Islamism: Emancipation, Protest, and Identity

Ali Ameer. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. Volume 20, Issue 1. April 2000.


Just as there are ‘Islams’ in practice there are also Islamic revivalisms in operation. The various revivalist models differ from each other in terms of their organizational structures, political and economic objectives and strategical directions. Islam and Islamism are therefore multifarious and to treat them as monolithic is to sacrifice reality at the altar of simplicity. Basically, all the Islamist movements that are current today can be grouped into two broad categories, those operating in countries where the Muslims are a ruling community and those in countries where the Muslims are a minority and therefore a subject community. In the former, Islamism is both a Wertheimian emancipatory as well as a Tourainian protest movement, which has its political, economic and cultural ramifications; while in the latter, it is mostly a quietist and cultural force striving to protect and promote the religious identity of the Muslim community. As an emancipatory movement Islamism represents the collective struggle on the part of groups, which will be identified later, for a new society based on the norms and values ingrained in the shariah. It is also a protest movement in Tourainian terms because it has an identity, i.e. Islam; an adversary, i.e. the present world order-an order of jahiliyya (an Arabic term for the pre-Islamic world of ignorance); and a societal goal, i.e. the re-establishment of proto-Islam of the Prophetic era. In addition, Islamism, both in its majority and minority contexts, has a pure religious reformist aspect whereby it aims to revitalize the religion by cleansing it of all bid’a or acquired novelties. In short, Islamism aims to eliminate all forms of political oppression, socio-economic inequities and cultural pollution. It is, as Voll defines, `a distinctive mode of response to major social and cultural change introduced either by exogenous or indigenous forces and perceived as threatening to dilute or dissolve the clear lines of Islamic identity, or to overwhelm that identity in a synthesis of many different elements’.

This article will discuss Islamism under five sections. The first section will summarize very briefly the history of Islamism as a pure religious reformist movement. The second will discuss in detail the various forces which have determined the emancipatory and protest nature of Islamism in the Muslim majority countries, and the third will look at Islamism as a movement of identity in the Muslim minority countries. In the fourth section some international issues relating to Islamism will be considered with a view to counter the negative attitude which this movement has created outside the Muslim countries. The fifth will conclude the arguments.

Islamism as a Religious Reformist Movement

As a religious reformist movement Islamism has a long history. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad when Islam spread beyond the territorial confines of the Arabian peninsula and entered into non-Arabian societies, the customs and traditions which were indigenous to the new converts crept into the primeval Islamic model. So pervasive were these intrusions that the ulema of medieval Islam, often under political pressure from the rulers, were compelled to issue fatwas on the Islamic/non-Islamic character of newly accrued institutions, traditions and practices. From time to time religiously and politically motivated groups and individuals had demanded the Muslim rulers and their ulema to cleanse Islam of all alien accretions so that the religion could be restored in its pristine form. Among the early jurists in Islam, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) and Ahmad Ibn Taimiyya (1263-1328) were such religious revivalists. The successful nineteenth century Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, the internationally known Indo-Pakistani born Tabligh Jama’at and Jamaat-e-Islami of today, and the officially banned al Arqam of Malaysia are some modern examples of this reformist phenomenon. Without seriously distorting the historical details, it can be safely concluded that in several of the civil wars and rebellions in the medieval Muslim world, the call for purification of Islam had been one of the constant demands of rivalling parties. In this sense, Islamism, as a reformist phenomenon, is centuries old.

Islamism as an Emancipatory and Protest Movement

As a movement of emancipation and protest, however, Islamism is of relatively recent origin. Its current wave has two phases: a passive one, in which the call for emancipation was largely an intellectual thirst among Muslim philosophers and scholars, and the other is an active phase, which is not only militant but also has the support of a coalition of fractions including the rural agrarian masses, the urban proletariat, state– employed petite bourgeoisie, the underemployed intelligentsia, the lower ranks of the security forces and the large student population. It is the active phase of emancipatory Islamism, which has attracted most scholarly and journalistic attention in the West.

The origins of the passive phase date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the pioneering thoughts of Shah Waliullah (1702-1763), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1896) and his Egyptian disciples, Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), and the philosopher-poet of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1928). They were a group of intellectual luminaries, agitating primarily against the political and cultural imperialism of the West and calling for the emancipation of the Muslim world from Western dominance. Their thoughts were instrumental in generating a nationalistic fervour for Islamic identity and self determination, which later transformed into anti-colonial struggles for political independence in several parts of the Muslim world.

Although the ideas of these intellectual agitators still continue to fertilize part of the philosophical terrain of Islamism, the current active phase is the product of a multiplicity of factors among which, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Middle East petrodollars, and the ulema-led Iranian Revolution of 1979 were the most obvious. The causes and course of these events and their relevance to Islamism have been exhaustively detailed in the available literature on modern Islam and Middle East political economy.

The emancipatory role of the active phase and the movement of protest it has created in the Muslim countries cannot be rationalized unless one understands the essence of the prevailing Western order, which for all intent and purposes is the world order. In spite of the eloquent promise of political freedom and economic prosperity for the entire humanity, the post-war world order was fashioned so that less than one quarter of humanity has all the freedom and prosperity while the rest have been shovelled away to endure economic inequities and political repression. The bipolar Cold War era and the economic order that it maintained were two sides of the same coin. While a number of protest movements against this order (such as Marxism, environmentalism, and feminism) have taken a secular character in the non-Muslim world, those in the Muslim quarter, because of the holistic nature of Islam and its historical confrontation with the West, have adopted a religious format (although there was a strong Marxist contingent in Iran). The resurgence of economic liberalism and the forces of globalization in the closing decades of the present century have only strengthened rather than weakened the cause of Islamic emancipation and protest.

Islamist Protest against World Orders

Noam Chomsky, an ardent critic of the world order, captures the essence of it as follows: `the rich men of the rich societies are to rule the world, competing among themselves for a greater share of the wealth and power and mercilessly suppressing those who stand in their way, assisted by the rich men of the hungry nations who do their bidding’. Adam Smith, the father of economic liberalism, put it even more forcefully when he wrote, `All for ourselves and nothing for the other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind’. The international political and economic orders which came into existence with the rise of the West in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were no more than a stark reflection of Smith’s vile maxim. Neither the birth of a so-called socialist order in the early decades of the twentieth century nor the success of anti-colonial struggles in the Third World after the Second World War had changed the situation significantly. The call by the South Commission in the 1970s for a New World Order where justice, equity and democracy would prevail in a global society is yet to pass beyond its rhetorical stage; in the meantime, the rising tide of globalization led by the transnational corporations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization is providing a permanent shape to the coming world order in which a tiny minority will continue to determine the earthly destiny of the vast majority.

The Islamists, like several other discontented political and social groups, are protesting against the injustices of this world order, and like the others the Islamists are also seeking emancipation from the status quo; but the language, tactics and the ultimate goal of the Islamists are fundamentally different from the rest. While the others colour their arguments, devise their strategies and model their alternatives within the ideological corpus of rationalism, the Islamists do all this within a religious frame. The facts that Islam itself was born as a protest movement against Arabian tribalism and Meccan plutocracy of the seventh century, that its subsequent growth and imperial hegemony were partly the result of military successes, and that the Medinan embryo state of the Prophet, contrary to historical evidence, is popularly perceived by the Muslims as totally unique, have contributed to the religiosity of the Islamists’ protest. This protest defined as `a reconstructed identity’ by Manuel Castells is more than a religious phenomenon and broader than `a political project’ to the Islamists. It is essentially an emancipatory movement protesting against the world order. This is the recurring theme among the many voices of twenthieth century Islamic revivalism.

Hasan Al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder and the first head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun, saw in the political and social aggression of a materialistic civilization the cause for an Islamic upheaval, which would eventually establish a Pax Islamica. ‘The day must soon come’, he said, ‘when the castles of this materialistic civilization will be laid low upon the heads of their inhabitants’. Sayyid Qutb, the firebrand of Islamic radicalism and activist of the Brotherhood, who was executed by Abdal Nasser in 1966, described the present order as one of ignorance ‘steeped in Jahiliyya’ and ‘based on rebellion against God’s sovereignry’. To him, between the then Eastern communism and Western capitalism the Muslims had only one choice, Islam. Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), the Indo-Pakistani journalist and a learned Islamic traditionalist, whose ideas greatly influenced Sayyid Qutb, argued that ‘the domination of man over man’ was the ‘root-cause of all evil and mischief, and he saw in Western civilization a ‘pernicious tree’ which made life ‘hell for the people in the West’. ‘The only remedy for this dreadful malady lies in the repudiation and renunciation by man of all masters and in the explicit recognition by him of God Almighty as his sole master and lord …’ Finally, Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989), arguably the most successful revolutionary Muslim spiritual leader of the twentieth century, did not mince his words in calling the Muslims to rise against the domineering order of the West and East.

Muslims the world over who believe in the truth of Islam, arise and gather beneath the banner of tauhid and the teachings of Islam! Repel the treacherous superpowers from your countries and your abundant resources. Restore the glory of Islam, and abandon your selfish disputes and differences, for you possess everything! Rely on the culture of Islam, resist Western imitation, and stand on your own feet. Attack those intellectuals who are infatuated with the West and the East, and recover your true identity … We are now in an age when the masses act as the guides to the intellectuals and are rescuing them from abasement and humiliation by the East and the West … Great ocean of Muslims, arise and defeat the enemies of humanity.

This emancipatory protest gained enormous strength after the debacle of the socialist challenge from the former Soviet Union and its East European allies. Indeed, during the second half of the nineteenth century and in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution there was worldwide expectation that Marxism would provide the alternative route to human freedom and equality. But decades of disappointment with the Bolshevist and Stalinist socialist experiments led to popular revolts in the 1980s, effectively removed the socialist alternative (at least for the time being), and restored economic liberalism to its pre-war glory. With this restoration, while history itself appears to have ended to one historian, Islam became the new communism to a militarist.

The most conservative and militant of the Islamists perceive that neither the Western liberalist paradigm nor its socialist challenger has the answer to a world in crisis. More immediately they see the irrelevance of these models to their local situations. Kalim Siddiqui, the leader of the Muslim Parliament, wanted the Islamic movement to be ‘rooted in the political culture of the Muslim masses’ and be eradicated of all `values and norms alien to Islam’.

To understand the political, economic, and social ramifications of this protest and the emancipatory nature of Islamism a brief summary of the post-colonial development of the Muslim world is essential.

Political Decolonization and the Muslims

The end of the Second World War heralded the beginning of political decolonization in many parts of the world. In the Muslim quarter, decolonization actually started after the First World War. Beginning with Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan soon after the First World War, followed by Yemen, Iraq and Egypt during the inter-war period, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in the 1940s, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco in the 1950s, Mauritania, Kuwait, Algeria, and South Yemen in the 1960s, and the Gulf states in 1971, the Muslim world witnessed the transfer of political sovereignty from the colonizers to the colonized. In the Asian subcontinent, Pakistan was born as an independent state in 1947 but split into two nations in 1971 with the separation of Bangladesh. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia achieved their independent status in 1949 and 1957, respectively. Thus, by the turn of the 1960s more than 40 independent Muslim states found representation in the United Nations and all of them were underdeveloped.

Between colonization and independence the Muslim world underwent a series of changes politically, economically and culturally. Politically, the colonial interregnum expedited the demise of the Muslim caliphate (and its later version of the sultanate) which had been disintegrating ever since the end of the Abbasid rule in the eleventh century. The landing of the French army in Egypt in 1798 under Napoleon Bonaparte marked a turning point in the political development of Muslim Middle East. From the middle of the nineteenth century the idea of nationalism, more as a ‘negative force against alien control and as a reassertion of umma free of infidel power’ than as a constructive and ethnically unifying phenomenon, began to shape the political thinking of the Muslim elite. With the end of colonialism the Muslim world emerged as a community of independent but artificially created territorial states whose only uniting feature was the religion of Islam. In this political outcome were sown the seeds of internal disunity and discontent, which would be exploited by the Islamists in the years to follow.

Nationalism and nation states are Western products born out of a long and bitter struggle between the church and the state. They have no relevance to the Islamic concept of umma and its political format of a universal caliphate or sultanate. However, as Vatikiotis argues, nationalism provided a ‘scaffolding of European-style institutions’ which won the Muslim countries international legitimacy but left them ‘unable to meet, let alone counter, the challenge of the native political idiom and perception, that of Islam’. The newly independent regimes which ruled different parts of the Muslim world found themselves in a terrible predicament. Although the leaders of these regimes espoused the principles of nationalism and secularism, they were not prepared to enforce with authority the constructive values of these philosophies to eradicate all ethnic, religious and tribal differences in their respective societies. On the other hand, they were also not prepared to concede to the democratic wish of the majority and allow Islam to supersede nationalism and become the sole determinant of society’s political, economic and cultural milieu. To enforce nationalism as a constructive force would have antagonized the majority tribal and ethnic groups whose support remained crucial to the regimes; and to allow Islam to dominate would have meant the political empowerment of the ulema who have historically been a potential threat to secular regimes. Unable to choose between constructive nationalism and complete Islamization, the rulers opted for a strange mix of superficial Islam and pseudonationalism, ‘to solidify power rather than to promote political participation’ and win domestic legitimacy. As Tibi argues, ‘political systems in underdeveloped, weakly institutionalized societies forfeit their stability if the dominant elites are secularized without sociocultural transformation being attempted at the same time’.

To the ruling international order, however, this was not an unpleasant outcome. To the two super powers of the Cold War era, controlling domestic population, i.e. keeping the masses subordinate, was the major task of any state. As long as the respective governments in the independent states remained loyal to the interests of the major powers and kept local recalcitrant in check these governments were assured of international support. The fact that some Muslim countries were in the socialist camp while the others were in the capitalist did not alter this imperialist designed ruling task. Depending on the respective super power support the local rulers branded their opponents either as communists and terrorists, or as fundamentalists and saboteurs. For example, the Islamists became communists and terrorists in the American backed Shah’s Iran, while they became saboteurs and fundamentalists in Soviet backed Nasser’s Egypt. Several of the opponents to the regimes were arrested, incarcerated, tortured, exiled and even killed. Irrespective of the rulers’ professed ideologies, the end product of national independence was the centralization of power in the hands of the elite and its refusal to share that power with other competing interests.

In all the Muslim countries the ruling elite always found it uncomfortable or unwilling to share power with the religious parties. These parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, and the jama’at-e-Islami in Pakistan differed fundamentally from the ruling parties in terms of political ideologies, economic tenets and cultural vision. A state built on territorial nationalism, an economy operating on principles of economic rationalism, and a culture influenced by Western Christian values were anathema to the religious groups. The legitimacy or the Islamicness of the regimes was therefore constantly under challenge from the religious parties which, because of the close contact between the ulema and the masses, carried with them greater grassroot support. The rulers, who functioned primarily from the metropolitan centres and only ceremonially came into contact with the masses, were always reluctant to test their popular strength through clean and democratic elections. In countries where there had been some form of elections, such as Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, Tunisia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, electoral gerrymandering, vote rigging, vote buying and even outright thuggery had been more the norm than exception. What happened in Algeria in 1992 where the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF) was blatantly denied of its victory through the democratic process, was one of many illuminating examples of how the elite-controlled political regimes operate in Muslim countries.

In the post-colonial politics of the Muslim world Islam became not only a weapon of protest in the hands of the opposition but also one of counter-protest in the hands of governments. In order to counter the popular criticism that the rulers were anti-Islamic or un-Islamic the rulers were forced to demonstrate a holier-than-thou image. In the 1970s, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia Hussain Onn summed up the government dilemma in the following words: `You may wonder why we spend so much money on Islam. You may think it is a waste of money. If we don’t we face two major problems. First, Party Islam will get us. The party will, and does claim we are not religious and the people will lose faith. Second, we have to strengthen the faith of the people, which is another way to fight against communist ideology’. The rulers’ attempt to increase their religious posture took several forms. Financing the construction of elaborate mosques and religious educational institutions, organizing international Islamic conferences, establishing one or two Islamic financial institutions, adding more religious programmes in the national radio and television services, and even publicizing the pilgrimage journeys of heads of state were the most common ones. These Islamic postures by the ruling elite apart from their propaganda value added little to win the regimes an Islamic legitimacy. The Islamists thus felt the need to emancipate the masses from the clutches of hypocrite rulers.

Economic Development of the Muslim World

Economically, the development models adopted by the Muslim nations were also of European origin with little indigenous ingredient. This again was an inevitable outcome of the colonial era. The integration of the peripheral economies with European centres of capitalism was so strong during the colonial period that when independence was achieved the new rulers had neither the will nor the vision to break the colonial nexus. What they did instead was to continue with the colonial pattern with which their personal fortunes were also tied up. They justified their choice with the promise of eradicating poverty and catching up with the West. In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of heterodox economists and sociologists notably from the dependency and Marxist schools were critical of the appropriateness of Western models to the economic problems of the developing nations. As they pointed out, the history of economic development in the Third World since the end of the Second World War turned out to be a history of ‘maldevelopment’, which not only worsened the poverty of the masses but also widened the gap between the poor and rich nations. The Muslim countries proved no exception to this rule. Even the `Asian Miracles’ now appear to be only a temporary aberration.

Thirlwall, a development economist of the conservative camp, published in the 1970s an interesting statistical estimate of the time it would take for various developing nations to close their development gap with the United States and Western Europe, given their respective levels of development at that time. Of the 72 countries in his estimate, 22 were Muslim nations which included Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Yemen. Except for Malaysia, Iran, Iraq and Turkey the rest yielded no solution, implying that they would never be able to close their gap. Malaysia was expected to take 22 years, while Turkey, Iraq and Iran would close theirs in 1184, 241 and 74 years, respectively. In spite of the limitations of this type of estimates Thirlwall’s findings unravel the hopelessness of trying to catch up with the West by simply borrowing the latter’s economic strategies without embracing the entire ideological edifice on which its economic success has been built.

Economic development in the Muslim countries like elsewhere in the Third World was perceived as industrialization and that in turn was perceived as modernization. This strange identification of development with industrialization and modernization virtually meant the homogenization of the developing economies under the auspices of an imperial Western world order. The majority of economic theorists from the West worked on the fallacious assumption that economic laws are value neutral and that if the tools of economic science were to be applied without distortions any part of the world could replicate the ‘European miracle’. This ideology of monoeconomics had an overarching influence in the development strategies of many developing nations whose think tanks were filled with economists who were trained in the universities of the West. Even after 50 years of experience to the contrary that assumption still reigns supreme in liberal economic thought. With the collapse of the socialist challenge this assumption has received a fresh impetus in the current wave of globalization.

The new generation of Muslim rulers who succeeded their colonial masters failed to comprehend a simple historical fact that industrialization in the West and in the former Soviet Union was not an economic achievement alone. It was more an outcome of a secular, rational and materialistic outlook of life, which had little or no use for religion. Religion was increasingly marginalized in the West’s weltenschauung especially after the era of Reformation. The history of the Muslim world was different where the development of any secular and rational outlook was nipped in the bud hundreds of years ago. Religious orthodoxy killed the growth of rationalism and condemned the mutazilites who promoted it. Thus, in the absence of an intellectual and philosophical ethos to sanctify the achievement of material welfare as the primary goal in life European economic models in the Muslim countries simply became a grafting exercise between incompatibles. The economic objective of catching up with the West was therefore doomed to fail from its very inception.

Even if industrialization and modernization were to succeed in the non-Western world, as experienced by the newly industrialized countries (NICs) in the 1980s and 1990s, in the context of the current world order that success has to be complimentary to and not in conflict with the interests of the ‘masters’. Under colonialism, Muslim countries offered their economic resources cheaply to satisfy the production demand of colonial industries, and any income that accrued from this exchange went back to the coffers of the colonizer through domestic expenditure on imports. Independence brought little change to this pattern of economic dependence. They are still the suppliers of cheap resources and consumers of globally manufactured products. As Tibi argues, the West was ‘only rhetorically committed to modernize the Middle East which for them was and is, in reality, merely a reservoir of petroleum’. An unfettered freedom for international capital to enter the domestic markets, an unrestricted supply of domestic resources to foreign entrepreneurs and their local partners, a guaranteed entry to foreign goods to compete freely with those locally produced, and above all, a market-friendly government to protect this dependence structure are all that is required of Muslim nations to help sustain the world order. Algeria after Boumedienne, Egypt after Nasser, Iran under the Shah, Malaysia under Mahathir and Indonesia under Soharto and several other Muslim countries in different periods of time fulfilled these requirements amidst domestic opposition. The result was neither industrialization nor modernization in the Western sense, but the superimposition of an urban-industrial complex on a preindustrial-feudal-agrarian societal base. It is in this artificially implanted industrial-agrarian, rural-urban, and secular-religious dichotomy that one discovers the economic genesis of Islamism and its voice of emancipation and protest.

The statistical data published by the World Bank in its World Development Reports illuminate the failure of industrialization in Muslim nations and consequently the failure to eradicate poverty. By 1990 except for Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey none of the Muslim countries could produce even 20% of their GDP from the manufacturing sector. Although Egypt was able to reach 24% in 1977 that share, after Sadat’s infitah or open-door policy, declined to 16% by 1990. While urbanization has increased in all Muslim nations between 1960 and 1990 urban and rural poverty has worsened in many of them. In 1990, a total of 233 million people were estimated to be living below the poverty line in just seven of the Muslim countries. Even in Malaysia and Indonesia, the two economies that had experienced robust economic growth in recent years, 27% and 39% of their total population respectively lived below the poverty line in the 1980s. Government statistics on unemployment always underestimate the true picture. Independent estimates, however, show the severity of the problem. In Egypt, for example, an official estimate in mid-1989 showed an unemployment rate of 20-22%, while in Algeria about 30% of the working population were unemployed by the end of 1993. According to World Bank sources, unemployment rates reached over 15% in Turkey, Jordan and Morocco in the late 1980s and continued to remain high in the 1990s. In Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh the high incidence of rural poverty, the exploitation of child labour and the preponderance of the informal sector cast doubts on the officially published low figures on unemployment. The fact that a substantial share of the annual government budget in the 1980s was devoted to food subsidies in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia is another evidence of the failure of development in these countries.

Economic failures in the domestic front, as reflected in the statistics on youth unemployment, rural landlessness, urban congestion, rising price levels, widening income gaps, and mounting debts, were officially explained as temporary pains on the way towards permanent pleasure. `Things have to get worse before they get better’, said the politicians; and the economists theorized it with the so-called J-curve. To the Islamists, however, these failures were the combined result of inappropriate economic models, inept administration, and inimical influence of the West. The following observation by Michael Willis on Algeria can easily be generalized to cover the situation in many Muslim countries:

The economic crisis clearly boosted support for the Islamists. This was not only because social and economic problems fueled disillusionment and anger at the regime. It was also the case that Chadli Benjedid’s economic policies, even more so than Boumedienne’s, were associated with Western influence and ideas-traditionally identified by the Islamists as being the root of many of Algeria’s troubles … Furthermore, as economic and social hardship hit a growing number of Algerians with increasing severity many more people than before began to fall back on their religious faith as a means of both refuge from and protest at the failures of modernity.

In Malaysia, Chandra Muzaffar found a close link between that country’s modernization ideology and Islamic resurgence. In Egypt, Sadat’s infitah, which continues with little change under his successor Mubarak, has failed to improve the economic conditions of the majority. In fact, according to the United Nations Development Program’s annual Human Development Report, Egypt is `now in danger of joining the world’s list of failed states because of wide income gaps between sections of their population’. The recent economic debacle in Indonesia has thrown many more millions of people below the dreaded poverty line, and in spite of a strong military threat the Islamic groups played a leading role in ousting the Suharto regime. In fact, throughout the Muslim world, as economic conditions deteriorated religion has become the recluse to the deprived and a banner of protest.

Educational Changes and Islamism

In the field of education the changes which were introduced during the colonial period sacrificed traditional Islamic learning for a more secularized form of education. As a result, Arabic and other indigenous languages were significantly marginalized by the rising prominence of secular education and foreign languages gained prestigious status both during and after colonialism. During the colonial era the guiding educational philosophy was to ‘manufacture’ a class of loyal native functionaries who, as Macaulay wrote in the Indian context, `may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’. This educational policy was successful not only in producing the necessary functionaries required by the colonial administration but also in creating an elite of native rulers who when came to power after independence became the greatest bulwark against intellectual decolonization.

Centuries of official neglect left traditional learning almost untouched by the modern educational trends and the religious madrasas remained as centres of orthodoxy. The ulema who graduated from these learning institutions also remained underprivileged in the society because of the lack of recognition of their academic credentials by the secular oriented administrative hierarchy. They therefore joined the ranks of the economically poor and socially underprivileged and became the leading protesters against modernization ideology which they equated with Westernization. The world famous centres of Islamic learning such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Qum in Iran, and thousands of less known religious centres in the Muslim world churned out graduates who went into the villages, mingled with the masses, officiated as imams and indoctrinated their followers with ideas which were in direct conflict with what the political leaders and administrators were trying to instil. The teachings of the ulema portrayed the ruling regimes as corrupt, ignorant and irreligious and called for a total emancipation of the state and society from them. In a sense their teachings tantamount to the Islamic version of the `pedagogy of theoppressed’.

While this may explain the popularity of the Islamists in the rural areas, it does not tell why they are also equally popular among the secular educated and in the urban regions. Some sociologists have found the answer to this problem in the failure of secular education in developing societies. While the introduction and diffusion of modern education contributed to a partial disintegration of traditional societies, it did not go far enough to create the necessary infrastructure for intellectual activity. In other words, while modern education produced an `educated’ class, it did not produce a class of `intellectuals’ which, according to the Malaysian scholar Syed H. Alatas, is a prerequisite to the growth of a developmental society. This distinction between the educated and the intellectual is significant because even the ulema is among the educated in Muslim societies; but they, like the bulk of the Westernized and secular educated, lack that `critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made cliches, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do’. It is the failure of secular education to intellectualize the educated, which drew them towards the ulema and enhanced the attractiveness of the latter’s teachings to the urbanized and the formally Westernized.

Not until the ulema and their supporters became a political threat to the ruling regimes did the governments realize that steps had to be taken to modernize religious education and integrate it with the main educational stream. Government efforts in this respect took different forms. Turkey went to one extreme of totally banning religious education and forcibly eliminating even the symbolic appearance of Islam in public functions and activities. Many countries, however, adopted a more subtle approach of bringing religious education and religious activities under state supervision. A separate government ministry was established for religious affairs and all heads of religious bodies, religious teachers, imams officiating in the mosques and other religious functionaries became state appointees. The curricula of religious education in schools and universities were also scrutinized by the state, and in several countries even the sermons delivered on Fridays came to be written by state officials in charge of religion.

All this did not help to stem the tide of Islamism in the universities and among the educated. As long as the institution of the family remained intact, steeped in religious conservatism and cultural orthodoxy, all that the secular education and state indoctrination could do was to produce a dual personality among the Muslim youth who remained vulnerable to ideas of anti-establishment particularly in times of economic adversity. With the onset of a worldwide economic downturn in the late 1970s rising stagnation, poverty and indebtedness in developing countries exposed the weakness of the Eurocentred industrialization-cum-modernization strategy of development. It was an environment ripe for the growth of radicalism. However, the atheism of Marxism, the mother of radicalism in the nineteenth and greater part of the twentieth centuries, and the disintegration of Communist Russia in the 1980s left a vacuum to be filled. Islamism became the only option in the Muslim world. Thus, it is a movement of emancipation and protest in countries where the Muslims are in a majority. What about in countries where they are a minority?

Islamism as a Movement of Identity

Islamism is primarily a movement towards establishing and preserving the religio-cultural identity of the Muslims wherever they live as minorities. It is the failure to recognize this majority-minority dichotomy within Islamism, which has been responsible for the indiscriminate hostility shown by the West towards Islam. It was also this failure which made the international media colour the political protest and violence against the government in Algeria and the incident of Muslim female headscarf in the French schools with the same brush of `militant Islam’. The former is a reflection of the emancipatory face of Islamism discussed earlier, while the latter is a reflection of its identity face. The former is a majority phenomenon in countries where Muslims form the majority and the latter is a minority phenomenon among Muslims living as minority. The overriding concern of the non-Muslim governments, particularly in the West, with the political ramifications of the emancipatory face of Islamism has driven them to treat even its identity face with great suspicion and anger.

The Muslims are a minority in more than 40 countries and the total number of minority Muslims was estimated to be around 245 million at the middle of the 1970s, which was a full one-third of the world Muslim population. The world Muslim population has increased since then but the majority-minority ratio has not altered significantly. However, the fact that there are about 30 million Muslims now living in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and that this number is expected to increase in the future has heightened the concern in the West of a perceived `Islamic threat’.

To understand the identity face of Islamism and its implications for the Muslim minorities as well as the non-Muslim majority one should look at the teachings and practices of the Muslim da’wah or missionary movements which are active in these countries. Space constraint compels this article to confine the analysis to Tablighi Jama’at, the most leading da’wah movement in modern Islam. Born in the town of Mewat near Delhi in India the Tablighi Jama’at is the brainchild of Maulana Muhammad Ilyas (1885-1944), a religious scholar from the orthodox Deoband Seminary. From a few dozen disciples in its early years the movement has now grown to include millions of followers in more than 100 countries. As Ahmad states in his short but penetrating analysis of the Tablighi Jama’at, the movement `has received scant attention in the literature on modern Islamic movements’, particularly in the English language.

Like the foot-doctors in Mao’s China, the members of Tablighi Jama’at are itinerant preachers whose primary goal is not to convert non-Muslims but to transform the nominal Muslims to become real and better Muslims. Their message is direct and simple. They demand the Muslims to recite and understand the meaning of the shahadah (there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger), regularize the daily salat (the obligatory prayer) with its attendant rituals, perform dhikr (remembrance of Allah), respect and be polite to fellow Muslims, and take time away from home and worldly pursuits to go in groups to preach Islam to others. In doing all these, the Muslims are expected to show utmost sincerity and honesty and their only aim should be to please Allah without hoping for any worldly rewards.

The most significant aspect about Tablighi Jama’at is its total aversion to politics and indifference towards sociopolitical issues. In fact its members refuse to even make a comment on the worldly issues that are affecting humanity. Their only comment is that there will not be any problem if human beings obey Allah and follow the teachings of his Messenger. The movement is apolitical and its members believe that it is the individual who builds the society and that if the individual is pious and righteous his society will automatically become righteous and trouble-free. On the side of economic pursuits the movement emphasizes that material advancement is a constant distraction to a Muslim in his or her preparation towards the akhira (Hereafter) and that a good Muslim should earn a living just sufficient to take care of the basic needs of the household. Too much wealth and too many comforts are frowned upon and discouraged in the teachings of Tablighi Jama’at. The movement also discourages other aesthetic aspects of life such as sport, music, art and sculpture. Strict adherence to Muslim code of dressing for males as well as females, consumption of halal (permitted) food and drinks, avoidance of intermingling between the two sexes, building mosques and other cultural centres, and emphasis on religious education are some of the a’maal (good deeds) which are encouraged by Tablighi Jama’at.

How can a minority group of people who are politically uninterested, economically not demanding, socially exclusive, and otherworldly in outlook become a threat to any majority community? All they are asking from the majority is to be left alone so that the Muslims can maintain their identity and live a life without disturbing societal peace. It should be in the self interest of the majority community to encourage this movement rather than discouraging and fighting against it. If the identity face of Islamism is quietist and peaceful in character, and if the influence of Tablighi Jama’at within the minority Muslim communities is wide and deep, how then do we rationalize some of the violent events like the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and street killings in France and Germany where Muslims have been involved? These are the spillover effects from the emancipatory face of Islamism in the Muslim majority countries. The anti-Islamist state policies at the Muslim centre and the covert support, which those policies have received from the non-Muslim periphery have made the Islamists to widen their theatre of action beyond domestic frontiers. The technological and demographic forces of globalization have rendered this widening easier. However, this violence is a minority phenomenon and is not the dominating feature of Islamism in the West. It is the failure to separate the identity face of Islamism from its emancipatory and protest face that has led to the current indiscriminately negative attitude against Islam. This negative attitude towards Islam, which is rooted in Western history, has now been globalized thanks to the Western media.

A World Order Threatened?

That Islamism is a threat to the ruling world order is the dominant message, which came out of Western writings on Islam and Muslims in the 1970s and 1980s. Samuel Huntington’s article in Foreign Affairs (which was later expanded and published as a book), which considered this threat as a `clash of civilizations’, may be viewed as the literary culmination of this message. It was a confrontational view, which added intellectual weight to an already popular perception in the Western media. This view provoked the West to spend much of its resources in searching for ways and means of diffusing the threat from Islamism. Since more recently, however, this confrontational view has come under close scrutiny and has given way to a more accommodative view. `Islamic revivalism’, in the words of Esposito, the leading voice of the accommodative view, `is no longer a movement of the marginalized few who exist in the periphery of society. It has become a part of mainstream Muslim life.’ He concedes that Islamism is a threat; but not in the belligerent sense in which the Western media has treated it. Instead it is a `threat or challenge to the complacency of Western societies-spiritually, socially, and ultimately politically. It is, in some of its forms, a straightforward questioning of both the traditions that we seem to embrace-secularism, consumerism, unfettered individualism, … and … our commitment to the values that we say we espouse: self determination, pluralism, tolerance, freedom of expression.’ Esposito finds a sense of fairness in this challenge. Francis Fukayama, from a different perspective, dismisses the idea of Islamic threat and belittles Islam’s relevance to the outside world by exaggerating the strength and vitality of Western liberalism.

Hippler and Lueg, however, raise the most crucial point about Islamism in their introductory essay to The Next Threat. `Islamism’, they point out, `… springs) from the political, social and economic experiences of people in the Middle East. Whoever wishes to weaken them would be well advised to think first about how to solve the real problems of the region.’ In general, Islamism is the product of the historical experiences of the Muslim people. Colonization and decolonization, industrialization and modernization, and capitalism and socialism are different facets of this cumulative experience. The sum total of all this is the economic deprivation and political exclusion of the vast majority of Muslims in their own countries and the Western indignity imposed on Islam and Muslims internationally. Islamismhas therefore become the final resort to seek redemption in a world vacated by Marxism (at least temporarily). The world order which has learnt to accommodate and harness to its advantage all types of recalcitrance finds Islamism uniquely rebellious and uncompromising. It is in this sense Islamism poses a threat to the hegemonic aspirations of the `masters’.

The Future of Islamism

The mathematical technique of correlation has investigatory usefulness but lacks explanatory power. This is evident in the journalistic treatment of Islamism, which correlates violence in Muslim countries with the rising tide of Islamism. If violence is frequent and horrific, Islamism is said to be on the rise; and if violence is sporadic and less bloody Islamism is assumed to be on the decline. Attributing Islamism to the marginal fringe in Muslim societies, The Economist picked Egypt as an example and concluded that `the tide of Islamic militancy is ebbing-and not just in Egypt’. The heavy handed crackdown by the state on Islamic activists and a 5% economic growth rate appear to have contributed to this decline. That this conclusion was premature and false became evident when the gunmen killed a group of tourists in Luxor in November 1997. Are we to conclude then that Islamism is again on the rise? Simplistic explanations based on selective data distort reality and mislead policy makers. Islamism rose out of political powerlessness, economic deprivation, social exclusion and national indignity, and the future of the emancipatory face of Islamism depends on the solutions to these problems. In the post-Cold War world order ruled by global capital, policed by the armed might of the United States and supported by the economic dictates of the Bretton Wood twins-the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank-what does the future hold for the Islamists to effect changes in their societies and in the international arena?

Adam Lebor, a journalist who surveyed Islam in the West, concludes his investigation in the following words:

There is a rage, fueled by hatred, against the West among many Muslims. It is the anger of the slums of Algiers, of the refugee camps of Gaza and the West bank, of the back streets of Karachi and the remains of Kabul. It is the fury of the poor, living in countries that have for decades seen their resources diverted to the West, while their own poverty increases. It is the anger of those living under corrupt and despotic regimes such as the Algerian military junta, that would have been voted out had elections not been canceled, and is propped up by western aid. It lives too, in a muted form, in the terraced houses of Bradford and Besancon, wherever Muslims live, and struggle to find work and build their lives.

John Exposito pointedly observes that the extent to which governments in predominantly Muslim countries fail to meet the socioeconomic needs of their societies, restrict political participation, prove insensitive to the need to effectively incorporate Islam as a component in their national identity and ideology, or appear exceedingly dependent on the West, writes Esposito, `will contribute to the appeal of an Islamic political alternative’.

Political participation, incorporation of Islam as national ideology and dependency on the West are manageable in degrees to most of the ruling regimes. The religious opposition, which raises the banner of Islam against these regimes, is at the same time, not a united force in any Muslim country. Even the ulema are a divided group, some sections supporting the status quo while others demanding a change. Those who support uphold the infamous political dictum of medieval Muslim theology that oppression is preferable to anarchy; while those who oppose also find equally authentic backing from the same source. However, those who support the status quo win political recognition and economic benefits and are often incorporated into the officialdom. In this manner, a veneer of political participation and religiosity is added to the existing political structure and that structure is then paraded to the outside world to receive international legitimacy. On the question of dependency, official propaganda treats it as an issue of technological dependency which, it argues, cannot be avoided since the West is the leading source of modern technology. The argument implies that as Muslim nations develop the degree of this dependency will diminish in proportion.

The issue, which in the final analysis, will determine the future strength and legitimacy of the Islamists is economic. Unless the economic welfare of majority of Muslims improves, Islamism and its appeal for a religious alternative will remain vibrant. The chances of that improvement, however, do not appear promising under the ruling order of economic liberalism and globalization. The Muslim countries like all other Third World nations are caught in a global trap in which fewer and fewer get richer and richer, more and more get impoverished and the inequality gets consolidated. Based on statistics published in the UNDP’s Human Development Report, Martin and Schumann calculate that a total of 358 people at the top of the income ladder own as much wealth as 2.5 billion people own together at the bottom. While global capital and modern technology have improved the material comforts of humanity the accessibility to those comforts through purchasing power has been increasingly restricted to a tiny minority. In short, the vile maxim of the masters of mankind, which Adam Smith so perspicaciously described in the eighteenth century, continues unabated towards the end of the millennium. The pressure of global capitalism to dismantle the welfare state and marginalize the distributive role of governments has created a market dictatorship which is solidifying the ’20:80 sociery’.

Islamism in the Muslim countries has replaced Marxism as the ideology of the dispossessed and the Islamists have become the vanguard of Muslim protest. This protest is now spreading into new territories notably into Western Europe and North America through Muslim migration. In the 1970s, nearly 20% of Algeria’s labour force along with 12% of Morocco’s and 10% of Tunisia’s is said to have migrated to the West. But migration from more populous countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt has swelled the Muslim population in the West in the 1980s and 1990s. With almost 5 million Muslims in America, Islam is the fastest growing religion there. With some 4-5 million adherents in France, Islam is that country’s second largest religion next to Catholicism. The Muslim populations in Britain and Germany, although fewer than in France, are more visible than in North America, partly because of their concentrated settlements and partly because of intense public discussion about Muslim issues. Economic depression in the industrialized nations, which started in the 1970s and continued in the 1980s and 1990s, hit the migrants harder and pushed the majority of them to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Unemployment, low income, and discrimination have ghettoized their living, and, with the declining strength of working class political movements in the West the migrant Muslim communities rallied behind Islamism to protect their identity and voice their protest against injustice. With support from the Islamists in the mother countries migrant Muslims in the West have made Islamism an international protest movement.


Islamic revivalism or Islamism has a long history, and it manifested in different forms in different periods. Its latest phase, however, dates back to the 1970s, which coincided not only with the rise to power of the petrodollars but also, and more importantly, with the onset of economic depression in the West. Islamism is the product of the cumulative Muslim historical experience beginning with the demise of the Islamic caliphate under Western imperialism and stretching to the present world order of economic liberalism under US political supremacy. Although Islamism has received a religious colouring, it is essentially a politico-economic and social protest movement calling for emancipation from the status quo and protest against its inequities. It has a wide electorate, which includes not only the illiterate rural and semi-literate urban poor but also the intelligentsia and professionals, all of whom are united by the common feeling that the ruling order favours a tiny minority at the expense of the vast majority. With the collapse of communism and the unpopularity of other radical movements, Islamism has become the Marxism of the Muslim dispossessed, and its spillover effects are crossing the borders of Western countries. It will remain a vibrant movement of emancipation, protest, and identity unless the inequities and injustices of the present world order are removed or substantially curbed and until an alternative paradigm such as that of Marxism re-emerges to the fore.