Far from being politically static, Muslim-majority countries today (more than 50 globally) reflect an evolving approach to the relationship between religion and state. This means that if the international community wants to support positive change in the Muslim world, it needs to better understand these political nuances.
Religion remains important in many nations, so there must be space for moderate Muslim politics to exist, not only for moral reasons, but also to oppose Islamist extremism.
Since the 1970s, violent expressions of political Islam have impacted the world. These movements have collectively become known as “Islamists”, denoting an extremist, politicised interpretation of Islam grounded in revolutionary ideological zeal. The term “Islamism” is often used interchangeably with “political Islam”. However, since all religions are inherently political, maintaining a valid space for Muslim politics is key to enabling people to bring their deeply held values into this realm – just as believers in other major religions do.
While Islamists claim to entirely represent political Islam, speaking on behalf of all Muslims, they must not be permitted to monopolise the discussion. This is why religious moderates, especially those engaged with politics, must not vacate this space and cede it to the Islamists. This often happens in geopolitical conflict, with militant Islamists influencing Muslims because there are no moderate Muslim voices offering peaceful and conciliatory approaches. Muslims who want to engage with legitimate political issues must have access to a third way that sits between the irreligious and fanatics.
This report proposes moderate Muslim politics as this third way. It exists in practice but needs to be strengthened. One way to achieve this is to underpin it with a compelling analytical framework, presented later in the report.
Islamism Is Not the Same as Political Islam
While various Muslim leaders have articulated visions of Islam in recent times, from Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf to Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, there remains a need for frameworks that better integrate it into the modern world – and answer the popular slogans of Islamists.
How can mainstream Islam reclaim major narratives to enable a tolerant, inclusive representation of Islam and politics in the modern world? This report introduces a rigorous framework that defines the spectrum of political Islam more accurately and distinguishes this term from its most extreme example, Islamism. Our analysis shows that:
Islam is not unique or exceptional among religions in having political aspects.
There are many versions of Muslim politics, ranging from confessional Muslim states to Islamic religious nationalism and the most extreme representation – Islamism.
With several Muslim-majority democracies included within this spectrum, it becomes easier to recognise the compatibility of Islam with democratic principles.
To progress the global debate, this report makes two contributions:
We define political Islam more precisely, with Islamism identified as an extreme subset. This not only allows for more accurate discussions around both terms but also more precisely sets out the parameters for modern Muslim politics.
We introduce a framework that not only tracks the evolving dynamics between Islam and politics, but also functions as a new tool with which to predict the future direction that Muslim-majority countries could take.
Islamism is totalitarian, holding that religion should determine everything, overseen by an essentially Leninist concept of leadership, with edicts handed down by a “central committee”. The current supreme leaders of Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan are examples of this. Moderate Muslim politics is the Muslim community offering society guidance, based on the values and ethics of Islam. It seeks influence, not conformity; persuasion, not prescription; to be a voice, respected on its merits, but not the only voice and not enforced by the power of the state.
Our report shows that Islamism is the result of the total fusion of religion and politics in which the former dominates the latter. While Muslim theology has generally accepted that the Prophet Muhammad’s original example in Medina involved a total fusion, whether this can be replicated today is a central question for Muslims. Islamism – as represented today by Khomeinist Iran, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) – is inherently destructive in believing it can fully recreate the prophetic reality on Earth through violence. Furthermore, this narcissism has led directly to appalling instances of religious extremism resulting in horrific terrorism and violence, sometimes sponsored at state level.
On the other hand, political Islam is more variable, corresponding to either a partial overlap or fusion of religion and politics – or somewhere in between, with the result being parity of religion and politics or dominance of religion over politics. It is a spectrum, with Islamism an extreme expression. The polar opposite to Islamism is radical republicanism, best represented in the Muslim world by Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey or Habib Bourguiba’s Tunisia.
Real-World Case Studies
Case studies, on post-independence Egypt, Pakistan and Tunisia, highlight the dynamism of Muslim politics as practiced today. Using their constitutions as a guide, the same framework is applied to Muslim countries in general to identify that:
The largest current groupings fit within liberal secularism (18 countries) and religious nationalism (14 countries).
The liberal-secular countries comprise two types: former French colonies in West Africa and former Soviet states in Central Asia.
Using the framework’s predictive function, we see that if religious forces in liberal-secular Muslim countries become stronger, it is likely these countries will move to a concept known as civil religion; however, if religion declines, those countries are likely to move to radical republicanism.
In our view, civil religion is the best outcome for countries transitioning to a post-Islamism state while Islamist clerocracy (or theocracy) is the worst.
The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries currently fall into the category of religious monarchy, which means they are Muslim nations in which monarchy is the primary source of authority, with Islam as the official state religion.
While continuing to espouse Islam as a core part of national identity, many of these countries are becoming more religiously plural, with diversity increasingly celebrated.
Religious nationalism continues to be a force in Muslim democracies, such as Turkey and Pakistan
This report presents an open framework, not a detailed prescription. The approach is primarily designed to support the foundations of modern societies and oppose Islamist extremists. The latter have declared war on the former, becoming a threat and destabilising force around the world with large-scale, violent terrorist attacks on government institutions as well as civil society since 9/11.
The approach is also designed to cultivate a model of moderate Muslim politics for a post-Islamism world. An exit ramp, if you will. A model of Muslim civil religion that mirrors the United States under former President Barack Obama could be a strong force for a pluralist, civilisational Islam of the future and has the potential to become a future flagship of a post-Islamist world.
Why the International Community Needs a Better Understanding
What are the implications of this analysis both for the international community and countries of the Muslim world?
Our approach calls for an acceptance of the reality and legitimacy of moderate Muslim politics, while continuing to resist Islamism.
Muslim-majority countries that are liberalising but in which Islamism remains a threat need careful policymaking and support to ensure that social, political and external factors do not push them into the dangerous, adjacent category of Islamist clerocracy, which inevitably means extremist theocracy.
Civil religion is the best scenario in terms of democracy as well as the balance between the religious and the secular. For post-Islamist nations, it represents a potential model on which to settle.
Recommendations: A Third Way
To achieve a third way, the integrity and theological legitimacy of the modern world, including nation states and the international order, must be affirmed. There are four policies that can promote a healthy mixture of religion and politics. Summarised below, they are structured around the four major aspects of Islam currently contested between the extremists and moderates:[_]
Ummah (nation): Policymakers must allow Muslim communities to flourish while opposing divisive Islamist notions that pit Muslims against non-Muslims. A strong sense of nationhood is required so modern nation states must assert their values and emphasise they are shared by the major world religions and philosophies, including secular and humanist ones.
Khilafa (governance): Policymakers must be clear that khilafa in Islam refers to good governance, with the rule of law and justice tinged with mercy. Attempts to insist on khilafa as a resurrection of medieval and obsolete caliphates or Islamist states must be uncompromisingly resisted.
Sharia (law and ethics): Policymakers must be clear that the sharia in Islam refers to ethics. Medieval details of sharia must be modernised by drawing upon centuries of sophisticated jurisprudence and the intrinsic diversity of Muslim interpretations that have included dozens of schools of law. Attempts to insist on a single fundamentalist, literalist, mindless interpretation of sharia must be resisted at all costs.
Jihad (struggle): Policymakers must be clear that contemporary Islamic scholars have agreed that jihad in the modern world includes personal and social struggles for good against evil. Even in the military sphere, jihad is a last resort that can only be waged legitimately by conventional armed forces of nation states, another reason why the integrity of the latter is so essential in the battle against Islamist extremism. Modern jihad accepts the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties on warfare.
Striking a Balance Between Denial and Alarmism
This struggle must be fought and won with the inclusion of Muslim communities worldwide. Closing down the space for debate is counterproductive. Policymakers must strike the right balance between the denials of the Islamists and their apologists within the far-left alliance and the alarmism of the far right. Ironically, both factions equate Islam with Islamism, agreeing the religion is best represented by the type of Islamist extremism pursued by the Khomeinists, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS. This is partly down to a failure by Muslims to (re)define the parameters of non-extreme Muslim politics.
As a final point, it’s worth noting that exclusivist, fundamentalist approaches to politics often result in the rule of clergy or men (clerocracy) who claim to know the mind of God, whereas inclusivist approaches are naturally pluralistic, both religiously and politically. This is why, as Obama once observed, all religions must move towards inclusivist interpretations to achieve pluralistic coexistence. The theologian Hans Kung has also famously said: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions … You have deficiencies in all religions, but you also have truth in all religions.”[_]
This report builds on Kung to demonstrate that such inclusivist interpretations of religion must also be allied with a third way. The dynamic between religion and politics is extremely powerful. It is imperative that a moderate approach is mobilised to defuse the explosive approaches of the militants and extremists.