Understanding Islamism

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Understanding Islamism

Statement of Purpose

Understanding Islamism is a new Policy Exchange project, which seeks to deepen our comprehension of Islamism – seeing this as a distinct form of politics pursued by a range of socio-political movements.  The goal is to explore the multifarious debates around Islamism, highlighting the views of proponents and antagonists alike.

Islamism takes many forms. It is a complex, multi-faceted and protean ideology. In just the same way as other ideological movements – such as communism – presented in a variety of ways, determined by context, the personalities involved and ideological outlook, so the same is true of Islamism. Some Islamists reject the socio-political status quo in absolute terms, and encourage a resort to revolutionary violence; many more do not. On the contrary, one of the defining features of the way in which ‘mainstream’ Islamism has evolved in recent times is the way that its adherents have learned to speak the language of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and ‘integration’.[1] But often their apparent embrace of key aspects of the liberal democratic worldview, actually involves a re-working of those concepts, transforming their original meaning in decisive ways.[2]

This is particularly the case with those Islamists who operate in the West – many of whom reject the very term ‘Islamist’, preferring instead to speak only of their commitment to the ‘Islamic movement’. In the UK and across Europe, there is no formally-declared ‘Islamist’ political party or social movement. Nevertheless, there are multiple modes of activism which can reasonably be identified – analytically rather than pejoratively – as Islamist. The purpose of this new project is to explore the contours of this worldview and its different manifestations.

Moreover, a key contention here would be that, to understand Islamism properly, it is necessary to locate any single manifestation of the phenomenon within both a local context and against the backdrop of global Islamist politics. For this reason, a key premise for this project is the belief that it is not possible to fully understand Islamism in a British, or western context without reference to the wider intellectual context. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, remains a movement of critical global importance, which helps to set the agenda for the entire Islamist world. It has various offshoots that operate at a national, regional or international level; senior Brothers have also been to the fore in building a range of apparently ‘independent’ vehicles that nevertheless adhere to an Islamist worldview. In the UK, a number of groups have been identified by a 2015 government report as being influenced or dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, notably the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).[3] And it is clear that ‘the West’ now constitutes a critical sphere of activity for many Islamist movements, which have in recent years faced growing repression and persecution in their countries of origin.[4]

It is for this reason that the Understanding Islamism project seeks to understand the mental landscape and socio-political objectives of Islamist groups both internationally and within the UK.

To this end, one purpose of this project is to provide ‘translation’ in a literal sense, to make available in English the words that Islamists use before non-English speaking audiences, in order to give the fullest sense of how they view the world. Alongside this, we also hope to use this project to explore and ‘translate’ the meaning behind Islamist discourse.

A final strand of this work, meanwhile, is the effort to understand how different governments – particularly in Europe – have responded to the challenges posed by Islamism. The hope is that in so doing, we can build a useful repository of the international debate around Islamism – one which can help inform the decisions of policy-makers in the UK.

What do we mean by Islamism?

As explored in our inaugural paper, the term ‘Islamism’ has come under some scrutiny, with some suggesting it is not appropriate. We insist however that it can – and should – be used as an analytical, rather than pejorative, instrument. The term Islamism is derived from the Arabic term Islāmiyyūn (Islamists) used by many members of the disparate Islamic political movements to describe their outlook.[5] Though many prefer to talk simply about being members of ‘the Islamic movement’, we think this is highly confusing, and potentially misleading.

It cannot be emphasised enough that in talking about Islamism – a socio-political ideology with a distinct history and trajectory – we are not talking about Islam, the religion. As scholars have made clear, the latter is one of the world’s great monotheistic religions, and comes in all manner of forms, the vast majority of which are largely compatible with liberal democratic norms and freedoms.

Islamism by contrast is the ideologised, politically purposeful and activist form of the faith.[6] It is an entirely modern phenomenon, emerging from debates about the relationship between Islam and modernity, Islam and ‘the West’, which circulated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Out of this period of intellectual ferment, a number of key ideologues helped shape the first recognisably ‘Islamist’ political movements – most notably, an Egyptian school-teacher, Hassan al-Banna, who created the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and the Indian journalist-turned-politician, Abul A’la Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami.[7]

Today, as already described, Islamism comes in many different shapes and sizes.  All forms of Islamism are committed to achieving social and political change.  Most favour non-violent activism, whether social or political – what Gramsci called a war of manoeuvre and position.  A small minority insist on the necessity of violence – what Gramsci called a frontal assault. But all seek fundamental societal transformation.

Committed Islamists represent a small minority of the global Muslim population; avowedly violent Islamists constitute a minority of that minority.[8] To be clear: most Islamists are not terrorists. And most Muslims are not Islamists. There is a chasm that separates Islam the faith, from Islamism the ideology.    

For this reason, it is worth trying to identify what it is that allows a given individual or group, to be labeled ‘Islamist’. Though by no means exhaustive, the following serve as a useful map of the Islamist worldview:

  • Arguably the core premise to which Islamists adhere is the notion of Islam as supreme and comprehensive – applicable to all spheres of life, which must be conducted in accordance with the divinely revealed truths of Islam, of which they claim to be the guardians. Most famously this means a refusal to accept the possibility of secularism and the separation of religion and politics. Instead, for Islamists, Islam must be ‘din wa dawlah’ – religion and state together. Though much Islamist thinking on ‘the State’ itself is vague, at its core is the pursuit of a specifically ‘Islamic order’ (nizam Islami). The core characteristic of that order is deemed to be the implementation of Islamic law (the Shari‘ah).
  • In countries where Muslims are a minority, many Islamists are realistic in accepting that they cannot attain an ‘Islamic State’ in the here and now; and they believe it would be foolish to try. Even so, they believe that Muslims should consider themselves, first and foremost, to be members of a de-territorialised, decontextualised, deculturated and globalised ummah.[9]Islamists insist that right belief and right practice – orthodoxy and orthopraxy (again as they define them) – must be the overriding source of an individual’s identity. For this reason, scholars have talked about the ‘new communalism’ that defines Islamist activity in a western setting.[10] Under this impulse, Islamists seek to speak for, and be accepted as the authoritative representatives of, Muslim communities; in their rendering, a diverse mosaic of cultures, creeds and practices should be treated as a monolithic faith bloc to which they alone provide access.
  • The Islamist vision is informed by a distinctively teleological, millenarian view of history. They idealise the past as a recoverable model for the present – in particular the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors, who are thought to have created something akin to the perfect state/society, which acted as the vehicle of salvation. Since that time, and particularly since the rise of western power in the C17th and C18th, the history of the Muslim peoples is deemed to be one of confusion, decline and fall. Under this vision, Muslims became lax, abandoned the proper practices and beliefs of true religion – as revealed to them by the Prophet Muhammad – and in the process left themselves vulnerable to the blandishments and conspiracies of their enemies. They thus became weak and were defeated and colonised by European imperialists, anxious to avenge the losses of the Crusades, and then by the US, which now holds nominally Muslim regimes in thrall to its power.
  • History is thus read as a great drama – depicting an existential struggle between a divinely chosen, yet straying people (Muslims) and their opponents (the ‘enemies of Islam’). Islamists diagnose contemporary Muslim weakness as a product of the machinations of their enemies – namely, the western powers and their Zionist allies. Secularism and materialism are held to be the products of a great cultural invasion, designed specifically to diminish and destroy the Muslim faith. The ummah is presumed to be under constant attack from outside – principally from the West. And these narratives foster a culture of grievance and victimhood, which informs the Islamist worldview.
  • To counter the contemporary travails of Muslims, Islamists insist on returning Muslims to ‘the true path’ – calling them back to right belief (through a process of da‘wah) and ‘struggling’ to implement their divine mission. To achieve this, Islamists believe that they must be activist in pursuit of their goals. It is this that leads them to conceive of themselves as a distinct ‘Islamic movement’ (al-harakah al-Islamiyyah) – the term they most frequently use to describe their endeavours.
  • The purpose of the ‘Islamic movement’ is to engage in ‘struggle’ i.e. jihad – a term conceived in the broadest sense to mean all forms of socio-political activism.
  • Equally, however, some Islamists have argued that physical force jihad is an integral part of the faith. They dismiss those who would render it a purely spiritual struggle. Instead, they promote the virtues of martial strength and physical training; and historically, a strand of Islamist thinkers reinvigorated and transformed classical notions of jihad, so as to make it synonymous with irregular warfare and terrorism, as practiced by non-state actors. A significant number of prominent Islamists agree in the fundamental legitimacy of ‘defensive jihad’ – often framed as ‘resistance’ (muqawamah) – to combat occupation and oppression. This covers a range of actors, from the Muslim Brotherhood – which is clear on the legitimacy of violence in certain contexts (as exemplified by the Special Apparatus of the 1940s and 1950s and contemporary activists in Libya, Yemen and Syria) – to the Islamic State, with its foundational and performative brutality.[11]
  • Finally, it is worth stating that while Islamists consider themselves to be the truest of believers, they are regarded by many of their fellow Muslims as divisive and sectarian. It is a truism that ‘ordinary’ (i.e. non-Islamist) Muslims have been the greatest victims of the Islamist project – and inevitably, its fiercest critics. Non-Islamist Muslims recognise that Islamists are engaged in an effort to redefine ‘normative’ Islam – offering particular interpretations of long-established concepts such as ‘Shari’ah’ or ‘jihad’, which are regarded with suspicion by many ordinary Muslims and as heterodox by more canonically classical scholars.

The foregoing list is far from exhaustive; neither is it prescriptive. Within these broad parameters, Islamists continue to disagree on both ends and means.

It is also worth noting that there are Islamists within both the Sunni and Shi‘a branches of Islam. These have remained distinct – to some extent coralled within sectarian boundaries. But there have been moments of cross-fertilisation. Sunni Islamists of all stripes took heart, at least initially, from the Islamic Revolution in Tehran in 1979. Conversely, Ayatollah Khomeini and other Shi‘a Islamists have been influenced ideologically by their Sunni counterparts like Sayyid Qutb or Abul A’la Mawdudi.[12]

Any effort to examine Islamism within western countries is hampered by the fact that many groups and individuals which hold recognisably Islamist views tend to eschew the label. In part, this is an inevitable function of worldview. They are for the most part pious Muslims; and as described, they believe themselves to be practicing the truest form of the faith. They therefore often question why they should be known as anything other than ‘Muslims’. And, as noted, their own preference is to refer to themselves simply as ‘the Islamic movement’.

Of course, therein lies a crucial distinction that separates them from their non-Islamist counterparts: the central importance they attach to organised activism, to the creation of the ‘movement’. It is in providing us with a vocabulary with which to analyse that movement and the activism with which it is associated, that the term Islamism gains its value. It serves to signify that we are discussing a discrete phenomenon, which should not be confused with Islam/the broader Muslim population, as a whole. One can – and one must – study Islamism, without in any way impugning Islam, or Muslims more generally.

It is with this goal in mind that the current project has been established: its aim is to provide a fuller understanding of what Islamists are doing, both within the UK and abroad. This is not to engage in name-calling, or to cast aspersions. Rather, the purpose is to shine a sharp analytical light on an important, highly active socio-political movement – as much as possible allowing it to speak in its own words.

[1] On this issue, see Mariz Tadros, The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Redefined or Confined? (London: Routledge, 2012).

[2] A good example here is the Muslim Brotherhood’s insistence that they support ‘women’s rights’. A closer inspection of their stance reveals that their interpretation of this idea would be unrecognisable to most western feminists. See, for example, the pamphlet on this subject produced by the Brotherhood in the mid-1990s: The role of Muslim women in Islamic society: according to The Muslim Brotherhood (London: International Islamic Forum, 1995).

[3] See, UK Government, ‘Muslim Brotherhood Review: Main Findings’, 17 December 2015, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/486948/53163_Muslim_Brotherhood_Review_-_PRINT.pdf

[4] Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Innes Bowen, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam.

(London: Hurst & Company, 2014); Martyn Frampton, The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[5] For a comprehensive introduction to this subject, see Peter Mandaville, Global Political Islam (London: Routledge, 2007); John Calvert, Islamism: A Documentary and Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008) and Frederic Volpi, ed. Political Islam: A Critical Reader (London: Routledge, 2011).

[6] On this, see Bassam Tibi, Islamism and Islam (London: Yale University Press, 2012).

[7] On the Brotherhood, see Hazem Kandil, Inside the Brotherhood (Cambridge: Polity, 2015). On the Jamaat, see Vali Nasr, The vanguard of the Islamic revolution: the Jamaʿat-i Islami of Pakistan (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1994).

[8} Pew Research, ‘Concerns about Islamic Extremism on the Rise in Middle East: Negative Opinions of al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah Widespread’, July 2014, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2014/07/01/concerns-about-islamic-extremism-on-the-rise-in-middle-east/.

[9] Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (London: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[10] See especially, Gilles Kepel, Allah in the West: Islamic Movements in Europe and America (Oxford: Polity 1997).

[11] On the Brotherhood, see Omar Ashour, The de-radicalization of Jihadists: transforming armed Islamist movements (London: Routledge, 2009); Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London: Oxford University Press, 1969). On ISIS, see Graeme Wood, The way of the strangers: encounters with the Islamic State (London: Allen Lane, 2017); Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror(New York: Regan Arts, 2016).

[12] See, for example, Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: medieval theology and modern politics (London: Yale University Press, 1990).

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