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‘The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in Muslim Societies’ review: Tying Islam to global politics

On July 10, soon after Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, annulled a 1934 cabinet decree that had converted Hagia Sophia into a museum, President Erdogan delivered a celebratory speech to defend what he called the country’s “historical and legal rights” over the Christian cathedral. Deviating from his earlier stance wherein he had invoked his country’s sovereign rights to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, he declared that the reconversion was the strongest answer ever given to the brutal attacks against Islamic symbols and values across the world.

A multidimensional concept

This begs the question of how Islam (or pan-Islamism) could irrupt into what was (supposedly) a secular legal decision rooted in Turkey’s “sovereign rights”. For those seeking an authoritative answer, The Many Faces of Political Islam by Mohammed Ayoob and Danielle N. Lussier couldn’t have come at a better time. This scholarly work tries to make sense of nearly all aspects of Islamist politics, not just of the Turkish kind.

In simple terms, ‘political Islam’ can be defined as the use of Islam for political mobilisation. The authors, while acknowledging that political Islam being a multidimensional concept defies a universal definition, point out that its many faces (violent and nonviolent) are the manifestation of nation-specific agendas pursued by Islamist movements and “the constraints imposed by the operational context”. For instance, groups that perceive a regime they are opposed to as legitimate would rather resort to nonviolent, electoral tactics than a violent revolution.

Interestingly, the same operational context argumentation could be used to explain the huge difference between the brutally violent attempt by ISIS to establish a transnational Caliphate and Erdogan’s pan-Islamic neo-Ottomanism — symbolised by the un-Islamic takeover of Hagia Sophia — although the ultimate aim in both cases is to bring the global Muslim community (ummah) under a single Islamic leader to liberate it from Western subjugation.

But if, as rightly argued by Ayoob and Lussier, multiple voices and competing visions make it extremely difficult for the divided and diverse ummah to accept a single set of spokespersons, it would be almost impossible for any Islamist patriarch to forcibly take over the leadership of the Muslim world. This was proved right by the results of an interesting survey published in The Washington Post by Harvard University scholars Tarek Masoud and Aytug Sasmaz (

The survey, conducted in March 2019 across Turkey’s 12 geographic regions, found that 59% of the respondents agreed with the decision of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to abolish the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. Only 14% considered it a “bad decision”. And when asked if it was time to bring it back about 43% of Turks said they “definitely disagree,” 18% said they “somewhat disagree,” 9% said they “somewhat agree,” and 8% said they “definitely agree.” In other words, even within Turkey there is hardly any support for the restoration of the Caliphate.

Unique circumstances

What about self-proclaimed Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran? The authors consider their cases sui generis. These models cannot be replicated anywhere else because of the unique circumstances that led to their creation. The ideologically diverse nature of the worldwide ummah will not permit the rise of any “mullah-led mobilisation” of the Iranian kind, or the establishment of an exemplar of monarchy defined by an ulema-state nexus. The authors’ analysis stands proven by two significant developments. One, the decision of Sudan this month to end 30 years of Islamic rule and become a democracy ( Two, the results of a survey titled “Iranians’ attitudes toward religion” conducted in June which showed that 68% of the population believes that religious prescriptions should be excluded from state legislation, even if believers hold a parliamentary majority (

Yet, Ayoob and Lussier reject the idea that Islamism and democracy are incompatible. Citing the examples of Indonesia, Tunisia and Turkey, they argue that in these countries political parties based on “Islamic principles” played an important role in the democratisation process. However, the colonial legacy and the policies followed by the dominant powers to extend their strategic and economic gains achieved during the colonial era disrupted democracy in Muslim nations and contributed to the rise of political Islam. Historian Elizabeth F. Thompson confirms this thesis in her latest book How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs.

In sum, The Many Faces of Political Islam immensely succeeds in its endeavour “to provide students and lay readers a comprehensive and comprehensible introduction” to political Islam.

The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in Muslim Societies; Mohammed Ayoob, Danielle N. Lussier, Permanent Black, ₹595.

The reviewer is an independent researcher and Secretary General of Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 9:56:23 PM |

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