Islamist Movements and the Political Challenge: An Alternate Perspective

Islamist Movements and the Political Challenge: An Alternate Perspective

While on a recent visit to Delhi, I chanced upon an Urdu book whose title, Tehrik-i-Islami Ko Darpesh Siyasi Challenge (’The Political Challenges Before the Islamic Movement’, immediately attracted my attention. Written originally in Arabic by a leading Arab Islamist ideologue, Mustafa Muhammad Tahan, it is, as I discovered as I leafed through it, an interesting appeal for redefining and reappraising Islamist politics. Given the ongoing debates about Islamist politics, I felt that Tahan’s views on the subject needed to be more widely known. Hence, I undertook to summarise the basic arguments of the book in the form of this article.

Born in Lebanon in 1938, Tahan is a post-graduate in chemical engineering from the University of Istanbul, Turkey, where he played an important role in the Turkish Islamic students’ movement. He was also one of the founders of the International Islamic Federation of Students’ Organisations (IIFSO), set up in 1969, being appointed as its General-Secretary in 1980. Editor of a bi-lingual English and Arabic magazine, Tahan has authored numerous books on the Islamic movements in Arabic, many of which have been translated into other languages.  The Urdu version of Tahan’s Arabic text on Islamist politics, translated by Dr. Muhammad Sami Akhtar of the Department of Arabic, Aligarh Muslim University, and published in 1998 by Hilal Publications, Aligarh, extends to almost two hundred pages. Tahan sees the Islamist movement as a global phenomenon, speaking of it in the singular. This, of course, is not quite the case. Yet, he is not unmindful of the diversity of perspectives and policies within the broader Islamist camp itself, and it is precisely to these inner divergences that much of his attention is devoted.

Although Islamist groups share common ideological moorings, basing themselves on the Quran and the Traditions or Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, and, for the most part, advocate the cause of an Islamic state based on the Islamic law (shariat), differences have emerged among them over various issues related to policies and ‘methods of working. Of particular importance here are matters related to the use of violence, the question of women and the rights of minorities. The chief merit of Tahan’s book is that rather than ignoring these contentious issues or glossing them away, it deals with them head-on, not hesitating to critique certain groups for what are seen as serious lapses on their part. I am aware of the considerable differences of views within what Tahan calls the global Islamic movement, and would perhaps not agree with him on referring to it as one. However, since the intention here is to present Tahan’s views rather than to critique them, I have chosen to describe the phenomenon as he does.


In his close involvement with the Islamic movement, first in Turkey, and then as a functionary of the International Islamic Federation of Students’ Organisations, Tahan, he tells us in the introductory chapter of his book, was confronted with several questions of crucial import, which, he felt, had not been given the attention they deserve by Islamist ideologues. His book, he says, was written with the primary purpose of addressing some of these issues, to bring about more clarity in Islamist circles. The questions that this book deals with are as follows:

1.  Does Islam allow for the existence of political parties?

2.  Is preaching (dawat-o-irshad) the only path that can lead to
peace for the Muslim community (ummah)?

3.  Is it that the political path, on the other hand, can lead only to division and strife and cause the ummah to stray away from God?

4.  Does Islam allow for Muslims to adopt the parliamentary path, given that those who adopt this path have to take an oath on the Constitution and law of their country, which are considered by some to be ‘un-Islamic’?

5.  Is it possible to co-operate with secular forces and systems that do not abide by the Islamic law?

6.  Is it possible to participate in the governance of a country in co­operation with secular political parties?

In this regard, Tahan mentions that certain leading Islamist ideologues are of the opinion that setting up of political parties is not an appropriate means for Islamic groups to strive to acquire political control. In their view, the path that the Holy Prophet Muhammad had adopted was that of ‘invitation’ (dawat), ‘preaching’ (irshad) and ‘revolution’ (inqilab). However, Tahan notes, there are many other opinions on the subject. Some assert that Islam forbids the setting up of political parties. Others believe that the entire world today is an ‘abode of war’ (dar-ul harb). Yet others insist that violence can have no place. Each group accuses the other of misinterpreting Islam, and so engages in a war of fatwas against the rest.

Tahan laments this sorry state of affairs, and points to the futility of the dissensions among the various Muslim groups. He says that the early Muslims had adopted the path of ‘invitation’ and ‘preaching’, of ‘oneness’ and ‘unity’, but today the community is torn by mutual recriminations and internecine conflict. In this context, he pleads for a renewal in and reawakening of the community as a task that urgently needs to be undertaken. Tahan locates the growing inner conflict in Muslim activist ranks to the 1950s and ‘60s in the context of the growth of other competing ideologies such as Secularism, Liberalism, Marxism and Nationalism, on the one hand, and what he calls the ‘intellectual stagnation’ in Muslim ranks, on the other. To begin with, he says, these various ideologies competed with each other and with Islam in a ‘free, civilised and progressive’ manner, but the situation drastically changed when military coups occurred in many Arab and Muslim countries and harsh dictatorships replaced the earlier regimes. Political parties were banned and all democratic rights were seriously curtailed. This situation created a wave of fear and terror among the masses. At this time, says Tahan, it was only the Islamist groups which mobilized popular opposition to the regimes in power. As more people began being attracted to Islamist groups, Tahan writes, other forces began an earnest attempt to discredit them. He says that it is in this context that the growth of ‘extremism’ (intiha pasandi) among certain Islamist groups must be understood. He sees this development as a ‘conspiracy’ hatched by forces inimical to the Islamic cause.

The aim of his book, says Tahan, is to discuss the many challenges that contemporary Islamist movements are face-to-face with. He divides these into the following categories:

1. The Political Challenge

Tahan cautions Islamic activists that this challenge is immense and must be clearly and seriously considered. ‘Without fully understanding the political context’, Tahan says, ‘Islamic groups cannot attain their goals’.

2. The Democratic Challenge

This centres on issues such as human rights, freedom, political factionalism, democratic elections, political parties, political alliances and the role of women in political affairs. Tahan notes that these issues have not been properly thought out by Islamic scholars, who, he says, have little acquaintance with social realities. Such important issues, he writes, need to be carefully understood in the light of ‘wisdom’ (hikmat), the teachings of religion and knowledge of the affairs of the contemporary world. This requires ‘knowledge’ as well as awareness of ‘truth’, ‘pragmatism’ and understanding of the dictates of the shariat. Unfortunately, he says, many Islamists have failed to appreciate this and so have ‘fallen victim to extremism’, so much so that ‘this has given force to the argument of the anti-Islamic forces that Islam and terrorism are synonymous’.

3. The Extremist Challenge

Tahan bitterly critiques those who ‘claim to be lovers of Islam’ but who at the same time insist that ‘violent extremism’ is an integral part of the Islamic Call, arguing that Islam allows for the spilling of innocent blood, which they label a jihad. He says that this argument is completely ‘false’, and that it has ‘rendered irreparable damage’ to the Islamist movements, more so, in fact, than the efforts of the ‘anti-Islamic’ forces. Tahan also mentions in passing the other challenges that he sees Islamist groups today having to contend with, including Western imperialism, growing regionalism and racial, sectarian and ethnic conflicts and the problem of ethnic and religious minorities. Islamist movements are active today in many countries, notes Tahan. Some of them are local or regional in their scope, while others are global. Despite their common agenda, there appears to be a lack of understanding among many of them. While some do work in tandem with similar groups, others believe that they alone are on the ‘true path’ and go to the extent of branding others as ‘disbelievers’ (kafir).

At the outset, Tahan clearly says that he does not wish to get involved in this controversy, for, he says, he believes that the ‘global Islamic movement’ is broad enough to include ‘all individuals and groups working for the cause of Islam’. He describes it as encompassing all groups which are local, regional as well as international, every government agency working for spreading Islamic awareness, organisations involved in providing social services to Muslims, Islamic political parties, Islamic students’ movements and Sufi groups engaged in Islamic missionary work. It is not linked to any particular school of thought (maslak), nor is it the ‘monopoly’ of any particular community, sect or group. In this context, Tahan forcefully rebuts the claims of some Islamic groups that they alone are true followers of Islam and are thus the only true representatives of the Muslims. He notes with dismay the fact that ‘by and large’ the mutual relations between different Islamic groups are characterised by conflict and suspicion. Tahan pleads for these groups to ‘open their hearts wide to one another’. He sees the root cause of this conflict in ‘groupism’ (asabiyyat) and ‘prejudice’, which can only be overcome through good-will and fear of God. He points out that differences between different groups on minor matters of the interpretation of Islam (furui masail) are but natural, while they all agree on the basic elements of the faith. Differences on minor matters, he argues, should in no way come in the way of reaching a broader unity and understanding between different Muslim groups, for all Muslims are united by a common faith in Islam. When differences arise they need to be sorted out through discussion and dialogue in an environment of ‘sincerity, brotherhood and love’. The various Islamic groups should try to sort out their differences, not magnify them, and should not let divergences on matters of jurisprudence (fiqh) and sect lead to internecine conflict.

Tahan says that divergences on jurisprudential affairs are ‘natural’, but these should not be used as a pretext to spread hatred and conflict or spawn new sects on this basis. Islam, he says, allows for freedom of thought and ‘holds knowledge and those who possess it in the highest esteem’. Hence, he argues, all differences should be settled on the basis of a free exchange of ideas. He says that differences may continue to exist even after that, but, despite this, the various Islamic groups should remain united on the basis of their common aims. In this regard, Tahan warns Islamic activists that they must desist from hurling accusations and false allegations against each other. Issuing fatwas of disbelief against each other must be strongly resisted, for, Tahan says, Islamic activists are ‘missionaries’ (dais), not judges (qazis)’. Islamic groups must reform their attitudes and policies vis-a-vis each other and appreciate the fact that all groups and individuals working for the progress and spread of Islam have their legitimate space. They must also begin to cooperate with one another on maters of mutual concern. For this purpose, they must form a common platform and a common advisory body (shura), through which important issues concerning Muslims can be debated, after which common policies can be adopted by them all. In the absence of such consensual means, says Tahan, it is impossible for the Islamic groups to attend the objectives that they are working for.

The Aims of the Islamist Movement

Most contemporary Islamist movements, notes Tahan, came into existence in the early twentieth century, particularly after the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, in place of which a secular, Westernising regime came to power in Turkey. At this time, Western imperialist powers were effectively in control of almost all Muslim and Arab lands, and in order to consolidate their rule, they aggressively promoted a process of Westernisation, particularly through the educational system. Students from these countries went for their higher education to Western countries, where deeply influenced by such ideologies as Secularism, Liberalism and Socialism. On their return home, they ardently propagated the view that the development of their countries was possible only through a complete adoption of Western culture and by abandoning Islam. It was in this context and as a response to this challenge that the contemporary Islamic movement emerged, Tahan writes. One of the basic aims of Islamist movements, Tahan says, is to restore to the Muslims their lost confidence and to instill in them a love for and pride in Islam and a spirit of activist dedication to the Islamic cause, for which they would be ready to sacrifice their all. Another principal objective of the Islamist movements, as they emerged in the 1950s, was to liberate Muslim lands from Western imperialism. Such groups thus played an important role in liberation struggles against European colonial powers in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Nigeria, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Indonesia, etc..

The Political Challenge

Tahan notes that among the various Islamic groups active in the world today, there are some which completely shun political involvement as ‘the snare of the devil’, and focus, instead, simply on personal piety. He sees this as a form of escapism which has no sanction in Islam, and as only helping strengthen those forces that stand to gain from the status quo, such as ruling elites in Muslim countries and their Western masters. Islam, says Tahan, covers every aspect of a believer’s personal as well as social life, and this includes politics as well. There is no contradiction between worship (ibadat) and politics (siyasat)’ in Islam, so he argues. Given this understanding of Islam as a comprehensive or total way of life, it was but natural that Islamist movements would face fierce opposition from ruling regimes as well as conservative religious elements. While the former tried to suppress them by force, the latter, says Tahan, attempted to counter their growing influence by hurling accusations against and fuelling suspicions about them. In this way, the conservative religious stablishment was used by the ruling regimes to at bolster their authority and to stave off the challenge that the Islamist movements posed at the political level.

To be actively involved in political affairs, as Islamist movements
are, says Tahan, in no way means that the cultural intellectual and spiritual dimensions of the Islam are ignored. Rather, he says, all these are to be found in right measure in what he calls a ‘balanced Islamic movement activist’. In other words, the Islamic agenda is not, as some allege, simply a means to grab political power in the name of religion. A true Muslim is necessarily political, says Tahan, for he must have a clear understanding of the problems of the Muslim community and must constantly be concerned with solving them. Many books have been written on the issue of Islam and politics, but, Tahan notes, some basic issues of contemporary concern are yet to be explored in these writings. He says that one reason for this is that Muslim scholars have committed the’ mistake of ‘going beyond the limit’ in searching for parallels in Muslim history, and have failed to mould those past parallels and principles in the light of the present-day context.  ‘So sacrosanct have they considered past thinking that they want to recreate that in its entirety today”, without attempting to refashion that thought in the light of the contemporary situation. In this way, he says, many Islamist ideologues have failed to present the Islam as a political system capable of meeting the challenges of changing times and conditions. What is needed, he says, is to draw’ inspiration from the past, but, at the same time, to view the models of the past in their own specific historical contexts. The inspiration from the past must be ‘balanced with a realistic understanding of present-day realities’ in order to fashion a political system that can respond to changing conditions ‘on the basis of debate, research, renewal and reform’, he stresses.

The Islamic political system that Tahan proposes is based on freedom, equality, justice and respect for the rule of law. The responsibility of the ruler is to implement the laws of Allah. He is answerable to the Muslim community, which has the right to guide him if he goes astray or even to remove or replace him if he fails to fulfill his responsibilities. The ruler is assisted by a council of advisors. Political parties, including organised
opposition parties, would be allowed to exist and function, freedom of expression and political rights for all would be guaranteed and the state’s attitude towards issues like women’s rights, the distribution of wealth, economic policies, etc., would be clearly spelled out.

In this regard, Tahan says that there are some crucial questions that Islamic scholars must urgently seek to grapple with:

1.  What is the definite structure of the Islamic political

2.  What are its unique characteristics that set it apart from
other political systems?

3.  To what degree do other political systems share features
in common with that of Islam?

4.  Can the Islamic political system
take advantage of human experience?

5.  What is the role of the consultative body in the-Islamic political system?

6.  What role does shura play in the election of the ruler and in solving the problems of the Muslim community?

7.  What conditions apply to the ruler of the Islamic state?

8.  How is he chosen?

9.  Will he be elected for life or can he also be removed from office?

10.  What are his rights and responsibilities?

11.  What are the foundations of governance and political activity in the Islamic state?

12.  What is the relation between the judiciary, executive and the ruler in the Islamic state?

13.  How can a political culture be developed that will enable
people to be ‘politically trained’ so as to develop a
comprehensive understanding of social and political affairs?

14.  How can a climate of freedom of expression, constructive criticism
and dialogue be developed in order to bring into being this
political culture?

The Islamic political system is based on ‘politically conscious’ Muslims nurtured in an ideal political culture, Tahan says. Islamic political consciousness, he opines, is based on a deep understanding of historical and contemporary events and situations, critical insight and a passionate commitment to change conditions, win freedom and solve the many problems that afflict society.

The Challenge of Democracy

Democracy, notes Tahan, has been denigrated and condemned in much Islamist literature in recent times. It is presented as a system wherein it is the people themselves who make their own laws, while in Islam the actual law-maker is God.  Hence, several Islamist activists forcefully argue that democracy is a ‘kafir system’. Tahan seeks to critically examine this position, without, he says, attempting to ‘distort Islam’ or to promote Western thought or to project what others have called as ‘Islamic Democracy’ or ‘Islamic Liberalism’.  He writes that there are only two systems of governance in the contemporary world: democracy and dictatorship.  In the former, human beings and protection of their rights occupy a place of central importance, while in dictatorships there is no such consideration for the individual’s rights. In such a context, asks Tahan, what should the position of Islamist activists be?

. Tahan sees democracy, insofar as it champions basic human rights, human freedom, parliamentary elections, existence of opposition parties, freedom of dissent, political participation of women, protection of and equal rights and opportunities for religious and ethnic minorities, the possibility of peaceful change of governments and peaceful coexistence between different political parties and communities, as similar in many respects to Islam. Tahan’s conception of democracy sharply contrasts with the sort of ‘democracy’ that the West has sought to impose in Muslim and other ‘third-world countries. He bitterly critiques the West for its hypocrisy on the issue of democracy and human rights, seeing these as mere slogans used to bolster Western hegemony over the rest of the world. What happened to the West’s claims to championing democracy and freedom, he asks, when it conquered lands in Asia and Africa and shed the blood of millions in the name of its ‘civilising mission’? Can the West’s protestations about democracy be at all taken seriously when it spares no efforts to bolster pro-Western dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world, to crush all attempts at challenging such regimes, and to defend Israel, which has forced an entire people out of their own homeland? Where, he questions, were the Western champions of Democracy when the election results in Algeria, which brought the Islamic opposition to power with a thumping majority, were suddenly annulled by the country’s military dictators? Did not the West whole-heartedly support this, and then go on to assist the Algerian authorities to crush the Islamist movement with brutal force, resulting in the tragic death of thousands of innocent people?

Tahan sees no contradiction between his understanding of Islam and the basics of ‘true democracy’, as he defines it. He sees the confusion about the relation between the two as having much to do with the West’s apprehensions of its control over the Muslim world being increasingly challenged through political participation by Islamic groups. He writes that as Islamic political parties began participating in elections, as in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia, and rapidly grew in popularity and strength, the West, fearful of its loosening stranglehold on Muslim countries, began a propaganda crusade against Islam, branding it as an enemy of democracy, and, at the same time, promoted wrong, world-renouncing interpretations of Islam that see Islam as prohibiting Muslims from participating in elections or even to ‘think about politics’. How can Islamic groups be seen as challenges to democracy in the Muslim world, asks Tahan, when almost all the governments in these countries which they are struggling against are themselves brutal anti-democratic dictatorships bolstered up by an equally anti-democratic West? Most Islamist groups, he notes, are themselves fighting for human rights and political freedoms, which are the cornerstones of democracy.

Since many Muslims want to be governed by Islam, says Tahan, democracy demands that they be allowed to do so and that Islamic political systems be established in Muslim-majority countries where the majority of the populace wants to live under an Islamic political dispensation. In the light of this, he says there is no contradiction between the Islamic movement and the majoritarian rule principle that is the foundation of democracy as it is generally defined. The concept of shura or consultation is a central one in Islam, he says, and it is a mechanism that allows for people’s participation in governance. The Quran, he notes, enjoins upon Muslims to settle their affairs through mutual consultation. The principle of shura is binding on all, including even the head of the state and the leaders of the Islamist movements. For this it is essential that political parties, including the opposition, be allowed to freely function. Tahan then discusses in detail certain basic principles of democracy and Islam to see where they differ and where they agree. Basic human rights, a cornerstone of democracy, Tahan says, are clearly spelled out in the Quran and the Hadith,
the sayings of and reports about the Prophet Muhammad. Islam upholds the dignity of Man as a creature of God. The Quran repeatedly stresses that Muslims should abide by the rules of justice and piety, and refrain from evil and oppression. Every human being, irrespective of religion or ethnicity, Tahan says, is dear to God. God has granted all people the same basic faculties so that they can all play their role in the construction and
development of society. Likewise, God has also given all people certain basic human rights, which are not a favour bestowed on them by any worldly ruler that can be snatched away at will. Rather, these rights are inherent to human beings and have been clearly laid down in the Islamic shariat.

Tahan here reminds his readers that Quran insists ‘There is no compulsion in religion’. This lays the foundation for religious freedom, and in this way, says Tahan, the religion and religious susceptibilities of non-Muslims are protected. ‘No Muslim has the right to mock the religious beliefs or laws of non-Muslims’, he declares, adding that ‘In Islam every person qua human being is worthy of respect’. A non-Muslim living in an ‘Islamic system’ is ‘under the protection of Islam’, and so ‘must be given equal protection’ unless he commits such a heinous crime that merits the withdrawal of such protection. As creatures of the one God and as children of the same primordial parents, Adam and Eve, all people, Tahan writes, deserve respect as human beings, whichever religion they might happen to follow. This principle of respect for life should inspires Muslims to crusade ‘against every oppression’ and to protect life, for to save one human life from wanton killing is like saving the entire, humankind. As the Quran says, the wrongful killing of just one person is tantamount to killing the whole human race. Islam calls for freedom of thought and for education for all. On the economic front it calls for the protection of the rights of the poor. In this regard, the large-scale violations of human rights in many Muslim countries, says Tahan, has nothing to do with what he sees as normative Islam. To the contrary, it owes itself to wrong interpretations of Islam or to ignoring the commandments of Islam altogether.

Human Rights and the Islamic Movement

Given the centrality of human rights in Islam, Tahan says that it is of ‘urgent importance’ that Islamist groups clearly spell out their stand on the subject and then act on those principles. Islamists, Tahan insists, must extend freedom of thought and freedom to enjoy human rights to all.  No person, says Tahan, can be denied his basic human rights simply because of his beliefs or views or because he is a political opponent. Islamic groups must under no circumstances support dictatorial regimes that heap oppression on the masses and resort to slaughtering their opponents. An important question in this regard is the proper attitude of the Islamic groups vis-a-vis other forces who are also in the forefront of the struggle for the promotion of human rights. Tahan mentions in this context the instance of the. Prophet Muhammad, who instructed some of the early Muslims of Mecca to seek refuge from the persecution of the Quraish by migrating to Christian Ethiopia, because the king of Ethiopia, although not a Muslim, was a just ruler. This suggests, he notes, that Muslims can indeed cooperate with other people of goodwill in crusading against oppression.

One of the most complex issues in the human rights debate relating to Islam is the position of non-Muslims in an ‘Islamic state’. Tahan says that there are clear instructions about the issue in the Quran and in the Traditions of the Prophet. He refers here to the pact that the Prophet signed with the non-Muslims of Medina which formed an integral part of the constitution of the first ever Islamic polity. Under the terms of the pact, the non-Muslims were entitled to full protection and were assured that they would n