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Panel discusses evolution of political Islam in modern age

Prominent academic chronicles journey of political Islam throughout 20th and 21st centuries

Anadolu Agency WORLD
Published April 09,2021

An online panel on Thursday discussed the evolution of political Islam in the 20th and 21st centuries as well as its impact on wider society and what the future holds for various Islamic political movements across the world.

The online presentation, titled 'The Evolution of Political Islam and Populist Politics: Caliphs and Democrats,' was hosted by the Cordoba Foundation and headed by its founder and CEO Anas Altikriti.

The presentation, however, was delivered by Professor John Voll of Georgetown University in the US.

"I don't think I need to speak too much on why this is not only a timely but extremely pertinent and important topic to be speaking about, particularly at a time when it seems that the issue of political Islam is at the very fore due to a variety of events," Altikriti said in his opening remarks.

Professor Voll delivered a highly analytical presentation that looked at the chronology of political Islam and how it has evolved throughout the decades.

From its advent in 1920s Egypt to the present day, Voll gave a detailed timeline of the idea, the various Islamic movements that sprung up because of it, and its regional variations.

"What I really want to do is to look at political Islam as a set of events, phenomena, movements and sentiments and see how we can understand it," Voll said, adding "one of the important things that makes political Islam a puzzle for a lot of us is that we have the wrong, or tend to use the wrong analytical framework for interpreting what's going on."

Voll said there are old-fashioned ways of approaching political Islam that still hold value but are usually erroneously based on observing patterns and thoughts in a binary fashion, and in doing so, observers tend to associate various thoughts to either secularism or religiosity, traditionalism and modernity.

Political Islam and its many forms

"Political Islam takes many forms. I like to think in terms of the real contrast in things that have been labelled political Islam, things like the militant activism and terrorism of Al-Qaeda under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden as compared with the French women who, for liberty, equality and fraternity, protest and want the right to wear the hijab, and these are all part of the many forms of political Islam."

Voll highlighted the modern aspect of political Islam in that its proponents made full use of political tools available to them at the time to integrate into society and build a platform on which they could be heard. Voll also used literal examples from Egyptian women wearing the hijab and taking part in revolutions.

"Women in Egypt over the 20th and 21st centuries played important roles in protests and movements, and the fashions of the day reflect some of the changes. In 1919, there was a nationalist revolution that women participated in, and they participated with [their] faces covered and appropriate dress, but the dress they were wearing was not old-fashioned and traditional.

It was a new kind of explicit identification that was Islamic and not traditions, and the women of Tahrir in 2011 can be seen as part of this variety of people protesting."

On the topic of the different variations, Voll looked at the creation of the modern and secular Turkish Republic in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who, although he abolished the Caliphate, retained a role for Islam in Turkey through the foundation of the Diyanet, or the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

Moreover, the creation of modern-day Saudi Arabia in 1930 by King Abdul Aziz al-Saud was also referenced as an example as the founding king was a traditionalist but used realpolitik to establish and cement his rule over his kingdom.

Political Islam and political activism

Muslims taking part in political activism cannot be defined as political Islam as such, according to Voll, instead describing it as "Muslimism." Voll used the example of the 2011

Egyptian revolution where protests were not led by any Islamic movement or party and were largely influenced by popular opposition to an authoritarian regime and similar demonstrations in the region.

Looking at the rise of political Islam as a political force in the Middle East, Voll analyzed the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamic movements.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ennahda Party in Tunisia used modern democratic tools to attain power, taking part in elections and becoming the first democratically elected governments in their countries' respective histories. As such, they were able to use modern-day political tools to their advantage.

"Political Islam isn't this rigid, binary structure with religion at its core. Yes, Islam plays a fundamental role but allows flexibility and breathing space for its proponents to further its cause. From the extreme militancy of ISIS to the academic and philosophical ideas of Sayyid Qutb and Ali Shariati, political Islam is a kaleidoscope of ideas and thoughts."