Islamism and Islam

Islamism and Islam

by Bassam Tibi

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Despite the intense media focus on Muslims and their religion since the tragedy of 9/11, few Western scholars or policymakers today have a clear idea of the distinctions between Islam and the politically based fundamentalist movement known as Islamism. In this important and illuminating book, Bassam Tibi, a senior scholar of Islamic politics, provides a corrective

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Despite the intense media focus on Muslims and their religion since the tragedy of 9/11, few Western scholars or policymakers today have a clear idea of the distinctions between Islam and the politically based fundamentalist movement known as Islamism. In this important and illuminating book, Bassam Tibi, a senior scholar of Islamic politics, provides a corrective to this dangerous gap in our understanding. He explores the true nature of contemporary Islamism and the essential ways in which it differs from the religious faith of Islam.

Drawing on research in twenty Islamic countries over three decades, Tibi describes Islamism as a political ideology based on a reinvented version of Islamic law. In separate chapters devoted to the major features of Islamism, he discusses the Islamist vision of state order, the centrality of antisemitism in Islamist ideology, Islamism's incompatibility with democracy, the reinvention of jihadism as terrorism, the invented tradition of shari'a law as constitutional order, and the Islamists' confusion of the concepts of authenticity and cultural purity. Tibi's concluding chapter applies elements of Hannah Arendt's theory to identify Islamism as a totalitarian ideology.

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Islamism and Islam

By Bassam Tibi


Copyright © 2012 Bassam Tibi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15998-1

Chapter One

Why Islamism Is Not Islam

What is the difference between Islamism and Islam? The essential answer is that Islamism is about political order, not faith. Nonetheless, Islamism is not mere politics but religionized politics. In this book I look at Islamism as a powerful instance of the global phenomenon of religious fundamentalism.

The notion of "religionized politics" is essential for grasping this book's basic argument. In the case of Islamism, the religionization of politics means the promotion of a political order that is believed to emanate from the will of Allah and is not based on popular sovereignty. Islam itself does not do this. As a faith, cult, and ethical framework, it implies certain political values but does not presuppose a particular order of government. Islamism grows out of a specific interpretation of Islam, but it is not Islam: it is a political ideology that is distinct from the teaching of the religion of Islam.

It follows that Islamism is also not, as it is often described, a revival of Islam. It does not revive but rather constructs an understanding of Islam not consonant with its heritage. Islamism calls for a return of Islamic history and glory, but the state to which it seeks to "return" is, in Eric Hobsbawm's phrase, an invented tradition. The Islamist utopia, an imagined system of divine governance named hakimiyyat Allah (God's rule), has never existed in Islamic history.

Islamism and the Invention of Tradition

To understand why and how Islamism invents Islamic tradition, one should first familiarize oneself with the agenda of the Islamist movements. It represents much more than religious orthodoxy or a political intent to create havoc. The term "radical Islam," which suggests this meaning, is therefore misleading. The same applies to the use of the term "moderate Islam" to identify those Islamists who forgo violence and pursue their goals peacefully. In fact, all Islamists have a common commitment to a remaking of the world. Within Islamism there is a distinction between institutional Islamists and jihadists, but the two differ only over the means to be employed, not over the goal itself. Even those Islamists identified as "radical" but belittled as "jihadi-takfiri pockets" share this political agenda. (The term "takfiri" refers to jihadist groups that engage in accusing other Muslims of kufr [unbelief] and branding them as infidels if they do not share Islamist views. These groups are not "pockets" but an integral part of the Islamist movement.

Islamism exists in a global age characterized by what Daniel Bell has called a return of the sacred. This recourse to religion takes place under the conditions of a dual crisis: one is normative and relates to secular modernity, and the other is structural and relates to failed development. But despite the superficial appearance of a religious revival, the return of the sacred is not a "religious renaissance." Instead, religion assumes a political shape. In Islam the religionization of politics is carried out in the name of an imagined umma (community). The resulting political order is known as a shari'a state. Islamism can therefore be identified as an ideology that connects din (religion) with dawla (state) in a shari'a-based political order. This is a religionized political agenda, not a spiritual one. In addition, it is not local, restricted to countries of Islamic civilization, but also global, as Islamists propose a remaking of the world at large.

In their masterpiece Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectics of Enlightenment) Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer present a case for comparison. Though they never argue (as some wrongly suggest) that fascism grew from liberal Enlightenment and do not identify the two with each other, they do see a context of crisis in which the two are related. I propose a similar relationship between Islamism and Islam. Islamism is a cultural-political response to a crisis of failed postcolonial development in Islamic societies under conditions of globalization. Yet even though Islamism is political, it remains religious. Unlike its totalitarian predecessors, communism and fascism, the new totalitarianism is not a secular but a religious ideology. How can we understand Islamism as different from Islam without denying the connection between them? How does one avoid confusing the two? In Europe, the dialectics of Enlightenment in a time of great crises led to communist and fascist rule. Just as these European ideologies contradicted the Enlightenment, Islamism contradicts the humanism of Islam. Continuity and break, tradition and innovation are involved. No prudent scholar would condemn the Enlightenment or all of Europe because of these totalitarian movements. I wish to bring the same insight to Islam and Islamism. This book represents an effort to apply the thinking of global historical sociology to the crisis of Islamic civilization from which Islamism emerges.

I thus take pains to dissociate Islam from Islamism without ignoring their commonalities. In both Islam and Islamism one encounters diversity within unity. Certain beliefs and principles are common to all Muslims, but they are expressed in multiple traditions.

A person is considered to be a Muslim if he or she adheres to the alarkan al-khamsah, the five principles or pillars of Islam. These are to pronounce the shahadah (the unity of God and the acknowledgment of Mohammed as His messenger); to perform the salat (daily prayers); to fast during the holy month of Ramadan; to pay zakat (alms) to the poor; and finally, if financially possible, to travel to Mecca to fulfill the duty of hadj (pilgrimage) to become a hajji (male) or hajja (female). Does Islamism revive these pillars and the traditions related to them? The major creed of Islamism is dinwa-dawla (unity of state and religion) under a system of constitutionally mandated shari'a law. This is not faith but the imposition of a political system in the name of faith.

Nor is it based in any plausible reading of history. In this opening chapter I maintain that Islamism does not herald a revival but is rather an invention of tradition. I borrow this term from Eric Hobsbawm because it most accurately captures the relation of Islamism to the past. The Islamic shari'a state advocated by Islamists is not the caliphate—though some Islamist movements, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, use this notion—but a novelty whose roots are thoroughly modern. The shari'a on which this political order is to be based is likewise a modern invention.

Another invention of tradition is the Islamist definition of the umma as the supposed citizenry of the nizam Islami, or new Islamic order. The umma is the community of the faithful, based on shared observance of the five pillars of Islamic belief. The historian Josef van Ess mentions in his magnum opus on early Islamic history that umma in early Islam never had the meaning attributed to it by contemporary Islamism. After the death of the Prophet in the seventh century, van Ess writes, Muslims of Mecca and Medina refused to pray behind an Imam who was not a sheykh (leader) of their tribe. In his book Muhammed at Medina, the historian of early Islam W. M. Watt described the classical Islamic umma as a "super-tribe" uniting various tribes in a "federation of tribes" for purposes of prayer. This umma was not a political entity but the opposite: a means of transcending political boundaries for religious unity.

In contrast, the Islamist umma is explicitly political, what Benedict Anderson termed an "imagined community." But it is an odd variety, sovereign but not inherently limited. In developing his idea of the imagined community, Anderson was attempting to fathom nationalism—to explain why, as he put it, "nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time." Islamism, however, has a relation to "nationness" that is at best ambiguous: not only is it skeptical of the nation-state as the fundamental political unit of the modern world, it rejects many of the concepts underlying modernity. As prerequisites for imagining their polity as a modern-style nation, Anderson writes, people must overcome three ideas: that a particular language has a unique relationship to reality; that the head of state mediates between the divine and the human; and that historical time is equivalent to cosmological time. Islamists fail on all three counts. They thus qualify as truly radical, not in the superficial sense of engaging in political violence but in the sense of opposing certain ideas at a very deep level. It is not clear that most Western scholars and policymakers understand Islamist radicalism in this sense.

The tensions between Islamists' utopian ideals and basic modern notions about the political order inevitably lead to conflict. Islamism flourishes as an ideology of opposition, but when Islamists come to power they not only fail to deliver what has been promised, they also become totalitarian and suppress any dissent to their rule. Even in democratic-secular Turkey the ruling AKP, an Islamist party, undermines the freedom of the press and puts journalists in jail without trial. In November 2010 Turkey was criticized for its media restrictions by the European Union in its annual report on the country's bid to join the EU.

The Basic Issues

It is a mistake for Muslims and Westerners to play down the ideology and practices of Islamism as the work of a few "militant" adherents of "radical Islam," or to simply excommunicate these "radicals" as "un-Islamic." There is no such thing as radical Islam: Muslims who practice their religion even in the most conservative possible manner are not radical any more than the Amish are radical. Instead, there is a totalitarian Islamism presented by a transnational movement that religionizes politics. But Islamists' reference to Islam is not simply instrumental. They think of themselves as true believers and behave accordingly.

If those who belittle Islamists as a marginal minority of "radical Muslims" are mistaken, those who inflate the politics of Islamization into "the other modernity" are likewise mistaken. The growth of Islamism compels others to respond to it in a pragmatic manner. They believe they will be able to accommodate Islamism in dealing with it, and also that the mundane problems of governance will make the Islamists more tractable once they gain power. Islamism, in this view, either will burn out on its own, as extremist movements tend to do, or will eventually accommodate to practical realities. Both predictions are belied by facts on the ground. Post-Islamism is not yet in sight, and Islamism grows, taking full advantage of Islamic symbols for its own use.

An invented tradition cannot be well understood if it is not related to the tradition from which it has emerged. Little understanding of this relationship exists in the West. I shall identify six themes as basic to the relation of Islamism and Islamic tradition. These are:

• the interpretation of Islam as nizam Islami (state order);

• the perception of the Jews as the chief enemy conspiring against Islam, because they are believed to be pursuing a "Jewish world order" in conflict with the Islamist goal;

• democratization and the place of institutional Islamism in a democratic state;

• the evolution from classical jihad to terrorist jihadism;

• the reinvention of shari'a; and

• the question of purity and authenticity, which determines the Islamist view of secularization and desecularization.

These six themes, which help us understand the basic contrast between Islamism and Islam, are each given a chapter. Then, in Chapter 8, I draw on the work of Hannah Arendt to conceptualize the Islamist movement as the new totalitarianism. I do not impose her approach on my subject, but rather use the tools of analysis she developed.

Western readers may legitimately wonder why the list above does not include the issue of gender and Islamism. Women's issues are certainly an important subject in the Muslim world today. But in three decades of reading Islamists' literature, I have found that they have little to say on this topic: it does not seem to interest them much. Sayyid Qutb chastises Western civilization for its promiscuity. Based on his years in New York City, from 1948 to 1950, he saw the emancipation of women as symptomatic of a Western decline of values. Yusuf al-Qaradawi states clearly that men are the leaders of the Muslim umma and that the worst-case scenario would be for a woman to lead the umma. Islamists generally hold the view of traditional shari'a that men are superior to women and thus have an obligation to lead them. There are, of course, varying degrees of patriarchy within the world of Islam, the highest of which are in the Middle East. In Muslim West Africa and Southeast Asia, Muslim woman have more rights than in Arab countries. Female politicians have become heads of state in four non-Arab Muslim countries: Turkey before the AKP, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Nonetheless, the most powerful Muslim feminists are two Arab women: the Moroccan Fatma Mernissi and the Egyptian Nawal al-Sa'dawi. These women have courageously criticized both traditional Muslim and modern Islamist patriarchy and have fought for gender equality. But Islamists, while they have imposed the cruelest strictures on women, seem to have given little thought to the place of women in their envisioned umma.

There is a key distinction between the totalitarianisms analyzed by Arendt, fascism and communism, and contemporary Islamism. While the earlier phenomena were secular, Islamism is not. Therefore, while a political order is at the forefront of Islamist thinking, one should beware the pitfall of banning Islamists from the Islamic umma. We must not adopt the procedure of the takfiri Islamists themselves, who excommunicate from the Islamic community any Muslims who disagree with them.

The term "Islamism" reflects a common approach of adding the suffix "ism" to reflect the conversion of an original idea into an ideology. For instance, adding an "ism" to the name of Karl Marx reflects an effort to transform the thoughts of this European humanist into an ideology that is not always consonant with Marx's original thought. Marxism was further developed by Leninism to totalitarian communism, which was never Marx's intention. In a similar vein, the politicization of Islam is a process by which this religion is used for the articulation of political concerns that are not in line with Islamic faith. Political religion becomes a means for the pursuit of nonreligious ends. I keep repeating that Islamism is not Islam, yet add that Islamism is a political interpretation of this religion; in other words, it is based in Islam and does not lie outside of it. If these nuances are not properly understood, then one may make the mistake of conceiving Islamism merely as an instrumental abuse of Islam. In my three decades of research on Islamism, I have talked with a great number of Islamists throughout the world, and I know that they honestly perceive themselves as true believers. Their reference to Islam is not merely instrumental.

The politicization by which Islam is transformed into the political religion of Islamism is the core issue that emerges in a crisis-ridden social situation. Consider, for instance, its effect on Islam's claim to universality. The politicization of this universalism results in a political ideology of activist internationalism resembling that of internationalist communism. Both ideologies seek a remaking of the world. No wonder that Islamists, while rejecting many Western ideas (and claiming to reject all of them), borrow from communism the idea of world revolution.

The War of Ideas

For a scholar, taking the distinction between Islamism and Islam seriously is a risky thing to do. It has become common practice to hurl the charge of "Orientalism" at those who fail to comply with established taboos. Orientalism is a term popularized by the late Edward Said, who accused the West of creating an imaginary cultural space called "the Orient" in order to establish hegemony over Asian civilizations. But the issue is not only intellectual: the risks may include more existential threats. Islamism is not a club for free debate. When the scholar is a Muslim accused by Islamists of kufr, he or she may be threatened with death.

The Islamist accusation of heresy or infidelity and the scholarly accusation of Orientalism both reflect a mindset aimed at limiting thought and speech. Some people who are involved in the so-called war of ideas perceive this war as a fight between democracy and Islamist jihadism. They seem unaware that they are echoing the Arabic term harb al-afkar, which also means "war of ideas" and was coined by the Islamists themselves. The source of this concept is Sayyid Qutb, who wrote in one of his major pamphlets that a war between iman (belief) and kufr (unbelief) takes the shape of a war of ideas. Kufr becomes a label for excluding anything that is seen not to be Islamic. In Qutb's view, the fight against unbelief assumes the character of a cosmic war. He writes: "The battle between the believers and their enemies is in its substance a fight over the religious dogma and absolutely nothing else.... It is not a political or an economic conflict, but in substance a war of ideas: either true belief or infidelity is to prevail [imma iman imma kufr]." This fight defines the Islamist perspective of jihad in its new meaning of "an Islamic world revolution ... for an Islamic world peace. It is not a peace that avoids violence at any price ... for Islam is a permanent jihad ... to achieve the just order based on Islamic tenets."


Excerpted from Islamism and Islam by Bassam Tibi Copyright © 2012 by Bassam Tibi. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Bassam Tibi is Professor Emeritus of International Relations, University of Göttingen and former A. D. White Professor-at-Large, Cornell University. In 2010, he was the Resnick Scholar for the Study of Antisemitism at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is the author of three dozen previous books, including most recently Islam's Predicament with Modernity. He lives in Göttingen, Germany.


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