By Tufail Ahmad
06th June 2013
Islamism is a cultural and political movement aimed at eradicating secular and democratic ethos of a society in a bid to pave the way for Islamic ascendancy. It introduces exhibitionist religiosity in people’s lives: there is no issue if a woman wears a Burqa, but the problem is a body of religious and political ideas that makes her choose such a dress code. Subsequently, these ideas begin to strike at the roots of individual liberty, women’s freedom, rights of non-Muslims and a free press. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines Islamism as an “Islamic revivalist movement, often characterised by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life”. It is pertinent here to look at recent examples of how Islamism unfolds in everyday life.
In 2010, Islamists in Kerala chopped off the hand of college lecturer T J Joseph for setting a question paper which they deemed as disrespecting Prophet Muhammad. In 2011, Islamists led by Syed Ahmed Bukhari forced an exhibition on the “Koran in 53 languages”, organised by Ahmadiyya Jamaat in Delhi, to be shut. Not long ago, actor-producer Kamal Hassan was compelled by Islamists in Tamil Nadu to edit his movie Vishwaroopam for showing that jihadists recited Quranic verses before launching attacks. In May, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis led by Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam marched through Dhaka, demanding stricter blasphemy laws. Pakistani media is full of reports of Hindu girls being converted to Islam forcibly, Christians being accused of blasphemy, homes and mosques of Ahmadi Muslims being vandalised, Shias being declared infidels and murdered.
In Egypt, Islamists are targeting Christians through lawsuits, accusing them of blaspheming Islam, and liberal Muslims are quitting government jobs. In Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Islamists killed a man for selling alcohol recently. In Tunisia, Islamists desecrated Jewish cemeteries, and attacked art galleries and cinemas. In Turkey, Islamists stabbed couples who kissed in an Ankara metro station recently to protest against moral policing by Turkish authorities. To make a point, Turkey is building a $100-million mega mosque in America. Jordan is witnessing public demonstrations by Islamists. In a British prison, an Islamist inmate recruited two others to beat up guards in May. In all these cases, there is a single binding factor: Islam. The jihadists of Al-Qaeda variety and Islamists share the same ideological objectives, with the only distinction being that the former are armed and consider themselves fighting on a battlefield against infidels. Their goal is: establishing Sharia rule. Islamism is a softer face of jihadists, sometimes masquerading as liberal Islam in our midst.
Driven by an ideological longing to revive the glory of Islamic caliphate, Islamists are open to using Western tools of election, constitution and the rule of law in introducing Islam in a country’s politics, governance, literature, culture and architecture. Their tactic is to win an election, re-write a country’s constitution to make it compliant with Islam and begin Islamising. Inspired by the success of Islamists in the Arab Spring, even the Taliban are open to using referendums and elections as a tactic.
Last March, Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim, an aide to Mullah Omar, indicated that the Taliban might form a party, noting: “We must launch a political movement to achieve the goals for which we have made so many sacrifices.” Tempted by the rise of Egyptian Islamists, Barelvi scholar Tahirul Qadri returned to Pakistan last December from his self-exile in Canada to engineer a Cairo-like mass uprising in Islamabad, unsuccessfully though, to grab power. “Far from rendering Islamism unnecessary,” writes US academic John M Owen IV, “the Arab Spring has increased its credibility.”
In the past, Islamists have tried to revive the glory of Islam in the political sphere. Such efforts were dubbed as revivalism, fundamentalism, political Islam, extremist Islam, radical Islam and likewise. In the modern democratic era, Islamism is emerging as a distinct attempt to comprehend the meanings of power in all its industrial, corporate and military complexities, as signified by the West.
On the danger of Islamism in post-9/11 years, noted Islamic affairs expert Francis Robinson warns: “[Islamists] understood the issue of power, but in engaging with the West they were deemed to be willing to sacrifice too much that was essential to Islam and Muslim culture. Islamists saw the real danger as Western civilisation itself. Their real enemies were the secular or modernist elites in Muslim societies who collaborated with Western political, economic and cultural forces.”
Commenting on the phenomenon of Islamism, Mehdi Mozaffari of the University Aarhus observes: “Prior to the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1978–79, the terms ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamists’ are… practically absent from the vocabulary of newspaper reporters.” Now, Islamism is becoming vigorous. For the Islamist parties that rose to power amid the Arab Spring, a policy prototype was readily available from Iran in policies implemented after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, from Turkey where the Islamist Justice and Development Party won 2002 elections and is removing liberal influences from public life, and from Gaza where Hamas captured power through elections to impose Sharia.
In its new avatar, Islamism is also a legal attempt to redefine the relationship between Islam and the state, and between the state and citizens. In 2011, former Islamist Maajid Nawaz observed: “Islamism is the idea that seeks to implement one interpretation of Islam over the rest of society by law. Some Islamists seek to do this through politicking and others through violence.”
In the wake of Arab Spring, Cairo-based journalist Heba Saleh wrote that Islamism does not represent a “broad range of opinion” of people to evolve consensus on government policy-making. In the conception of Islamists, non-Muslim citizens are not permitted to govern or head an Islamic state. Kevin B Anderson, an expert on the Iranian Revolution, sums up: Islamism has “many features and faces, everywhere it is anti-feminist, everywhere it is authoritarian, and everywhere it is intolerant of other religions.”
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC