Political Islam and Conflicts in the Middle East

The fight against Political Islam must be conducted without any alliance with the other manifestations of the conservative revolution, whatever they are and wherever they are, writes Mohamed-Chérif Ferjani, Professor Emeritus, University of Lyon 2 and speaker of the Valdai Club session "Religious Extremism and Its Impact on Politics".

What is Political Islam?

Political Islam, just like Political Christianity or any other ideologisation of religion anywhere in the world, is a reaction against modernity, democracy and secularisation: It’s not the same thing as traditional forms of the political instrumentalization of religion. It also differs from traditional theocracies, which never had the theoretical or practical means to dominate the lives of citizens in a way characteristic of totalitarian states.

Political Islam appeared in the Muslim world as a reaction to the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923-24 and in opposition to a modernist movement which had appeared in the 19th century. It has long been considered as an Islamic alternative to modern democratic political systems founded on the principles of equality, liberty, and the sovereignty of citizens. Since then, it has inspired many other movements, which have claimed it as their first reference. It was referred to under different names, such as Islamism or Muslim fundamentalism, before the popularisation of the term “political Islam” became prevalent, although some continue to contend that Islam has always been, and will continue to be, political. It must be reminded that this point of contention cannot be dissociated from the “Islamic exceptionalism” thesis, which resists separation between the political and the religious (this notion has been addressed by Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington and other followers of the “culture wars” in the countries of the North and among Muslims alike).

A common theme among the different expressions of political Islam is the call for an Islamic state, caliphate or other form of state, with the ultimate objective being the implementation of Sharia as absolute divine law covering all fields and aspects of life, whether individual or collective, as well as the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Political Islam, in the same way as any other religious or conservative belief that is in contradiction with modernity, is a project based on a xenophobic ideology, and extolls a withdrawal towards an exclusive conception of identity.

The Main Middle East Conflicts and Political Islam

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: In Palestine, political Islam was inspired by 'Political Judaïsm' (the politicalisation of Judaïsm through the Zionist movement of the early 20th century) and has served as a model for the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other political Islam movements. Political Islam was initially and remains opposed to the state of Israel as well as the policies of certain secular Palestinian organisations; it opposes the PLO and democratic movements in Palestine and the Arab world.

The Conflict between Iran and its Arab neighbours: Despite their initial alliance at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and during the conflict between Israel and the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah, Sunni Political Islam and Shiite Political Islam have become rivals, opposing one another in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 

Inter-Arab conflicts: Political Islam is pervasive in Qatar and Saudi Arabia; Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Party of Islamic Liberation and other manifestations of Political Islam have taken root in many Arab countries. 

Turkey's role in the conflicts in the Middle East and Political Islam: The post-secular policies of President Recep Erdogan's Justice and Development Party have affected the country's relationship with Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and were a factor in the European Union's refusal to allow Turkey to become a member. 

International Powers and Political Islam in the Middle East: The Western powers have alternated between supporting and fighting Political Islam (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Libya and North Africa). In this game, the Americans are the champions, but they are not the only ones to play this dangerous game. 


Political Islam must be fought. But this battle cannot be consistent, flawless and effective without understanding it as the Islamic version of a global conservative revolution. Although best reflected in recent history in the election of Trump, this phenomenon can be linked to the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush (father and son) in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. Current political leaders associated with the cause include Britain's Theresa May and Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi in India, Vicktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Andrzej Duda in Poland and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The rise of far-right xenophobic movements persists in Europe and elsewhere throughout the world. For this 'conservative revolution', democracy, when it is accepted, is reduced to elections without respect for human rights, without recognition of the universality of human beings and their rights, or the principles of equality and freedom. 

The fight against Political Islam must be conducted without any alliance with the other manifestations of the conservative revolution, whatever they are and wherever they are: The fight against all these forms of the conservative revolution must be led simultaneously.

Islamic Political and Legal Thought Against Extremism and Terrorism
Leonid Sykiainen
Some authoritative Muslim thinkers are convinced that it is not enough to call modern Muslim terrorists “misguided” ones or a certain group that has simply gone awry. They are criminals fighting with Allah and His Messenger, and for their atrocities should be held accountable by the Qur'an.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.