically profoundly “un-Islamic”.

Although Islamist governments are authoritarian and keen to introduce what they deem to be “Sharia” law they are surprisingly devoid of ethic of the rule of such law, the narrow scope of legislation to certain aspects of criminal law (the Hudud), and they do not tolerate a judiciary independent of the executive. The fidelity toward the absolute rule of law or to governance based on unchanging set of legal principles is conspicuously lacking.The arbitrary nature of legal rulings itself becomes an obstacle to social stability and economic progress

Islamist governments appear to have more in common with Marxist regimes of the early and middle part of the twentieth century than with the Prophetic (PBUH) model of governance in Medinat ul Nabi in the 6th century. Their development along this abbherent path reflects the very low level of education amongst Islamists group and their unwillingness to read non-Muslim scholars and understand that this type of governance has been tried and has failed. Islamist have no understanding of Islamic finance that are rarely developed beyond rudimentary systems, nor do they understand the gradualism that is required to move societies. Islamist regimes are revolutionary and radical. they seek to impose the will of the elite on the masses without persuasion, trust and transparency. Islamist governments confuse their own survival with that of Islam, which forms the basis for their missionary zeal, resembling most closely that of Lenin’s October revolutionaries.

Youssef Choueiri details the profound similarities between the the 19th century French Nobel prize winner Alexis Carrel and the thesis of Sayyid Qutb. he goes on to assert:

What Qutb fails to inform his vanguard, however, is that the code of conduct he subsequently elaborated in his ‘commentary’ on the Koran matches that of Carrel much more than Muhammad’s own Traditions.’ The result is not an indigenous form of governance, but ‘a Third World version of Fascism.

Courtesy of Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad

This is not to say that Islamism is synonymous with fascism, which clearly it is not. Nor is it to say that all Islamic thinkers are identical, they are not. Maududi’s Jaamat e Islami was enthusiastically democratic and non violent. The critique of it is different to that of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb’s later writings, especially from prison have an authoritarian and revolutionary flavor that is not authentically Islamic.The purported template for radical Islamists such as Qutb, and the source of his Islamic authenticity is their alleged fidelity to the method of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This assertion is false and they must be challenged on it.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, there was no government, no government structures and only the most rudimentary tribal understandings. Even during this period, and with the profound difference in understanding, the Prophet (PBUH) did not impose his will upon Medina, although the citizens had invited him to do so. Rather his community power, grew gradually with increasing community support. Political support lagged behind widespread community support in Medina: Abi Salul was allowed to sit in the presence of the Prophet (PBUH) and mock him without fear, although the Prophet enjoyed widespread community support and was de-facto ruler of Medina. He did not impose Islamic rules on other faith communities, but rather treated them generously often at the expense of strict justice to Muslims. As Islam spread the Muslim rulers were known for their minimalist intervention in local government, economics and trade.

The Islamic law was a welcome relief from the arbitrary negotiated justice of tribal law and allowed guarantee of property rights and was administered by an independent impartial judiciary, which is they very opposite of the current situation. The Islamist doctrine is disturbingly messianic, something that is un-Islamic. If one wishes to preach, it is better to actually preach the worship of God, rather than preach a totalitarianism that you may believe will in the future be congenial to the worship of God, i.e. the worship of God rather than the worship of Islamism.

Groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir take this absurdity to its logical limit when they claim that their vision of Islamist government is actually a secular system of rules that will produce a Utopian society. They therefore are not interested in preaching this worship of God, but rather the adherence to a set of political ideals which are claimed to be central to the Islamic ideals of government. These assertions are false. Islam needs to be lived first before it is legislated. Institutionalizing piety is itself problematic, as we are currently discovering.

The first generation of Islamists who are now entering the last years of their lives are full of regrets. In private conversations they admit that the errors they made were to rush into political power and compromise or distort religious principles for short term political gain. They also admit that in formulating their lofty goals they were almost childlike in their naiveté. One recurring regret is prominient, moving from a community based religious movement to a political party has been a tragedy for the former. Once it entered politics, the growth in the Islamist support stopped, then gradually declined. If one were primarily committed to the promotion of worship of Allah, this should be alarming.

As one who feels that the Muslim world will never truly be itself until Islam forms an integral part of its polity, I don’t wish to see a secular government. That model (e.g. Bathism in Iraq, Egypt and Syria) has been tried and failed. Nor has secular government given security to non-Muslim countries who have interests in the Muslim world, indeed it is regularly argued that totalitarian secular polity has been the germ that has fuelled Islamic radicalism. But the Islamist models that are on display today are excessively romantic, formulaic and shallow. Islamists need to turn down the temperature of their public religious fervor and demonstrate that they can govern a community.

Contemporary Islamism is in danger of losing its authenticity. Although it is currently in ascendancy it will not last long unless it reformulates itself without its Marxist baggage and studies non-Muslim thinkers who have already grappled with the idea of religion and society.


#1 Julaybib on 11.17.06 at 2:33 am

The Oxford Dictionary of Islam has a much broader definition of Islamist, it being a term “used to describe and Islamic political or social activist.” Al-Islamiyyun are those who “committed to the implementation of their ideological vision of Islam in the state and/or society”

By this definition, I am an Islamist. But it doesn’t mean reading Qutb, Mawdudi or anyone uncritically. Nor do I seek to impose my ‘ideological vision’ by declraring myself a member of the Muslim vanguard. Rather, I seek to bring about a society in which the polity and culture is defined by an active engagement with religious tradition.



#2 Hamed Hassanpour on 11.17.06 at 2:09 pm

Baybers, you bring up some good points. For example you note that many of these Islamist movement incorporate unislamic modes of thought. For example, many advocate revolutions, when Islam, according to the consensus of the Sunni ulema, forbids disobedience to rulers, even if they are unjust. You also mention that many of these Islamist movements are socialistic, (such as after the Iranian revolution took place, virtually all major industries were nationalized; Many other Islamist groups are also against privatisation and liberalisation), despite the fact the many of the most rightous among Sahaba, such as Zubair ibn Awwam, Talha ibn Ubaidullah, and Uthman ibn Affan (all among the 10 promised paradise), were extremely wealthy businessmen, even by our standards (though they gave a lot of money to charity, volountarily). They do borrow a lot from western thought. Many Islamists are Western educated. In fact’ Sayyid Qutb graduated from the same university as Leo Stauss, the father of neoconservatism. Hasan Turabi studied law in a French university.

While I am no fan of Daniel Pipes, he does have a good article called ‘The Western Mind of Radical Islam’, which written in 1995: Link:

#3 null on 11.17.06 at 4:04 pm

Thanks Baybers, a very good post.

Has anyone read the Hizb’s proposed constitution? – A little bit scary! But thankfully they are at least willing to work from withing the democratic system.

#4 dezhen on 11.17.06 at 4:14 pm

Not the HT guys I have experienced – most said voting is haram!

#5 Baybers on 11.17.06 at 4:14 pm

when my brother in law was at Cambridge he and a friend cornered a “hizbi” and spent a great deal of time with him and finally cracked the indoctrinated outer shell.

He then proceeded to spill the beans about their cult like operation. They are very sophisticated in their recruitment, their indoctrination and thought policing. If I have time I will write about it.

I agree that they participate in an electoral ballot, but I don’t think that they believe that the Muslim umma should be allowed freedom to make their political and economic choices.

#6 Baybers on 11.17.06 at 4:29 pm

The other point is that Islamism is an entirely western modern social and political movement. Its tinkers such as Qutb, Maududi and others have been indelibly marked by modern European thinkers.

So when it is asserted that Islamists wish to return to the 6th century Arabia, that is untrue, they wish to return to the late 19th century Europe, where political romantics and social utopians lived.

so it is modern Mac-Islamism vs. post-modern Mac-world

#7 OmarG on 11.18.06 at 1:56 pm

>>Its tinkers such as Qutb, Maududi and others have been indelibly marked by modern European thinkers.

But, then again so are many of the inhabitants of cities in the ummah. Maybe the Westernized Islamism isn’t so foreign to people anymore. Afterall, despite its relative lack of providing real solutions, it remains wildly popular among many levels of society, especially and not coincidentally, western educated doctors, engineers and so on. I don’t think Westernization or modernization will be rolled back in Muslim societies, so maybe Islamism, as a melding of Islam and modernity is here to stay. That would be too bad, though.

#8 Tobias on 11.18.06 at 4:55 pm

I think that in this context the term “modern” is distinct from “contemporary”. Modernism is no longer contemporary, modern intellectual currents such as fascism and socialism have both been discarded.

Islamism is popular amongst middle class Muslims such as doctors and lawyers and engineers precisely because they have no real education in the liberal arts, in real religious knowledge, history or philosophy.

Most Muslim parents confuse a university degree with an education. Nor do they respect Islamic education and give it the commitment required for real understanding.

Their children are then easy prey for any social or political current that is fashionable. They also lack the instruments to analyze it.

In many ways the progressive Islam movement is the contemporary version of Syed Qutb’s Islamism

#9 null on 11.18.06 at 10:44 pm

“Not the HT guys I have experienced – most said voting is haram!”

Oh dear! I didn’t know that!

“They are very sophisticated in their recruitment, their indoctrination and thought policing. If I have time I will write about it.”

Yes please!

#10 Amir on 11.19.06 at 12:46 am

The raison d’etre for HT in the West seems to be primarily to warn Muslims against the evils of voting. As far as I can tell, from speaking to HT members, they want to “raise awareness” and recruit people into the Party in the hope of eventually reaching some sort of Critical Mass where they can reach for the levers of power in the Muslim lands. In that sense, they seem inspired by the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary model.

#11 ABD on 11.19.06 at 2:46 am

as-salam alaykum. i’m sympathetic to your critique, and yet i find that critics of islamists often don’t have a cogent alternative that meets their own criticisms (not that that you meant to do so within just one post). if islamists are modern, are the rest of us not? if islamists are influenced by western thought, can anyone else give us a purely islamic alternative? you suggest by the end that islamists will have to read up on other non-muslim thinkers (i.e., not the marxist ones) if they are to last. seems to me like it’s a choice of which west and not which islam.

here’s my own attempt to work through some of these problems: http://othermatters.wordpress......-islam-i/. (i return to this theme in a post that’s still on the home page: “City of God II”.) my point of reference is clearly western, but not modern. i can’t say how authentically islamic it is, but my hope is that it is at least a corrective to uniquely modern (whether western or islamist) views on the nature of politics.

#12 Amir on 11.19.06 at 9:28 am

I don’t think the issue is that Islamists are influenced by Western thought or ideas, but just that they mostly seem to be influenced by the bad ideas. For example, their worship of the state, crypto-socialist economic theories and so on. HT even want to nationalise the steel/iron/metals industry a la Harold Wilson and British Steel.

There are plenty of non-Muslim and Western economists and political philosophers from whom Islamists could learn a great deal. However, largely as a result of their own intellectual pedigree or the pedigree of the figures they follow and read, many Islamists seem to gravitate overwhelmingly towards revolutionary politics, statism and highly-regulated command economics.

#13 Tobias on 11.19.06 at 9:51 am

exactly, i wish they would read more widely: burke, locke, jefferson, adams and to be more circumspect rather than adopting philosophies whole.

#14 Baybers on 11.19.06 at 4:01 pm

There are really 2 issues here.

the first is , how should Islamic belief and practice be advanced in Muslim countries? this is really none of our concern, and we should get over it. Power speaks to power and not to bloggers

the second and more useful question is how we should approach our local situation?

I would probably begin by dumping all the books that one has on Islamic revival, Milestones, political Islam etc..

concentrate on actually being a Muslim and not an extra in a B grade middle east political thriller. I remember a particularly notable Muslim activist telling me that Muslim Australians need to have a “position” on aboriginal dispossession” and on social justice.

This is precisely what we DONT need. We should have a “position” on Tahjud salat (preferably prostration), and on living Quranic ethics and we should leave progressive politics to people who wear sandal and linen pants.

#15 Amir on 11.19.06 at 4:22 pm

Another flaw with much of the Islamist thinking is that their goal is to reconstruct the systems and polities of the past. For example, to create a model of government that mirrors the structure of the Umayyads or the Ottomans. In much the same way as much of the thinking on Islamic finance remains fettered to the past, there isn’t a terrible amout of originality (as far as I can tell) in the thinking of the so-called Islamist groups and ideologues. Therefore, it’s unclear how their utopian state would fare in a world that is substantially different to the world which moulded the models they are attempting to recreate.

#16 skepticlawyer on 11.19.06 at 11:37 pm

Good stuff – Jason has done a link in his weekly ‘Ozblogistan’ round-up. Just a quick request – could you update your link to catallaxy in the sidebar? It’s still the old busted ‘badanalysis’ one, which we can’t seem to revive.

#17 OmarG on 11.20.06 at 10:44 am

Salam Baybars,

>>on living Quranic ethics and we should leave progressive politics to people who wear sandal and linen pants.

I agree. I wrote recently about how I did not like temporary political positions attached to the practice of Islam and took alot of heat for it. Some Muslims define “adl” as social justice and while it sounds reasonable, I often am unsure of where the Socialist connotations will lead us, not to mention that adopting it also means being associated with Socialists. I usually see Islam as being on a level above Socialism vs Capitalism (and any pairing of -ism’s, actually). So, your original question at the beginning of your post: “Is Islamism, Islam” I would say most Muslims say “Yes”, and I don’t think it is a good thing for us or the deen.

#18 Ed Husain: this week's Prestor Jon on 08.26.07 at 7:54 pm

[...] from a Muslim with which to club 1.3 billion Muslims. Given my previously expressed views on the modern religious innovation of Islamism, one would expect us to be sympathetic to Husain, but you would be mistaken. Husain’s [...]

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