Political Islam: Untangling the Conceptual Muddle

Article excerpt


The literature on Islam and politics attributes various labels to the phenomenon of political Islam: revivalism, fundamentalism, Islamism, radical, militant, etc. The liberty taken to use these terms interchangeably has only added to the conceptual confusion. Also, the dynamic nature of the Islamic resurgence movement has hindered conceptual clarity. However, a careful reading of the literature reveals a continuum from successive attempts by scholars to conceptualize political Islam. This article examines three cascading concepts vogue in western literature on political Islam: fundamentalism, Islamism, and militant Islam. The resultant conceptual muddle undermines a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, interested in a comparative framework of religious fundamentalism, locates Islamic resurgence within opposition movements. Thus, religious fundamentalism is one component of anti-establishment movements. Despite sharing the socio-cultural aspects of revivalism, they add, fundamentalism is distinct in being "inherently political." (1) Sherifa Zuhur goes a step further in placing Islamic opposition movements within the set of sahwat islamiyya (Islamic awakening) movements. (2) While scholars have used both revival and reform (3) to refer to political Islam, the term that has captured most attention is fundamentalism.


Yousseff Choueiri intimates that fundamentalism is a common denominator in Islamic historiography for revival, reform, and radical groups. The third stage is a prelude to fundamentalism's transformation into a "totalitarian ideology." (4) With an imaginary spectrum from liberal to radical, Emmanuel Sivan focuses on two subgroups along the radical end that he distinguishes as "conservative fundamentalism" and "extreme radicalism." (5) Unlike Sivan's continuum, Ervand Abrahamian combines liberal and radical dimensions in identifying three subgroups of Islamic radicalism: secular, lay-religious, and clerical--actually labeling the last group "clerical populists." (6) And Luisa Giuriato and Maria Molinari find that radicalism is a characteristic of fundamentalism, with extremism as a slippery slope involving violence. (7) Whereas fundamentalism includes radical Islam for Choueiri, it is part of the radical fringe for Sivan. What is a penultimate scenario for Sivan is the worst case scenario for Abrahamian, but both view political Islam as a radical departure from the basic tenets of Islam adhered to by the Muslim hoi polloi. Giuriato and Molinari, like Choueiri, in holding a different view from Abrahamian and Sivan, subsumes radicalism as part of fundamentalism.

For Giuriato and Molinari the distinguishing feature of fundamentalism is redirecting the centrality of "infallible and inaccessible" shari'a (Islamic law) taken from the holy books. (8) Arguing that the religious and political components give fundamentalism its dual nature, Johannes Jansen emphasizes violence as a distinguishing feature of fundamentalism. (9) For Sivan the intermingling of religion and politics by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was itself radical, as opposed to mainstream Islam. Furthermore, Abul A'la Maudoodi and Sayyid Qutb revised the jahiliyya (pre-Islamic society) doctrine and took Islamic radicalism to the extreme. They shifted attention from European secular nationalism and its concomitant Pan-Arabism to rectifying the "jahiliyya within" (10)--the "modern" jahiliyya disguised as Islam, with William Shepard arguing that Qutb's emphasis on the society has subsequently been misplaced on the ruler of a Muslim-majority state. (11) In particular, Maudoodi and Qutb's glorification of jihad (holy war) and the shahid (martyr) was a significant change in strategy, continues Sivan. (12) et admitting to a return to the basic tenets of the faith, including the attachment to shari'a, John Ruedy is not even emphatic about political activism as a characteristic of fundamentalism. …


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