Islamism (Political Islam)

AK Party poster after the parliamentary elections in 2007 in Turkey. The poster says "thank you Turkey" and could be found everywhere in Turkey. This one is from Gaziantep, Ekim Caglar, July 2007. CC 3.0

AK Party poster after the parliamentary elections in 2007 in Turkey. The poster says “thank you Turkey” and could be found everywhere in Turkey. This one is from Gaziantep, Ekim Caglar, July 2007. CC 3.0

Islamism (Political Islam)

There has been a great deal of attention and discussion around the topic if Islamism, or Political Islam in recent years. While much of this increased since the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, the topic of Islamism is one that spans back decades. In this article, we will discuss the roots of Political Islam and Islamist movements, discuss the different theoretical foundations of these political movements, and also address a number of misconceptions with regards to what is Political Islam (and equally important, what is not Political Islam). Then, we will also briefly discuss some of the Islamist movements in the world that include the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the Jordan Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, the Justice and Development Party, among many others. While this article will primarily discuss the topic of Political Islam, we have linked to many other articles on the website that goes into more detail with regards to specific Islamist movements or political organizations.

What is Islamism? (What is Political Islam)?

One of the more important questions with regards to the issue of Islamism is “what is Islamism”, or similarly, “what is Political Islam?” Political Islam is the idea that Islam not only has a spiritual importance with regards to how one lives their own life, but also the notion that Islam has a place in the state. For Political Islamists, there is no separation between “Mosque and state.” Rather, to them, the government, domestic politics (and arguably international relations as well) should be governed by Islam.

History of Political Islam

There were a number of points that one could look at to argue the establishment and then advancement of political Islam.

In 1928, a Egyptian school teacher by the name of Hassan al-Bannah founded an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood. This organization was created out of the political contexts in Egypt and in the Middle East. At that time, British (and French) colonialism was widespread in not only North Africa, but the Middle East, Subsaharan Africa, etc… In Egypt, the British government, not only controlled the Suez Canal, collected money from Egypt’s debt to the empire, but also put in place officers who viewed the Egyptians and the Arabs in the Middle East as inferior to the British. This racism, coupled with repressive policies frustrated the Egyptians greatly.

In addition, The King (King Fuad) at the time worked with the British government, which further alienated many in the society. Meanwhile, throughout Egypt and the Middle East, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the notion of Islam as a governing force highly contested. Take the exams of Turkey and Iran. In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk pushed a strong secular program in the country, one highly critical of Islam in politics. The Shah in Iran had a similar policy. Even in Egypt, the King and others highlighted pre-Islamic Egyptian society. Islam throughout the region was being minimized. The Muslim Brotherhood arose out of the frustration with notions of corruption, colonialism, as well as a lack of seriousness towards what they viewed as Islamic principles.

However, the increase in the “Islamic revival” as some called it was much more prevalent in the politics of the 1950s and 1960s and then an increase in Political Islamic movements from then onwards. Much of this actually had to do with the non-Islamist political movements at the time, none of them greater than Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism ideology. Nasser minimized the role of religion in Egypt and elsewhere, emphasizing instead Arab unity. This ideology was very popular in the region. Nasser was viewed in very high regard.

However, in 1967, Nasser and Egypt were devastated when they lost a war to Israel in six days. This defeat all but ended the influence of Arab nationalism. As a response, the Islamist movements began to increase in influence. Along with this event, Esposito argues that other events throughout these couple of decades further led to an increased Islamist revivalist position. Esposito notes that in addition to the Six-Day War, other events that are important to note included: “1969 Malay-Chinese riots in Kualalumpur reflecting the growing tension between the Malay Muslim majority and a significant Chinese minority. (3) The Pakistan-Bangladesh civil war of 1971-72 heralding the failure of Muslim nationalism. (4) The Lebanese Civil war (1975-90), among whose causes were the inequitable distribution of political and economic power between Christians and Muslims, which led to the emergence of major Shia groups: AMAL and the Iranian inspired and backed Hizbollah. (5) The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, a pivotal event with long term global impact and implications for the Muslim world and the West. (6) The Arab-Israeli conflict that spawned its own Islamist movements, among them HAMAS and Islamic Jihad, which grew in strength during the Intifada In the 1980s.” Events like the Iranian Revolution where used to not only criticize notions of Western economic development (Esposito), but also the lack of God as a centerpiece of society.

Misconceptions about Islamism

There are a series of misconceptions surrounding the idea of Islamism or Political Islam. Some of the following misconceptions that need to be addressed are the following.

Islamists do not interpret Islamic law the same way. Their understanding of Islam and Islamic law even differs within the parties (and/or political Islamist movements) themselves. This was quite evident in the events following the Arab uprisings. After Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Ennahda in Tunisia gained power through elections, there was a negotiation (even within the parties) of what the future of the state, and the positions of the parties would look like. They debated issues such as how much Shariah would exist in society, what would that look like, would Islam be mentioned in the state constitutions, as well as other questions about issues related to gender rights, religious minorities, etc…

In fact, there has also been debates on the actual amount of Islam that these Political Islamist groups will actually push. Part of the reason for this discussion (and often, division within party members) has to do with what Wright (2012) says is the “reality over religion.” While the Islamists came into politics thinking they were going to advance a strong agenda of religion in government, many have come to quickly realize that most members of society care not for such matters, but rather, are primarily concerned with economic issues (which includes access to employment).

Another point that we have to make with regards to Islamist parties has to do with the discussions about these groups and violence. Despite what people think, all Islamists are not violent. The idea of political Islam is merely the idea of wanting Islam in government. There is nothing that says an Islamist group is or has to advocate violence.

Now, while some Islamist groups are clearly violent (Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Ansar al-Shariah, Boko Haram), many other Islamist groups are clearly non-violent. These groups include but are not limited to the Justice and Development Party in Turkey (AKP), the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, Justice and Charity (Morocco), Ennahda (Tunisia), and the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt). These latter Islamist groups have worked within the democratic electoral structure in order to gain seats and power. In fact, many of the world’s different Islamist parties have renounced violence. As Wright (2012) notes: “most of the fifty [Islamist] parties now engaged in politics have renounced terrorist tactics.” He goes on to say that while there are exceptions, “…virtually all Islamist parties condemn the political absolutism of al Qaeda franchises, which Islamists recognize have discredited their faith and made life more difficult for the faithful. Indeed, militants have murdered far more Muslims than Westerners [who are non-Muslim]” (2).

Another misconception of political Islam is related to the goals and scope of these organizations. Despite what some may believe, Islamist groups do not all have a global agenda. There is a belief among some that these political Islamist groups all want to dominate global politics, that they all want to eventually install Shariah as a world governance system. This is simply not true. Even many of the violent Islamist groups are rather localized. Their interests are the politics of their country, or sometimes, their greater region. But many of the groups are focused on what is transpiring in their own country, and they are not looking to instill a greater transnational Islamic governance system. Now, there are some groups that fit within the category (Al Qaeda, the Islamic State). But for the most part, these different political entities are looking for ways to increase Islam within their own socio-political state.

Related to this, it is important to note that these groups are not working in tandem with one another. These groups are not united in their political alliances based on Islam, but rather, have varied political and social interests. Some groups work together, when it suits them. Other times, when their political interests conflict, then they will often conflict. For example, violent Islamist groups Hizb-ut-Tahir and the Islamic State are not unified in Syria, nor is Ansar al-Shariah and ISIS in Libya. The former groups have more loyalties to Al-Qaeda, which sees the Islamic State as a political threat to their influence as a violent jihadist group. Similarly among the non-violent Islamists, the actions of the AKP in Turkey are of little interests to Islamists in Malaysia or Indonesia. Now, Islamist groups can form international networks, coordinating on issues such as Islamic education or social program approaches, but it is not a necessary and sufficient condition for these groups.

Along with a lack of unified global agenda, Islamists also have different local objectives and strategies. It is important to note that these interests often have developed based upon the conditions of society. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute explains in this video below, Islamist objectives have varied.

This can mean not only goals (what sort of Islam groups want in the country), or even strategies (whether they move to moderation or more towards violence). Interestingly, Islamist groups have also taken different approaches during things such as the 2010-2011 democratic uprisings in the Middle East. For example, As Muedini points out in his article “The Role of Religion in the Arab Spring,” Islamist parties decided how they would act during the uprisings based on a number of factors which included but were not limited to the how close they were with the ruling regime, the level of concern they had for repression following anti-government activities, as well as their projections for post-regime electoral success.

Islam and Democracy: One other related misconception about Islamist groups is that all of them renounce the democratic process. Again, some have historically viewed (and currently see) democracies as “man-made” or “Western” and thus unacceptable to them. However, many more Islamist groups have not only seen a compatibility between Islam and Democracy, but have also worked within that electoral system. In fact, the debate as to whether Islam could operate within a democracy was questioned in the early periods of the “Islamic revival,” but in recent decades, many of the Islamists not only argued that a compatibility was there, but they began to mobilize to contest the ruling regimes in these elections. Moreover, once some of them have gained seats in government, they have shown a willingness to work with non-Islamist groups (2012).

One other misconception centers on the more idea of religion and politics. For many, they have a mistaken belief that Islam is the only religion that has within it political movements. However, this is not the case. Various religious traditions have political-religious movements that have attempted to advance religion in the political sphere. While we have terms like Political Islam or Islamism, one could equally argue that a term such as Political Christianity or Political Hinduism would be equally fitting. In fact, there are many Christian parties in Europe, Hindu-based parties in India, Political parties concentrated on Judaism in Israel, etc… The relationship between political and religion is far from  unique to Islam.

Then, if this is the case, why do we spend so much time focusing on Islamism as opposed to these other similar religious parties within other faith traditions? Ayoob argues that “…Most other religio-political movements either emanate from Western societies or, like the Hindu manifestation of politicized religion, do not challenge Western hegemony, but seek rather to accommodate themselves to it. However, Islamists stubbornly refuse to accept the current distribution of power in the international system as either legitimate or permanent. Islamist movements, including the vast majority that work peacefully within existing political systems, continue in multi-farious ways to challenge not only the domestic status quo but the international status quo as well” (10). Now, it is not that they are looking to push this notion of Islamic Law throughout the world. Rather, many of these parties were built on not only Islamic principles, but they were also founded during colonialism, and as a protest movement to Western (or non domestic) foreign policies. Thus, it has been argued that some “Islamists manipulate this general sense of disenchantment and anger to advance their own agendas against American-supported regimes in the Muslim world” (Ayoob, 2004: 11).


In this article, we have examined the idea of Islamism (Political Islam) in the context of domestic politics and international relations. We have examined the history of Political Islam, as well as having addressed misconceptions about Islamism. We recommend that you read our other pages on groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, the PJD in Morocco, the different Islamist actors in the Libyan Civil War, etc…



Ayoob, M. (2004).Political Islam: Image and Reality. World Policy Journal. Fall 2004, pages 1-14.

Esposito, J. Claiming the Center: Political Islam in Transition. Harvard International Review.

Hamid, S. Temptations of Power. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press.

Muedini, F. (2014). The Role of Religion in the “Arab Spring”: Comparing the Actions and Strategies of the Islamist Parties. Oxford Handbooks Online. July 2014, pages 1-13.

Wright, R. (2012). Chapter 1: The Middle East: They’ve Arrived, pages 1-12. in The Islamists are Coming: Who They Really Are. April, 2012. Washington, D.C. Brookings.