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Political Islam: Trends, Trajectory, Future Prospects – Professor Hussein Solomon

January 28, 2015


Political Islam: Trends, Trajectory, Future Prospects

By Hussein Solomon

This is a powerpoint presentation given by Professor Hussein Solomon — Senior Professor in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State and Senior Research Association of RIMA — at his keynote address at the Annual Conference of the Society for Practical Theology which was held at the CR Swart Building, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa in 21 -23 January 2015. 



  • “The white man crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilisation, his universal principles and noble objectives … We are endowing our children with amazement and respect for the master who tramples our honour and enslaves us. Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust, and revenge in the souls of these children from the time that their nails are soft that the white man is the enemy of humanity, and that they should destroy him at the first opportunity” – Syed Qutb, one of the founders of political Islam or Islamism in the 20th century
  • – Destructive, defined by what it is against as opposed to what it is for, problematic in implementation especially in globalized era
  • Seems a resurgence of political Islam or Islamism
  • Most militant form – political Islam has seen Al Qaeda’s presence in at least 19 African countries
  • AQIM, MUJAO, Boko Haram, Ansar Din, Al Shabab
  • Following Arab Spring, Islamists in control (for a while) in Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood) and Tunisia |(An Nahda)
  • Paper seeks to first explore the ideology of Political Islam and to examine its manifestation on the African continent through select country case studies: Egypt and Sudan and when examining the case of Somalia urges us to be careful with the political Islam label since it might not reflect the reality

Political Islam/Islamism

  • Defined by Zeynep and Ahmet Kuru as “…an ideology that emerged in the 20th century in reaction to colonialism and modernization. Political Islamism aims to create an “Islamic state” ruled according to the Shari’a. Although political Islamist movements can be characterized as part of the Islamic religious resurgence, these movements are primarily political. Political Islamists regard the foundation of the Islamic state as the sine qua non for the attainment of a complete Muslim life. The key ideological components of the political Islamists programme are: taking the Qur’an as a the source of political, legal and social systems; and claiming to return to the example of the Prophet Muhammed”.
  • Obsession with the capture of political power
  • Islamism is a 20th century totalitarian ideology that seeks to mould Islamic religious tradition to serve narrow political ends of domination
  • Puritanical tradition within Islam noted for its “fanatical reductionism and narrow-minded literalism” (Khaled Abou El Fadl)
  • Theological roots go back to Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (CE 1263-1328), Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab (CE 1703-1792), Maulana Abul Ala-Maududi (CE 1903-1979)
  • Opposed to the proverbial other – Wahhab famously declared that those who did not conform to his purist vision of Islam to be apostates and worthy of death, Maududi on the other hand spoke of a world Islamist revolution and stressed the use of force to create this Islamist nirvana – opposition to democracy
  • Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949): “It is the nature of Islam to dominate and not to be dominated, to impose its laws on all nations …”

Egypt: Poverty of Political Islam

  • Morsi and MB in power for a year – Fareed Zakaria – “illiberal democracy” – the troubling phenomenon of elected governments systematically abusing individual rights and depriving people of liberty”
  • Morsi did not reach out to the 48% who did not vote for him – accountable only to the MB
  • Distinction between party and state blurred – key government decisions taken in the office of the MB’s Supreme Guide
  • Appointment of Governor of Luxor – implicated in 1997 massacre of Coptic Christians, police and 58 foreign tourists
  • Key positions filled by MB not reaching out to political opposition

Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

  • Authoritarian impulse of MB self-evident: attempt to undermine the independence of the courts, the media, a neutral civil service, attempt to legislate through a Senate which only represented 10% of voters, decree by Morsi to place himself above the judiciary widely condemned, Brotherhood’s decision to adopt a new constitution without consensus alienated many
  • General incompetence of the MB whilst in power: foreign exchange reserves dwindled, Egyptian currency plummeted, inflation spiralled upwards, youth unemployment passed 40%, electricity blackouts and petrol shortages became norm, murder rate tripled
  • Farmers, not paid for the wheat they produced
  • Attacks on Coptic Christians and Shia Muslims – Morsi remained silent – defiance of Morsi and Brotherhood led to their eventual ouster from power

Political Islam Project in Egypt

  • Not only failure of MB but that of political Islam
  • Islamists run into problems since only 1% of Islam is actually about politics
  • Given the paucity of the Islamist intellectual project they have turned to virtue. Leaders are chosen on the basis of their virtue (their piety really), the state exists to create virtuous Muslims etc
  • Consider the following: whilst Islamists spend much of their energy on the capture of political power, they have not reflected on the nature of political institutions and how they are supposed to function. Similarly, whilst the amir occupies central space in the Islamist polity, there is little thought on how he is to be selected, what mandate he had, whether he has term limits, mechanisms of accountability, and so forth. Should we then be surprised at the incompetence displayed by the MB once in power?

Political Islam in Sudan

  • Sudan represents a far better perspective on why Islamist governance is incompatible with effective and responsive governance in a democratic polity – Islamists here have been in power for more than two decades
  • Islamists off-shoot of Egyptian MB
  • 1954 – Sudanese MB Organization formally established
  • 1964 – establishes itself as the Islamic Charter Front – lobbies for an Islamic constitution
  • Islamists led by Dr. Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi – obsession with political power – back military coup of May 1969 by Nimeiri – Islamist receive key positions and entrench themselves economically but alienate citizens

Opportunistic Islamists

  • Influence within Nimeiri regime peaks in 1983 when they get the declaration of Shari’a law but this further angers people – provokes popular demonstrations – Nimeiri labels Turabi and co as “radical” and “satanic”, dismisses them from cabinet and jails tem but too late – he is overthrown by popular protests in 1985
  • 1985-1989 flowering of Sudanese democracy, Turabi forms NIF to stem tide of secularism and opposed to democratic governance
  • NIF plays important role in bringing Bashir to power in 1989 in a coup
  • Turabi and NIF play key role in government to curtail freedom of expression and association and to Islamize Sudanese society – educational standards fall, economy suffers, state capacity suffers since civil servants appointed on basis of piety – Sudanese government more inefficient

Sudan’s Failing Islamists

  • Attempt to centralize power – in a country with more than one million square miles, weakening state capacity, multi-ethnic and multi-religious disaster
  • Darfur and Beja joins South in rebellion against Khartoum
  • Use of jihad rhetoric and creation of Popular Defence Forces a disaster – South Sudan eventually secedes from the northern whilst atrocities in Darfur results in Bashir being indicted by ICC – massive military expenditure whilst social expenditure is cut – popular disenchantment is exacerbated with drive to Islamize society
  • 1995- Bashir moves away from Islamist project distances himself from Turabi – repeals draconian legislation – Bashir opts to hang onto political power by sacrificing Turabi and his Islamist project

The Instrumentalization of Religion

  • Need to distinguish between sub-state and international terrorism
  • Many so-called Islamist movements were first motivated by considerations of a local nature and by narrower ethnic or clan consideration – Al Shabab
  • Somalia – primacy of clans and sub-clans – never a “nation-state”
  • Somali proverb: Me and my clan against the world; Me and my family against my clan; Me and my brother against my family; Me against my brother”
  • Islamic clerics stress the Islamic identity in order to create a Somali nation
  • Way to settle internal differences was to focus on the foreign infidel – Somali religious nationalism focused on what they are opposed to as opposed to what they are for – very negative nation-building

The Islamo-Nationalist Somali Project

  • Imam Ahmed Ibrahim al Ghazi (1506-1543) for instance led Muslim Somalia against Christian Abyssinians (Ethiopia) which resulted in Muslim armies penetrating into the heartland of Ethiopia
  • In similar vein, Sayyid Mohammed Abudllah Hassan’s jihad from 1900 to 1920 against British and Ethiopian colonizers served to foster Somali nationalism and attempting to overcome clan differences
  • Latter day Islamists in the form of Al Shabab are following in the traditions of Ghazi and Hassan by seeking to galvanize the Somali population behind them for a united and greater Somalia including Ethiopia’s Ogaden, Djibouti and North-Western Kenya

Al Shabab’s Failures

  • Al Shabab’s Salafist interpretation of Islam causes problems for them since Sufis in the form of Ahlu Sunna wa Jama allied to both Mogadishu and Addis Ababa opposes them
  • Neighbouring countries fearful of Al Shabab’s dreams of a greater Somalia have worked to create a balkanized Somalia
  • Al Shabab’s Hawiye fighters also serves to exacerbate clan tensions
  • Also tensions between Islamist internationalism and Somali nationalism with foreign fighters
  • Need to be careful of claims of a political Islam and need to examine context and history in greater detail

The Future of Political Islam

  • Tensions today between theocratic and secular Islam
  • If a Clash of Civilizations is to be averted, these secular forces needs to be strengthened
  • Secular Islam is not a novel phenomenon and there are Islamic traditions one could draw upon to make it more compatible with liberal democracy
  • Two reasons to be hopeful of the future of secular Islam.
  • First – rise of globalization, inadequacy of state to provide public goods
  • Second, failure of Islamists in power, search for a viable alternative has gathered momentum
  • Role of West, China and India in Africa – cannot be passive
  1. What is a Secular Islam? I don’t understand how faith in One G-D can be considered secular??

  2. Reblogged this on The Revivers and commented:
    I don’t fully agree with the author but it is a good piece on political Islam´s criticism and timeline of events.

  3. Thanks for your comment. The focus of this presentation was on political Islam. It is not about faith in God that makes one secular – rather it is the separation of mosque (in this case) and state. There are some Muslim scholars who are arguing for this separation between faith and politics in Muslim societies and I support this position.

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