Looking for content on a specific topic?
Islamic origins | The Qu'ran | Muslim practice | Muslim-Christian Dialogue | We humans Home

Three things to know about Islamism

Posted May 17, 2018 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment
Image info
Indonesian Islamists protesting against Jakarta's Christian governor

Three things to know about Islamism

Posted May 17, 2018 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

The news media often speak of Islamists, raising the questions of who they are and what they’re about. To understand current events in the Muslim world and why jihadi Islamists strike as they do, you need to know 3 things about Islamism.

To begin, Islamism is the Muslim rejection of secularism, one of colonialism’s legacies in Muslim societies. Thus, Islamism is a relatively recent phenomenon, but one that’s rooted in Islam’s beginning.

The first Muslims infused both politics and law with religion, making them essentially inseparable. Then after the Islamic civilization’s centuries-long rise and decline, the colonial powers carved the Muslim world up into nation states that they could manage.

That done, the colonial authorities did what they could to set the Muslims they ruled adrift from traditional Islam. They first separated religion and politics under their secular constitutions. Then they sidelined the sharia, or traditional Muslim law, largely replacing it with secular law codes. As traditional Islam’s grip on society loosened, Western culture, ideas and fashion became popular among progressive Muslims. And beginning in the late 19th century, Islamism reacted to all this.

A meeting of Pakistan’s Noon League

Positively, Islamists have 3 main goals: to reintegrate their politics and faith, reinstitute the sharia, and finally reunite the global Muslim community politically. 

Negatively, Islamists are determined to resist everything—whether secular or not—that would divert them from their goals or diminish Islam’s glory in the world.

Aiming to restore Islam to its former glory, Islamism claims to represent a return to pristine, “original Islam.” But reformist Muslims—often called “moderate Muslims”—argue that Islamism never existed before the 19th century. And they’re right. But it didn’t exist because it was totally unnecessary before secularism’s onslaught.

Secularism still threatens Muslim societies through Western music, movies, science, technology, education and fashion. So Islamism remains thoroughly reactionary. But having always had a love-hate relationship with modernity, Islamism is at once old and new.

The second thing to know is that Islamism isn’t monochromatic, but rather comes in very different hues.

For example, there are major differences between

  • The so-called Islamic State (IS)
  • The Muslim Brotherhood
  • Tunisia’s Renaissance Party (Ennahda)
  • Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)
Flag of the Islamic State (IS)

Representing mainstream Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood strongly disavows the violence of IS. The Brotherhood seeks to work within the democratic process, though it may have a latent hostility to non-Muslim minorities. More encouraging is Tunisia’s Ennahda. Despite its Brotherhood links, it’s been called “the mildest and most democratic Islamist party in history.”[1]

These are just 3 of Islamism’s many versions. Since Islamism is so varied, we must not paint all Islamists with one brush.

Last but not least, we must realize that the majority of Muslims are not Islamists—especially in the West.

But this is where it gets really complicated. Though most Muslims aren’t Islamists, many traditional Muslims sympathize with some form of Islamism. Of those who do, the vast majority would never want to engage in violence of any kind. However, incendiary rhetoric uttered in God’s name can sometimes turn even the gentlest person violent. Especially when he’s carried along by a mob. (Of course, this is true of Christians, no less than Muslims.)

I wish this picture of Islamism weren’t so complex. (And even more complicated is the Islamist who lives in the West, secularism’s birthplace.) But believe me, I’m not making it any more complex than it is. Muslims everywhere struggle to come to terms with Islamism’s many variations and how each relates to formative Islam.


[1] Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)198.

Leave a Reply

To keep Understanding Islam Today a safe place for everyone, please ensure that your comments show consideration and respect for others. We understand that you may feel strongly about the topic, and we welcome disagreement. But we will edit or remove comments that don’t show respect for others of different religious beliefs. Your email address is required but will not be published.

Discover the story R
We all come to the Qur’an with some chronological story sequence in mind, however tentative—or unacknowledged. Indeed, without a basic context, the Qur’an becomes a hopeless muddle. Discover the background story of the Qur’an.

Who was Muhamed?
Discover why Muhamed's story matters for understanding Islam.

Sign up for Understanding Islam updates

Sign up to get Understanding Islam updates straight to your inbox.
Updates are sent every two months featuring the latest stories and videos.

Send this to a friend