The "Ends" of Islamism: Rethinking the Meaning of Islam and the Political

By Aktay, Yasin | Insight Turkey, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The "Ends" of Islamism: Rethinking the Meaning of Islam and the Political


Aktay, Yasin, Insight Turkey


Olivier Roy frequently employs the typical discourse of the end of Islamism. His famous book, The Failure of Political Islam, declared "the end of political Islam" for the first time in the 1990s. He pronounced the "end" again following 9/11, and later against the background of the Arab Spring where he, along with many other political analysts, found no concrete sign of Islamism in Tahrir Square's revolutionary discourse. For them, the revolutionaries' chants mentioned bread, freedom and dignity--values and things some analysts associated with socialism, liberalism and nationalism. None of these values necessarily symbolized an Islamist discourse, and therefore allegedly signified the absence of Islamism in these revolutions. This approach significantly oversimplified the "ends" or the "goal" and content of any Islamic discourse, and exemplified a stereotypical set of expectations from an Islamic political movement. As a matter of fact, Islamism's meaning seems to have been reduced to a cliche that represents either an AK-47-carrying militant or a political movement entangled in an obsolete campaign to forcibly institute sharia in their society, usually in a supposed form of an Islamic state.

One of the peculiar things within this reasoning is the alleged monopoly of some modern ideologies over certain values: one is assumed to be a socialist if you seek bread, a nationalist if you seek dignity, and a liberal if you seek freedom. What is the reason for these values to be exclusive to socialism, liberalism and nationalism? Or what is to stop an Islamist from seeking bread, dignity and freedom without giving up his or her Islamist identity? Why does an Islamist have to adhere to one or more of these ideologies in order to be entitled to defend these values? Bread, dignity and freedom have always been part of the human experience and cannot be reserved to and appropriated by modern ideologies to exclude any Islamist reference to them. This appropriation serves to maintain the tacit claim that revolutions are characteristic of Western culture and therefore cannot take place in the Islamic world. Moreover, the objective is to underplay--if not to completely ignore--Islamism's role in the Arab revolutions. However, this ignorant act also relies on and reproduces a certain definition of Islamism and the "political", errors that account for the failure to account for developments around Islamic social movements. To be clear, the failure of the "endist" discourse stems from the failure to understand the end points, goals and intentions of Islamism. Their definition relies on a specific and historical articulation that accurately accounts for some Islamists at certain periods, yet it ignores the fact that Islamism is not a constant metaphysical discourse exempt from human interpretation. As a matter of fact, Islamism is inherently related to the political, and therefore cannot be reduced to one articulation of its discourse.

Restoring the Meaning of the Political

The common perception of Islamism equates it with other utopian projects that seek a forcible and radical transformation of society and the world. The Taliban and other so-called jihadist movements exemplify the concrete model for this kind of Islamism. The categorization of such movements under the term "political Islam" lies at the heart of the problem since there is nothing "political" in such movements. The concept of the "political" above all requires discussion and negotiation with the other. And such movements, essentially militant, emerges where the possibilities of the political i.e., discussion and negotiation have been exhausted. Therefore, there is ambiguity in conceptualizing "political Islam," "Islamism" or "radical Islam", as well as in the general relationship between Islam and politics. In this conceptualization of the term the genuine dimension of the "political" is missing, and so analyses fail to identify the multitude of Islamism's manifestations due to their failure to see Islamism except in its imagined forms that are not representative of the Muslim community's actual experience. …

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