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Politics on the move in Muslim countries

By Nayeefa Chowdhury - posted Friday, 9 September 2005

The political order of much of the Muslim world, in common with that of most of Third World countries, has been pseudo-democratic and harshly authoritarian in character. A number of ruling regimes have developed institutional shells to their own benefit, or used Islam to bolster the legitimacy of the state. For example, the exclusivist and anti-modern ethos of kingdom-sponsored religious doctrine essentially serves the ruling regime of Saudi Arabia in blocking most attempts at modernisation, providing legitimacy and virtually unlimited powers to the Saudi ruling family.

The political elites belonging to the bulk of the Muslim-majority nation-states preserve the syncretism between cosmopolitan and Islamic forms of culture and co-opt religious establishments and Islamic movements. The principal axis of the Muslim world favours non-political forms of Islam in domestic politics and a modern model of international apolitical Islamic missionary work, such as through the Sufi and tablighi jama’at groups.

The contemporary Islamist movements embody nationalist struggles against the ruling repressive regimes for social justice, liberalisation and greater political openness cloaked in a religious package that is surely capable of evoking mass mobilisation. A fringe of ‘ulama themselves speak out against the state-sponsored ‘ulama's monopoly over policy, and have abandoned the umbrella of the state to increasingly become involved in Islamo-nationalist struggles, as in the case of the Khomeini-led Iranian revolution. The impacts of post-colonial independence, the oil boom, globalisation in the world economy, advanced communications systems, migration, and socio-economic disenfranchisement have played a dominant role in the current shift of Muslim reformist movements from mimicking a classic Western model to the populist appeal of returning to indigenous values - a common impetus prevalent amid other non-Western societies.


The notion of Islamic separatism is generally attributed to the political theory of a Muslim Egyptian thinker, Sayyid Qutb, who became disillusioned with the shortcomings of post-Enlightenment rationalism shortly after World War II. The overthrow of Muslim ruling regimes was deemed justified by any means including an armed struggle (jihad), when and where a state deviated from the “true” Islamic imperatives and succumbed to Western models, which they saw as un-Islamic. Fringe groups among the separatist movements have employed extreme measures, justifying their violent actions with an ad hoc approach to interpreting the religious texts. Some analysts have drawn a parallel between the separatist Islamists and the radical Christian Protestant sects at the time of the Reformation.

As they challenge authority, separatist Islamist movements have evoked some appeal due to their ability to identify with the plight of the disenfranchised broader masses who have become disillusioned with the corruption, incompetence and immorality of authoritarian rulers. The separatist appeal naturally resonates in authoritarian non-Muslim regimes where “economic and social fault lines intersect with ethnic and religious ones”, such as Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, the Philippines, Thailand, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. In addition, as it epitomises the basic fundamentals of Islam defying any particular cultural aspect of it, the separatist ethos wins some selective appeal among the diaspora in the West. An anti-Western sentiment mounts up reciprocally to the degree that the West is perceived to be the principal international supporter of corrupt governments in the Muslim world.

The fresh experiments of some Islamist movements represent the early evolutionary phase of a quest for modern models of “Islamic governance”, and do not inherently identify with a retrogressive political order. While some of them adopt exclusivist and anti-modern agendas, the populist sentiment on Islamisation has gravitated towards an aspiration for greater participation and expansion in the political arena.

The ideal of the integration of religion and politics in classical Islamic theory have been reanimated by the Islamist ideologues that have sought reconciliation between classical Islamic theory and the demands of modernisation. They are nevertheless selective about the Western values and instruments they adopt and share similar concerns with other rising non-Muslim religious fundamentalist movements across the globe.

The Islamist political parties have sought democratic means of achieving power and have built serious coalitions with liberal opposition parties. They have also engaged in debates amongst themselves and followed a path of genuine evolution to currently form multiple parties in countries including Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Yemen.

The proponents of Islamic modernism advocate a democratic political order and pluralist civil society where no monopoly on the “correct interpretation” of sacred texts could be made possible by a ruling regime. To cite an example, the new AKP government in Turkey boasts a moderate Islamist background.


The authentic populist movements often face intense marginalisation from both the ruling regimes that fear loss of power at the prospect of liberalisation, and the Western powers, owing to clashes of socio-economic, and strategic interests.

It is well within the capacity of the Western powers to play a dominant role in halting the contemporary acceleration of the fringe Muslim militant groups that employ violent measures. This depends on the Western powers’ willingness to differentiate between a genuine and pseudo-democratic political order prevailing in certain Muslim-majority nation-states, as well as between populist and extremist Islamist movements present there. This is coupled with the Western powers’ determination to co-operate with the authentic populist movements in bringing about a more open and participatory ambience in the nation’s polity.

We should take lessons from the old tale of The Blind Men and the Elephant and learn to comprehend the coherent whole of ostensible events around us.

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About the Author

Nayeefa Chowdhury is the founding director of an Internet-based Islamic information service ( She writes in English & Bengali, and has contributed chapters to two books, also published in periodicals, including magazines, scholarly journals, and newspapers.

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