Ideological Mobilization in the Muslim World

Ideological Mobilization in the Muslim World

Proceedings of a joint IPS-Stimson Centre international workshop *

Policy Perspectives , Volume6 , Number1, January – June 2009


[Religion as the basis of political ideology should be carefully distinguished from religion as a marker of identity that may in turn be the basis of political action. Islam’s vision has from the outset been a universal one, and its aspiration as well as the scope of its early history a transnational one. The Muslim world is targeted not because it is Muslim, but because it is weak. National political movements professedly based on Islam are predominantly political and only secondarily religious. In the Muslim world secularism is equated with despotic regimes under western sponsorship. In the welter of dialogues between Islam and the west, exercises of the present kind have distinct value by virtue of discussing practical issues of governance and contemporary dialogues bring together westerners with a role in policy making Muslims who are purely intellectuals. Colonialism destroyed indigenous institutions of social cohesion in Muslim societies, and even in the post-colonial era the lack of authentically Islamic social and cultural institutions left an opening for armies and bureaucracies. Muslim societies should make their own judgments about the nature of the threat and the optimal response to it, rather than being dictated to by the west.  – Ed.]

The concept that the Muslim World is not a unified, monolithic, single minded group of people and that it comprises diverse ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, cultural and ideological entities can hardly be over emphasized. However, it is also a fact that the basic tenets of Islamic teachings encompassing the individual and collective life (society and State) provide the Muslim World a common Identity.

It is, therefore, imperative to understand the areas, factors, elements and causes of deviations and divergences from the basic Islamic fundamentals; to analyze the efforts that are and have been made in this regard; and to find solutions to the problems of the contemporary Muslim World. It is also essential to examine and investigate the similarities and divergences between the basic Islamic principles and modern structures of governance, as well as to scrutinize the current structures of government as an experiment in the Muslim world.

While analyzing the problems and bringing up solutions, it is also essential to understand that ideological and political mobilization varies in orientation, approach, capacity, and magnitude according to the social, economic, political and strategic situation of the region, country or peoples. This means that any investigation of these problems can not avoid the fact that diversity within a common basic framework is an important aspect to be explored, analyzed and discussed.

In this context, the following discussion focuses on the understanding of how the academia, think tanks and political leaders of the Muslim World analyze the current national and international political dynamics with reference to the Muslim World, what the opinion makers, policy experts and decision makers in the West in particular and the world in general could make use of while formulating an approach towards the Muslim World and how to bridge the gap between images and reality, journalistic vocabulary and ideological currents and political objectives and responses of the masses. The following themes characterized the discussion:

Western and US (Mis) Understanding

There is a fundamental failure by the West to understand the rich variety of intellectual currents and cross-currents in the Muslim world and in Islamic thought. What is underway in the Muslim world is not a simple opposition to the West based on a sense of grievance (though grievances there also are) but a renewal of thought and culture and an aspiration to seek development and modernize without losing their identity. This takes diverse forms, and can not be understood in simple terms. There is particular resentment at Western attempts to define the parameters of legitimate Islamic discourse. There is a sense that Islam suffers from gross over generalization, from its champions as much as its detractors. It is strongly urged that in order to understand the nature of the Muslim renaissance, the West should study all intellectual elements within Muslim societies, not only professedly Islamic discourse.

US policy in the aftermath of 9/11 has had several effects. It has led to a hardening and radicalization on both sides of the Western-Muslim encounter. It has led to mutual broad brush (mis)characterization of the other and its intentions. It has contributed to a sense of pan-Islamic solidarity unprecedented since the end of the Khilafat after World War I. It has also produced a degeneration of US policy, and a diminution of US power, influence and credibility. Finally, the US’ dualistic opposition of terror and US interests has made terrorism an appealing instrument for those intent on resistance to the West.

The British and the Indian nationalists, each in their own interests, overstated the significance of the 1857 mutiny and uprising in India. A parallel is noted in the mutual rendering by pan-Islamists and the West of Osama bin Laden into a more significant figure than most of the Muslims believe he truly is.


Terms of discourse in the Western understanding of Islam are important both to an accurate understanding of intellectual and political trends in Islam, and to whether Muslim opinion feels properly understood by the west.

There is serious concern in the Muslim world at the tendentious and one-sided use of vocabulary such as “extremist” or “radical”. Muslims see that these have in the past in Western thought been ways of characterizing philosophical or political positions in relationship to each other, rather than moralistic dismissals of the legitimacy of those positions or their virtual demonization. In effect, participants suggested that what is important is the purposes and necessity of particular intellectual or political action

Not all that happens in the Muslim world is Islamic. Not all that professes to be Islamic is so, or is even actuated by religious rather than political purposes similar to those in any religious or intellectual tradition. Not all Islamic approaches to politics are Islamist.

Wrong End of the Stick

It is necessary to have a dispassionate and empirical approach to the understanding of developments in political ideology in the Muslim world. There is a widespread sense that the West is engaged in a “blame game”, that this reflects a blindness to its own violent role in the Muslim world, and that it leads to a failure of understanding, with detrimental effects on the stability and freedom of Muslim societies and on the standing of the United States in the Muslim world.

The West has focused too much on cultural and ideological developments in the Muslim world, and insufficiently on the political, economic and social determinants of instability and conflict. Many of the latter are perceived as having originated in the US’ invasions of Muslim countries, support for illegitimate regimes in Muslim countries, or support for governments such as Israel’s.

US policy should focus on reform and the rule of law in the Muslim world with the same degree of commitment that characterizes its counter-terrorism efforts. In the course of the global war on terror, lawlessness and political exclusion has increased in societies where there was relative order and inclusion. This reflects a general lawlessness and corruption spawned by autocratic practices, as well as the lack of transparency, that the war on terror has legitimized. If terrorism means resort to violence against innocent civilians, then all forms of terrorism, individual, group and state should be equally condemned. The issue of legitimacy and justness of the objectives as well as of the means used to counter terrorism are equally important and relevant. The lack of legal protection suffered by Muslim minorities in countries such as India and the Philippines is seen as having been emboldened by the pervasive denigration of Islam and Muslims.

Violence and Terrorism

The global counter-terrorist agenda is seen as a fig leaf for the political and economic goals of the West. There is a clear sense that terrorism is not the only form of violence, and that the focus on it to the exclusion of other issues obscures the extent to which pervasive violence is found in Western societies and the extent to which Western states and private interests perpetrate violence in the Muslim world. The whole area of causes and factors responsible for promoting terrorism is central to any strategy to make the world safe from terrorism.

Indeed, Muslim societies appear to be more self critical of the violence within than is the West. There is a chasm between reality and Western perception: the fact is that more than 20% of Americans polled consider the use of force against civilians legitimate, whereas fewer than 10% of Muslims do so.

There is recognition that terrorism must be fought by Muslim societies too, because the cultural, social and traditional integrity of Muslim societies is threatened by the revolutionary changes to social order that it triggers. However, there is a clear sense that Muslim societies should make their own judgments about the nature of the threat and the optimal response to it, rather than being dictated to by the West.

Violence where it occurs in the Muslim world is seen as the pursuit of political, not religious or Islamic objectives. The Western view of violence in the Muslim world and in Islamic thought is a-historical and normative, and thus obscures the political, economic and social roots of anti-state violence. Traditions of violent resistance are seen as rooted in anti-colonial struggles, or in resistance to indigenous oppression, and the extent to which violence is accepted as legitimate in contemporary Muslim societies depends on the perceived commonality of current conflicts with those. There is some attempt to deny that justification of violence is found in authoritative Islamic sources, but also a frank acknowledgement that it is, followed by the observation that the same may be said of Western religious traditions. It is noted that the term jihad has been used in the Quran on scores of occasions, with different shade of meaning all related to effort in the cause of Allah, but violence that falls in the category of terrorism is not one of them. Other terms are used there for violence, but these are not to be found in contemporary Islamic political discourse.


Diversity within Islam

Two important questions are posed. Who speaks for Islam? And what is Muslim or Islamic?

There is no singular Muslim identity or Islamic identity, but rather multiple Muslim experiences, and multiple identities enjoyed by Muslims, including their national, linguistic, regional class and other secular ones.


There is a continuing awareness among the educated of intellectual developments among Muslims in other regions, though translation and local paradigms of understanding lead to modification, often inadvertent of intellectual frameworks borrowed from elsewhere. There are significant regional, national and local variations in Muslim experience and pers-pective.

For purposes of the development of religious ideology, Sudan parti-cipates in the same realm as Egypt. There is an emerging sense of a common thread of experience among Muslims in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia. A sense of grievance among Kenyan and Tanzanian Muslim minorities, and among Ethiopians (described as a persecuted “majority”) is seen within the same framework as developments in Somalia. South East Asian Muslims think of themselves as having had and continuing to have a progressive tradition.

In Pakistan, the first explicitly Islamic modern nation, the sense of Muslim identity is very strong among individuals and at the level of political discourse. Yet Islam has not and does not significantly mobilize the polity at large. That said, since 9/11 modern westernized elites have turned against the West, even while resisting overt religiosity. Religious parties have not been able to capitalize on this development, and remain the preserve of the educated socially conservative migrants from rural to urban areas, or the urban lower middle class.

The perspectives of Muslims living as minorities in non-Muslim majority countries are quite distinct from those of Muslims living in predominantly Muslim countries. Muslim minorities are discussed below.

Struggle for Justice

The broader aspirations of the Muslim world are reflected not only in a cultural struggle against a culturally and religiously hostile and uncom-prehending West; they also reflect protest at an unjust global order, comprising injustice and inequality in international economic and political relations and injustice and inequality in arrangements within autocratic Muslim societies, most often sponsored and protected by the West.

Terms such as “neo-liberal” are equated with “neo-colonial”. It is argued that the Muslim world is targeted not because it is Muslim but because it is weak. It is suggested that there is an alternative global community of which the Muslim world is a more enthusiastic participant: a global community characterized by street power, mass mobilizations, anti-war protests, and gatherings such as the World Social Forum. In this respect, the Muslim world is seen athwart the long-range Western agenda of dominating the world’s natural resources. However, there are limits to the solidarity with other non-Western societies on this basis, where new powers such as China and India too are seen by some to be oppressors of Muslim minorities.


Professedly Islamic armed insurgent movements, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or the Taliban, also reflect common elements with Maoist and Naxalite movements, namely a sense by beleaguered communities of encroachment by powerful outsiders.

Religion as the basis of political ideology should be carefully distinguished from religion as a marker of identity that may in turn be the basis of political action. Religion as faith or theology and religion as political theory should also be carefully distinguished. The Pakistan national movement for independence from Britain and separation from India offers the perfect example of a movement strongly based in Muslim identity but largely non-theological in its ideology.


“Islamists and Islamism”

Use in Western discourse of the terms Islamist or Islamism are seen as vague and confused.

National political movements professedly based on Islam are pre-dominantly political and only secondarily religious. The popular appeal within Muslim nations of such movements is based in substantial part on their articulation of aspirations for social and economic justice, or antipathy to elements of the global economic order, that are shared with secular movements worldwide.

That said, certain distinct elements of Muslim mobilization are noted. Mobilization is a central principle of Islam, which is an intellectual and social tradition based neither on anarchy nor on authority and obedience. Thus the beneficial organization of an Islamic society is seen as requiring mobilization based upon an ideological understanding by members.


Despite the state’s advantages, and despite the lack of freedom to operate, Islamists[1] are seen as more successful at mobilization than the state. The issues that have had greatest resonance have been resistance to western interference, Muslim self-determination, the fight against corruption and dictatorship, the “absence of real Islam”, and the provision of social services. No single pattern may be discerned. Islamists have been successful both in repressive systems such as Egypt and in relatively free political processes such as Turkey, Malaysia, Lebanon and Palestine. In other relatively open political systems such as Pakistan and Indonesia they have done less well. In some cases they have succeeded in democratic processes under peaceful conditions (Turkey), whereas in others the pressure of conflict has been a good part of their appeal as in Palestine or Lebanon.


It is also emphatically noted that these Islamist movements have little in common with those who are described as “jihadi movements”. They are seen as concerned with their own societies, not a global agenda attributed to the jihadis, and their goal is to correct their own societies rather than weaken the West. Most significantly, they are pluralistic in that they accept that all citizens are good Muslims; their intention is not to re-Islamicize but to reorganize society on the basis of ideals and values upheld by the majority. The pragmatic orientation of these movements is also noted in their ideological flexibility. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt looked to Sufi principles, while the closely related Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan did not hesitate to look to the Sudanese Communist Party for ideological discourse and understanding.


Constitutional Principles

The relationship between religion and the state in Islam is a rich source of ideas. Some contend that such guidance as is available from the time of the Prophet (PBUH) is on the proper relationship between religion and society (Madina according to some had no paid police or army and no other indicia of a modern state), and that principles for the conduct of the state were elaborated by subsequent rulers for reasons of state rather than necessarily reflecting religious values. The other view point emphasizes that essential principles of governance have been given in the Quran and Sunnah, yet how these values and principles are to be translated into state institution, processes and policies would depend on the light of contemporary needs and opportunities.


The obligatory sovereignty of Allah is not necessarily at odds with the notion of popular sovereignty and democracy, as long as the latter is consistent with broadly religious principles. Shariah is an obligatory basis for statecraft and social conduct, a set of guiding principles for reasoning about meeting the demands of change and the appropriate contemporary means for ensuring compliance with divine law. The role of critical reasoning is therefore central to the practice of Shariah.

The tradition of Islamic statecraft (or social norms) going back to the time of the Prophet (PBUH) in Madina has much of contemporary relevance to say about justice and welfare, the rights of minorities, unity within the Muslim community and cohesion with non-Muslim minorities and neighbors. Indeed, the term Ummah was used by the Prophet (PBUH) to describe all the distinct communities of Madina, not only Muslims.

Because of the widespread perception among Muslims that there is a rich tradition to draw on for the conduct of statecraft, there is wide popular support for Islamic forms of administration, and political slogans based on Islam are highly resonant in the Muslim world and among Muslim minorities.

Islamic justice is seen as being at the heart of the world-wide intellectual and political renewal of Islam. Islamic law is appealing because it is seen as a constraint on rulers and a mechanism for ensuring justice for all – a cognate of Western notions of the rule of law.

On the relationship between religion and the state, there was much discussion of Christian history and the many Christian parallels. In the Muslim world secularism is equated with despotic regimes under western sponsorship. There also appears to be a sense that although it started as a principle of tolerance, secularism has now developed an aggressive thrust, antipathetic to religion rather than neutral.


Intellectual and Religious Freedom

The status and treatment of religious, sectarian or ideological minorities within Islamic societies is a contested territory. Some see the ideological variety as a sign of vigor; others see particular sectarian minorities such as Ismailis or Ahmadis as “western-inspired mischief to be nipped in the bud“. This point of view seems to some participants to be based on political, not religious, concerns.

Questions of pluralism, particularly the treatment of apostasy, remain difficult. There is on the one hand a sense that pluralism is not a problem, and that Islamic thought thrives in a plural intellectual environment. On the other hand there is a question about the point at which intellectual freedom challenges the Islamic nature of the society.


Muslim Minorities

These issues, and even more those of the treatment of non-Muslim religious minorities in predominantly Muslim societies, cause concern to those Muslims who are minorities in predominantly non-Muslim societies.

There is a significant distinction in the priorities and perspectives of those from Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines, and those of Pakistanis and others from Muslim-majority nations. It is also the case that those from long-established minorities seem to have a different sense of Muslim identity from Muslim minorities in diaspora in the West. The former are rooted in local and regional cultural practices and social relations with non-Muslims, while the latter are seen as much more susceptible to global intellectual trends and a transnational sense of Muslim identity.

Several considerations seem to mark the situation of Muslim minorities. If persecuted they need allies among other oppressed comm.-unities in their societies. This can also take a positive form, as when Sri Lankan Muslims think of themselves as a bridge and a light to mitigate the alienation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities.


There is an instinct among Muslim minorities to remain cool in their political behavior. An interesting if predictable dialectic arises between Pakistanis who wonder how Indian Muslims can be so tame in the face of violence, and the Indian Muslim perspective that acknowledges the legal protection and accommodation by the Indian state, the need to avoid a knee jerk persecution complex, and the possibility of militancy provoking backlash and further violence from majorities.

The Struggle Within

There is a frank recognition, as much by Islamists as by others, that the vulnerability of the mass of Muslims is not entirely a result of external attack, but that a look inward and self-criticism are called for. The context for this self-searching is provided by a sense of a shared and common danger, vastly increased communications and transparency among Muslim nations as a result of new media, and a sense of grievance about issues such as Palestine.

Colonialism destroyed indigenous institutions of social cohesion in Muslim societies, and even in the post-colonial era the lack of authentically Islamic (or authentically national) social and cultural institutions left an opening for armies and bureaucracies. These constitute the seeds of the current enemy within, the local despotisms.

Ideological struggles based on cultural norms can be a distraction from socio-political ones. There is a sense that the definition and solution of social problems in Muslim societies requires mainstreaming of the discourse about the guidance provided by Islam on all aspects of governance. Otherwise, religion has been a means for introduction of conservative cultural practices from the Arab world into the non-Arab world; practices which are seen as reflecting alien cultural practices rather than Islamic obligation. Bangladeshi women note that they have traditional forms of modesty in traditional Bengali clothing and do not require Arab costume to be good Muslims. The distraction caused by the focus on the culture wars is seen as helping autocrats to divert popular struggles and bolster their longevity.

Equal detriment to the interests of Islam and the Muslim world is seen in the instances when Islamist movements have supported coups and other undemocratic means for rising to power or influence, as in Sudan.

Transnational Challenges

Islam’s vision has from the outset been a universal one, and its aspiration as well as the scope of its early history a transnational one. Moreover, the orientation and evolution of the early Muslim community under the Prophet’s guidance was worldly and pragmatic, with public utility as the overarching principle.

The meeting engaged in some discussion about the extent to which Islamic principles provide guidance for the addressing of transnational and global challenges such as environmental degradation, narcotics and crime, or disease outbreaks. Some suggested that the origin of the instrumental and invasive human tendency that has produced environmental degra-dation and its secondary consequences is in the Western way of life, contrasting this with principles of natural stewardship found in the Quran and other Islamic sources.
Others suggested that specific Islamic guidance on modern challenges is limited because theology was elaborated to answer questions in the Middle Ages. However, it was suggested that application of fundamental Islamic principles in the spirit of the Quranic injunction to observe and acquire knowledge, and the principle of Ijtehad, could yield a dynamic tradition. However, it was acknowledged that such thinking is in its early stages and that there is a need for an issue-based approach. It was suggested that the Organization of the Islamic Conference needs to constitute working groups on the principal, global, natural, economic, developmental and governance challenges of the day.

*- This discourse is based on the two-day discussion that brought together experts and scholars from Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan and Muslim minority countries India, Kenya, the Philippines and Sri Lanka representing academia, non-governmental organizations and think tanks. Among the participants were a number of former government officials and one sitting legislator. The participants were also chosen to comprise a broad spectrum of ideologies, including the religious and the secular, cultural, political and economic conservatives, liberals and radicals. Applying the Chatham House Rule, the names of the participants are not given here. The discussion was jointly conducted by the Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington DC and the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad, in Islamabad-Pakistan on July 9-10, 2008.


[1] Islamist, refers here to that ideological and political trend in the Muslim world which is characterized by making Islamic religion as a major inspiration in defining objectives and direction of political action. The ultimate goal is described as establishment of an Islamic society and state. Islamic movement, Islamic revivalism or Islamic resurgenece are some other terms used to describe this phenomenon.

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