Political Islam has served as one of the most contentious topics in modern political discourse, and with the regional order in the Middle East still in its early phases of transition, the tenets of political Islam and their evolution have never been so relevant.
But what is political Islam and how should it be viewed?
Islam as a political ideology emerged in response to the expansion of Europe, coupled with the decline of the Islamic empires of Ottoman-Turkey, Safavid-Persian and Mughal-India in the 19th century.
Specifically, political Islam developed due to the military, political and economic pressure exhibited by the aforementioned European expansion, which was countered by Islamic political elites attempting to strengthen administrative and military institutions to advance their economies.
Political Islam developed with the passing of the Persian Constitutions of 1906 which codified Islam’s place in Iranian legislation and confirmed the position of the ulama – religious-scholars – as the sovereigns of Islamic law.
This was further expanded with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1960s and his brand of religious thought called ehyay-e-fekr-e-dini which precipitated the Iranian Revolution, thereby cementing Islam as the legal and political power than underpinned Iranian governance.
This was consolidated after the Arab Spring as, contrary to predictions that secular-governments would emerge, states opted for more Islamic governments following the changes that the 2010-onwards revolts facilitated.
The region has also seen many varieties of political Islam. Islam and its politicised derivations should not be reified as it has altered with time, place, social class … as well as other variables. There have been a range of Islamic political ideology, however, two modern types are ‘Salafism’ which emerged in the late 19th century which sought to modernise and reform political Islam, and the other being Islamism, which is considered to be a radical reaction to Western interference in the region.
Is also important to remember how political Islam takes a vast array of forms, including secular systems of governance such as Turkey and Tunisia, and one must ensure to remember this diversity of manifestations of political Islam in order to give deference to its complexity and history.
Political Islam is inevitably going to be a complicated topic in the West. When so many European states are governed in a way that separates government and religion, the fundamental idea that underpins political Islam appears to contrary to our expectations of good governance.
However, upon a deeper reading of political Islam and the many different forms it can take, one sees how, like any other form of governance, it can be effective and just if it is implemented and managed by people who have honesty and integrity at the heart of their motivations.
What we must avoid is the automatic rejection and demonisation of political Islam. Where it is not working, we must critique, as we would any other system. But we must not jump on this system of governance purely because of pre-conceived notions of what it might entail.
Author: Nathan Irwin
Nathan is a Politics and International Relations student at the University of Durham.